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Toward the New Commons:

Working Class Strategies and the Zapatistas (Excerpts)

by Monty Neill, with George Caffentzis and Johnny Machete, of the Midnight Notes Collective

This paper is adapted from a much longer piece that will be published by Midnight Notes, fall 1997. The full paper is now available on the Web at: <>

The book can be ordered for US $10 (surface mail) from Midnight Notes, Box 204, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130 USA. Monty Neill can be reached at the P.O. Box or at <>.

Summary. This piece opens by analyzing working class strategies to transcend the class deals made with capital in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly the struggle against work.. The fatal flaws in those strategies were various divisions within the working class, including hierarchy, racism, sexism/patriarchy, nationalism, and work. Capital used these divisions to defeat the working class and impose neoliberalism. The Zapatistas have spurred new forms of thinking about how to overcome divisions and build new forms of unity. However, networks alone will not be sufficient against capital. Networks must lead to new forms of local and planetary organization that assist the class to overcome its internal divisions, particularly capital's imposition of work. These organizations must simultaneously oppose capital and create new areas of post-capitalist life that are both united and diverse.

I. Introduction: The Emergence of the Zapatistas;

For the three of us, the First Intercontinental Encuentro against Neoliberalism and for Humanity, called by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), was a moment of great political rejuvenation. In the mountains of southeastern Mexico, in the practice and ideas of the EZLN, we found not only hope and energy, but also some important things to learn from: a break from a history of working class struggles that had reached a dead end, and some initiatives and practices from which we can learn to rethink working class struggle at the planetary level.

This piece is an effort to begin that thinking, knowing we share with others in the effort and that this piece is only a small start. We hope it helps raise fundamental questions to help guide political thinking in developing a new anti-capitalist, planetary movement. Toward this end, we ask a few preliminary questions at the end of each section. Midnight Notes is pleased to participate in the Second Encuntro and hopes this piece and its questions will contribute toward creation of a new, planetary commons for humanity.

II. Strategies and Deals

Strategies and deals are necessarily intertwined: a class deal is a result of class struggle and thus of the degree of success of a particular class strategy in the context of the material and social possibilities of the time and place. On the basis of a deal, new strategies are launched. The primary deals of the twentieth century, between the working class and the various aspects of the capitalist system, we can label social democracy or Keynesianism, Stalinist socialism, and third world nationalist. Each deal was the result of a working class struggle and each led to new working class strategies. (Here we must explain that we use "working class" expansively, including not only those whose payment takes the wage form, but also those depended on other's wages (including the social wage), women whose work is unwaged housework, and throughout the world the small farmers and traders enclosed in dependent relations with capital; most importantly, the working class defines itself through its struggles against capital.).

In the Keynesian deal, the strategy rejected the deal of relatively secure work in exchange for rising consumption to try to impose a refusal of work: gaining the wage opens the possibility of taking the money and then refusing the work, thus undermining the accumulation of surplus value and the wages system. This produced "stagflation" and a crisis of productivity and profits. In the Stalinist deal, the refusal of work was summed up in a joke, "We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us"; but in fact, workers were paid, often in highly socialized ways, albeit by say US standards not a high wage. The result in the Soviet bloc was rising wages (under Brezhnev) and stagnation of accumulation. In the third world, the demand was for development without the exploitation that everywhere else attended development, the call was for socialism as simultaneously accumulation and not working in ways that produced profits. By the 1970s, stirrings of a resurgent "fourth world" or indigenous peoples refusal was taking the form of attempting to opt out of capitalist development, to refuse a work deal entirely, and was rooted in traditions of "original" communism. Thus, everywhere, based on the established deals, working class struggles combined, through a circulation of struggles that formed a temporary political homogeneity of the working class, to put the world capitalist system into crisis.

Capital realized that the deals would have to be torn up, class war launched in new ways. Since the early 1970s, capital has used oil, debt, structural adjustment, technology, and military actions of many kinds to attack all the old deals and decompose the political homogeneity of the working class. The capitalist class has been fundamentally successful in this effort, although several cycles of resistance to structural adjustment have caused capital to pause and reconfigure its attacks. The attacks and new structures have been variously labeled, including "neoliberalism," "new international division of labor," "globalization," and what we in Midnight Notes term "new enclosures." (See our "Midnight Oil," Autonomedia, 1992).

