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Global Self-Organization from Below


As globalization from above has grown more destructive, the constructive achievements of globalization from below in the two years since the Battle of Seattle have been impressive. An incredible range of movements and concerns that once seemed unrelated or even antagonistic have learned to cooperate in the face of corporate-led globalization from above.

Activists around the world have forged a new internationalism with a global vision. They have developed organizational forms—ranging from global advocacy networks and temporary affinity groups to global forums—to share ideas and coordinate actions over vast areas with a minimum of hierarchy.

They have rediscovered the hidden power of people to force change by withdrawing their consent from established institutions. They have educated hundreds of millions of people around the world about the problems of globalization.

They have established themselves as a global opposition and replaced the nationalist right as the leading critics of globalization. They have put the advocates of globalization from above on the defensive and forced a major change in the rhetoric, if not yet the reality, of global institutions.

The most dramatic expressions of globalization from below have been the demonstrations challenging international elite gatherings from Melbourne to Prague, from Quebec to Manila, and from Washington, DC, to Genoa. But these demonstrations are only the visible tip of a movement composed primarily of grassroots organizing and people-to-people cooperation across national borders.

The World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, has emerged as a global assembly for globalization from below’s discussion and networking. In 2002, the second WSF brought together 51,300 participants, including 15,230 delegates representing 4,909 organizations from 131 countries.

The program for its workshops, demonstrations, and other events ran 151 tabloid pages. Its slogan, “Another World Is Possible,” has flung open the discussion of global alternatives. While some complain that the WSF has not produced a blueprint for global social reform, its emphasis on pluralism and diversity manifests the spirit of a movement that seeks a future based on open global dialogue, not decisions imposed by a new elite.

Proliferating Lilliputians

The Lilliput Strategy, in which grassroots groups cooperate across national borders to outflank corporations and other centers of power, remains at the core of globalization from below. The campaign to make drugs for AIDS patients available at a reasonable price in poor countries continues to provide a leading example.

Writer Esther Kaplan describes a packed meeting in a stultifying room in a former church in North Philadelphia, “an area of falling-down porches and abandoned storefronts,” for a group that might be expected to find the global economy a rather remote concern—recovering drug addicts.

But John Bell of ACT UP/Philadelphia, a former war veteran with AIDS, was recruiting for a “Stop Global AIDS march.” He began, “Hi. My name is John, and I’m an addict and an alcoholic.” According to Kaplan, “As he went on to talk about his gratitude for his lifesaving med[icine]s, it seemed only natural that he’d invite the 100 or so assembled to stand up for HIVers worldwide who don’t have access to the same meds.”

A few weeks later, 12 packed buses from Philadelphia rolled up in front of the United Nations, turning the march into “an energetic African-American protest rally.” According to Bell, they were “making the connections between local and global in terms of health care and AIDS. We have been preparing people to be not only US citizens, but citizens of the world.”

An international coalition including Doctors Without Borders and religious networks around the world generated thousands of letters to drug companies and the US government demanding they stop trying to use patent laws to keep people from getting AIDS drugs in poor countries. And there were some results.

An April 2001 article in the Christian Science Monitor headlined “Drug Firms Yield to Cry of the Poor” reported, “39 international pharmaceutical companies unconditionally withdrew a lawsuit against the South African government aimed at barring the country from importing cheap anti-AIDS drugs.”

And in June 2001, the Financial Times reported, “The US government … dropped its complaint against Brazil’s patent law at the World Trade Organisation, dealing a fresh blow to the leading global pharmaceutical companies’ business in the developing world.”

Before the November 2001 meetings of the WTO in Doha, Qatar, AIDS activists, NGO representatives, and third world officials met and drew up a declaration stating that nothing in the WTO rules covering patents could prevent governments from safeguarding public health. Daniel Berman of Doctors Without Borders reported the results from Doha:

Since Seattle there has been a seismic shift. Two years ago many developing countries felt they were powerless against the will of the wealthy countries and their drug companies. Here in Doha more than 80 countries came together and negotiated in mass.

It was this solidarity that led to a strong affirmation that TRIPS [Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights] “can and should be interpreted in a manner to protect public health.” In practical terms, this means that countries are not at the mercy of multinationals when they practice price gouging.

New Forms of Grassroots Self-Organization

Popular resistance to the devastation caused by neoliberal policies in Argentina has revealed new possibilities for mass direct action against globalization from above. With 35 percent of workers unemployed and underemployed, a militant movement known as the piqueteros, a large proportion of them unemployed women, began blocking highways and then negotiating with the authorities for subsistence programs and public works employment.

“They don’t delegate any leaders to go downtown. They make the government come to the highways, and the people there discuss what they should demand and what they should accept.”

The example of the piqueteros spread to a more and more disgruntled population. Discontent came to a head as the government accepted even greater austerity demands from the IMF and imposed a state of siege to suppress popular protest.

On the night of December 19, 2001, “people from all over the capital had taken to the streets to bang pots and pans, a traditional symbol of protest in Latin America, and to march on Congress and the presidential palace.” The next day, “spontaneous street demonstrations” forced Fernando de la Rúa to resign the presidency.

That in turn led to the emergence of a new organizational form. “A bunch of us who met during the march that night decided that what we were doing should become a permanent, directed effort and not just a one-time thing,” a participant recalled. “We wanted the fall of de la Rúa to mark the beginning of something, not the end.”

Out of the demonstrations grew “a new and increasingly assertive civic movement known as the ‘self-convened neighborhood assemblies.’” Argentines are now “meeting after work and on weekends not just to vent their wrath at politicians but to organize and debate solutions to the country’s crisis.”

Most neighborhoods in cities and towns across the country have their own assembly. “The movement is largely unstructured, with individual units communicating through Web sites, and deliberately informal, with members ranging from middle-aged professionals in Lacoste shirts to students with spiked hair and nose rings.”

A nationwide outdoor assembly brought groups together from all over the country. They decided “they would continue to sponsor weekly protest meetings [at] the presidential palace.”

The convergence of the unemployed picketers and the newly-impoverished middle class cacerolazo pot-and-pan bangers has been embodied in the slogan “Piquete y cacerola, la lucha es una sola”—“pickets and pans, same struggle.”

A leading newspaper editorialized that “a country cannot work in a state of permanent popular deliberation” and warned that “such mechanisms of popular deliberation” as the neighborhood assemblies “present a danger, since because of their very nature they can develop into something like that sinister model of power, the ‘soviets.’”

The people of Argentina have shown that popular movements can force even repressive and neoliberal governments to halt ruinous debt servicing. But when the government of one country abandons neoliberal policies, it faces devastating reprisals—as are already being planned against Argentina.

A possible next step might be the kind of international solidarity sometimes referred to as a “debtors’ cartel,” “debtors’ union,” or “debtors’ united front.” If a number of debtor countries threatened to stop servicing their debts simultaneously, they would pose a devastating threat to global financial stability and thereby change the global balance of power.

Such a strategy could become a prime weapon of popular movements demanding that the third world be freed from the chain of debt slavery.

Isolating US Unilateralism

The unilateralism of the Bush administration poses a barrier to nearly every initiative attempted by the global justice movement, from global warming agreements and protection of human rights to affordable AIDS treatment and sustainable development for poor countries.

But that unilateralism is provoking a reaction. According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “Europeans have embraced President Bush’s formulation that an ‘axis of evil’ threatens world peace. There’s only one small problem. President Bush thinks the axis of evil is Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and the Europeans think it’s Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condi [Condoleezza] Rice.”

European Union (EU) officials warn of a rift opening up between Europe and the United States wider than at any time for half a century. Chris Patten, the EU commissioner for international relations, said it is time that European governments spoke up and stopped Washington before it goes into “unilateralist overdrive.”

He adds, “Gulliver can’t go it alone, and I don’t think it’s helpful if we regard ourselves as so Lilliputian that we can’t speak up and say it.” Patten called on Europe’s 15 member states “to put aside their traditional wariness of angering the United States and to speak up, forging an international stance of their own on issues ranging from the Middle East to global warming.”

Such a response—at both the governmental and grassroots levels—can begin to isolate the Bush administration’s ideological agenda. For example, immediately after the United States rejected a modified version of the Kyoto climate accord, 178 countries went ahead and accepted it. The city of Seattle announced that it would unilaterally abide by the accord and cut its carbon emissions by more than the required percentage.

Beyond “Anti-globalization”

The many strands that came together to form globalization from below were initially united by little beyond their opposition to globalization from above. But their common interests go far deeper than that. They share a common interest in putting the world on a safer, saner, and less destructive path than global elites currently offer.

Therefore, globalization from below is less and less presenting itself as a movement against globalization. Lori Wallach of Public Citizen observed at the WSF that calling the movement “anti-global” only plays into the hands of the corporate elites. “Better we say what we are for. We are for democracy, diversity, and equity.”

At a simultaneous “Another World Is Possible” rally in New York, Columbia University student Yvonne Liu of Students for Global Justice met cheers when she said, “We are not an antiglobalization movement. We are against corporate-led globalization. We are a global justice movement.”

Globalization from above is certainly doing its part to encourage a worldwide backlash in favor of globalization from below. A survey sponsored by the World Economic Forum found that nearly one in two citizens and majorities in half of the 25 countries surveyed “support people who take part in peaceful demonstrations against globalization because they are supporting my interests.”

Globalization from above is leading millions of people around the world to organize on their own and others’ behalf. While globalization from above may self-destruct through its own internal contradictions, its failure does not guarantee that another, better world can be realized. That depends on the commitment, integrity, wisdom, and unity of those who are forging globalization from below.

*Based on material from the new Second Edition of Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith, GLOBALIZATION FROM BELOW: THE POWER OF SOLIDARITY (South End Press, 2002). Visit the authors’ web site at www.villageorpillage.org.

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