by Maura Brighenti

Translated by Liz Mason-Deese



For the Spanish version, click here: Lobo Suelto!

For a non-state-centric politics

MB: I would like to start with something that you said in the talk that you gave in LaCazonadeFlores (“What can social movements do against the drug trade? Intuitions from the Mexican present”) during your visit to Buenos Aires in June. In that occasion, you talked about the change that occurred in the management of drug trafficking in Mexico when the paradigm of the “war on drugs” intervened. What effects did that change have on control of territories?


RG: The situation continues to be disastrous. In 2006 there was a fraudulent electoral process and a subsequent dispute over the election results that ended with the continuation of the PAN government, a party that is totally right-wing, pro-business and clerical. Six years later, in 2012, the PRI was reinstalled to government with a nearly exhaustive ability to control the territory at the local level. That is its great challenge: the attempt to take back control, to establish the terms of a very profitable business. We have no way of comparing drug-trafficking in terms of profitability, only in terms of volume, but in terms of the money it moves, I think it’s the second largest economic activity after oil. This is what we are talking about, about how they are going to manage the terms by which the second most important economic activity in the country takes place.


While drug-trafficking has been outlawed for a long time, the terms by which that illegalization is administered, how it is carried out, have varied. In a country where there has traditionally been widespread production and distribution of drugs, some – non-formal – terms to regulate that activity had been established. Different social classes were implicated: those that produced, those responsible for its transportation, those that financed it, etc. And, even if the use of force was always close to the surface, there were certain codes, certain moral terms, agreements between the mafias that managed the business, and between the mafias and the authorities. It is precisely those terms, those agreements that are being broken by Felipe Calderon’s government and, thus, what is known as the “war on drugs.”


I think we have to read this war as a political effort with a dual purpose, one linked to the United State’s control of trafficking and another that is more internal. On the one hand, an attempt to control a business that is porous as a whole: from production to transportation, to the profit that always slipped out of their hands. In this sense, the war on drugs has been an enormous effort by the U.S. government to establish, for example, prices and destinations for merchandise; in other words, to establish terms for controlling the business. First they did something similar in Colombia, later they tried to it in Bolivia and now they are doing it in Mexico.


On the other hand, the war on drugs had to do with the need to guarantee the existence of an illegitimate government, implicated since its rise to power in a series of scandals that showed a complete separation between politics and social aspirations. It is not my intention to propose a key for interpretation that counterpoises an “illegitimate government” to a supposed “legitimate government” (as proposed by the candidate who in my opinion won the 2006 election, Andrés Manual López Obrador). What I want to emphasize is the radical dis-encounter between the state sphere – and its projects and actions – and the very diverse aspirations coming from Mexican society focused on stopping both the increasing poverty and concentration of wealth and on obtaining a certain democratization of public life.


In the period from 1992 to 2006, in fact, there was a growing and surprising process of accumulation of struggles in Mexico, of the increasing social capacity to intervene in public life; during which the question of political autonomy from the state became very comprehensive, configuring a common sense: from the emergence of Zapatismo, the struggle for land-territory and against free trade, the proposal for legal recognition of collective figures – the indigenous peoples – that were the subject of public law; to the large-scale anti-authoritarian actions that collectively reappropriated social wealth like the city of Oaxaca’s uprising in 2006, when a city experienced a popular insurrection for six months with the people taking over the different means of communication, collectively managing political decisions and projects, etc. So then, until 2006, we experienced a period of accumulation of struggles, of clarification, of diverse experiments of linkage and political articulation from below. All of this happening in a tumultuous, chaotic, energetic way. Just as an example: May 1, 2006, there were protests in Mexico City the entire day. The first was a gigantic parade of workers belonging to the traditional, corporatized unions that, despite being the sectors most subjected to state control, demonstrated much anger and demonstrated clear cracks in the possibility of being controlled. Then came the turn of the independent unions, another enormous, very radical, very angry march, focused on the question of defending the public, of course in the state key, as the union does, but denouncing and confronting the privatizations, the dismantling of rights, etc. And the third, with a Zapatista delegation from the Other Campaign, which had arrived to Mexico City two days earlier. A totally heterogeneous, vital, festive demonstration, led by a group of masked Zapatistas that marched through the main streets of the city. The energy was amazing, a powerful social force was emerging. You felt it, we were starting to become a society in movement.


