On Critical Reflection, Individuals, and Collectives

(Second letter to Luis Villoro in an exchange of letters on Ethics and Politics)

Subcomandante insurgente Marcos

April 21, 2010

April 2011.

“If in heaven there is unanimity, save me a place in hell.”

—SupMarcos. Instructions for my Death II

I.- The Prose of the Skull

Don Luis:

Greetings and health to you, teacher. We hope that you are in better health and that the word may be like a home remedy that heals although no one understands how. As I begin these lines, the pain and the rage of Javier Sicilia (who is far from us in distance but close in ideals from time immemorial) create an echo that reverberates in our mountains. It is a matter of waiting and of hoping that his legendary tenacity, which now calls for our word and action, reaches and amasses the rages and pains that multiply on Mexican soil.

We remember Don Javier Sicilia’s uncompromising yet sensitive critiques of the autonomous education system in the Zapatista indigenous communities and his stubbornness in reminding us periodically, at the end of his weekly column in the Mexican weekly magazine PROCESSO, of the continued failure to implement the San Andrés Accords.

The collective tragedy of a senseless war, embodied in the particular tragedy that he has endured personally, has placed Don Javier in a difficult and delicate situation. Many are the sorrows that hope to find echo and volume in their demands for justice and many are the worries that hope that his voice will embody, if not direct, the ignored voices of indignation.

It also happens that around this gigantic figure, in his dignified pain, lurk the scavenging vultures from the politics of above, for whom a death has value only if it serves their individual or factional projects, although they hide themselves behind representativity.

Does another murder become visible? Well, you have to see how it affects the childish electoral accounting. Up there, deaths only matter if they influence the electoral agenda. If they cannot capitalize on polls and trends in electoral preferences, then they return to the grim accounting where deaths do not matter, even tens of thousands of them, because death becomes once again an individual matter.

I do not know, as I write these words, what next steps will follow this pain that summons so many. But his demand for justice, and all of those calls for justice that it synthesizes, demands our respect and support, even from the small body that we are with its large limitations.

In the ebb and flow of the news about this event, it is remembered that Don Javier Sicilia is a poet. Perhaps that explains his persistent dignity.

In his own particular style of seeing and explaining the world, Old Antonio, the indigenous man who was a teacher and guide to all of us, used to say that there were people who could see realities that didn’t exist yet and who, because the words also didn’t exist to describe these realities, had to work with the words that already existed, arranging them in strange ways—part song, part prophesy.

Old Antonio spoke of poems and of those who made them (I include here those who translate them because the translators of poetry who speak distant languages also are very much makers of poetry).

These poets, can they see further or see another world? I don’t know, but when looking for something that, while said in the past, spoke of the present that we now suffer and of the uncertain future, I found this text written by José Emilio Pacheco that my older brother sent to me long ago and that is written perfectly for no one to understand:

The Prose of the Skull:

Like Ulysses they call me Nobody. Like the demon of the Gospels my name is Legion. I am you because you are me. Or you will be because I was. You and me. Both of us. You, the others, the innumerable you who are resolved in me (…)

Then I became, to the point of making myself commonplace, a symbol of knowledge. Because the wisest is also the most obvious. Because no one wants to face it, it will never be superfluous to repeat it: We are not citizens of this world, but passengers in transit through this prodigious and intolerable land.

If the flesh is grass and was born to be cut, I am to your body like a tree is to the prairie: not invulnerable, nor enduring; if material, more stubborn or resistant. When you and all of those born into the gap in time that was given on loan finish your role in this drama, this farce, this tragic and absurd comedy, I will remain for many years: bare, disembodied.

Quiet expression, secret face that you refuse to see (take off your mask: in me you will find your true face), although you know it well and it is yours and it always goes with you.

And carried inside, in fleeting cells that in each moment die by the millions, is all that you are: your mind, your memory, your words, your ambitions, your dreams, your fears, your look that in a flash of light created the appearance of the world, your distancing or understanding of what we really call reality.

That which elevates you above your forgotten colleagues, the animals, and that which situates you below them: the mark of Cain, the hatred for your kind, your two-sided capacity to create and destroy, ant and woodworm. (…)

Because I go with you everywhere. Always with him, with her, with you, waiting without complaint, waiting. From the armies of my colleagues, history has been forged. From the pulverization of my fragments the earth is amassed (…)

And so, who would have thought, I – the mask of death – I am deepest within your signs of life, your final trace, your last offering of trash to the planet that cannot support so many deaths. I will only remain for a short time, but in any case, it is much better than what they granted you (…)

All beauty and all intelligence rest in me and you repudiate me. You see me only as a sign of fear and of the dead who refuse to be dead, or of death plain and simple: your death. Because I can only stay afloat with your shipwreck. Only when you have reached touched bottom do I appear.

