Social Movement in Mexico – Digital Rebels

13.06.2020 - Raina Zimmering

This post is also available in: Spanish, German

Social Movement in Mexico – Digital Rebels

The Zapatistas in Mexico have been using science and digital media as a means of resistance. This has also been evident during the corona crisis.

On March 16, 2020, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), closed down the autonomously governed communities in the Mexican state of Chiapas due to the threat of the coronavirus. In their statement, the Zapatistas wrote that they recognize the “scientifically proven threat to human life”¹ and are prepared to act accordingly. At the same time, they condemned governments for exploiting the virus in order to carry out political conflicts and criticized the lack of “any truthful and adequate information about the extent and severity of the infection”. This approach is typical of the Zapatistas: on one hand, they accept scientific knowledge, and on the other, they criticize its political instrumentalization and incorrect implementation. Furthermore, they link scientific knowledge to their struggle against the neoliberal socio-economic system. In the Zapatistas’ own perception, science and the fight against the system are inseparably linked.

Unlike most of the world’s governments, who seek to fight against corona with restrictions on social contact, the Zapatistas in Chiapas call on the excluded (or rather, ” enclosed”) to “not lose their human contacts” and encourage the continuation of social struggles against exploitation and femicide. For those murdered, imprisoned and gone missing in the struggle, the defense of land and “Madre Tierra” (Mother Earth) should be maintained, according to the “Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee”, the General Command of the EZLN, in its March 16 statement.

In light of the fact that the Zapatistas have closed off their communities, their call to the people of Mexico and the world to maintain contacts and continue the struggle seems contradictory. Yet this contradiction will quickly dissolves if their plea continosed reading. The EZLN declares that contact and resistance can be established and carried out in many ways, and therefore, even in the face of the danger of the virus, they must not be abandoned. Thus, the declaration states: “The word, the listening ear, and the heart have many ways—paths, calendars, and geographies—in and on which to meet.”

The question is what the Zapatistas understand by these “many ways” and “paths” that include “many calendars and geographies” (in the sense of times and places). This question must be answered within the context of the social organization of the Zapatista communities, as well as their attitude toward science and digitalization.

The Zapatistas

The Zapatistas in Mexico are an insurgent group of predominantly indigenous people who, in 1994, rose up against the government’s neoliberal and neo-colonial policies and created an alternative autonomous space characterized by self-government, grassroots democracy, collective ownership and distribution, gender justice and sustainable management of nature. After the uprising, the Zapatistas established digital networks within a very short time. This enabled stories from the EZLN spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos and information about their grassroots democratic way of organizing to be widely distributed. As a result, a transnational network with other emancipatory movements and NGOs in Mexico and around the world was achieved. As an emancipatory movement, they have become a model for many other transnational social movements, such as the anti-globalization movement, the counter-summits against the G-20 meetings, Anonymous, “Reclaim the Streets”, the São Paulo Forum, and many others.

The Reception of Science

Although the Zapatistas are predominantly people of indigenous origin who are largely excluded from social life in Mexico and whose actions are primarily based on traditional experiential knowledge, there is great interest in the sciences as a form of objectification of world knowledge, which they aim to combine with other forms of experiential knowledge. Subcomandante Galeano, the former spokesman and supreme commander of the EZLN, who until 2014 bore the name Subcomandante Marcos, calls the knowledge that is communicated in the Zapatista communities “alchemy” and contrasts this to “pseudoscience” in capitalist society.

At the international scientific conference “Conciencias por la Humanidad” (Sciences for Humanity) in Chiapas in 2017, he stated that “alchemy” strives towards science and, “unlike the pseudosciences, does not create a mixture of truths and knowledge made up of platitudes. Pseudoscience (…) does not approach science but rather moves away from it, transforming it into its worst enemy, and, with the greatest success of its mission, into a crisis; it does not represent an alternative explanation of reality (as a religion does), but an ‘argument’ that replaces scientific thought, (…) and wins the most important battle in a media society: that of popularity. Pseudoscience does not strive for the argument of faith, hope and charity, but offers an explanation with a logical structure that ‘fools the mind’. The basic conclusion: pseudoscience is a sham, it is a charade, and it is abundantly present in academia. Alchemy, on the other hand, aims to free itself, ‘to heal itself’, ‘to cleanse itself’ from the parasites which are the unscientific elements.

