Globalised resistance

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible, edited by Tom Mertes, Verso (London, New York), 2004; price $19/13

THE annual celebration of the resistance to globalisation, in particular the dominant neoliberal version, has within the space of a few years acquired significance as a rallying point for people around the world. Diehard advocates of neoliberal globalisation like to portray "globalisation's discontents" as Luddites, without a sense of the unfolding process of globalisation, which is portrayed as being not only unique in the history of humankind but also irreversible. Positing the issue thus serves several purposes. For one, the arguments are authoritarian in the sense that it leaves very little scope for dialogue with dissenters of globalisation defined in a neoliberal framework. Thus, defenders of this kind of globalisation are seen as leaving very little room for democratic institutions to accept or reject the dominant notions of the markets, their impact on societies and the resulting social upheaval in societies across the world.

About a decade ago, the resistance to this version of globalisation was weak, especially when neoliberalism, seen with the benefit of hindsight, had reached its pinnacle of glory. But things have changed so much so that even those who had been with "them", such as the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, have broken ranks, unable to withstand the suffocating confines of a dominant version that refuses to allow any dissent at all. More importantly, the rising tide of protests across the world has brought organisations across the world together. There is growing awareness that a "movement of movements" is a historic necessity. In fact, the very genesis of the World Social Forum (WSF) in 2001 as a counter to the World Economic Forum (WEF) reflects a realisation that neoliberalism on a globalscale needs to be countered by a world-scale resistance to the process. Simply put, the realisation is this: globalisation as a process sets to impose on nations and peoples across the world a set of policies that integrate their markets. This process leaves little room for countries to remain sovereign, particularly in terms of preserving the sovereign will of their peoples. Therefore, there is an urgent need to build a coalition of resistance movements that is truly global in character.

Released to coincide with the fourth edition of the WSF in Mumbai, the book is a collection of essays, articles and interviews, many of which were published earlier in New Left Review. The book is divided into three parts. In the first part are presentations by voices from the South. Among these are an interview of Subcommandante Marcos, the leader of the movement of the Zapatistas in the Chiapas in Mexico. There is also an interview of Joao Pedro Stedile, national committee member of the Brazilian MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, composed of landless rural workers). The MST has not provided the mass base for the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva but also laid the basis for organising the WSF, all of which (except WSF 2004) were held at Porto Alegre in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, where the MST has built a formidable base since the late 1970s. Among other southern voices are those of Walden Bello, a prominent speaker at WSF meets ever since the famous anti-Davos protest by activists from around the world at Davos in 1999.

The second part of the book belongs to Northern voices; among them is an interview with Jose Bove, prominent farmer-activist from France, who was an active participant at the WSF in Mumbai. They bring fresh insights into the way the anti-globalisation movement has grown in the North, particularly after the historic protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial meeting at Seattle in 2001.

The last part of the book, Analytics, deals with thematic presentations on theoretical issues that are relevant to building a global movement against neoliberal globalisation. The omission of the militaristic mobilisation of the United States, particularly since September 2001, and its impact on people's movements across the world appears to be glaring. The wider theme of imperialism and its connection to the neoliberal agenda, which has always engaged the attention of critics of globalisation, is thus missed completely in the volume. The fact that the U.S.-led war on Iraq engaged the attention of activists assembled in Mumbai highlights the lacuna.

Although the interview of Subcommandante Marcos (believed to be Rafael Guillen) was conducted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and was first published in March 2001 in Revista Cambio, a Bagota-based journal, and later in English in New Left Review a few months later, it remains relevant. Subcommandante Marcos explains, for instance, the limitations of a social movement that is confined in geographical space and by ethnicity. Marcos points out the limitations of an armed resistance that fails to build a democratic practice for itself. The world or, societies for that matter, he observes, "cannot be reconstructed on the basis of a quarrel of who will impose their hegemony on society". He also remarks that respect and tolerance among different kinds of people is a prerequisite for building a more egalitarian social order. With a touch of irony, coming as it does from a leader of a guerrilla movement, Marcos points out that respect and tolerance had been lacking in the "politico-military organisations of the 1960s and 1970s".

