What may turn out to be the biggest political movement of the 21st century emerged from the rainforest remnants of southern Mexico on 1 January 1994, carried down darkened, cobbled colonial streets by 500 pairs of black leather boots at precisely 30 minutes past midnight. The owners of the boots carried rifles and the odd AK-47 or Uzi. Those who had drawn short straws carried fake wooden guns.
Three thousand faces, hidden by black, woollen ski masks, bore the distinctive features of the Mayan Indians of Central America: a people outgunned, outcompeted, pillaged, slaughtered or simply passed over since the Spanish conquistadors first arrived on their shores in the 16th century. Now, half a millennium later, here in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest and southernmost state, “the ones without faces, the ones without voices” had come to make the world listen.
The people of San Cristobal de las Casas, the old conquistador capital of Chiapas, were still groggy from their New Year celebrations when their town came alive with the sound of marching boots. They heard orders barked in Tzotzil, a local Mayan language, by the black-haired major, carbine in her hands, pistol strapped to her chest, who commanded this uninvited army. And from the picturesque central square, the Plaza 31 de Marzo, its ancient yellow cathedral and colonial government buildings framed by a clear white moon, they heard the sound of gunshots.
Those citizens brave or curious enough to venture out into the square were met with a sight they were unlikely to forget: dozens of masked guerrillas were swarming around the Plaza. Some were standing guard with their battered rifles, others were surrounding the police headquarters, while others, armed with sledgehammers, were pounding on the great wooden doors of the Municipal Palace. There could be little doubt in the minds of the people of San Cristobal about what they were witnessing. It was the first act of a revolution.
A small group of guerrillas raised a flag in the middle of the elegant square — a black flag, printed with four red letters: EZLN. As they did so, on to the balcony of the Municipal Palace emerged a masked figure. In his hand he held a piece of paper. It was a declaration of war against the Mexican government: one which, on that same morning, would be read aloud to the people of six other towns in Chiapas which this “EZLN” had also claimed as its own.
“We are the product of 500 years of struggle,” he read as, in the background, more gunfire and palls of smoke indicated that a rebel column was storming the police headquarters. “We are the inheritors of the true builders of this nation … denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing … There is no peace or justice for ourselves and our children … But today we say: Ya basta! Enough is enough!”
Five hundred miles away, Mexico’s president, Carlos Salinas, and his anointed heir, Luis Donaldo Colosio, were celebrating the New Year in an exclusive holiday resort on the Pacific coast. As the bells rang, Salinas and Colosio raised glasses of champagne and toasted the official arrival of NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement — which, at the stroke of midnight, officially came into operation. With the sound of those bells, NAFTA had created, for the first time in history, one great borderless free market between Mexico, Canada and the USA. Mexico had officially entered the modern world, and Salinas was celebrating his legacy.
Two hours later he was on the telephone, listening to news of a development that would shatter not only that legacy, but his successor’s presidency and his party’s age-old iron grip on Mexican politics; and which, later — much later — would begin to shake the legitimacy of the global free trade project itself. The Secretary of Defence was calling from Mexico City, and he had bad news. Very bad news. An armed insurgent force, calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation — EZLN — had seized control of seven towns in Chiapas state and declared war on the army, the government — and NAFTA itself.
“Are you sure?” croaked the president.
It’s been a long time since I wrote those paragraphs. That is the opening of my very first book, One No, Many Yeses, an account of the first wave of anti-globalisation protests, which was published 19 years ago. Back then, excitable young anti-capitalist that I was, I believed that I was part of a worldwide “mass movement” which was rising up against the colonisation of the world’s economies and cultures by an unaccountable corporate elite.
Since at least the end of the Cold War, the declared aim of the Western powers has been the spread of a global market economy, combined with a liberal politics and culture, to every benighted corner of the Earth. Since a globalised market can’t function without globalised tastes (you can’t sell your cheap burgers to Asia until you’ve convinced Asians that they’re lovin’ it), and since liberalism also needs an appropriate soil to seed in, the momentum of this ideological crusade is towards the creation of one global culture, whether the world wants it or not.
