Published in Anti-capitalism: Where now?, Bookmarks publications, October
Bookmarks are publishing this collective volume to coincide with the European Social Forum of 2004 in London and they are right to set us this subject. It’s the only one worth discussing because `taking the movement forward’ simultaneously means `pushing our adversaries backward’ until they fall over the edge of the cliff. Since I’ve recently had the opportunity to give my views elsewhere’ on the global justice movement and to hold forth at some length on what to do and how to do it, let me concentrate here on four points which seem to me vital for the continuing success of the movement. For mnemonic convenience they all begin with `PR’ but have nothing to do with Public Relations: they are PRogrammes, PRiorities and PRagmatism, ending with a warning about PRecautions. These categories are intermingled but I will try to separate them a little, at least at the beginning.
Let me first take the notion of `programme’ in the narrow sense of the set of activities that take place during our Social Forums. These forums are high points of the movement year and ought to reflect both our evolution and the best we are capable of. I was heartened to learn that the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre will dispense with plenary sessions altogether in order to concentrate on seminars and workshops as these have the best chance to `take the movement forward’. I was disappointed, on the other hand, that the 2004 European Social Forum in London still clings to the supposed necessity of plenaries even though there will be fewer than in previous years. Sorting out who gets to speak on what platform on what subject and with whom; how many speakers are allotted to each country and to each organisation; mixing them carefully according to gender, hue, hemispheric origin and I suppose religious profession, sexual orientation, height, weight and God knows what else; requiring each year long and multiple meetings all over Europe-all this has proven, as far as I can tell, a colossal waste of everyone’s time and money. Let’s get serious, people.
Social forums have the great advantage of bringing together many forces in a given country not necessarily used to working together and obliging them to do so, for a common cause. Perhaps some of these individuals or some of these organisations are still immature (vain?) enough to require the kind of public exposure and approbation that plenary sessions can convey (and, as an invited guest of the London ESF organising committee, I will myself perform if required to do so) but star turns are no longer what we need if indeed they ever were.
The same goes for restating the obvious and for finger-pointing in the general direction of the usual suspects. Our topics are becoming over-ritualisedwar and peace, democracy and fundamental rights, poverty and inequality and so on. It’s pretty clear that as decent folk we favour some of these and deplore others. It’s also safe to say, I think, that we already know pretty much what’s wrong with the world and who or what is to blame. What, pray, is there left to say about the horrors of hunger, the devastation of debt, the iniquities of imperialism, the wickedness of war-and about all our other favourite subjects to which our responses are becoming not just predictable but positively Pavlovian.
If people, even quite young and/or inexperienced people, really don’t know anything at all about these issues, which I seriously doubt, we can and should give them reading lists and set up courses and summer universities for them, but in future Social Forums I would hope we could stop the silly jockeying for speech slots, refrain from endless repetition and ceremonial condemnation, determine what issues we really need to talk about, get organised beforehand to do so, then hit the ground running.
I’m also surprised and distressed to note that the programmes of Social Forums tend not to focus on the truly key issue: power. If we’re going to have all these plenary sessions, they should at least be geared to providing the audience with fresh insights into what the powerful have in store for us if we’re not quick and smart enough to thwart and outwit them. We need to recognise the hard truth that they are much better organised than we are, at both the European and international levels. They’ve got the European Commission and UNICE (the European employers’ union); the whole United States government, the Transatlantic Business Dialogue and the Paris and London Clubs (dealing with public and private Third World debt); the TNC’s tax-dodges and mega-mergers; financial market freedom; the WTO and the GATS-you get my drift. What sorts of effective ripostes are we developing in our Social Forums to meet these challenges? Well, yes, we do regularly condemn war, poverty, human rights violations, obscene profits, etc, accompanied by soaring rhetoric. I’m sure that’s got our adversaries positively trembling in their hand-made boots…
I know I’m being too harsh. Some valuable ideas are bound to emerge from the plenary sessions at the European and other Social Forums and these forums are indispensable for bringing together social and political forces in the service of a shared ideal. But I just wish for once we could use our time together in European Social Forums to decide, as Europeans, what we are going to do about, say, the Bolkestein Directive-and if you don’t know what that is, it’s because the movement isn’t doing a good enough job of educating and organising. This EU Directive (which I hope may have been killed by the time you read this) is another little reward for our service corporations. If successfully implemented, the Bolkestein Directive would introduce a new legal principle and allow firms to apply the social and labour laws of the `country of origin’ to workers in all the European countries where the firms might happen to do business. A European (French, German, British, etc) company could set up its corporate headquarters in, say, Slovenia or Malta and its workers all over Europe would then have the great good fortune to receive Slovenian or Maltese wages and benefits.
My postulate about forums is that travelling somewhere for three or four days ought to be intellectually and politically profitable both to the person making the investment and to the movement itself. If this statement is valid, then it should logically follow that our time would be best spent in seminars and workshops genuinely oriented towards gaining the closest possible knowledge of our adversaries and to defining the collective strategies and actions most likely to make their lives miserable. As an out of fashion 19th century political philosopher might have said, `We have identified and interpreted the targets: the point, however, is to hit them.
