Gustavo Esteva: Recovering Hope – The Zapatista Example

A summary of Gustavo’s very important contribution to the recent 3rd International Seminar of Reflection and Analysis:  “Planet Earth: Antisystemic Movements.”

“How do we avoid desperation? Losing hope is the same as dying. Recovering hope as a social force is the fundamental key to the survival of the human race, planet earth, and popular movements. Hope is not a conviction that something will happen in a certain way. We have to nurture it and protect it, but it is not about sitting and waiting for something to happen – it is about a hope that converts to action.”

“Just saying ‘no’ is not enough. This ‘no’ has to be accompanied by the creation of an alternative. The Zapatistas showed us on December 21st that the time of action is now.  They have told us what they have done and are going to do, and now it’s our turn. Those already in movement must make concrete their actions; those that are paralyzed must lose their fear and begin to move.”

“The only way to resist is to create an alternative.”

Gustavo Esteva is the founder of the University of the Earth (la Universdad de la Tierra) in Oaxaca. A de-professionalized intellectual, he rejects the terminology of development in all its forms and considers it destructive; in the midst of development discourse, he says, is found social control. He believes human progress is not pre-determined, and that peoples find distinctive cultural paths to self-determination. He advocates for the collective voice of people to defend their collective rights.

The Horror

Good morning/afternoon, thank you. We live in times of indignation and reflection. We are angry, indignant with rage, but we have to have clarity over that rage, to know where it comes from. We need to find our heart within, and learn that we are walking together.

Mexico is falling apart; its social fabric is ripped asunder. Without using an apocalyptic discourse, we need to consider where the rage comes from in order to recognize ourselves.

A brief reflection: a third of Mexicans, 37 million people, live outside Mexico; 20 million Mexicans have left since NAFTA. The vast majority go to the US and Canada, but some go as far as Japan. It is one of the biggest ever human migrations. The country lives in a state of permanent war and internal occupation, imposed by Calderon. To repeat the statistics: over 100,000 dead, 18,000 reported disappeared, not including those missing but unreported, 50,000 kidnapped, half a million displaced – it is now the most violent conflict in the world.

We have recorded many massacres. Mexico has stopped being a state of law or of rights, there is a restructuring of power and a co-optation of law. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights defined the situation as the use of the powers of the state to chase and revert the human rights of the people, in other words, those in power act in bad ways towards the people they are sworn to protect. Amnesty International says that the national security forces have reached an extreme.  Mexico is no longer considered a democratic society; there is persistent fraud, the purchase of votes, and the party system has decomposed. Corruption affects every level of government. Despotism and authoritarianism have destroyed our faith in this regime.

Freedom of expression is in contention. Journalists in New York say there is repression of journalists in Mexico because there are arrests every year and an imposition of silence. They are also killed, injured, threatened. The economy is a disaster, one of the worst in Latin America. The crisis is in every part of the economic sector. More than 60 million Mexicans live in poverty.  12 million cannot buy basic food and 25 million suffer hunger. The middle class is in a process of degradation. Mexico has produced the richest man and the poorest people in the world. All legal doors for the young are closed – they cannot study or find employment.  Graduates cannot find employment.  Emigration is closed. Their families cannot maintain them, so they succumb to illegal actions – theft and crime and a resultant deterioration in community life.

The state of nature does not have residence in the country. Deregulation and concession of territory, leading to privatization, has caused environmental destruction and irreversible damage to the air, the water and the ocean, all of which are now up for sale.  40% of the national territory has already been sold to transnational corporations.  These are 50-year concessions (established under NAFTA). There is no area of our reality where there is not destruction.

One statistic in the debate is that almost half of the corn consumption in the country is factory-produced (and probably GM-contaminated). We are abandoning our basic staple and it has become an industrial commodity. Like always, in this, the women are the ones who suffer most.

This is the Horror. We are not on the edge of the abyss, we have already fallen into it and we can’t see the bottom. This is the horizon of our current struggle, barbarism.
150 years ago some German socialists thought they would not suffer from what England had suffered. Marx said that if you take the path of capitalism you will have to take all the horrors that go with it. They cannot be avoided.

Mexico is an extreme situation of disaster in every aspect of our everyday life. Don’t believe that you are safe because you have a leader that pretends to be of the left. You can see yourselves in this mirror – you are on your way there. We need to look at the nature of this Horror. Perhaps we will leave this neoliberal nightmare and go into something that is even worse.

Neoliberalism puts everything into the hands of the market, and tries to minimize the state. Someone who worked for Bush said, “I want to make the state so small that it can be flushed down the toilet”, but they have now started to realize that the state regulates the market and  cannot be got rid of so easily.

We need to realize the state crisis of capitalism. The state of today controls the population and protects capital from its own excess.

