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Biggest Political Movement of 21st Century Emerged from Chiapas

Making the geopolitical personal

by David Chandler


One No, Many Yeses, Paul Kingsnorth, Free Press, 2004.


Paul Kingsnorth's One No, Many Yeses is billed as a 'journey to the heart of the global resistance movement'.


The journey starts in Chiapas. 'What may turn out to be the biggest political movement of the twenty-first century emerged from the rainforest remnants of Southern Mexico on 1 January 1994', he writes. What makes the Zapatistas' 12-day rebellion the radical birth of a new political movement is the fact that they were no ordinary guerrilla movement. Rather than seek to seize state power in the name of 'the people' they sought to create a space for autonomy. Instead of appealing to the workers to rise up and join them, they called on 'civil society'. For Kingsnorth and others this marked 'the first postmodern revolution'.


Anti-capitalists around the world herald the Zapatistas as a leading example of the new politics - evidence that the 'movement' is based on those most excluded from global politics, peasants and indigenous people, 'simultaneously the very least alienated and most oppressed people on Earth'. It is the struggles for survival in the non-Western world that appear most authentic and untainted by the cultural, economic and social pressures of modern consumer society. For Kingsnorth, 'This movement is different. Indigenous concerns have been at its heart from day one. Because it is a movement that was born in the "developing" world, because of its culture of diversity, because land and cultural identity and giving voices to the overlooked are key to its concerns, tribal people have played a key part in it.'


Kingsnorth says the aim of his book is to 'torpedo one of the most widespread myths about this movement - the suggestion that the critics of globalisation come mostly from the rich countries'. But the book itself makes interesting reading precisely because rather than 'torpedoing' this suggestion it confirms the view that the 'global struggle' is very much a Western creation.


This is a journey of personal discovery for Kingsnorth, not a story of finding something 'out there'. Before he started he felt that he was already part 'of a genuinely new political movement - something international, something different and something potentially huge. But what exactly was it?' As Kingsnorth says, 'I felt a part of it, whatever it was'. This is a journey to discover why Kingsnorth feels more connected to people struggling in the Global South than he does to people engaged in politics back at home.


In researching the book, Kingsnorth spent eight months travelling across five continents. His first stop is Chiapas, which apparently has become a 'reality tourist' attraction. At Oventic, one of the key Zapatista bases in Chiapas, the revolution is still taking place, yet now solidarity comes with the opportunity to buy 'Marcos T-shirts, ski masks, bandanas, posters, keyrings, tape recordings of revolutionary songs, books, caps, even the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) ashtrays'. The Zapatistas' café does a brisk trade in bottles of Coco-Cola. This brings out some angst in Kingsnorth - a feeling of disappointment, 'followed immediately by a feeling of guilt about feeling disappointed. Why shouldn't they drink Coke? No, hang on, why should they?'


Next he's off to the Bolivian city of Cochamba to attend a People's Global Action activist conference, where the highlight is a party, dancing and drinking to the Che Guevara song under the multi-coloured chequered flag of the campesino farmers. What hits Kingsnorth is his personal sense of solidarity with Maori tribesmen, Spanish playwrights, Bristol fire-eaters, et al, imagined by him to be 'representatives' of hundreds and thousands of members of the global movement.


He argues that academics and media analysts often neglect the 'importance of protest on a personal level…the personal power that being one of so many people moving in the same direction can give you'. Compared with being at home coping with the excitement of local and European elections, I guess drinking and dancing under the jacaranda blossoms, with a sexy South African activist teaching him to toyi-toyi, it would be all too easy to romanticise the importance and influence of radical global politics.


Kingsnorth takes us on a whistle stop tour taking in self-help community groups in South Africa, such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Church of Stop Shopping in New York, the World Social Forum in Porte Alegre and the Landless Rural Workers' Movement in Brazil. The most interesting chapter is the one recounting his experience in the highlands of West Papua where the Free Papua Movement (OPM) has undertaken an armed struggle against Indonesian mining interests. Three of the guerrillas trudge 20 miles through the rainforest to meet the English solidarity activists. Their leader Goliar speaks up:


If there were a real global movement, we wouldn't need all these books to reveal it to us

'We want to know what you activists are doing in England. Can't you get us guns?... I have seen a film!… This man, Rambo. He has these arrows which he can set on fire. Have you seen these things? We want those!... We all agree that England has the best weapons. On television, we have seen you killing these people in Afghanistan. You have planes that can hover. We want those… We have come to ask you for help.'


The OPM rebels will have to stick with their one worn-out Second World War revolver, and are disappointed to find out that solidarity will mean only the offer to 'try and tell people in England what is happening in Papua, which we hope will help you to get free'. The rebels' hope of international offers of solidarity had been a misplaced one. Kingsnorth writes: 'I feel suddenly guilty. These bedraggled warriors have walked for miles to beg from people they have never even met.' The guilt is assuaged somewhat when he realises that their policy towards the corporations - 'If we can, we kill them' - is, in fact, 'bracingly unsophisticated'.


What attracted Kingsnorth to the Papuan rebels was not their politics or their strategy but a symbolic fantasy of the authentic life impossible in the alienated and consumption-orientated West. He discusses Papuan and English culture over roasted pig in a Papuan village where he suggests that Papuans shouldn't aspire to be like the West. Kingsnorth argues that millions are unemployed, sleeping in the streets and eating rubbish from bins, and tells his guide about 'old people's homes and rehab clinics, Prozac and cardboard cities, motorways and climate change, genetic engineering and landfill sites'.


It is Kingsnorth's alienation from his own society that leads him to feel himself to be part of a global movement 'led by the poor in the "developing" lands'. His interpretation of diverse local political and social struggles as struggles to 'reclaim' space, or as 'everywhere a fight for space', stems from his own desire to separate himself from his environment. Yet, in his reading, he is not rejecting engagement in the politics of his own society but instead transferring his allegiance to the global sphere. There is little surprise that once this is done, his individual rejection of politics can take on a fantastical and radical form:


'Has a movement this big ever existed before? Has such a diversity of forces, uncontrolled, decentralised, egalitarian, ever existed on a global scale? Has a movement led by the poor, the disenfranchised, the south, ever existed at all…?'


The struggles of peasants and farmers in the non-Western world are romantically reinterpreted as struggles for the 'authentic life', a life freed from the constraints and responsibilities of Western society. This is a global political movement not just made in the West but made up in the West. I think it's a safe bet that if there were a real global movement for social change we wouldn't need all these books and guides to reveal it to us.


For Kingsnorth, this is not just a movement, but a revolution and one that 'is happening already. It is going on in Soweto and Porte Alegre, Jayapura and La Garrucha, Itapeva and Point Arena'. In fact, the more places the anti-capitalist revolution is 'discovered', the more it seems that the everyday struggle for survival has been reinterpreted and celebrated by Western radicals keen to free themselves from the mundane nature of what passes for politics in the West.


David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His next book, Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations is due out with Palgrave-Macmillan autumn 2004.