Is it possible — in a world crisscrossed with roads, railways, pipelines, and shipping routes — to carve out a little freedom from the free market? For an answer squarely in the affirmative, see autonomous zones: pockets of sovereignty where the people, asserting themselves, mount scale-model societies unloosed from the dual bonds of capitalist industry and the industrial state. Radical in spirit and prefigurative in principle, autonomous zones are sociopolitical laboratories in which the shape of a viable future may well be cast. At a time when prospects for that kind of a future appear dimmer every day, grasping the results of these experiments isn’t merely interesting, but imperative: if even one of them can withstand the rising heat, it just might prove our last best hope.
Take the zad. Crawling with biodiversity, it spans some 4,000 acres of woods, pasture, hedgerows, and wetlands — a regional mixture known as bocage — near the township of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, in the west of France. Alongside a handful of hold-out farmers, this expanse is home to dozens of squatters who dwell in handmade cabins, tend communal gardens, mill their own wheat, bake their own bread, brew beer, make cheese, tan hides, publish a paper, run a pirate radio station, keep a library — in brief, who make up a leaderless, self-sustaining cooperative. Having staved off public–private designs to pave over the bocage and build a major airport atop it, today the zad’s residents live entirely free of state interference: not a single gendarme has set foot there since the last attempt at evictions, in 2018. Deemed “a territory lost to the Republic,” for now it remains a haven not just to committed anti-capitalists but to uncounted birds, bugs, and beasts otherwise imperilled by the relentless encroachments of the fossil-fueled economy.
This, in a word, is the zone à défendre, or “zone to defend.” It is also the subject of We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself: Entangling Art, Activism and Autonomous Zones, a pamphlet by Isabelle Fremeaux and Jay Jordan. In this short book, the authors trace not only the history of the zad but their own quest to shed the trappings of their lives as urban “culture workers,” as they call themselves, and don the mantle of zadistes. Their story begins in London. By the early aughts, “Isa” and “JJ” had grown disenchanted with their commitments to academia and protest art, respectively. Though they each had a hand in headline-making actions such as Reclaim the Streets’ “Carnival Against Capitalism” (which prefigured the WTO protests in Seattle), they “felt a toxic pattern repeating”: “As the adrenaline of those days of rage wore off … [w]e would always return home to an everyday life still besieged by capitalism.” The idea was to discover a more permanent means of rebelling against “the extractivist logic of the capitalist metropolis.” So, in 2012, they packed it in and headed for France.
At that point, the zad was three years old. In the authors’ telling, it arose out of the decades-long struggle to defend not only non-human nature but the homes and livelihoods of farmers whose lands, in the interest of building the airport, were threatened with expropriation. Since the early ’70s, the implications of the label “deferred development zone” provoked increasingly organized efforts at resistance. (The label in the original French, zone d’aménagement différé, is the source of the reclaimed and détourned acronym “zad.”) But by the new millennium, with growing numbers of farmers caving in and moving away, the bocage risked becoming a depopulated “rural desert” ripe for the paving. In 2009, it was the location of France’s first climate camp, at which a collective of unyielding habitants invited the largely urban campers to stay on and squat; some did, taking up residence in abandoned farmhouses or in fresh-made huts. With that, the zad came into being — both as an experiment in communal living and as a bulwark against the depredations of carbon capital.
It has proved remarkably tenacious, having survived not one but two large-scale incursions on the part of police. Fremeaux and Jordan witnessed both. The first, in 2012, saw officers march on the zone and demolish over a dozen structures; they were met by some 40,000 pro-zad partisans from across the country. Jordan’s account of the face-off reads like a war diary: “I felt the wind of a rubber bullet whistle past my head … Our ears rang with the sharp crack of stun grenades … Our skin burned from tear gas.” Eventually, the state stood down and withdrew. For a little less than six years afterwards, defenders of the zad’s “canvas of commoning” were left to lick their wounds.
