Hope, Friendship and Surprise in the Zombie Time of Capitalism: An interview with Gustavo Esteva


Gustavo Esteva is an independent writer and grassroots activist. He has been a central contributor to a wide range of Mexican, Latin American, and international nongovernmental organizations and solidarity networks, including the Universidad de la Tierra en Oaxaca and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The WSM's Tom Murray caught up with Gustavo at a recent public lecture at the Kimmage Development Centre to discuss hope, friendship and surprise in the zombie-time of capitalism, and how people are taking initiatives, reclaiming control of their lives and creating vibrant, autonomous alternatives here today.


What would you say is the most significant aim or contribution of your work and research?
Well, first I would say that what others call research, we are calling that ‘reflection in action’. This is an attitude meaning research is always associated with action, with the social movements, with real life. I basically have a kind of delirious activism. My whole life has been the life of a practitioner. I love the books but my research is subordinated to the real processes.
My story I can express as a story of failure because I failed so many times, learning with the people. I think particularly in the last twenty years, particularly after the Zapatistas, I think that we, the people and I, found clearly our path, the path that is clearly changing everything.
In the 1960s, I was part of a guerrilla movement because it was the time of Che Guevara. That guerrilla campaign ended badly: one of our leaders killed another leader over a woman. That was a very important lesson for me. That incident happened because we were trained to be that kind of violence. The important point of military training is not how to handle a weapon – that is very simple, you can learn in a morning - the important point is learning how to kill someone, that is not doing anything against you, in cold blood. That requires a lot of training.
I stopped being violent then. I embraced non-violence and I tried government. I was in a very high position and enjoying amazing success in the 1970s. We had a populist President and I was in cabinet meetings twice a week, organising magnificent development programmes. They were really very advanced and progressive even by today’s standards. I was very happy but also discovering two things, pertinent for our discussions today.
The first, of course, was that, in spite of our success, these programmes were not what the people wanted. They were not in favour of ‘development’. The second is the most important for our discussions. I discovered from inside how the logic of the system, of the government, and the logic of the people never touch each other. They belong to different places. If I am interested in the people, if that was my original commitment, my place is not the government. At that moment, on my way to the top and in the very real danger of becoming a minister, I quit and I tried to work at the grassroots.
In the beginning, for a few years, I said ‘not development from the top down but the people may need development’. We had great success and work around twenty states in Mexico. At the umbrella NGO, ‘Analysis, Development and Gestión’ we thought we were bringing to the people our analytic capacities, development and ‘gestión’.1 Two years later, after listening to the people, we changed the name of the organisation. It became ‘Autonomy, Decentralism, and Gestión’.
Autonomy, yes, the Zapatistas brought the idea of autonomy to the agenda in the country but it was already there. Autonomy was what the people wanted. When we listened to the people that is what the people wanted. Decentralism is the opposite to having a centre and sending a system to control the periphery. It implies that every community is the centre of the universe. What they want is to live harmoniously with the others but without any centre, ideological or political, dominating them.
It was at that moment that I took off the lens of ‘development’. It was a moment of liberation and confusion but it better prepared me for the emergence of the Zapatistas.
What is Zapatismo and why is it important?
I think the most important contribution of the Zapatistas historically, their most radical statement is to say ‘We are just ordinary men and women, and because of that, nonconformists, rebels and dreamers’. Traditionally, particularly in the Left , we have had a very serious problem. We have this attitude that ignores what the people want. If we ask the people here in Ireland or in Mexico or everywhere what is it they want, they may tell us that they want more T.V. than reading, some pornography, more sports, what you see in the popular journals. That is what the people seem to want.
If you bring the wants of the people to the regime of decisions you bring things that are ethically, philosophically and aesthetically unacceptable. This means that we accept the Leninist way that always some enlightened people need to lead the masses. You cannot trust the people – perhaps because they have become corrupted by capitalism. For whatever reason, you need to educate them in the right path.
