Whose Beat Should We Dance To?

One cannot help wondering how much of the agenda of the critiques of the new economic order is set by those setting the terms of the new economic order itself.” wrote Indian labour rights activist Radha D’Souza in 1995 (Parallel People’s APEC: Two Meetings, Two Views).

With all the reflection that has been taking place among many of the diverse forces which comprise the “anti-globalisation movement” since September 11 and the recent WTO Ministerial meeting in Qatar, I hope that some issues can be addressed in a way which will strengthen and broaden the mobilizations against the neoliberal agenda. And against the gloves-off US imperialism that is turning much of the world into a punching bag for US economic and political interests.

It is very easy to lapse into a formula, a ritual pattern of actions and

responses. I think we should be very wary of using official deadlines and

timetables as our principal guidelines and schedules for our own activities, and direct our efforts mainly towards them. Huge amounts of resources are mobilised by many NGOs and some unions into organising parallel summits at almost every conceivable official event. 2002 seems as full of these meetings as any year I can remember. Yet it is what happens on the ground, in our communities and on the streets, every day of every year that will bring about real change.

Perhaps the nature of the WTO and the economic globalisation process also tempts us into trying to break off bite-sized pieces to deal with. It lends itself to compartmentalisation, but even more alarmingly, of framing our responses to fit within the ambit of particular agreements. That in turn can lead to the fragmentation and compartmentalisation of people, movements, and a loss of focus on wider political and economic questions. We find ourselves being asked to fit life-and-death issues within a world defined by the parameters of GATS, TRIPs, and the Agreement on Agriculture.

But this trend itself is nothing new. NGOs and their campaigns have a tendency to move on, leaping from project to project. People, causes, countries and issues get championed and jettisoned, only to be picked up again when they are convenient or when funders’ priorities change. Meanwhile ongoing peoples’ struggles for justice and dignity continue. Aid, development and many advocacy NGOs now involved in activities on economic globalisation frequently relate to the world in a way which sees countries, regions, themes and issues go in and out of fashion. Sometimes when they speak of linking issues and concerns, I wonder how it was they ever became disconnected. All too often these organisations seem more interested in the response, if any, of the Bretton Woods institutions or the UN to their lobbying efforts, than to the demands of mass movements.

Forming any kind of broad-based anti-imperialist alliance locally or internationally – which I think is an urgent priority – to effectively confront global capital and the processes and institutions that advance its goals cannot be done on the enemy’s own terms and to the pace and beat that it determines. We need to identify and sharpen conceptual tools with which to understand our lives and our world, to resist and to build alternatives to what unjust institutions, policies and processes deliver.

Even when we organise our own strategy sessions, we often end up drawing up campaign plans which are so dominated by meeting dates for WTO committees in Geneva, or UN, World Bank and IMF calendars, or fixated on garnering media publicity, that little space remains to focus on anything else in any real detail. Not that these events are not important to be aware of, or even to mobilise around if it is appropriate, strategic and relevant in our local contexts. But a fixation on these official activities can – and do – detract from urgent challenges of supporting existing peoples’ struggles on the ground, and building communities of resistance.

There are so many official meetings, but there is so little time. And we cannot spend all of our energies summit-hopping or discussing the technicalities of the wording of particular agreements, the positions of different governments and planning our actions around their timetables if it is at the expense of struggles that are already happening on the ground.

Many of the lobby NGOs whose voices are frequently heard in “anti-globalisation” circles, are also often the best-resourced, seeking “reform” of the institutions which many of us work to delegitimise and dismantle, and far removed from peoples’ struggles. Many of them baulk at such terms. In Hong Kong last October I was chastised by a development agency staffer for saying that I believed in supporting people’s struggles and suggesting that attempts to reform the WTO by liberal international NGOs would be as effective as trying to make a tiger become a vegetarian.

As Michel Chossudovsky says, there is an important role for lobbying but this “must be applied vigorously in close liaison with constituent social movements. The underlying results and information of these negotiations, however, must be channelled with a view to reinforcing rather than weakening grass roots actions. In other words, we should not allow “lobbying” to be conducted in an isolated and secretive fashion by organisations which are “hand picked” by the governments and the WTO.”

There is a massive gulf between discussions about the intricacies of specific trade agreements at many NGO meetings and the day-to-day realities and needs of many people’s struggles. Not to mention the separation and tension between what one activist rather characterised as “the brain and the brawn” of the movement as “experts” line up on panels to address NGO conferences or seek audiences with political and business elites while activists engaged in direct action are pepper-sprayed and batoned on the streets. The hierarchies among the forces which claim to be critical of the neoliberal agenda need to be recognised and addressed.

Many NGO activities are in any case open only to those who can access the funding and time to jump on a plane to the site of the next summit meeting. The resources behind major parallel counter-conferences to official summits could arguably be better spent on popular education and mobilisation in a less glamorous fashion, and in a way that is not constrained by what will grab media attention the most. But then again, when governments and the likes of the Ford Foundation and other funders with dubious agendas put money into such meetings, perhaps it’s easy to see why they’re not.

Sometimes I fear we end up being in danger of falling for what Canadian trade unionist Dave Bleakney calls “the same crap of the consumerist spin doctored societies we live in”. He says “We are always searching for an angle, or a niche by emulating public relations firms. (If we were really serious about going down this track then we should just hire one since they seem to do a better job at promoting products than we do.) It’s pretty bad when Pepsi commercials look more “revolutionary” than “civil society”.

Official summits come and go, the media gaze moves away, empires rise and fall, but people have always – and will continue to – struggle for a better world. Let’s make sure that they are our drumbeats that we are dancing to.

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