Towards a Revolutionary Psychology

March 13, 2014


On the Vicennial of the Zapatista Insurrection

Neoliberalism, as is well known – and as Dardot and Laval’s (2009) La Nouvelle Raison du Monde makes more than clear – is not simply an economic system. It is a complex machine of subjectivation; a whole technology of the self that produces us as certain kinds of beings, imbued with a certain psychology which transforms us all into neoliberal subjects. This fact is rarely taken very seriously when it comes to radical politics. Political analysis tends to leave aside a careful examination of our neoliberal psychology, and personal change is either ignored or is thought to take place naturally as a result of political action. This is hardly so, however, and very often what is considered to be radical political action or even radical subjectivation processes tend to reproduce forms of a conservative neoliberal psychology – one that ends up strengthening the economic, political and psychosocial order even if momentarily appearing to challenge it. If we accept that this is so, it becomes obvious that we need to work out a kind of theory of personal change that is tightly connected to social and political change; a practice of personal transformation, which starts with the de-individualisation of the neoliberal subject and the decomposition of its psychology.

An indispensable yet largely overlooked aspect of the Zapatista rebellion, and the words and writings of the man who after 1st January 1994 became known as subcomandante Marcos, is that they present us with elements of a radical psychology: a notion of personal change as an intrinsic part of revolutionary change. Marcos has elaborated on these elements, borrowing from a number of diverse and seemingly incompatible resources, from the Latin American guerrilla tradition (Che’s personal rupture: “I am not me anymore, at least I am not the same me as I was before”, to Mario Payeras’ voluntaristic optimism: “we are going to triumph”, to Julio Cortázar’s cronopios – those strange characters who disturb habit and convention).

Marcos also borrows from indigenous sorcery and shamanism (e.g. the conception of selfhood based on animal co-essences) to Carlos Castaneda’s shamanism (e.g. the blurring of personal history and Marcos’s presentation of the old Antonio as a radicalised version of Don Juan Matus), and the openness and plasticity of the world and the person encountered in Latin American literary ‘magical realism’.

A central element in this radical shamanistic psychology is the notion of a ‘radical rupture in one’s life’, a radical personal split from the psychology of the dominant psychosocial and political configuration. This radical split is the product of a certain political analysis of a given situation and has a very personal character; one takes a very personal decision to stop being who he/she had been before. Says Marcos:

“The moment arrives when you realise that you are arriving at the point of no return as a human being… It’s at that moment that you have to choose.”

The radicality of this decision lies in the fact that it does not limit itself to mere protest or expression of charity and good will. These options are safety-valves while everything remains the same. They are, in Marcos’ words “compromises”, “the aspirin that relieves the pain but does not cure the illness”. Here is Marcos again:

“You can …still be on good will and charity. You are a good man, then, in the social sense of the word, but you figure out that you will have to make concessions, accommodations, compromises, small compromises that begin adding up… It is something that you know is not going to resolve the roots of the problem.

The Zapatista psychology is not a theory of individual improvement; it stands in sharp contrast to psychotherapeutic ideas of self-development, self-actualisation, building of defences against the hostile outside, the strengthening of creativity and other skills and so on, so that one becomes a better fit to the neoliberal world of social atomisation and competition. This decision of a radical rupture is performed as a subjective precondition so that one joins a radical transformative project and engages in social and political change. Personal change and social change are indissolubly connected: one cannot happen without the other.

Marcos’ explicit and implicit elaborations on these elements of a radical psychology are usually absent from political analysis, and construed as signs of his coquetry or literary endowment. More often than not, when taken seriously, these elements are heroicised and made to appear as if they were the unique psychic qualities of a great man, namely Marcos. Whereas the anti-Zapatista analysts did everything they could to pathologise Marcos and present him as an obscure figure, the pro-Zapatista analysts heroised him. Naomi Klein is just one of the many examples of this kind when she wrote:

“…this masked man who calls himself Marcos is the descendant of King, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Emiliano Zapata and all other heroes who preached from pulpits only to be shot down one by one leaving bodies of followers wandering around blind and disoriented.”

Here, radical psychology becomes the prerogative of a global heroic lineage, something out of the reach for the “ordinary people” who can only be “followers”. This heroisation of Marcos by many leftist commentators is a clear manifestation of a neoliberal psychology that tends to divide the world into heroes and followers, entrepreneurs and consumers, winners and losers, and it reproduces the world as it is, even when its intentions are different.

However, the psychology Marcos has communicated in public, even when pronounced in the first person, has not been the personal achievement of a charismatic individual. His first person voice is, in this precise sense, the voice of the whole movement. Many of the intellectuals who departed the big cities of Mexico and installed themselves in the jungle acted out the same kind of psychology. Take, for example, the case of two Yáñes brothers, who were two of the first people to move to the jungle and organise the first guerrilla infrastructure more than a decade before Marcos joined the guerrillas.

This same rupture in lives and livelihoods is true for all those indigenous young people who performed a radical split from tradition and habit, leaving their communities for the mountains in order become to combatants of the EZLN. The same is also true for all those indigenous campesinos, men and women, who cut their links with all political parties and institutional organisations and joined the movement. It was a difficult decision, the objective conditions were more than unfavourable; even the Left preferred the oppressed and overexploited indigenous to be voters than revolutionaries. It was a risky decision that entailed, as Marcos has argued, the opposite from what one had left behind; a decision made possible by the conscious, slow, careful, and patient preparation of an insurrection that brought them all to a new condition:

“…we were many, those of us who burnt our vessels that dawn of 1 January 1994 and we took up that heavy gait covering our face with a balaclava. We were many, those of us who made that step with no return.”

It is this radical shamanistic psychology that the Zapatistas bequeath to us – a psychology of a risky rupture, of a radical break from neoliberal psychology and the habits and social conventions upon which it is predicated. From its impoverished relational fabric, its disenchanting and rationalising way of making sense of the world, from its fenced-off affective economy and its utilitarian sense of time – the rupture must be total. It is a psychology that breaks from the language of psychotherapy and brings together personal and social change.

By Mihalis Mentinis


Creative Commons LicenceThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.