But at a certain age, I insinuated myself in the grooves that drew me, in those hairs that share my old whiteness. I, your true color, your last look, your final face that makes you Nobody and turns you back into Legion, today I offer you a mirror and I say: contemplate yourself.

(José Emilio Pacheco, “Prose of the Skull”, in “Fin de siglo y otros poemas”, México, Fondo de Cultura Económica / Secretaría de Educación Pública, Lecturas Mexicanas No. 44, 1984, pp. 114-117)

II. The Relevance of Critical Reflection

“When the hypocrisy starts to be of such poor

quality, it’s time to start telling the truth”

-Bertolt Brecht

The war above continues, and its destructive path would like for all of us to accept the daily horror as if it were natural, as if it were impossible to change. It is as if the confusion that reigns was premeditated, intended to democratize this resignation that immobilizes, that conforms, that defeats, that simply gives up.

In times when confusion is organized and arbitrariness is consciously deployed, it is exactly the moment to do something.

And one something is to disorganize that confusion with critical reflection.

Don Luis, as you can see from the texts that I’m sending along, Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas, Raul Zibechi, Sergio Rodriguez Lascano, and Gustavo Esteva have joined this exchange of thoughts on Ethics and Politics, and we hope that even more thoughts will join us in this space.

In this second letter I would like to touch upon some points that you deal with in your response to my letter and which, directly or indirectly, are alluded to by our fellow correspondents who have let loose their ideas from Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Uruguay.

Each one deals with, in their own way, from their own calendars and geographies, this issue of critical reflection. I’m sure that none of us (you, them, us) intend to establish any immobile truths. Our intention is to throw rocks, well…ideas, at that seemingly tranquil pond of contemporary theoretical reflection.

The comparison that I use with the rock goes further than mere superficial rhetoric of a surface that is momentarily disrupted by that rock. The issue is to touch bottom, to not be content with the obvious, but rather to irreverently traverse this water-tight pond of ideas and arrive at the bottom, below.

In this current epoch, critical reflection is apparently at a standstill, apparently that is, if one is attuned to what electronic and print media presents as theoretical reflection. It is not only that the urgent has displaced the important, in this case, that the electoral moment has displaced focus from the destruction of the social fabric.

It is said, for example, that this year, 2011, is an electoral year. But, then again, so were all the years prior. In fact, the only date that isn’t an electoral moment on the calendar of those above is….election day.

But we can see then that immediacy has a very difficult time differentiating what happened yesterday from what happened seventeen years ago.

Besides the unwanted interruptions of natural and human catastrophes (because the daily crimes of this war are nothing short of a catastrophe), the theoreticians from above, or the thinkers of the immediate, return time and time again to the theme of the electoral, or they do crazy pirouettes to tie anything and everything to the theme of elections.

This junk food theory, just like junk food itself, has no nutritional value, it is only meant to entertain, and this seems to be exactly the point, if you listen to the grand majority of newspapers and magazines, or to the panel of “specialists” that appear in the electronic media in our country.

When these vendors of junk food theory look to other parts of the world and they conclude that demonstrations that bring down governments are the product of cell phones and social networking and not of organization, the capacity to mobilize, or the power to convoke, they express more than their unforgivable ignorance, they also demonstrate their unnamed desire to obtain, without any effort, their place in “HISTORY.” Their contemporary creed is “Tweet and the heavens will be yours!”

Just like a “miracle elixir,” these promoters of political and theoretical Alzheimers, propose effortless solutions to the current social chaos.

No one would believe, as the advertisements would have it, that if you use this lotion for men, or this perfume for women, you’ll instantly be in France, at the base of the Eiffel Tower, or in those fancy London bars, those above.

But just like there are people who believe in those miracle products that guarantee that you will lose weight without doing exercise and while you stuff your face—and there are people who believe it—there are also people who believe that we can have democracy, liberty, and justice by simply checking off a ballot in favor of one of the folllowing: the continued presence of the Partido de Accion Nacional [PAN]; the arrival of the Partido de La Revolucion Democratica [PRD]; or the return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI].

