System Change Made Simple

The Zapatistas: A State that is not a State

July 23, 2022 Terry Leahy Season 1 Episode 9
System Change Made Simple
The Zapatistas: A State that is not a State
Show Notes Transcript

The region of Mexico controlled by the Zapatistas is a ‘temporary autonomous zone’. The podcast explains how the Zapatistas implement community control of economics and politics. The most thorough attempt to set up a gift economy in recent history. Also, a hybrid of the gift economy and capitalism — with some of the problems that go with that. The ‘state’ cannot exist in a gift economy. Yet the Zapatistas show us how we might square this circle, with a state that is not a state. 

10. Zapatistas - a state that is not a state

Terry Leahy 2023


A question often comes up when I am talking about a non-monetary post capitalist economy. Can you show us any examples around the world where this is already being done? An example of a pure case, where people are running their whole lives and their communities without the use of money. Not like the hybrids I have discussed in the last two chapters — using money and commodities to realize some of the aims of a gift economy. And not a small localized non-monetary organisation, like a community garden run by volunteers. 


To find a whole region of the world being organized in a non-monetary way is a big ask. The region of Chiapas where the Zapatistas are dominant is the closest case. It makes sense to explore how this is working. It is not a fully realized example of a non-monetary economy. Nevertheless, it is a place where the ambition to achieve this goal has become defining. 


However else you might want to label it you could definitely call it a temporary autonomous zone (a TAZ) — to use the concept developed by Peter Lamborn Wilson (Hakim Bey).[1] A TAZ is an anarchist political system set up on a temporary footing, for its own sake. Without any assumption being made that the polity will establish a new world order based on anarchist principles. Wilson is thinking of the pirate utopias of the early capitalist period. The Albanian uprising of the nineties is another good example.  


In 1988, an organization called the FLN, the national liberation forces, established a front in Chiapas. This was a Mexican leftist grouping inspired by Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution. They aimed to be the cadres of a revolutionary vanguard, a Marxist-Leninist party. To inspire the indigenous peasants of Chiapas to rise in revolution. Then the revolutionary state would take control of the means of production. There would be representative democratic organisation, wage labour, state ownership. The democratic socialist platform. Working in Chiapas as an underground movement, they gradually changed their approach. They renamed their organisation as EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation. They had come to believe that organizing had to come from the grassroots. The nascent revolutionary army had to take instructions from the local people. In 1994 at the same time as Mexico was entering the free trade agreement with United States and Canada (NAFTA), they started a revolution to take control of Chiapas. The Mexican government sent in armed forces, acting with great brutality. In reaction there were huge demonstrations in the cities of Mexico. International support for the Zapatistas came from leftists in Europe and other countries of the global North. In the end, the armed struggle lasted for only 12 days and was concluded in a stalemate. So, the EZLN had used the armed struggle to mobilize nationally and internationally and force the government to a truce. 


In these early days the Zapatistas took over huge tracts of land. These were landed estates owned by absentee landlords or local magnates. On these estates, the local indigenous peasants had been forced into a status close to slavery. They were paid minimal wages and were tied to their land and its landlord. The local people with the support of EZLN and its army appropriated these estates, taking more than 500,000 hectares. Along with these occupations they set up an autonomous and parallel government. 


To an extent the stalemate continues. While the government does not send its ‘army’ to re-conquer the Zapatista territory, they secretly fund paramilitary gangs of thugs. These paramilitaries sometimes kidnap leaders of the Zapatista movement, and occasionally launch attacks on Zapatista towns, killing civilians. The EZLN responds with force. Usually, these confrontations are ended through negotiations brokered by sympathetic priests. Within the Zapatista region, businesses and market relationships continue with the rest of Mexico, alongside alternative economic structures. Not everyone living in these areas has joined the Zapatistas and some oppose them. Those who do become members are allocated particular responsibilities and must sign a declaration in support of Zapatista principles. The Zapatistas are inclusive in opening their alternative government services to all community members, including those who are not members or supporters. 


