Voices for freedom

Print edition : July 01, 2011

The book deals with issues concerning indigenous forms of resistance to globalisation in order to preserve communal ways of life.

New World of Indigenous Resistance: Noam Chomsky and Voices From North, South, and Central America edited by Lois Meyer and Benjamin Maldonado Alvarado; San Francisco: City Lights Books; pages 416, $18.95.

ZAPATISTA REBELS PARTICIPATE in a protest against violence in Chiapas State, Mexico, on May 7. The Zapatistas staged a brief armed uprising for greater indigenous rights in southern Chiapas in 1994, which became a landmark in the history of resistance.-

IN certain pockets of the Third World, global activism has finally become a part of contemporary political opposition, an international convergence of social movements. The problems of communication, building bridges between various social movements, and mutual understanding are some of the core issues collectives such as the World Forum of Alternatives and The Tricontinental Centre in Belgium have on top of their agenda to create international networks and coalitions that are effective in promoting rights and justice against neoliberal globalisation. There is a sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. As we see, the South is cast out of existing national structures and placed in a position of conflict with the North, giving rise to the new era of a dissident movement traced through the global use of rebellion against capitalism, a rebellion which is in a constant flux and swaps ideas across oceans and shares strategies between cultures and continents.

January 1994 is a landmark in the history of resistance. Those were the days when Zapatista rebels in Mexico 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. Stories poured in from everywhere, and the deprived and the revolutionaries raised their voices everywhere. The division is very visible when the poor are kept out of shopping malls or, like in Brazil, when millions are not allowed to grow food while the rich make merry on land once owned by their forefathers. They have gradually begun to remember their history which manifests itself in the various demonstrations around the world, notwithstanding the opposition of the state machinery.

New World of Indigenous Resistance, co-edited by Lois Meyer, associate professor and chair of the Department of Language, Literacy & Sociocultural Studies at the University of New Mexico, and Benjamin Maldonado Alvarado, academic director of the College for Integral Intercultural Education of Oaxaca, Mexico, takes up the views of indigenous activists and scholars from across the Americas who debate with Noam Chomsky on issues that concern indigenous forms of resistance to globalisation as a strategy for the preservation of communal ways of life, a hope shared by the native Americans from North, South and Central America.

Apart from the preservation of indigenous ceremonies, rituals and languages, other issues raised in the book include the need for a transformative education, which, as argued by Lois Meyer, not only raises consciousness but also develops actions to change oppressive structures. The major barrier to this transformation is the ingrained ideology of the indigenous people who do not customarily want to be transformed or to give up the privileges which they have enjoyed.

Lois Meyer says: Ideology' is a very abstract and alienating term, hard to connect with on a passionate, personal level. As we studied this manuscript, one of our first learnings was a painful one: hegemony, the ideological captivity of persons in North American society', pervades our daily lives, the books we read, the thoughts we think, and the disciplines we study. We are far from exempt or exemplary; instead, we tend to go along, tend to sleep along with the others, and for the non-poor, as [Paulo] Freire adds, it is quite a comfortable slumber.

In these interviews and personal experiences, the onslaught is on Western civilisation, which, according to Grimaldo Rengifo, one of the contributors to the collection, has elevated, even idolised, the individual and dismissed as superstition or mythology any suggestion of a sacred and animate world, thereby de-communalising. de-naturalising, and de-sacralising' our lives. They urge us to consider that it is we who are schooled in false ideology and myth. Individualism is a myth, they suggest, for despite our protestations, we are not, have never been, and cannot possibly be, in this world alone, either as individuals or as a nation. The supposed objectivity and supremacy of our scientific knowledge is equally an ideological invention: The myth that is inculcated by the school is that only by controlled manipulation of nature can one come to know the world. Other forms of knowledge derived from respectful dialogue with nature are forgotten.

Cultural sustainability

Indigenous societies, therefore, are confronted with the tragedy of choices between universal urges to develop and modernise without in any way dismantling their communal identities and traditions. Particularly, can they ever benefit from the state-sponsored education system that is inherently subversive and aims at damaging their cultural sovereignty, language and traditions?

