March of protest

Print edition : March 21, 2014

October 21, 1967: A peace demonstrator taunts military police during an anti-Vietnam war protest outside the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. “Globally… the Vietnam war was a turning point in disclosing the limits of military actions in coercing the periphery into a hierarchical world order,” says the book. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The Occupy Wall Street movement has set the global mood for dissidence and outrage, with an ongoing proliferation of movements against inequality and mass surveillance. Here, activists of the Mortgage Victims’ Platform at a demonstration in Valencia, Spain, on May 12, 2013. Photo: HEINO KALIS/REUTERS

An enterprise of collaborative writing on some of the most seminal issues of the global use of rebellion against capitalism and its allied institutional structures.

EDUARDO GALEANO said in a recent interview: “Based on what I have experienced in my life, I have the impression that we make the history that makes us. When the history that we make comes out crooked, or is usurped by the few among us who rule, we blame it on history.” On the one end is the humanist vision that considers history a result of the struggle for liberty and justice by diverse groups. And on the other is the anti-humanist school that sees individuals and groups as a product of history and freedom a mere illusion.

In a period where we have seen more and more people waking up to the brutal injustice of violence and neoliberalism, there is simultaneously an ongoing proliferation of movements against inequality and mass surveillance, all in the name of economic, social and ecological justice. However, the long history of genocide from the arrival of Columbus five centuries ago in America to the massacre of the people of East Timor cannot be ignored. The marginalised have always been at the centre of history. We, therefore, need to locate ourselves within the history of resistance and violence, of unbridled free market economy and the role of new imperialism to uncover some of the deeper transformations occurring beneath all the surface turbulence and volatility and open up a terrain of debate as to how we might best interpret and react to our present times when smug conservatives, tired liberals and disillusioned radicals have carried on a much-wearied discourse in which issues or potential debates are blurred.

We have for long been asked to be wary of origin, centre and end. The question of rewriting histories, the problem of interrogating grand narratives, the practice of bringing down the structures of texts, have all shown how politics has penetrated every area of critical practice. The state apparatus has always tried its level best to extinguish the spark of rebellion in society although the rise of theory and the intellectual have kept the spark smouldering.

The system that we are positioned in can be referred to as the world system of historical capitalism that has given rise to resistance movements, or what Giovanni Arrighi, Terence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein in their book call “antisystemic movements”. Opposition to oppression, according to them, “is conterminous with the existence of hierarchical social systems. Opposition is permanent, but for the most part latent. The oppressed are too weak—politically, economically, ideologically—to manifest their opposition constantly. However, as we know, when oppression becomes particularly acute, or expectations particularly deceived, or the power of the ruling stratum falters, people have risen up in an almost spontaneous manner to cry halt. This has taken the form of revolts, of riots, of flight.” However, there is inherently the non-continuity of such uprisings or revolts. Most of such rebellions are short-termed or momentary and have no relationship with previous revolts.

But by the 19th century, the era of organised movements had begun. If you take the two chief movements of the 19th century, they were the social movement that sought to resist the oppression of the employer over the wage earner and the national movement which defined “oppression as that of one ethno-national group over another”. Both movements, in their separate agendas, had one common factor of seeking control from the state. This objective of obtaining state power could be either through peaceful persuasion or through the use of “insurrectionary force”.

Examining the history of the social movement over the last two centuries, one sees the emergence of conflict between the social democrats and the communists, both emphasising their common affiliations with socialist ideologies. Geographically, the communist parties have come to power in a “significant number of semi-peripheral and peripheral countries—concentrated geographically in a band that runs from Eastern Europe to East and South-East Asia. In the rest of the world, in many countries, nationalist—sometimes even ‘radical nationalist’ or ‘national liberation’—movements have come to power.” This only shows, as the authors argue, that the record of anti-systemic movements is rather substantial, especially when viewed from the “vantage point of 1884”.

This optimism is then challenged by the authors when they view the achievements of these movements on coming to state power. It is understandable that most of the benefits have gone to the middle class in countries under the social democrats, whereas in the communist countries, but for some scattered achievements of national development, there is no concrete evidence of the achievements of their initial dreams of ushering in transformation. Apart from the creation of an elitist bureaucracy, the aims have mostly floundered. The question finally asked is: “Have nationalist movements achieved anything more than allowing the so-called comprador class a slightly larger slice of the world pie?”

