Ideas Are Also Weapons
by Subcomandante Marcos
Toward Freedom magazine, November 2000
The world is not square, or so we learn at school, yet, on
the brink of the third millennium, it is not round, either. I
do not know which geometrical figure best represents the world
in its present state but, in an era of digital communication,
we could see it as a gigantic screen-one of those screens you
can program to display several pictures at the same time, one
inside the other. In our global world, the pictures come from
all over the planet. But some are missing-not because there is
not enough room on the screen but because someone up there selected
these pictures rather than others.
What do the pictures show? On the American continent, we see
a paramilitary group occupying the Autonomous National University
of Mexico (Unam); but the men in gray uniforms aren't there to
study. Another frame shows an armored column thundering through
a native community in Chiapas. Beside this, we see US police using
violence to arrest a youth in a city that could be Seattle or
Washington. The pictures in Europe are just as gray.
A MEMORABLE OMISSION
Intellectuals have been part of society since the dawn of
humanity. Their work is analytical and critical. They look at
social facts and analyze the evidence, for and against, looking
for anything ambiguous, revealing anything that is not obvious-sometimes
even the opposite of what seems obvious.
These professional critics act as a sort of impertinent consciousness
for society. They are non-conformists, disagreeing with everything-social
and political forces, the state, government, media, arts, religion,
and so on.
Activists will just say, "We've had enough," but
skeptical intellectuals will cautiously murmur "too much"
or "not enough." Intellectuals criticize immobility,
demand change and progress. They are, nevertheless, part of a
society which is the scene of endless confrontation and is split
between those who use power to maintain the status quo and those
who fight for change.
Intellectuals must choose between their function as intellectuals
and the role that activists offer them. It is also here that we
see the split between progressive and reactionary intellectuals.
They all continue their work of critical analysis. But whereas
the more progressive persist in criticizing immobility, permanence,
hegemony, and homogeneity, the reactionaries focus their attacks
on change, movement, rebellion, and diversity. So, in fact, reactionary
intellectuals "forget" their true function and give
up critical thought. Their memory shrinks, excluding past and
future to focus only on the immediate and present. No further
discussion is possible.
Many leading right-wing intellectuals start life as progressives.
But they soon attract the attention of the powerful, who deploy
innumerable stratagems to buy or destroy them. Progressive intellectuals
are "born" in the midst of a process of seduction and
persecution. Some resist; others, convinced that the global economy
is inevitable, look in their box of tricks and find reasons to
legitimize the existing power structure. They are awarded with
a comfortable armchair, on the right hand of the prince they once
They can find any number of excuses for this supposedly "inevitable"
outcome: It is the end of history; money is everywhere and all-powerful;
the police have taken the place of politics; the present is the
only possible future; there is a rational explanation for social
inequality. There are even "good reasons" for the unbridled
exploitation of human beings and natural resources, racism, intolerance,
In an era marked by two new paradigms- communication and the
market-right-wing intellectuals have realized that being "modern"
means obeying one rule: "Adapt or go under." They aren't
required to be original, just to think like everyone else, taking
their cue from international bodies like the World Bank, International
Monetary Fund, or World Trade Organization.
Far from indulging in original, critical thought, right-wing
intellectuals become remarkably pragmatic, echoing the advertising
slogans that flood the world's markets. In exchange for a place
in the sun and the support of certain media and governments, they
cast off their critical imaginations and any form of self-criticism,
and espouse the new, free market creed.
The problem isn't why the global economy is inevitable, but
why almost everyone agrees that it is. Just as the economy is
becoming increasingly global, so is culture and information. How
are we to prevent vast media and communications companies like
CNN or News Corporation, Microsoft or AT&T, from spinning
their worldwide web?
In today's world economy, the major corporations are essentially
media enterprises, holding up a huge mirror to show us what society
should be, not what it is. To paraphrase Regis Debray, what is
visible is real and consequently true. That, by the way, is one
of the tenets of right-wing dogma. Debray also explains that the
center of gravity of news has shifted from the written word to
visual effects, from recorded to live broadcasts, from signs to
To retain their legitimacy, today's right-wing intellectuals
must fulfill their role in a visual era, opting for what is immediate
and direct, switching from signs to images, from thought to TV
In Mexico, left-wing intellectuals are very influential. Their
crime is that they get in the way. Well, at least one of their
crimes, since they also support the Zapatistas in their struggle.
"The Zapatista uprising heralds the start of a new era in
which native movements will emerge as players in the fight against
the neoliberal global economy," they say. But we are neither
unique nor perfect. Just look at the natives of Ecuador and Chile,
and the demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, Prague- and those
that will follow. We are just one of the pictures that deform
the giant screen of the world economy.
The prince has consequently issued orders: "Attack them!
I shall supply the army and media. You come up with the ideas."
So, right-wing intellectuals spend their time insulting their
left-wing counterparts, and because of the Zapatista movement's
international impact, they are now busy rewriting our story to
suit the demands of the prince.
In one of his books, Umberto Eco provides some pointers as
to why fascism is still latent. He starts by warning us that fascism
is a diffuse form of totalitarianism, then defines its characteristics:
refusal of the advance of knowledge, disregard of rational principles,
distrust of culture, fear of difference, racism, individual or
social frustration, xenophobia, aristocratic elitism, machismo,
individual sacrifice for the benefit of the cause, televised populism,
and use of Newspeak with its limited words and rudimentary syntax.
These are the values that right-wing intellectuals defend.
Take another look at the giant screen. All that gray is a response
to disorder, reflected in demands for law and order from all around
us. But, is Europe once more the prey of fascism? We may well
see skinheads, with their swastikas, on the screen, but the commentator
is quick to reassure us that they are only minority groups, already
under control. But it may also take other, more sinister forms.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, both sides of the political
spectrum in Europe rushed to occupy the center. This was all too
obvious with the traditional left, but it was also the case with
the far right. It went out of its way to acquire a new image,
well removed from its violent, authoritarian past, enthusiastically
espousing neoliberal dogma.
The task of progressive thinkers-to remain skeptically hopeful-isn't
an easy one. They have understood how things work and, noblesse
oblige, they must reveal what they know, dissect it, denounce
it, and pass it on to others. But to do this, they must also confront
neoliberal dogma, backed by the media, banks, major corporations,
army, and police.
What is more, we live in a visual age. And so, to their considerable
disadvantage, progressive thinkers must fight the power of the
image with nothing but words. But their skepticism will get them
out of that trap, and if they are equally skeptical in their critical
analysis, they will be able to see through the virtual beauty
to the real misery it conceals. So, perhaps there is reason to
There is a story that when Michelangelo sculpted his statue
of David, he had to work on a "second-hand" piece of
marble that already had holes in it. It is a mark of his talent
that he was able to create a figure that took account of these
limitations. The world we want to transform has already been worked
on by history and is largely hollow. We must nevertheless be inventive
enough to change it and build a new world. Take care, and do not
forget that ideas are also weapons.
Subcommandante Marcos leads the Zapatista National Liberation
Army in Chiapas, Mexico. The above is excerpted from "La
droite intellectuelle et lefascisme liberal," first published
in Le Monde diplomatique, August 2000.
Central America watch