Last week, radical activist Gustavo Esteva gave four lectures on campus and also participated in a conversation with campus activist groups held at the Alpha Delta Phi Society (Alpha Delt). These lectures addressed his personal philosophies and opinions with a particular emphasis on the success of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico.
Esteva works both independently and collaboratively in Mexico as a deprofessionalized economic and sociological intellectual and has authored over three dozen books. In 1996, he was invited to be the advisor of the Zapatistas, a radical leftist community in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and currently dedicates himself to the struggle of the indigenous Mexican peoples.
“The Zapatistas teach us that we are not here to change the world. That’s something that is very difficult to be done, perhaps impossible,” Esteva said. “We are here to create a whole new world. After some years of doing this, we discovered that that is actually a very pragmatic statement.”
Esteva first spoke at the University in February 2012; his return was facilitated by Daniel Plafker ’15 and Ross Levin ’15. Esteva’s visit to campus was also sponsored by numerous departments and organizations on campus, including The Adelphic Educational Fund, the College of the Environment, the College of Social Studies, the Center for the Americas, the Government Department, the Anthropology Department, the Sociology Department and the John & Frances Hoy Endowment. It was also co-sponsored by Ajua Campos, United Student Labor Action Coalition, Local Food Co-op, WesDivest, and the Long Lane Farm Collective.
Esteva claims that Zapatista communities have a social structure different from that of capitalism, socialism, or communalism. He believes that their society is the first to end oppressive patriarchal and matriarchal structures.
“It is difficult to imagine, but we
are talking about hundreds of thousands of people in hundreds of communities in the middle of the jungle who have created a society without any form of exploitation, social classes, or private property, and still have an amazing level of a good life,” Esteva said.
The first lecture took place on Monday, Oct. 7 and was titled “Utopian Dreams Materialized: Zapatismo and the Insurrection of Ordinary People.” In this lecture, Esteva claimed that states frequently use utopian ideals as a way of convincing people to obey laws and adhere to organized societal structures. Esteva offered the Zapatista society as a sort of utopia in its lack of hierarchical societal structure, agreement on laws by all members, and unanimous support by all members.
Esteva also asked students to consider whether or not they live in a post-capitalist society and what that implies about the future of radical movements. J.J. Mitchell ’15 found his use of accessible language in lectures and charisma onstage especially captivating.
“He’s so inspirational and yet so normal,” Mitchell said. “This means that everyone can have his ideas, without feeling like you have to be an academic discussing revolutionary theories. It’s liberating.”
The Tuesday, Oct. 8 lecture was titled “Beyond the State, Beyond Development, Beyond the Postmodern: Anarchy and Buen Vivir.” Here, Esteva argued that the nation-state is an outmoded model of governance and that it is absurd to impose universal norms upon a population as large and diverse as that of the United States. Zapatista communities agree on their own societal norms and enforce them independently of a centralized state.
Ari Ebstein ’16 felt that the content of this lecture had important implications for the way that communities can be organized locally.
“It was incredible to hear that people are so concretely creating a different world,” Ebstein said. “Dreams like the ones that the Zapatistas have beget more dreams; they don’t contain themselves. What they’re doing in Mexico, their existence benefits not just Wesleyan students but Middletown citizens and us as citizens of this country.”
Esteva’s third lecture, held on Wednesday, Oct. 9, was called “Hope in the Face of the Intolerable: Apocalypse and Prospects for Emancipation.” He argued that to consider something intolerable implies that action against the intolerable thing will follow and invoked the Occupy Wall Street protests as evidence of United States action against intolerable governmental and societal structures.
“People are saying ‘Hey, my dreams don’t fit into your ballot box,’” Esteva said. “People want to do things, but they cannot reduce their aspirations to the ballot box, to the Democratic Party, or to the Republican party. Everybody accepts democracy as this universal system of government, and yet everywhere there is disenchantment with democracy.”
Esteva emphasized that it is impossible to bring the Zapatista style of governance to Middletown. These radical communities, he argued, should be used not as models for how governments should be run, but as inspiration for new ways of defining social relations in the world. When social movements exist to promote positive organized change rather than to start commotion, Esteva believes they allow citizens to reclaim personal agency in government.
Esteva’s final lecture on Friday, Oct. 11 was titled “Escaping the Ivory Tower: Insurgent Research and the Autonomous Production of Knowledge.” He argued that what modern-era intellectuals accept as the truth is not necessarily something that is right, but rather something that is widely affirmed. The twenty-first century, he believes, is bringing about more intellectuals who are questioning both conventional norms and their own presuppositions.
“No serious scientist in the twentieth-century would ever say, ‘I know,’” Esteva said. “In contrast, a nineteenth-century scientist would say ‘If A is true, then B is also true.’”
Esteva concluded this lecture by discussing the current government shutdown. Without a functional government system, Esteva argued, Americans are forced to take responsibility for their own individual actions. Similarly, he said, if the government refused to clear sewage in an urban environment, citizens would fail to adequately dispose of their own waste.
Mitchell found this analogy particularly jarring.
“It was so shocking yet so everyday because it was funny and vulgar,” she said. “He didn’t need to use huge words like hegemony or phrases like ‘discourse of power structures’ to get his point across.”
Esteva’s lectures were consistently well attended and received positive feedback from members of the student body. In an interview with The Argus, Esteva noted that if he were to emphasize one point about the Zapitistas, it would be that the members of their communities are ordinary men and women.
“For me, being at Wesleyan is an important intercultural encounter and opportunity for working together and building on relationships,” Esteva said. “It’s incredible to me how much is happening outside the U.S. that you [students] don’t know about. This is a new kind of revolution. It’s amazing that more people here don’t know about it.”