Joyful Militancy by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery foregrounds forms of life in the cracks of Empire, revealing the ways that fierceness, tenderness, curiosity, and commitment can be intertwined. This is part of a series of about the project. See all interviews here.

This interview with Gustavo Esteva was conducted in 2014 by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery for Joyful Militancy. For this email interview we (Nick and carla) sent a ‘preamble’ outlining some of the ideas behind our book project, and then included a series of questions based on Esteva’s other writings. As time went on in the process of researching, doing interviews, and writing the book, our ideas and articulations shifted, and for that, we are deeply indebted to all our interviewees who offered new insights and shed light on areas that needed reworking.

Consider joining the collective of supporters for Gustavo Esteva: For decades, Esteva has been supporting grassroots movements and initiatives; however, he recently lost his main source of income. At the age of 81, he has no savings or pension and is facing some very large medical bills. Many of us have experienced his hospitality, the grace with which he offers his time and wisdom, and the deep love and support he provides to his friends, family, and fellow-travellers. Please consider sharing or donating to this Fundly page on a monthly or a one-time basis.


carla & Nick (c&N): What is your initial reaction to the preamble on joyful militancy: how did it feel?  What resonated, and what didn’t?  Are there particular pieces that make you curious?  Excited?  Annoyed?

Esteva: It feels great! I am excited and curious about the whole thing, the approach, which clearly resonated with my theory and practice.

Your distinction between joy and sadness is obviously rooted in an old tradition but presented in a new way, more clear, more open, and you escape immediately from the temptation of a binary separation. I can associate the proposal and many specific statements with my own experience.

We have been using in recent years a word in Spanish that does not function in English: sentipensar. What is behind the word is that you can not think without feeling or feel without thinking…but there is a dominant, absurd conviction that you can and must separate thinking and feeling, and you can thus get “scientific thinking”, “objective thinking”, etc. supposedly separated from any subjectivity and feeling and consequently more valid. I feel a profound connection between our sentipensar and your concepts of joyful militancy and sad militancy.

There is a serious challenge in the proposal: how to assume it and apply it without falling into sadness, i.e. classifying, excluding, disqualifying? Yes, the idea is to live in “a truly radical, creative, and joyful way”. In that expression, are we not disqualifying the “other” ways, which will not be “truly” radical? We need to be very careful to say what we want to say.

And I have a problem with the words “activist” and “militancy”…which we cannot cease to use!

  1. On the one hand, the military implication: an activist is “an individual who favors, incites or demands intensified activities, especially in time of war” (Webster). On the other hand, the role assumed by the activist as a “leader”. An activist is a person activating others. This may imply that you think that the others, the people, are not active; we need to activate them. This is usually wrong: the people are always doing something, they are moving. Or, even worse, you think that the people are moving but in the wrong direction and you know the right direction. You thus try to activate them in the right direction. A kind of vanguard, again.
  2. Militancy cannot be delinked from war, the military. Militant is: “1. Fighting; engaged in war; serving as a soldier. 2. Of a combative or warlike character or disposition; ready and willing to fight.” Militancy is “fighting spirit, attitude or policy” (Webster).

True, we are involved in a war. The powers that be are waging a war in which we, the people, are the identified enemy. We are in what the Zapatistas called the Fourth World War. Are we engaged in it, serving as soldiers in such a war, in one of the sides? “Choose well your enemy,” says an old Arab proverb; “you will be like him.” If our enemy is an army, you will become an army…

Some of us (activists, militants) have suffered the urgency and the compulsion to do something against those oppressing us (“the dominant order”) and for a decent society, a different kind of world. For many of us, it is almost impossible to resist this impulse…and we don’t want to resist it: we feel that it makes us human and protects our dignity. But very often this impulse shapes us as sad militants and destroys the joy of being alive and thus fighting (to fight is to dream).

