by Muto Ichiyo*

There seems to be no need to talk anew about the disastrous human, environmental, and cultural consequences and implications of the globalisation process based on the “free market” neoliberal model, of which APEC is a salient feature. In the past couple of days, at this forum, we have been exposed to a number of excellent analyses, reports, and criticisms of them. I therefore understand that the topic given me, transborder alliances, should relate to how the people can counter and ultimately overcome this dominant globalisation regime and its paradigm. In this brief intervention I will limit myself to raising some points considered relevant to our practice and perspectives.

It is obvious that we need transborder people’s alliances in order to counter the overwhelming power of transnational corporations, inter-governmental agencies and state coalitions rampaging our communities and environment. In fact, this people’s forum represents a form of such alliance including people’s movements and NGOs of a wide spectrum of concerns. In this sense, this forum already represents a transborder alliance of people. This in itself is new. Decades ago, such an alliance did not exist. Nor was one imaginable. The formation of SEATO in 1954 or of ASEAN in 1967 was not countered by any people’s forum. This change is extremely positive — an historic stride in democratisation of the global and regional structures.

But I feel that, having achieved this level of empowerment, we should ask ourselves further questions. As what are we gathered here in an alliance? Are we a pressure group trying to lobby the consortium of states in order to skew their decisions in favour of the people and environment? Are we here seeking a consultative status in the transnational decision making mechanisms? Are we militant activists morally and politically protesting the transnational power monopoly? We may be, and perhaps are, all these. But are we just that?

Global democracy and people’s transborder alliances

I firmly believe that we can be far more than lobbyists, junior partners, and protesters if people’s transborder alliance is placed in a perspective — the perspective of global radical democracy.

I argue that global radical democracy is the major challenge of our times. Everyone can see that power concentration has reached an unprecedented height in the late 20th century, in an unimaginably more sophisticated and penetrating manner than in the middle of the century. Global inequality has aggravated and the environment is being irreparably destroyed, but there is yet no major force to reverse the trend. A single power bloc of a new type is dictating terms of competition and survival to all peoples of the world.

I want to point out here that the APEC process is the most anti-democratic regional integration process ever engaged. It is even worse than the NAFTA and the European integration processes since, despite the vast negative consequences it will inevitably bring about to the people in the region, the people themselves have had and will have no opportunity to be consulted. APEC is being promoted without people’s mandate, without any formal treaties to be accepted or rejected by the people.

Generally, the global structure has become more undemocratic than in the first half of this century as nation states, in spite of their nationalistic rhetoric, have become, and been forced to become, players in this single globalisation game built around the cause of global capital accumulation. Thus, we can no longer expect an alliance of nation states to emerge as the actor or the subject to democratise the global structure as we could in the 1950s and 1970s. In the 1950s, the Bandung alliance of the newly emerging nation states was a great source of hope and inspiration and in the 1970s the group of 77 with the New International Economic Order (NIEO) program struggled to democratise the multinational corporation-dominated global economic structure. Now there is no such state-level alliance to democratise the global structure. Instead, we have the single overriding alliance of almost all states in the form of WTO and its accessory organisations as the core of the globalisation regime.

If the states cannot, logically it is only the people themselves that can exercise global democracy to change the course of events. This, however, is simply a logical induction. What we need to examine seriously is under what conditions the people themselves can exercise global democracy.

For the people of the world to emerge as the determinant of global affairs they must be constituted as an entity. The transborder people’s alliance is conceived as such a body. However, I am not talking about “global citizens.” The concept of “global citizenship” seems to be a utopian extrapolation of the western civil society model (which again is a construct). Citizens are political individuals with equal rights, but the people of the world cannot be reduced to a collection of individual citizens. Nor is there homogeneity enough in the global community to make one-person-one-vote type of individual participation meaningful.

