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Passive revolution and everyday life: state formation and resistance in Chiapas, Mexico

by Chris Hesketh on July 21, 2016
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In my recent article in Critical Sociology I explore the role that passive revolution has played in the process of subnational state formation in Chiapas, Mexico. The concept of passive revolution, formulated by Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks, has been used by a variety of scholars to interpret different processes of national and regional state formation. However, in this article, passive revolution is explored in terms of its particular manifestations in Chiapas linked to what Claudio Lomnitz calls an ‘intimate class culture’. The originality of the argument is therefore to decentre the concept and to explore the geographically differentiated manner that it is expressed through ‘everyday forms of state formation’. In this short blog post, I want to explain the meaning of the term ‘passive revolution’ and highlight why it is important for the case of Chiapas (known to most people around the world as the home of the Zapatista rebel group). I conclude with the lessons we can learn from this concept for social movement activity more broadly.

Graphic of Gramsci by Andrea CongiuPassive revolution was a key concept formulated by Antonio Gramsci in the context of the Italian Risorgimento that he later came to develop as a more generalised understanding of statecraft. It refers to instances whereby the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted or expanded. However, it is a contradictory process which involves both elements of revolution and rupture, but also a restoration of class power. Integral to the concept is that the state replaces social groups in leading the process of renewal. Therefore, while certain gains may be achieved, such gains ultimately serve to exclude the subaltern classes from meaningful participation through their resulting demobilisation. In contrast to Gramsci’s more well known concept of hegemony, passive revolution refers less to the strength of a dominant class, but rather the weakness of their adversaries in being able to construct alternatives. Gramsci explicitly developed the concept of passive revolution in relation to Karl Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, declaring that it was derived from ‘the two fundamental principles of political science: 1. that no social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement. 2. that a society does not set itself the tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated, etc.” Dwelling on the first point, ‘room for forward movement’ is not simply about the inevitable march of the productive forces. Rather it is about what people are prepared to acquiesce to or fail to successfully resist and overcome. The accent is therefore firmly on the process of struggle as Peter Thomas reminds us. This leads us to consider the case of Chiapas.

Chiapas famously came to the world’s attention on January 1st 1994 when a masked, indigenous rebel army rose up to contest the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Taking their name from the hero of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, the modern day Zapatistas claimed the government had betrayed the legacy of the Revolution and sought to salvage the cry for land and liberty in the context of privatisation and authoritarianism. In order to demonstrate how this revolutionary legacy went unrealised in Chiapas, I explore the changing contours of the  post-Revolutionary state, notably in relation to issues of land and labour.

The years 1910–17 saw Mexico gripped by revolution. Driven by peasants and workers, the old oligarchic state of Porfirio Díaz was destroyed. Ultimately, however, the radical demands of some sections of the peasantry went unrealised, and instead the Revolution served as a key transformative moment that helped propel the growth of capitalism within the country (as I document elsewhere). Chiapas did not play a prominent role in the national Revolution as the peasantry there remained too weak and spatially isolated. Instead, they were mistreated by both sides during the upheavals. Whilst the initial fire of the Mexican Revolution had failed to spread to Chiapas, the Revolution’s ‘institutional’ phase led by Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) did begin the process of transforming socio-spatial relations in the region. Cardenismo, however, was a double-edged sword for the indigenous population, as, while giving them limited land redistribution, it also tied them further to the state’s corporatist control and reduced their autonomy. Crucially, land reform was conducted in a manner that did not adversely affect large land holdings, but did provide land for some communities thereby serving to quell emergent radical demands. By 1950, 47% of land formerly held as fincas had been transformed into ejidal property (a collective form of property over which peasant had usufruct rights but which was ultimately state owned). However, as was frequently the case nationally, this was done in a manner in which landowners retained power. Far from leading to the straightforward modernisation of the region, it confirmed the existence of old forms of authority, while also leading to extensive capital investment in things like cattle ranching, the incipient development of an industrial sector and the continuation of the export economy, most notably in coffee. In this manner, despite apparent agrarian reform, the landowning class still retained their economic dominance whilst the limited land base of peasant communities served to necessitate poorly compensated wage labour. The state-led modernisation of Chiapas thus enhanced commercialisation but without damaging the traditional elite  – ‘la Familia Chiapaneca’ – in a classic example of passive revolutionary activity.

