Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Review: A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible

With the onslaught of neoliberal policies over the last several decades the state, once a means of resistance to powerful transnational corporations, has become all but subservient to the interests of global capital, working to enhance corporate profit, rather than peoples basic interests. In response, progressive thinkers and revolutionary leaders throughout the world have joined the common people who struggle daily against the injustices of capitalism to form new social movements - movements of people who struggle against injustice with massive demonstrations and various forms of nonviolent resistance. The interviews and essays in a movement of movements discuss the workings of several social movements, and the possibility of uniting these various "antisystemic movements" into a serious counterweight to the corporate elites who currently dominate the global discourse.

A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?
By Tom Mertes, ed.; with contributions by Walden Bello, et al. London and New
York: Verso, 2004. 273 pages, introduction, index. $19/£13/$29CAN.

In this collection of interviews and short essays, Tom Mertes ed. examines various modern social movements while pondering the question: is another world possible? In posing this question, Mertes, the administrator of the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History at UCLA and member of the New Left Review Editorial Committee, is referring to a world without the current neoliberal framework which has become systemic over the past 25 years. A Movement of Movements describes how the neoliberal world system was established, the devastating toll for humans and the environment alike, and the new “antisystemic”[1] social movements which have evolved on the local, provincial, national, regional and global levels to challenge the established framework. Mertes has compiled the voices of a wide range of activists, organizers and intellectuals, which are divided into three sections: “Southern Voices,” “Northern Voices,” and “Analytics.”

The “Southern Voices” section contains testimony from leading activists of local, national and global social movements. On the local level, Subcomandante Marcos speaks on behalf of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which represents the indigenous people of the impoverished Chiapas region of south-eastern Mexico. During the time of the interview, the EZLN was focused on opening a serious dialogue with then-President Vincente Fox on issues such as land reform and the deliverance of socioeconomic programs to the excluded and marginalized indigenous population of Chiapas. In many ways the EZLN has become an inspiration for the new social movements, with its commitment to non-violence, its dedication to the struggle for power outside the realm of politics, and its use of the internet to gain international solidarity and support.

Another local movement included is the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a massive movement of people in the Narmada Valley in Central India against the construction of privately owned mega-dams. Chittaroopa Palit, an activist involved with the NBA discusses the dam projects, which would adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of some 25 million people, and displace at least 500,000 people by land submergence.[2] The communities, which have existed along the river for centuries, were to be deprived of their livelihoods so that new lands could be irrigated to grow thirsty cash crops rather than staple foods, leaving the farming families at the mercy of the global market.[3]

Joao Pedro Stedile presents the voice of the Sem Terra movement (MST), a massive organization of landless farmers who conduct land occupations and work against the privatization of land and patents on agricultural techniques in the hope of achieving land and food sovereignty for the abject populace.[4]

Trevor Ngwane speaks on behalf of the Soweto Electricity Crises Committee (SECC) and the South African Anti-Privatization Forum (APF). These groups are active in the fight against the continued concentration of South Africa’s wealth in the hands of the white capitalist elite, the lack of a minimum wage, and the failure of the ANC to provide domestic electricity to a majority of black citizens.

On the regional level, Njoki Njehu speaks on behalf of the 50 Years is Enough Network, an affiliation of various activist groups working on behalf of the African people and demanding, among other things, a cancellation of debts, an end to structural adjustment programs and a transparent and democratic reform of the IMF and World Bank.[5]

Finally, there is Walden Bello, who speaks on behalf of Focus on the Global South, a movement committed to establishing cross-regional links in order to “bring together the global movements.”[6] Thus, Bello and his fellow activists in Focus serve the purpose of uniting local movements from all over the globe, such as those aforementioned, toward the realization that they are all struggling against various aspects of the same neoliberal system.

The “Northern Voices” section contains interviews with four activists of the global north and a short essay by the Yale anthropologist and anarchist philosopher David Graeber. While many of the activists and organizations in the “Southern Voices” section are focused primarily on local and regional issues, those in the “Northern Voices” section seem to be more broad in scope, for fairly obvious reasons - many of the movements in the global south must focus on local struggles, as the issues often entail the very survival of the people involved.

