Sunday, November 23, 2014


"Marx said the opium of the masses was religion. For the USA, it's Netflix and Wal-Mart."

We arrived to rural México in time for the 104th anniversary of Dia de la Revolucíon. The dirt streets of this small village whose central plaza we sit in to write this were lined with people waving flags and singing Cielito Lindo to their children, dressed as revolutionaries, on parade.
Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores,
Porque cantando se alegran,

cielito lindo, los corazones.

[Ay, yai, yai, yai,

sing and don't cry,

because singing gladdens,

my pretty little love (or our little heaven), the hearts.

The hearts here are not gladdened at the moment. México has just witnessed the largest street demonstrations in its history, complete with plainclothes agents provocateur smashing windows in Mexico City before being videotaped getting back into their police van (the official government line is that they were “anarchist infiltration”).

From the moment last September when six people were murdered and 43 students from Ayotzinapa joined the 22,000 disappeared in the past decade, the federal government took the line that drug traffickers were responsible. Even after it became apparent that the local police were responsible, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam embarrassed himself with a tired cover-up at a press conference November 7, as described by Miguel Ángel Ferrer @thenewsmexico:
The theory connecting the Iguala crimes and drug trafficking has faded, leaving room for only one theory: it was a state crime. Or, to call it by another name, it was an official crime, a crime committed under government orders and by government agents. Consequently, these are the only possible options: to investigate the state, or to cover it up.

If it was indeed a state crime, the attorney general’s job would be to cover up the government’s involvement. In doing so, he would be guaranteeing not justice and truth, but impunity and lies. There’s no doubt that was Murillo Karam’s role, which has yielded terrible results.

And so, another revolution is coming. In the Zócalo of Mexico City, constructed during the Aztec Empire as one of the largest public squares in the world, students built a 20-foot effigy of President Peña Nieto in a business suit with a clown nose and blood on his hands, then torched it as more than 100,000 gathered to shout for the president to resign.

Enrique Peña Nieto has 4 years left in his term but few here think his presidency will last much beyond the end of November. Were he to resign today there would be a popular election, but by waiting until December he throws the election to his political allies in the National Assembly. And so it goes.


It is often difficult for USAnians and Canadians, even those who come here often or live near the border, to understand the revolutionary character of México. The popular narrative in US culture is that "America" was where freedom-loving refugees immigrated, threw off the yoke of European monarchical economic feudalism, blazed a trail of liberty and constitutional democracy and today it selflessly sacrifices blood and treasure to bestow similar blessings upon the world with whiz-bang weapons concocted from the madcap illustrations of science fiction magazines of the 1930s.

México, viewed through a USanian lens, is a cultural and economic backwater, impoverished by a desert climate, endemic political graft and corruption, and utterly dependent on foreign aid, drug money and the money sent home by emigrants. Its people seek refuge in the North because there are no opportunities in South, life is brutal and squalid, and, lately, very gruesome, as civil order crumbles in the vice grip of up-armored police and ruthless drug cartels.

When the average Northern tourist blissfully vacations in all-inclusive enclaves on the Mayan Riviera, Cabo San Lucas or Acapulco, behind electrified alloy-steel fences patrolled by kevlared security guards in HumVees, their only human contact is with other foreigners and the occasional room-cleaner who changes their toiletries. Cocooned with CNN and Fox News, their preconceptions of this country remain intact.

Revolution Day is a reminder that the Northern narrative is a fairy tale.

There was undeniably a time in the North when a handful of US aristocrats in velvet frocks and tricorner hats threw off the yoke of European monarchical domination, blazed a bloody path to liberation (with assistance from France and Prussia) guided by the liberal thinkers of the day, and established a constitutional democracy protected by a Bill of Rights (unless you were landless, jobless, colored, female, gay or a whale).

That heroism is receding very quickly now. The Bill of Rights went through the shredder and was thrown as confetti out a Wall Street window when we digitized ticker tape. The millennially husbanded natural capital of the lower 48, Alaska and Pacific territories, after conquest, ethnic cleansing and the imposition of the industrial economic mandate (to export capitalism), brought great wealth to a few at a terrible cost, first to indigenous culture, the buffalo and the Carolina parakeet, and then, to the planet.