This threefold rollout — global economy, global culture and global political system, all of them based on the American model — has long been referred to with the bland moniker “globalisation”; or globalism, if you prefer. In reality, it is a form of soft colonialism — the latest iteration of Western empire — and a hugely successful one.
Back in the late Nineties, the “anti-globalisation” movement that rose up in opposition to this process was a political melting-pot of anarchism, localism, indigenous perspectives, radical environmentalism, liberal commitments to democracy and various other strands, all of it uncoordinated and fervently anti-hierarchical. It was a mess, but it was an exciting mess. And though a lot of people involved, including me, were allergic to labels and boxes, there was no doubt that this was a movement of the Left.
Though wrong about plenty of things, the Left has traditionally been correct about the negative impacts of global capitalism, while the Right has floundered about denying its impacts on the poor, on democracy and on nature, generally valorising greed and rapine, and then wondering where the “traditional values” they love so much have gone. You wouldn’t have found any conservatives on the barricades at the anti-WTO protests. Most of them were either inside hymning the virtues of “free” trade, or back in Washington or London ginning up the next Middle East war.
How times have changed. Here in the 2020s, the Left anti-globalism that I once thought was the movement of the future is barely in evidence anywhere. The most incisive opponents of corporate globalisation today are often to be found on the Right; or at least, not from any identifiable sector of the Left. Conservative, traditionalist and “post-liberal” critiques of the impact of globalisation on local communities, nation states, social cohesion, family formation, working class prospects, culture and even (though not often enough) the natural world are pouring out daily. The post-working class Left, meanwhile, has veered into an identity politics cul-de-sac, dictated largely by its commitment to an elite class war and an obsessive pursuit of cultural inversion.
The worldview that the academic Eric Kaufmann calls Left-modernism is now the outlook of the professional managerial classes, the top 10% or so of society, and — not coincidentally — the beneficiary class of globalisation. Via transnational corporations, the academic and cultural sectors, NGOs, global and regional bodies and other collectives of usually unaccountable power, this class is rolling out the threefold ideology of globalism within their own nations and beyond. Meanwhile, a national populist movement built largely around a working- and lower-middle-class reaction to this ideology is coalescing around calls for national self-determination, some degree of cultural conservatism, economic protection and democratic accountability.
On the face of it, this is confusing. Why would transnational capital be parroting slogans drawn from a leftist framework which claims to be anti-capitalist? Why would the middle classes be further to the “Left” than the workers? If the Left was what it claims to be — a bottom-up movement for popular justice — this would not be the case. If capitalism was what it is assumed to be — a rapacious, non-ideological engine of profit-maximisation — then this would not be the case either.
But what if both of them were something else? What if the ideology of the corporate world and the ideology of the “progressive” Left had not forged an inexplicable marriage of convenience, but had grown all along from the same rootstock? What if the Left and global capitalism are, at base, the same thing: engines for destroying customary ways of living and replacing them with the globalised, universalist, technological matrix that is currently rising around us?
We are living through a time of radical flattening, as this emerging global system, which I like to call the Machine, rapidly replaces previous ways of being with a new and novel global civilisation. Emerging from the industrial revolution and the dislocations of modernity’s revolutions, this Machine is now engaged in a project of deconstructing both human nature and wild nature, replacing them with a borderless world of etiolated, rational individuals, each of them equal participants in a global marketplace governed by algorithms, profit and dreams of universal oneness.
With the possible exception of the bit about the marketplace, this is also a good description of the project of the political Left. The very notion of a “Left” was birthed with modernity: the term comes from the seating arrangement of the anti-monarchy faction of the French assembly after the revolution. Despite much self-mythologising, leftist ideology has always been primarily a product of urban intellectuals and middle-class radicals pursuing a project of theoretical levelling. This levelling always begins with the destruction of previous lifeways — Mao’s four olds, the Bolshevik project to eliminate the “bourgeois family” (currently being resurrected by some on the contemporary Left), French revolutionary attempts to rationalise the landscape, the current progressive push to “transition” children — but what it ends up doing is clearing the ground for the Machine.