Jose Bove speaks on behalf of the Confederation Paysanne, a movement of farmers against the intensive-farming system, whereby multinational corporations press for massive export-oriented production with no regard for the farmers, the environment or the quality of the food; and Via Campesina, a massive coalition of farmers movements from around the globe that demand “Food out of the WTO,” and focus on food sovereignty, food safety and patenting, amongst a host of other local, regional and global issues.[7] One of the Confederation Paysanne’s most celebrated achievements was the dismantling of a half-built McDonald’s as a response to US trade practices, a symbolic moment for agricultural workers struggling against multinationals.

Bernard Cassen speaks on behalf of another global movement, ATTAC, an initiative of the French periodical Le Monde diplomatique. Unlike many of the aforementioned southern movements, ATTAC is not a groundswell movement but rather, in the words of Cassen, an “action-oriented movement of popular education.”[8] ATTAC works to mobilize and educate the various movements struggling against the neo-liberal world framework, since, according to Cassen “militants must be well-informed, [and] intellectually equipped for action.”[9] ATTAC activists are quick to acknowledge that local committees are the backbone of the organization and nothing can happen without them. Together with the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT), ATTAC-France organized the World Social Forum (WSF), which met in Porto Alegre in 2001, and has held subsequent annual meetings ever since.

On the national level, John Sellers speaks on behalf of Ruckus, a US environmental movement (though Sellers claims they are neither a movement nor an institution, but rather encompass some middle ground) which has since diversified and now works with various human rights, labor, social justice and fair trade organizations as well. Ruckus works as a sort of training mechanism for various activists including media training, tree-climbing training for tree sit-ins, direct action planning, training activists to create effective blockades and so forth. While Ruckus has received requests to establish training-centers in other parts of the world, Sellers claims they are most effective mobilizing resistance “in the belly of the beast itself.”[10]

Bhumika Muchhala speaks on behalf of Students Against Sweatshops, an informal network of campus anti-sweatshop movements throughout the United States. The group organized solidarity campaigns with international workers (such as Gap laborers in El Salvador), took part in “living-wage campaigns for campus workers, and encouraged colleges to cut contracts with corporations that severely exploit foreign labor.

David Graeber’s short article closes out the “Northern Voices” section by discussing the role of the corporate media in undermining and misrepresenting the movement against neoliberalism; the historical circumstances that led the new social movements to take their unprecedented form; the characteristics of these new forms of organization (decentralized networks, horizontal structures, consensus democracy, etc); and the role of new communication technologies which have made the emergence of these “global revolutionary alliances” possible.[11] Graeber’s contribution excels in tying together the preceding, though I am a little perplexed as to why this article did not appear in the “Analytics” section.

The “Analytics” section, as one might guess, is an analysis of the various social movements regarding the specific nature of the various movements, how they have evolved, and how (or if) they will be able to form a cohesive entity powerful enough to challenge the neoliberal world system in the 21st century. Naomi Klein begins the section by discussing the ties amongst the various movements, which she argues, is a spirit for a “radical reclaiming of the commons.”[12] Klein argues that these activists are not waiting for a revolution, but rather are acting against the system on a local level. While the movements are diverse, they nevertheless periodically converge – Seattle, Prague, Quebec. Klein maintains that the success in Seattle is a direct result of organizers viewing their local and national struggles “through a global lens.”[13] Eventually, she hopes, the neoliberal framework will be overthrown and replaced by horizontal democracies at the local level, “one world with many worlds in it,” as the Zapatistas say.[14] It is an inspirational prophecy, which may in fact take shape, given the internal structures (horizontal, decentralized, democratic) of these new social movements.

Michael Hardt and Tom Mertes’ respective contributions offer somewhat divergent views on the nature and effectiveness of the WSF. Michael Hardt argues that the WSF is divided between two primary positions: those who hope to reinforce the sovereignty of the nation state against neoliberal globalization; and those who want a non-national alternative to the present world order. The PT and ATTAC, the most visible and dominant organizations at the WSF are, according to Hardt, aligned with this first school of thought, while the vast majority of those in attendance adhere to the second school. Eventually, Hardt argues, those “political” (state sovereignty-school) activists who dominated the forum will be swept up by the multitude, thereby decentralizing the WSF according to the spirit of these new social movements. Therefore, the form that the “movement of movements” will take, according to Hardt, is that of an ever-expanding network.[15]

Mertes finds this theory somewhat problematic, arguing that the relations between these various groups will take the form of “an ongoing series of alliances and coalitions, whose convergences remain contingent.”[16] Elaborating his position, Mertes argues:
The Turtles and Teamsters will no doubt meet again on the streets of North America, but this does not mean they are in the sort of constant communication that a network implies. The WSF provides a venue in which churches and anarchists, punks and farmers, trade-unionists and green can explore issues of common concern, without having to create a new web.[17]