The Zapatistas offer, I think for the first time, an amazing demonstration that ordinary men and women, the people themselves, take fantastic decisions. They took their lives into their own hands and they are showing that this is possible and valid. They are bringing hope, and they are bringing hope in a very difficult moment when we had stopped thinking, we were trapped thinking in the ideological debate between capitalism and socialism. We were not thinking, but they were thinking. The indigenous people took time for reflection, had many ideas and are bringing inspiration and hope to all of us. In this terrible moment for the world, they are showing that it is possible to produce very radical changes in this planet - not in Mars, not as a plan for the future, but something to do today, everywhere.
Are there similarities then between Zapatismo and anarchism? Is anarchism an influence on your work or those wider movements in Mexico?
Of course, something called anarchism is very profound, perhaps the most profound political tradition, in Mexico. We have a long story of autonomous government. This tradition is really in our blood.
But beyond that, in the case of the Zapatistas, the first group of revolutionaries were Marxist-Leninist guerrillas who affected by their interaction with the communities and accepted to change their ideology. They kept the Marxist analysis of capitalism, but not the ideology and the process of change.
Zapatismo is something new. I am sure that in a few more years, we will have in the history of political paths – Marxism, Anarchism, several others and Zapatismo. Yes it comes from traditions that are clearly not without the state and without the Leninist but have real original contributions today.
Why did Zapatismo work at that point in time? Why did it succeed?
I think that the Zapatistas selected the pertinent moment when they decided to follow the indigenous communities’ inspiration. Two events in the 1990s were very important. The first was the revival of indigenous culture in 1992, responding to the five hundred year anniversary of the Columbus expedition in 1492. All over the American continent, indigenous people were affirming themselves and saying it was not the discovery of America, that they were already there and that we will not commemorate this traumatic invasion. It was a moment of affirmation of indigenous peoples, presenting themselves in a different light.
They smelled what was happening in the world; the indigenous people have a very good, profound system of perception that they need to survive as they are exposed to continual attacks of a genocidal character. They need to be aware to survive, with their eyes well open and with their ears well open to discover what is happening. I think they smelled the crisis that we discovered twenty years later.
We also need to remember the conditions in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when you had a kind of orphan Left that did not know what to do. Many had a critique of the Soviet Union but without the Soviet Union, then what? It was this kind of catastrophic event for the Left. For the indigenous people, it was just a good opportunity, a real opportunity to do something.
You mentioned that the indigenous movements could smell the current crisis. What’s specific or special about the crisis of capitalism this time around?
I would say two things. First, we are seriously exploring the hypothesis that capitalism already died because it can no longer reproduce the capitalist social relations of production. You have an amazing accumulation of money and things but they cannot invest in new relations of production. Any regime dies when it cannot reproduce itself.
I don’t think that this is good news because what they have prepared is worse than capitalism. I am saying that this is a world of zombies controlled by vampires. Capitalist companies, corporations and organisations are still the dominant ways of production in the world but they don’t know that they are dead. They are zombies. And there is a group of vampires, taking all the blood, all the surplus value, from all the others in a process of dispossession. For these vampires, the nation-state, democracy, all these things are obstacles. They are trying to dismantle all that and to create a regime of dispossession, brutal authoritarianism and a lot of destruction. This is a very dangerous moment for the world.
This is, at the same time, the collapse, after five thousand years, of a patriarchal mentality. What we are seeing, with both capitalism and this vampire authoritarianism, is the final expression of patriarchy, this destructive mentality that ‘I will only have regard to my position regardless of the consequences’. These forms are most destructive because they are at an end. Patriarchy is also dying. And the reason capitalism and patriarchy are dying is because of us.
We are the real reason. We are killing these things. In the case of patriarchy, it is because the women are taking the lead again, seeing the kind of destruction that we men are doing and, as often in history, they are saying ‘Enough! We cannot allow this! To save us, the family, the tribe, the nation, we need to do something!’ And they are doing that.
