Friday, April 24, 2009

The Zapatista social netwar revisited — more grist for TIMN

Ten years ago we — John Arquilla, Graham Fuller, Melissa Fuller, and myself —wrote The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico (1998), and in the last few days it has bounced back to my attention. I’m seizing on the opportunity to make a few comments, and to post for the first time in English a Postscript that we wrote a couple years ago. I include it here as an Appendix.

The impetus comes from the post “Social Netwar, Fifteen Years On,” at Adam Elkus’s Rethinking Security blog, beginning April 23, 2009. He makes several salient points about the Zapatista movement, including that
. . . it does demonstrate the difficulty of netwar groups to sustain campaigns after the "culminating point" has been reached.
I/we quite agree; indeed, our Appendix concludes on that note. Netwar — a mode of conflict that revolves around the use of network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies, especially for mounting swarming attacks — is easy to undertake in today’s information age. Violent examples currently abound, notably in aspects of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Somali piracy, and in the attack at Mumbai. Social netwars gain less media attention, but there have been plenty of those too, recently including in the turmoil in Thailand, the protests against the G20 meeting in London, and in some activist campaigns here in the United States. But it’s also true that governments and their security forces are learning to wage counternetwar more effectively. The Zapatista movement, a seminal social netwar, has run its course partly for that reason, as we explain in the Appendix.

Elkus’s departure point is a summary of a recent academic conference, “Fifteen Years After the Zapatistas,” posted at the Harvard International Review blog, beginning April 13, 2009. This summary barely alludes to netwar aspects, or even to the once-important roles of activist NGO networks. But the summary does convey a critical understanding of what has happened in the Zapatista zone in Chiapas, and to the Zapatista movement more broadly throughout Mexico:
[E]ven the most ardent supporters of the Zapatistas [at the conference] admitted that the militants, who have largely given up violent struggle, have not replaced it with a realistic alternative tool of social change. Zapatistas today continue to experiment with the creation of “autonomous” zones of power in Chiapas, where they have set up parallel institutions of governance. Panelists disagreed about the efficacy of these institutions in political and juridical terms, but not in economic terms: the Zapatistas have not created a viable model of economic autonomy for poor peasants. At the same time, the turn inward, and away from the state, has rendered the Zapatistas less effective at reforming the Mexican state. While some panelists saw the Zapatista experiments as noble efforts to create alternative political structures that are more democratic than those of the wider society, others argued that the Zapatistas had missed an opportunity to build a broad movement to reform the state.
These are important points not only for understanding the dynamics of netwar and counternetwar, but also for another key aim of this blog: understanding the nature of tribal peoples and their forms of organization, pursuant to fleshing out the TIMN framework. The conference summary makes the Zapatista indigenas appear to be leading rather unhappy lives fraught with poverty and inequity, as though the Zapatista movement were a failure. But two blogpost commenters, presumably outside anthropologists, insist that many indigenas are living just fine in Chiapas, in accordance with the traditional cosmologies and values that they had fought to defend — and, the commenters scold, the conference participants do not understand this.

What calls my attention here is the commenter’s elevation of the bright side of tribalism as something valuable that should not be discarded in today’s market-mad world. Tribalism’s dark side has become daily news, particularly in reportage about Taliban excesses, Somali piracy, and Mexican gang-fights. But as the two commenters point out — and as Bolivia’s President Evo Morales elaborates in a recent speech — the bright side has much to offer, especially where people are attuned to living in balance with nature and kinfolk, forsaking many material possessions.

Expressed in TIMN terms about long-range social evolution, this means that there are many people who would rather live according to idealized T-type practices than deal with the stresses and strains of the T+I+M+N progression. I’m fully in favor of the TIMN progression; that’s how major societies progress and great civilizations rise (and fall). But it’s evident that many traditional peoples in diverse places around the world, from the jungles of Mexico to the valleys and mountains along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, think otherwise. They are bound into their ancient tribal ways and determined to defend them, no matter what, and no matter how. Globalization — and the attendant intrusions of outside actors — are just making them feel more so (as I've discussed elsewhere).

All very interesting. Enough to prompt a rethinking of U.S. prospects, policies, and strategies in distant battlegrounds?