Mertes also feels that Hardt’s focus on questions of national sovereignty and organization are overstated, and argues that greater divergences exist such as that between economy and environment, between the very different realities of those in the global north and those in the south, and on the question as to whether the international financial institutions should be reformed or abolished.[18]

Emir Sader’s contribution focuses on the history of “leftist” (communist and socialist) parties, the devastating blow they were dealt with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the embrace of neoliberal policies by modern leftist parties and the forms that the “new social movements” have taken today. The rejection of the political sphere by the new social movements is, for Sader, problematic for two main reasons. The first is “the NGO practice of entering into ‘partnerships’ with big business.”[19] The second problem is that the exclusion of political parties and States would, if pushed through, “severely limit the formulation of any alternatives to neoliberalism,” thus surrendering the entire area to the enemy.[20] Sader also points out another problem the new movements face, an ideological battle, whereas “many [people]…implicitly renounce any attempt to construct an alternative society: as if our indefinite confinement within the limits of capitalism and liberal democracy was accepted as fact,”[21] (a problem which was made ever apparent by many of the postings in our blackboard discussion).

The final contribution in the “Analytics” section comes from Immanuel Wallerstein, who discusses the rival popular movements of the 20th century, “social,” and “national” movements. Wallerstein points out that while the two sides had ideological divergences, both agreed on a so-called two-step strategy: “first gain power within the state structure; then transform the world.”[22] Many of these movements did in fact manage to seize political power, yet they found, as Wallerstein argues, that “state power was more limited than they had thought.”[23] It follows, then, that many of these new social movements are deeply suspicious of state-oriented actions. Wallerstein then concludes that the greatest problem facing the WSF will be how to integrate all of the movements within a single framework, while avoiding a vertical hierarchical structure from emerging. Wallerstein hopes that the new “antisystemic” movements will be able to focus on short-term immediate needs, establish interim, middle range goals and “develop the substantive meaning of our long-term emphases,” all while assuring a process of constant, open debate.[24]

Overall, this collection of interviews and essays is very informative in terms of introducing readers to various global movements, how their interests, structures and goals converge and diverge, and what actions these movements must take if they are to succeed in creating a powerful, global movement of movements. Two detrimental aspects of this book are the focus on various aspects of the activist’s personal lives, and the confusion associated with hearing the positions of so many different activists and intellectuals at once. Since the stated goal of these various movements includes maintaining a non-hierarchical, decentralized system, I felt that focusing on the life of a single member of a movement runs contrary to the overall spirit that these movements embody. Secondly, I ended up having to read this book twice, since discerning the specific position of each of the numerous contributors proved somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, A Movement of Movements is an excellent introductory read for those who want to better understand the new social movements which are taking place and the active and lively debate surrounding the future and possibility of a “movement of movements” coalescing against a common enemy: the neoliberal capitalist world framework.

[1] The term coined by Immanuel Wallerstein in the 1970s.
[2] Chitaroopa Palit, Monsoon Risings: Mega-Dam Resistance in the Narmada Valley, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 76.
[3] Palit, 85
[4] Joao Pedro Stedile, Brazil’s Landless Battalions: The Sem Terra Movement, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 43.
[5] Njoki Njehu, Cancel the Debt: Africa and the IMF, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 98.
[6] Walden Bello, The Global South, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 57.
[7] Jose Bove, A Farmers’ International?, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 140-45.
[8] Bernard Cassen, Inventing ATTAC, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004),156.
[9] Ibid.
[10] John Sellers, Raising a Ruckus, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 191.
[11] David Graeber, The New Anarchists, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 215.
[12] Naomi Klein, Reclaiming the Commons, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 220.
[13] Klein, 222
[14] Klein, 228
[15] Tom Mertes, Grass-roots Globalism: Reply to Michael Hardt, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 244.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Mertes, 245-6
[19] Emir Sader, Beyond Civil Society: The Left after Porto Alegre, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 253.
[20] Sader, 254-5
[21] Sader, 259
[22] Immanuel Wallerstein, New Revolts Against the System, in A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible?, ed. Tom Mertes, (New York: Verso, 2004), 263.
[23] Wallerstein, 266
[24] Wallerstein, 272-3


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