Then came the cold winds of January 2018. On live TV, then Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced that, though plans for the airport had been scrapped, the zad would be cleared come springtime, whether voluntarily or not. In April, roughly 2,500 gendarmes — one fifth of the country’s aggregate force — were set loose on the squats, flanked by drones, choppers, and armored personnel carriers. It was apparently the largest such deployment France had seen since the historic unrest of May 68. War had returned. In three days, the cops destroyed 40 dwellings and, by the authors’ count, lobbed no fewer than 11,000 stun grenades and teargas canisters. On the fourth day, the zadistes were given an ultimatum: sign individual leases for allotments to be used exclusively for agriculture, or face further and final discipline. Seven of the 70 existing squats, unwilling to compromise their anti-statist principles, folded immediately. The other 63 were saved with a bit of bureaucratic cunning, by which mutually overlapping plots were registered in the names of groups or collectives rather than those of individuals. At the cost of “normalizing” relations with the French state, the total demise of the zad was warded off. As of the writing of We Are ‘Nature’ three years later, it held on yet.
While the pamphlet was being completed, the zad prepared to receive a sizable “delegation” of Zapatistas — emissaries of another strain of resistance, accounts of whose struggle had long served as fodder for the authors’ imaginations. The Zapatistas belong to the militant political movement known as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), or Zapatista National Liberation Army. Since 1994, the movement has sought to fend off the trespasses of the North American neoliberal order — with force when necessary — and declare Indigenous sovereignty in Mexico. It has managed to do so in much of Chiapas, the country’s historically poverty-stricken (read: colonialism-ravaged) southernmost state, where it has established a network of “autonomous municipalities” operating on loosely anarchist principles. Some 350,000 people (largely Maya) call these agrarian enclaves home; they boast a cooperative economy, access to rudimentary healthcare and education (where once sorely lacking), a ban on most forms of extraction, and a participatory style of politics based on direct community involvement. Though tensions with the Mexican state have reportedly slackened since the 2000s, the EZLN has never disarmed. As many a sign makes known, in Zapatista territory, “the people command and the government obeys.”
Another rebel zone with which Fremeaux and Jordan show tacit solidarity is the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). (At one point, they recount sending off one of the zad’s own “to fight alongside internationalist comrades defending the autonomous region of Rojava,” as the AANES is otherwise known.) As with the Zapatista municipalities, popular control over the zone was won with blood — and not just anyone’s blood. Though multiethnic in makeup, Rojava was born out of the struggle for Kurdish self-determination. Kurds have long suffered statelessness and persecution in so-called Kurdistan, which straddles the junction of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. As civil war broke out in Syria, militias (including the famously all-female Women’s Protection Units) rallied to the defence of the country’s Kurdish-majority northeastern corner, repelling the advances of the Syrian army, various Islamist groups including ISIS, and later the Turkish army. Amid the conflict, Rojava gained de facto autonomy. Its political character is informed by the “democratic confederalism” of Abdullah Öcalan, jailed founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and is marked by aspirations to democracy, feminism, pluralism, communalism, decentralization, respect for refugees, and climate-consciousness. To its champions, its triumph constitutes nothing less than a revolution.
In the Global North and in the peripheries, in the heartland of capital as in its extraction-blighted hinterland, autonomous zones — the zad, the Zapatista autonomous municipalities, Rojava, and others — have mounted a stubborn, sometimes violent challenge to the political-economic paradigm now threatening humanity with extinction. They’ve sought to counter competition with cooperation, exploitation with mutual aid, top-down command with direct democracy, despoliation with sustainable stewardship. Above all they have demonstrated, in miniature, the viability of ways of living outside and beyond the status quo, exploding the myth that “there is no alternative.” These radical experiments, in short, reveal a hopeful, hidden trailhead where previously there appeared only a single path heading straight for the abyss. The way may be rocky. Where it may ultimately lead is uncertain. But at this point, the urgency of the present crisis — which foreshadows the natural endpoint of the road we have travelled thus far — impels us to explore. The very alternatives once thought untenable may now prove the only way forward. Now is the hour of treading bravely.
- Trevor Clarke
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