The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico
by David Ronfeldt
About halfway through this book, I tweeted that books like this one are why I gave up fiction. It's true: The book is fascinating, combining a gripping story with a fascinating analysis and rousing implications. And lest people in my field discount its relevance, let me emphasize that this story is about how rhetoric helped David (the Zapatista movement) win a war against Goliath (the Mexican army).
That's an oversimplification, certainly, but it highlights some of the issues at play here. On New Year's Day 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) – with only 1000 to 2000 insurgents – occupied five towns and a city in Chiapas; soon it declared war on the Mexican government (p.1). This insurrection “began as a traditional, Maoist insurgency” (p.45), with the traditional Maoist strategy of building into large units, eventually regiments and divisions, that could take on the government's forces in symmetrical warfare (pp.48-49). Such insurrections had happened before in Mexico, and they had been swiftly crushed by the government. But this time, something odd happened. In press conferences and communiques, the ELZN disavowed Marxist and other ideological leanings, instead emphasizing its indigenous roots and solidarity, appealing for creation of a true democracy and socioeconomic reforms (implying the abrogation of NAFTA) (p.2). It called for a peaceful nationwide civic struggle, not an armed conflict, to reach these goals. And it called for international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to monitor the conflict (p.2).
What on earth happened? The authors of this RAND report patiently take us through the history of the crisis, using the netwar framework to explain how the Zapatista strategy changed as NGOs became involved. For instance, the Zapatistas suddenly found themselves supported by single-issue NGOs: NGOs representing the rights of indigenous peoples and by NGOs representing human rights in general (pp.37-39). But they also enjoyed the support of multiple-issue NGOs: ones dealing with Central America, ones opposing NAFTA (p.39). Suddenly many NGOs looked at the Zapatistas and saw an organization that supported – or apparently supported – their issues. And such NGOs were networked with each other, with activists, and with the media. Despite itself – for the ELZN was generally hierarchical (p.43) – the ELZN was drawn to networking with the NGOs, and in doing so, became part of their network.
That meant changing. To use the language of actor-network theory, the Zapatistas and NGOs were interessed: they collectively defined the problem, and in the process, locked themselves into place as actors. The ELZN disavowed a Marxist struggle and instead took up a “compromise agenda” that reflected the shared goals of the NGOs supporting them (p.51). The list of NGOs, by the way, is quite lengthy (pp.58-60). This swarm of NGOs attacked the Mexican government – not violently, but rhetorically: through the media, bloodlessly exerting pressure that, incredibly, held the army at bay.
But the Mexican army changed too. The netwar “has prompted tactical decentralization, institutional redesign in favor of smaller, more specialized and mobile forces, new efforts at joint operations, and improvements in interservice intelligence sharing” (p.77). After all, “it takes networks to fight networks” (p.79).
I've discussed some of the theoretical apparatus and implications of this analysis elsewhere. But the story is well worth reading, not just because it's interesting or theoretically rewarding, but because the Zapatista netwar is one prototype for the networked organizations – and the low-level conflicts – that very well may become common in our near future. If you're interested in organizations, in rhetoric's transitions, or in the future of the state, I highly recommend this book.