But I’ll end on a different note: In a sense, the significance of the Zapatista social netwar is barely about the Zapatista indigenas in Chiapas and their particular expression of the tribal (T) form. Instead, it’s more about the world at large, the growing role of the +N network form, and the fusion of T and +N forces among modern actors who are not indigenas.

This netwar was able to occur in 1994 because so many activist NGOs were already networked and mobilized outside of Mexico, ready for a new target, after having tried (quite unsuccessfully) to protest U.S. policy in Central America and/or halt passage of NAFTA. Then, years later, as we discuss in the Appendix, many Mexican and foreign NGOs turned away from the Zapatista struggle to focus (quite successfully) on other high-impact efforts: e.g., in 1999, the protest movement known as the “Battle of Seattle”; and in 2000, the presidential campaign and election in Mexico that displaced the ruling PRI party from power. In sum, the Zapatista social netwar was about much more than the Zapatistas.

[Many thanks to John Arquilla for reviewing and commenting on an earlier draft of this post, and for remarks that prompted me to expand on the points about the persistence of tribalism.]

[Notice: Readers interested in Mexico may want to know that I have added updates to the counter-alarmist post a few weeks ago on why Mexico may not fall apart.]

* * * * *


Emergence and Influence of the Zapatista Social Netwar: Postscript (March 2007)[1]

David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla

What follows is the Postscript we prepared for a Japanese book that reprinted the chapter on the Zapatista movement from our book on Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (2001). This is the first time this Postscript is posted in English. It’s a bit dated, and may not be precise enough for some readers, but many of its points remain timely.

* * *

That was the case in 1998. Here is a summary of what has occurred since then.[2] The most exciting, innovative phase of the Zapatista social netwar, which ran from 1994 to 1996, is long over. Since then, the Zapatista story has cycled several times between quiescence and renewed activism. It is a story still in search of an ending.

1999 and 2000 were comparatively quieter years for the Zapatistas and other parties to the conflict. Subcomandante Marcos spoke out less. The EZLN did not mount major new operations, in the field or in the streets. The Mexican army confined it to a small zone in Chiapas. Mexican officials kept a sharp eye on foreign activists. And most NGO activists began to turn their attention to other issues.

Inspired by the Zapatista experience, many U.S., European, and Asian activists shifted to organizing anti-globalization and pro-democracy protests elsewhere around the world. In particular, many U.S. and some foreign activists gathered to protest the WTO Ministerial Conference meeting held in Seattle in 1999. The ensuing “Battle of Seattle” became the next major model of social netwar.[3]

Meanwhile, most Mexican activists turned their attention to Mexico’s presidential election campaign of 2000. That proved consequential. The fact that the Zapatista netwar had aroused so many NGO activists had the interesting side-effect of helping create a good climate for voter mobilization, democratic competition, and electoral transparency throughout Mexico. And for the first time, the powerful ruling party -- the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) -- lost the presidential election, after major competition from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the rightist National Action Party (PAN). The surprising result was victory for the PAN candidate, Vicente Fox, who took office in December 2000. This victory became possible partly because the Zapatista netwar had opened up political space in Mexico for people to organize to oppose the monopolistic PRI regime.

Seeking reconciliation, President Fox quickly proposed a new peace initiative, released some imprisoned Zapatistas, and withdrew army forces from some positions in the rebel zone in Chiapas. Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN, voicing both hope and doubt, responded by conducting a huge, dramatic “March for Indigenous Dignity” from Chiapas to Mexico City in early 2001. Their goal was to press the government, specifically Congress, for a new law on indigenous rights and culture that would grant more autonomy to local communities.

However, Congress rejected the EZLN’s draft and passed a diluted version of the law. The EZLN promptly renounced it, and marched back to the Chiapas countryside to install its own system of what it declared to be “autonomous communities” and “good government councils” based on indigenous traditions of self-governance. In addition, five small regional coordinating centers for health and education were eventually organized. The EZLN, as a military organization, claimed it was transferring local power and authority to these affiliated political bodies.