I think there is what you have to read to understand the subsequent “war on drugs” that came crashing down on top of us. Perhaps I am telling it in a way that is a bit rushed, but my aim is to transmit the vitality that could be felt at the time. A vitality that was expressed in the capacity to give words to the things that were happening, to propose an articulation of explicit, very clear slogans. If we take, for example, the care with which many other movements nurtured Zapatismo, we realize the great empathy that was circulating; despite the difficulties and contradictions that also existed. It was not about following a line, but it was more about generating bonds to open a dialogue between diverse struggles. Well, in my opinion, the dominate class read what was happening, recognizing it, precisely as what had to be stopped. This explains the the two levels of the “war on drugs”: a business that has to be controlled by establishing centralized terms for its administration – basically the interests of the U.S. – and the disarticulation of an interesting and potent process of political accumulation underway. That is the counter-insurgent and repressive political content of what happened later. And there we find the other key.


This question of the key for reading the situation is very interesting. Yours is an attempt to restore a political key to interpretation to a social conflict that is increasingly more violent and covert. In the talk in LaCazonadeFlores you dedicated a lot of attention to the difficulty of understanding what is going on in Mexico. False terms of the conflict are established (for example, the binary representation of a struggle between good and evil or reducing the violence to a mere fight between drug gangs) to inhibit other ways of understanding, leaving you without the necessary analytical keys. In this sense, maybe we could think the “war on drugs” also as a war in other sense, through which an attempt is made to cover up the implicit violence in such a profitable economic enterprise. It seems to me a particularly important topic that deserves to be thought beyond the specific Mexican context. Taking into account the profound differences between each national experience, the impression is that Latin America as whole is experiencing a contemporary model of capitalist accumulation of an extractive type, that captures value from a complex and diffuse territorial articulation, where formal and informal, legal and illegal economy are increasingly less distinguishable. At the same time, to govern, the state apparatus needs to redirect that same reality toward a legal-formal discursive rhetoric that inhibits the possibility of visibilizing, understanding, and narrating the complex articulation of power and the conflicts that occur in its interior. To retake one of your expressions, can we speak of a generalized “semantic capture”?


I think that what you are saying about semantic capture is related to a type of counter-insurgent dispositif that began to be practiced in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks. I have seen it happen in various Latin American countries, in tough moments of tense social and political confrontation. Before, the question was very different. On the one hand, the politicians, the media, enunciated lies; on the other, it was possible to tell versions that contradicted what was being offered, but, and this is the relevant point, from a common ground of terms of understanding. The qualifying pair lies/truth was in force in the classic sense of the term, of the correspondence between words and things. In the last decade, it seems that there is a movement that seeks to profoundly inhibit the possibility of comprehension. I feel that this is the new step in terms of counter-insurgency. This strategy can be found very clearly, for example, in Bolivia in 2008, at the peak of the confrontation with the land-owning oligarchy of the West during Evo Morales’ government. Everything that had to do with the mobilization of the right in Santa Cruz and the separatist or “autonomist” desires that were expressed consisted, basically, in generating pure confusion: discourses that were being uttered at different levels, in different ways, like a kind of orchestration directed so that you would not understand what was at stake; so that you could not see what was happening. That same orchestration, that inoculation of diffuse and superimposed confusion, can be perceived in Mexico at other levels. And it is proving difficult to restore, to collectively produce a thread of understanding.


I introduced the notion of semantic capture to study the manner in which the state confronts experiences of very profound struggles. When a social aspiration is forcefully placed on the table of public discussion, the state takes on the challenge but tries to decode it in order to recode it: it often uses the same words, denaturalizing them. For that reason, I talk about semantic capture, of a very well elaborated way of denaturalizing the demands, the requests, the aspirations that emerge from below: “you ask for bread, they don’t give it to you, they give you a bone… that gets stuck in your throat,” that is a Mexican saying that even it doesn’t describe exactly what I’m saying, it helps explain it. Or rather, the state and its officials, constantly simulate, they neither do nor “concede” what is under discussion, they don’t dialogue with those from below: they take the words, they empty them of content, they take them to another place and later they proclaim that they “already fulfilled them.” It’s very confusing.