In my case, after a long, solid period of sad militancy, the path to escape from that condition was three-fold:

  1. My experience at the grassroots. Unable to understand what I was seeing and experiencing at the grassroots with the lens, the categories, in which I was educated, I took off one day those lenses and began to see and experience a whole new world, full of joy, creativity, and conviviality.
  2. My late discovery of the Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Deleuze and Guattari, and particularly its preface by Michel Foucault opened my heart. For Foucault the book poses some of the questions implicit in your presentation: “How does one introduce desire into thought, into discourse, into action? How can and must desire deploy its forces within the political domain and grow more intense in the process of overturning the established order? Ars erotica, ars theoretica, ars politica.” It was not easy to read the book itself; perhaps it is too French, and too located in a specific intellectual context of certain time and place. But it is fascinating and useful. As Foucault clarifies in the preface, the book combats three adversaries: the sad militant, the technicians of desire (psychoanalysts and semiologists), and fascism, particularly “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” And he states, firmly: “Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.”
  3. The most important, what seems to be the most radical sentence of the Zapatistas: “We are quite ordinary women and men, children and old people, that is to say, rebels, non-conformists, uncomfortable, dreamers.” (La Jornada, 4 August 1999). With the Zapatistas we learned to be activated by ordinary men and women and accepted their leadership…instead of trying to lead them, as activists, organizers, etc. And we learned with them, with the people, how to transform our militancy into a joyful, peaceful struggle. This was probably the “final” cure (I hope) from the Leninism guiding my political activities and in fact my whole life until the mid-80s but still surreptitiously present in the 90s.

c&N: How did you come to grapple with sad/joyful militancy: i.e. how did it emerge as something you’re oriented towards (how’d you get here?)

Esteva: As most things in my life, I got ‘there’ through practice, experience.

In the 60s, when I became associated with a group in the process of organizing a guerrilla in Mexico, whose members were assuming that they were already the vanguard of the proletariat because they had the revolutionary program, I was fully immersed in what we now call sad militancy. Our ‘program’ was evidently an intellectual construction in the Leninist tradition. We had already our criticism of Stalinism, etc. but we still were in the tradition of trying to seize the power of the state for a revolution from the top-down, through social engineering. We were thus preparing ourselves (military training, etc.) and organizing. I can apply to the experience your description: “perfectionism, suspicion, cynicism, fear, ideological purity, competition, race to radicalism, fear of mistakes/humiliation, self-hatred…” Of course, as you observe, there were moments or conditions of joy, laughter, intensified emotion, exhilaration… The environment of conspiracy and clandestinity and the shared ideology shaped real camaraderie and episodes full of joy, but it was clear that the experience itself was pure sad militancy: “creating boundaries, making distinctions, comparing, making plans, and so on.” One day I will share many stories of that phase of my life that illustrate this very well. How the whole experience ended makes the point better than any of those stories: one of our leaders killed the other leader because of a woman. The episode evidenced for us the kind of violence we were accumulating in ourselves and wanted to impose on the whole society. In the military training, for an army or a guerrilla, to learn how to use a weapon is pretty easy; what is difficult is to learn to kill someone in cold blood, someone like you, that did nothing personal against you… Nothing sadder than that.

The joy of living, the passion for fiestas, the capacity to express emotions, the social climate that I found at the grassroots, in villages and barrios, in the midst of extreme misery, began to change my attitudes. My participation in different kinds of peasant and urban marginal movements gave me a radically different approach. The break point was perhaps the explosion of autonomy and self-organization after the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985. It became for me a life-changing experience. The victims of the earthquake were suffering all kind of hardships. They had lost friends and relatives, their homes, their possessions, almost everything. Their convivial reconstruction of their lives and culture would not have been possible without the amazing passion for living they showed at every moment. Such passion had very powerful political expressions and was the seed for amazing social movements. In the following years the balance of forces changed in Mexico City, already a monstrous settlement of 15 million people. There was a radical contrast between the guerrilla and these movements. The very notion of militancy changed in me: it was no longer associated with an organization, a party, an ideology, and even less a war… It was an act of love.

c&N: What’s been your experience of sad militancy in everyday life—and especially in radical spaces?