My detailed account of what is going on in the Zapatista territory is based heavily on Autonomy in our Hearts, by Dylan Eldridge Fitzwater.[2] Fitzwater is a United States visitor to Chiapas. He is a fluent Spanish speaker. In Chiapas he attended a Zapatista school for foreign sympathizers where he was learning about the struggle of the Zapatistas while also learning the local Tsotsil language. The book argues that concepts from Indigenous languages are central to the organisation of the Zapatista movement. The aim of the movement, as expressed in the local language, is the coming together of a big collective heart. Another rendering of their intentions is that they want to make life good for everyone. The foundational text of the movement is the revolutionary law of the Zapatistas. I will come to that later. While I am calling it a TAZ, it certainly aims to maintain itself and to become an ally of similar but diverse movements in other places. A part of a ‘pluriverse’ to use the word coined by post-development authors.[3]


The framework of ‘hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism’ explained in earlier chapters can work for the Zapatista region. Beginning with some of the market aspects. 


The region is still host to market relations linking organisations to Mexico as a whole and to the global market. People may have jobs in Mexican or international companies still operating in the Zapatista territory. Money authorized by the Mexican government is still local currency. A minority of towns and villages in the region are still run by the Mexican state. In other words, a mixed or parallel government and economy. The Zapatistas receive donations from international organisations that rely on the global market. For example, supplying dry composting toilets or medical equipment. The Zapatistas work with non-monetary economics, as I will explain, but they have also set up local cooperatives marketing their products. For example, agricultural cooperatives, bus services, community banks, community shops. To control the market the Zapatistas have set up local commissions to set prices and wages. For example, to set equal wages for women or a decent wage for women. These attempts to establish market cooperatives lead to some typical problems of international aid work — that often fails to make such projects work.[4]


The non-market aspects of the Zapatista region are equally significant. Not only are these non-market aspects present, but the ZPA has a commitment to push non-market non-monetary provision as far as possible.


To start with, one family cannot own more than 50 hectares of farming land. So, there is no possibility of large capitalist estates, employing people at dirt wages. Owners of these small farms are feeding their own families through subsistence (non-market) agriculture. Village and town agricultural collectives are doing the same. Marketing a small surplus while most production goes to the collective. Some collectives operate on what used to be large estates. The former peons gather every day to go to work on the community plots, harvesting and allocating the produce as equal shares at the end of the day. 


Neighbourhood committees decide on requests for housing. Based on need. In other words, the market in real estate is not operating. There are free health services delivered by Zapatista hospitals. These services extend to people who are not members of the Zapatista organization. Free education is provided in Zapatista schools. Radio stations have been set up. Rural areas that have not had electricity are being supplied with electric power.  


A very significant innovation is that governing authorities, the democratically elected governing authorities of the Zapatista region, are not paid a wage. They are paid in kind directly. Communities volunteer gifts to make it possible for the elected representatives to suspend their work at home while they are in office.  


 Dylan Eldridge Fitzwater spent a lot of time in one of the local communities. He describes the pattern of work and subsistence. 


Every day I was there all the men, women and children went together to work in their fields, with all tasks being shared equally by men and women. In the kitchen, everyone also worked together, with men and women both participating in making the meal. By far the most important source of resources in a Zapatista community is that community’s own trabajos colectivos.


For example, in the community where Fitzwater was staying, there was a community maize field of twelve hectares. Workers from each municipality were rostered on to work on this field to provide food for the workers at the Zapatista hospital. They sold a surplus from this field to fund other collective projects.


Before going on to look at the structure of governing authority created by the Zapatistas it is useful to look at some issues that show how the Zapatistas work to deal with typical problems. 