All this created an odd patchwork of political, economic, and military conditions in Chiapas. The scattered Zapatista communities, only 32 in number, existed amid a far larger number of indigenous communities that were aligned, to varying degrees, with the government or with a major political party. These communities received increasing amounts of economic aid from President Fox’s administration. But the Zapatista communities rejected government aid, seeking assistance instead from international agencies. Meanwhile, Mexican officials avoided going into the Zapatista zones, and the Mexican army kept a low profile. To its credit, the army responded innovatively to the Zapatista uprising, by granting new authority to small units while improving their dispersed deployment patterns, tactical mobility, and communications networks in the region. This amplified the army’s presence and the speed with which its units could respond to signs of unrest.

As a result, Chiapas remained the impoverished, isolated scene of an uneasy ceasefire and unofficial truce. There was occasional talk about restarting formal peace negotiations, but nothing formal developed. At least, armed conflict was not occurring, aside from some isolated atrocities apparently committed by pro-government paramilitaries. The social netwar had died down as well. Marcos and the EZLN still enjoyed a presence on the Internet; but many social activists remained more interested in anti-globalization and pro-democracy struggles elsewhere in the world.

For the next several years, Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN laid low again. Indeed, Marcos -- whose family name was found to be Rafael Guillen, and who was identified as a former school teacher from another state -- turned to spend some of his time quietly overseas, often in Parisian salons, cultivating global civil-society actors for whom he remained an iconic figure. He seemed to neglect matters in Mexico, but he did co-author an odd detective novel published there. All this diminished his standing as an activist in the EZLN and in Mexico as a whole.

Lately, however, Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN are making a new effort to generate a resurgence. And once again this has occurred on the eve of a presidential election. They began by publishing the “Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona” in June 2005. It reiterated their opposition to the destructive effects of capitalism and “neoliberal globalization.” It called for building “another way of doing politics” that is “from below and for below.” And it declared the following: Marcos and the EZLN will maintain their commitment to an “offensive ceasefire” despite the absence of a peace treaty. They will convene a new “intercontinental encounter” for activists from around the world, perhaps in 2007. They will organize a new leftist social movement, in which all people who are trying to rebel realize “that you are not alone.” And they will propose a new Constitution for Mexico.[4]

Next, the EZLN disbanded the civic front it had established in 1997, the Zapatista Front for National Liberation (FZLN). Now, the EZLN declared, it alone would be in charge of promoting “a new stage of civil zapatismo.”

This set the stage for Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN to approach the 2006 presidential election cycle with a major new initiative: They created, in parallel to the official campaign, what they called “the Other Campaign.” Through the media and in small meetings convened across Mexico, they heaped scorn on traditional party politics and refused to back any party’s candidate. The rightist PAN candidate, Felipe Calderon, narrowly won the hotly disputed election.

So far, President Calderon has shown little interest in reaching a settlement with the Zapatistas. Meanwhile, they continue to conduct “the Other Campaign,” including on the Internet, as a vehicle for pursuing the goals announced in the “Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona.”[5] In some respects, the EZLN wants to use “the Other Campaign” to represent what is sometimes known as “the Other Mexico” -- the masses of poor, downtrodden, oppressed folk who have little voice and not truly benefited from modernization and liberalization.

* * *

That is the situation as we write today (March 2007). What do we conclude from these ten years of activities, since we wrote our original analysis?

First, in our view, the EZLN has not fared particularly well in Chiapas. It has wrested no new agreements from the government. Its control of its “autonomous zone” has slowly eroded. And its NGO allies have largely gone away. Nonetheless, the EZLN has persisted; it has held onto most of its initial territorial gains at the municipal level.

Second, the social netwar of 1994-1996 has died down, and nothing so significant has recurred in Mexico. The EZLN has continued to mutate from an armed insurgency into a rebellious but nonviolent radical-reformist movement. It now sees itself as conducting a “war against oblivion” and trying to “change the world without taking power.” It is focused mainly on traditional efforts at building coalitions with other groups. Moreover, the Zapatista movement as a whole -- that is, the EZLN plus its NGO allies -- is much smaller. Nonetheless, the EZLN can still attract some attention from NGO activists, and it still has a significant presence on the Internet at various Web sites. Thus, the prospect of a renewed social netwar lingers in the background, giving both the government and the EZLN reason to continue on a path toward a peaceful resolution of their differences.

