We can say no to capitalism AND socialism

In 1994, indigenous people in Mexico formed the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and declared themselves and their territories in the southern state of Chiapas free. (Oriana Elicabe, AFP)

In 1994, indigenous people in Mexico formed the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and declared themselves and their territories in the southern state of Chiapas free. (Oriana Elicabe, AFP)

Twenty years ago this year, two seemingly unrelated events took place that shaped the world's consciousness – one in rural Mexico, the other in South Africa.

On the first day of January 1994, the ruling classes of Mexico were caught by surprise when armed indigenous people – the Zapatista Army of National Liberation – stormed many parts of Chiapas, the southernmost state of the country, and declared themselves and their territories free.

These people had been denied their humanity, culture and land for centuries. They were cheap labour, mere subjects of exploitation. They watched hopelessly as their lands made the rich richer and themselves poorer.

The unseen peasants of Mexico covered their faces with black balaclavas to force Mexico and the world to see and hear them.
We got to know that moment of uprising as the birth of the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas brought new hope and poetry to the people of the world who rejected both capitalism and Stalinism.

It must be remembered that, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was declared a signal marking "the end of history", in the sense that the Cold War that had raged for most of the 20th century between socialism and capitalism had ended with capitalism the victor.

In short, freedom and democracy was only to be experienced in the realm of capitalism.

The rich were permitted licence to plunder the world, so the argument went, because there was no system of governance better than capitalism.

Socialism had been given a bad name by the Stalinist horror that created the monstrosity of state capitalism in Russia and that denied people freedom and, at times, even bread.

The South African democratisation process that culminated in the elections of April 1994 accepted the logic of the new world order – that democracy was capitalism.

In 1996, all pretences were dropped and the ANC officially embraced the neoliberal programme called Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear), which led to celebrations in Brussels and Washington, DC.

It was as if the child had grown up. Gear led to the massive privatisation of state assets and the commodification of basic needs.

Citizens were transformed into customers; water, electricity and decent healthcare and education were now goods for sale. That's what capitalism does: it creates two worlds, one feeding off the other.

The ANC elite joined the parasitic white sections of society and proclaimed it a good life for all, until the discourse of democracy could no longer cover the lie that had grown as long as Pinocchio's nose, and they involuntarily, cynically and publicly proclaimed that "the leaders will eat cake on behalf of the people".

The ANC embraced neoliberalism and the South African Communist Party rationalised the new religion of market fundamentalism as necessitated by the "global balance of forces".

At the same time, the indigenous people of Mexico declared a different path and very boldly told the world: "We are going to rise up to overthrow the supreme governments, to overthrow corrupt officials, to throw the rich and powerful out of this country and begin building a new Mexico with humble, simple people."

The Zapatistas timed their uprising to coincide with the imposition of their equivalent of Gear, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This scheme, hatched in Washington, DC, was aimed at turning the world into a "free market" to be exploited at will.

The Zapatistas refused to choose between two bad systems: they proclaimed dissidence to both capitalism and Stalinism. They denounced the party and the cult of the leader, and even state power.

John Holloway's book Changing the World Without Taking Power can be read as the Zapatista manifesto.

The Zapatistas, consistent with their new ideology against money and power, refused to participate in the mainstream political process to try to take power.

Instead, they formed their own autonomous governments, which get no assistance from the Mexico state.

This experience is not without weakness and hardships: the indigenous people have gained visibility but not economic or cultural freedom.

Twenty years later, they remain under attack and are all but quarantined in their territories.

The excitement that first met the Zapatistas has shifted to the big men of Latin America, who have taken up the battle against neoliberalism with much chutzpah and relative success – men such as the colourful Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the humble Evo Morales of Bolivia and Ecuador's Rafaela Correa.

These men have built political parties and movements and have taken state power and are using it to benefit the people of their nations.

In Mexico, the Zapatistas rejected neoliberalism and chose to fight. They gave the world new hope and broke the false choice between capitalism and a system that subverts socialism even as it proclaimed itself against capitalism.

Whatever judgment we make of the Zapatistas, what is clear is that their humble experience dispels the lie that there are no alternatives to capitalism and that the "balance of forces" is a cop-out and a lie.

In an ironic way, it is the Zapatistas' uprisings that made the big men of Latin America possible.

Perhaps, it's time for the Zapatistas to learn from the process they inspired – the process that gave us people like Chávez.

Andile Mngxitama is an executive member of the Economic Freedom Fighters

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