activism / community / faith / fetishism / privilege / sartorial / solidarities / writing

From Chiapas, 2007 (an essay disguised as a blogpost)

The city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, sitting high in the jungly mountains of the south-eastern Mexican state of Chiapas, has a history of foreign tourism dating from the beginning of Spanish imperialism in the region (Nelson). When I am there in October 2007, two groups of foreign tourist stand out to me in particular.

The first is that of the activists: mostly young people from Europe and the United States who wander around in anarchist garb: shaved heads or dredlocks, black slogan T-shirts, army pants and ragged backpacks. The activists make trips out to Oventic, the Zapatista caracol about an hour’s drive from town.1 They hang out in autonomous activist locations like Kinoki Cultural Centre — set up by a group of French and Spanish activists — or El Barco Pirata: ‘the pirate ship’, a gathering place for films and parties.

Their more moderate counterparts get about in long hair and indigenous weaves, usually on an internship with a human rights and/or peace organisation located in the region. They may also, like me, be doing research for a university program based back home.

The second group is that of the lifestylers. They are also mostly Western European or North American. These are folks who tell me they have come to Chiapas to make a change in their lives: slow the pace, live more simply (not to mention cheaply), take day trips into the jungle, get away from the rat race at home. We all meet each other in the many spaces that cater to the gringo market in this small town: hostels, the supermarket, the laundrette, a number of cafés and bars.

With the first group, I wonder how they reconcile their often militant atheism, or at least their cultural secularism, with their commitment to the Zapatistas and other indigenous struggles in Chiapas that, as I learn when we meet and talk, we have all come here to support and learn from. Not only is zapatismo based deeply in indigenous Mayan spirituality, but most Zapatistas are also faithful to a syncretic, Marian Catholicism. 2

Do we activists just overlook the practice of praying before statues of La Virgen, the belief that being photographed is spiritually dangerous, or that some of the Maya were birthed by a large tortoise? How do the churches in the autonomous communities inform their denunciation of church-based activism in the area? What about the role of Catholic bishop Samuel Ruiz García, who protected the Zapatistas from the Mexican army in the cathedral during the uprising of 1994, and was later appointed by them to mediate their discussions with the Mexican Government?

Mural at Oventic showing Emiliano Zapata and the Virgen de Guadalupe. Source: Prensa de Frente

Such questions seem particularly important as it is these people — the activists in Chiapas —who are part of the Northern communities in the global justice movement. 3 They are the ones who cite their direct inspiration and formation as coming from the Zapatistas, the ones who have attended transnational meetings such as the Encuentros Intergalácticos and the World Social Forum.

International supporters meet at the Zapatista’s Encuentro Intergalactico, December 2006. Source: All4all.

Still, it’s the second group with which I am most reticent to identify. At least “us activists” critique the global flows of power and resources in which Chiapas is violently implicated, and see ourselves as acting in solidarity with those imbricated in this scene.  But the lifestylers just seem to want to consume it like yet another commodity laid before us for our taking as well trained Northern consumers: the beautiful setting, people with brown skin and brightly coloured clothes, artisan markets, icons and rituals. In the central plaza, I watch the lifestylers shoo away the indigenous women and children who come up to you continuously, insistent on selling you scarves, shawls, small figurines of animals, or, indeed, of Zapatistas. As I learn from a walk out to El Periférico – the ring road that surrounds San Cristóbal – many of these vendors who I see every day live in smoggy poverty on the periphery, or else carry out a more remote subsistence existence in the mountains.

The lifestylers embrace Mexican mestizo religiosity: erecting their own shrines for el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), visiting the Mayan medicine centre, seeking astrological readings or blessings from shamans. This can be seen as a partially anti-colonial orientation: by embracing Mexican mestizo practices, the lifestylers act in contradiction to certain western cultural norms. Perhaps they recognise the deadening effect, on their person, of neoliberal economic rationalism (an ideology still ascendant in 2007). It’s just that they seem to want, in the words of Rebecca Solnit on New Age tourists in Ireland:

“to hear about spirituality and tradition as solutions, rather than the political forces that     threaten them and the activism that might protect them.”

On the other hand, “the very way they look for alternatives embodies some of the most pernicious aspects of the culture they come from: the desire for quick gratification, a kind of globalizing control over other cultures, the segregation of politics from spirituality” (Solnit 115).

The ‘tranquility’ sought out and consumed by the lifestylers can thus be regarded as, “la tranquilidad de que la injusticia siga siendo injusta y el hambre hambrienta” – “the tranquility in which injustice continues to be unjust and hunger to be hungry” – in the words of Eduardo Galeano (19, trans. Belfrage, 23).

