Recuperating the Political

I post below a recent intervention by Gustavo Esteva appeared in La Jornada, Thursday 4 June 2007. (translated by C. Herold). Commenting on the recent movement in Oaxaca it poses the question of another “politics” based on dignity and presence rather than political “lines” and representation.

“Choose your enemy carefully,” warns an old Arab proverb, “because you will become like your enemy.” If your enemy is an army, you will need to create another to confront it; if your enemy is the mafia, you will become a mafia.

“We cannot involve the army of the United States in the fight against illegal drug trafficking,” said the U.S. anti-drug czar some years ago, “it would create a national security problem.” He was recognizing the risk involved, the risk of the dissolution of the armed forces if they are used for that purpose. His statement was entirely cynical–he had just returned from a tour of Latin America where he pressured every government he met to do exactly that. He didn’t care that those armies would dissolve. The army of the U.S. would remain standing, in case an army was called for.

Hard facts back the argument. A study by the lawyers guild of Puerto Rico reported, some time ago, that for every dollar paid by a consumer of illegal drugs in the U.S., the producers in Colombia or Mexico get from three to five cents. The distributors and traffickers get between ten to fifteen cents. The rest ends up in the hands of those who are supposedly fighting the drug trade.

This wise Arab proverb can be seen in another context. For Carl Schmitt, the prominent German legal theorist, the distinction friend/enemy forms the concept of the political, as the distinction between the good and the bad does for ethics, and the beautiful and the ugly does for aesthetics. The genius of Marx, according to Schmitt, was to convert the social question into a political issue by expressing it as the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

After the ostracism be suffered due to his sentence at Nuremberg (because of his services to the Nazi cause), Schmitt now enjoys posthumous fame. His books have finally been translated into English, and they are necessary references in the academic world, particularly in the United States. Regardless of the fact that the theoretical and ethical foundations of his arguments are weak, his approach does effectively describe the attitudes of the political classes in modern states. Without the distinction friend/enemy one could not understand U.S. policy nor the behavior of politicians of various ideological
orientations.

Those who conceive of politics in this manner, and who dedicate themselves obsessively to identifying allies and adversaries, frequently lose sight of the very sense of political action–the common good–and indeed even its very purposes. It is frequent, furthermore, that when difficulties emerge in confronting the enemies identified, the struggle
becomes oriented against those on your own side.

When the fights within the PRI stopped being resolved by the presidential handslap, the internal fights took on a literally mortal ferocity. The PRD seems to dedicate more energy toward its internal conflicts, between declared enemies, than with the struggle against external enemies or for the causes that it pretends to defend. The dirty rags of the PAN, which it used to wash at home, are now exhibited very publicly. The confrontations for candidacies are now frequently more intense than the competition for votes. And, as we have just seen in the process of 2006, the competition for votes is defined more and
more by a marketing oriented toward liquidating the enemy.

The organs of coordination of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca have suffered, from the beginning, of those obsessions–trapped in internal disputes and reducing the complex struggle of the APPO into the confrontation with an identified enemy. In contrast, within its social base, we see a disapproval for those obscene games of the political classes, and a growing commitment with other political traditions which do seriously occupy themselves with the common good.

Instead of a pitched battle for economic or political power, which has been the source of all corruption, their effort, at the social base, has been oriented toward directly carrying out the changes that are needed.

Instead of representation, which every time becomes more like a dispute between friends and enemies for positions and privileges, there is a search for presence, for the active exercise of dignity by men and women that create society, who are no longer satisfied with the vicarious enjoyment of the proposals, decisions, and actions of leaders or representatives, and instead directly take political activity into their own hands.

In Mexico, we learned all this with Zapatismo, which despite everything continues being heart and substance of the social and political movements today. With it, furthermore, a new perspective is being knit together.

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