Radical media, politics and culture.

Gustavo Esteva, "Recuperating the Political"

Recuperating the Political

Gustavo Esteva

"Choose your enemy carefully," warns an old Arab proverb, "because you
will become like your enemy." If your enemy is an army, you will need
to create another to confront it; if your enemy is the mafia, you will
become a mafia.

"We cannot involve the army of the United States in the fight against
illegal drug trafficking," said the U.S. anti-drug czar some years ago,
"it would create a national security problem." He was recognizing the
risk involved, the risk of the dissolution of the armed forces if they
are used for that purpose. His statement was entirely cynical — he had
just returned from a tour of Latin America where he pressured every
government he met to do exactly that. He didn't care that those armies
would dissolve. The army of the U.S. would remain standing, in case an
army was called for.

Hard facts back the argument. A study by the lawyers guild of Puerto
Rico reported, some time ago, that for every dollar paid by a consumer
of illegal drugs in the U.S., the producers in Colombia or Mexico get
from three to five cents. The distributors and traffickers get between
ten to fifteen cents. The rest ends up in the hands of those who are
supposedly fighting the drug trade.This wise Arab proverb can be seen in another context. For Carl
Schmitt, the prominent German legal theorist, the distinction
friend/enemy forms the concept of the political, as the distinction
between the good and the bad does for ethics, and the beautiful and the
ugly does for aesthetics. The genius of Marx, according to Schmitt,
was to convert the social question into a political issue by expressing
it as the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

After the ostracism he suffered due to his sentence at Nuremberg
(because of his services to the Nazi cause), Schmitt now enjoys
posthumous fame. His books have finally been translated into English,
and they are necessary references in the academic world, particularly in
the United States. Regardless of the fact that the theoretical and
ethical foundations of his arguments are weak, his approach does
effectively describe the attitudes of the political classes in modern
states. Without the distinction friend/enemy one could not understand
U.S. policy nor the behavior of politicians of various ideological

Those who conceive of politics in this manner, and who dedicate
themselves obsessively to identifying allies and adversaries, frequently
lose sight of the very sense of political action — the common good — and
indeed even its very purposes. It is frequent, furthermore, that when
difficulties emerge in confronting the enemies identified, the struggle
becomes oriented against those on your own side.

When the fights within the PRI stopped being resolved by the
presidential handslap, the internal fights took on a literally mortal
ferocity. The PRD seems to dedicate more energy toward its internal
conflicts, between declared enemies, than with the struggle against
external enemies or for the causes that it pretends to defend. The
dirty rags of the PAN, which it used to wash at home, are now exhibited
very publicly. The confrontations for candidacies are now frequently
more intense than the competition for votes. And, as we have just seen
in the process of 2006, the competition for votes is defined more and
more by a marketing oriented toward liquidating the enemy.

The organs of coordination of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de
Oaxaca have suffered, from the beginning, of those obsessions — trapped
in internal disputes and reducing the complex struggle of the APPO into
the confrontation with an identified enemy. In contrast, within its
social base, we see a disapproval for those obscene games of the
political classes, and a growing commitment with other political
traditions which do seriously occupy themselves with the common good.

Instead of a pitched battle for economic or political power, which has
been the source of all corruption, their effort, at the social base, has
been oriented toward directly carrying out the changes that are needed.
Instead of representation, which every time becomes more like a dispute
between friends and enemies for positions and privileges, there is a
search for presence, for the active exercise of dignity by men and women
that create society, who are no longer satisfied with the vicarious
enjoyment of the proposals, decisions, and actions of leaders or
representatives, and instead directly take political activity into their
own hands.

In Mexico, we learned all this with Zapatismo, which despite everything
continues being heart and substance of the social and political
movements today. With it, furthermore, a new perspective is being knit

[From La Jornada, Thursday 4 June 2007. Translated by C. Herold.]