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Understanding the Chiapas Rebellion

Understanding the Chiapas Rebellion
Modernist Visions and the Invisible Indian

This book offers a new way of understanding the Zapatista conflict as a counteraction to the forces of modernity and globalization that have rendered indigenous peoples virtually invisible throughout the world.

December 2004
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275 pages | 6 x 9 | 13 b&w photos, 2 maps, 2 tables |

To many observers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mexico appeared to be a modern nation-state at last assuming an international role through its participation in NAFTA and the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development). Then came the Zapatista revolt on New Year's Day 1994. Wearing ski masks and demanding not power but a new understanding of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, Subcomandante Marcos and his followers launched what may be the first "post" or "counter" modern revolution, one that challenges the very concept of the modern nation-state and its vision of a fully assimilated citizenry.

This book offers a new way of understanding the Zapatista conflict as a counteraction to the forces of modernity and globalization that have rendered indigenous peoples virtually invisible throughout the world. Placing the conflict within a broad sociopolitical and historical context, Nicholas Higgins traces the relations between Maya Indians and the Mexican state from the conquest to the present—which reveals a centuries-long contest over the Maya people's identity and place within Mexico. His incisive analysis of this contest clearly explains how the notions of "modernity" and even of "the state" require the assimilation of indigenous peoples. With this understanding, Higgins argues, the Zapatista uprising becomes neither surprising nor unpredictable, but rather the inevitable outcome of a modernizing program that suppressed the identity and aspirations of the Maya peoples.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Approaching the Indian in World Politics
  • Chapter 1. Maps of the Mind: Spanish Conquest and the Indian Soul
  • Chapter 2. Enlightenment Legacies: Colonial Reform, Independence, and the Invisible Indian of the Liberal State
  • Chapter 3. The Governmental State: Indian Labor, Liberal-Authoritarianism, and Revolt
  • Chapter 4. Institutionalizing the Indian: Corporatismo, Indigenismo, and the Creation of an Authoritarian Regime
  • Chapter 5. Neoliberal Governmentality: Social Change, Contested Identities, and Rebellion
  • Chapter 6. Visible Indians: Subcomandante Marcos and the "Indianization" of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation
  • Conclusion: Modernist Visions and the Invisible Indian
  • Notes
  • Bibliography and Interviews
  • Index

Nick Higgins is the program director of Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Edinburgh and an independent documentary filmmaker.


Over the Christmas and New Year break of 1993-1994 I sat in a cold and damp cottage on the outskirts of St. Andrews, Scotland, writing up my master's thesis. I was trying to make sense of the fact that a war between two Marxist-inspired rebel armies in eastern Africa had concluded with the establishment of two democratic states. I remembered a conversation with one rebel-turned-government minister during my fieldwork in the region some months earlier. He had expressed frustration and shock at discovering that if a new state, such as Eritrea then was, wanted international financial support, it had to adopt both free-market economics and multiparty democracy. At the time, this financial conditionality was promoted by the donor governments of the West under the policy of "good governance." Just as I was coming to conclude that the role of nongovernmental relief organizations had been central to the success of this policy, I heard the news that a rebellion had erupted in southern Mexico.

What caught my attention about this latest rebellion was that the rebels were mostly indigenous Maya Indians and their struggle claimed to fight against the very type of "good governance" being so reluctantly embraced by the former rebels of East Africa. Calling themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), they claimed that Mexico's latest "development," the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was "nothing more than a death sentence for the indigenous ethnicities of Mexico, who are perfectly dispensable in the modernization program of Salinas de Gortari [the Mexican president at the time]." Their appearance seemed to raise several important questions to me, and over the next weeks I put a Ph.D. proposal together as a means of studying my hunches. This book is the result of that study.

The fact that these indigenous rebels openly contested an international neoliberal package, so much more advanced in Mexico than in East Africa, led me to believe that perhaps they had some lessons to teach me—not just about Mexican politics, an arena about which I knew precious little, but about world politics, an arena about which, as a graduating master's student, I supposedly knew much more.

I say I knew little about Mexican politics, but that's not to say I knew nothing of southern Mexico. Only two years earlier I had spent my summer vacation traveling through Central America and Mexico, following what tourists will know as La Ruta Maya (the Mayan route). Like many before me and surely many to follow, I had spent countless hours scaling and sitting atop the spectacular Maya temples of Tikal, Cobán, Chichén Itzá, Tulum, and of course, Palenque. I thus thought I knew something about Maya culture. I had, after all, been reading several accounts of the preclassic, classic, and postclassic Maya—as the archaeologists have come to delineate the culture prior to the Spanish conquest. I had even read something of the more contemporary Maya, in particular the supposedly classic studies of Egon Votz on the highland Maya of Chiapas. But even armed with this knowledge, and informed by my own experience of the living Maya who populate the villages that surround the temples (and who sell their artifacts to "culturally sensitive" tourists like me), I had not suspected that I might discover the most organized and convincing challenge to international neoliberalism witnessed so far.

If any interested individual were to look back to what was obviously visible during the late 1980s and early 1990s—that is, if she were to look in both the international and Mexican national press, or listen to the proclamations of the Mexican government itself, above all those of the self-promoting then president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari—she could easily be forgiven for believing that Mexico was a country poised on the verge of a deliciously attractive precipice. Moreover, if she were to consider the economic indicators of that period, and allow such statistics to be her point of departure for analyzing Mexico's condition, again she would be forgiven for supposing that Mexico was tantalizingly close to joining the coveted green pastures of that international plateau called the developed world. Scholars of international relations, where the study of institutions, treaties, and alliances has long been considered of key academic concern, may also have considered the presence of Mexico among the OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), combined with its successful inclusion in NAFTA and its subsequent close alliance to the United States of America, as powerful signals that Mexico was indeed a wealthy, confident, developed, modern nation-state assuming an international role that reflected its newly acquired status.

