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The times certainly are a-changing.
In this essay, we intend to make some sense of what’s really going on and what it means for activism. We reflect first on the global context within which all the national-level crises are taking place. We then look closely at what we believe is a powerful model for future activism, the Zapatistas. Through the work of this radical movement, we can see how one community in Mexico is building a future they can believe in.
Activism is a dynamic concept, changing all the time. In recent years, one of the most important and exciting developments has been the move towards greater ‘intersectionality.’ This approach tries to bring together activists from across traditional issue and geographical silos because it recognises that no single injustice stands alone; they are all connected.
We can build on this approach by taking the next step to adopting fully systemic ways of thinking and acting. This starts with seeing human society and the ecosystem it depends on as one planetary system. Once we take this perspective, certain things become immediately apparent.
The first thing we see is that we are not facing a crisis caused by Donald Trump, Michel Temer, Rodrigo Duterte, or the rising nationalism that Brexit represents. These individual political upheavals are all symptoms of a deeper sickness. They are the expression of a failing economic paradigm and the profound discontent this failure is triggering in electorates. In the absence of a clear and coherent systemic alternative to the status quo, people are—in their desperation—reaching for strongmen who are expected to simultaneously bring order to a world that feels dangerously chaotic and throw a spanner in the works of the establishment.
The election of Donald Trump is the example par excellence of this trend. He is certainly a new type of American leader, but despite his nationalist and authoritarian tendencies, both he and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, shared a basic ideology: neoliberal capitalism. Had Clinton won, we would still be trying to fix the most urgent challenges we face—from climate chaos to rising poverty and corrosive levels of inequality—with the logic that got us into trouble in the first place. So, while the differences between the two are clearly significant, they are also remarkably similar at the level of root worldview and ideology.
If we want to craft a form of activism that has a chance of engaging at the level of root ideology and worldview, it will need to have both the clarity of understanding and the tools to target far more of its firepower at the true root cause of our poly-crises: global capitalism.
This is a big step from where we are now and one that many activists, especially those on the centre-left, are reluctant to take. It can be a scary thing to think of change to something that has been widely considered inevitable and unchangeable until very recently. Most of us, whether we were raised in India, Brazil, Mexico, the UK, or Kenya, were brought up to be good capitalists; it’s the only system we’ve known and the only one, according to popular wisdom, that makes any real sense. But if we strip back global capitalism to reveal its composite parts, we see that first recognising the need for change and then identifying the means to change it becomes less daunting.
Capitalism is a system that prioritises the production of capital over all other things. That doesn’t mean it can’t care about other things, only that it can’t care about them as much. In the hierarchy of concerns, generating more capital trumps everything else, in every circumstance. This is why action on, for example, climate change has been so difficult. It can’t compete with the almighty profit motive (or GDP growth at the country level). World leaders, finally convinced after decades of activism that the climate crisis is real, are still only capable of coming up with actions that don’t threaten growth in the supply of capital. That’s the parameter that’s destroying the planet. To move beyond it, progressives must come to a shared understanding that post-capitalism is the new direction we must head.
We don’t need to think of ourselves as anti-capitalists. Defining ourselves as primarily anti-anything is emotionally draining for us and off-putting to many in the mainstream. It also denies the fact that while capitalism is driving our current crises, it has also helped deliver some powerful good. The tsunami of resources it has unleased has powered many of the things that make modern life so physically comfortable, safe, and long for many of us. The problem is that those comforts have relied on the exploitation of the majority of humanity. More than that, neoliberal capitalism is now acting like a cancer, metastasizing beyond all limits and control. Whatever good it did in the past, it is now driving us over the cliff of multiple collapses—from the financial to the ecological.
We are far from the first to advocate this whole-system, post-capitalist perspective. This is very similar to the case made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when, on August 16, 1967, he spoke these insightful words at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia:
One day we must ask the question: ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…
What I’m saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but… in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.
Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.1
Had climate change posed then the same threat to life on our planet as it does today, Dr. King would have certainly added it as a fourth evil to his three. Perhaps because of his prescience, King’s words went unheeded by activists and were derided by the political mainstream—a pattern not entirely dissimilar from today.