Capitalism is a regime of displacement, defined as accumulation by displacement. Since Marx, we have talked about permanent accumulation and about the particular displacement that capitalism promotes. Displacement never ended, but became marginal because the centre is occupied by abstract notions of value. We see mining companies and resource extraction. The current regime is beyond the laws of value, but it is worse because of displacement.

The carrot and the stick are used equally. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is a specialist in the new face of repression against those who defend their territory, which is to disguise it as intercommunity conflict. Many well-prepared local attackers are set against those who are defending their lands, so that the conflict doesn’t seem to be police repression, but a conflict within the communities. There is no room for optimism. It is not about half full, or half empty – our glass is full of shit and it smells very bad.

Hope and Action

How do we avoid desperation?  Losing hope is the same as dying. Recovering hope as a social force is the fundamental key to the survival of the human race, planet earth, and popular movements. Hope is not a conviction that something will happen in a certain way. We have to nurture it and protect it, but it is not about sitting and waiting for something to happen, it is about a hope that converts into action; in movement we can change things. Otherwise, hope may convert into the illusion that something good will happen. The only way to resist is to create an alternative. We have to do something.
Wendell Berry, the poet, says that, to avoid despair, we can imagine something different, and make real today, here and now, a small piece of what we have imagined.  It is about connecting hope with reality.

Just saying ‘no’ is not enough. This ‘no’ has to be accompanied by the creation of an alternative. The Zapatistas showed us on December 21st that the time of action is now. They have told us that they have done and are doing what they have to do, and now it’s our turn. Those already in movement must make concrete their actions; those that are paralyzed must lose their fear and begin to move.

Many still think that if the operators of the system are changed the situation will be resolved, but we need to come together urgently and move to create a society that is beyond our current reality. The Zapatistas tell us that we must move now. How do we move? In what direction? How do we do this in the city? There is a consensus of urgency, but what action do we take?

Here is one way to begin to suggest how we do it: we change the nouns for the verbs. If we say ‘education’, we submit ourselves to someone educating us, but if we change to the verb ‘learn’, we recover our ability, for it is we who learn. We need to find the way that we can all learn, and give away our dependency. So, health becomes healing; how do we heal ourselves?

The next action is clear. How do we dismantle the state apparatus of repression? By making this apparatus irrelevant. Capitalist production, extraction, exploitation – how do we eliminate these? By minimizing their need to exist. We are in a structure of domination; how do we urgently dissolve this structure? By making it unnecessary.  Then everything will come into place.

Education and Health

We need to overcome our need for and dependency on the health and education systems, which, as Ivan Ilich said, “create exactly what they wish to combat”. We must take these into our own hands, autonomously, without waiting for the system to do it for us.

Each Zapatista school is a zone of knowledge production, each small group of friends that learn and study together is joyful. The Unitierras, the Cidecis, are making the teachers unnecessary and making them disappear!

Like the Zapatistas told them, “they don’t need us to fail”, (just like educational reforms will fail), “and we don’t need them to succeed”. We don’t need those structures and institutions or substitute teachers. We must organize ourselves to learn in an autonomous fashion. It is not about being accepted into University or demanding more seats in the universities. Today we can organize ourselves so that every Mexican can learn what they need to learn, minimizing the necessity of the state apparatus.  This works in every aspect of life.

It works for medicine. We need to escape the medical-industrial system, where doctors and hospitals create more disease than they cure. Medicine makes us more sick. With Obama’s health reform, in the end, it was the most expensive health care system in the world. Our women and children are dying trapped in that system. We can live without it. We can make it irrelevant. Look at fever: it is the expression of a healthy body, reacting in a healthy way. Raising the temperature helps eliminate the viruses; after 3 days, in 99% of cases, the problems will resolve themselves because our defence system will heal us and we will be strengthened.

We are a network of relations, not individuals. This is the way to develop wisdom. We cannot in one day invent an autonomous hospital. We have to think about what is healing and live in health. I want to live with dignity in my house and not with tubes that are uselessly prolonging my life. Some technologies are necessary, but we need a collective redefinition about living healthily. At the right moment, we can visit Zapatista friends to see how they created their autonomous hospitals.

There is a frightening apocalyptic panorama.  Ninety-nine percent of all medicines have been found to have GM corn in them and we are consuming GM corn even if we aren’t eating it. It’s almost impossible to get chicken on the market which isn’t severely poisoned. This is catastrophic. We need to research so we know the level of poison.
In many indigenous communities they have abandoned chemicals; we have to create another system. We must propose how to challenge the institutional production of truth.
To heal ourselves, we need to redefine the body and soul: it is about being well. The Zapatistas created a network of practices from nothing, not just for themselves, but for people from all the communities who go there to be healed.


