Turning The World Upside Down

 { This paper is being prepared for the June 1 – 7 2006 first Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy, held in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. These sessions gather activists from around the world to share ideas and experiences regarding social vision and strategy. This version is a draft, only…}

The present world order is based on immense inequalities in wealth and power. In opposition to the present order are various popular movements – which are for the most part tending to converge in their thinking and their goals.

The question before us at ZSVS is what the international order might look like, and how we might get there, if the values which we who are gathering together share were to be expressed in both our ends and our means.

The dimensions of the global crisis are many. Three overarching human crises are problems of survival: the challenge of surviving human-induced environmental rupture; the challenge of surviving suicidal militarism; and the challenge of global poverty and hunger.

It is easy to say that the end-state we desire is a world in which we enjoy a sustainable planetary economy, a world of peaceful relations between co-operative societies, a world in which hunger and avoidable disease have been abolished.

It is no less easy to say that the primary obstacle to achieving this desired end-state is the system of transnational corporations, and the powerful states which defend and extend the control of these corporations; and furthermore that these corporations and states must be abolished.

In one formula, this would mean that the productive resources of each society should be under the direct control of those who carry out productive work. Economic and other relations between societies would, we expect, become less violent and confrontational, and less threatening to human survival.

It is more challenging and perhaps more humanly significant to try to define some of the major staging posts on the way to this utopia.

In the terms of another piece, it is more difficult – and may be more useful in making strategy – to define what world society might look like _on_ the political horizon, rather than beyond it.

In one widely-discussed and thoughtful contribution to these kinds of debates (The Age of Consent), George Monbiot suggested that the key issue was democracy (in the mainstream sense of ‘representative democracy in the civil but not the economic sphere’). The key intermediate goal he suggested we should aim towards was a world parliament.

This would make sense if the end state we were aiming for was a globalization of the Western model of capitalist democracy.

If, however, we are convinced that transnational corporations are a key obstacle to needed changes, and their abolition is necessary to secure a just and sustainable world, then some other medium-term goal is going to be more useful to us, and another definition of the kind of ‘global democracy’ we are aiming for.

What restraints on transnational capitalism can we imagine being imposed within basically the present structure of power? Where might these restraints come from?

On the political horizon, it seems clear that there are only three possible sources of restraint: grassroots movements; nation-states; and transnational authorities deriving their power and authority from both states and grassroots movements.

By ‘grassroots movements’ I mean here all sorts of popular associations, trade unions and other forms of ‘civil society’. It is likely that the restraining influence exerted by nation-states, and by global authorities created by nation-states, will be initiated by, and proportional to the combined strength of, grassroots movements and those states which are either oppressed by the present order or willing to challenge it for other reasons.

What kinds of restraint are we talking about?

We are talking about restraints on war, state terrorism, nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, military production and exports.

We are talking about restraints on the use of economic sanctions, international debt, monopoly power over economic markets, aid, unfair trade rules, restrictive patent laws and other forms of intimidation and exploitation.

We are talking about restraints on the destructive flight of capital through financial markets and national industries, and the dumping of environmental and social costs on powerless communities.

How could these kinds of restraints be exercised? By international institutions supported by the collective strength of the more pacific and poorer countries, and by grassroots mobilization both inside and outside the ‘great powers’.

What we need are international organizations, at both the state level and at the popular level, that are committed to combat domination whether by regional bullies, superpower hegemons, or transnational corporations.

These international organisations need to be as democratic as possible, perhaps based on some international economic/financial burden-sharing according to ability to pay, with the greatest degree possible of popular communication, oversight and accountability across national boundaries.

There are old traditions that may be useful here. The election of delegates who do not ‘represent’, but who are faithful conduits for information and opinion between their electors and the discussion/decision-making forums they attend on behalf of their communities. The right to recall delegates at will; fixed terms of office; requirements for rotation of office-holders; and so on.

To these we might add new ideas, which are often elaborations of older principles, familiar from the ‘parecon’ literature.

International grassroots organisations can only be as strong and democratic as the national and local organisations they are built on. (I mean here something fairly loose – organisations spanning a recognised grouping (self-)defined by geography, ethnicity, language or other marker of (self-defined) significance.)

One major goal on the horizon therefore is to build grassroots organisations that are strong and democratic internally (free from sexism, racism, homophobia, classism and other forms of division); free of ‘vanguardism’ and authoritarian control; able to cooperate effectively across language and national boundaries; committed to the radical reform (or abolition) of institutions such as the transnational corporation and the imperial state; and willing and able to make sacrifices in the battle to restrain these disruptive and destructive entities.

At the international level, there is something like the kind of coalition described above regarding trade justice (though not to the same degree in relation to war or environmental crisis, as far as I am aware). Currently, as I understand it, NGOs, foundations and trade unions all play a leading and vitally important role in these coalitions.

Going by the above analysis, two goals for the future would be, on the one hand, to reform these institutions (NGOs, foundations, trade unions and so
on) to make them more transparent, democratic and empowering, and, on the other, to build up other independent national and international grassroots organisations that can complement them and perhaps eventually replace them or merge with them.

I think it is also safe to propose strong roots in the organized labour movements, made up of revitalised and militant labour organizations, will be critical to the success of our movements for radical social change.

It goes without saying (I assume) that, from the point of view of workers’  rights at least, the power of transnational corporations can only be countered effectively by transnational unions or coalitions of unions.

So the broad brush picture here would be of a basket of particular restrictive measures which we might describe as ‘Tobin Plus’ or ‘UN Charter Plus), which can exert a restraining influence on the major corporations and on violent states; and international institutions, increasingly grassroots-influenced and -dominated, which are committed to justice and survival and therefore to the reform (and eventual replacement) of the transnational corporation and the imperial state.

In the absence of real equality, the global majority can check the excesses of the powerful, institutionalize those restraints, and form watchdog institutions that pose a significant countervailing influence.

These new organizations and institutions – whether at the state level, the NGO/trade union level or the grassroots level must increasingly embody the values of the future world society we are building.

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