Today where once waved amber fields from sea to shining sea sprawls a string of tarmacked strip-malls and vacant storefronts. An emerging police state presides over glyphosated fields and GMO food factories.  The recent mid-term election was a popular vote for unfettered wiretapping, never-ending holy war, unregulated Ponzinomics and tap water that catches fire.

Marx said the opium of the masses was religion. For the USA, it's Netflix and Wal-Mart.

Dropping back a century, there was a time when 5% of the people in México, mostly descended from European conquerors, owned more property and made more money than the other 95%, those with regionally specific blood coursing in their veins. Any time in history you see these kinds of extremes, the social fuse is lit.

On November 20, 1910, México exploded.

Benito Juárez
As we travel back to antecedents for a fuller view, it is helpful to know that it was a Zapotec from Oaxaca, Benito Pablo Juárez García, who, two years before before Lewis and Clark set off for the Pacific Ocean, was born in a native village in the mountains. His parents, whom he described as "Indians of the original race of the country" died when he was three and his grandparents soon thereafter.

At the age of 12 he left his uncle's home to learn Spanish and attend school. A Franciscan took him in and placed him in seminary. Beginning at age 37, at a height of 4 foot 6 inches, he became a lawyer, a judge, then Governor of Oaxaca. When his political views clashed with then President Antonio López de Santa Anna, of Alamo fame, he was forced into exile in New Orleans, where he found work in a cigar factory.

In 1854, following the Mexican Cession of half of that country's land to the US and the retirement of Santa Anna, Juárez returned and was elected Presidénte on a reform platform. Politically naive, he curtailed the power of the Catholic Church and the military and attempted to create a modern capitalist economy based on the model of the United States. This triggered a popular insurrection that forced Juárez to relocate his government to Veracruz.

In 1861 Spain, Britain and France, angry over unpaid Mexican debts, sent a joint expeditionary force to seize the Veracruz customs house. France, under Napolean III, took advantage of the situation to invade, at first encountering a successful defense by Mexican forces (Cinco de Mayo) but later forcing a second retreat from the capital city, this time to what is now Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Maximilian von Habsburg, a younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, was proclaimed Emperor Maximilian I of México.

Imagine, for a moment, what it might have been like if, during the US Civil War, Spain had invaded Washington, threw out President Lincoln, another man of humble birth, born 3 years after Juárez, and established a European monarch in the Great White Palace on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Juárez  is perhaps best known for not giving up at this point, but mustering support and militarily defeating Maximilian, restoring the constitutional government in 1867, and then suppressing counter-revolts by opponents such as Porfirio Díaz.

Although Juárez succeeded in subordinating the army to civilian control and separating church and state in public affairs, he also made important missteps. While expropriating church lands Juárez also liquidated the system of peasant communal land holdings, the ejidos, and in so doing sewed the seeds of later upheavals.

In 1876, following Juárez 's death, his nemesis, Porfirio Díaz, ousted the liberal government and brought about the period known as the Porfirato. He maintained control through his own private paramilitary force and gangs of thugs, Los Rurales.

Díaz sped up Westernization with construction of factories, roads, dams, industries and modern (petrochemical) farms, attracting foreign capital from the United States and Great Britain. He assured foreign entrepreneurs that their investments were going to be enormously profitable and secure. This resulted in the rise of an urban proletariat, enormous export of the nation's natural wealth, and loss of civil rights, such as freedom of press and assembly or restrictions on arbitrary detention. Most people in México were landless, laboring on vast estates or in mines or factories for slave wages.

The Porfiriato ended in 1911 with the Mexican Revolution. The people finally said, ¡Basta! (enough!). In 1909, Díaz and President William Howard Taft held a summit in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, the first time an American president would cross the border into México. Díaz won support for his planned eighth run as president and promptly jailed his opponent in the election, Francisco Madero. Madero issued a "letter from jail" that declared the Díaz regime illegal and called for revolt, starting on November 20.