This is what was obviously visible to sensitive tourist and interested individual alike. But the obviously visible was about to be displaced by the hidden invisible. When the Zapatista rebels erupted onto the international scene on New Year's Day, 1994, the question that seemed to pose itself most strongly to me was, how? How had these complex, politically motivated Indians stayed invisible for so long? How had these same Indians come to recognize an international governmental logic as a threat to their very survival, and how had they become so marginalized from Mexico's supposed success? And how, therefore, was this now openly contested relationship between the Indian, the Mexican state, and the international to be best understood? How, then, was one to approach the Indian in world politics?

International Relations and the "Real"

Perhaps coincidentally, around the same time that questions and accusations surrounding the marginalization of the Indians of Chiapas were first being raised in the wake of the Zapatista uprising, the academic discipline of international relations also faced a challenge to its dominant mode of study. Raised by Christine Sylvester, the charge was leveled at the methods of the "realists" in international relations, who, it was argued, had effectively rendered the subject devoid of people. Through a concentration on the high politics of international actors—the agreements made by anonymous states and their famous representatives—the subject, Sylvester claimed, had forgotten, if not actually erased, the existence of a myriad of lesser-elevated realities. The realities to which Sylvester referred were in the main those of women, and in particular women of the third world, but the profound methodological point she advanced had relevance for the millions of human subjects who live international relations instead of merely studying it.

Ever since the foundation of the discipline in the years after the First World War, the subject of international relations has embodied a twofold methodological bias. First, as one of the founding professors, E. H. Carr, was astute enough to recognize, every new scholarly discipline comes into being in response to some social or technical need. In this respect, international relations was no different, except perhaps that in this instance the need was nothing less than "the passionate desire to prevent war." In Carr's opinion, this need "determined the whole initial course and direction of the study," leading him to argue that since its inception, "the science of international politics has been markedly and frankly utopian." The second bias was a result of Carr's own reaction to such "utopianism." In labeling his critique of the liberal institution-building of the Wilsonian era "realist," Carr initiated a dichotomy that would have a lasting impact on what was to prove a burgeoning discipline.

The fact that Carr's own brand of critique involved what might be called an early variant of ethnocentric awareness and, as such, a conscious recognition of theoretical relativism, has been all but forgotten. In his own opinion, "theories of social morality are always the product of a dominant group which identifies itself with the community as a whole, and which possesses facilities denied to subordinate groups or individuals for imposing its views of life on the community." Subsequently, "theories of international morality are, for the same reason and in virtue of the same process, the product of dominant nations or groups of nations." As a result of this belief, which he associated with the Machiavellian dictum that "morality is the product of power," Carr's realist methodology actually involved an attempt to historicize the then widely promulgated theory of a "harmony of interests."

Carr should therefore be remembered for offering the young discipline an alternative foundation to the liberal-scientific approach to war prevention with which it was first burdened. His work instead promotes both the insights of political theory and the utility of historical research as a means to better understand the analysis of contemporary political problems and their political solutions. That Carr is only rarely remembered for these suggestions, and that the discipline studiously ignored such methodologies, has much to do with Carr's own unfortunate adoption of the rhetorical garb of realism.

In the aftermath of World War II, the more subtle dialectical relationship behind Carr's rhetorical opposition between realism and idealism found itself reinvented as a strict and often vulgar dichotomy between "rational" realists and "woolly-thinking" liberals. The reasons for this appear to be twofold and self-reinforcing: first, the increased influence of positivism as a marker of methodological rigor, and second, the growing diplomatic interpretation of the world along bipolar lines. The two individuals who best exemplify these new influences on the discipline are Karl Popper and George Kennan. With a concentration on the "facts" and the rule-based demands of falsifiable theory, Karl Popper and his contemporaries sought to deny the utility of historicism and provide a firm scientific basis for all departments within the social sciences. Furthermore, with his publication of The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945, Popper attempted to link his particular "scientific rationalist" approach to the more overtly political practices of a liberal democratic society. One year later, George F. Kennan, then U.S. chargé d'affaires in Moscow, provided an analysis of Soviet thinking that made the consequences of the politicization of rationality and its association with realist interpretation only too clear. He accused the Soviet Union of being "impervious to the logic of reason" and instead viewed the socialist regime as one "highly sensitive to [the] logic of force." This analysis led him to recommend the employment of "strong resistance" when confronted with Soviet expansion.

By 1947, the wartime cooperation of the western liberal democracies with the Soviet Union had mutated into a cold war of theory, practice, and rationality. International relations, the discipline, thus found itself dominated by both American academic ideas and their direct preoccupation with Soviet expansion and threat, manifesting itself most clearly in what was often a poorly articulated theory of realism. As the years passed and the Soviet threat became less pressing, theories of realism took on a greater methodological rigor. The books of Hans Morgenthau and Martin Wight are now considered classics, while later work by Kenneth Waltz is viewed as an attempt to reinvigorate this perspective after behavioralist criticism. Irrespective of increased theoretical sophistication, the concentration on the state as the principal, and essentially rational, actor in an amoral or anarchic system of international relations remained the key component of a dominant realist approach for the majority of the postwar years. In an attempt to contest this dominance and to place the variety of approaches within the discipline on a more even footing, Michael Banks proposed a new interpretation of the role of theory within IR. In the early 1980s he argued that

it is wrong to think of 'theory' as something that is opposed to 'reality.' The two cannot be separated. Every statement that is intended to describe or explain anything that happens in the world society is a theoretical statement. It is naive and superficial to try to discuss IR solely on the basis of the 'facts.' This is because whatever facts are selected—any at all—are literally abstract. They are chosen from a much bigger menu of available facts, because they are important. The question is: why are they important? And the answer to that is: because they fit a concept, the concept fits a theory and the theory fits an underlying view of the world.

