Monday, June 24, 2024
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Social movements still worth building

By Dave BushOpinions Contributor

This month, pages of newspapers and magazine will be filled with the reflections and analysis of two events that have defined our era over the last 20 years.
The fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago ushered in the end of real existing socialism and the creation of a new world order. This supposed end of history or post-political era was the triumph of neo-liberalism. Markets were freed in a way that benefited the few in the global North while devastating economies in the global South. North American and European farmers flooded the global food markets with cheap, subsidized food, while farmers in the south were stripped of all subsidies and trade protections. The system created a supply of cheap labour for manufacturing industries that were quickly located in the global South.
The neo-liberal project, which had been well underway by the time the Berlin wall was torn down, went into hyper speed in the 10 years that followed. Formal transnational trading bodies, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, oversaw the neo-liberal project. Trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement were implemented, while new broader agreements such as the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment were dreamed up in order to open markets.
The neo-liberal agenda was not without its detractors. Significant resistance to unfair trading practices and policies of the IMF and World Bank were widespread in the global South. From farmers in India and Jamaica to sweatshop workers in Indonesia and Mexico, the losers in the globalization game were not accepting their position in the new world order.
During the 1990s, North American social movements were slowly coming to grips with trade liberalization. A loss of industrial jobs, an influx of cheap foreign goods and the destruction of the Soviet Bloc meant that unions, Marxist-Leninist parties and traditional bastions of the left were in decline. The global economy required activists to build global rather than national social justice movements.
The mass protest against the WTO in Seattle was neither the first nor the biggest protest against neo-liberalism in the global North. However, it was the most iconic.
It showed there was widespread discontent with the neo-liberal agenda and more importantly it symbolized that such diverse groups as labour unions, environmental groups, church groups, anarchists and anti-corporate activists, could organize together and defeat the WTO in the richest nation on the planet.
When I was 18, I remember being glued to the television watching in awe that so many people thought there was something wrong with this world. It forced me to think about why the world was that way, and to re-evaluate my position in it. It inspired me to take action.
This was not an uncommon feeling among my peers. From 2000 to 2003, you couldn’t go to a meeting, workshop or teach-in without Seattle being mentioned. Seattle was hope.
The Alter-Globalization Movement spread. There were massive protests in Quebec City, Prague, Quito, Gothenburg and Genoa, among a host of cities. The World Social Forum, an annual gathering of leftists activists and organizations, started in 2001 with a massive conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
There was hope in the air that a united global justice movement could construct living alternatives to neo-liberalism. There was hope, real existing hope, that the world could be different. Hope that workers and the impoverished could live a just and meaningful life. Hope that our planet could be saved from the destruction of capitalist exploitation. That people from all over the world could take back control over their lives and communities. However, in the global North, the hope of something different faded under the crushing discourse of terror and war. People became less interested in politics, and more willing to let people speak for them – to let leaders embody hope.
The defeated social movements in the north had their language appropriated by NGOs and CEOs. ‘Fair trade’, ‘organic’, and ‘social and environmental responsibility’ are now terms used by those at the top of our economic pyramid.
Seattle’s memory is being whitewashed, or better yet greenwashed. Gone from our public memory is the radical kernel of change that the movement inspired. Forgotten was the fact that the ideological grip of capital was shaken, the impossible was made possible, was deemed necessary.
George Orwell wrote, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
This ideological filter when it comes to public memory is as true in totalitarian states as it is in democracies.
Our collective memory is a reflection of dominant ideological positions. When we remember the Berlin Wall fall, we fail to mention that the protesters were not calling for free market liberalization. The driving force behind destruction of the wall came from socialist movements, such as Democracy Now, and New Forum in East Germany. The end result of the wall may have been a symbolic representation of the victory of global capitalism. However, real change stemmed from social movements that called for socialism with a human face, not from Regan or free marketers.
As we remember Seattle in the north we must note that Seattle was not a call for reform; it was a call for radical change. It showed that global capitalist projects could be confronted, even in America.
Milan Kundera once wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” As the world fractures more drastically into have and have not, as resources become more expensive to extract, as our planet is dramatically altered by our economic activity we can’t afford to forget real change is possible.


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