However, in the “war on drugs” it seems as if there were a kind of semantic capture toward society as a whole; as if the question were: how to inhibit the general possibility of understanding what is happening? I think this is a fundamental part of the inoculation of fear that has been so successful in Mexico. The years 2006, 2007, 2008 were properly terrifying. And the maximum point of this was when they launched the threat of the avian flu epidemic and 20 million people – those of us living in the capital city and suburbs – covered our mouths in the literal sense, obligating us to wear face masks in pubic space – rags that would have been completely useless if the epidemic were real.


It was very shocking…


Yes. It was tremendous: the data about the epidemic never made sense, the information that the authorities gave out – and that saturated the public space – was completely fragmentary and it was impossible to compose a general argument about what was happening. It generated an enormous amount of fear. In my opinion, it all had to do with preventing you from understanding what was happening. It was no longer simply about lying to you, but rather stopping you from understanding, which isn’t the same thing. We must develop a more detailed analysis of this form of counter-insurgency.


Then, to pick up on the point you were raising: we find ourselves with a powerful social accumulation produced from below that at some point confronts the level of the state. The state takes on the challenge, it yields something, and partially modifies its institutions to be be able to incorporate at least part of that accumulation within its own dynamics, to “capture it.” How would you understand the relation between “semantic capture” and “material capture?” That is, between the capture of meaning (impeding you from understanding) and the capture of the wealth produced by social cooperation?


I always think of three levels of capture, not necessarily sequential, but sometimes overlapping and combined. First, the semantic capture we were talking about, because the thread and meaning of the words produced by the movement are snatched up, they are forced to designate different things, they are pushed toward another place. Then, a political capture, and, lastly, an organizational capture. The dynamic becomes very clear if we take, for example, the case of the Constituent Assembly in Bolivia. In the moment that the slogan acquired such a force to become a horizon of common aspiration, there was a dispute over its meaning that was translated, ultimately, into its insertion into another discursive order. In Bolivia, it was said, during the years of struggle: “Constituent Assembly without party representation to produce the country where we want to live.” That did not happen.


These “captures” are part of what we tend to also call co-optation: a phenomenon that occurs in different ways and that I think we need to take very seriously. Co-optation does not refer to merely giving in, surrendering, but rather confusion, an inoculated confusion as well. It is no longer clear what we are talking about, it is no longer clear why we are fighting; it causes cracks in that which we produce in common. And what happens is that discussions about how to proceed start to differ. This is a very important point: when you have clarity in the horizon that you follow, you also have a moral criteria for how to achieve it, a political clarity that functions for itself. It is precisely this that has to be broken, that has to be captured. Thus the horizon moves toward its political capture: we no longer have a project of reappropriation and social control, we are constructing a plurinational state. That is how political capture works: one thing is not the other, but the second feeds off the first. It is a very tense process, where the structures that will sustain political capture, the structures of organizational capture begin to be constructed.


And then, the need to escape again, not to go elsewhere. Of course, you have to get out, because if you remain captured, the state and capital’s digestion of your previous force will continue and become their nurturing force. You have to leave to start again, to generate a new challenge.


It seems very relevant to me to think about the relation between these forms of capture – the risks of becoming the passive element of state and capitalist digestion – and the persistence of a an autonomous impulse from the forms of life taking place in the territories. How do you see it?