I’m delighted you brought up patriarchy. Last night, you made an interesting comment as to how gender relations were completely transformed through the Zapatista movement...
It is the very centre of Zapatismo. I would even say that Zapatismo is a feminine movement. The nature of Zapatismo is feminine.
You also spoke last night of building a transformative politics on three pillars: hope, friendship and surprise. Could you elaborate on that?
With surprise, I am saying that we are back from the future. Instead of building our activity, our activism, our efforts, our energy in a kind of promised land - saying that ‘Ok, we have this socialist design, this anarchist design for the future – that we work not in terms of a transition to a certain condition but try to live today in that way. The Zapatistas gave us this important lesson, never separate means and ends. This is also part of a lesson of Paul Goodman who at one point said, ‘Suppose you had the Revolution that you had been dreaming about. You now have the perfect society. Now imagine what you, as a person in that society, would like to do. You are not now struggling against anyone or struggling for your money, you are in the perfect society. What is it that you want to do? Then, as Paul Goodman says, try to live that way today. Of course, you will find all kinds of obstacles but then your politics will be concrete and practical. That kind of lesson is also the Zapatista lesson. Let’s live as we want to live today, not in the future. Then, of course, we are open to surprise because we don’t know what will happen.
‘Hope’, I take from Vaclav Havel: ‘Hope for us is not the conviction that something will happen but the conviction that something makes sense, whatever happens’. We are saying really that hope is the very essence of popular movements and that renovating hope as a social force is a condition of survival for the human race. We have no place for optimism. People use the idea of the glass half full or half empty for optimism or pessimism. I am saying the glass is full of shit. There is no place for optimism but we can hope. And because of hope we can start on a different kind of way.
In the traditional indigenous communities, they are in the process of regenerating that community and transforming it. One of their best traditions, and this applies in particular to the Zapatistas, is to change the old traditions in the traditional way. They are all the time changing but still being themselves because they are following their own path for change. But more than half of the people on earth today do not have anything that they can call community. In the cities, particularly, you have the construction of individuals that do not have anything they can call a commons or a community. For that, for the creation of a new kind of commons, friendship is the secret. With friendship, you have that element of gratuity. Of course, we all have a thousand friends. But real friends, you have two or three, eight if you are really rich in friends. With real friends, with this element of gratuity, not ideology, not any kind of doctrine or revolutionary plan, you can begin the commons. And in the cities, you have the advantage that you can be in several commons. You have some commons for music, other commons to study something, some other commons to cultivate a friendship garden.
In time, all these commons can become intertwined. Then, really, we will have the celebration of friendship and friendship as the highest form of love. In a couple, you ask really for reciprocity – ‘I love you but you love me!’ – you require that reciprocity to continue the relationship. With a friend, the friend is in trouble or even a monster but that is not a problem. You help with joy because he or she is your friend. This element creates the stuff needed to create the new cells of society that are the commons, the family of commons. With that, we can really live a new society.
Gustavo, thank you very much.
After two days in Ireland, I will say ‘no, problem!’
The WSM would like to thank Kimmage Development Centre for organising this event and, in particular, to thank Gustavo for generously taking the time to talk with us.
1. Gestión cannot be translated to English. It is something like     self-management. But gestión is not exactly that. When you are     connecting, let’s say, one community and an institution you create     something between them that is used as a buffer. This can be used     for corruption or it can be used for protection. You have a gestor,     it’s a person, to whom you are going to pay the bribes to get the     things done with the bureaucrats. Or you can have one organization     that is protecting against the impact of the bureaucracy on the     people. The people need to do something with the bureaucrats but     then we create these buffers between institutions and the people.    
See Interview with Gustavo Esteva at http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/global/gest_int_1.html#Anchor-Autonomy-3800
Words: Tom Murray


This article is from issue 10 of the Irish Anarchist Review