To Not Lose Sight Of The Good – Notes On The Zapatismo Ethic, Part 1 (Matt Rosen)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

On the first of January 1994, as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN) declared war on the Mexican government from the Lacandon Jungle, in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas.[1]

Led by the enigmatic ‘Subcomandante Marcos,’ around 3,000 inadequately armed guerilla militants, many indigenous, seized several municipalities, including, for a brief time, San Cristóbal de las Casas. The Zapatistas demanded the cancellation of NAFTA, the dissolution of the Mexican government, and the forming of an egalitarian assembly to be tasked with composing a new constitution. In Mexico and around the world, the Zapatista uprising heralded a new day for the left. The fall of the Soviet Union had been proclaimed as the death of the left, if not the end of history itself, and the apparent victory of the neoliberal order marked the thought of emancipation as impossibility itself. But the rebellion of the EZLN, from the jungles of Chiapas, suggested that another left could be conceived; this left would universalize its struggle, imagine anew the possibility of a novel world distinct from state capitalism, and do so without a centralized party or unified political program. 

The President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, sent armed forces – both the air force and the army – to quell the uprising. Thousands of Mexicans protested, taking to public squares in cities and towns across the country to urge Zedillo to halt the military suppression of the Zapatistas. The fighting between the armed forces and the EZLN lasted twelve days, until Zedillo finally relented and agreed to a temporary ceasefire. In response, the Zapatistas held a referendum vote regarding the position they should occupy in Mexico; the majority of Mexicans voted in favor of participatory political action without violent insurrection. Since that referendum, the Zapatistas have not engaged in armed rebellion. Instead, the movement took on other forms of life and located other lines of flight.           

The rejection of violent revolution by the Mexican people was definitive, but many nonetheless sympathized with the Zapatistas’ cause: to seek justice for the atrocities committed against the indigenous population, to amend the living conditions of the most impoverished, and to address persecution in whatever form it might take, at the hands of economic powers, state apparatuses, or other overarching structures. The people had decided that the struggle could no longer be made manifest in the seizing of towns or measured in the count of bodies, but the struggle for the cause itself would continue. 

The failure of the Zapatista uprising, the inadequacy of violent means, forced a retreat into the Lacandon Jungle, a region populated largely by indigenous people living in fairly destitute conditions. In the jungle, the Zapatistas formed small, egalitarian communities that amounted to an emancipated zone of relative autonomy. Encircled by the armed forces of the Mexican government and local groups of mestizo and indigenous people who were wary of the them, the Zapatistas continued to organize, fostering cooperation and providing communal services for any who needed them.

In 1996, the EZLN signed a treaty with President Zedillo – the San Andrés Accords – which promised state recognition, increased rights for the indigenous Mayan population, and gave an assurance of the right to autonomous functioning within a certain region of jurisdiction. The Congress of Mexico refused to approve the treaty, and Zedillo disregarded it almost immediately, repeatedly transgressing its bounds. Thus, the Zapatistas declared that no further negotiations would take place and retreated once again into the jungle.

For the next decade or so, the EZLN aimed to create radically egalitarian forms of community engagement and management at a local level. Generally persecuted minorities, such as women, homosexuals, indigenous people, etc., were treated as equal and granted the right to speak and be heard as humans among humans, without regard to given qualities or identities. The Zapatistas eschewed political representation and identity politics; in their communities, there was to be no heterosexism, patriarchy, or capitalism, and no privileged race, gender, class, location of origin, or sexual orientation.

As Simon Torrey wrote in a 2006 article: the “philosophy of the Zapatistas is… symptomatic of a more general shift in the underpinnings of the political ‘field’… beyond ‘representation.’”[2] In other words, the Zapatismo struggle did not merely oppose certain forms of taxonomy and representation, but representation as such, the whole notion of the classification of people into types. In Change the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway pursues this thread: “we struggle against being working class, against being classified. Our struggle is not the struggle of labor: it is the struggle against labor.”[3]

Reestablishing communal organization ‘from the ground up,’ the Zapatistas formed their own social programs and offered utilities, building schools and hospitals which served as alternatives to government-operated institutions. Several principles served to structure these formations: mandar obedeciendo (leading by obeying, all are to lead by following the will of the community), proponer y no imponer (propose, don’t impose), antipoder contra poder (anti-power against power), todo para todos, nada para nosotros (everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves), and so on.