One feature of the activism needed for the future is that it will be grounded in the need to find and promote this ‘higher synthesis.’ But what does that look like in practice?
It begins with values. Values represent our highest motivations, the underlying reasons for any of our actions. Capitalism prioritises the extrinsic values of power, wealth, and status. And first amongst these is the creation of more wealth/capital. To achieve this, it works to activate in people the values that will most efficiently serve that prime directive: the endless striving for more money and material goods, seeing ourselves as atomised individuals in permanent competition with our neighbours. If we weren’t constantly shopping to help us serve capitalism’s values, it would quickly collapse.
Promoting and prioritising these extrinsic values comes at a psychological as well as a practical cost. In psychological terms, just as we all hold extrinsic values, we also hold the opposing intrinsic values. In contrast to extrinsic values, intrinsic values are inherently satisfying to pursue. Unlike things like the search for more money or greater social status, intrinsic values do not require constant validation from external sources. Reward comes from within. They are often referred to as bigger-than-self values and include such things as mature love, a world of beauty, and a rewarding spiritual life.2
The activism of the future, therefore, will need to grow from the intention to centralise intrinsic values in our visions of the future in the same way—and as an antidote to—the relentless promotion of extrinsic values that defines capitalism. This is how we begin to conceive of and build a post-capitalist system.
We don’t all need to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of models we can look to for inspiration. One of the most mature and well-conceived of these models is the Zapatista movement in Mexico.
The Zapatistas emerged in the public sphere in 1994, in reaction to the NAFTA trade agreement between Mexico and the United States. Although avowedly revolutionary and against the Mexican government, which they believed to be so disconnected from the people as to be illegitimate, their main platform was autonomy in the forms of land access and the use of natural resources normally extracted from their home state of Chiapas. They also sought the protection from the despotic violence towards and political exclusion of Chiapas’ indigenous communities.
The Zapatistas opted for armed struggle at first and then transformed their rage into a non-violent resistance. Even if we don’t share the same path, we can learn from their model, which integrates indigenous and new knowledge, and which embraces the practical challenge of creating something new rather than just resisting something old:
How do we resist the attack on our culture? We are building our own media, such as radio and community video. In education, the use, writing and reading of the mother tongue is being promoted. The wisdom and knowledge of our grandparents is being taught to children in autonomous schools, through tales, legends, beliefs and stories. We continue to preserve the ways of celebrating religious and civil holidays. We continue to conserve and promote the care of our native seeds and our way of feeding ourselves with products that are in our communities because they are healthy and organic. We continue to conserve and promote ways of caring for mother earth and respecting the land and everything in nature. We are promoting forms of coexistence, fellowship, brotherhood, and services we must give for the good of our peoples. In the Northern Zone sometimes there are fights and clashes within our towns, among colleagues, in organizations, among neighbors, and in the family between in-laws. That is still happening. We need to understand even more this word ‘brotherhood.’ We talked about how the more divided we are, the more the system laughs. It likes when the people are divided because they know that a people divided is a weak people. That’s why we are trying to change those things.3
When Zapatistas are asked for what to do, they usually simply answer ‘organise.’ And they have a set of principles to guide their organising:
Serve, not Serve yourself
Represent, not Supplant
Construct, not Destroy
Obey, not Command
Propose, not Impose
Convince, not Defeat
Go Below, not Climb Above 4
The Zapatista vision is for “a world in which all worlds are possible.” They are not saying that everyone must live like them, believe like them, worship like them. This distinction alone marks them as fundamentally different from proponents of capitalism, with its guiding stricture than everyone should live the same hyper-consumerist lifestyle. It is a more mature vision that says that diversity, not uniformity, is the wellspring of a healthy and stable civilisation. Much like nature requires biodiversity, so human society requires cultural, political, economic, and social diversity to thrive.
