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Nearly a decade ago, while en route from the United Kingdom to the Zapatista communities of Chiapas, Mexico, I had the privilege of meeting the late John Ross. I arrived late afternoon at the Hotel Isabel in Mexico City, which he continued to call “home.”
A New York-born activist, radical thinker, studious reader and poet of the beat generation, Ross was well equipped to offer incisive commentary on a movement that was radicalizing everything we thought we knew about political thought and practice. Ross had captured wonderfully the importance of the Zapatistas in the titles of his dedicated books that take us on an inspiring journey from The War Against Oblivion to Making Another World Possible.
As we sat discussing the dignity of Zapatistas into the early hours of the morning, John spent considerable time explaining how they had broken new ground by moving away from the capture of state power; how their politics demanded a new temporality that didn’t comply to the efficiency of neoliberal markets; how they understood their plight in terms of global systems of oppression of which the nation state had become a mere proxy; how they realized that new political imaginaries require a new vocabulary, which, moving beyond the sad militancy of theory, speaks in a more poetic style; and how their commitment to autonomy radicalized both their sense of spatiality and political agency in ways that we were still yet to fully comprehend. As he explained:
If the Zapatistas hadn’t have emerged from the jungles of Chiapas in 1994, we would have needed to have invented them. Conventional political thinking on the left was already at a dead-end. It was destroyed by the vanguards who, in the name of liberation, suffocated us, greying the colors of the earth. The Zapatistas dared to say no to orthodox power, whatever its ideological stripe. They dared to dream that another world was truly possible. We cannot underestimate how powerful that expression was at the time, even if we are yet to fully appreciate where the road will eventually lead us. But it is a journey we should nevertheless take.
I found Ross to be an inspiring character who emphasized the need to understand this movement in more poetic terms. He was also evidently appreciative of the position of privilege many of us have in respect to a movement that is made up of the “poorest of the poor.” Drawing upon his conversations with the communities, whilst our conversation moved onto a critique of Ivory Tower academics who look upon the world from the vantage points of isolated privilege, he shared dismay at those who claimed to be a truer radical or revolutionary. Such soundings, he believed, were counter to the Zapatista ethic, which openly resisted the road to a vanguard by another name or worse: the condemnation of people without actually knowing their life stories and personal backgrounds.
Much has been subsequently written about the movement and how they provide us with what Paolo Freire would have recognized to be pedagogy by the globally oppressed. Indeed, it was Ross who introduced me to the work of Gustavo Esteva, who has appreciated more than most how the Zapatista revolution is accompanied by the pedagogical imperative of changing the way we perceive and understand the world such that a political transformation worthy of that name is a lived possibility. Esteva’s writings on the Zapatista plight and their struggle don’t lose sight of the ways they continue to reconcile the fight for dignity with a new political imaginary that refuses the systematic production of disposable populations deemed excess or waste to neoliberal power.
We are therefore delighted at the “Histories of Violence” project to partner with Truthout for the next in the “Disposable Life” series by introducing Gustavo Esteva’s compelling and inspiring contribution. As he explains, the Zapatista “struggle is our struggle, everywhere, in every city, in every country of the world. We are in a very difficult moment, in a terrible moment of humankind, but there is hope; the Zapatistas illustrate that hope. We can build something different with that hope in our hands.”
To what extent is it possible to write of entire populations as disposable? How might we think about mass violence is such terms? And how might we forge a truly trans-disciplinary pedagogy that connects the arts, humanities and social sciences such that we may reimagine peaceful cohabitation amongst the world of people? Bringing together some of the most celebrated critical scholars, public intellectuals and artists, this globally partnered initiative directly addresses these types of questions by interrogating the paradigm of “disposable life” to rethink the meaning of mass violence in the 21st century. The first phase of the project consists of a series of monthly, filmed reflections. The latest is provided by the renowned environmental activist Gustavo Esteva who looks at the real effects of disposability by drawing our attentions to the indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico.
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