The actual people are peoples with historical underpinnings. They are gendered. They are positioned differently in the global hierarchy of domination and exploitation. They have complex, plural identities. This collectivity should not be missed when we talk about the people of the world as the exerciser of global democracy. The transborder alliance should thus mean an alliance of groups of people each with its socio-historical identity. Having said this, it should be added immediately that all collectives consist of individuals, each of them an actor of free will, not totally reducible to group identities. The process toward a transborder people’s alliance engenders dynamic interaction between collectivity and individuality as well as between groups of people. It is not an alliance constituted once and for all but rather a permanent and dynamic alliance forming process that gradually shifts power relationships in favour of the majority of the people, undermine the dominant logic of maximisation of profits and eventually create a new democratic global governance gradually superseding nation states.

This perspective may look like a wild dream. In fact, it is in short term. But here we are talking about a long term project and perspective.

The state of the state and trans-national-border alliances

One of the most difficult, yet challenging aspects of alliance building is trans-national-border alliance building. The sovereign nation state is the most deeply entrenched universal institution of the modern period, and particularly in Asia, nationalism has historically been the most powerful source of inspiration for the vast majority of the people struggling for liberation. For this reason, going beyond it is not easy.

But it is as well clear that we are at a time in history where the nation state as the universal institution of power has run its course, with many of its seams breaking. The limited length of this paper does not allow any consistent argument about the state of the state today. But it should be pointed out that the APEC scheme itself represents the deep contradiction in which the state is involved. The APEC process is aimed at removing obstacles to regional-cum-global integration of economy so as to create a borderless economy subject to the interests of maximum capital accumulation on a global scale. Various state barriers are the major obstacles to this process. And this is a violent process of the strong preying on the weak, giving free rein to corporate complexes and victimising the majority of the people. The contradiction is that it is precisely the nation states that promote this process — a process that makes them increasingly cosmopolitan and irresponsible to their own people. In this process that erodes the basis of legitimacy of the nation state, the nation state feels it its imperative to assert and impose itself on its people. This self-assertion is needed in order to compensate for the thinning of the “natural” basis of legitimacy. The state feels that it should show its presence by the use of brute military/police force to silence the masses of people, by emphasising nationalist rhetoric based on arbitrarily concocted “Asian values,” by newly inventing artificial national identities, by agitating hostilities toward neighbours, by promises of better consumer life (which will be fulfilled for a sizeable middle class but not for the majority), or even by quickly mastering and using the new UN/NGO language of sustainable, human, and social development in order to recruit an elitist ideological entourage to legitimate it. In this sense, the historical weakening of the nation state does not lead to the physical weakening of the state. On the contrary, globalisation can, and in many cases does, motivate the state to take strong-arm policies to circumvent democratic popular upsurges, suppress dissent, and resort to national-chauvinist rhetoric.

It is not accidental that this Manila APEC summit is being held in an ominously anti-democratic atmosphere shrouding Asia, generated by a series of anti-democratic and anti-human rights government actions in Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, and China. The globalisation process is not compatible with democracy in the country involved. It requires a silent and divided people.

It therefore follows that successful struggle for democracy is the people’s immediate counter-measure to the actual and possible destructive consequences of globalisation. As the states are allied in jointly imposing the globalisation scheme, they are also helping each other in silencing the people. The Malaysian and Philippines governments’ solidarity with Indonesia’s President Suharto is a blatant case in point. This calls for the immediate need of trans-national action on the part of the people.

But generally, given this historical weakness of the nation state, it is easier now than before, say, in the 1950s or the 1970s, for us to demystify the nation state and work together to let transborder alliances of the people emerge in their struggle to democratise the oppressive structures beyond national borders. Actually, this is an ongoing process involving multifarious aspects. Solidarity with the East Timorese people is boldly manifested in Indonesia itself against the Indonesian politico-military power structure as well as by international networks, while expression of solidarity with the Burmese people struggling for democracy against the SLORC dictatorship is widespread. These are saliently political expressions of transborder alliances. Numerous other forms of linkages are now developing, farmer-to-farmer, worker-to-worker, human rights, environment, women, alternative development, and all other sectoral issue-based networks are developing and criss-crossing. Besides, millions of people now migrate to other countries to work under the impact of globalisation. This is a process that involves tremendous sufferings, but it inevitably undermines the national borders and gives rise to new critical perceptions about statehood. Last but not least, the amazing development of means of communication, which primarily facilitates the globalisation-from-above process, serves as a double-edged sword, also demolishing national barriers for people-to-people communication.

