What do the Zapatistas and Bernie Sanders have in common? Hint: Not a Revolution. To untangle this, let us back up a bit. Let me rely on my extensive academic and first-hand knowledge of the United States and Mexico's relationship to political social change, in order to delve deeper into the "Feel the Bern" phenomenon. You've heard of the Zapatistas, haven't you? They are the peoples who sparked an anti-establishment political revolution against the Mexican Govt., free trade, big banks and NAFTA. Starting to sound familiar?
The day following the Iowa caucuses, a CNN headline read, "Bernie Sanders' Improbable Revolution." Common Dreams wrote, "Astounding the World in Iowa, Sanders' Revolution Marches on." South Carolina Now's headline stated, "For Sanders, Iowa is Chance to Turn Revolution into Reality."
Is Bernie Sanders sparking a political revolution, as the dominant media suggests? Is the American public witnessing a rejection of the establishment, as Bernie argues? Sanders calls for a rejection of Wall Street, he rejected NAFTA and calls for an end to corrupt corporate effects of globalization. Sanders' rhetoric is not unlike the rhetoric of the Zapatistas, an indigenous group on the other side of the NAFTA border, which also called for an anti-establishment political revolution. Of concern, is that the mainstream media, and the public, has not challenged Sanders' use of his persuasive tropes of "anti-establishment" and "revolution." If we vote for Sanders, will this, in fact, be America's future? Real people are affected by the policies that Sanders claims he will revolt against. Claims to ameliorate the material realities of exploitation and poverty, through revolution, should not be accepted without critical scrutiny.
On January 1, 1994, the day of the signing of NAFTA, which Sanders also voted against, the Zapatistas presented themselves to the world. The Zapatistas were, and continue today, to represent the embodiment of an anti-establishment, political revolution -- the same categories, which Sanders' invokes, in his campaign rhetoric. In Chiapas, Mexico, they trained in secret, for years, prior to the signage of NAFTA; they saw the writing of the wall. Today, 41 years later, this revolutionary, anti-establishment, anti-globalization, anti-neoliberal economic movement has resulted in six autonomous "caracoles," (independent land sites), wherein the indigenous peoples are a fully functioning autonomous "Gobierno bueno" (good government) body, which practices direct democracy. "Caracoles," in Spanish, means snails. Because revolution is slow, like a snail.
Bernie Sanders' rhetoric calls for voters to spark a revolution. He claims to be a candidate who is anti-establishment: "We need a political revolution of millions of people in this country who are prepared to stand up and say, 'enough is enough' ... I want to help lead that effort," and "With your support and the support of millions of people throughout this country, we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally."
Sanders' discourse effectively taps into the public consciousness pertaining to the Occupy movement, which attacked Wall Street and the one percent. He wants to be a leader for the people. The forgotten. The shrinking middle-class. The rhetoric is, indeed, persuasive. But is it revolutionary?
Sanders' rhetoric is persuasive, as the aforementioned Sanders' headlines are a reflection of Bernie's utilization of two dominant ideographs -- one-word political slogans, imbued with ideology, deployed again and again, within his political rhetoric: "anti-establishment" and "revolution." Sanders' use of these tropes has been effective. For example, Sanders has raised roughly thirty-three million dollars within the last three months of 2015, with the average donation equaling $27.13. Sanders, a one-time long shot, just pulled out Iowa with a virtual tie, winning twenty-one delegates against Hillary's twenty-two.
In January of 2006, as an analogue, the Zapatistas embarked on, in response to the Mexican Presidential election, "La Otra Compaña" (the Other Campaign). The campaign operated outside of the two primary political parties--the PAN and the PRI. The campaign was an attempt to unify the people of Mexico, along with pre-existing groups of resistance, to continue to struggle against the establishment. It was a call for the rejection of the two-party system, a rejection of corporate interests and corrupt politicians. Subcomondante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatistas, functioned as anti-establishment, when he stated: "the goal of the campaign is not to speak or run for office, but to listen to the simple and humble people who struggle." In not running Marcos for office, the Zapatistas remained inherently anti-establishment. Their rhetoric, which existed outside of the mainstream political system, enabled movements of resistance against neo-liberal capitalist forces to grow -- forging strong alliances with other activists groups to form strong hegemonic blocks against the Mexican Government.
Is Sanders anti-establishment? Unlike Subcomondante Marcos, not running for office as a PRI or PAN candidate, Sanders sits squarely as a part of the mainstream United States political process. Sanders, a current Senator of Virginia, is a life-long politician, concurrently eschewing the role of an independent, in order to embrace and center himself as part of the mainstream Democratic party. While the Zapatistas called for the masses to reject voting, and create a revolutionary alternative, Sanders wants your vote. He wants you to continue to participate within the established political system. In other words, the status quo.
When analyzing Sanders' rhetoric, in conjunction with the mainstream media's usage of his campaign as "a political revolution," one must look at the systemic elements at play. A political revolution -- both rhetorically and materially, involves the overthrow or rejection of a system or government, most often by force, and replacing that system with a new system. Sanders is not calling for a rejection of the current system. He wants to be a part of it. If he were to be elected President, Congress is still there. Thus, his "revolution" would need to garner enough Democratic seats to overrule a Republican filibuster, or the masses would have to exert so much pressure, from the ground, that the house and senate would be persuaded to capitulate on issues such as a single-payer healthcare system, taxes, free tuition, single-payer healthcare, etc. Given the ideology of the Republics and the far right, this does not equate to a mass shift in consciousness, which would be a necessary prerequisite to any revolution.
Forty-one years later, in 2016, the Zapatistas now have indigenous and autonomous control over land and resources -- land free from maquiladoras (sweat shops), slave labor, GMOs, corporate land take-overs, corrupt politicians, bankers and multi-national corporations. Instead, their revolution has produced thriving communities with their own schools, healthcare clinics, thriving crops, indigenous language preservation and even an academic and trade focused University--all free. Run by the people, for the people.
Whist reflecting on the Zapatistas revolution, in April of 2015, the Zapatistas clarified the distinction, in a world-wide communiqué, between revolutionary change and voting in mainstream elections: "Because it's the same thing among all those who want a political position, regardless of whether they dress up red, or sometimes in blue, or sometimes they put on a new color. And then they say they are the people and that therefore, the people have to support them. But they aren't of the people. They're the same bad governments who one day are local representatives, and the next are union leaders, then they are party functionaries . . . bouncing from one position to another, and also from one color to another."
To be clear, I am not equating Bernie with the Zapatistas, that would, indeed, be apples and oranges -- a fallacy of equivalence. But that is precisely the point. There are, indeed, revolution economic justice movements happening on the ground, around the world. We are not witnessing a political ant-establishment revolution, with Sanders' campaign, as the mainstream media describes. When the dominant media articulates Sanders' campaign as a revolutionary, it de-centers actual revolutionary work stemming, from grassroots groups, operating outside of the mainstream political parties, nation-wide, in numerous communities from the ground up.
Yes, Sanders has raised a lot of money. Yes, Sanders' rhetoric is persuasive. Yes, people are "feeling the Bern." But they are feeling the "burn" of a traditional established politician, operating within a mainstream political system, with all of the mainstream political constraints for change--not a "burn" of a radical political revolution, which inherently changes the system. NAFTA will still exist. Wall St. will still exist. The Republican House will still exist. Revolutions transform, they rupture, re-work and replace governmental systems. Political revolutions do not stem from $27.13 donations to a mainstream political party candidate. To witness true revolution, you'd have to visit the Zapatista snails in Chiapas.