Progressive leftism and global capitalism, far from being antagonistic as some of us once thought, have turned out to be a usefully snug fit. Both are totalising, utopian projects. Both are suspicious of the past, impatient with borders and boundaries, and hostile to religion, “superstition” and the limits on the human individual imposed by nature or culture. Both are in pursuit of a global utopia where, in the dreams of both Lenin and Lennon, the world will live as one.
If the past 40 years have taught us anything, it’s that dreams of universal equality can segue very easily into dreams of universal market access. There’s a reason that both progressives and The Economist champion open borders. There’s a reason so many hippies ended up as tech billionaires. If you have ever asked yourself what kind of “revolution” would be sponsored by Nike, promoted by BP, propagandised for by Hollywood and Netflix and policed by Facebook and YouTube, then the answer is here.
In the roiling breakdown of the 2020s, progressive leftism and corporate capitalism have not so much merged as been exposed for what they always were: variants of the same modern ideal, built around the pursuit of boundless self-creation in a post-natural world. The Canadian “red Tory” philosopher George Grant once observed that: “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.” These days, they have abandoned their separate vessels and are sailing downstream in a superyacht together, while the rest of us gawp or throw rocks from the banks.
Perhaps we could say that the levelling instinct is the West’s gift to the world. It’s a complicated offering, to be sure, but at its noblest it is one to be proud of. Without some levellers around, a culture is in danger of becoming ossified, abusive and top-heavy. Power always needs to be kept on its toes. Leaders and systems should always be prepared to justify their existence.
But what happens when levelling is the only instinct left? When the culture is so empty, so purposeless, so uprooted, that it has forgotten how to do anything but deconstruct itself? More to the point: what happens when levelling is the instinct not of the poor, but of power? What happens when the destruction of borders, limits and boundaries benefits big tech, big money and those who drink from their spigot, rather than the small voices left thirsting in the fields? And what happens when big money uses the language of the small voices — the language of levelling — to tie up its work in pretty bows?
This is where we are. The post-modern Left, which has seized the heights of so much of Western culture, is not some radical threat to the establishment: it is the establishment. Progressive leftism is market liberalism by other means. The Left and corporate capitalism now function like a pincer: one attacks the culture, deconstructing everything from history to “heteronormativity” to national identities; the other moves in to monetise the resulting fragments.
Where, then, to stand? Could there be a Left without progress? Could there be a Right without capitalism? Perhaps, but we first need to come to terms with the radicalism of the times we are living through. This is a time in which the pertinent questions are not “who should own the means of production?” or “should we privatise the health service?” They are “what is a woman?”, “where should we implant the microchips?”, “how quickly can we get this digital ID system up and running?”, and “what do you think of my new killer robot?” The creation of designer babies, the abolition of the sexed body, the growing of brains in labs: whatever you want, the Machine can provide it, technology can fashion it, and progressive ideology can redefine it as justice.
When people ask me where I stand, I say these days that it’s with an older tradition: the same one I was writing about in that first book, although I didn’t know it then. It’s a tradition I saw represented in what the Zapatistas did back in the 1990s and I have heard its echo in historical uprisings in my own country, from the Luddites to the fen tigers. It’s a tradition which takes its stand not according to ideological positioning, but according to actual positioning: on Earth, under the sky, surrounded by people who know where the sun rises in the morning, where they come from and who they are.
It’s a tradition we could call reactionary radicalism: resisting the Machine’s totalising force from a perspective rooted in the Three Ps: people, place and prayer. Neither Left nor Right nor anywhere else, it’s a tradition that crosses all the modern divides, because it is older than all of them. It digs down, literally, to the root of the matter. It is the dream of a localised, populist opposition to gigantist, destructive modernity in all its forms.
Maybe this is a pipe-dream: but sometimes we see it carry the day. The Zapatistas are still there, after all, and still fighting. NAFTA is gone, too — though it wasn’t the EZLN, in the end, that did for it. The treaty that drew their ire as a symbol of all that was wrong with the imperial project of corporate globalisation was eventually torn up, not by indigenous guerrilleros or a socialist Mexican government, but by a reality TV star-turned Republican US president, who believed that globalisation was a con-job which empowered transnational capital at the expense of nations and their people. Whatever else he may have been wrong about, he was right about that. Unfortunately, most of the Left were too busy calling him a Nazi to notice the irony.