Third, in retrospect it appears that the Zapatistas’ major initiatives are timed to Mexico’s presidential election cycle, every six years. Remember that the initial uprising occurred on January 1, 1994. At first, this date looked important because it was the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect. But it also marked the beginning of the year when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s term (1988-1994) would end, a national election would be held, and power would pass to his successor, President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000). No EZLN leader has ever said that this was a reason for beginning the uprising in 1994. But we see that the next two presidential election cycles -- in 2000 and 2006 -- were the next times that the Zapatistas shifted from being quiet to making a new effort at mobilization. This may be a sensible strategy for a dissident organization that is relatively weak, yet wants to maximize its leverage in the Mexican political context. This way it can reassert its presence and gain attention, while it waits for new opportunities to align itself with unrest elsewhere in Mexico (although, in the past ten years, only a few minor opportunities have arisen.)

Fourth, the Mexican government and army have become adept at constraining the Zapatistas within Mexico. In addition to containing the EZLN, they were routinely able to control and inhibit visits to Chiapas by foreign activists. The army also institutionalized the organizational innovations it used to deal with the armed uprising in 1994, notably by improving its own networking in order to counter the Zapatistas. The skillful responses of the Mexican government and military may prove instructive for authorities who may, sooner or later, have to deal with social netwars in other countries. The Zapatista movement was initially far more adept than the Mexican government and military at using information-age doctrines and technologies, but the government and military have learned as well.

Overall, then, the Zapatista story continues to unfold, and its ending is far from near or clear. The EZLN’s lower profile and the constraints imposed by the Mexican government leave little choice for the Zapatistas but to pursue a two-part strategy.[6] One part is to play a waiting game. This is especially true now that Subcomandante Marcos’s waning international prominence has reduced the EZLN’s chances of seizing the initiative alone once again. The Zapatistas may have to maneuver prudently for long periods -- mostly via ideas expressed on the Web, with a multitude of postings -- as they strive to protect their political space and wait for possible, even unlikely, opportunities to reassert their influence.

The second part of their strategy, in our view, is to build “parallel structures.” The Zapatistas stand no chance of gaining control of Mexico’s existing institutions at national or state levels. Indeed, it seems they have never aspired to do so. Instead, they appear to be pursuing a strategy that aims to create new organizations and/or coalitions, amid civil society, that can be used to displace or pressure the existing institutions. An indirect, lateral strategy of creating “parallel structures” -- even a “parallel polis” -- was used in the pro-democracy struggles in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, after this concept was espoused by an underground Catholic philosopher-activist, Vaclav Benda, in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia.[7] It is not clear that the Zapatistas are deliberately emulating the East European case -- as a leftist movement, they have other Marxist sources to draw on. But the growth of the information age, by facilitating social networking and online broadcasting, may make this strategy a sensible one for the Zapatistas.

* * *

Whatever befalls the Zapatistas in the future, their social netwar of 1994-1996 will remain a seminal model for (mostly) nonviolent social netwar elsewhere around the world.[8] Indeed, activists who have emulated the Zapatista example have often been successful at achieving their aims. In Asia, for example, the deepening of pro-democracy movements in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea have been facilitated by the social-netwar paradigm, which has helped guide opposition movements into power in several countries. In Europe, a series of "color revolutions” -- empowered by organizational networking and netwar techniques -- has toppled authoritarian systems across a range of countries, from Serbia and the Ukraine to transcaucasian Georgia. In all these cases the Internet, the World Wide Web, and other information-age tools have proven crucial for the creation of powerful social and political forces. Activist networks have raised the price of political repression to high levels, and many authoritarians are giving way in the face of social netwar.

Even so, there are significant exceptions to the rule that activist networks will generally drive authoritarian leaders into submission, or at least acquiescence. In Burma, the military junta has figured out how to wage counternetwar by engaging in international propaganda campaigns and building a support network among multi-national corporations. Singapore, too, has shown adroitness in dealing with even the hint of a threat to authoritarian rule. The Singaporean government’s measured responses resemble how Mexico’s civil and military authorities dealt with the Zapatistas. And nearly two decades after the Tiananmen Square unrest, the government of the People’s Republic of China has shown a new aptitude for putting social networks on the defensive -- notably in its campaign against the Falun Gong. Each of these cases provides counterpoints to the idea that networks are somehow ultimately destined to sweep all before them.