In his wide-ranging response, Stedile points out that the historic evolution of the MST was not a spontaneous outburst by the poor and dispossessed. The distribution of land in Brazil, incidentally, is among the most unequal in the world. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the top 20 per cent of landowners hold 90 per cent of all farm land; and the poorest 40 per cent of the peasantry owns just 1 per cent of the land. Stedile points out that the movement of the landless started in 1978 and spread throughout the southern, northern and northeastern Brazil. This was also the time that Brazil's industrialisation programme, which was based much like India's industrial development programme after Independence on import substitution through the development of a strong national industrial base, was being rolled back under pressure from the U.S. Several aspects of Stedile's articulation of the story of struggle and success in Brazil have relevance. For one, they provide an idea of what it means for ordinary people to rise up and win at a time when neoliberalism gained ascendancy. But more importantly, Stedile also debunks several notions about what the anti-globalisation movement ought to be if it is ever to make another world possible.

Stedile points out that none of the movements in Brazil was spontaneous. All of them were clearly planned and organised by local activists. Stedile traces the "genesis" of the MST to the period between 1978, when urban Brazil erupted in anger against the dictatorship in the country, and 1983. The heart of the MST movement was in the way it addressed the land hunger among the peasantry. Realising that the mobilisation of the greatest numbers provided the only security against a military dictatorship, the movement insisted that peasants would march together, with their belongings and with families including women and children, literally on the land to take possession. Stedile points out that although the movement suffered tragic losses in the course of its struggle, it also registered spectacular victories. The organisational tactics of the MST played a crucial part in its success. For instance, membership of the MST has never been formal. There are no forms to be filled and no membership cards. All that a peasant has to do, if he or she wishes to join the MST is to take part in a land occupation struggle. The mobilisation strategy, of gathering entire families, has also played a role in ensuring the participation of women in the mass movement for land reform. However, from the beginning the MST also realised that although the land question had the potential of galvanising the peasants, it was only one battle on the road ahead. "We knew it changed nothing just to bring a few families, move onto unused land and think that was the end."

Another important tactic of the MST is that despite its close association with the Workers' Party, now leading the coalition government in Brazil, it has maintained its independence. The MST, in fact, organised a 180-km march in November 2003 demanding that the government settle one million landless families over the next four years. Although the government headed by Lula has maintained a close relationship with the MST, the movement has always insisted on maintaining its autonomy from political parties. The MST also developed a successful mass base by articulating a programme for agrarian reform in all of Brazil instead of confining itself to the demand for land by local communities. Moreover, it developed an organisational network by using its base in the south of the country to train cadres across the country. Stedile observes that the experience of political parties in Latin America had shown the MST that "whenever a mass movement is subordinated to a political party, it was weakened by the effects of inner-party splits and factional battles".

Stedile, using the traditional language of the Left, which many from even among its constituents are shy to use nowadays, observes that the MST was aware that if farmers do not organise themselves, do not fight for more than just a piece of land, they would never reach a wider class consciousness. Without this, he points out, they will not be able to deal with the "underlying problems because land in itself does not free the farmer from exploitation".

Commenting on the Zapatista movement, Stedile points out that one of its weaknesses has been its inability, unlike the MST in Brazil, to widen its social base, growing from a movement of indigenous people demanding autonomy into a broader social force. "They," he remarks, "have accepted the terms of fighting for a specific ethnicity, within a particular territory - whereas ours is a farmers' movement that has been transformed and politicised as a result of the advance of capitalism." He points out that if the Brazilian farmers had been able to organise themselves in the 1930s just as well as they have done in recent years, that would have still remained a mere movement for agrarian reform given the objective conditions of underdeveloped capitalism in Brazil at that time.

AT one level the WSF is a festival of the resistance movements, a spectacle in itself. As a gathering of representatives of victims of neoliberal globalisation it is also marked by a stunning array of plural viewpoints, a cacophony of voices if one pays heed to the critics or the cynics. But anti-globalisation activists insist that this is as it should be. A plurality of voices and viewpoints, especially about evolving a new order that is not based on policies that trample on peoples' aspirations, according to them, stands in direct contrast to the one-size-fits all approach that the Washington Consensus has come to mean. Indeed, Stiglitz, speaking recently in Delhi, drew a huge turnout which indicated that the constituency of the discontented has been expanding. More people, it appears, are now not only willing but wanting to hear more about alternatives to the dominant interpretation of neoliberalism. This is not surprising that it is by now evident that the fruits of globalisation are being delivered to a narrow (and rapidly) narrowing constituency.

Although the WSF process has gained in strength, it has also attracted friendly fire from those who think that the spectacle is dominating to the point that serious issues of how to build a wider resistance to the dominant version of globalisation is to be built are relegated to the background. In particular, there has been muted criticism, particularly from Left participants, that a more cohesive agenda needs to be evolved if the WSF is truly to evolve into an alternative vision for the world. Although plurality has its virtues, particularly for democratic practice, a mere celebration of diversity is obviously inadequate.

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