Banks called these "underlying views" paradigms, breaking the discipline down into three: realism, structuralism, and pluralism. However, while such a move was intended to create new spaces and legitimacy for long-subjugated strands of thinking within the discipline (consider, for example, the work of Mitrany and Deutscher), it could also be seen as running the risk of excluding those that are not, or cannot be, accommodated by the definition of norms peculiar to each paradigm. Just as Kuhn was aware of the implications of translation, which he saw as "always involving compromises which alter communication," so too has Michael Banks, by his adoption of a Kuhnian rhetoric outside of the Kuhnian context, altered the meaning that can be attached to the term "paradigm." Other theorists such as Michael Nicholson, in a similar way, have attempted to introduce the Lakatosian criteria for "appropriate research strategies" in lieu of what Nicholson refers to as Banks's "imaginary paradigms." Although they disagree in method, Banks and Nicholson are united in their desire to see some kind of disciplinary matrix or grid accepted within the discipline. What they dispute, of course, are the terms that might legitimate the academic field of inquiry. Both thus believe that generalizations are possible, but they disagree over the terms of normalcy and the requirements of coherence and rigor for the social science of IR. Calling them "paradigms" or "appropriate research strategies" does not, however, alter the attempt to place parameters on the field of inquiry and thus set the agenda for present and future members of the IR community. While such innovation has been widely welcomed as a useful teaching aid, the question remains, can IR really be said to have paradigms? Is there a set of disciplinary norms that can be identified as constituting the concerns of "normal" or "real" international relations?

I have already mentioned the perils involved in such an identification process, and not surprisingly, Banks has had to face the criticism of those who feel they have been marginalized by his categorizations. Steve Smith thus castigates Banks for the introduction of the paradigm concept because "it anaesthetises the discipline by offering a 'pick and mix' solution, a superficial liberalism which implies that you can choose a paradigm which best explains the things you are interested in." He considers the inter-paradigm debate to be "just another gate-keeping device for maintaining the status-quo, despite the clear intentions of people like Banks to use it as a way of liberating the discipline"; for this reason, then, Smith welcomes the recent resurgence of normative work within international relations because, he believes, "what is commonly treated as marginal, illegitimate or optional becomes central." Smith even goes so far as to call this resurgence "the post-positivist revolution," revealing his own attraction to the Kuhnian rhetoric while all too readily ignoring the concerns of those excluded in his own act of identifying what is "central" to international relations. Nevertheless, undoubtedly Smith is right to recognize a new strand of thought in international relations that has, to a certain extent, out-maneuvered the early attempts, such as the three-paradigm debate, to open up the discipline.

Postpositivism or postmodernism has, since the late 1980s, attempted to introduce to international relations ways of thinking that not only take issue with realism but, to a large extent, take issue with international relations as an enlightenment practice in its own right. Postmodernism, borrowing Chris Brown's definition, is a body of thought that holds the belief that all the varieties of social and political thought dominant in the West since the Enlightenment—the discourses of modernity—are in crisis. As this belief is also shared by critical theorists, by whom I principally mean the followers of Jurgen Habermas and the Frankfurt school, a further distinction is necessary: postmodernists are antifoundationalist, while critical theorists believe new foundations can be constructed for their beliefs. While we might accept these as working definitions, clearly there are a multitude of approaches within these two strands of theorizing. Rather than attempt a summary or assessment of these perspectives, I will instead locate my own position within this broad church of theory, or what I have previously suggested might best be viewed as a new critical pluralism for international relations.

Re-describing Knowledge

The attempt to provide extraneous justifications and foundations for what we know is what antifoundationalist philosopher Richard Rorty views as the epistemological and metaphysical quest of the Enlightenment. This quest, he suggests, was captivated by the metaphor of philosophy as the "mirror of nature," and thus philosophical debates ever since have concerned the accuracy of representation to reality. Such a distinction, Rorty claims, takes as its source the mind-and-body dualism first set in play in the work of René Descartes in the seventeenth century. This distinction, he claims, also continues to provide the basis for what in philosophy has become known as the correspondence theory of truth, a theory that holds that words or facts correspond to an "antecedently determinate" reality.

For a scientist, or a social scientist, statements are only true or factual in this strict sense, insofar as they match the world. Truth is thus determined by its correspondence to the world. However, for this theory of truth to hold, a perspective from outside of "the world," what we can call the transcendental perspective, is vital. Following in the spirit of René Descartes, Thomas Nagel calls this view "the view from nowhere." For it is only by viewing the world from outside that we can confirm or refute whether people and the representations they create correspond with the world. As a consequence, Nagel argues that only on the basis of a transcendental perspective can we feasibly make a claim to such a thing as objectivity. Without any such claim, our "normal" understanding and "rational" basis for scientific knowledge since Descartes would appear to be in crisis. Our traditional and essentially modern understanding of knowledge and progress has, after all, been seen as a history of increasing sophistication in knowing and, importantly, seeing how the world "really" works.

If, however, we have several competing accounts of how the world works, as in the case of Banks's misappropriated paradigm approach, we are faced with the puzzle of how to choose among rival representations. This, in fact, was exactly the kind of question Thomas Kuhn posed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As just explained, for the correspondence theory of truth to be maintained, it would appear that we need some further external perspective to provide objective grounds upon which to judge among the now multiple conflicting approaches that offer competing "truths" or "representations" of how the world works. For Descartes, this further transcendental perspective was God; for contemporary philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn, this further perspective would need to take the form of a "universal algorithm." Such an algorithm would thus provide the explanation and rational foundation for why certain scientific theories appear to "work" better than others.

