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This personal reflection was written for and performed at a spoken word event on March 2nd in Philadelphia.
“After the Apocalypse” – by Alex Knight
When I was 10 or 11, my father and I watched a TV special, probably on FOX, called “Prophecies Revealed,” which rounded up an assortment of fables from Nostradomus on down, to scare the crap out of the audience and get ratings by making people believe the end of the world was right around the corner. One segment talked about the Mayan calendar, and over a background of creepy and violent images, posed the question, “what’s going to happen on December 21, 2012? Will our technologies revolt against us? Will there be some kind of cataclysmic event, like an enormous meteor impact? Will nuclear war finally consume the Earth?”
I feel silly to admit it, but these ideas of imminent doom really stuck with me. Maybe I was just an impressionable kid who had seen too many Terminator movies. Or maybe there is something really appealing, even liberating, about apocalypse – at least for those of us living in a repressive, alienating, hierarchal social system such as zombie-capitalism. The specter of apocalypse seems to substitute in negative form for the positive vision of “social revolution” that radicals a century ago believed in – namely, a way out, an escape. Say what you will about the Rapture – at least it’s a rupture. Meaning, even if the fires of armageddon were a nightmare in the short run, at least the horror of the world we live in would come to an end, and then maybe something better would sprout from the ashes.
Almost immediately after I left home for college, these apocalyptic prophecies were resurrected from the nether-regions of my mind. On September 11th, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by hijacked airplanes. As I watched in my Freshman dormroom, I felt shock, sadness, but also a forbidden and shameful giddiness. The attack was a horrible, evil thing, and I feel awful for those who lost loved ones. But for me at age 18, the dramatic realness of that event was a sharp, sudden puncture to the bubbly propaganda image of 1990′s peaceful hegemonic America. It was the first time I ever realized that the world is not static – it is changing all the time. I had just never looked outside my plastic suburban cage to see the real world, in its full ugliness and beauty. September 11th, as hellish as it was, was for me that rupture – it jarred me into the awareness that there is an exit from the prison of mainstream America, if you’re willing to do a little digging.
I started to listen a bit more to my communist English teacher, be less defensive in response to voices critical of capitalism, and I set off down the rabbit hole. As Bush put the country on the warpath, I transformed myself from a video game junkie into a committed activist devoting every bit of energy I could to making revolution happen in this country, starting by organizing a national student movement against the war, I hoped. Read the rest of this entry »
I recently finished this fascinating book by C.L.R. James, detailing the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803. This was the first (and only?) time in history that an entire colony of African slaves revolted against their masters and succeeded in establishing independence. The magnitude of such a feat, considering all the European backlash and repression, from no less than Napoleon, is shocking to this day.
C.L.R. James is famous for being one of the most outspoken anti-colonial Marxist thinkers of the 20th Century. His political career started in his native Trinidad, took him through Trotskyism to the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which defined the Soviet Union as state capitalist. After being deported from the US, he spent his final years living in London and married to Selma James, the influential Marxist feminist and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign.
The merits of this book are obvious, it is a blow-by-blow account of how the slaves of Saint-Domingue became the free citizens of Haiti. For its profound social history, it has become required reading for post-colonial theorists, pan-Africanists and anti-capitalists of all stripes. The book is made more relevant by the ongoing injustices against the Haitian people by the US government and international NGOs, which have kept Haiti in a state of poverty and dependence. It is important to remind ourselves that the Haitians are proud people with a history of self-empowerment.
The flaws of the book are perhaps more interesting. James wants to paint Toussaint L’Ouverture in the same stripe as Vladimir Lenin, who James sees as actually a heroic revolutionary leader. From this error stem all the peculiar sections of the book where Toussaint’s character become the main focus. Most interestingly, James also criticizes some of Toussaint’s worst moves, correctly charging them as cowardly or counter-revolutionary, yet does not hesitate to explain them away by referring to Toussaint’s “genius.”