Now let me combine the notions of PRogramme and PRiorities. In my view, if we are to take the global justice movement forward, it’s time to define a minimum, common programme every activist in the world (or, when relevant, in Europe or another region) can agree on and in whose service political campaigning can be undertaken and pressure applied, right now. We need agreed-upon targets in the power structures both at European and world levels. Many activists already recognise the need for such a common programme whereas others claim it would condemn us to uniformity and consequent sterility. I disagree. Different people in different places would quite naturally continue to carry out their local and national struggles. But so long as our movement is about fighting neo-liberal globalisation and its destructive effects, it’s almost tautological to state that we must determine what kind of globalisation we want instead and make clear what we are going to fight against and fight for. Otherwise, why should anyone bother listening to us, much less joining us?
As for Europe, I believe that if we want to save what’s left of our public services and of the European social model, we’ve got to go after Bolke/Frankenstein-like measures and the GATS. The welfare state, although never perfectly achieved anywhere, is one of the greatest conquests of human history. It could serve as a beacon for the entire world. Why shouldn’t all citizens of all countries enjoy rights-not charity but rights-including the right to work and to decent compensation if unemployed, to leisure and family time, to free education at all levels, to culture and to health care; to efficient public services and to the rule of law? Merely to list these is to show why the capitalist project must strike them down.
I’m quite willing to discuss other priorities. Global ills require global remedies and only international campaigning led by the international movement can provide the power to impose them. Our adversaries are all too often global in scope too and, once more, they act coherently, whereas we generally do not. The World Bank, the IMF and the WTO have a universal strategy; so do transnational corporations and banks (at least taken individually); even the Davos World Economic Forum, though made up of many disparate individuals, marches to the beat of the same neo-liberal drummer. How can the movement possibly score points off such powerful institutions if it remains dispersed, working on a thousand different issues, never really uniting in a single struggle around any of them?
One of the most effective actions in decades was the worldwide protest on 15 February 2003 against the American war in Iraq. Possibly because we weren’t actually able to stop the war (no one could have done that), people may have classed the day as a `failure’ and not reflected enough on its huge significance-15 February was in fact a historic first. During the Vietnam War, thanks to arduous months of planning and expensive transatlantic phone calls, it was occasionally possible to stage simultaneous demos in Europe and the US, but never anything on the scale of 15 February. In 2003 it wasn’t just Europeans and North Americans, but Latin Americans, Africans,
Asians, Australians, citizens of many Muslim countries-every continent was involved, including Antarctica, where a scientific mission took part. This unified, organised outpouring of protest caused a reluctant New York Times to refer to the peace movement as `the second superpower’, even if that mstatement (like much else of what one can read in the New York Times) turned out to be not quite true. We must now try to mobilise the same kind of strength and unity in the name of global justice and put them on the front page.
However, even assuming people can grasp the truth of that old cliche `In unity lies strength’, we must still carefully define our priorities: we cannot have an international programme that looks like a laundry list. However convinced each movement activist may be that his or her own pet issue is the most important one in the known universe, we’ve still got to think more about what’s do-able together now that we finally have a worldwide movement; in other words, we have to proceed with PRagmatism.This means thinking about how we might start winning instead of scattering our human and material resources all over the landscape.
Pragmatism begins with asking, and answering, relevant questions: Where is the adversary weakest, intellectually, morally and politically? Which of our campaigns are most likely to touch raw and exposed Establishment nerves? Where are the contradictions of the global capitalist system sharpest? On what issues could we recruit the most allies? Which demands would provoke the least scope for media hostility? What victory, if achieved, would provide the greatest good for the greatest number and be the best launching pad for future campaigns?
Shouldn’t it be possible, with five years worth of experience under our belts since Seattle, to settle on one, at most two, initial issues that play to our strong points and take advantage of their weak ones, and then campaign on them, all together? I’m not sure the movement is yet mature enough to do this, but I am certain we must at least try to find out whether it is or not. If we find that it is, then we should decide on a couple of concrete objectives people either all over Europe or all over the world can cooperate on, objectives they want to turn into reality.
Let’s face it: despite a few minor and mostly temporary setbacks, our adversaries are still very much in the saddle. We badly need a victory, if possible a large, visible victory, one that pushes them a little closer to the cliff’s edge.
Let me repeat: such a conscious choice wouldn’t mean abandoning all our other ongoing campaignssimply that everyone understands that when there’s an action push to be carried out and demos to be planned, officials to be besieged and governments harassed, then those activities really are priorities for everyone at that particular time. For such an endeavour to work, we would need some sort of elected international steering committee. Couldn’t we try to develop such an idea at the coming Social Forums on different continents, call for candidates, organise an election system and secure a budget? Naturally no one can guarantee that a more sharply focused strategic choice would bring us victory but it seems clear that our adversaries savour every moment we remain dispersed and, for most practical purposes, off their backs.