According to Lois Meyer and Maldonado, these are the serious and pressing issues before the indigenous communities whose comunalidad (communal way of life) clashes with the ideology of corporates and the state-run social programmes. This raises serious questions of autonomy, modernity and cultural sustainability.

In the four conversations included in the book, Chomsky lays out his views underpinned by his anti-authoritarian philosophy and personal experience, giving examples of other communities that have successfully resisted state power while attempting to modernise, develop, survive, and sustain their unique community identity and tradition. More than 20 activists and intellectuals from the Americas then put across their views and experience in working with indigenous communities in Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and Canada.

This multi-perspective view is a powerful reflection of the ongoing struggles against neo-imperialism and the interconnected issues of education, cultural preservation, globalisation and forms of resistance, both locally and globally. There is the interesting confrontation between tradition and modernity, between cultural inheritance and the homogenisation brought about by globalisation.

Educational homogenisation

Chomsky emphasises the role played by educational homogenisation: State formation, by force mostly, has tried to impose national education standards in order to turn people into similar individuals. The educational system is intended to level people, make them passive, disciplined, obedient. Alternative systems that encourage creativity and support cultural diversity are a must for countering this kind of mass homogeneous production of the culture industry.

Chomsky gives examples of resistance to cultural homogenisation as in Spain, Wales, Bolivia and Mexico which have recently experienced cultural revival through sustained popular resistance. Rejecting any formula for resisting the mammoth forces of globalisation and cultural homogenising, he says: It depends on the nature of the community, how integrated they are, how committed they are to retaining their own identity, what kinds of external pressures they are under.

In an increasingly standardised world, the hope for such indigenous communities is moderate, but examples of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil and the beginnings of native seed banks in rural schools of Oaxaca are some of the communal efforts in defence of their culture.

Forces of international solidarity can bring the powers down and this must be the endeavour of people around the world. Though the international movement of solidarity is not that powerful at the moment, at least it exists. Latin America, for instance, has become, in the words of Chomsky, the most exciting part of the world for the first time in human history.

In his second interview, Chomsky compliments the efforts of the people and governments in Latin America for reducing the gap between the elites and the poor as well as the significant factor of integration without which there can be no self-determination. State domination at the hands of the elites needs to be countered, and for the first time in its 500 years' history, Latin America is emerging out of its ugly past, revitalising the languages, the cultures, technical resources, developing forms of social organisation that come out of their own traditions but are adapted to the modern world.

The need of the hour is to endure and resist total assimilation and to provide a view of alternative social and political struggles and capture the deep-seated politics of the protest movements with the belief that this is an indispensable stage in the long process of exchanges underpinning the political, cultural and thematic convergences taking shape today.

Protest has to be allowed in society as we live in a world that is constantly changing; it is by protest that laws are changed for the betterment of future generations. A bad law cannot be allowed to exist: nations have the right to have it abolished or changed. Resistance movements have to be supported for their genuine interest in change and for being the motivating force for any reform behind history. The need of the hour is to collaborate and have a unified action plan.

At the current historical moment, we see global changes transforming the very foundations of the world order by transforming conventional forms of sovereign statehood, political community and international governance. We gradually move from state-centred to multilayered global politics.

Contestation is basic in this highly complex world of interstate systems and the ongoing brawl between localism and the governance schema generated by the forces of globalisation. And in all this free market dramatics, global transformist thought in areas of social justice, universal human rights, rule of law, global anti-war movements and transnational amity remains an aspiration of survival and a motivating force behind all liberation movements.

Neoliberal economic policies which have hugely multiplied job losses, instead of creating the thousands of jobs promised, have generated a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The average income of black households in South Africa since the democratic election of 1994 has fallen by 19 per cent, while the income of the white households has mounted by 15 per cent.

This miserable picture is further aggravated by the rising graph of unemployment, which stands at the astonishing figure of eight million. This kind of economic marginalisation of millions around the world has led to the growth of resistance to the overall policies of the governments in power.

Resistance to globalisation thus calls for a healthy democratic process where political positions are always in a state of collision. The world, after all, is not flat. It is tilted in favour of transnational corporations which blatantly exploit cheap labour, slipshod environmental regulations and tax laws, leaving national economic and cultural systems dry if not paralysed.

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