But why was capital successful in breaking the political unity of the working class, both around the planet and in different locales? Each of the strategies and each of the deals shared similar flaws, though they manifested in different particulars. We choose here to mention hierarchy within the class, racism, sexism/patriarchy, nationalism, and work. Each of these was a division in the class imperfectly overcome and thus susceptible to capitalist attack in which the division would be the basis of a reshaped, more powerful division organized for capital's benefit. The divisions within the class we discuss here are not the only ones -- sexual orientation, disabilities -- various forms of "otherness" -- often become moments of division.

(A) Hierarchy in the class, by which we mean divisions of wages, of security of employment, of status within the working class, is a fundamental product of and necessity for capital. Across nations, it can take the form of support for imperialism.

(B) Racism is a hierarchy in the class. Nothing has been or continues to be a more powerful form of division in the US working class than racism. On a world scale, it is the racism of imperial conquest, and following that racism toward immigrants from the historically subordinated areas, a racism now virulently visible across "Fortress Europe" as well as the US. In the "third world," racism also contributes to dividing the working class, as in racism against the indigenous in Latin America.

(C) Patriarchy and sexism: The sexual division of labor, a fundamental form of division, has been available for capitalist re-creation and manipulation from capitalism's birth. As Wages for Housework made clear, the unwaged status of women's work has been the material basis for unwaged work elsewhere in the system and for lower wages paid to women, and it provides the floor for the wages system -- all work, no pay. By and large, the strategies of the working class prior to the post-1960's crises did not address the exploitation of women rooted in lack of social payment for their work, thus ensuring the continued subordination of women and perpetuating a fundamental division within the class.

(D) Nationalism has been a tool for capital to divide the working class. Discussion of the nation-state in light of the failures of nationalism as socialism necessarily raises two fundamental issues. One is the consequences of centuries of imperialism, of development and underdevelopment, which are two necessary and complementary aspects of world capitalism. The second, related question is that of the workers' state: can such a thing exist? If nationalism presumes a state, then nationalism is necessarily not working class. However, it may not necessarily be the case that "nation" must presume "state." On all this, the working class faces an unresolved problem bound up with not having solved the question of the transition from capitalism to communism. The working class must find a non-state form of social-economic-political organization, and part of its conception must involve overcoming the legacy of underdevelopment.

(E) Class defensive organizations and work, or the relationship between working class strategies and the role of unions, parties and states around the question of work: While workers launched a powerful struggle against work in the first world in the 1960s, the unions, parties and states defended the regime of work. Around the world, similar activities under highly similar social relations were merely renamed, from exploitation to "contribution to socialism," or as the worker's "contribution" to the expanding pie of wealth in which workers would get their "fair slice" (and hence supposedly were not exploited), or as "nation building." Is it possible for the instruments of arranging a deal with capital to ever play a useful role against capital, to be both defensive and offensive, to make and undermine and transcend the deals? It remains probable that such organizations are needed, but the question of how the working class can actually create these organizations is not known. It is likely that any such organization will not be able to survive in such a precarious and self-contradictory state for long: it is possible when on the offensive, but if a new fundamental deal between capital and working class is organized, the organization will at a minimum splinter over its two roles -- mediating the deal and struggling to surpass the deal.

We summarize these lessons with caution. We cannot and should not simply lay these historical conclusions rigidly over a struggle, such as the Zapatistas, to evaluate that struggle. To the contrary, every struggle must simultaneously be understood in its own contextual evolution as well as in light of lessons we can try to learn from the history of class struggle.

A concluding question: What kinds of demands and struggles do not reassert divisions within the class, but instead build greater unity by overcoming divisions?

III. Reflections on the Zapatistas' Strategy.

[We begin this section by discussing a number of key terms and ideas presented by the Zapatistas, all of which appear at first glance to be problematic: neoliberalism, civil society, Mexico, humanity.]

There is no purity in the Zapatista's methods, and thus methodological purists are appalled. It is indeed a mix of social democracy, Leninism, anarchism, central American and Mexican revolutionary traditions, what remains of indigenous communalism centuries after the Spanish conquest (and before that the Mayan states), and the long history of Mayan struggles against Mexico and against world capitalism. Just as capital uses all its history in reorganizing its structures to keep the working class divided, off balance, decomposed, the EZLN method proposes an evolving mix to bring the class together in progressively higher levels of unity against capital.