One is the tension between wealthy and poorer regions of their territory. A frequent objection to the idea of a stateless post-capitalism is that inequalities between groups would magnify — without a democratic state supervising outcomes and allocating resources fairly. For example, on a global scale, sub-Saharan Africa versus Europe. Or more nationally, the Appalachians versus New York. The Zapatistas face a problem of exactly this type. Their region can be divided into two basic sections. The highlands and the lowlands. The people living in the highlands do not have a lot of fertile agricultural land. In the period before the Zapatista intervention, they would supply migrant labour to the big, landed estates in the lowlands. Following the Zapatista uprising these large estates have been taken over by local people from the lowlands, cutting out the employment options for highland people. The lowland people use some of this land for their subsistence and also grow cash crops. The first initiative of the Zapatistas was to encourage highlands people to migrate and take over some of the lowland estates, where landlords had been expelled. This initiative was not particularly successful as the highland people would be unwilling to stay in the lowlands. They would return to their highland villages and to poverty and malnutrition. The next initiative was to market maize to the highlands at a low subsidized price. This was also patchy in its effects. To begin with the lowlands farmers were selling only the worst of the maize crop – the ears of corn that had gone mouldy. So, the Zapatista in the lowlands intervened to try to prevent this practice. At the present time, this is a work in progress. 


No central body attempted to solve this problem with a top-down decree, imposing a ‘fair’ solution on one party or the other. Instead, there were continuous and ongoing negotiations between autonomous Zapatista authorities elected in their different sections of the territory. It was up to these bodies to come to an agreement and work out how to move ahead with this problem. 


The Zapatistas are committed to gender equality. As argued in earlier chapters, it is unlikely that a classless society can be maintained without this. The formal commitment to gender equality is an element in the revolutionary law that is the foundation of the Zapatista project. Various aspects of traditional patriarchy are illegal within this revolutionary constitution. Women are not to be forced into marriage. They have the right to decide how many children they want. They are to be protected from assault and sexual violence. They have a right to a just salary and to education. The revolutionary law is foundational across the Zapatista region. To sign up to become a member of the Zapatistas is to agree to these principles. Another stipulation is that members abstain from alcohol. This requirement also connects to gender equality. As in much of the global South, poverty can be exacerbated if men spend income on alcohol. Domestic violence is also related to alcohol abuse. The Zapatistas attempt to forestall these problems. 


The Zapatistas stipulate quotas for women in governing authorities. Fifty per cent for every elected body. As Fitzwater notes, this is rarely implemented fully. The figure is usually closer to 30%. Women are often reluctant to take on these roles. They may not have enough time, given their domestic responsibilities. Their husbands may not support them. 


These measures, and the problems in implementing them in practice reveal aspects of traditional local culture. The power of men in families. The division of labour in the home. The greater access to the cash economy enjoyed by men. These inequalities are grounded in traditional land ownership practices — passing land from father to son. While the Zapatistas have mooted proposals to overturn this bias, these have not been passed by governing bodies. 


The Zapatistas have supplemented their more legislative interventions with economic support for women. To set up women's cooperatives. For example, weaving, embroidery, sewing, providing food at parties, agricultural collectives to grow cash crops. Talking to local women about these issues, Fitzwater found that it was common for women to despair of changing the division of labour in their families. At the same time, they were committed to bringing up their sons to do housework and to cook. They were insisting on an equal share of domestic work from their sons and daughters. 


Summarizing we can say that the demolition of patriarchy is ongoing. The Zapatistas and the people of their region have made some important inroads in this field. This is a complex scenario. The Zapatistas as an organisation exercise a social closure in terms of ‘membership’. To become a member is to sign up to a set of principles that includes various aspects of gender equality. Yet as we shall see, it could be a mistake to think of these as ‘laws’ to be implemented centrally by the Zapatista state. The governing bodies of the Zapatista region are nested autonomous entities in charge of their own affairs. So, the implementation of these general principles relies on these autonomous bodies — working out how to go about this for their own fiefdoms, as it were. This leads to outcomes of the kind I have described. A general principle can require fifty per cent of governing bodies to be women — while in practice local conditions can mean that there are closer to 30 per cent. 


The system of justice operating in the Zapatista territories embodies local participatory control over governing authority. In some ways an abolitionist paradigm case. There are no police or prisons. Justice is via a system of community mediation, organized by elected governing authorities. The aim is to find a solution and get both parties to agree to that. For example, reparations to injured parties and their families and communities. That can be through a payment or work duties. However, to complicate this picture, the EZLN, the Zapatista army, uses force when necessary to secure the territory. When paramilitary thug squads attack, the EZLN responds with force. While that does not make them a police force, their function is certainly to police the territory. To respond to violence with violence. The paramilitary are being treated as ‘bandits’ infringing on the rights of the community. Violence is not the only response to such attacks. The EZLN also negotiates truces with the paramilitary forces, brokered by local church mediators. 