Women in the main square, San Cristóbal de las Casas. Source unknown.

To onlookers, the first group may well be indistinguishable from the second group. We are typically fair-skinned, distinctively dressed, and self-possessed in demeanour. Indeed, on reflection it occurs to me that we have more in common with each other than I’d like to believe.

This leads me to wonder: as the lifestylers apparently emphasise faith at the expense of politics, could the activists be emphasising politics at the expense of faith?

I hate to admit it, but maybe we have something to learn from each other.

This learning begins with the charge of ‘fetishism’. Insofar as fetishism is the projection of longing and/or the objectification-cum-commodification of a more complex phenomenon, both activists and lifestylers fetishise the Maya in Chiapas. Certainly, activists may accuse lifestylers (and each other) of romanticising the Maya in one way or another. Activist chronicler Naomi Klein, for example, was concerned that “caravans to Chiapas” were “just another Latin American fetish” among Northern activists (Klein). Solnit intimates the problematic “separation of politics from spirituality” amongst lifestylers. Taken in this way, fetishism is a destructive force for containment.

Fetishism is constitutive in western consciousness and possesses an important link to faith. It has a basis in Christian imperialist and secular efforts to hierarchize faith: ‘fetish’ was the  name applied to inanimate objects of worship in cultures that were colonised by European nations between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Later, it reinforces patriarchal psychology and allows Marx and then Baudrillard to reveal the hoaxes of capitalism.

However, there are other possible readings of the fetish. The fetish has been queered and radicalised by liberatory intimacy and anticolonial anthropology. These more recent readings of the fetish are suggestive of a different kind of faith. This is a faith rooted in fidelity to the anticolonial political visions that sustain the global justice movement. It also finds expression in the nonfundamentalist faith invested in David Graeber’s “fetishes [as] gods in the process of construction” (Graeber).

Still, both fetishism and faith are easily denounced in activist discourse. This denunciation, I argue, belies particularly first world activist anxieties around the historical violence of religion (i.e. Christianity): of a sanctimonious white, western faith discourse.  It speaks of the desire to distance oneself from missionaries, racists and imperialists.

But this position, I argue, invites the return of what it represses amongst many of the activists who come to Chiapas — both physically (as in the story I am telling you here) and metaphorically (as in all those who adhere to the global justice movement along the lines thrown out from Chiapas by the Zapatistas and their supporters). This repressed matter manifests in the reinforcement of secular superiority and the fetishisation of ‘other’ spiritualities.

Altar for Dia de los Muertos, Tierradentro Cafe, San Cristóbal de las Casas.  Left to right: Che Guevara, Bishop Ruiz, Zapatista Comandanta Ramona, 2007. Photo by author.

In October 2007 this Dia de los Muertos altar graced the reception area of Tierradentro cultural centre and cafe in the centre of town. With its combination of folk ritual, familiar religious institution and revolutionary symbolism, I propose that it marked the interweaving of meaning that both activists and lifestylers brought, and sought, from San Cristóbal. This mingling of meaning may be used to consider the significance of faith in the first world discourses of the global justice movement. This is a transnational social activist movement which, legend has it, was consummated on January 1, 1994 when the Zapatistas took over San Cristóbal in protest at Mexico’s ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

For the activists who are the subject of this essay, the question at the altar is one of solidarity. How are they enacting solidarity with the Zapatistas in Chiapas? How can they shape an alliance that keeps step with, and thus generates, the political changes being sought? The Zapatistas are pointed in their awareness of the possible limits of such exercises:

“They [the Zapatistas] are the rebel indigenous. Breaking, thus, the traditional preconception, first from Europe and afterwards from all those who are clothed in the color of money, that was imposed on them for looking and being looked at….[T]hey do not adapt to the … image of the needy indigenous, with his hand extended, expecting crumbs or charity from he who has everything…. Nor that of the skillful craftsperson whose products will adorn the walls of he who despises him.…” (Marcos).

I am thinking that the scene may be illuminated through a questioning of how faith comes to condition the connections between first and third world activists in the global justice movement. This in turn serves to nuance the movement’s practices of solidarity; typified by the intersection of gringos in San Cristóbal.

Hugo Chávez addresses the 2005 World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: Indybay.

From a certain angle, it seems remiss not to speak of faith in a practice that is adorned with flags, chants, drumming, logos and assemblies. The image above, of participants at the 2005 World Social Forum being addressed by Hugo Chávez, speaks to this.