Well, I am elaborating an idea. The necessity of thinking about the elements of a non-state-centric politics. I don’t like the word non-state because it ends up referring to the state, in the sense that it maintains the state as the unit of measure. Or that you will understand non-state in relation to the state and then your practices are going to continue being defined negatively by another term, in a kind of infinite reflection. What if we think of a non-state-centric politics where we get out of this binary? Of course: the state is there, capital is there, as are we, everything is in the world. Now the question would be: how do we reposition ourselves in the world? Maybe by gradually inhibiting the capacities of the other terms (the state and capital) and preserving and increasing our own capacities and potencias. A kind of general prolonged popular struggle! – paraphrasing Maoism –, focused on the defense and expansion of our possibilities and conditions for reproduction. The issue is, if we don’t have a long-term vision, it seems like we can’t keep alive many of the creations that we achieved during the peak moments of struggle. It seems as if it were always the work of Sisyphus; that we collectively enrich ourselves in moments – we achieve social force and create all sorts of things –, but only to impoverish ourselves again. To maintain that capacity I think we should change the terms of thinking about the political and politics: instead of remaining stuck with the dichotomies of an inherited situation, we should always try to move them; to disrupt them. That, to me, is a non-state-centric politics; a politics that is focused, on the contrary, on our own creations and achievements, on what has been won from below through struggle.


It seems to me that in Argentina this has not managed to happen since the struggles of the turn of the century. Perhaps this was the place where the issue of the state/non-state most clearly marked everything, and therefore the history of a populist statism opposed to another violent, military statism. In Mexico, the history of statism is much longer and more intense, because for many decades we lived in the state that was reconstructed after the revolution of 1910-1921 – that was very deep; hence the key idea in Mexico that to change anything you have to take an autonomous position from the state. It is an immediate idea, that can be seen and heard very generally, although it is very difficult to practice. The problem is that this anti-statism contains in itself another type of limit, which has been greatly discussed in the movements: you either concentrate on the grueling effort of staying as far as possible from the state – and capital – or you become, very directly, the food of power, as if it were a curse. I wonder if this is the only possibility. Do we not have the capacity to think and focus on creating other places from where we can move more fluidly and from which we can more forcefully challenge the designs of the state and capital? Where we can fight differently, without assuming those dichotomous pairs typical of a state-centric politics – whether positive or negative? I think that yes, we can, or at least I try to think so. And what I see as a good starting point for thinking about this is, as Silvia Federici says, from the field of social reproduction as a whole.


Speaking of the need to propose a non-statecentric politics… In one occasion, you used a formula that I loved: you said we need to find a “tone of voice.” What is that about?


The tone of voice is related to how we talk to each other. We have another great problem which is articulation. In the course of struggles, as we already talked about, important moments of unification occur, when many barriers are dissolved, different points of view are accommodated, and a common horizon is produced, not easily but more or less jointly. But, how can this unification be maintained in the absence of a tense and generalized confrontation? It is during the less warlike moments of struggle when the cracks begin and what at first worked as a distinction that was accommodated within a shared horizon now seriously puts at risk the very possibility of unification: it is the risk of atomization, of disintegration. Then the problem of articulation becomes very important: how can we articulate different questions within a common horizon? Or, in other words, how can we make common words, how can we talk to each other? Hence, the idea of the tone of voice, the search for how to maintain, at all times, some words for ourselves, a few winks, some signs; as we collectively construct some type of mechanism, some type of language that allows us to recognize each other.


Let’s bring together the threads of the conversation. You were talking about how territories are at the center of a dispute for the control of very economically profitable businesses (the drug trade would be one of these); and how within this dispute there are increasingly refined and widespread strategies of capture. In a non-state-centric strategy like that which you have been tracing, how would you understand the question of the production of wealth?


It is a very complicated issue. There are experiments, maybe we should look at them again. On the one hand, there is the idea of recuperated businesses, with their different experiences. Property is taken over and established amongst some people. It is not exactly a common property: at the local level, among the workers, a collective property is established, but at a more general level, it continues functioning as private property, even if it shows solidarity and the terms of management are reformulated. That is one possibility.


There is a whole set of experiences, in Greece for example, where they are working from that idea. And other efforts that try to more radically subtract themselves from the capitalist economy: they invent currencies, they become small producers of things that they exchange between themselves, and they construct a life. One key thing, as I was saying, about all of these processes, is that they are about reconstructing life in its entirety to guarantee the conditions for its reproduction: there are an enormous number of efforts and struggles unfolding whose center is the collective – and expansive – reproduction of life; that is the place, I think of a non-state-centric position.


