Zapatistas...

July 31, 2006 20:20 | Reviewed by Brian Precious




Mihalis Mentinis, Zapatistas- the Chiapas Revolt and What it means for Radical Politics (London, Pluto Press, 2006) ISBN 0 7453 2486 x

This book is most welcome, not only because it documents one of the first signs of failure of the neoliberal counterrevolution of the past 25 years, but because its author, Mihalis Mentinis, is a researcher in the Discourse Unit of Manchester Metropolitan University, who brings to this subject a variety of analytical perspectives for the reader to compare and contrast.

As Mentinis describes in the preface to this book, on 1st January 1994 the then Mexican President Carlos Salinas was celebrating new years eve and Mexico's

entry into the 'first world',when he and his entourage received the news that several thousand indigenous guerillas,lightly armed and wearing ski masks,had

occupied townships in the south-eastern Mexican state of Chiapas,calling themselves the 'Zapatista Army of National Liberation'(EZLN), protesting against hundreds of years of oppression of native people and the crime of neoliberalism.

This was wonderful news, as it remains. The 'victorious' capitalist powers had only just finished shaking their glutted bodies to dance on the grave of state-socialism following the demise of the USSR; their discourse was articulated by US Establishment poodle Francis Fukuyama in his 1991 book The End of History, then hot off the presses (this year, Fukuyama has had to beat an obvious and sheepish retreat); the revolution in Nicaragua had recently been overturned with the installation of lapdog populist Chamorro. All seemed rosy for the right-wing counter-offensive against the advances of the 1960s/1970s,when suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, the Mexican authorities were confronted by a movement which was revolutionary,anti-neoliberal, and yet which seems to have characteristics which defy easy categorisation.

Not only this, but the Zapatistas actions seemd to be a curtain-raiser to the increasing radical mobilisations across the world as the 1990s progressed: in 1999 the elites of big business, meeting in Seattle, were flabbergasted to be met with a major demonstration marking the birth of the anti-globalisation movement, which had been simmering for a decade previously. This was followed by the stupendous global mobilisation against Bush and Blair's piracy in the Persian Gulf: the great demonstrations of 15th February 2003,which is almost certainly the biggest wave of simultaneous demonstrations the world has ever seen. Taking place at the same time,we have seen the exciting developments across Latin America,starting with the election and restoration of Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia,and others across Latin America,including the present electoral struggle in Mexico itself.

Washington must be furious over the way things have gone in the traditional 'back yard' of American Imperialism.

In his analysis of the Zapatistas, Mentinis outlines four approaches to reading this movement: Gramscian, Laclau/Mouffe discourse theoretic or 'post-Marxist',

'autonomist Marxist , and non-academic left perspectives.

Many readers will be aware of/identify with the latter,and it is no surprise that the EZLN has attracted the attention of of anti-state anarchist 'autonomists',as this does seem to be perhaps the best characterisation of them as a movement,since they want to change things without taking power. The perspective of Laclau and Mouffe has grown out of their previous Gramscian position,so it is no surprise that there is some overlap between these two analyses.

It is at this point that I must take exception to Mentinis' reading of Laclau and Mouffe and the latters' theory of antagonism. Mentinis writes(p37):

'For Laclau and Mouffe, antagonism is discursively or symbolically constructed and its roots are more psychological than social..'

This is rather shallow. For Laclau and Mouffe, the social itself is never a closed symbolic order: there is always the possibility of antagonism in any social order ie in any social relation constructed as part of that order.Those things external to a social relation which may threaten or destabilise it, generating the moment of antagonism,are precisely social, and there isn't any kind of hermetic seal between the social and the psychological: the psychological is always the result of our insertion within the social, and it is fact that social relations are not derived from any a priori necessity which means the social will never become a full presence and thus will never be free from the possibility of antagonism.

This slightly critical description of one aspect of Mentinis's book should give some ides of the narrative and intellectual richness contained in this 200-page

text.

It is excellent to see this radical new movement being studied from a variety of perspectives,and that the position of Laclau and Mouffe seems to have taken root

in the analytical canon.The Zapatistas have become deserved icons for the left,and this book shows why.

The reviewer, Brian Precious, is a London-based student and political activist.