Interaction for alliance building

But these are still a description of what is going on. When we envisage people’s alliances as alliances exercising democracy at all levels, global par excellence, we are talking about processes that allow the people to ally and empower themselves as the subject of global governance.

To me interaction seems to be the key to such processes. But we need to qualify that vicious interaction is also at work. Armed conflicts, whether between states or ethnic groups, are a way of two groups interacting.

In this connection, the Zapatista movement seems to have opened a new perspective. Though it is an armed struggle, it does not follow the conventional armed struggle line of seizing state power or creating a separate state. Instead, they appeal to the rest of the Mexican civil society to stand up to liberate themselves by changing the oppressive state structure of Mexico. With this attitude, they appeal more to discursive powers rather than military strength, shaking the hearts and minds of the rest of society, expecting the latter’s responses. Zapatistas’ perspective is highly interactive. They engage in interaction with a view to releasing self-liberating potential in other societies so as to create new relationships with them. It is through this interactive process that they want to form a large people’s alliance. They do seek support for their struggle for the Chiapas campesinos’ survival and dignity, but it is not unilateral solicitation of solidarity for their specific situation. They are engendering interaction, in an effort to help form people’s alliances with other societies in a joint effort to transform the unjust power structure. In this sense, they are fighters and mediators at the same time. This kind of interaction goes beyond national borders. In the Zapatistas’ case, they mobilised people’s movements and NGOs from all the continents in an international program this year to fight the neoliberal imposition as typified by NAFTA.

Interaction in our context changes the inner life of the groups (and individuals) entering into it. We have experienced this in a number of productive encounters and dialogues. Japanese citizens visiting and exposed to Manila slums being demolished amid the dwellers’ cries and protests see Japan differently after learning that Japanese ODA is used for the project. The more or less complacent image of Japan is put to crucial test, and the assumed understanding of Japan is swayed to its foundation.

In the People’s Plan 21 program (PP21), launched in 1989 and continued as people’s alliance building processes, we have experienced numerous mutual discoveries involving perceptive and structural transformation of the parties involved. In 1992, when thirteen mountain and ocean tribes of Thailand met in Northern Thailand as part of a large PP21 program in that country, female participants in the workshop asked their chiefs why women were not given the equal status as men in the community life at a time when they were petitioning the Thai government to give them an equal status with Thai nationals. That was an unexpected intervention. The chiefs did not look very happy, but did not object. Thus, this passage was written into the resolution: “The right of the indigenous women to participate fully in the political, economic, social, and cultural aspects of our life.” The women were happy. The articulate women later joined an international meeting of indigenous people held in Bangkok and spoke up actively. It should be noted that this process occurred as a remaking of the community’s indigenous identity, and not as a damage done to it by external imposition. The chiefs were persuaded to accept women’s equal rights, and that moment the tradition was remade to include women’s rights.

Obviously, no community is monolithic and any culture is a composite product of various other cultures and influences. Monolithic appearances are almost always a construct imposed to suppress multiple identities from unfurling by those who try to preserve their domination. Multiplicity in identity is the ground for the possibility, and also the reality, of mutually liberating interaction.

In other words, the transborder alliances we envisage are not alliances between monolithic collectives each characterised exhaustively by a single, static identity, like the Japanese, or the Filipinos, or the Malaysians, or the Muslims, or the Christians. Though those identities do exist and matter, transborder alliances will encompass various other relationships between peoples and, for that matter, between individuals.

Mediation and alliance building process

Mediation thus emerges critical for the formation of people’s transborder alliances. The myth of monolithic identity presented (by misleaders) as incompatible with another monolithic identity leads to mass killings in too many places. So-called fundamentalisms of diverse sorts are rampant throughout the world, even making advocacy of transborder alliance sound a joke. Only proper mediation can help groups engage in productive interaction. This is a complex issue and it is beyond my capacity to address all the problems involved. However, there seem to be two requirements for the process of resolution of antagonisms.