When these people dictate that there is only one option, the electoral path or the path of armed struggle, not only do they place their total lack of imagination and ignorance of national and world history on display, they also reset the trap that served as the basis for intolerance, and for the demand of a fascist and retrograde unanimity that made itself present on all sides of the political spectrum.

“Brilliant,” this analysis that poses itself the urgency of defining positions…in the face of those options imposed from above.

But Gustavo Esteva in his text does well to warn us against these false options and lays the groundwork for what I think can be a special topic of this exchange of letters from a distance. As he notes, instead of trying to impose their weak axioms, they could try to open themselves to debate, to build arguments, to try to persuade. But no, for them it was, and always is, about imposing.

I sincerely believe that they do not want a serious debate. Not only because they don’t actually have any weighty arguments (up until this point all they have is a list of good intentions and simplicities that border on the pathetic, where the PAN demonstrates that the “way of Fox” [Mexican President from 2000-06] is not an isolated instance but rather a whole school of leaders in that party, where the PRI preaches social autism in the face of history itself, and where the mish mash of the self-proclaimed institutional left attempts to persuade with empty slogans), but rather, because the whole point is not to change anything of substance at all.

It is almost comical to see how they juggle things in order to gain the favor of the masses (yes, they despise them, but they need them) while simultaneously courting the economic powers without even blushing.

The point for them is to operate in the narrow margins of the ruins of nation-state in Mexico in order to exorcise a crisis that, when it explodes, will do way with them as well, that is, with the entirety of the political class. In sum, for them it’s a question of their individual survival.

The careers of tattle-tales, spies, and police are suitable for these junk food theoreticians, these same people who created an atmosphere of intellectual and artistic hysteria, first against the student movement and its General Strike Council [CGH] in 1999-2000, and then against everyone and everything that wouldn’t accept the directives handed down by this gang of thought and action police.

For them it is all about establishing a distinction which in reality is more of an exorcism: there is them, the well behaved, the civilized, and there are the others, the barbarians.

In their weak theoretical armature there are, on one side (and above) those brilliant, all-knowing, measured, prudent individuals, and on the other side (and below) there are the dark, ignorant, violent, and provocative masses.

On that side over there: the prudent and mature usurpers of the representativity of the majority. On this side here: the violent minorities who represent only themselves.


But let’s presuppose that they actually do want to debate and persuade.

Let’s discuss for example the real consequences of the six-year project of Accion Nacional [PAN] to change a well known verse of the Mexican national anthem and replace it with, “Believe, my beloved homeland, that the heavens gave you a collateral victim in each of your children!” and in the face of which neither of the other two parties has presented a firm and detailed alternative.

Or let’s talk about the supposed goodness that would result from the return of the Revolucionario Institucional [PRI] and the consequent endorsement of a culture of corruption and criminality that engulfed the entirety of the Mexican political class.

Or how about the real possibilities of the project to turn back the wheel of history and return to the Welfare State, which is the proposal of an as yet weak oppositional coalition.

All of these, in addition to despising theoretical reflection (well at least all reflection which is not adolescent complacency), propose the impossible; to maintain, rescue, or regenerate the ruins of a Nation-State that gave birth and purpose to the political party system. That same nation-state which found its best reflection in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI] and in the face of which the entirety of the political class above today tries to make themselves pretty for.

Or haven’t you noticed to what extent the base of that State has been destroyed? How can you maintain, rescue, or renovate a cadaver? Despite this, for a long time now the political class, and the analysts that accompany them, have busied themselves trying to embalm those ruins.

But it’s understandable, ignorance cannot be judged. Well, unless it dresses itself as wisdom.

It’s not possible, we say, to pose any type of solution to the destruction of the National-State without dealing with the system responsible for creating that destruction and therefore for the nightmare that engulfs the entire country.

There are solutions, we say, but they can only be born from below, from a radical proposal that does not wait for a council of wise men for legitimacy, but rather, that is already alive, and that people struggle for in various corners of our country. It is, therefore, a proposal that is not unanimous in its form, in its mode, in its calendar or in its geography. That is, it is plural, inclusive, and participatory. It has no relation to that unanimity that blues, yellow, reds, greens, pinks and those like them have attempted to impose.

But we recognize that we might be mistaken. It might very well be, lets just take it as a possibility, that the destruction that has already been wrought still leaves us a margin of mobility to remake the social fabric from above.