Let us now look at the EZLN and consider whether it operates as the armed wing of a Zapatista state. Giving the state a monopoly of legitimate force. Weber’s classic definition of a ‘state’. This is not an easy question to answer. The Zapatista occupation and their alternative economy and political regime came out of an armed struggle. The Mexican state negotiated a truce because the EZLN was a credible military force. The Zapatista political and economic regime depends on their army. Yet the Zapatistas do not intend their army to become the instrument of a centralized Zapatista state — ruling over the population. Instead, their role is making it possible for the people to govern themselves. To clear the space so that other armed bodies do not step in and take over. In this role, the EZLN responds to requests for action coming from the local elected bodies. 


At the same time, the EZLN acts internally in much the same way as armies controlled by states. There is a hierarchical chain of command. This duality is not unknown in the pre-colonial Indigenous stateless societies of this part of the world. As Clastres and other anthropologists have pointed out, local war leaders have authority as commanders on the field[5]. But their authority is temporary. Recruits to war parties are volunteers, they are not drafted by their communities. The war chiefs have no power of command at home, where a participatory democratic polity runs affairs. 


As part of the foundational ‘revolutionary law’, the army makes no independent decisions about when to use armed force. They only respond to requests from the civil authorities. It is these authorities that have the power to levy war taxes in their communities. In a typical state, armed force is commanded by the state. This armed force provides the leverage to tax the population. Pay up or else. These taxes fund the army. Giving the state a monopoly of violence. Here, these arrangements are altered substantially. The army does not step in on behalf of the state to coerce taxation. That is not their role. There is no police force to do this either. So, the funds (taxes) provided to government can be considered as gifts. Donations of goods in kind also maintain governing authorities and the army. So, it makes sense to think of the EZLN as an army funded by donations from the communities. Their role is only to clear the space so these communities can run their own affairs. In doing this, they take instructions from the elected representatives of the communities. 


To further complicate this picture, the EZLN is not the sole agency of legitimate armed force in the Zapatista territories. Within the revolutionary law, regional councils also have the right to set up their own local militia. 


To understand the context for this analysis of the EZLN, we need to look at the structures of governing authority that have been set up since the Zapatistas took over. The parts of Chiapas run by the Zapatistas are divided into five regions (caracoles). Each of these regions is further divided into municipalities. Each of these municipalities is made up of autonomous communities. Towns or smaller villages. At each of these levels of authority, they choose representatives to go to the next level higher up. At the village level, they choose representatives to go to the municipal level. At the municipal level, they choose representatives to go to the regional level. For the whole of the Zapatista territory, the five regional councils meet together.


The process of election is a little bit different from that in rich world representative democracies. There's an assembly of the relevant electoral body. So, in electing municipal councillors, the relevant bodies are assemblies of all the people in a village, electing their municipal councillor. In electing the regional council, the relevant bodies are assemblies of each municipal council. To give a typical example of how these elections proceed. In each case, the electoral body will begin by nominating five candidates for each position. Then they will vote for each position. Deciding by a majority vote which candidate of the five gets the position. Candidates are not permitted to nominate themselves and do not stand as representatives of any party. Instead, the five potential candidates for a position are nominated by their peers. Nomination is not sought. It is not perceived as an opportunity to wield power but as a responsibility being placed upon you by your community — to work on their behalf. A duty understood as being very taxing. In practice, representatives must leave their homes for a period of office and walk from place to place, seeking the guidance of the relevant communities. 


This is just an example. In fact, each of these communities, municipalities and regions makes its own rules about the electoral process. So, there are minor differences within this general framework. 


The revolutionary law of the Zapatistas stipulates seven principles for the civil authorities. 


•       Serve others, not oneself.

•       Represent not supplant.

•       Build not destroy.

•       Obey not command.

•       Propose not impose.

•       Convince, not defeat.

