Outside La Spezia train station in Italian Liguria there is an old plane tree. The branches are not strong enough to bear their own weight but are propped up by steel girders that are attached to the concrete foundations. From the tree of life by the station, I walk along winding streets through a town that seems to be both freshly painted and public-spirited. Sheets and garments flutter from clothes lines stretching across backyards and alleyways.
The streets lead out into the harbour where the water shimmers in the October sunshine. There are crowds of people enjoying a leisurely Sunday stroll on the middle pier on their way to the schooner Estelle. It is moored in La Spezia for a few days on its way from Umeå to Gaza.
Three plain tables have been set up next to the gangplank. One is selling fairtrade arts and crafts from Morocco. Another is selling sandals produced in the West Bank. The third provides information about a joint project in which La Spezia is helping to build a school in Jenin.
Volunteers show their support, collect money and work to shape opinion focusing on the plight of the poor and oppressed. This has been a regular feature of everyday European life for decades.
One of the most compelling features, I might add. Sometimes people’s commitment to a cause is motivated by feelings of guilt – about the Holocaust, about colonialism and racism or about the fact that Europe and the western world profit to an unreasonable degree from global inequality. During the days the Estelle is moored at the quay voluntary organisations put on a show of strength in La Spezia, the motto being “La Spezia resta umana” (La Spezia remains human).
“It’s important to help the Palestinians to trade,” says the person selling sandals. The young woman providing information about the school in Jenin suggests that the exchange is a logical continuation of La Spezia’s history: from anti-fascist resistance to Mussolini to the struggle for global justice.
During a debate the same evening, Patrizia Saccone, who is responsible for the town’s international support and exchange programme, says that “collaborazione” is a simple matter to understand: society is improved by people helping each other.
Economic research is currently in the process of rediscovering this truth, which is actually obvious but has long been forgotten. From the point of view of economics, altruism makes more sense than individualism.
This means that ethical responsibility to “others” is finding a solid basis in economic science. Not that ethics needs such a foundation. But it is, of course, helpful that industry and political institutions are presented with scientific proof of the fact that in the long run it is more profitable to collaborate with others than to maximise one’s own returns. Nation states and companies have lacked an ethical compass for far too long. Many large companies, such as Lundin Oil, have taken investment decisions that indirectly condemned people to die or to live in misery while politicians often said that economic growth requires sacrifices or casualties. This is the EU’s current message to the people of Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
At the end of the 1990s social scientists started talking about “upside-down states”. Even if the states were officially democracies, state power and authority had gradually ceased to represent the interests of the people but instead were used to make their own citizens bow down to the requirements of the economic power.
According to social scientists, this is one of the explanations for the loss of trust in traditional parties and political institutions and of the attempts to invent new political methods of working. Right-wing political parties of discontent are one result of this, the growing global solidarity movement another, and virtual campaign politics over the Internet a third. Everywhere we see citizens – civil society – shaking themselves up.
Today’s solidarity movements are characterised by their lack of borders. Even if the purpose is a national one – for example, to remove a dictator and establish democracy, as in the Arab spring – it presupposes extensive global mobilisation. Another characteristic feature they have is that they make use of the existing political machinery – not to push through political decisions, but in the sense that having this or that politician behind them gives them a sought after media profile. A third characteristic is the movements’ powerlessness. They have no institutions or infrastructure, relying instead on fundraising, and are easily crushed if the state or capital gets tough with them.
That this happens so seldom, and that it only happens when the situation has become urgent or revolutionary, is due in its turn to a fourth characteristic of new movements: they mobilise around a single principle or universal idea that is difficult to call into question. Nation states and politicians align themselves with them in theory, but in practice they ignore them. Climate policy is the best example. A simple idea – the survival of the planet and of mankind – requiring rules and regulations that politicians are unable to carry through because they are bound by more short-term interests.
Which, of course, makes popular discontent grow even more. And when enough of the discontented get organised and take policy into their own hands, popular movements emerge that strive to renew democracy from the bottom and on a global scale. We are in the middle of this process now, in 2012, at the beginning of a decade which according to many forecasts is going to be marked by popular uprisings and new political initiatives.
In La Spezia I join the Swedish Ship to Gaza, one of those movements that, asserts a couple of simple principles – all people being of equal value and the right to trade and freedom of movement – and lays bare the ambivalent speeches of the politicians and nation states. What the organisation wants to accomplish is after all what nearly all politicians and nation states have already decided: Israel’s blockade constitutes a breach of international law and human rights, and causes unnecessary suffering to one and a half million people. Everyone involved would benefit from the lifting of the blockade.
But the matter is not just about principles – it is also about power politics and military strategy. Can a volunteer movement win against one of the world’s strongest military powers? The most difficult thing the passengers on the Estelle have to deal with is not the idea or the objective; it is the corrosive feeling of powerlessness. Israel is probably going to stop the ship and maintain its blockade – and is the world is going to continue to turn a blind eye to Palestine wasting away, and pretend it isn’t happening?
Ship to Gaza has been called many things – from saviour of the world and political tourists to terrorists and puppets of Iran. Stuff and nonsense. The organisation should rather be seen as an example of the globalisation of political action. So far there are no really global political institutions. But the seed of some new patterns is to be found in the movement of civil society and of popular movements across national boundaries.
Everything points to the fact that human rights and justice are going to be the focus of the global politics that is dawning. It is hardly likely to be driven by ideologies, or by national or regional interests – but much more likely by different attempts to embody a reality of universal ethical ideals. As the ideals are simple and obvious, it is easy to fundraise around them. The result is the “movement of movements” that certain political philosophers identified as the globalised world’s democratic subject: people power on a planetary scale.
An ethical action in defence of human rights is significant, irrespective of its likelihood of success. If the Estelle does not succeed in breaking Israel’s blockade, the ship will still be holding up a mirror to the masters of the world order and showing that they are in breach of the rights and principles to which they themselves have subscribed. And next year there will be another ship.
On the first Thursday in October we reach the city of Naples, in the shadow of the slumbering volcano Vesuvius. At the same time Israel’s efforts to stop the Estelle are intensifying. Ship to Gaza is the nightmare of governments and nation states: thousands of citizens of Europe and the Middle East taking matters into their own hands, forming a unit and reminding those in power of their shortcomings. Ethics have the same relationship to power as the dripping of water has to a stone. The stone gets worn away and disintegrates; the water drains away and flows back, like life itself.