Gustavo Esteva and the Horizon of Intelligibility

by Luis Hernández Navarro

Gustavo Esteva, writer, activist, advisor to the EZLN. Photo: Nic Paget-Clarke.

At the foot of the majestic ceiba tree, in the humid sunny mornings and dusk of La Realidad, in the Lacandon jungle, where advisors and guests of the EZLN waited to meet with the commanders, Gustavo Esteva would talk for hours with other advisors. It was not uncommon to hear him passionately conversing with the philosopher Luis Villoro and the Jesuit priest Ricardo Robles on topics seemingly distant from those meetings, such as the existence and nature of God. Because of its wisdom, this three-voice debate was worthy of the most prestigious university lecture hall.

It was 1996 and in San Andres, first the Indigenous Law and Culture roundtable of the Dialogues was held between Zapatistas and the federal government, and later, the Democracy and Development roundtable. Esteva participated in both. His contributions on autonomy were fundamental. Others generated a real upheaval among advisors.

This was the case, to the astonishment of activists, with his view of human rights, which he considered an individualistic Western construction that left out communal rights, as can be read in his article published at the invitation of Ronco Robles in the magazine Kwira, 44. The metaphor of that word – he wrote in Dictionary of Development – gave global hegemony to a purely Western genealogy of history, depriving the peoples of different cultures of defining their own forms of social life.

His vision of communality was strongly shaken in San Andres. According to Gustavo, this consists of a non-definable reality. It is a horizon of intelligibility: living the world from a We. Communality, he wrote, was born both as a word and as a term, under conditions that have led to confusion and its arbitrary use. To those who coined the concept (the Mixe Floriberto Díaz and the Zapotec Jaime Luna) it was born as a word, and in the struggle. They did not need to explain or define it. They tried to construct it as a concept and as a category, to seek a common understanding in that terrain. They did not do it well. Despite this criticism, the need for a constitutional reform inspired in part by this experience made it necessary to translate it into another language.

In the Dialogues of San Andres, Esteva went beyond proposing concepts to think about the new reality, confronting governmental arguments, reflecting on the scope of the moment or offering stimulating debates. There he was also a formidable organizer of the discussions among the Zapatistas’ advisors. With an efficient capacity for synthesis, he summarized the central ideas of the debate and faithfully wrote them down with unusual speed. The inevitable joke was that he already had the conclusions written on his computer and simply printed them out.

Wherever he went, the writer’s statements were always contradictory. In the middle of the pandemic, in a meeting with teachers of the CNTE in Oaxaca, he criticized hybrid education, because everything hybrid, from mules to seeds, is sterile.

The thought, complexity, mental order, theoretical brilliance and sophisticated capacity to argue of one who defined himself as a de-professionalized intellectual, led one of his assistants for some years to describe him as such an intelligent person, that he is capable of convincing me that my mother is my father. It is not true. But his reasoning to the contrary is irrefutable.

During his lifetime, Esteva was many things. Business administrator; executive of transnational companies; high public official, almost Secretary of State; director of Anadeges, one of the most relevant NGOs in the country in the 80’s, which, keeping the acronym, changed its name and mission, from Analysis, Development and Management, literally analyze, develop and help, to Autonomy, Decentralism and Management; founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca; columnist for La Jornada; author of key books to understand the peasant question in Mexico such as La Batalla en el México Rural, and an original thinker recognized in Germany, Japan, the United States and Italy.

Esteva was, in his own way, a companion of Raimon Panikkar, pioneer of interreligious dialogue, defender, against the hegemonic universalism of the West, of a radical pluralism that is not relativism. Also a companion of Ivan Illich, the Viennese thinker settled in Cuernavaca from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s, a radical critic of the institutions of progress. But he was a permanent apprentice of the indigenous and popular struggles, which he drew upon to find the autonomous construction of the contemporary art of living and a window to hope.

According to the author of Chronicle of the End of an Era: The Secret of the EZLN, the Zapatista insurrection sparked the political transition in which the country still finds itself and continues to represent a political option for millions of people. Its social and political creation corresponds to the description of the convivial society, one that adopts socialist ideals, but instead of trying to put at its service the dominant institutions created under capitalism, it inverts or dissolves them. A movement that already has a place in the world. That is why it is not utopia.

Always brilliant, erudite, polemic, Gustavo Esteva opened horizons of intelligibility of the world we live in. He will be missed.

This article was published in La Jornada on March 22, 2022. English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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