The message of Subcomandante Galeano is that science under capitalism, i.e. “pseudo-science”, is only able to explain the world to a very limited extent because it embodies the knowledge of domination. The Zapatistas, on the other hand, within an alternative social organization that focuses on a good life for all and a sustainable approach to nature, attempt to scientifically transform their view of the world, which until now has been based primarily on experiential knowledge and mythical patterns of explanation.

Through international meetings such as the aforementioned “Conciencias por la Humanidad”, the Zapatistas wish to learn and understand scientific knowledge and at the same time discuss the connections between social contextualization and making it useful for the people. They believe that only in a just society will the sciences bring long-term success for the people, that capitalist conditions and the subordination of scientific research to market mechanisms are hostile to science. The Zapatistas’ anti-capitalist stance is clearly expressed in another quotation from Galeano in 2018:

“So what we see on a global scale is a predatory economy. The capitalist system goes on conquering territory and destroying wherever it can. At the same time, there is a glorification of consumption. (…) In reality, this glorification of consumption hides a brutal exploitation and a cruel robbery of humanity, which is not immediately visible in the modern production of goods. (…) The machine that produces computers or mobile phones completely autonomously and without human intervention is not maintained by scientific and technical progress, but by the plundering of natural resources (the necessary destruction/depopulation and reconstruction/reorganization of territories) and by the inhuman enslavement of thousands of tiny, small and medium-sized cells of the exploitation of human labor. (…) In its development, the system ‘discovers’ that new commodities have appeared, and these new commodities are on the territory of the original peoples: water, soil, air, biodiversity; everything that has not yet been destroyed and mutilated is on the territory of the original peoples, and that is where they fall upon. When the system seeks (and conquers) new markets, it is not only markets for consumption or for buying and selling goods; also and above all, it seeks and tries to conquer territories and peoples.”³

This analysis of the destructive potential of capitalist science and technology extends Karl Marx’s analysis to current, and especially ecological aspects of the capitalist system: the exploitation of resources of “the territories of indigenous peoples” (“Pueblos Originarios”) such as “water, soil, air and biodiversity”. The peoples affected, including the Zapatistas, have risen up against this action, says Galeano: “But if we look down (…) we see rebellions and resistance.”

»Cyberguerilla«?

The Zapatistas’ open-minded attitude toward science is also evident in their intensive use of digital media, which they use to achieve their goals without losing sight of the dangers involved. The term “cyberguerilla” is often applied to the EZLN, but Zapatistas do not hack digital networks, but rather built their own digital networks themselves very early on and use them as a tool in their struggle for an alternative society, which justifies the term “first information guerilla” coined by the Spanish sociologist Castells.⁴ The Zapatistas benefited from the fact that the Internet is geared towards participation: the user is also a participant. The “war” of words, images, and imaginative stories; the posting and sharing of content was an essential part of the Zapatistas’ media success. The fact that the development of the computer industry was accompanied by the emergence of user-created freeware and shareware systems that were able to evade state surveillance facilitated this process.

Since there was almost no access to the Internet in the state of Chiapas at the time of the Zapatista uprising, in the period after 1994, news was still being written by hand and sent to foreign supporters, who then distributed it online. For this purpose, the Zapatistas joined together in the support network “La Neta” with the NGO “Chiltak”, the “Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center” and the “Center for Economic and Social Research”. Later, other support and solidarity groups appeared, which created e-mail lists and organized local actions for the Zapatistas to create external solidarity.

Early on, the Zapatistas had their own website that provided information on all of the Zapatista statements, actions and announcements, on attacks by the Mexican military and paramilitaries, on international meetings, such as those of the women’s movement, scientific and artistic conferences, and on the expansion and restructuring of the Zapatista territories. The first EZLN website was implemented in 1994 by Texan student Justin Paulson through the webserver of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

The launch of the Zapatistas’ own website therefore took place a year earlier than that of the website of the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, and even two years before the launch of the Mexican government’s website, which gave the indigenous organization a technological advantage along with a networking advantage over the central government. In 1997 Subcomandante Marcos said in an interview with French sociologist Yvon Le Bot that the internet was “a new space, a novelty that was so new that no one thought a guerrilla could access it. The internet is an informative highway. It was a country that was not occupied by any armed forces.” ⁵

Attacks on Digital Structures

In the meantime, however, this “highway” is also presenting resistance groups such as Indymedia with problems in its use, as revealed by the secret documents of the National Security Agency (NSA) published by Edward Snowden in 2013. These documents show that major internet platforms and corporations such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype, YouTube, and Apple have been transmitting their users’ information to the US government.