In 2000, as the presidential election grew near at hand, the EZLN refused to issue support for any of the candidates, repudiating the notion of election as such. The Zapatistas thought that the act of voting would serve only to reify the apparatus of the state itself, which is to say that there was no vote against the re-inscription of the political schema at work; to vote would be to cast an affirmation of the system that permitted or encouraged such voting. And so, rather than voting, the Zapatistas persisted in their focus at the local level, continuing to manage their communities in relative autonomy and with a relatively horizontal configuration.

In 2006, as the next presidential election approached, the EZLN again refused to endorse any candidate; but instead of subsisting in total locality, they initiated a national campaign: la Otra Campaña (the Other Campaign). Travelling across the country as a candidate for the presidency might, the Zapatistas held rallies, met with a large variety of political and social groups fighting persecution and oppression at the hands of the government and economic forces, and attempted to engage ‘the Other’ in the broadest manner possible. After the election in which they refused to partake, the Zapatistas once again returned to the jungles of Chiapas, where they continue to stand against inequalities and injustices of all sorts both at the local level and on the global stage via the force of inspiration in regard to the theory and praxis of resistance and the struggle for liberation.

Critiques of the Zapatistas, both political and theoretical, abound. In regard to praxis, the politics of the EZLN seems to remain opaque and their fight for emancipation is often considered to be a lost cause, a failure. Their communities strike many as utterly interior, like a set of veritable ‘black boxes,’ and some find their theoretic position to be under-focused on class struggle, indigenous rights, or the sheer eventality of what a political upsurge might be, or else hyper-focused on local egalitarianism and morality in lieu of more insurrectionary or ‘hardline’ politics. For instance, in an article in 2004, Tariq Ali, commenting on the Zapatistas’ slogan – ‘we can change the world without taking power’ – said that,

This slogan doesn’t threaten anyone; it’s a moral slogan. The Zapatistas – who I admire – when they marched from Chiapas to Mexico City, what did they truly think was going to happen? Nothing happened. It was a moral symbol, it was not even a moral victory because nothing happened.[4]

And it is true, of course, that the declaration of war against the Mexican state in 1994 yielded, due either to an inability to mobilize significant enough numbers or the inadequacy of preparations and resources, a later lack of discernible victory in the San Andrés Accords and the subsequent continuation of a sequestering in the jungles of Chiapas. But perhaps – and this will be one of the theses that I will seek to defend here – the ‘success’ of Zapatismo, of the Zapatista movement overall, has little to do with these material significations.

It is a risk to seek to theorize on the subject of Zapatismo, for the Zapatistas do not require such theorizing on their behalf or for their sake; they do not need us to speak their politics as a condition of our thinking or to proclaim its basis in what would be a support of their praxis. The goal of such theorizing, then, must be to explain the effectiveness of the Zapatistas to us, to we who may doubt it from afar.

The question is not what we can offer the Zapatistas, but rather what their praxis can teach us; and we would do well to remember that learning is always an abnegation, a permitting of a determination by another. Our method of approach therefore cannot be one of extraction and re-assembly, of an abstraction which would be a violence, because it must be determined by that praxis which is immanent to it and precedes it, viz., Zapatismo.[5]

In order to better grasp the effectiveness of the Zapatistas, we need to better understand the relation between ethics and politics, between welcoming the stranger – ‘anyone can be a Zapatista’ – and fighting in the name of a cause. Many critics have noted that the EZLN’s revolution does not have the ecstatic force of an uprising and that it does not appear to desire such force; these critics are disquieted by the apparent preference for absolute hospitality over and above the sort of insurrection that material conditions seem to demand.