As the peasantry were drawn into the national state building project of import-substitution industrialisation, Chiapas was treated as an internal colony, providing abundant resources for the national state whilst the majority of the population continued to live in dire poverty. Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson of the Zapatistas, would later declare, ‘The tribute that capitalism demands from Chiapas has no historical parallel’. Social stratification along race and class lines increased and the state struggled to control this volatile process, evidenced by the forming of independent peasant unions outside of the traditional tight corporatist control. This was also linked to a broader crisis in agriculture (hitherto the main form of employment in Chiapas) as guaranteed prices for coffee and corn began to fall and machinery replaced human labour. Cattle ranching also expanded at the expense of ejidos during the 1970s. Taken together this caused a 30% drop in the number of people able to derive their living from agriculture. This misery was briefly alleviated with public works programs in the 1970s. However, when the debt crisis struck Mexico in 1982 these were curtailed and the situation compounded by falling subsidies, fluctuating commodity prices and the lack of access of credit for small farmers. The final straw for the indigenous peasantry was the repeal of Article 27 of the Mexican constitution in 1992 (as a prelude to NAFTA), which had promised to provide land for those without it. This truly signalled the end of the Revolution (or rather its abdication by the state) and foreclosed the legalistic options previously pursued.

Declaring ‘Ya Basta’ (enough is enough), the Zapatistas took it upon themselves to transform the social conditions of Chiapas, not waiting for a state that was no longer able or willing to listen to their needs but rather launching an armed uprising to put their demands into practice. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, formerly held as private property, were taken over, or as the Zapatistas put it, recuperated. This recuperated land is the territorial and material basis of Zapatismo upon which their project of autonomous politics, economics and justice is founded (which I wrote more about here). Over the last twenty years, the Zapatistas have attempted to construct a new geographical framework of power from that previously recognised by the state.

SassoonHowever, the Zapatista project has of course taken place concomitantly with increased activities of the state to re-absorb this social struggle into its hegemonic structure. The response by the Mexican state has gone through various phases. The first of these (supported by international capital) was a direct military attack aimed at coercing the recalcitrant population and eliminating the Zapatistas: it failed as civil society flocked to the support of the Zapatistas. The direct military response has since been replaced by subtler means of economic coercion and political pressure, in conjunction with the use of state-backed paramilitary violence against the Zapatista communities, beginning a new cycle of passive revolutionary initiative. Among the inducements offered to non-Zapatistas are promises of land certification, aid programs and territorial reconfiguration, which included the notoriously inept rural cities development. This has taken place in tandem with a broader drive to implement an ecological model of capitalism in Chiapas (ignoring the contradictions between eco-tourism, road-building, air-travel and monoculture). Intra-communal rivalry has been heightened as a result, due to the fact that the Zapatistas steadfastly refused to accept any governmental aid. Whereas other peasant organisations have, by and large, been successfully absorbed into the state’s projects, the Zapatistas are the only significant group in Chiapas still fighting for fundamental land rights.

I believe two interrelated issues can be learned from this. First, in line with Gramsci’s exhortation to strip the concept of defeatism and fatalism, we must recognise that any attempts by the state to forge a passive revolution remain provisional. As Gramsci stated, “the conception remains a dialectical one – in other words, presupposes, indeed postulates as necessary, a vigorous anti-thesis which can present intransigently all its potentialities for development.” The Zapatistas’ enduring struggle is testament to these words. However, the opposite lesson must be learned for resistance movements and their interaction with state power, with the dangers of absorption and neutralisation ever present. Concurrent with Anne Showstack Sasson, passive revolution therefore can serve, not just as an interpretation of events, but also as guide and theoretical reflection for thinking about social change. The concept can thus aid our understanding of political struggle, not so much in providing an answer to Lenin’s famous question of ‘What is to be done?’ but rather as a strategic orientation as to what is to be avoided.

Chris Hesketh

Chris Hesketh is a Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines international political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies.

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