Kuhn was to conclude that no such algorithm existed, and he thus famously claimed that major scientific revolutions, such as massive changes in perspective like the Copernican revolution, did not occur in the manner of a revolutionary "discovery." Instead, Kuhn claims, Galileo's theory that the world revolved around the sun was not immediately received as "objectively right." Rather, the reception of Galileo's theory was a "revolutionary moment" only insofar as the Copernican theory changed from one of illegitimate and "abnormal" scientific discourse to one of legitimate and "normal" scientific discourse. This "paradigm shift," as Kuhn was to label it, had more to do with relatively gradual and unpredictable historical and cultural factors—such as the changing role of the church in the eighteenth century—than with the discovery of any external and objective algorithm. Thus, Kuhn can be said to undermine our "modern" approach to understanding knowledge. His argument instead supports a more holistic conception of "truth" and scientific inquiry that places scholars' beliefs and representations firmly within the historical and cultural contexts of their scientific communities.

This holism can be better conceived of as "a coherence theory of truth and knowledge," as Donald Davidson argued in his essay of the same name. A coherence theory of truth refutes the Cartesian dualism by denying the existence of any external and objective perspective or law, while still maintaining a conception of "truth." It maintains a conception of truth because it recognizes that there are causal connections between what the scientist describes and actual events on earth. Thus, Davidson claims, it follows that some laws must exist. These laws, however, are what could be called internal laws, rather than external, objective laws, and it is this internalism that characterizes Davidson's "anomalous monism." Furthermore, Davidson claims, laws are laws only insofar as they are described as such. Like Kuhn, then, Davidson is not suggesting a reductive argument whereby "truth" or "laws" are internal to language; rather, he argues that their acceptance as truth or laws has more to do with historical, societal, and disciplinary factors, and thus with irreducible social conditions, than with any external "objective" criteria as such.

Contemporary pragmatists, such as Richard Rorty, have recently taken up this conception of truth as coherence, in recognition of its relationship to both society and politics, and in so doing have come to consider "truth" as the quest for a community of free inquiry and open encounter. With this quest in mind, Rorty has argued that the existing system of political organization best suited to the desired end is that of liberal democratic political representation. Rorty writes,

an anti-representationalist view of inquiry leaves one without a skyhook with which to escape from the ethnocentrism produced by acculturation, but that the liberal culture of recent times has found a strategy for avoiding the disadvantage of ethnocentrism. This is to be open to encounters with other actual and possible cultures and to make this openness central to its self-image. This culture is an ethnos which prides itself on its suspicion of ethnocentrism—on its ability to increase freedom and openness of encounters, rather than on its possession of truth.

Redescribing Politics

While Rorty's antifoundationalism may provide us with an ethos or sensibility with which to conduct research, we are still left with the question of how this liberal democratic attitude either progresses or confronts challenges. The provision of a normative basis, which many in the discipline interpret as the result of the "post-positivist revolution," thus still leaves open the question of how future change might occur or on what basis we might support one political movement over another. In other words, questions concerning both politics and ethics, which by this argument now appear central to the discipline, still remain open. In order to understand the nature of such a self-consciously ethnocentric approach to politics, it is perhaps instructive, therefore, to proceed via consideration of an example of antifoundationalist politics in action. One example available to us concerns the sociocultural movement of feminism. In addressing this issue, we find revealed certain limits on Rorty's approach to politics, and thus we are able to consider the limits of one antifoundationalist project in order to suggest the possibilities of another.

In focusing on the feminist problematique in his 1991 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Richard Rorty clearly identified feminism as the contemporary social issue with the greatest revolutionary potential for resulting in positive moral and ethical change within the existing liberal communities of the North Atlantic democracies today. In keeping with his pragmatic historicist perspective, however, Rorty did not approach feminism in the manner of a free-floating sociopolitical project. On the contrary, he firmly located feminism as the latest in a long line of harbingers of intellectual and moral progress. Thus, Rorty came to situate feminism within the broader historical parameters of a much larger, and continually evolving, political and ethical project, one that I have called Rorty's "postmodern liberal humanism." Feminism viewed from this perspective thus avoids what Rorty believes would be the pitfalls of an essentialist movement, that is, a movement concerned solely with the emancipation of the female subject. It accomplishes this because, from within the setting of a postmodern liberal humanism, feminism plays a much more inclusive sociocultural role, one that goes beyond gender distinctions and aims instead at "the production of a better set of social constructs than the ones presently available, and thus at the creation of a new and better sort of human being."

In regarding feminism in such an evidently progressive light, Rorty indicates that his postmodern liberal humanism bears very little relation to the classical universal liberal construct of the rational male individual, a construct that feminist theory, among others, has done so much to deconstruct. This is because Rorty's humanism is metaphysically hollow; it does not claim to be universal in any useful sense. Rather, its content derives solely from the cultural and social context within which a human being might attempt to make the nature of her humanity intelligible. Such a stance, therefore, recalls the unavoidably ethnocentric nature of any human construction of identity, and as a consequence, Rorty's postmodern humanism denies the validity of questions concerning the absolute ontological, or metaphysical, constitution of the human subject. This stance is in keeping with a pragmatic dismissal of other modernist ideologies, including liberal metanarratives that base their political agendas on such metaphysical constructs. For without an intrinsic nature, Rorty argues, the question of human identity becomes a highly contested issue, yet such contestation shares a contingent reliance on the cultural, social, and historical resources within which rival interpretations can only make themselves understood. Rorty's humanism is thus firmly situated within a pragmatic philosophical tradition that provides no extrasocial or extracultural perspective from which the nature of its humanity could be settled once and for all.