Madero escaped and fled to Téxas, where he raised an army consisting mostly of ordinary farmers, miners and the indigenous peoples. Early successes attracted skilled leaders like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who brought their own armies. Madero defeated Díaz and became the next president, but in early 1913, acting U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, representing the lame duck Taft, conspired to assassinate Madero and install a military junta, events known in Mexican history as la Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days.

Incoming President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize the junta, recalled H.L. Wilson and tasked his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to aid the rebels. This led to a curious period during which the US supported Villa and Zapata (and Germany supported the military junta) before Villa went rogue by demanding deeper reforms, and Wilson sent Gen. John J. Pershing with 5,000 troops across the Rio Grande for a year-long game of hide and seek with Villa.

Columbus, New Mexico, after attack by Pacho Villa
Eventually the old Porfirian system was discarded and replaced with a multiparty system pitting PNR, now PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mr. Peña Nieto), against PDR (Party of the Democratic Revolution, the party of the mayor of Iguala who seems to have been the one who ordered the abduction of the 43 students) and PAN (the party of the last government, which had its own share of corruption). As in the North, business interests have the money to purchase democracies with the modern tools of corporate media.

So it is that when past-President Felipe Calderón seemed to be getting too corrupt he was replaced, not with a more serious reformer such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but with business-friendly millionaire Enrique Peña Nieto. On the plus side, Peña Nieto established net neutrality and limited the size of telecommunications monopolies, improved schools and stabilized the collapsing petroleum industry. On the other side, the national oil company was farmed out to transnationals, state-run monopolies are being privatized, and the ejido system of rural communal lands, restored in 1911, is once more being dismantled to make way for investments in tourism and second home sites for wealthy pensioners.

Mr. Peña Nieto is also ensnarled in a a private $7 million house deal bought on credit by his wife, who said she had her own millions from her career in acting but an audit showed she did not, from a company whose owner is a partner in a Chinese-led consortium for a bullet-train contract Mr. Peña Nieto abruptly canceled when the scandal broke.

But we digress. History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes, as Mark Twain said. We can see threads in the Mexican historical experience reverberate through the histories of many other countries. There is a revolution – some monumental change in the practices of governance – and then a period of gradual integration as the new system is reconciled with the old. Corruption creeps in, gradually at first, then more rapidly. It reaches a boiling point where injustice has become so rife and the ignominy of daily life so degrading, that people become willing to sacrifice what little peace they have, and even their existence, for the chance of making a change that will better the lives of their children. Perhaps a charismatic leader provides the spark. Perhaps it is some particularly horrible crime by those in power. The next phase of the cycle begins suddenly, usually violently.

It doesn't always go this way. Remember the Singing Revolution in Estonia.  In 1974 there was the Carnation Revolution in Portugal; in '86 the People Power Revolution in the Philippines and later a four-day popular revolt that peacefully overthrew Philippine President Joseph Estrada -  self-organized through SMS messaging. Solidarity in Poland, the toppling of the Berlin Wall by the people of the GDR, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia were also organized by unstoppable new social media (back then, fax-machine bulletin boards). Most recently there was the Arab Spring, put together on smart phones.

Less successful, but still simmering, are non-violent revolutions in Bahrain, Bashkortostan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Spain, Ukraine, Uzbekistan; and, oh, lest we forget, Occupy Wall Street.

George Lakey in his 1976 Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution laid out a five-stage strategy for nonviolent revolution:
Stage 1. Cultural Preparation or "Conscientization:" Education, training and consciousness raising of why there is a need for a nonviolent revolution and how to conduct a nonviolent revolution.

Stage 2. Building Organizations: Affinity groups or nonviolent revolutionary groups are organized to provide support, maintain nonviolent discipline, provide a coherent vision, and recruit and train people into networks.

Stage 3. Confrontation:  Organized and sustained campaigns of picketing, strikes, sit-ins, marches, boycotts, die-ins, blockades to disrupt business as usual in institutions and government. 