In welcoming all, the Zapatistas appear to be granting a place of primacy to ethics vis-à-vis political and collective action, and this proves disconcerting for many revolutionaries on the left, including Marxists, socialists, indigenous activists, and others. Principles such as antipoder contra poder – ‘anti-power against power’ – strike some as a refusal to seize the means of production (power); and todo para todos, nada para nosotros – ‘everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves’ – looks to some other leftists like utter surrender. The question that we must pose, then, is this: what is the ethic of Zapatismo? And does it permit or lead to the requisite resistance that is necessitated by the facts of material living conditions?

Anyone Can Be a Zapatista’

In welcoming whomever as a Zapatista, declaring that ‘we all must become Zapatistas,’ the EZLN illustrates an ethic of hospitality without regard to given qualities or identities. Their gates might read: ‘let each, no matter who they are, enter here.’ The critiques of such an ethic generally tend to surround a certain impotency: if all are welcome, then how can resistance be possible? And surely, if all are indeed welcome, this includes capitalists, the government, conservatives, nationalists, and so forth; the practicability of revolution seems to then be quite diluted. 

While the resistance of the Zapatistas does not entail the violent force of other revolutionary movements, nor the force it once aimed to demonstrate in January 1994, this does not mean that resistance itself has been set aside, or that its possibility has been attenuated and diminished by the centrality of an ethic of welcoming. The EZLN’s resistance embodies, in its unspoken posture of insurrection vis-à-vis the world, the power of a non-capitulation which can be derived from absolute hospitality, from the singular axiom that ‘anyone can be a Zapatista.’

In other words, the demonstration of the effectiveness of Zapatismo requires that we be able to show how resistance can be derived from the simple act of welcoming each and every stranger who might be at our doorstep, each and every Other who could be a Zapatista. It must be shown that resistance often follows as soon as I open the door and welcome the strangers who are standing there, whomever they may be and whatever qualities may identify them.

In order to derive resistance from hospitality, it will be helpful to clarify several conceptual terms at our disposal, terms within my own ethical system that will prove useful for our purposes; these terms, with an eye towards the immanent determination of our project by Zapatismo itself, will be explicated in light of several principles of the EZLN, such as antipoder contra poder (anti-power against power), todo para todos, nada para nosotros (everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves), mandar obedeciendo (leading by obeying), the fight against the representation or classification of people, the notion of the Encuentro (encounter, gathering), and the idea that a victory in allegiance to all Others does not entail, by necessity, that something evental has to happen ‘in-the-world.’

Let’s begin by calling axiomatic a very specific form of welcoming: abnegation. From this axiom-schema alone, we must be able to obtain a ‘theorem of resistance.’ That is, a logic of dissent or defiance must follow from this axiomatic abnegation at least in some cases, such as that of the material conditions of the indigenous population of Chiapas.

Abnegation can be defined as the axiom-schema which structures, in an axiomatic or transcendental sense, the immanent topology of the ‘field of two.’ The field of two is the space in which I encounter an Other who is absolutely not me. This Other is not different from me by degree, by a set of standard deviations or qualitative stratifications in which the self or that which is self-same is set as the norm or mean, but is infinitely alteritous. In the field of two, I find myself in a position of abnegation vis-à-vis the Other, which is to say that I am compelled to welcome the Other without regard to their qualities, identities, or characteristics.