It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that there are no principles behind the methodological mix. The EZLN has asserted foremost a radical participatory democracy. This can be seen in the words of a letter from Marcos to the EPR: "What we seek, what we need, is that all those people without a party and organization make agreements about what they want and do not want in order to become organized to achieve it (preferably through civil and peaceful means), not to take power, but to exercise it." It is clear that the EZLN does not know how to do this, but knows that the old methods have failed.

We read Marcos as saying that contrary to the long-established conception of the goal of the left as seizing state power in order to build "socialism" (and ultimately communism), the EZLN is proposing that people organize themselves to exercise power, that is, to live "socialism/communism" at least in political terms and in time economically. In doing so, we can conceive the "withering away" of the state as a process of class struggle through the self- organization of the working class, including the overcoming of its internal contradictions (such as hierarchy, race, gender). Rather than the free association of the producers being an end state, it is a current political activity of the working class against capital. The famous ends and means dichotomy is overcome because the means are the ends. "From the people [through the party] to the people," the Maoist line, ceases to have an intermediary party that is actually the state in embryo.

In a sense then, the fusion of Mexican Marxism and indigenous communism leads to a proposal to move directly to post-capitalist communism. This idea has been raised before, for example by Amilcar Cabral who found that the most resolute anti-colonialist groups in Guinea-Bissau were those whose social structures and relations were the most communist and had the least hierarchy and lacked a state or state-in-embryo.

Anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles in Chiapas and among indigenous people in Mexico have a history of half a millennium. These struggles cannot be reduced to the categories derived from the struggles of the European working class, including those that have developed further in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Bringing together two substantially distinct histories of anti-capitalism opens ground for new theory and practice, making the potential struggle richer, but simultaneously posing new problems and complexities.

Finally for this section, there is the question of whether a strategy against "neoliberalism" -- that is, against the currently dominant class relation comprising capitalism -- is an effective strategy against capitalism. We think so. On the one side, capitalism is itself trapped in neoliberalism; it is hard to see where it would attempt to create a deal based on working class security -- such a deal portends disaster for capital based on the history of the ways in which the working class used the deals against capital. On the other side, countering neoliberalism can bring together the now-fragmented sectors of the working class. However, in this process there are dangers. One is a reformist conception aiming towards some new form, perhaps "green" and ostensibly more local, of social democracy, that is an anti-neoliberalism that fails to confront capital; the other is a reassertion, in the face of neoliberalism and neo-social democracy, of Leninism. These approaches are doomed to fail (in terms of overcoming capital), which is part of why we think struggling against neoliberalism is a plausible strategy, but these approaches can undermine and confuse struggles against capital.

Questions: Is methodological impurity simply a confusion of different class perspectives, or a necessary combining of the fragments of divided humanity to create a successful post- capitalism for humanity? How can the anti-capitalism of various planetary experiences successfully come together?

IV. Localism, Homogeneity, and Networks

Capital most certainly will not allow development of a localism outside of capital, contrary to the ideas and hopes of some. The law of value operates with more, not less, rigor, even where it appears most absent; that is, capital depends on labor that is apparently "outside" of capital as part of the accumulation process.

While we conclude from the histories of "real" socialism and "market" capitalism that local control is substantially desirable, the goal of localism cannot be left as a political possibility independent of the means to defend it on a world scale. Unless the working class develops means whereby all local resistances are connected against capital, the locals will not succeed and the rule of capital will not be abolished. The working class does not yet know how to accomplish these possibly contradictory tasks of local and planetary revolution and so must learn. Further, given the effects of five centuries of capitalist development and underdevelopment and the resulting organization of production, massive changes are needed in production and distribution of whatever humans decide ought to be produced. These changes cannot be carried through on a purely local basis. These necessarily large-scale and coordinated processes, however, cannot take the form of the state, that is of a body rising above society that serves finally to perpetuate the exploitation of working people. New versions of social democracy are not adequate to the tasks of combatting neoliberalism or building new societies.

