Zapatismo Beyond Borders: New Imaginations of Political Possibility

April 16, 2009

Alex Khasnabish's Zapatismo Beyond Borders: New Imaginations of Political Possibility is an ambitious and timely book that examines the resonance of the revolutionary movement Zapatismo, and its success in animating a transnational, anticapitalist force.

Taking care to read it from situated contexts, Khasnabish incorporates extensive interviews with a diverse array of prominent activists from traditional and non-traditional solidarity groups and projects. Introducing each chapter with key statements, primarily by the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional's (EZLN) spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, Khasnabish's project mirrors the complex emergent political ethos he narrates, while refusing to close off the possibility of multiple readings of, and engagements with, the Zapatista word. He convincingly argues that the Zapatistas, from their base in Mexico's southernmost and poorest state, Chiapas, have succeeded in facilitating "new kinds of political subjectivities capable of inhabiting a new terrain". According to Khasnabish, the Zapatistas have had "the greatest impact not necessarily upon the processes of political struggle in the North but on the way that political struggle is envisioned and imagined".

Khasnabish invites students of the EZLN and more general readers to critically assess the cultural history of Zapatismo by first charting a "history of radical political activism" in the North and the legacy of Mexico's complex revolutionary past, both of which make available what he calls a "powerful interpellating myth". Drawing largely from the work of post-structuralists and Autonomist Marxists, he also successfully explores the theoretical frameworks that help explain the context within which Zapatismo has taken root, highlighting the "interlacing factors" claimed by many activists who connect neoliberal violence to longstanding systems of oppression, who reject political action that imposes structures of domination, and who recognise personal responsibility in executing change.

Not limiting his examination to the Left, Khasnabish also considers the counterinsurgent interests of dominant institutions such as the RAND Corporation's preoccupation with "Zapatista social netwar". His critical reading of specific historical contexts and theoretical frameworks helps explain "the resonance of Zapatismo" in which, like a rhizome, it emerges from interconnected bases, transcends mainstream channels of political participation, fosters a transnational dialogue, and reinforces a mutual recognition of other struggles.

Unfortunately, so complex an undertaking is bound to leave some readers unsatisfied. Khasnabish often appears trapped in viewing the Zapatistas primarily as an inspiration, leaving out specific Zapatista strategies of autonomous political practice. Specialists, for instance, will be disappointed at the lack of a more complete discussion of the Zapatista insistence on a collective subject, as embodied in the Juntas de Buen Gobierno and Caracoles. Similarly, he misses a critical opportunity to more closely examine how Zapatista activists have pursued a politics of encounter to develop new theory, strategy and political practice, as during the EZLN's convening of the Festival Mundial de la Digna Rabia in Mexico City in 2008.

By anchoring his analysis with an examination of the 1997 massacre of pacifists by paramilitary forces at the Chiapas refugee village of Acteal, Khasnabish overlooks many of the conflicts within the diverse Zapatista solidarity community outside Chiapas, including the major splits between activists invested in hierarchical, elite strategies and those committed to pursuing collective, horizontal political projects. At times his analysis seems rigid, often overlooking the productive tension within each camp. Methodologically, Khasnabish's admirable efforts towards a horizontal and less objectifying research strategy via work with "research partners" seems to fall back on the standard uses of oral testimony and ethnographic observation common to field research, suggesting that the object of study and research strategy did not result from collaboration.

Khasnabish has undertaken a bold and complex project. It is never easy to evaluate a political movement, much less the ethos that animates it. Overall, Zapatismo Beyond Borders more than successfully introduces readers to the complexity of a dynamic and compelling political project.

Zapatismo Beyond Borders: New Imaginations of Political Possibility

By Alex Khasnabish. University of Toronto Press 320pp, £48.00 and £22.50. ISBN 9780802098306 and 96333. Published 19 October 2008

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