This Other is simply that which is absolutely not what I am and not of what I am; indeed, I am in some sense Other to myself and so condemned to a position of abnegation in regard to myself as Other. In any case, the field of two is the topology of an absolute hospitality; it is structured by the axiom-schema of abnegation which defines it. Paraphrasing Dostoevsky, Lévinas tells us that the formulation of ethics can be written, “we are all guilty for everything and everyone, and I more than all the others,” but it could just as easily be written, “everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves (todo para todos, nada para nosotros).”[6]

The first vocation is the vocation to be, the first answer, to be there. We have always already answered our summons. Prior to all of the answers that may or may not eventually be given, prior to responses that engage responsibility and involve an actually constituted power of response, there is the response that we ourselves are, simply through the fact of our being, through the fact of having come to an eternal cry, to the cry that calls to being and to be – a ‘here I am’ provoked by a ‘come here.’”[8]

In other words, if I am to act with a forgetting of my abnegation, it must be a twofold forgetting: to do Evil, which is to forget the two and to act as if the three is its own sufficiency and thus auto-positional, is to lose sight of the Good, the field of two, and to do so twice. If the field of two is structured by the axiom-schema of abnegation – which is the sort of absolute hospitality in which ‘anyone can be a Zapatista,’ in which ‘everything is for everyone’ but ‘nothing is for us,’ embodied in the Encuentro or ‘encounter’ – then what is the definitive sense of this abnegation? How can it, in itself, be defined?

The axiom-schema of abnegation can be defined as welcoming – or more generally, acting in remembrance of – the fashion of the no-matter-what. The ‘no-matter-what’ is the axiom that defines the manner or ‘fashion’ of the hospitality of the axiom-schema of abnegation in the field of two. This axiom, the no-matter-what, stipulates that abnegation is ‘acted,’ in the sense of ‘always-already-acted,’ by cutting away all of the qualities of a thing to reveal what remains in its non-representationality: a radical insufficiency of qualities. We will call this a ‘quantum finitude.’[9]

 A quantum finitude, or the ‘generic,’ is the sense of a thing x to which has been applied the razor of the axiom of the no-matter-what, that is to say, a welcoming of x in the fashion of the no-matter-what; this is a welcoming which is not because of the unique or particular qualities of x, and not despite these qualities, but is without regard to them: anyone, no matter who they may be, can be a Zapatista. This ‘reduction’ to the generic in a welcoming in the fashion of the no-matter-what is embodied by the Zapatistas in the use of ski-masks during rallies and gatherings; this practice, as Thomas Nail writes, “rejects the representation of the person.”[10]

In welcoming a person as non-representable, in an abnegation to the generic Other as without a primary position within the field of three, I effectively strip away all of the qualities of that person, which is to say that I recollect the always-already-acted nature of precisely the sort of as-kesis that is manifested in the Zapatistas’ wearing of ski-masks. In wearing the mask, and encountering Others who are masked, I do not lose sight of the hospitality of the field of two and recognize it as the ‘presupposed’ of the field of three, as determining of its possibility and the possibility of its subject.

The quantum finitude as non-qualitative or non-positional, welcomed in the fashion of the no-matter-what, is the Otherinasmuch as they are recast against their own qualitative sense or position. The recasting of the quantum finitude of the field of two against their own position within the field of three, insofar as the latter is not totalizing of the former, is the immediate ‘performance’ of alterity; it is in this way that the quantum finitude is the infinity-(of)-alterity, the Other.

Thus, to act in the fashion of the no-matter-what, which is the definitive axiom of the axiom-schema of abnegation that structures the topology of the field of two, is to act ‘towards’ a thing (in non-relation because difference is not a matter of degree) in light of the recollection of the welcoming of that thing, qua generic, in its non-qualitative sense, i.e., the thing as a quantum finitude.

This recollection of the field of two, this attunement of remembering the first abnegation, is a ‘fashion’ as opposed to a ‘modality.’ A modality is the mode in which a thing occupies a position of being-in-the-world, of being in the structures of the field of three, or has whatever qualities are particular to it and its classification or given and typifying representation. This given representation is given by a givenness which counts it as ‘x.’[11] For instance, the indigenous person is given as such by the givenness of the structure in the field of three that counts the indigenous person as ‘indigenous,’ and permits no or minimal excess from out of that categorization, totalizing the indigenous person within a taxonomic classification or subsuming them under a normative set of categories of understanding.