It also seems remiss in relation to a discourse replete with spirits, spectres, and ecstasies — of, say, solidarity, capital and communal experience, respectively. North American activist Ben Shepard, for example, speaks of “[merging] the joyous ecstatic spirit of exhilarating entertainment with a political agenda aimed toward progressive political change” (Shepard). However, unlike its adjunct affect of hope, faith receives little attention in movement scholarship outside of accounts of religious engagement with activism – such as the pagan practices of Starhawk, the Quaker origins of the affinity group structure and the role of liberation theology in third world activism and first world solidarity.4

Hope, on the other hand, is having something of a renaissance in scholarship on the affective logic of activism, and of oppositional thinking in general (e.g. Zournazi, Solnit, Arvanitakis).  Where hope primarily connotes desire (by now a familiar source of oppositional power in the global justice movement), the nub of faith is belief – which, with its connotations of trust and consecration, is a somewhat thornier question for activism in a secular, western, first world context. Subjects of this milieu may be served well by a careful disentangling of ‘faith’ from ‘religion’.

Arguably, it is the relationship of  faith to institutionally rationalised religion which gives rise to the requirement for a faith-less activism for social justice.  However, as Jacques Derrida suggests, it may be religion that is faithless and logocentric, and this makes it an inadequate synonym for faith (and indeed justice): “in the same way as I make a distinction between justice and law, I think you have to distinguish between faith and religion…” (Derrida, 117). Within this, the suspension of disbelief signifies “absolute interruption” of the rationalist western commitment to secularism (Faith and Knowledge, 64).

Indeed, for Derrida the church-state governmentality that constitutes western civilization kills faith in attempting to contain it (51). Derrida counters this “ontotheology” with his “messianicity without messianism” (22), showing that it is possible to have faith without fundamentalism or indeed belief without religious institution. Messianicity without messianism is “the opening to the future or to the coming of the other as the advent of justice, but without horizon or expectation and without prophetic prefiguration” (21). Faith itself is entwined with the nonlinear time of messianism; and it  meets activism at this point.

Consider, for example, the ubiquity of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) in movement activism. Squats such as the Hackney Social Centre in London (see Lacey), alternative festivals like Global Beach (2004), and performative protests such as Reclaim the Streets and San Precario (Tari and Vanni) have all been declared TAZs; that is “a mobile or transient location free of economic and social interference by the state” (Bey).  It is less often observed that this key trope in movement organising was conceptualised by Hakim Bey, the English philosopher turned Sufi mystic, as a tactic for extending what he refers to as the “non-ordinary consciousness” running through both activism and faith (Bey, ‘Religion and Revolution’). Through its untimeliness and its resistance to rationality, the TAZ can be said to reflect the time and space of activism suggested in Derrida’s irruptive messianicity without messianism.

Leela Gandhi, similarly, observes how, amongst those who would resist western rationality (i.e., the logics of secular empiricism and Christian imperialism), belief can thus function as “the only means effectively to countermand [the] assumption[s]” underlying destructively programmatic approaches to the ethical and political (125). Belief, or faith, in this case, is an epistemological alternative to accepting the stasis of global inequality based on “the manichean divisions of race, class, gender and species” (125), which the global justice movement would resist in its pursuit of a more socially just world — and which members confront in their quest for a meaningful solidarity across difference and power.

At the same time as activists pursue “faithlessness”, it has long been a critique from anticolonial scholars that interested, benevolent westerners tend to confine faith and spirituality to the province of indigenous, third world peoples (see Ashcroft et al., 124–126).  Under this view, indigenous and/or third world belief systems are part of the anachronistic, curious and mysterious qualities that must be protected against the capitalist colonisations of church and state.

Chandra Mohanty, for example, suggested in Under Western Eyes that first world feminists tend to paint third world women as ‘more spiritual, but less intelligent’ (Mohanty, 352) and use this to suggest they ‘need’ first world feminist salvation. On a related note, Marcia Langton recounts the way in which the “primitive” is sought in Indigenous people by white people in Australia: as “a mechanism for grappling with fear of the unknown” (Langton, 30). Such arguments are affirmed by Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, who suggests that westerners “believe that others just believe and that we know” (Zournazi, 250; my emphasis).

There is, doubtless, some of this posture at work in the first world discourses of the global justice movement.  The following question, for example, was put, in promotional material, to participants in Left Turn 2008, an international activism forum being held in New York City: “What role can indigenous or ‘precapitalist’ forms of knowledge and spirituality play in [social] transformation?” (LeftTurn 2008).