It is this very open-ended nature of Rorty's humanism that also informs the character of his liberalism. In much the same way that his humanism cannot be addressed without recourse to ethnocentrically situated historical and cultural resources, so too does his liberalism come to function as the minimal sociological structure within which such resources might have the political space to coexist and blossom. Rorty's liberalism thus stands as a loose political framework within which various human natures might have the freedom to pursue their various self-interpretations, untrammeled by the imposition of one version of what humanity can be shown to be. Unlike the liberals of the Enlightenment, Rorty does not seek justification for democracy by an appeal to any transcultural criteria of rationality. Rather, in the spirit of liberal philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and Thomas Jefferson, Rorty gives priority to the pragmatic and procedural nature of democracy over and above any philosophical claims. However, unlike the cold utilitarian rationale of Benthamite liberal democracy, Rorty's democratic impulse recalls the romantic and aesthetic aspect of Mill's more sensitive political liberalism. Liberal democracy in this respect functions as a means of limiting the interference of the state in the personal life projects of the individual. This limitation is desirable, the logic runs, because if there is no one correct way of being, then individuals should be free, in a romantic manner, to "create themselves anew." The liberal structure does, of course, impose limits on the influence such life projects can assume. These limits, for Rorty, are considered both community and individual safeguards, manifesting themselves in the classic liberal construct of an institutional division between the realms of the public and the private. The private domain, in this analysis, provides the cultural space within which philosophers and poets can continue to work freely on the creation of novel self-descriptions of what it means to be a human being. The public domain, in contrast, demands that the role of creativity adopt a self-consciously pragmatic and communal nature. Public politics thus comes to adopt the reformist and practical character appropriate to a political ethos whose contemplation of social problems does not include the radical restructuring of the central mechanisms of governmental organization.

Rorty's liberalism and humanism are thus closely interlinked, making little attempt to describe life within a postmodern North Atlantic democracy beyond endorsing the necessary double bind of the sociological distinction between the public and the private. This distinction is necessary because, if there is no ahistorical human being whose potential could be fully realized if only we were to apply the correct plans and policies, government and politics must be limited to a self-consciously defined public space. It is a double bind because many of the life projects of individuals are concerned with creating stories about who we are, stories that, because they cannot be considered true or valid in any strong metaphysical sense, must have their cultural impact limited to the private domain of their creators. Pragmatic liberals, like Rorty, thus hope to insulate the central political institutions of the state from the adoption of exclusionary political vocabularies that run the risk of subverting a liberal pluralism in the name of some extracultural or ahistorical truth. Nevertheless, while Rorty's postmodern conjuncture of a liberal humanism might provide a convincing antifoundationalist political framework with which support for our existing liberal democracies might continue in lieu of a better alternative, it is still far from clear how this pragmatic perspective can explain the achievement of the moral and social progress implicit in his support for a feminist attempt to create "a new and better sort of human being."

Language and Society

Although he agrees with Chris Weedon that "one should not view language as a transparent tool for expressing facts but as the material in which particular often conflicting views of facts are constructed," Rorty nevertheless wishes to claim that such conflicts occur in a positive dialectical manner. This is because it has been Rorty's contention that moral and intellectual progress will only be achieved if "the linguistic and other practices of the common culture . . . come to incorporate some of the practices characteristic of imaginative and courageous outcasts." According to this belief, such outcasts have to break away from mainstream linguistic practices because, as we have learned from other progressive movements in the past, "had there been no stage of separation there would have been no subsequent stage of assimilation." Rorty cannot, however, provide reasons why a new language, such as a feminist language, might come to be assimilated into wider American culture, and this is because he has foregone the once "comforting belief that competing groups will always be able to reason together on the basis of plausible and neutral premises." Therefore, "prophecy . . . is all that non-violent movements can fall back on when argument fails." Yet for such prophecy to be confirmed, our approach to the history of the future must also conform to Rorty's whiggishly dialectical account of how historical change, via the role of language, has come to take place. As a consequence, Rorty admits that he cannot provide any analysis of how "the new language spoken by the separatist group may gradually get woven into the language taught in the schools," at least not one that does not start to look increasingly circular. In fact, all he can offer on the back of his antifoundationalist pragmatism is hope.

Could it be possible that Rorty has overplayed the extent of cultural agency available within the "fashioning of new names"? For in holding that "all awareness is a linguistic affair," does not Rorty suggest the presence of a cultural and linguistic idealism at work within his analysis, that is, an individualist idealism that exaggerates the moral and social possibilities of freedom within his project of redescription? Even without adopting her Gramscian analysis of the political, we might have more than a little sympathy with critics such as Nancy Fraser, when she attempts to engage with some of the institutional structures that influence the realm of possible redescriptions for contemporary woman. Might not woman be especially subject to the limitations of identifications determined by, for example, the American welfare state? And even while refusing to make an invidious distinction between appearance and reality "in favour of a distinction between beliefs which serve some purposes and beliefs which serve other purposes—for example, the purposes of one group and those of another," might we not still wish to contest that the playing field upon which such groups confront each other is not one of equality but one permeated with the differential effects of power? After all, are critics like Fraser not correct in thinking that some of our cultural institutions and social practices do have more power in the fashioning of names than others? Although Rorty might provide a convincing explanation of how language comes to shape our thoughts about ourselves—a position, borrowed from Wilfred Sellars, that he calls psychological nominalism—he nonetheless fails to provide any account of how such social practices and personal thoughts have come to interact.