This operation of counting the Other is a finitization of their difference such that it is a difference from the one who counts, or from what is self-same to the one who counts, only by degree (which can be either quantitative or qualitative).[12] A modality is therefore a sort of interpellation of x by a given structure – a ‘third’ which gives x as such, as ‘x’; it often takes the amphibolous form of having = being.

A fashion can be defined, in the simplest of terms, as a non-modality. It is to a modality what non-Euclidean geometry is to Euclidean geometry; that is, a fashion is the primacy of the lack of any modality inhabited by a quantum finitude, which precisely in being given in the field of two is given without givenness. Hence, a person in the fashion of the no-matter-what is a person who is first outside of any modality and does not inhabit one except secondarily.[13] Of course, a person does have qualities, identities, and structural positions, but these are secondary to their original lack in the field of two, which is a ‘fashion’ in this sense.

As we intimated previously, the infinite difference between a thing as a quantum finitude and its sense of being given by givenness, its secondary positionality and ‘having’ of qualities, is the production of the thing as the infinity-(of)-alterity. The gap between the thing qua quantum finitude and the thing qua positioned is the ‘performance’ of the Other. During la Otra Campaña in 2006, the Zapatistas wore ski-masks, applying the razor of the no-matter-what in an as-kesis or ‘reduction’ to the generic, but they also made speeches, organized protests, and met with other revolutionaries, taking on a clear positionality. The bifurcated nature of la Otra Campaña was thus not merely a national campaign to welcome the Other, but the production of infinite alterity itself.

Matt Rosen is a student at Colorado College. He works mainly on issues in ethics, and is the author of Speculative Annihilationism: The Intersection of Archaeology and Extinction (Zero Books, 2019) and the editor of the forthcoming volume of collected papers, Diseases of the Head (Punctum, 2020)



[1] This information is from Mora, “Zapatista Anticapitalist Politics and the “Other Campaign,” and Nail, Returning to Revolution

[2] Torrey, “‘Not in my Name’: Deleuze, Zapatismo and the Critique of Representation,” 138.

[3] Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, 88.

[4] Quoted in Nail, Returning to Revolution, 23.

[5] I agree here with Laruelle, when he writes, “I am very ill at ease when philosophy takes charge of the witness’ discourse and makes a philosophy out of it” (Laruelle, Intellectuals and Power, 84).

[6] Lévinas, Entre Nous, 105. Evidently, Lévinas’ account of the ethical is a crucial precursor to our own account. That being said though, we differ in a number of significant ways: as opposed to the face of the Other with its unique lineation, our Other is generic or ordinary in the strictest sense; as opposed to the self in the accusative, the ‘me,’ being ‘for-the-Other,’ our self should be read in the dative case, as located in an absolutely abnegational position vis-à-vis the Other and bracketed as such; as opposed to Lévinas’ pernicious anthropocentrism, our Other is anything which is altogether not what I am and not of what I am; etc., etc. For a further consideration of these distinctions, it may be helpful to reference Angst and Abnegation.

[7] This forgetting is not necessarily comparable to Heidegger’s forgetting of Being; if I forget my always-already-acted abnegation in the field of two, this forgetting is not constitutive, i.e., it does not affect the two in its ‘essence’ or topology. My abnegation remains whether I remember it or not. The consequence of this forgetting is my own and does not bear on the field of two. 

[8] Chretién, The Call and the Response, 18, emphasis added.

[9] On the Zapatistas’ rejection of representationality, see Torrey, “‘Not in my Name’: Deleuze, Zapatismo and the Critique of Representation.”

[10] Nail, “Zapatismo and the Global Origins of Occupy,” 34.

[11] And thus, as we will see, the ethical act is a refusal of the primacy of the operation of the count.

[12] The operation of the count, which I have elsewhere called a finitizing ‘glimpse,’ is therefore a movement from infinite alterity to finite difference into and thus within a relational system or network.

[13] “For it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere” (Meillassoux, After Finitude, 7, emphasis altered).

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