Stage 4. Mass Non-cooperation: Similar affinity groups and networks of affinity groups around the country and world, engage in similar actions to disrupt business as usual.

Stage 5. Parallel Government: Developing parallel institutions to take over functions and supplant former practices of government and commerce.

In each of the non-violent revolutions we mentioned there were common goals that were not difficult to comprehend or appreciate. In each case, violent or non-violent, there is a desire to create a new society. If the change is accomplished with violence, it will become a mostly futile gesture; "moving the furniture around," as Stephen Gaskin said. Accomplished without violence, its own act of birth expresses the values it wishes to see institutionalized and it may endure a bit longer.

Class oppression, environmental destruction, discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender or other criteria all drive revolution. A future that is environmentally sustainable, democratic, tolerant and fair is a worthwhile goal, even if it only lasts a few years at a time.

The one thing that México learned from history, that the US apparently forgot, is that revolution is better, less bloody and more forgiving when it comes with some frequency. It nearly came again to México in the early 2000's, but the Zapatistas, after popular consultas, listened to the peoples' wish for peace with development, chose to participate politically and were absorbed.

In the North, the American Revolution is celebrated with fireworks and the Boston Pops playing John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever.
Hurrah for the flag of the free.

May it wave as our standard forever

The gem of the land and the sea,

The banner of the right.

Let despots remember the day

When our fathers with mighty endeavor

Proclaimed as they marched to the fray,

That by their might and by their right

It waves forever.

Gandhi said the first principle of strategy is to stay on the offensive. The difference between the mantras of John Philip Sousa and that of, say, Russell Brand, could hardly be more stark. Shedding blood is entirely unnecessary —  and ultimately counterproductive. When its time has come, nothing stands in the way of a good idea.

Russell Brand's latest book, rEVOLution, is climbing the charts as the comedian and one-time actor is making rounds of all the talk shows. Revolution is funny, full of charm, and engaging. Does it describe a coherent alternative new society? No, but as he flitters from interview to interview, Brand teases out the central precepts of any agenda — debt jubilee; living wage and pension; cap on personal income; labor safety and environmental protections; clean energy. Not exactly The Transition Handbook, but Brand is more about the whys than the hows. His pithy skewers could float a political campaign if he were not evangelically anti-politics.

Like Naomi Klein, whose This Changes Everything was long on dirty laundry and short on detergent, Brand breaks down the things that stand in the way of real change: fiat money manipulation, dollared democracy, incest between the government, media and banking interests. What we're left with, Brand argues, is "a man-made system designed to serve us, an ideological machine. It has gone wrong and is tyrannizing us. We wouldn't tolerate that from a literal machine. If my vacuum cleaner went nuts and forced me to live in economic slavery … I'd fuck it off out the window."

Brand and Klein are both at Stage 1. The Transition movement has already moved on to stages 2, 4 and 5. It skipped stage 3 because confrontation was viewed as unnecessary, and Transition's stage 4, non-cooperation, is very selective. Like Permaculture's David Holmgren,  Transition's Rob Hopkins is making revolution without breaking glass. They are termites, gnawing at the foundations of death-wish winner-take-all dying empire, while drawing up blueprints for the giant earthen mounds that will replace the crumbling plastic and tinfoil edifice of globalized consumer civilization.

"We are having a revolution here, make no mistake. But it is going to be non-violent." — Peter Schweitzer, Forty Years on The Farm



Unknown said...

Excellent essay lifting the corner of the Matrix. "long on dirty laundry and short on detergent"--wonderful.

Danny C said...

Having been raised in San Diego and spending alot of time in Tijuana,BC, I was always fortunate to be aware of the hustling poverty of the masses. These would include those who pick the lettuce,and various crops across our country whose only desire is to feed and house their families. Revolution in Mexico or other such countries is easier to understand, however, than in the first world. As someone near and dear to me has said, I know that things in the world are vastly unfair, but I want to enjoy my life. And there is the conundrum of our society. We want to believe we're freer than those poverty stricken masses and we're secretly afraid we will end up "like them" if "revolution" became necessary. It already is.




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