•       Go below, not above.



The fourth of these points summarizes their approach and is expressed in this slogan. The people rule and the government obeys. There are two main ways in which this slogan is implemented in practice. 


1. The governing authorities can believe that a particular problem is causing trouble in their territory. For example, a municipality might be faced with a set of disputes over land ownership. A councillor could propose an agreement to deal with the problem. They would discuss this matter in the council and develop a promising approach. The next step would be for the councillors to take this proposal back to their communities. They seek opinions and meet again as a council to consider the responses. The aim is to adjust the proposal to achieve a consensus that will be accepted in all the communities. What we get out of this process are negotiated agreements. The municipality facilitates the making of agreements to solve problems that are coming up in the communities. This applies at all levels of government. A regional proposal would be taken back to the municipalities to get agreement. And so on. 


Once an agreement has been made, the role of the relevant authority is to monitor the agreement. So, in the example above, the councillor in each community would attend to the implementation of the agreement in their community. To make sure that the agreement is being implemented. If there is a community where the agreement is not working and not being implemented, the councillor would take this issue back to the council. Then the whole process would be repeated. The council would propose a further agreement to deal with the problems in implementing the first agreement. Then this would go back to the communities. 


This process illustrates the way in which the autonomy of each governing unit is maintained. An agreement has no force to coerce the recalcitrant governing unit into line. It only continues to operate if the constituent units continue to abide by it. Otherwise, it must be re-negotiated. Here, governing authorities act like the production units of a gift economy. In the gift economy, as described in earlier chapters, autonomous bodies create ‘compacts’ to coordinate their economic activities. Here, the territorial units facilitate agreements between autonomous parties in relation to issues that concern that territory. For example, how land disputes are to be resolved. How communities relate to international NGOs that want to help. How a road is to be maintained. How the local hospital is to be provisioned. And so on. We may reflect on this explanation to review the issue of provisioning for the army. No territorial unit will be forced to provision the army, according to a majority decision of the relevant superordinate territorial unit. Instead, an agreement to supply funding from each territorial unit will be worked out and implemented. Meaning that the funding is in effect a gift, rather than a tax, or tribute, in the usual manner of a state apparatus. 


 2. A second kind of governing by obeying is like this. Citizens in one or more communities may ask their governing body to provide a particular project. For example, for their regional authority to provide local hydro power plants for rural villages. The ‘good government council’ of the region will meet with local councils and community committees to investigate the request and to consider why citizens are asking for this. What is the nature of the need? What is the cheapest way to do this? What international funding bodies might help? If the regional authority is convinced that this is a good idea, they will initiate moves to implement it. The process described above is remarkably like that which operates in the Chikukwa villages with their community organisation (CELUCT – see the previous chapter). Village clubs make proposals to CELUCT to use the community funds for proposed projects. These are considered and where feasible implemented. Through that process CELUCT develops projects that fit the needs of their communities. This procedure deals with a typical issue in a way that can be democratic and fair. Proposals from a particular constituency are considered by an elected body from the whole of the territory so that resources owned by the whole territory may be applied to the problem. The government obeys – puts proposals into action – while the people rule — make proposals that the government implements.


A crucial aspect of the operation of governing authorities in the Zapatista territories is that elected representatives are not paid a wage. Instead, local bodies provide them with assistance in kind. Most usually this is food. In their period of office, the representatives cannot work on their fields. Someone from their local community volunteers to take on the agricultural work that they are unable to do. At the heart of their system of political authority is a non-monetary economy. A system of voluntary gifting that enables the political authority to operate.


There are various ways in which governing authorities secure funds to engage in projects. These funds can be used to pay for items that cannot be sourced locally. For example, cement for a hydro dam. One method is a ten per cent tax on Mexican or international businesses operating in their territory. Another method is to ask the community collectives set up by the Zapatistas to pay money towards community projects. For example, a coffee growing collective is receiving income by selling their product on the international market. The governing authorities can ask them to use some of their profits to assist a local project requested by the community. Another source of funds for projects is donations from international NGOs that are supporting the Zapatistas. To avoid resentment between communities, the Zapatista authorities insist that all such donations are organized through their own elected authorities. So a particular locality cannot enjoy largesse from an international NGO while other communities miss out. The effect is to ensure that funded projects are those authorized by the whole community. An independent authority also oversees all government bodies to prevent corrupt practices. As noted, this patchwork of practices is a bit different to that of a state authorized to use armed force to secure taxes. The closest thing to a tax here is the demand that externally located businesses pay a levy to operate on Zapatista lands. It seems likely that this requirement is backed up by the force of EZLN as well as by community pressure. 