The construction of hierarchical difference within the working class, resting on the division of labor, is essential to capital, because without difference capital cannot obtain work from the working class. On the cultural terrain capital demands homogeneity (of a marketable and controllable variety), while economically it constructs difference and hierarchy, and socially it perpetuates race, gender and other divisions. From the proletarian side come the demands for cultural variety, "authenticity," while rejecting race and gender hierarchy and calling for leveling of wages and wealth (homogeneity). The environmentalist arguments for biodiversity, and the linguists awareness of the richness of linguistic diversity, reinforce the social desirability of real cultural diversity. Thus, the working class on a planetary level needs diversity to keep itself alive as a class against capital, but it must become homogenous with respect to capital, thereby creating entropy, decay and death for capital.

Hopefully, through the networking and the dialogues and debates, practices and thinking both successful and unsuccessful will be analyzed and developed in ways that will lead to incremental gains in unity of thinking and action, and then the greater leaps to unified, widespread cycles of struggle. The acts of getting together and doing together enables a shared humanness that can help break down divisions in the class. The posing of the network as the means of political development suggests simultaneously that non-centralized but coordinated activity is itself a goal and that the planetary working class cannot yet see how to act in a more unified manner. Thus, the network is both an end and a means of developing a more coherent strategy (which does not imply that the goal is a centralized decision-making apparatus).

Parallel to the Leninist or social democratic emulation of the capitalist factory, we might also consider the network's relationship to emerging capitalist structures. The capitalists now claim that the market solves everything. Clearly this is not so -- the capitalists organize themselves as a class, through the institutions of the military and police, as well as in the structures of the market, to guarantee their market, their class rule, their accumulation. "Networking" may be a left version of accepting the market, creating the danger of presuming that "the network" will do it all. This is no more true for the working class than for capital. The lesson to be learned here from Leninism and social democracy is to not construct organizations against capital that reproduce capital; but the class also should not construct non-organizations that parallel capitalist illusions.

In the "information age," it is all to easy to be deluged with information. This is not helpful unless the information is well organized for some use -- which only raises the question, who will organize the information? The EZLN and its supporters have been marvelously inventive in using networks, but multiply Chiapas by even 10, never mind the thousands needed: how many channels can the mind consider? This is not the individual's problem. Sorting information requires political collectivity. It implies calculated division of labor and aspects of centralization: someone else will decide for you (presumably with your consent) what reaches you and what is the most important information. It also poses the related problem: what struggles deserve what attention, and who decides?

Networks, particularly if they are highly dependent on computer connections (e.g., the internet), also reflect class composition within capitalism. India has something like one telephone per 100 inhabitants. Who will get on the internet? Those favored by the international foundations or the NGOs or the World Bank? What happens to the class composition of the discussion?

This issue re-poses the problem of hierarchy -- of race, gender, nation, work, wages -- within the class. Will the networks simply reproduce those hierarchies? How, beyond any subjective desires of network participants (a valuable and necessary ingredient), can networks be used to overcome these hierarchies when their very use reproduces them?

Thus, networking does not in itself resolve the question of how the working class is to organize itself. While we reject traditional centralism, we are unpersuaded that networked localisms will in themselves be able to overcome capitalism: something more, beyond any existing conceptions or practice of networks, will have to develop out of the struggles -- both for overcoming capitalism and for establishing communism. We are pleased that the second Encuentro has placed these issues at the center of its work.

Question: How can networks actually lead to successfuly working unity against capital?

V. Class Composition and Developing a New Working Class Strategy

The traditions from which Midnight Notes comes suggest that if analysis and theory is to be useful for developing a class strategy in practice, we need to analyze and theorize the dynamically changing class composition on a world scale, looking for the material and social bases of anti-capitalism and post-capitalism; that is, to do a class composition analysis -- not to locate a new vanguard, but to help the many class sectors come together. [In the full text, what follows here is a critique of the theory of class composition.]

We might envision capital as a global power grid overlaid on a vast nebula, with the planetary working class as that nebula. Workers are captured by and in some ways defined by the grid. That is the sphere of exploitation. However, the nebula is life: capital must draw on it and cannot survive without it, but the workers have life and can survive without the grid. This is the sphere of everyday life, however corrupted and channeled by capital -- but no matter how controlling, capital cannot be everyday life. Everyday life thus remains a great reservoir of energy against capital. This is in some ways more visible when, as with the Zapatistas, everyday life incorporates social structures and relations that pre-date capital and have visible anti-capitalist potential. But such potential is everywhere -- though being everywhere is no guarantee it will be mobilized against capital.