Not only are the Zapatistas different from our corporate and state proponents of capitalism, they are also divergent from the activist mainstream. When they reach out and connect to other movements, it is in a spirit of solidarity rather than to proselytize or convince others to do things their way. This is also something we can learn from. The job of the 21st century activist is not to convince everyone to see the world their way, but rather to disrupt and crack open the contradictions and narratives of capitalism in a way that allows new stories and visions to emerge and ancient ones to resurface, and then to find common cause with those who share their values. The aim is to support each other and to cross-fertilise ideas and resources, without feeling the need to get everyone to agree on a single vision, let alone a single set of policy prescriptions.
We can look across the state border of Chiapas to Tabasco to see how this non-proselytizing approach doesn’t prevent their best ideas from travelling and inspiring others.
Tabasco is a land of rich soils, abundant mangroves, and a tropical climate that produces exuberant life. It has almost a third of Mexico’s total fresh water and the country’s highest precipitation rate.
Unfortunately for Tabasco, this rich environment has led to extensive industrial agriculture and cattle farming that have destroyed more than 95% of the areas forests. And if that weren’t enough, Tabasco is also very rich in hydrocarbons. Obeying the logic of capitalism, the oil industry is working hard to extract and burn every last drop of oil; there are currently drilling operations in 11 out of 17 municipalities. The result is that Tabasco has become a global-warming machine when it had every reason and condition necessary to be the opposite.
In the municipality of Comalcalco, for example, about 80% of the territory is suitable for agriculture and livestock, but 41% of the population does not have access to enough food. Local activists responded by starting the School of Farmers’ Life, inspired in equal parts by the Zapatista model and the Centre of Studies for Rural Development in the northern sierra of Puebla. The purpose was to learn agro-ecological techniques that can produce enough food for the community in ways that regenerate rather than deplete the natural environment.
Some people in Comalcalco have stopped thinking of themselves as simply cogs in the capitalist machine. They stopped buying into the grinding inertia of the capitalist world and chose to make use of their own energy and creativity to gradually invent the world that they want to live in, together, with respect for nature at its heart.
Have no doubt, this model of activism requires hard work, and the idea of reconnecting to the wealth of the land is not immediately attractive to everyone. The seductive pull of the hyper-consumption society does not make it easy to return to a more self-sufficient, land-based way of life. However, the people of Comalcalco know that they are preparing for a future that is very different from the present. They know that if they don’t shape this future for themselves, it will be shaped for them by the very forces that have ignored and marginalised them and their indigenous roots and communities for centuries, and brought the world to the brink of widespread social and environmental collapse.
The activism of the future needs to embrace the one-planetary-system perspective, be deeply diverse, and relentlessly practical. We have moved beyond the time when advocating for policy tweaks to soften the edges of the current system is remotely sufficient. The current system is not safe and it cannot be made safe without rejecting so many of its basic tenets (such as the Prime Directive of permanent, ubiquitous growth in the supply of capital) that it would no longer be capitalism.
Safety will only come when we create Martin Luther King’s higher synthesis. It is within reach, if enough people work to bring it into being. The only question is how much damage will be done, to people and planet, as the old extrinsic values-based capitalist system dies away. Our job as 21st century activists is to speed and smooth that transition, while actively building the post-capitalist world our hearts know is possible.
2 For a full exploration of human values systems and how they work, see the wealth of resources at the Common Cause Foundation. A great starting point is the superb Common Cause Handbook that can be downloaded free from www.valuesandframes.org/downloads.
3 Resistencia Autónoma. Textbook of the first grade of the course “The Freedom According to the Zapatistas,” p. 83. This passage was edited by Kosmos for better English translation.
4 Them and Us. VII. The Smallest of Them All. www.enlacezapatista.ezln.org/mx/2013/02/21/them-and-us-vii-the-smallest-of-them-all
Juan Manuel studied Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESO) in Guadalajara, Mexico. He volunteered in shelters for Central American migrants in southeastern Mexico and with communities of indigenous migrants in the Metropolitan Area of Guadalajara. He participated in the # YoSoy132 movement and currently coordinates Quality Policy […]
Martin Kirk is co-founder and Head of Strategy for /The Rules. Formerly, he was Head of Campaigns at Oxfam, GB and Head of Advocacy at Save the Children, UK, working with governments and multi-lateral institutions. He has been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera and authored Finding Frames: New Ways to Engage the UK Public in Global Poverty.