A further practice is designed to prevent governing authorities from becoming a permanent elite, separate from the communities and taking control. This is a system of rotation. The elected representatives do not serve every day of their term of office. Instead, they are required to serve for a period and then return to their normal life for a period — while another representative on the roster serves in their place.  For example, a municipal councillor might be in office for two weeks, back in the village for three weeks, back in office for another two weeks and so on — for a three-year term. The effect is that people who are in government at any level are also going back into their communities to work on their fields and participate in local life.


Let us now discuss some of these Zapatista strategies. Starting with the Zapatista economy. The Zapatistas are strongly committed to a non-monetary economy, and yet they are unable to implement that in full. Their economy, taken as a whole, is just another hybrid. Showing how difficult it is to set up a temporary autonomous zone that is totally non-monetary — when your local region depends on an external market economy for some supplies. Hospital equipment. Generators and turbines for power supply. Cement for constructing local dams. Vehicles for transport. Weapons for their army. There is a limit to the high-tech goods that can be supplied by a small and largely agricultural economy. The way the Zapatistas provide the money necessary to purchase these commodities is twofold. One is maintaining various private commercial businesses that charge money and pay wages. Some of these are branch offices of national and international companies. The other way is by funding start-up cooperative businesses marketing products both inside and outside their territory. 


This hybrid economy works to a certain extent, but it is not without problems. As explained in other chapters, the market economy can readily expand and undermine the gift economy side of a hybrid. Families can decide to make cash crops their priority, at the expense of the subsistence crops that are the heart of the alternative economy. Market incentives can undermine community control. Fitzwater describes the problems that plagued a health bank set up by the Zapatista authorities. The purpose was to provide community members with loans if they needed expensive pharmaceuticals. The municipal authority was meant to supervise this process. So that people receiving loans were using them for a genuine medical purpose. In practice the municipal authority started to allocate loans to friends who were starting up commercial businesses. Without any medical purpose. This corruption was discovered and stopped. But it illustrates the intrusion of the market that is a constant threat in any hybrid.


Depending on NGOs for assistance to acquire high-tech goods can be a problem if those NGOs start to set the agenda for projects. Using scarce funds to kick start cooperatives is very often ineffective. You are inevitably taking a risk that the cooperative will not be successful as a business. With disillusion and frustration for all concerned. Fitzwater shows how the Zapatista authorities have faced problems like this. Cooperatives for a bus service, a rice husking service, a shoe making business and a bike factory all failed. All these cooperatives depended on a donation of some high-tech machinery. In the end, they found it impossible to maintain the machinery and make their cooperative work. The most successful cooperatives made use of already existing skills and equipment. Grazing beef cattle. Growing coffee. The downside of such low-tech agricultural projects is that they do not help the Zapatista region to become autonomous and independent. It can be hard to put aside money to maintain high tech machinery. It is hard to save when members of the cooperative are living on the bread line. The hegemonic ideal of a modern technological lifestyle can siphon money into projects that are not sustainable. The household where Fitzwater was staying was waiting on electricity to power up donated water purification filters. A water supply technology that is probably not sustainable in that village context.


What these problems indicate is the difficulty of maintaining an autonomous zone that depends on high-tech products sourced from the global capitalist economy. Even items like fencing mesh, guttering and cement are coming from outside. It is perhaps possible that some of these, or adequate replacements, could be sourced from Chiapas. But the solution adopted by the Zapatistas likely makes sense when they must avoid increasing the hardships of local people. Ideally, we would internationalize the gift economy and provide any essential high-tech goods through a network of producer clubs located in autonomous towns and villages. 