This is another way of saying that capital depends on the life energy of the working class -- but that life energy cannot be reduced to capital nor fully possessed by capital. It is the space outside of capital, the space of human life not defined by capital, that is the fundamental source of power against capital as well as the basic source of capital itself. That is, working class struggles necessarily come also from outside the working class' existence as working class and thus move not only within the circuits of capital but also extend or create spaces outside of capitalist circuits. Working class struggles, therefore, cannot be reduced to only those in the ostensible realm of the "economy," to issues of production and wages, but are also social struggles. The goal of struggle is to create humanity by extending humanity: controlling means of production, reducing and altering work, defining new modes of ownership and distribution, developing participatory democratic processes and structures, etc., etc., are all for this purpose as well as reasonable ends in themselves.

Capital has from its start sought to enclose the commons, from colonization to slavery, from the work day to the home, from activity to the deepest thoughts and feelings, the history of capital is its extension into the human commons. In fighting what we in Midnight Notes term the "new enclosures," the working class is not simply seeking to defend what human commons remains from the past or what commons was created under variants of twentieth- century socialism, but also to reassert, redefine, and extend the commons.

While the working class commons-ist movement must create its future through its struggles, including its creation of new social structures, it is also true that glimmerings and ideas of the future, of what is desirable and what could be made, continuously infuse struggles and provide some sense of a goal, and part of the struggle is thinking about and developing those possibilities. If life is anti-capitalist, then social struggles asserting life and human dignity and autonomous space and time, have anti-capitalist energy, aspects and possibilities. The working class cannot beat capital only with resistance and opposition -- both are needed, resistance and construction, or what P.M. termed "substruction" (bolo'bolo). The class must keep in mind Marx' observation that the new society emerges from the womb of the old and try to protect and hasten the development of the embryo.

Elements of post-capitalism exist in many places. Most will be isolated or absorbed, sometimes smashed but mostly used as fuel for accumulation -- capital always seeks to channel human energy and struggle into its productivity. This does not mean we should simply dismiss them: their limitations speak to the limitations of the overall class struggle. The class must locate and build on all its non- and anti-capitalist aspects. These include both the ways in which struggles such as strikes develop post-capitalist relationships and the efforts to deliberately construct alternative institutions or relationships within the larger current society. Taken by themselves, each is inadequate to the task of overcoming capitalism. Daily life may be non- and anti-capitalist, but not raised to organized struggle, and organized struggles may fail to be anti-capitalist.

In its struggles, the EZLN looks in part to pre-capitalist communalism of the indigenous people. The point is not to repeat the Zapatistas, or to select one historical strategy and argue for it, but to learn to create new proletarian combinations. While not all sectors can look directly to a living continuation of the social structures of original communism, all sectors can find their non-capitalist spaces and build further on them.

In this section we have perhaps taken a turn towards poetics -- nebulae and humanity. We confess this is not simply a love of metaphor, but because we are in a stage of developing new strategies, and we cannot yet see what those strategies will really look like. So we turn to asserting some fundamental principles, in addition to trying to analyze the contradictions within the class that undermine the success of the class, as a starting point toward developing new struggles and new strategies.

Question: How can "many yeses" form a unity sufficient to go beyond just saying "no" to capital and create a planetary society both united and diverse? What kinds of organizational forms will make unity with diversity successful against capital?

VI. Conclusions (taken from various sections of the full piece).

In analyzing the history of class struggle, crisis and capitalist offensive since the 1960s, only parts of which we addressed above, we conclude that to be successful, a struggle against capital and its regime of work and accumulation requires at least the following:

1) a growing sense of unity of a world proletariat: that such a proletariat does exist (contra post-ism) and that "we" are all in it together;

2) a high degree of overcoming of class hierarchy, of divisions of wages, gender, race and nation: where insufficient, these are all moments of capitalist decomposition of proletarian unity;

3) a means of subsistence: capital's control over production means it can starve the working class (note that "encircling the cities" and "alternative production" both propose solutions to this problem);

4) a means of defense, whether from armies or death penalties or prisons: if they can kill workers with impunity, the working class cannot sustain its gains;

5) a sense of an alternative, non-capitalist possibility: the idea that another world can exist and can be created ("commons-ism" or "communism"), though that world does not presume uniformity, indeed will support great diversity.