Esteva: In the 60s, in the preparation of our guerrilla, an important aspect of our training was to bring our ideological commitment and the principles of our training as would-be guerrillas to our daily lives. This attitude brought coldness, separation, sadness…

Emma Goldman expressed this in a beautiful way:

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.”

One very important point is that in the practice of sad militancy it is almost unavoidable to fall in love with power. You are trying to seize it –from the State- or to create your own power, “people’s power”, “popular power”. And this obsession, this fascism, is applied to the life in the family, with friends, with every one. It is one that very radical and progressive men can be feudal at home, in their attitudes with their wifes and children. Machismo is everywhere in sad militancy.

c&N: What sustains sad militancy?

Esteva: Dogmatism, even fundamentalism, the strong conviction that you own the truth,  objective truth, scientific truth – and that theory guides practice: you must obey your theory, the program, the ideas…

c&N: What provokes or inspires it?  What makes it spread?

Esteva: The separation of means and ends. The joy is projected to the future –the promised land, the new society- and all kinds of means are accepted for your high ideals, means that can be very sad and terrible: killing, betraying, oppressing… This is very serious business and you must commit all your effort, energy, feelings, connections, etc. to the revolutionary goal, subordinating to it every minute, every emotion, every love…

This is contagious. Of course, there is a kind of exhilaration in this attitude: you are saving the world, you are fighting against the identified enemy, you are offering the sacrifice of your life for the common good, etc. etc. But you can commit the worst crimes and be very sad in this endeavor.

c&N: What’s been your experience of joyful militancy? can you speak to the Zapatistas and the use of this tactic?

Esteva: The Zapatistas are of course a perfect illustration for the alternative attitude.

In a letter to the Argentinian people in 2003 subcomandante Marcos wrote:

…sometimes you forget the points and lines that in the maps mark frontiers… All scientists know that music, dance, food and feeling are fundamental ingredients to construct what some call utopia, but is possible and necessary: a new world, that is, better. Here in Mexico, a place of transgressors of oblivion, and professionals of hope, there are some human beings who have decided to keep awake the powerful organizing a fiesta that some disoriented call an uprising and is nothing but the common dance of dignity. The dance in which the human being is, and is human.”

In a letter to Eric Jauffret, on July 5, 1995, subcomandante Marcos wrote:

We are not fighting with our weapons. Our example and our dignity now fight for us. In the peace talks the government delegates have confessed that they have studied in order to learn about dignity and that they have been unable to understand it. They ask the Zapatista delegates to explain what is dignity. The Zapatistas laugh, after months of pain they laugh. Their laughter echoes and escapes unto the high wall behind which arrogance hides its fear. The Zapatista delegates laugh even when the dialogue ends, and they are giving their report. Everyone who hears them laughs, and the laughter re-arranges faces which have been hardened by hunger and betrayal. The Zapatistas laugh in the mountains of the Mexican southeast and the sky cannot avoid infection by that laughter and the peals of laughter emerge. The laughter is so great that tears arise and it begins to rain as though the laughter were a gift for the dry land…With so much laughter raining, who can lose? Who deserves to lose?

In December 2007, in their intervention in the symposium to honor Andrés Aubry, subcomandante Marcos shared that a young woman told him a few years before: “If your revolution does not know how to dance, don’t invite me to your revolution”. This is probably a variant of a statement commonly attributed to Emma Goldman that occurs in several variants: If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!; If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!; If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution; A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having; If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming.