The Zapatistas have also been affected. One example is Yahoo’s attack on the EZLN’s digital pages during the 2006 “Other Campaign,” a week-long networking and alliance campaign to form an extra-parliamentary mass movement with the Zapatistas and other social movements throughout Mexico. Yahoo tried to sabotage the campaign by, among other things, deleting important distribution lists. The websites linked to the Zapatistas are repeatedly either classified as “dangerous” or shut down by the aforementioned major internet platforms. The background to such attacks is the fear that groups who criticize capitalism have found in the internet a medium through which they can offer global resistance to neoliberal globalization. The “autonomous Zapatista rebel education system” of the EZLN wrote about this problem in 2010: “It is important to improve connections to other electronic sites of other organizations and collectives in order to overcome the computer blockade to which the great powers always subject us.

Soziale Bewegung in Mexiko - Digitale Rebellen

All those who wanted to use digital technology in an emancipatory way had to face new challenges again and again with the increasing control by the state and the secret services, and consider the digital space not only as a networking space but also as a space of struggle. In this sense, in 2017 the “Cybernetic Edition” of the international artists’ meeting Comp-Arte 2017 took place, which sought to bring together art and digital movements such as open-source initiatives or cyberfeminism. In their call for the meeting, the Zapatistas posed the questions: “Is another internet, that is, another network, possible? Is it possible to fight there? Or is this place, without precise geography, already occupied, taken up, suspended, etc.? Can resistance and rebellion not take place there? (…) Is the network a space of domination, domestication, hegemony, or homogeneity? Or is it a space of conflict, of struggle? Can we speak of a digital materialism?⁷

Networked Resistance

The collectively elaborated response of the Comp-Arte conference was to affirm the possibility and already established existence of resistance and rebellion in the “geography of the net”. In the internet magazine Desinformemonos, which is affiliated with the Zapatistas, the opinion was expressed that the internet is “a space of domination, control, hegemony and homogenization,” but that “precisely because the internet is centralized and hierarchical, spaces of struggle and resistance against domination, hegemony and homogenization exist within it.

How these spaces may be used became clear once again during the corona crisis. Since the closure of the Zapatista communities, various actions of the oppressed and excluded have already taken place. Among these is an appeal made by the “Coordinación Metropolitana Anticapitalista y Antipatriacal Metropolitan Coordination” (“Coordinación Metropolitana Anticapitalista y Antipatriacal”) on March 28, 2020, to hold a “Global Day for Life,” which was linked to the hashtag “ELEncierroNoMeCalla” (inclusion does not keep me silent ) for social networks.

The network invited people to participate “in musical, theatrical, dance and singing activities, poetry, cinema, painting, photography, documentaries, reading books, analyses, discussions, reflections, conferences”, “to shout to the bad governments of the world that despite the pandemic we continue to fight for life and against death-bringing capitalism and patriarchy. These activities can be distributed digitally from their platforms and social networks so that we can all raise our voices out of the confines of our homes and denounce the national governments that are subordinating their fundamental decisions on the right to life to the dictates of finance capital”. At the end of the appeal, Emiliano Zapata and his assassination are commemorated and it is announced that the struggle continues. ” Lockdown will not silence us, we are resisting and organizing!”

The article Digitale Rebellen appeared for the first time in the 20.04.2020 issue of die junge Welt. We would like to thank Raina Zimmering and the jW editorial staff for permission to publish the article on Pressenza. Republication is only allowed with explicit permission.

Translation by D. Ryan Haskill


Raina Zimmering: Historian, political scientist, sociologist and Latin American specialist, she was university professor and head of the Department of Political and Development Research at the Institute of Sociology of the Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria, from 2007 to 2013. Since then she has worked as a freelance author. Since 2017, she is a Senior Research Fellow at the World Trends Science Institute in Potsdam.

Categories: Central America, Indigenous peoples, Politics

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