Toronto — what needs doing?
I was one of the million-and-a-bit people that protested the Iraq war in London a few years ago. It was amazing and heartening to see the public transport rammed to the roof with placards and flags before I was anywhere near the protest, and great to hear about the numbers afterwards. Having said that, it must be counted as a great failure for anti-war activism that the numbers were not converted into lasting action. The Vietnam protestors had a fraction of the numbers at protests (in a much larger country), but had many times the impact. My experience was that many friends went along to the march (some not waiting for the speeches and so on), and despite a sincere interest in stopping the war, became disheartened and pessimistic when they saw that even such a large protest was like water off Blair’s back. Having not come into much contact with any anti-war organisations on the march or elsewhere, they did not see the underlying reasons for this, and drifted away from further actions, certainly never contemplating anything like recruitment disruption etc. In my own case, even having read and agreed with more critical literature, I remained unorganised at the time.
At the G8, 2005, in Scotland, the same kind of dynamics was at work, this time backed up by a massive "make poverty history" diversion campaign. Radical elements had some success in disrupting conference events and organising their own events. But most people went along with the flow, having come into contact with the media campaign, but not at all with a real critique of what was going on in the G8. Again, they went to the "protest" (in fact more like a pro-government rally — even Blair and Brown wore the white wristbands), perhaps went the the concert in which they were encouraged to support Blair’s efforts to end poverty, and then went off home. There was not much interaction between the two groups.
As the Canadian G20 and G8 meetings approach, how can we work towards closing this gap? What are the most effective actions we can take to build momentum for change? Obviously it is difficult to get through to everyone with limited time and resources. But in my opinion much more could be done to reach out to the people who go on the march but may not necessarily be deeply involved in anti-globalisation. In the labour march for instance there will be many people who are feeling the pinch of globalisation but have probably never heard much of what we are saying. How about moving through the protestors, distributing relevant leaflets and talking to people, finding out their concerns and pointing out resources to them? If they have never picked up a book that’s deeply critical of government policy, maybe "People’s history of the United States" is a good beginning to suggest.
Below, I have attached the text for a leaflet — probably it is a bit verbose as something to thrust into people’s hands, but it was hard to fit everything in otherwise. The emphasis is on labour and economic issues and a little on globalisation, as that is the focus of the protest. One main thread is to argue against the idea that we should be "supporting politicians in their bid to end poverty", or merely making demands on politicians (since this was a major article of propaganda in other G8 and G20 meetings). Another is to give some optimism with example of successful mass movements, and the third goal is to encourage more rank-and-file activity in labour and elsewhere.
I was planning on distributing this or something like it as an autonomous action, although I’d certainly be happy to put the IOPS stamp on it if I get some feedback. I have a pdf version with graphics which I will post (currently the front of the leaflet says "thanks for making a stand!" and "Now what?" for want of a better idea, although I’ll probably improve on this). Having some IOPS "feet on the ground" as a group would be great.
LARGE: How can we win this struggle? Is a call to leaders to “do something”, in one day of protest, enough? Should we trust the politicians to work for us, rather than for big business and other powerful interests? Or do we need to set our own agenda, and take our own actions?
Employment, high wages, peace, sustainability, a decent living standard, good healthcare and benefits. A little respect and dignity at work, instead of spending a lifetime working for a system that is ready to throw us aside when we are no longer needed. Control of our own lives. Of course, no politician would speak against these goals on TV. Some say that leaders might be slow to move, but once they are convinced that millions of people want them to “get things done”, surely they will begin to act. But is this really true?
Big business has enough power and money to make sure that government serves its interests, not the interests of ordinary people. Whatever voters think, no party can survive without the support of wealthy donors. Because of this, party politics is dominated by the needs of the profit system. The “leaders” who are meeting here this week do not represent the majority — their goals are very different.
We need high wages and employment, but they choose low labour costs for corporations: a “loose labour market” in which we are forced to fight for scarce jobs. We need peace and sustainability, but the profit system pushes towards war and environmental destruction: it must have new markets and resources (like oil), whatever the cost for ordinary people. For example, UN figures show that the basic services needed to end global poverty could be provided to everyone for $40 billion a year. Meanwhile, 36 million people die every year as a result of hunger or poor nutrition, while $1.1 trillion is spent on the world’s militaries. The claim that "the market will sort it all out" is looking worse at every turn.