Interestingly, it is also Wilfred Sellars who appears to recognize the sociological failings present in Rorty's oscillating philosophical stance, when he writes, "one seems forced to choose between the picture of an elephant which rests on a tortoise (what supports the tortoise?) and the picture of a great Hegelian serpent of knowledge with its tail in its mouth (where does it begin?)." Dissatisfied with both of the options available, Sellars concludes that "neither will do." So might there be another route through the philosophical minefield of history and metaphysics? Ian Hacking believes there is. Calling attention to Rorty's own reliance on the historical influence of Descartes for his subsequent explanation of the dominance of a particular style of philosophical reasoning—that is, one preoccupied with the search for foundations—Hacking wonders whether "perhaps Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, with its central doctrine of 'conversation,' will some day seem as linguistic a philosophy as the analysis emanating from Oxford a generation or two ago." For although Rorty's linguistic stance is the result of a historicist approach to the practice of philosophy, Rorty has failed to recognize that a historicist approach to other cultural and social practices may yet reveal the durability of other historically specific styles of reasoning and naming.

This persistence is what leads Ian Hacking to assert a "literal belief in the creation of phenomena, [which] shows why the objects of the sciences, although brought into being at moments of time, are not historically constituted." What is historically constituted is the way we use such objects and how we come to describe them—but not the objects themselves. Hacking makes a vital distinction between what he calls "making things up" and "making people up." Thus, Hacking does not so much deny Rorty's attempt to create a community of liberals; rather, he calls attention to the historically persistent presence of certain phenomena whose existence, although lacking ahistorical philosophical foundations, nevertheless has an effect on the practical possibilities for creating a "community of free enquiry and open encounter." It is in this sense, then, that the practical existence of institutions and mentalities can place very real limitations on the ability of Rorty's project of antifoundational redescription to engender the kind of societal change for which he argues.

The Limits of Self-Redescription

While not claiming to reveal any ahistorical truths, Hacking proposes that an inquiry into the history of certain practices, rather than simply into the history of modern philosophy, may just provide novel interpretations of how certain social practices have come to dictate the human and institutional parameters for the possibility of redescription in the present. One of Hacking's examples is the history of statistics. He writes, "the bureaucracy of statistics imposes not just by creating administrative rulings but by determining classifications within which people must think of themselves and of the actions that are open to them." Hacking's disagreement with Rorty is therefore not related to Rorty's claim that a new type of being can be created through a project of redescription—the very project with which Rorty has come to characterize feminism—for Hacking, too, believes that "categories of people come into existence at the same time as kinds of people come into being to fit those categories, and there is a two-way interaction between these processes." However, Hacking would have to contest Rorty's extension of the new philosophical freedom created by the acceptance of the pragmatist tradition within the discipline of philosophy to the whole of society. While it would be difficult to identify limits in the creative and imaginative attempt to redescribe women in the uninhibited realm of language, critics like Nancy Fraser may well have a strong case for arguing that all the self-redescription in the world will not transform the governmentally mediated relationships of power within which many women and men currently find themselves subject.49

In this particular instance, I suspect that the answer lies in the tension between Rorty's picture of the self as a centerless and contingent web of beliefs and desires, and his separate endorsement of the overriding desire of women to unite such contingencies into a unifying story about oneself. In this respect, it seems appropriate to think of the writing of Marie Cardinal, whose international best-seller, The Words to Say It, describes her personal experience of seven years of psychoanalysis. Echoing Rorty, Cardinal writes of the personal freedom that she has come to value through creating a personal vocabulary from within which she has been able to articulate what it means to be a woman. Like Rorty, however, Cardinal then goes on to extend this very personal experience of the liberating effects of language, as discovered through countless hours of therapy, to the more collective enterprise of a feminist politics. She writes, "speech is an act. Words are objects. Invisible, palpable, revealing . . . Men hermetically sealed these words, imprisoned women within them. Women must open them if they want to survive. It is an enormous, dangerous and revolutionary task that we undertake."

Cardinal's writing thus makes explicit what Rorty assumes. For it is clear that Cardinal's very conception of freedom derives directly from the comparatively recent "discoveries" of psychology and psychoanalysis. That Rorty takes for granted the sense of self understood by such "psy sciences," as Nikolas Rose refers to them, says much for the cultural prevalence of the "psy effect" and little for Rorty's narrowly focused philosophical historicism. In much the same way as Hacking has come to approach the history of statistics and probability, Nikolas Rose has provided a cultural history of the sciences of "psy." Like Hacking, Rose has attempted to redescribe the history of psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis, so as to understand how such linguistic innovation has enabled us to think and act in new ways, to fashion a new human existence, and thus to treat ourselves and others in new and historically particular ways. In this respect, Rose does not deny the freedom that Cardinal describes and Rorty takes for granted; rather, he hopes to increase the prospects of freedom not by endorsing the practices of psy but by attempting to describe the manner in which such practices have become central to the government of human conduct in advanced liberal democracies. He suggests that

the subjectifying effects of psy are not simply a matter of the symbolic violence of a particular meaning system: language is structured into variegated relations which grant powers to some and delimit the powers of others, which enable some to judge and some to be judged, some to cure and some to be cured, some to speak truth and others to acknowledge its authority and embrace it, aspire to it or submit to it. And if, in our vernacular speech, we think of ourselves in psy terms, we do so only through the relations we have established with this truth regime: for we each play our own part, as parents, teachers, partners, lovers, consumers and sufferers, in these contemporary psychological machinations of the self.

From this historicist perspective, we might profitably view both Rorty and Cardinal as principally concerned with the creative freedom and individual agency possible within a psychological and thus self-contained conception of the self, at the expense of the very public languages, practices, and techniques that have come to constitute such a psychological understanding of personal agency in the first place. Freedom might therefore be redescribed in terms that neither privilege the psychological agency of the modern self nor underestimate the political relationships of power with which such selves are inextricably woven. What is more, we should be sensitive to the employment of contemporary Western techniques of self-understanding and government when we attempt to describe or approach non-Western subjects, such as the Maya of Chiapas. International relations could therefore benefit from a distinction already proposed in sociology—that is, a distinction between "freedom as a formula of resistance and freedom as a formula of power." Thus, the ubiquity of freedom as presented in both the expansion of the "free market" and the "free world" may come to be understood as containing certain ethical and political costs. These costs might be better approached from an internal and "untimely meditation" upon our contemporary practices of freedom—freedom understood as constituted economically, psychologically, and therefore, inextricably socially.

