A couple of days ago I heard that 11,000 people had contacted the organizers of housing for the pro-democracy activities in Quebec City next month during the April 20-22, Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit of government leaders. The FTAA is the latest in the line of NAFTA, GATT, the World Trade Organization, the Multilateral Agreement on Investments and Fast Track. It’s another effort to legalize ever more extensive corporate destruction of the environmental protections, labor rights, health and safety laws and democratic rights we still have left.
It’s a good sign that so many people are going to Quebec to stand up against the corporate bully boys and their hired police. It’s a sign that the spirit of Seattle is very much alive and well.
Yet for some progressive organizers, these kinds of actions are seen as “activist luxuries.” These organizers believe that they are about the “real” work of organizing at a local level around the issues affecting grassroots people, whether it be in a community or at a workplace.
Perhaps one of the clearest expressions of this attitude is an article I read a couple of years ago written by a prominent, nationally-known leader of a populist, grassroots group that works very hard in mainly low-income communities around the issues affecting those communities.
This person–let’s call him Bill–described how, in the 1960’s, he had been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement until he had an experience in which grassroots people he had begun working with decided not to participate in an anti-war action of some kind Bill felt was important.
He ended up feeling out on a limb when he individually went ahead with participation in this action. In the article he described how he made a vow to himself that he would never again take part in a protest action unless he did so as part of a group of low-income, grassroots people.
And he went on to explain how he essentially left the anti-war movement to go work full-time as a community organizer.
I remember thinking at the time, what about the low-income, grassroots people in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina whose land was being defoliated and destroyed and who were dying in the hundreds every day because of the U.S. government’s imperialist war? Didn’t they count as “grassroots people?”
Don’t get me wrong. I believe it is absolutely essential that we organize grassroots people of all races and nationalities in this country around the issues that they believe are most important. Unless we do this work, there is no chance, none, zero, of our country ever being transformed in the fundamental ways necessary. I have been doing work like this myself for over 25 years. But I have also tried to link that work to broader national and international issues, sometimes with success, sometimes not.
There’s a famous saying, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Today, we need to think and act both globally and locally. In a world in which capitalism has been globalized, in which what happens in one part of the world has economic and other impacts throughout the world, there is a clear need to globalize resistance, globalize communications, globalize anti-corporate strategies. Many pro-justice activists understand this and are acting on this understanding.
But what does this mean on a concrete, local level?
If we really are working with grassroots, working-class people, of whatever nationality or income level, there is a natural tendency to keep these larger issues out of the picture. It’s the same as when you are trying to deal with racism, sexism or homophobia or, in some situations, trying to bring in the need for independent politics.
Although there is almost always something which comes up in the course of local struggles which has an organic connection to one of these larger issues, it is usually easier to stay quiet and low-key these connections. In doing so, the expectation is that it will be easier to win a short-term victory and/or build a broader base of support and involvement.
In the short-term, this is usually true. But if we are genuinely about creating a society truly based on justice and democracy, in all aspects of life, if we want a world in which racism, sexism, heterosexism and backwards nationalism are being dealt with and increasingly dissipated, if we want a world based on environmentally-sustainable cooperation and not ruthless competition, and if we censor ourselves from raising those issues when appropriate and possible, then we might as well not even be in the organizer business. Global capitalism will continue wreaking its devastation even if we have temporarily won a small victory. We will be political schizophrenics, believing one thing but not being open about our beliefs with those we come into contact with.
This dead-end approach to organizing, what I call “reformism,” has deep roots in the history of the U.S. Left. Those roots have grown in the soil of a dominant culture which encourages separation of people, separation of people from their environment, separation of people from even their true selves.
From my experiences and knowledge, many of those in the movement against the global capitalist system and its various “free trade”
agreements are acutely aware of the destructiveness of this death-culture. That’s a good thing. Many are about living their lives in a way that reflects values that are positive and life-affirming. And growing numbers are working in their communities and their workplaces against injustice and inequality at the same time that they actively participate in actions like the ones being planned for Quebec City, or in solidarity with the struggles of low-income, grassroots people in various parts of the world.
We need some serious dialogue and stronger working relationships among those in this movement and those giving leadership to labor, community and other domestic struggles. We can each learn from one another. And together we can create a unified, pro-justice movement in this country with a real possibility of winning. Our objective can be nothing less.