Eduardo Galeano says that in these moments of global fear, those who do not fear hunger, fear eating. Millions of people go to bed with empty stomachs. The rest know that our bodies are full of toxic agro-chemicals which have come from our food. We are either afraid of hunger or afraid of eating. Will we wait for the government to change things? Will we wait for a moral change from Monsanto or Wal-Mart? The biggest organization in the history of humanity, Via Campesina, along with a fishing community, has reached a consensus to redefine food sovereignty. We need to define for ourselves what we eat, not have the market or the state define it for us.

Then we need to produce it for ourselves, by ourselves. We can all produce our own food, wherever we live. Campesinos already produce 70% of the world’s food. In Cuba, following the collapse of Soviet Union, they were able to produce 60% of their own food in the city of Havana.

Detroit is another city where urban gardens flourish. The mayor of New York wanted to prohibit cockerels from crowing before 8 am (they sing); the neighbours said they were used to the sounds of cars, but not chickens. It is happening everywhere; in the middle of Mexico City, food is being produced. What does this signify?

Eating comes first. We must recuperate our food autonomy, and realize its importance in the construction of another world. We need to produce our own food, to decide what we eat, and how we can organize to define our own food.  Each of us needs to ask every day, what did I do to begin to advance the production of my own food, to define what I eat?
The corporations, the market, and the state will do everything possible to impede transformation and autonomy. Walmart has a goal to control 90% of organic food and 80% of all vegetables. All of our initiatives are possibly open to cooptation.  Our new autonomy cannot be co-opted and made to disappear.

As for labour, for the left, heir to the protestant work ethic, work became an idol. The word labour comes from torture. They torture us with work. We need to stop working and reactivate our lives and engage in activities that reproduce our ability to live.

Resisting is like breathing

What if we were in the new world with the perfect society – imagine what you would do in that society. Paul Goodman said, once you’ve imagined it, start doing it today. It is already being constructed. The Zapatistas are the most radical and probably the most important example in the world, but there are millions of people reacting to the problems who are doing something. It’s not about taking the White House or taking power, it is about changing everything.

We are the words that we use. Words have been placed in our heads without asking our permission, we have to reclaim the words we use. We have to recover the ‘we’, and in every ‘we’, we are not individuals, we are relations, we are part of different communities.  Now we are regenerating ourselves. We can recreate community relations starting with a few friends, to create a new society. One of the sins of the left was an inability to work together. If we are boiling with horror and rage, and confusion, feeling that we can’t connect with others, we must get past that misconception and re-conceptualize our struggle.

We need to realize that today we can only live in struggle. How do we continue resisting?  The Tzotziles of Acteal told us – resisting is like the air; we cannot stop breathing, we cannot stop resisting.

The Zapatistas have said, and it is one of the most important things they have said, “We are only ordinary men and women, and that is why we are rebels, nonconformists and dreamers”. This is the time of the ordinary men and women, the rebels. The Zapatistas are sharing their construction of autonomy and are willing to defy every system – everything for everyone, nothing for us. Zapatismo is no longer theirs, now it belongs to all of us. To defend Zapatismo is to defend ourselves.

We need to act with conscience, to know what it means to do what we do every day, to change our everyday actions and awareness. Are the tomatoes growing on my roof revolutionary?

Patriarchy and gender

Anti-capitalism today is anti-patriarchy. We need to recognize that capitalism is patriarchal. We are re-inventing the world, creating a new type of society to liquidate the sexist regime, patriarchy and modern sexism. All of the existing organizations have a patriarchal structure, we must rethink all the organizations, using new words.

In the matter of love, Ivan Ilich is a wonderful guide for us; he came here once. He shows with great clarity that capitalism is the destruction of gender. Before capitalism there was no sex.  Now each person masturbates with the body of the other. The real meaning of sex is to give pleasure to the other. We have to explore erotic effectiveness. There are communities in which gender is broken but not destroyed; we can regenerate gender, even though, in much of society it has been completely destroyed.

History has taught us that women restore what men destroy. If they were in power, they would not do the same as men would do. Gender is fundamental, we need to centre our society around it. With the feminization of politics, women can recover the histories of people, the sense of being people and commit themselves. The good news is that women realized this a while ago and have taken the lead at this time; they are determined to stop the horror and lead us to a new form of society. It is the women who will take us forward into the new world.

The new era

The first bourgeoisie died without knowing what they were, because the capitalist system was already invented.  Let us not let the same thing happen to us.

It is fundamental to recognize that “the new world is not to be constructed, it is already here”. That world is struggling to survive, to grow, to be. This is the world the Zapatistas live, and they invite us to turn the world upside down. It is clear from our desire to survive the destruction, that humanity can create the world anew.

The new era is here. We are already in the new world. It has already been born.  New social relations already exist and we must lose the mentality of the past, open our eyes and ears, learn to recognize and uncover ourselves. The time is now.