But instead of promoting a deep and serious debate, we’re instead asked to be quiet once again, and it is again demanded that we support our persecutors, those that give cover either through their words or their silence to people like Juan José Sabines Guerrero, who from the governor’s office of Chiapas persecutes and represses all those who don’t join the false chorus of praise for those lies which he calls government, who persecutes those who defend human rights on the coast and highlands of the state of Chiapas as well as the indigenous peoples of San Sebastian Bachajon who refuse to prostitute their land, and who promotes the action of paramilitary groups against indigenous Zapatista communities.

Because those who really know what is being done and undone in Chiapas and who are not afraid, have remade Sabines’ motto and it now reads “Misdeeds, not words.” Sabines Guerrero is the person who best exemplifies the putrefied Mexican political class; he has the support of the PAN, the PRI, the PRD, and the movement of AMLO [Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador]. He’s generous with the media so that they will repeat what benefits him and silence everything that does not. He maintains an appearance, and it seems not to bother anyone that it is just that—an appearance—that in any case could be blown to smithereens at any moment, but he governs as if it was a matter of acting like the ruthless overseer of an hacienda porfirista [Porifirio Diaz, much hated pre-revolutionary Mexican president].

And yet, we’re still asked to provide “constructive criticism” to a movement that is led and directed toward repeating that same history, with different names, of oppression.

When will they understand that there are individuals, groups, collectives, organizations, and movements who have no interest in changing what’s up there, nor in renovating (better yet, recycling) a political class that is nothing but a parasite?

We don’t want a change of tyrants, of owners, of masters or of supreme saviors; rather, we don’t want any of them at all.

In sum, if there is something to be grateful for in all that has taken place above, it’s that it has shown the obvious theoretical poverty and strategic weakness of those that proposed and propose to maintain, regenerate, or recycle those above in order to exorcise the rebellion of those below.

I sincerely believe that any critical reflection must look away from that hypnotic carrousel called the political class in order to see other realities.

What can they lose? In any case, they’ll have more arguments in order to proclaim themselves “the only possible alternative.” After all, aren’t all the other alternatives soooo small and (oh!) sooooo radical?

Or, maybe, they actually will see….

That the heroic efforts of libertarian and anarchist collectives to subtract themselves from the logic of the capitalist market is an effect and a cause of radical thought and that the principal wager of the future will be based in radical thoughts. So they would be wise to listen to that motley way of having a sense of self-identity; the piercings, the tattoos, multi-colored hair, and all the other paraphernalia that so disgusts them.

Or, the struggles of independent left organizations that opt for organizing hired drivers, mini-micro-nano street vendors, or female tenant farmers (let’s give credit where credit is due, women are a majority in that struggle) instead of organizing automobile owners, chambers of commerce or VIP neighborhood associations. These (the former) groups are those who can testify to the important changes in their living conditions, and not through electoral welfare disguised as government policy, but rather through the organization of the collective for immediate, short term, and long term projects. There’s a reason that they remain independent, that is how they resist.

Or, the legendary resistance of the originary people of Mexico; if somebody knows anything about pain, it is them.

Or, the dignified rage of the mothers and fathers of the assassinated, disappeared, and imprisoned.

Because they (those above) would also do well to remember that nothing happens in this country…until women decide that it happen.

Or, the daily indignation of workers, housecleaners, peasants, indigenous peoples, and youth in the face of the cynicism displayed by politicians of all stripes and colors.

Or, the stubborn struggle of the workers from the Union of Mexican Electricians [SME] despite the enormous campaign of police and media repression unleashed against them.

Or, the persistent struggle for the liberation of political prisoners and the safe return of the disappeared.

Or maybe not? Perhaps the democracy that they want is actually a form of amnesia that is managed to their convenience? You choose what to see so that you can select what to forget?

III. The Individual Versus the Collective?

In your letter, Don Luis, you touch on the theme of the individual and the collective. A longstanding discussion from above opposes the two and has used this as an apology for a system, capitalism, against the alternatives that arise against it as resistance.

The collective, we are told, erases and subjugates individuality. And therefore, in a vulgar theoretical leap, they sing the praises of a system where, it is said, any individual can be whatever it is that they want to be, good or bad, because there is a guarantee of freedom.

It occurs to me that this “freedom” is something that should be looked at more closely, but maybe on another occasion, for now lets get back to the individual, man or woman, as the case may be.

The system sings the praises of the individual from above or from below.