No quote, however, can illustrate the character of Zapatismo as joyous militancy better that the daily life in Zapatista communities. Yes, you have the amazing sense of humour of subcomandante Marcos and many comandantes and comandantas. But there is nothing like the joy and freedom of the children in Zapatista communities. The Zapatistas work a lot, very day, and they are dealing with all kinds of hardships, restrictions and aggressions. They have real motives to be sad. And they know how and when to cry. But they laugh all the time and they have wide spaces for creativity, hospitality, love. There is no event without a fiesta. They have created a convivial society, perhaps the first.

We use the word aesthetic to allude to the ideal of beauty. The etymological meaning, almost lost, associate the word with the intensity of sensual experience, it meanse perceptive, sharp in the senses. That meaning is retained in words like anesthesia. Comparing a funeral in a modern, middle class family and in a village in Mexico or India, we can see then contrast in how you express or not your feelings and how joy and sadness can be combined with great intensity.

Zapatismo is clearly an aesthetic movement, both for its beauty and the intensity of the senses in it.

c&N: What inspires/encourages/sustains joyful militancy?

Esteva: Again, one important lesson from the Zapatistas. If you are not separating means and ends, your struggle embodies and takes the shape of the outcome. If you are looking for a society without violence, you are not using violence in the struggle. Joy, love, kindness, everything that you want in the decent society you are tying to create, appear in the militancy, in the real, immediate actions of the struggle.

c&N: How do you try to embody it?

Esteva: Gandhi said this beautifully: Be the change you wish for the world. Instead of preaching, telling everyone what to do, qualifying and disqualifying everyone, focusing your effort and energy in identifying the ‘enemy’ and fighting against it, I try to do the kind of things in which I believe and to embody, in my daily live, the attitudes and practices of the new society as I imagine it.

For a long time now, I have been try to apply in my daily life Paul Goodman’s advice:

Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!

c&N: Because we think joy and sadness are always moving and shifting into new configurations, we are really curious about how these shifts take place.  Have you seen spaces, conversations, or practices shift from joyful militancy into sad militancy, or vice-versa?  What leads to these shifts?

Esteva: Yes, continually, day after day and almost hour after hour, in the Oaxaca Commune, our experience in 2006. Our movement evolved in a continual confrontation between the people themselves, self-organized and autonomous groups, and a variety of organizations of a vertical structure—unions,  “vanguards”, etc. —most of which can be typically described as sad militancy. There was a continual fluctuation and shifting. I do think that the main factor producing the shifts to sad militancy was power, the struggle for power, the way in which many militants were mirroring the power we were fighting against in what they saw as the construction of “popular power”. Such struggle was often projected inside the movement, when the militants were competing for power and transforming their comrades into enemies as an expression of rivalry. In the same way, the shift to joyous militancy came from the creativity and joy of the people themselves. In the radio we controlled, we had a very popular program: “Barricade love,” beautiful love stories emerging during the nights in the barricade, when young people were preparing themselves to defend the neighborhood from the police and the governor’s goons. A lot of ingenuity and creativity emerging from the people became a limit to the actions imposed by sad militants.

c&N: A common perception we’ve been grappling with is that joyful militancy is naïve—a failure to appreciate how bad things are (if you’re not sad/angry/cynical, you’re not paying attention) – how do you react to this?

Esteva: There is a point in the critique: we need to be continually aware of the horror, not to hide it…as the ‘system’ does. Reaction: irony, laughter, ridiculization… When Galeano states: “Who is not afraid of hunger, is afraid of food” and I comment this statement saying: “We cannot expect a moral epiphany in the CEOs of Monsanto and WalMart,” we are combining the awareness of the horror, paying attention to it, with the joy of laughing at them and doing our own thing.

c&N: There’s also a perception that joyful militancy is just a symptom of privilege (in the north American context). How do you think about joyful militancy in the context of privilege and oppression?

Esteva: My feeling is that such perception is a prejudice. The poor and oppressed should be sad. I did learn sad militancy with highly educated people, middle-class professionals and so on. I did learn joyful militancy with urban marginal, peasants and particularly indigenous peoples – under extreme oppression and misery.

c&N: How do you think about joyful militancy across divides of colonialism, ageism, heteropatriarchy, racism, ableism, etc?

