Resistance is Legitimacy
“Many harbor the most profound hopes that Cuba will resist. That is the message we receive from all over, that is the encouragement we receive from all points of the compass on the earth: the hope that we will be capable of resisting.” – Fidel Castro, 1992
Since founding the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965, Fidel Castro successfully built up Cuba as a symbol of communal resistance. At the risk of diving into anthropological drivel, I’ll rely on Manuel Castell’s concept of resistance identity from The Power of Identity. Social actors, like Castro, build up “communities of resistance” in response to stigmatization or oppression. The ensuing resistance identities have become some of the most powerful social organizations in recent decades. But how?
For anyone interested in becoming the next iPad-wielding millennial Guevara, building resistance identities, and acquiring the accompanying power, seems to be fairly straightforward.
First comes the existential question: who’s the enemy? Any resistance – whether Cuban, Mexican, Lebanese, or otherwise – is based on identifying and demonizing an adversary. For Hezbollah, it’s Israel, whose 18-year occupation of Lebanon and its ensuing air strikes and wars have rendered it a primary evil in the popular imagination. For the Zapatista Movement in Mexico in the 1990s, it was globalization. Local Indian farmers in Chiapas and Oaxaca mobilized when their land and way of life were threatened by the Mexican government’s developing policies on free trade. Once resistance groups identify an entity as unjust and evil, it’s easy to posit themselves as the antidote: righteous, representative, and just. For much of Lebanon’s population, Hezbollah is the only entity able to confront Israel. Perhaps the bigger the adversary, the more legitimate “the resistance” becomes: 3,000 lightly armed men and women decided to take on the giant of globalization, and they successfully captured the attention of Mexico and of the world.
From there, it’s about language. None of the “resistance activities” – protests, battles, stand-offs, civil disobedience – matter if they’re not relayed properly and in the right language. Castro’s speeches are full of the rhetoric of perseverance, revolution, and resistance. The Zapatistas, too, expertly used the then-new tool of the internet to their advantage. Maria Elena Martinez Torres, an observer of Mexico’s Chiapas peasantry, commented, “In the new world order where information is the most valuable commodity, that same information can be more powerful than bullets.” Hezbollah, officially dubbed the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, has its own television station and Twitter presence, and Nasrallah inevitably invokes the values of righteousness, steadfastness, and communal resistance in his speeches.
Narratives build identities and societies: through them, people decide what’s good, what’s valuable, and what’s legitimate. They help create “cultural communes,” which Castells described as internally homogeneous refuges whose members are characterized by collective responsibility and solidarity.
From these communities, from these shared identities, resistance groups can begin to capitalize politically.
Resistance is Power
“Whoever, or whatever, wins the battle of people’s minds will always rule… Identities are so important and so powerful in this ever-changing power structure: because they build interests, values, projects. Identities anchor power in some area of the social structure, and build from there their resistance.” – Castells, The Power of Identity
In 1995, Mexico’s Zapatista movement came to a turning point. After gaining significant popular support for their resistance activities, they began deliberations on whether to become a full-fledged political party. They held nation-wide consultations with over two million participants, a vast majority of whom supported the Zapatistas’ transition to a political party. The support they had gained through resistance had bought them political legitimacy and influence.
With political power, resistance identities become bolder. Hezbollah developed from an obscure movement in Lebanon’s civil war to a dominant political party with significant allies at home and abroad. The Communist Party, nearly fifty years later, remains at the helm of Cuba’s government.
And, with power, the resistance groups get protective. Castells’s says it well, if ham-handedly: “The exclusion of the excluders by the excluded.” The groups become defensive of their new role, so they will tolerate neither betrayal nor competition. During the 1980s, Cubans who expressed a desire to leave their country were intimidated, attacked, and labeled as “traitors to the revolution.” Palestine’s Hamas, who shares the same enemy as Hezbollah, does not hesitate to summarily execute those thought to be collaborating with Israel.
Resistance is so sacred, so powerful, that it cannot be shared. In a private interview on his activities during the civil war, the former head of Lebanon’s Communist Party Elias Atallah described the enmity between his party, who had played a critical role in the National Resistance Front’s operations against Israel, and Hezbollah,“they could not bear that we were the original resistance,” he said. “They wanted it to be a purely Islamic resistance.”
This month, the Lebanese Forces held their annual mass to honor its fighters killed during the civil war, whom it calls “martyrs of the resistance.” During his speech, party leader Samir Geagea stressed, “We are the sons of the historical Lebanese resistance.”
After decades, these groups, and others around the world, continue to vie over the title of resistance. It’s no wonder, considering how much power – real, political, rhetorical – lies in that single, complex word.