The first is a discursive process, mediating an interaction that will help disintegrate the myth of monolithic identity. Interaction properly mediated will help the people involved find more commonality as, say, women, workers or farmers than unbridgeable differences such as Pakistanis versus Indians, Koreans versus Japanese, Muslims versus Christians, Hindus versus Muslims, and so on. Antagonisms are rooted not only in the existing conflicts of immediate interests but also involves the past interpreted in the present context — history.

In Japan, for instance, influential politico-intellectual groups are all out to spread revisionist views of history trying to justify, using one or another rhetoric, the conduct of the Japanese Empire, some advocating deletion from school text books that mention of “the dark sides” of the modern Japanese history, particularly sexual slavery, Nanking atrocities, and so on. This is the core part of their drive to re-establish Japanese national identity. This campaign is to counter the growing people’s consciousness about war crimes Imperial Japan committed against Asian people, a self-critical consciousness engendered by energetic movements in the past decade on “comfort women” and other issues involving Japanese war responsibility. Thus, an intense struggle in the discursive arena is now under way. Should the Japanese people fully identify themselves with the rightist view of history, then there would be little room for them to hope to be in alliance with the people in neighbouring Asia with historical memories of Japanese colonialism and invasion. An unrepentant Japan would then strengthen the stereotype image of Japan as a racially warlike people, which also is a wrong assumption. A vicious cycle would then be set into motion, perpetuating antagonism. We need to put into motion the reverse process of disentanglement, and this is a highly discursive process for productive interaction.

The second is structural processes. As antagonism more or less has its roots in the actual material and social interests (whose distorted presentation justifies the myth), interaction leading to alliance building should be so mediated and developed that it engenders a process of structural changes, in some cases gradual but cumulative changes, to overcome the relationship of domination and exploitation exercised by one group over another. It is here that the notion of social classes should be redefined in reference to power distribution and reintroduced. This has nothing to do with the notion of the sacrosanct working class with the historic mission of liberating itself and the rest of the oppressed people, a thesis already proven inept. Nor is class defined as a monolithic, exclusive entity. Class here is a relational concept. We need to talk about class relations in this sense as we live in a global class society where power, economic, social, and intellectual, is distributed extremely unevenly, and this status quo is maintained by institutional arrangements and ideologies. This is a structure in which people are divided and abetted to fight each other because a group of people who are exploited in one context are themselves exploiters in another context.

From this angle, the people’s alliance we envisage should be seen as an alliance of classes in a process of structural transformation. When we say that alliance building is a dynamic process, it is dynamic because it involves processes to remake the inter-class relationships toward the redistribution of power toward more equality. This by definition must involve transformation of the structure.

Take, for example, gender relations. Seen from the angle of power distribution, there is no doubt that for centuries women as women have been placed in an inferior position in society under what is generally termed patriarchy. In the past decades, powerful women’s movements arose in sisterhood, empowered women, and have won considerable, if not full, successes in changing the power relationship in women’s favour. To the extent this movement succeeded in bringing about broad changes in the thinking, institutions, laws, and structures. A no-nonsense struggle for power has been, and is being, fought because what is at stake is a major change in women’s favour of existing social relationships (democratisation if you like) in the household, community, workplace, and in society generally. At first, most men positioned in superior power positions in the structure of patriarchy felt threatened and drew a scare picture that women were against men.

But interaction with women’s movements and feminist ideas gradually worked a change of culture in social movements and gender justice is now being not only accepted but also embraced by the majority of them as part and parcel of their own agenda. As gender sensitivity and concerns gradually permeate social movements, trans-gender alliance emerges. It is easy to see that here discursive processes are intertwined with structural transformation processes.