My final discussion for this chapter is the issue of the state and the non-market economy. As indicated in previous chapters there is an argument that there can be no state in a gift economy. A representative state depends on a body of paid enforcers who implement the will of the majority — as defined by their elected representatives. The police and army of the state. A gift economy makes it impossible to operate a system like this. Even if you wanted to. People are supplied by communities. Their ‘income’ is in the form of gifts. Either, in the form of self-provisioning at a local level. The household or community garden. Or through negotiated agreements with other productive units. A chair making collective. A health service. A bus service. And so on. The effect is that no one has any need or motive to serve as the paid enforcer of a state. To carry out the will of the state and exercise violence on command. 


Zapatista practice suggests a way in which government of a territorial region may work without a ‘state’ in the usual sense. It's a state that's not a state. Various policies contribute to constitute this alternative. The aim of the elected representatives is to develop agreements that get consensus between different territorial units. Related to this, their role is to monitor existing agreements and facilitate adjustments when agreements are not working. If we think of the territorial elements as units in a gift economy, then the role of governing authorities is to mediate ‘compacts’ between smaller constitutive territorial units. At each level, a territorial unit handles matters that pertain to that territory, taken as a whole. For example, the roads used by all the people residing in a municipality. 


We could think of two different kinds of compacts in a gift economy. One is those compacts which must be maintained in a particular territory because everyone in the territory is affected by what is decided. The proper concern of the territorial authorities. Another is compacts between organizations, which may not be the concern of these territorial authorities. For example, we may have a network of railway clubs in different municipalities. For the most part, they liaise with each other to provide rail as a community service. They do not need oversight via a democratic authority representing the will of the people. Instead, as producers, they operate as a voluntary club, making compacts with other producer organisations and with their consumers. On the other hand, certain decisions relevant to the railway service might be worked out in consultation with a territorial authority. Like where the rail line in each municipality is to be established.  


The Zapatistas have various ways of ensuring that the governing authorities do not become a state, exercising coercive power over the population. With some exceptions, there is no ‘taxation’ to fund the territorial governance, backed up by armed force. Instead, the territorial authorities are provided with gifts in kind that allow them to do their work. In terms of the gift economy framework, we can think of these authorities as just another voluntary producer club. The members are funded by their own work (self-provisioning) or by free donations in kind. This status has a parallel in the arrangements for the army. The army is not at the disposal of the central governing authority – the meetings of the five regional authorities. Instead, it responds to requests from local democratic bodies. In terms of gift economy framing, the army is a club. Its actions are worked out in compacts with other clubs – the local democratic authorities. Just like the government itself, it is not funded directly out of taxes raised by the central governing authorities. But instead, it is funded through voluntary provision in kind coming from local bodies. 


I find this a very interesting way of looking at the Zapatistas. It may be that my description of the operation of their army and governing authorities turns out to be an idealisation. That further research will undermine this picture. Or that future developments will consolidate the Zapatista region as a much more conventional state/market/class operation than it has been so far. One may also wonder if the Zapatista territorial organisations are sensible for an economy that still has a large market element. And may not be necessary in a fully non-monetary economy. Nevertheless, what this analysis points to is a way of conceiving territorial democratic organisation in the context of a gift economy. More of this in the next chapter where I will consider the classic definitions of the ‘state’, and anarchist critiques of the state. 


[1] Bey, Hakim 1985, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic
[2] Fitzwater, Dylan Eldredge 2019, Autonomy Is in Our Hearts: Zapatista Autonomous Government through the Lens of the Tsotsil Language, PM Press, Oakland CA.
[3] Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, Alberto Acosta, ‘Finding Pluriversal Paths’ in Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, Alberto Acosta (eds) 2019, Pluriverse, A Post-Development Dictionary, Tulika Books, New Delhi, pp. xxi-xl.
[4] Leahy, Terry (2019), Food Security for Rural Africa: Feeding the Farmers First, Routledge, UK.
[5] Clastres, Pierre 1987, Society Against the State : Essays in Political Anthropology, Zone Books, New York; Clastres, Pierre 2010, Archaeology of Violence, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles.