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Finding Voice: Telling Our Own Stories


I seem to have been spending quite a bit of time lately urging other activist friends to write more. Many already are. And I regularly ask myself why I write.

We need more people who write for social movements in struggle, are actively engaged in organising in those movements, and who take the same political risks as others. We also need more quality research explicitly directed by and accountable to people in struggle.

We should not underestimate the role of research and writing in our campaigns. But these resources must meet the needs of communities, activists and organisers daily engaged in specific struggles. We should not confuse the production of yet more information with education for empowerment and liberation.

Finding space and time to reflect upon and evaluate our tactics, strategies, processes, goals and visions, our successes and failures, victories and setbacks can be hard in day-to-day organising that is often all-consuming. But it is so vital.

Who else can better articulate the complexities, contradictions and challenges that lie within our organisations and movements which arguably need as much attention as the institutions and forces which we mobilise against? Who better to articulate the alternatives to the neoliberal agenda which are already being built. And who better to make the links and connections between global and local struggles and injustices?

My motivation to start writing more came equally from frustrations with much “alternative” media and NGO literature – and seeing whose voices and which views are heard and valued and which silenced – as from the slop served by corporate media and official propagandists. Often what was out there did not reflect the realities of the work I was doing or what other people were telling me about their struggles. I started writing as one other way to contribute to movements for change.

In an earlier ZNet commentary (All this Civil Society talk takes us nowhere, 13/01/02) I wrote about the dangerous separation of the “brain and brawn” of the “anti-globalisation movement”.

Unfortunately, within many movements and networks committed to social change, it has often been implicitly (and rather arrogantly) assumed that people organising militant actions have little or no analysis, theoretical understanding or worthwhile things to say, unlike more “respectable” NGO policy people, lobbyists, and commentators. Such elitism and the cults of personality and power which develop around “experts” have no place in movements for social justice.

Moreover, many NGOs which have the material resources and organisational infrastructure to regularly produce research documents and literature studiously avoid confronting fundamental issues like imperialism, capitalism or colonisation in any substantive way. Perhaps that is hardly surprising – there is little funding available for organisations which take explicitly anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist standpoints by comparison with those advancing more reformist – or at least, ambiguous -positions.

In their tiresome territorial turf wars to brand themselves as the authoritative ‘alternative’ voice, they can be as condescending and patronising to the rest of us as those institutions and actors which they are pitted against. Consciously or inadvertently, they often reproduce or reinforce the same imperial, patriarchal, racist and class relations which underpin the world we live in. We talk, you listen. You organise, and we’ll write about it.

Cul-de-sacs of convenience and comfort are frequently constructed which exclude any focus on the issues of imperialism and colonialism, often couched in the language of “reality” and pragmatism. They invite people to question things up to a certain point, but fail to grapple with, and often obscure, the root causes of injustice.

In his critique of international NGOs (in Globalisation Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century), James Petras writes that they frequently act as “intellectual policemen who define “acceptable” research, distribute research funds and filter out topics and perspectives that project a class analysis and struggle perspective.” When their essentially reformist agendas threaten to set the parameters of accepted debate in the “alternative” world about a particular issue, how do we engage and confront them?

How do we challenge the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which many more powerful NGOs seek to dominate discourse on issues like globalisation? How do we move the analysis forward? What responsibility and what tools do we have, drawn from our popular education and mobilization work, to challenge this situation?

What often strikes me is that ideas, concerns and arguments which seem basic and hardly original, are not being articulated and shared outside of a small circle of friends and comrades. Putting these into words can be a powerful way to move discussion forward and build bridges with others with similar concerns.

I have been amazed at how well ZNet articles like the one I wrote on civil society, and last August’s “Bringing It All Back Home: Anti Globalisation Activism cannot ignore Colonial Realities” have been received, even though it seems that quite a few of us have been saying these kinds of things for many years.

The work of identifying linkages, articulating and building a larger vision linking local and global issues, for example, building campaigns which expose the connections between neoliberalism, racist immigration policies, colonial laws and culture which continue to subjugate Indigenous Peoples, is an important project. But by comparison with the analyses of corporate power and the demise of “democracy”, few are writing about these issues. The organising in our communities needs to go hand in hand with a conscious focus on framing the debate and the issues at a more conceptual level.

We cannot deal with every issue at once in our campaigns and mobilizations – but we can link our actions and campaign work to an analysis based on broader understandings. There is a mutually-reinforcing relationship between mobilising on local concerns and contextualising what we do in light of broader national or global questions.

Why should it be left up to detached academics, progressive social commentators, professional NGO policy analysts and investigative journalists who occupy positions of relative privilege, to frame debates and analysis? They may well be fine people, with important insights. And we need them. But is what they have to say and write inherently any more legitimate, credible and valid than people who put themselves on the line on a daily basis? Or people who have no choice in being on the frontlines of struggles?

The high value placed on the written word, and the exalted place we give to those who write is highly problematic. Not everyone is a writer, and the way in which “alternative” organisations, especially in the North, value and validate those who write over those who do not is highly problematic. Some of the sharpest critical thinking and analyses come from people who have never written and some who cannot write. Where and how are their voices and ideas valued? We need to examine and confront the tendency of alternative movements to attribute higher values and status to those of us who write than those who don’t, won’t or can’t.

Another problem is the continued dominance of the English language which often serves as a filter. It largely determines whose voices we hear, articles and reports we read, and who from movements in the non-English-speaking majority of the world gets exposed to debates beyond their country or region.

We are drowning in information, overwhelmed by the enormity of the injustices that we seek to overcome, and the urgent need to act immediately. Having the opportunity to step back, talk with comrades, assess where we are at, and share our experiences often gets put farther down the priority list than organising the next demonstration or public meeting, or getting the next leaflet, poster or flyer out.

Nonetheless, writing can be an essential tool in crystallizing arguments and concerns that are not likely to be otherwise addressed and can play a role as a catalyst for change.

Combining organising, intense campaign and mobilization work with writing is not easy. It is often a frustrating juggling act. Nonetheless I think it is very important that more of us try.

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