My own basket of global campaigning priorities among which we might choose would include debt cancellation, international taxation with democratic redistribution in order to move towards welfare states everywhere, global warming and ecological destruction, food security and sovereignty, the protection and improvement of public services (including ousting GATS), total overhaul of the international financial institutions and the establishment of an Inter national Trade Organisation along the lines proposed by John Maynard Keynes 60 years ago. We also desper- 49 ately need to confront the power and influence of the United States of America, no matter who may be the next president. For the sake of PRagmatism, I’d be happy to narrow down all these worthy subjects to one or two global PRiorities and would hope others could also show flexibility.
For example, debt might well be the best target, politically and strategically speaking. Before the Jubilee 2000 campaign needlessly self-destructed (in my view one of the worst strategic mistakes in recent history) it had become clear that politicians were under pressure and on the way to being forced to act. Now the heat is off and the debtors are still in bondage. In this connection, I think we as a movement must also ask pointed questions of some of the larger and more powerful NGOs which seem to think their supporters are so bored and fickle that they must change campaigns every couple of years or risk seeing their resources dry up. I can’t see why else they would have abandoned debt at precisely the moment governments and the International Financial Institutions were being forced to make their first concessions and major cancellation promises-which they predictably and promptly broke as soon as they could get away with it. Meanwhile, Sub-Saharan Africa is still paying out $28,000 every minute in debt service. One could equip a fair number of schools and clinics with all that loose change.
Debt (and its accompanying structural adjustment programmes) would have a lot of advantages as a campaign objective: it is certainly one of the most important contributing factors to hunger, collapsed health, water and education systems, plummeting commodity prices, the switch from public services to private corporate control, the freedom of capital movements and in a general way, to huge leverage for the North over the whole range of Southern policy choices. As a system of domination, debt is far more intelligent than colonialism, requiring no police, army or expatriate administration and even regularly bringing in a bit of revenue. Debt cancellation could be linked to a system requiring that the savings be spent on the priorities determined by the people of the country concerned (what I call `democratic conditionality’).
Although personally I worked on debt for over a decade beginning in about 1984, I now devote little time to the subject and am more concerned with the WTO, especially the GATS, and to a lesser degree GMOs. But I’d be quite prepared to hold high the banner for debt cancellation once more if the whole movement were to agree on the objective, a strategy and a timetable. Or someone else can make a case for another subject-heaven knows action against global warming is urgent. But whatever it is, let’s make up our minds, choose a clear priority and get moving.
Let me now come to another PR word: PRecaution. In order to take the movement forward, let’s not get side-tracked or bogged down with huge, unwieldy abstractions like `defeating the market’ or ‘overthrowing capitalism’. Any priority we choose, if we win, is necessarily going to lessen both the power of the market and of the neo-liberal capitalist system. I’m not romantic (or foolhardy?) enough to believe that capitalism can be brought down at a stroke. There’s no Winter Palace and consequently it cannot be stormed. A few days after 11 September,Wall Street was up and running again.
So if we were to win on, say, debt, it would of course be only a partial victory, but it would be won against the banks still receiving comfortable interest payments, against the corporations eager for further privatisation opportunities; against the IMF, the World Bank and their cohorts of structural adjusters; against Northern governments, particularly the US; against the Washington consensus. It would be a victory for the South and, if the democratic conditionality issue were properly dealt with, for the people of the now indebted countries who would finally have the right to choose their own priorities and control where the money was going.
In conclusion, let me add a final precautionary note: I lived through another movement, against the Vietnam War and all the evils it arose from. We tried to fight racism and sexism and move towards peace, decolonisation and social justice. And then, sometime in the early to mid-1970s, the movement petered out.
The `hippies’ trailed off to wherever it is hippies trail off to (many joining advertising agencies or banks) and it became clear that their goal all along had been the same as that of the majority, that is, individual gratification and private consumption, albeit consumption of different things. The hard-built structures of the anti-war movement collapsed. And then suddenly, there were Maggie and Ronnie in Downing Street and the White House. The rest is history-the quite nasty history we’ve now got to deal with.
No one knows exactly why movements emerge but it’s certain they are fragile, evanescent and can disappear as mysteriously as they appeared. I would suggest that the major causes of their demise are boredom, discouragement and self-indulgence. People get bored and discouraged if they never win. Self-indulgence isn’t necessarily just the hippie kind (let me smoke my grass and to hell with the world). It could also mean in the 21 st century refusing to put aside one’s own preferred cause, no matter how worthy, for even a short time in favour of working with others on a winnable worldwide campaign.
But I am hopeful. The movement is made up of remarkable people with enormous talent, knowledge and stamina. If collectively we are smart enough, mature enough, determined enough to prefer winning to mere self-indulgence, we’ve got a chance. And that, to introduce a final PR word, would be profound PRogress.
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