We can also, of course, nourish ourselves from the entire Zapatista experience, that in many senses resembles that of Greece with the relevant difference of being inserted into a continuous territory encompassing all of life. They have shown: “here we are and here we are going to govern our own form of life, we are going to produce it ourselves, with everything that entails.” There are many difficulties in a path like this one, that could be viewed – from the outside – as full of sacrifices, for example, of a whole set of goods that circulate to valorize capital; some of which are ultimately useful, although many more are useless. Therefore, you have to give up certain goods, although it’s worth emphasizing another set of use values that are produced autonomously. Those goods that until now have only been produced in a capitalist way are a problem. At the same time, there are many other things that can be recuperated from other ways of producing and practicing other forms of exchange. Another type of wealth is produced, focused on the production of conditions for the reproduction of life in general, that is not only the consumption of goods – although many are needed. Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking about.


The question is if this can be thought about as a general project. The question is, focusing on the crucial question of the reproduction of life, of its guarantee and expansion (that capital systematically denies), how can we also include in our struggle, again, the old subject of the reappropriation of another type of material wealth that today only has the form of commodities. At the end of the day, it’s about the old question of defending and producing the common, a question raised in the 19th Century and now thought about again with all of the experiences of the 20th Century and all of the things that have illuminated the waves of struggle preceding us.


For two centuries our grandparents in struggle encountered again and again the problem of private property, of the monopolization of wealth and of the voice! Ownership of the earth, of nature and ownership, in general, of material wealth. We need to propose the reappropriation of these things: how can we do it? The conversion of that private property into state property has already been tried; which eventually was shown to be nothing more than another form of private property. Now, it’s about, I think, focusing on the production of the common which is something pretty different; then it starts with rejecting the fracture between reproduction and production that is at the foundation of the production of capital. And there is where non-state-centrism is founded.


The common reappropriation of material wealth is a path, not a model. I believe it is a central political question and, pay attention, it has nothing to do with taking state power! The common reappropriation of wealth and taking state power are two very different questions that have been tied together from the beginning of the 20th century; from that confusion. I think that upon making the critique, the baby ended up getting thrown out with the bathwater… Or rather, when we collectively threw out the question of a counter-hegemonic political strategy, of going about accumulating power partisanly and orientating our paths of struggle toward the “seizure of power,” etc.; we end up confused in relation to the central question of the common reappropriation of socially produced wealth so that it ceases to be capital. It seems that those are the relevant elements of our current political difficulties.


I would change, then the object of your question into a verb. How can we rethink the question of the collective – and tendentially common – appropriation of existing things while we propose creating and reproducing other ways of producing life as a whole?  The first step in all of this is the struggle against new dispossessions, which are expressed through a set of collective efforts saying “NO”: “No, don’t take the water,” “Don’t appropriate the earth,” “Don’t destroy the forest we have produced,” etc. There are many communities and peoples that have risen up against this throughout Latin America. This is the point of departure, however, of a formula that would need to be: “don’t take it away from me, and what you have already taken, look bastard, give it back to me now!” This is a great problem and we should find a way to raise and articulate it. It is already beginning to appear.


The recent mobilizations in Brazil were an attempt to reappropriate their own World Cup. We can try to read them in this key. That is, there was the question of transportation, but there was also the effort to form a collective body in the streets to put limits on the savage expropriation of their favorite sport and the fantastic spectacle that they consider their own. The recent struggles in Brazil are, in this sense, actions that also tend toward the reappropration of social wealth. If we read them from this perspective we can understand those efforts of struggle differently and we can contribute and produce a different form of politicization: a non-state-centric politicization. In short, we need all of these types of experiences, like those in Chiapas, in Greece, with the recuperated factories and cooperatives; and we also need to understand differently the subject of tumultuous and energetic struggles, we need to contribute and amplify the significance of those threads. The heart of the question is still that of the reappropriation of wealth that is collectively and socially produced and privately monopolized. And this is one side of the central political problem since the 19th century. The other side of that same matter is guaranteeing for ourselves, in an expansive way, conditions for the reproduction of life as a whole. The question, obviously, is difficult; but there are many, many of us thinking about this. Hence, the importance of being able to talk to each other.