Corporate globalization moves jobs to countries with low wages and terrible labour conditions. Workers there do not benefit, as the IMF orders cuts in social spending and other harsh measures, while unions and social movements are crushed.
Are people happy with this situation? Or is it just that they believe that “there is no alternative”? Without this kind of pessimism we would be halfway there. It’s just not justified. History and new thinking show that there is another way.
Is it realistic to fight for change? Looking at history, we can see that organised movements of ordinary people were crucial in the battles to:
— end slavery in the British Empire (including Canada);
— get the vote for every man (better than nothing!);
— win the vote for women;
— win the 8-hour day and rights to organise labour;
— end the Vietnam war, end apartheid, etc. etc.
In the case of Vietnam, instead of crying to back-stabbing politicians like Nixon, the anti-war movement became a power of its own. With draft defiance, recruitment disruption, and a large movement of dissenting soldiers in the military, they took direct action to put the squeeze on the military machine. All this made a real difference. US Government records show that active dissent in the population, especially the rebellion in and around the military, had a big effect on policy.
On the other hand, at the 2005 G8 meeting in Scotland, many people were confused into supporting government policy, under the banner “make poverty history”. They were organised by government-friendly NGOs and big media campaigns instead of taking the initiative for themselves. While protest stayed within limits defined by the government, it was no threat. White wristbands and U2 tunes diverted people into manageable channels, while “leaders” got down to corporate business as usual at the G8. Any dissent was painted in the media as disrupting a real chance for change. But nothing changed. The little that was promised never materialised, and hunger is growing in Africa today.
Reasoning with politicians does not often work. In the corridors of power, big money is more persuasive than a good argument. Without a clear idea of the forces behind government policy, and a concrete, organised effort to oppose them, marching can be a waste of time. From the local, like the axing of the Special Diet Allowance in Ontario, to the global, like climate change, the problem is the profit system and the solution is mass organisation and resistance.
So, what should we actually do about all this? Isn’t it too much to grapple with all at once? Actually, understanding how issues overlap, and allying with other campaigns, can only make us stronger — for example, civil rights, women’s rights, justice for indigenous people and immigrants. Using tactics like strikes, boycotts, and local actions, we can fight for reforms in global economic policy. However, things like this are only a temporary fix. These crises have deep systematic roots. Pressures against benefits, wages, and so on, are part and parcel of the profit system. To get rid of them for good, we need a fairer, more sustainable economy. With “participatory economics”, a democratic, decentralised economy could serve the interests of all people, in contrast to today’s chaotic and hierarchical system. This would give us control over our own working lives, and a fair say in how things are run. But telling politicians this is not the answer. Things will change, but only if we build a movement with power of its own. It’s worked before, it can work now. We have the power. It’s time to use it.
So when the media criticises “unrealistic”, “extremist” or “disruptive” protestors for rocking the boat, remember that they said similar things about the 60’s protestors in their day – even Martin Luther King! Don’t be fooled when "leaders” try to marginalize real dissent and fob us off with false market-based solutions, which only benefit their corporate friends. There is a realistic alternative to this, but they will keep it off the agenda unless we take a stand.
We need to keep an eye on alternative media and books to sort fact from fiction. We need to be on the lookout for those who try to divide us with media smear campaigns against young anti-globalizers, as well as racism, sexism and anti-immigrant nonsense, which only hurts our real interests. We need to get online and find grass-roots groups opposing corporate control — rank-and-file union projects, anti-globalization groups, and social justice campaigns — and get involved. Most of all, we need to keep thinking, fighting, and hoping. We can win this.
For more on successful people’s movements, see “People’s history of the United States” by Howard Zinn, and the film “Sir, No Sir!”. For rank-and-file unionism that packs a punch, try labornotes.org . For news and comment, and a networking and organising space for social justice activists of all stripes, log on to www.zcomm.org . Their Z-groups function allows you to manage your own campaigns online.