For the individual above, highlighting the individuality of a person, good or bad, efficient or deficient, bright or dark, hides responsibility for a form of societal organization. And so we merely have bad individual leaders…or worse individual leaders (sorry, I haven’t found anyone who would let me put “or good”), bad economic actors, etc.

If the individual from above is evil, stupid, cruel and stubborn (I know, it would seem that I’m describing Felipe Calderón Hinojosa), what you have to do is remove this bad individual and put a good individual in their place. And if there are no good individuals, you could at least put in someone who is less bad (I know, seems like I’m repeating an election slogan that is five years old and ready to be recycled).

The system, i.e. the form of social organization, remains intact. Or with a few permissible variations. That is to say, you can make some changes, but without changing the fundamentals substance. Thus it is clear: there are few who are up there, and many more who are below, and those who are above are there on the backs of those below.

And to the individual below, they applaud and admire, because individual rebellion is not capable of putting the functioning of this form of social organization in danger. Or they ridicule and attack, because the individual is vulnerable.

Allow me, then, an arbitrary rhetoric: let’s say that the fundamental aspirations of every human are: life, freedom, truth. And that maybe you can speak of gradations: a better life, more freedom, greater knowledge.

Is it possible that the individual could reach the plenitude of their aspirations and their respective gradations in a collective? We believe so. In any case, we are sure that you cannot reach them without the collective.

“And where, with whom and against what?” These, we say are the questions whose response defines the place of the individual and of the collective in a society, in a precise calendar and geography.

And not only that. It also determines the relevance of critical reflection.

Earlier, I said that these collective reflections are not intended to reach the general truth, but to try to avoid the unanimous lie that they try to impose on us from above.


And now, a few words regarding the efforts of those who appear as isolated individuals.

To those who criticize the different initiatives that arise, although dispersed, from social suffering, be reminded that to judge and condemn those who do something is to absolve those who do nothing.

Because ending the arbitrariness, disorganizing the confusion, and stopping the war are collective tasks.

V. What Will Happen.

The world as we know it will be destroyed. Baffled and battered, they will have nothing to say to their colleagues when they ask “why?”

First, there will be spontaneous, violent, and fleeting demonstrations. Later,

a pause allowing for a sigh of relief (“phew! Glad that’s over my dear”). But soon new uprisings will follow, and this time they will be organized, carried out by collectives with identities.

Then they will see that the bridges that were destroyed, believing they had been erected to help the Barbarians, will not only be impossible to rebuild, but it will become apparent that those bridges were meant to help not the barbarians, but them.

And they will say that a time of darkness will come, but this won’t be anything but spite because the light that they were supposed to hold and administer was of no use whatsoever to these collectives who made their own light and with it and in it they walked and will walk.

The world won’t be the same world. It won’t even be better. But it will be a place where there is a new opportunity to construct peace with work and dignity, rather than this incessant swimming against the current in a nightmare that never ends.

And so, given a poem, in a painting about a crumbling wall you will read these words of Bertold Brecht:

You who will emerge from the flood in which we have gone under, when you speak of our failings, think also of the dark time that you have escaped. For we went, changing countries more often than our shoes, through the wars of classes, despairing, when there was only injustice and no rebellion. And, even so, we realized that hatred of oppression still disfigures one’s face. That anger at injustice still distorts one’s voice. Unfortunately we who wanted to pave the way for kindness could not be kind ourselves. But you, when the time comes that man can be friends with man, think of us with leniency.

Okay Don Luis. Health to you, and let not immobility triumph again.

From the mountains of the Mexican southeast.

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos.

Mexico, April 2011

P.S. To conclude this letter, death came once again in its unforeseen way to a companion along this road. Felipe Toussaint Loera, a Christian of the kind who believes in the need for earthly justice, passed away one hot April afternoon. Felipe and others like him are those whom we have discussed in recent texts. He was and is part of this generation of men and women who were on the side of the indigenous when it wasn’t yet in fashion and remained there when it ceased to be. I remember, in one of the preparatory meetings for the Other Campaign in 2005, that he reaffirmed his commitment to inscribe his individual history in the history of a collective that is born again and again. Let’s celebrate his life, because in it, to the questions “where? with whom? against what?” Felipe responded: “below, with the indigenous who struggle, against the system that exploits them, deprives them, represses them and despises them.” All of the deaths from below hurt, but there are some that hurt more closely. Felipe’s death feels like something very much ours will be missing.