The structural and discursive change thus worked out has far-reaching effects, not confined to particular aspects of institutions. Informed by feminist approaches, we develop a whole new perspective about human society, nature, and our ethics. “Our vision informed and enriched by our feminist perspectives,” the Sagarmatha Declaration of PP21 Kathmandu convergence says, “will release us from the trappings of the “male”-centred logic of dualistic thinking that dichotomises relations into two poles — body and mind, nature and man, public and private, traditional and modern, unpaid therefore worthless work and paid therefore valued work, as well as the gender dichotomy assimilating women to nature and men to civilisation.” It goes on, “Our vision projects a process of integration of productive activities with reproductive activities — our pursuit to eat, feed, bear, nurture, enjoy, mourn, to regenerate ourselves and the next generations in social relations — into a wholeness of life.” This is only one way of reading the messages of feminist movement, and there may be many others. But whatever the reading, feminist views and practice inform all other movements and enrich the visions of our alternatives.

The alliance building processes integrate not only gender aspects but also are informed and enriched by interaction with many other arenas of class struggle involving a number of issues — farmers and agriculture, indigenous people and environment, and so on. Besides, though women present themselves as a class in the patriarchy context, they are not in other contexts. The power position of rich urban middle class women far excels that of a small peasant man in the countryside. In the struggle to change unequal power relationship between the rural and urban, peasant women and men will emerge united. In this context, peasant unity will be stronger than sisterhood between well-to-do urban middle class women and peasant women.

Thus, there are criss-crossing contexts, each designating a definite power redistribution pattern and therefore classes in relational terms. New structural relations obtaining from the struggle/negotiation will be integrated with transborder alliances of the people.

But understanding classes in relational terms should not take us into the marsh of infinite relativity where everybody is somewhat to blame but none really responsible. Out of the projection of thousands of intersecting class contexts on the same screen emerges a general and definite pattern of overall class domination, which will designate the major arena wherein alliance building work should be most energetically carried out — the global South. In the unequal and undemocratic world we live in, conspicuous class polarisation exists between the global North and global South.

Beginning to build alternative society

In concluding this presentation, I venture to emphasise that transborder alliance building is a fecund process generating visions of an alternative society and also creating and substantiating, if partially, the realities of an alternative society as new peoples join the process.

This would require a drastic change in our perspective of global change. When the state was historically strong (when the sovereign state was sovereign), the generally assumed strategy was to change society using the state as the almighty leverage. There, the primary instrument to seize the state was the party, either the vanguard party or the social democratic party, representing the interests of lower classes. As the party is a pre-state state, it is symmetrical to the state, centralised, vertically commanded, and bureaucratic.

The state of course matters. We must coexist, and work in interaction with, the state in the foreseeable future. We must come to grips with state policies and programs, democratise the state, and pressure the state to become accountable to the people. But the point is that we need to build ourselves into alliances which are not symmetrical to the state. Symmetry represents the oppositionist stance: we are formed by our adversary as the latter’s mirror image, or we simply emulate the dominant model.

Transborder alliances of peoples are not defined, if conditioned, either by the state, or by the dominant globalisation regime. As resistant, we are conditioned, in fact, somewhat shaped by the adversary. As builders we escape being shaped symmetrically to the regime of globalisation.

As they grow and enrich themselves, the transborder alliances will begin to weave new relationships among collectives as well as individuals -– an autonomous and dynamic global human society itself. The alliance is more than a utilitarian coalition defined by the immediate need to fight the same adversary. In other words, the effort to create and animate transborder alliances is one to help the embryo of the global society of tomorrow to live, palpitate, and grow resisting, interacting with, and ultimately overcoming the dominant regime.

I believe that the coalitions of people’s movements and NGOs, like this forum, PP21, and many others, are important in facilitating the work to weave transborder people’s alliances as an alliance of hope.

We still do not know very much about how. Jointly we are in eager and constant search for new ways.

* Muto Ichiyo was one of the founders of Pacific Asia Resource Center (PARC) and served as its president until 1995. He now serves in the Board of Councillors of PARC. He is also a member of the People’s Plan 21 Council. Ichiyo-san does free lance writing on politics, society and people’s movement. He teaches part time at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the United States. He is a Fellow of ARENA and serves in the Board of Focus on the Global South.


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