The information age will continue to give rise to new cases of social netwar and counternetwar. But do these all have to be struggles where one side necessarily wins, and the other side loses? No. Civil-society activists and governments around the world are still learning how to take advantage of the new network forms of organization, as well as the new strategies and arrangements that are now possible. In these early years of the information age, there are likely to be many confrontations in which civil-society activists will use social netwar to press their demands regarding political democracy, economic justice, human rights, the environment, and poverty. But conflict is not the only prospect. In time, we expect that all parties will learn to develop new mechanisms, based on networks, to improve communication, coordination, and cooperation among government, market, and civil-society actors. This is already beginning to happen in a few cases where NGOs and corporations are collaborating on environmental matters.

With this more constructive possibility in mind, the Zapatistas merit continuing study, as they have provided a pioneering case of social netwar. It is important to keep watching what happens with them and the Mexican government, to see whether they can move beyond constant criticism and opposition, and help point the way to a future that benefits both nations and networks. We hope this will be the case.


1 The authors prepared this Postscript on their own. It reflects only their own views. They thank Harry Cleaver for insightful comments on a prior version, and for posting online many informative documents about the Zapatista movement.

2 To prepare this Postscript, we consulted articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. We also consulted web sites, such as the “ZNet Chiapas/Zapatista Crisis Page” (at, and “Zapatista Army of National Liberation” at These sites have links to additional sites. Also see the guide called “Chiapas 95” at

3 See Paul de Armond, “Netwar in the Emerald City: WTO Protest Strategy and Tactics,” in John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, MR-1382-OSD, 2001, Ch. 7, pp. 201-235 (online at Also see Starhawk, Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising, Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2002. The text of this book is not posted online, but key ideas appear in Starhawk, “How We Really Shut Down the WTO,” December 1999, online at

4 From the “Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona” (June 2005), as posted at

5 From “The Other Campaign: Documents of the New Zapatista Initiative” as posted at

6 We stress that this is our interpretation. No Zapatista leader has stated that this two-part strategy is being pursued.

7 See Vaclav Benda, “The Parallel ‘Polis’,” in H. Gordon Skilling and Paul Wilson, eds., Civic Freedom in Central Europe: Voices from Czechoslovakia, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991, Ch. 2, pp. 35-41. We thank Ted Coopman, at the University of Washington, for pointing this out. See Taso G. Lagos, Ted M. Coopman, and Jonathan Tomhave, “Parallel polis: Towards a theoretical framework of the modern public sphere and the structural advantages of the internet to foster parallel institutions,” paper presented at the Western States Communication Association convention, Seattle, WA, February 2007.

8 Recent writings on the Zapatista social netwar from a leftist perspective include Harry Cleaver, “Computer-Linked Social Movements and the Threat to Global Capitalism,” July 1999, posted at; and Harry Cleaver, “Deep Currents Rising: Some Notes on the Global Challenge to Capitalism,” September 2006, posted at Another interesting analysis of the netwar concept appears in W. Sean McLaughlin, “The use of the Internet for political action by non-state dissident actors in the Middle East, First Monday, vol. 8, no. 11, November 2003, online only at

1 comment:

Spartacus O'Neal said...

One's point of view, of course, determines how one sees social dynamics developing. Goals, objectives, and resilience depend on this perspective. The attendant timeframes adjust to this reality.

Unlike the other elements of the TIMN structure, particular instances of the tribal form are not transitory; they can be extinguished, but otherwise they persist. In the case of the indigenous of the Americas, the referenced timeframes are in centuries. From this point of view, campaigns are part of a multi-generational movement, which in turn comprises a brief period of their political continuity and societal endurance.

As we witness throughout the world, the coming to terms between stateless nations and nation-states involves numerous adaptations toward autonomy, independence, and self-determination, each unique to its circumstances. Part of that accommodation is negotiating new relationships from positions of mutual respect; where respect is lacking, conflict continues.

Modern tribal institutions, and global tribal networks, are now prepared to engage from a position of moral and intellectual strength with the institutions of states and globalization. The only missing element, is indigenous media, which will in time make their invisibility disappear.

When that happens, unforeseen dynamics are likely to follow.