It is only in the post-Second World War period that we begin to see the process of decolonisation “punctuated by some dramatic politically important armed struggles, such as Vietnam, Algeria and Nicaragua”. By the 1960s, we see new kinds of anti-systemic movements such as the student, black, and anti-war movements in the United States, Europe and Mexico; the Cultural Revolution in China; and by the 1970s, the women’s movement. What is interesting about these movements is that they occurred around the same period across the world and were triggered in the 1960s by the anti-imperialist war in Vietnam: “This escalation posed an immediate threat to the established patterns of life, and to the very lives not only of the Vietnamese but the American youth as well, and the war posed a clear threat to the security of the Chinese people. As for European youth and workers, while no immediate threat was posed to their lives and security, the indirect effects of escalation (world monetary crisis, intensification of market competition, and so on) and the ideological spillovers from the movements in the United States, from the Cultural Revolution in China, and from the struggle of the Vietnamese people soon provided enough reason and rationalisation for rebellion.” The interesting fallout of these developments was the defeat of systemic powers like the U.S.’ military intervention in Vietnam at the hands of anti-systemic national movements for liberation: “Globally… the Vietnam war was a turning point in disclosing the limits of military actions in coercing the periphery into a hierarchical world order.”

We can finally argue that we see ourselves located at a juncture where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank represent not only Western arrogance but the monopoly of reason, legitimising violence in the service of universal justice. Imperialism drapes itself in the legitimacy of international bodies. It is for this reason that in a post-Marxian world we see the rise of a sort of “family” of movements that have become “an increasingly consequential element in the politics of world systems and have built on their achievements”. In a Gramscian manner, our ethics in criticism dictate only two things: rage and the sense of a collective intellectualism that can disturb and unsettle and force people to think of alternatives.

These are an exposition of “genuinely suppressed histories” that are so vital to the understanding of anti-systemic movements that overwhelmingly underpin the resistance towards hegemonic rule. The official version of truth stands challenged; visible history becomes fictional when subterranean histories under the garb of ideology remain invisible but are gradually excavated through critical analysis of political events that are not taken at the face value. The agents of transformation are constantly engaged in the process of subversion of the dominant ideology.

Global phenomenon

The point left out in the book is January 1, 1994, a landmark in the history of resistance. It was the day when Zapatista rebels, a handful of women and men, launched a unique resistance movement that would finally reach Seattle, Prague, Geneva, Washington, Buenos Aires, Bangalore, Manila and Durban. It sounded the end of single ideologies and grand narratives. Stories poured in from everywhere and the protesters, the deprived, and the revolutionaries raised their voice the world over.

The rise of resistance movements is a global phenomenon. In contemporary history, one could see it all beginning with the Zapatista movement in the southern district of Chiapas in Mexico in 1994 with its revolt against the inroads being made by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Elsewhere, people demonstrated in Brazil against bus fares, in China and India against encroachment by multinational corporations (MNCs), in Ecuador against oil drilling, favouring preservation of their ecological balance. The Occupy Wall Street movement has set the global mood for dissidence and outrage—in sections of people ranging from Brazilian land squatters to Indian peasants burning genetically modified (GM) crops, from black anarchists to South African guerilla fighters. The fences at Genoa or Chiapas had to be penetrated so that the imbalance and disorder created in the name of globalisation are checked. The fences are very visible, when the poor are kept out of the shopping malls or millions in Brazil are not allowed to grow food on land once owned by their forefathers.

These are polyphony of subjectivities that are at once at play with the everyday experience of hunger and poverty shattering the dreams of a “New World Order”. The book is both agitational and inspirationally informative in nature, an enterprise of collaborative writing on some of the most seminal issues of the global use of rebellion against capitalism and its allied institutional structures, a rebellion which is always in a state of constant flux sharing ideas and strategies between cultures and continents for insurrection and counteraction intended largely for social transformation.

In all this free market dramatics, global transformist thought in areas of social justice, universal human rights, the rule of law and transnational camaraderie remains singularly an aspiration of survival and a motivating force behind all liberatory movements. Anti s ystemic Movements, indeed, is a lucid and balanced account of some of the most important intellectual and political debates of our times, especially with the rise of the a a m a a dmi in India.