The heart of capitalism is creating a working class, producing workers and social relations conducive to work for capital. The struggle against work is clearly a struggle against surplus value as the alienated product of labor used to support a ruling class and ensure expanded exploitation and capitalist social relations. It is also a struggle against unnecessary expenditure of human labor in producing use-values, against producing use-values of use only within the social construct of capital. It is about the reorganization of time so that "work" is not reduced to inhuman efficiency but so human relations define work, not the other way around. And it about is changing the relations and values that dominate society. Thus, the fundamental questions of the economy are social and political, not "economic," and this true both within capitalism and after capitalism as the working class creates a new commons.

Under capital, work, be it waged in the factory or office, unwaged in home or school or prison, indirectly waged in small farming and selling, is the antithesis of the commons, however much capital fosters cooperation to spur production. Human relations remain within and outside these circuits, but capital deforms and channels them.

From these observations, we can draw several conclusions. First, the struggle against capital and for humanity exists in all social relations and circuits. Thus a strategy must consider the relationships among all the circuits and how to strengthen them against capital. Second, since the essence of capital is the creation of work, the struggle against work must be understood as central. This struggle is centuries, millennia, old, predates capital and continues throughout capitalism.

The defeat of working class strategies that sought to overcome the socialist deals of the twentieth century through the struggle against work does not signal the end of the struggle against work. Rather, it signals that the working class must rethink itself and recreate itself through struggles. The struggle against work, and thus against all forms of exploitative hierarchies within the class, circulates through all the circuits of life in and outside of capital, resisting capital and creating new social forms within capital. It is the struggle for the commons.

We do not yet know how a developing analysis can be useful or what strategies the working class will develop to further its own political recomposition against capital and to transcend capital. We are, however, arguing for deliberate impurity of method, for listening to the particulars of struggles to hear both the anti-capitalism and the post-capitalism (commons-ism or communism) that might exist, for pushing to make all kinds of new circuits of struggle.

To move ahead, we suggest some basic work. We recognize some of it is now being done, perhaps much of it, as networks of communication slowly develop -- and we expect this effort to move ahead during and after the Second Encuentro, just as the First Encuentro proposed the possibility again of planetary anti-capitalist activity.


1) Exchanging knowledge (not just "information") about how new class political recompositions are emerging or trying to emerge in particular struggles.

2) Proposing strategies as to how such emerging recompositions can themselves deepen or can interact with other class forces in mutually reinforcing ways. This involves listening to and watching the struggles, but also participating in them.

3) Carefully analyzing how such recompositions or suggested strategies might be levelling existing class hierarchies or capitalist relations within the working class, and doing so to push and prod each of us past the narrowness and limitations we necessarily have as products of a capitalist world division of labor.

4) Using analysis of capital's strategies and development to suggest cautions the working class should heed; by learning from struggles, we might help each other avoid capitalist traps.

5) Strengthening an analysis of capital that actually helps in figuring out its weaknesses and how best to attack it.

6) Figuring out forms of immediate political organization that can utilize their own division of labor without reproducing internally a capitalistic division. Since it seems highly evident that no one person can keep up even in a cursory manner with all the aspects of struggle, sharing that work though political organizations is necessary, as is developing supportive and cooperative relations among many organizations.

7) Developing new political language, so we can actually communicate within the diversity of experiences and languages of the class.

In the future, things will unfold that we have not conceived. Working class struggle is in a process of discovery. Class composition analysis suggests that the working class composes itself, makes and transcends itself, through struggle. The class now is decomposed, fragmented, much defeated. The class must find ways to make itself whole; not homogenous, but united. We conclude that the Zapatistas, with whatever limitations, and however uncertain their own immediate future, have given us some hope and some wisdom and have sparked new energy and creativity. We thus have a better possibility of navigating across and out of the desert of capitalism and into the time and space of a new commons.

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