Posing indigenous knowledge and spirituality as ‘precapitalist’ and therefore a commodity amenable to anticapitalist struggle is an instrumentalising move suggestive of a colonising posture. And so – that faith should appear in the discourse as either the property of spiral dancers, Quakers, radical priests or “indigenous or precapitalist peoples” buttresses the assumption of faith as something generally other to the first world activist project of decolonisation, be it because of its association with religion, or its dislocation from first world modernity.

However, when I took faith outside these usual connotations and looked for it in the discourse, I found that it consistently belies belief.  Activists express faith that “another world is possible”, as the World Social Forum slogan goes.  Faith in the example of others, as in the “Somos Todos Marcos” chanted by supporters of the Zapatista rebellion. Activists have faith in the public ‘hearability’ of their claims.  There is faith in each other, as the affinity group model promotes.  There is also faith in ourselves as agents of change or revolutionary subjects — faith that “we are the ones we have been waiting for”, in the words of Alice Walker (Walker, 2007).  Activists express faith that our actions are worthwhile; faith that our action is the ‘right’ thing to do. In this context faith refers not only to the affects of trust or belief, but to a thinking of action and justice that exceeds knowledge, calculation or ontology.  In the Derridean purview outlined above, the discursive structures of faith are plainly present in the global justice movement.

The enactment of solidarity, to return to the question I raised at the beginning, is thus reliant on this kind of ‘activist faith’. As activist scholar Richard J.F. Day suggests, Northern activists seeking to connect across difference and power are compelled to “[give] up control of movements, events and projects, listening rather than talking….remembering that despite what may be a very real commitment to anti-oppression struggles, those of us who are privileged benefit from our position in oppressive structures….” (Day, 201). Global justice movement activists from Northern contexts may seek to “unlearn their privilege”, as English activist scholar Vanessa Andreotti urges, after anticolonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. They may also seek “experiences of vulnerability and physical confrontation” to “become an other” as sociologist Kevin McDonald observes; to self-pluralize or “desingularize participation” in social movement.

Such political practices of ego loss and divestment of possessions and privilege are linked, by Leela Gandhi, to those of faith and spirituality (124).5 For Gandhi, these links demonstrate the “quintessentially political and anticolonial” nature of resistance to “secular rationality and transcendental subjectivity” manifest in the global justice movement. The “epistemological and ontological fiber” of this confluence “make[s] faith amenable to the realm of the ethical and the political” (125).  Dissolving the sovereignty of the “I” can therefore be posed as a shared goal of both global justice movement activism and any faith based spiritual practice. As Gandhi continues, it is on such understandings that:

“once we concede the varieties in religious experience, the metaphysical may often prove to have much more in common with those questions of multiculturalism, pluralism and complex equality which constitute the positive ethical preoccupation of our time, and much less in common with the ‘fundamentalisms’ and ‘extremisms’ that we so fear”.

As activists debar themselves from the ‘privileged’ first world, they also suspend their disbelief in another, better world being possible. An engagement, here, with faith as a resource, may allow for a more ethical negotiation of this position — a more ethical solidarity with the indigenous of Chiapas (including but not limited to the Zapatistas) and indeed with all those others they purport to identify with and fight for. Space in the discourse to explore, connect with and debate the role of faith in the formation of solidarities and the advancing of political strategies within global justice movement activism may thus be a vital ingredient in the movement’s ongoing formation.

Faith, like the fetishism is it entwined with, is not a catch-all closure to frustrating aporias, as it is under “the fundamentalisms and extremisms” referenced above by Gandhi. Though it does provide a certain nourishment, faith is part of the aporias themselves and simultaneously shapes a demeanour or disposition towards ethical and political action. Without suspending our disbelief, activists cannot imagine the future we fight for. Furthermore, re-conceptualising this reality in the order of faith may better equip us to debate our lifestyler compañeros at the altar in San Cristóbal.


1 I refer here to the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Mexico. The term Zapatista is shorthand for referring to a participant; zapatismo is the philosophy attributed to this political movement. For further information on the EZLN see

2 See for example the discussions in Rus et al.

3 The term ‘global justice movement’ is contested among its participants but generally preferred to labels such as the ‘anti-globalization movement’. See Klein (xv). This text is also a useful introduction to the people and events associated with the movement.

4 See Highleyman 2004, Epstein 2001, Plummer and Ranun 2003.

5 And indeed, many major religions have origin stories that associate faith with relinquishing privilege: Jesus Christ born in a stable on occupied territory, the Buddha leaving his palace to sit under a tree.


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