Prescribing such an "untimely meditation" within the practices of liberal democracy thus recalls the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who first suggested that history might fulfill such a "political" task. For such histories, in their attempt to redescribe our contemporary practices of freedom, hope to create new opportunities for future understandings, understandings that might herald a time when women and men may have greater freedom from the current truths within which they often unhappily find themselves subject. The acknowledged inheritor of this philosophical and political approach to history is, of course, Michel Foucault. It was Foucault, after all, who not only refused to take for granted the liberal democratic culture from within which he too worked, but also sought to understand the nature of such a Western liberal culture in terms of a history of government, control, and freedom.

Identity—Governmentalized, not Stylized

Many of Michel Foucault's books can be read as historical stories about how different types of people were "made up." He can be viewed as providing genealogical accounts of how different historical practices led to the creation or construction of different historical subjectivities. In his own words, "my objective . . . has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects." Concentrating on the prison, the hospital, and the mental institution, much of Foucault's early work attempted to investigate or "interrogate" the workings of such locales from the perspective of how they objectivized their subjects. By focusing on the criminal, the sick, and the mentally ill, Foucault sought to reveal societies' implicit understandings of the legal, the healthy, and the sane. In this way, Foucault approached knowledge in a highly historicized and contextualized manner, and in particular, he attempted to underline the complicated relationship between knowledge and power. Like Nietzsche, Foucault sought to question the "will to truth," and he named his own brand of non-eschatological and non-edifying historiography "genealogy."

Genealogy, he wrote, is best considered "a form of history which can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourse, domains of objects etc. . . . , without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history." Because Foucault is antiessentialist in his conception of "the subject," his project has not been concerned with finding out who we "really are"; rather, he has attempted to study the processes, both institutional and historical, that have both made us the way we are today and made it possible for us to conceive of ourselves in such historically and socially particular ways in the present. As Ian Hacking notes, "just as there was no pure madness, no thing-in-itself, so there is no pure subject, no 'I' or 'me' prior to the forms of description and action appropriate to a person."

The Foucauldian genealogical method therefore propounds what Hacking calls an "extreme nominalism: nothing, not even the ways I can describe myself, is either this or that but history made it so." But this is not to revert to a historicized Kantian idealism whereby language alone constitutes human practice and social reality. Rather, the relationship between human thought and action is best understood as closer to Wittgenstein's reading of the self-language nexus. It was Wittgenstein who called attention to a way of acting, a form of life, that lies at the bottom of a language game, recalling the existence of a very concrete subjectivity within the discourses and practices that make its articulation possible. "By this he meant that although language games lack rational foundations they do have practical foundations: they are grounded by being woven into human activity and practices." However, the historical process within which new language games or discourses constitute social beings is perhaps not best described as a process of "weaving," for as Foucault reminds us, such practices have historically emerged in something closer to the form of a war than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning. Genealogy can therefore be construed as a strategy that engages with the political power of knowledge, not by "emancipating truth from every system of power, but by detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time."

In his later work, however, Foucault began to pay greater attention to a second aspect of subjectivity; as he explains, "there are two meanings of subject: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to." In addition to this, Foucault also began not only to outline a more general connection between the individual subject and particular instances of governmental power but to argue for a more comprehensive reunderstanding of the emergence and success of the modern Western state in its capacity to order and exercise power over whole populations and societies. In a series of lectures at the Collège de France between 1978 and 1979, he began to articulate these new analyses under the rubric of "governmental rationality" or, more often than not, under his own neologism, "governmentality."

Foucault sought to chart a transformation in political thought during the Middle Ages that moved away from an often ill-defined domain of application traditionally linked to a monarch, the church, or a particular community, and toward a new modern domain of power, the governmental state. It was with reflection on reason of state—known in early modern Europe as Cameralism, or the "science of police," as Colin Gordon explains—that for the first time political thought consciously attempted to "postulate the rationality of government as something specific, intrinsic and autonomously proper to the state; reason of state is par excellence a reason different from the general divine and natural ordering of the cosmos." As Foucault himself said, during his 1979 Tanner Lectures on the topic, "the doctrine of reason of state attempted to define how the principles and methods of state government differed, say, from the way God governed the world, the father his family, or a superior his community."

Central to such a transformation in political thought, however, and key to its possible realization as a rationality of government, was of course the concomitant arrival of new practices. Foucault explains, "the art of governing, characteristic of reason of state, is intimately bound up with the development of what was then called either political statistics, or arithmetic; that is, the knowledge of different states' respective forces. Such knowledge was indispensable for correct government." Later Foucault would connect up such new practices, alongside modern medicine and science, in the articulation of what he called a "biopolitics." This new type of politics has been defined by Colin Gordon as "the phenomenon whereby the individual and collective life of human populations, or even the human species, becomes an explicit object of practices of government." Clearly, such an analysis poses the question of whether there is, as Gordon puts it, "a latent eugenic totalitarianism or state racism" present within such a historical development.

When Foucault defines the aim of the modern art of government, or state rationality, as "to develop those elements constitutive of individuals' lives in such a way that their development also fosters that of the strength of the state," he suggests as much. However, the principal contribution of Foucault is to identify not only a totalizing project at work in the modern art of government but also an individualizing aspect. In this second vector of modern government, Foucault recalls his earlier identification of a dual conception of subjectivity as both power imposed upon a subject and power imposed upon oneself by oneself—this is what Foucault referred to as "techniques of the self." In his final works, Foucault would attempt to provide a history of such techniques, seeking to build an ethics of the self from a consideration of premodern concerns with "self-forming activity" (practique de soi) and early Greek notions of a "care of the self" (epimeleia heautou).