Esteva: It is what may erase those divides! It is the way out!

At the end of the interview, Esteva included some pertinent quotes from other authors:

Radicalism is not “a certain set of ideas, but rather an attitude, an approach”, doubting everything, “readiness and capacity for critical questioning of all assumptions and institutions which have become idols under the name of common sense, logic and what is supposed to be natural…Radical doubt as a process of liberation from idolatrous thinking; a widening of awareness, of imaginative, creative vision of our possibilities and options… The radical approach…starts from the roots”, i.e., man, “but we speak of man as a process;…of his potential for developing all his powers; those for greater intensity of being, greater harmony, greater love, greater awareness. We also speak of man with a potential to be corrupted of his power to act being transformed into the passion for power over others, of his love of live degenerating into the passion to destroy life (“Introduction,” by Erich Fromm, in Ivan Illich, Celebration of Awareness, London: Marion Boyars, 1972, pp.7-9).

“This call to face facts, rather than deal in illusions-to live change, rather than rely on engineering-is an attempt to re-introduce the word ‘celebration’ into ordinary English… To discover…what we must do to use mankind’s power to create the humanity, the dignity and the joyfulness of each one of us” (“A Call to Celebration” in Illich, Celebration of Awareness, p.14-5)

In English ‘convivial’ now seeks the company of tipsy jolliness, which is distinct from that indicated by the OED and opposite to the austere meaning of modern ‘eutrapelia’ which I intend. (OED: Of or belonging to a feast or banquet; feasting or jovial companionship; fond of feasting and good company; disposed to enjoy festive society; festive; jovial)… ’Austerity’ has also been degraded and has acquired a bitter taste, while for Aristotle and Aquinas it marked the foundation of friendship… Thomas deals with disciplined and creative playfulness…a virtue that does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those that are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness. For Thomas ‘austerity’ is a complementary part of a more embracing virtue, which he calls friendship or joyfulness. It is the fruit of an apprehension that things or tools could destroy rather than enhance eutrapelia (or graceful playfulness) in personal relations. (Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, New York/Evanston/San Francisco/London: Harper & Row, 1973, pp, xxiv-xxv).

From Michel Foucault’s Preface to Anti-Oedipus:

Whence the three adversaries confronted by Anti-Oedipus. Three adversaries who do not have the same strength, who represent varying degrees of danger, and whom the book combats in different ways:

  1. The political ascetics, the sad militant, the terrorists of theory, those who would preserve the pure order of politics and political discourse. Bureaucrats of the revolution and civil servants of Truth.
  2. The poor technicians of desire — psychoanalysts and semiologists of every sign and symptom — who would subjugate the multiplicity of desire to the twofold law of structure and lack.
  3. Last but not least, the major enemy, the strategic adversary is fascism (whereas Anti-Oedipus’ opposition to the others is more of a tactical engagement). And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini — which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively — but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.

I would say that Anti-Oedipus (may its authors forgive me) is a book of ethics, the first book of ethics to be written in France in quite a long time (perhaps that explains why its success was not limited to a particular “readership”: being anti-oedipal has become a life style, a way of thinking and living). How does one keep from being fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant? How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures, of fascism? How do we ferret out the fascism that is ingrained in our behavior? The Christian moralists sought out the traces of the flesh lodged deep within the soul. Deleuze and Guattari, for their part, pursue the slightest traces of fascism in the body.

Paying a modest tribute to Saint Francis de Sales, one might say that Anti-Oedipus is an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life.

This art of living counter to all forms of fascism, whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles which I would summarize as follows if I were to make this great book into a manual or guide for everyday life:

  • Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.

  • Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.

  • Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.

  • Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.

  • Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.

  • Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.

  • Do not become enamored of power.

Reposted from Joyful Militancy

Image of Gustavo Esteva from Joyful Threads on vimeo


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