On 25 May, in one of the autonomous communities in the Chiapas region in Mexico, a large group gathered to mark the death of a recently killed member of the anti-globalisation Zapatistas movement. Yet, for the Zapatistas, which, ever since 1994, have been fighting an odd post-guerilla war for the rights of the indigenous communities of Chiapas, the event was overshadowed by a speech from their de facto leader, the ski-mask-wearing Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos (also known as Sup Marcos). He said: ‘We believe that one of us must die, so that Galeano may live on. So we have decided that Marcos must die today[...] The one known as Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos no longer exists.’ Later, he added: ‘Comrades, my name is Galeano… Insurgente Galeano.’
News outlets reported that, in effect, Marcos had stepped down. But had he? Predictably, Marcos’ statement is more than a little cryptic. Plus, no one knows for sure who the man behind the mask is. According to the various rumours, Marcos is actually a university philosophy professor who, before retreating to the jungle, was really into the work of French thinkers Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (this might explain Marcos’s pompous language).
More importantly, even if Marcos, whoever he is, has stepped down, it is of very little practical importance. From the moment he burst upon the political scene in the mid-1990s, he was heralded by anti-globalisation protesters and Western Leftists less for what he actually did than for what was projected on to him by activists around the world desperately needing a hero for a post-Cold War left. Marcos was perfect for this role. He embodied an era of relativism and weak political convictions, where political sovereignty and democratic representation are happily put aside.
Marcos had quickly realised that these are times when taking big political ideas seriously is not considered a virtue. Naomi Klein, who was another influential figure in the anti-globalisation movement, once wrote that Marcos became a leading figure in the Zapatistas ‘not through swaggering certainty, but by coming to terms with political uncertainty, by learning to follow’ (1). According to Klein, Marcos left Mexico City and Marxism behind to ‘immerse himself in Mayan culture’, before adding: ‘The more he learned, the less he knew.’
Now, there is nothing wrong with someone changing his political convictions when persuaded that they are false or inadequate. But it was never clear what Marcos’ new ideas actually were, besides vague pleas for ‘respect’, ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity’ for the marginalised in Chiapas and beyond. Instead of a coherent political vision, Marcos preferred an incoherent mixture of mysticism, sensationalism and irrationalism. His stories, complete with a Mayan veneer, were more fun than dry post-structuralist jargon. But the result was the same: slippery language and wilful incoherence that shielded his thinking from any form of criticism. Without a programme, objectives or clear concepts, Marcos was very difficult to hold to account.