Before promoting any new Foucauldian concept of ethics, however, it remains necessary to further explore Foucault's archaeology of modern governmental rule. New techniques of self-government could, after all, only be employed in light of an understanding of existing techniques and, in particular, how such techniques combine with political power. The uncovering of such self-knowledge is, Foucault admits, no easy task. "What makes the analysis of the techniques of the self difficult is two things. First, the techniques of the self do not require the same material apparatus as the production of objects; therefore they are often invisible techniques. Second, they are frequently linked to the techniques for the direction of others. For example, if we take educational institutions, we realise that one is managing others and teaching them to manage themselves." Just as with the more sophisticated method of psychoanalysis to which I alluded earlier in respect of the claims of Rorty's feminist freedom, Foucault reminds us that the pursuit of a neutral, ahistorical or a-cultural language of freedom is a metaphysical one, and that even what we consider to be our current exercise of liberty is deeply enmeshed with our current exercise of power. Once again, though, Foucault recalls that "there is no power without potential refusal or revolt."

Putting the Problem First

Governmentality as a concept that combines the micropolitics of individuals with the macropolitics of states would seem to suggest an alternative means of study that overcomes many of the state-centered and reductionist problems of the realist approach in international relations. Furthermore, as the process of governmentality is not necessarily linked to one particular state, but rather to the process of government that traverses the people and institutions of a particular territory, the benefits of adopting a Foucauldian methodology, even in the loose formation elaborated above, appear considerable in light of the current international dimension to national rule. In one of his last interviews, Foucault even suggests the possibility of extracting a method from his considerable body of work. In respect of my own preoccupation with the Zapatista conflict in Mexico, his words seem especially poignant. He suggests that a research project might move forward by "taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point. To use another metaphor, it consists of using this resistance as a chemical catalyst so as to bring to light power relations, locate their position, find out their point of application and the methods used. Rather than analysing power from the point of view of its internal rationality, it consists of analysing power relations through the antagonism of strategies."

The utility or otherwise of such a method depends, of course, upon what one is trying to study. However, assuming international relations (the subject) or international relations (the world of relations among states) to be one's basis must remain problematic. If we continue to hold to the antifoundational ethnocentrism of philosophers such as Richard Rorty, the "we" of international relations appears to refer to a community of liberal scholars. Michel Foucault was acutely aware of this issue, and, in what is thought to be his last interview prior to his death in 1984, he reacts directly to this missing Rortian element in what he then referred to as his problematization of politics.

Richard Rorty points out that in these analyses I do not appeal to any "we"—to any of those "we's" whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions constitute the framework for a thought and define the conditions in which it can be validated. But the problem is, precisely, to decide if it is actually suitable to place oneself within a "we" in order to assert the principles one recognises and the values one accepts; or if it is not, rather, necessary to make the future formation of a "we" possible, by elaborating the question. Because it seems to me that the "we" must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result—the necessary temporary result—of the question as it is posed in the new terms in which one formulates it.

Perhaps, then, in light of this theoretical introduction, it is now possible to recognize how in taking seriously both the challenge of antifoundationalist thought and the difficulty of extracting a methodology from such thought, it became necessary to consider the constitution of knowledge in a discipline like international relations only to forego it in the end, or rather, to step beyond it. When seeking to excavate something of the lived realities that international relations as a discipline has for so long excluded, thinkers like Richard Rorty, while demonstrating compelling critiques of the creation and conduct of knowledge within the Western social sciences, prove disenabling when approaching human political subjects who to a very large extent live outside of such academic contexts.

Thus, the move to a Foucauldian method arises not simply out of any idiosyncratic choice but (with the help of Ian Hacking) because the later Foucault refuses the givens of disciplinary dictate and instead concerns himself with historically situated questions or problematiques that overflow the boundaries of anything we might neatly define as IR, sociology, politics, history, or philosophical inquiry. This study therefore takes inspiration from such a Foucauldian method and places the Maya Indian at the heart of a historical exegesis that seeks to provide a novel perspective from within which to consider the current "problem" of Indian rebellion in the modern Mexican nation-state.


The book will therefore commence with an excavation of the means by which the Maya Indian first became an object of Western political and cultural analysis, tracing a path from the first "discovery" through to the recognized establishment of a colonial system in the Americas. The second chapter will focus upon the transformation in colonial government that began under the Bourbon administration of the late eighteenth century and led to the eventual independence of Mexico and the creation of a liberal republic. The third chapter discusses and describes the implications in terms of policy and practice and recounts the rebellious reaction such governmental modernization provoked. Chapter 4 will lead us into the twentieth century, when Mexico first founded the corporatist and clientist system of government characteristic of the one-party state. At each step, I attempt to return to the historical experience of the Maya Indians of Chiapas to consider how transformations in governmentality effected transformations in political subjectivity at the local level. Chapter 5 will bring us up to the current neoliberal stage of governmental rule, and chapter 6 will describe the nature of the Indian rebellion that it currently confronts. Finally, in the conclusion, I will offer some implications for the future of Mexico and the nature of Indian-state politics in light of the historical account I have outlined. Throughout the narrative, I will tackle in a less explicit manner many of the points explicitly raised in this introduction, and once again in the conclusion, on the basis of such a historical analysis, I will return to theoretical issues.



“This is a deftly-written, insightful and thought-provoking text which seeks to illuminate key features of the Zapatista rebellion.”
Development and Change

“This book, like none other that I know, will move the dialogue about the Zapatista movement into the arena of serious political and social thought, where its critique of modernity and globalization constitutes a major case study.”
Gary H. Gossen, Julian Steward Professor of Social Science and Dean of Academic Affairs, Deep Springs College


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