For me the bottom line is that humans instinctively desire freedom. We don’t need any authorities to create it for us, we either all create it together or we lack it. Generals like Toussaint tend to want to appeal to authority, whether Napoleon or the bourgeois Jacobins in Paris. It is a simple fact that people in power are more concerned about what other people with power think, rather than what the people think. Here lies Toussaint’s mistake, and the mistake of Leninism as well.
None of this should discourage the reader from reading and absorbing the social history behind one of the greatest popular democratic victories of all time. The point is to read history critically.
One such critical reader is my friend Daniel, who wrote the excellent review which follows, and which brings the contradictions of James’ work to life. [alex]
The Black Jacobins
C.L.R. James, 1938
Review by Daniel Meltzer.
This book was an excellent read. The strengths included breathtaking battle scenes, rousing rhetoric for freedom and against slavery, brilliant stories of liberation, and page-turning political intrigue. The weaknesses in the book come from self-defeating politics of discipline for the sake of discipline, and the heart-rending compromises that Toussaint L’Overture makes with people who see him and the republic he created as nothing more than slaves to be punished for their insubordination.
The utter brutality and injustice of slave ownership, and the barbaric treatment of slaves is scandalous. You will literally shake your head at the stories of how slaves were treated under the law in Haiti. A particularly unnerving example is the slavemasters filling a slave up with gunpowder and lighting a fuse, exploding the body of the slave, perhaps for punishment, but seemingly just as often because the slavemasters could.
The slaves began creating a series of low-level daily resistance to such a situation that is tragic and fascinating. “The majority of the slaves accomodated themselves to this unceasing brutality by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their masters. [...]Through the shirt of [a slave] a master can feel the potatoes which he denies he has stolen. They are not potatoes, he says, they are stones. He is undressed and the potatoes fall to the ground. “Eh! master. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes.” Read the rest of this entry »
A very useful article showing how the needs of people to be heard, to listen, and to have their voices count for something, are met through the General Assembly process of the Occupy movement. [alex]
A Therapist Talks About the Occupy Wall Street Events
Originally published by In Front and Center.
Last night I was talking with a group of activists/organizers from around the country about their impressions of the OWS movement. They were curious how the insights of a therapist and conflict facilitator schooled in Worldwork (which was developed by Arnold Mindell) might be useful to folks in the movement. After our teleconference, the activists encouraged me to write this.
First off, OWS is surrounded by a host of critics, from long-time social change organizers to mainstream media. (Much of the media criticism has been debriefed, so I’m focusing on internal criticisms I have heard.)
We can learn from critics in at least two ways. They can help us improve by pointing out what we genuinely need to change. Paradoxically, they may be criticizing us for something we actually need to do more congruently. Seen from this angle, critics may be highlighting strengths we don’t yet know we have.
Take one criticism: The General Assemblies lead to a kind of individualism of people wanting to be heard and contribute, unaware of the impact on the thousand people listening. In one recent GA, a small group of frustrated men hijacked the meeting, cursing and physically threatening the entire assembly. Even in less dramatic situations, most GA’s are filled with judgment, fracturing statements, and individuals repeating each other just so they can get themselves heard.
From one point of view, the criticism is valid. Yes, Western individualism can be very problematic and it is always a good time to learn to become communitarian. But perhaps there is also something beautiful about this individualism. People have the sense that they can finally speak up about the economy, that their voice is important, that they do not have to shut up and listen to talking heads who supposedly know better.
It can be useful to think about this in terms of roles. (Just as an actor plays many different roles, we all play different roles in our lives, sometimes without awareness.) Individuals wanting to be heard at a General Assembly might be in the role of someone who wants attention. “Pay attention to me! I have something to say!” For years our “democratic” system has ignored these voices. They have been excluded by money, a political system that merely offers citizens a chance to vote, and a financial system bent on inequality. But now this role is finding a public voice.
“To me, the struggle is a healing process. If the struggle itself is not a healing process, it’s not worth it! There’s something wrong with it. You struggle because you need to liberate yourself. If the struggle does not liberate you, if it doesnt carry that hope, why bother?”
On March 3 and 4, 2011, acclaimed radical feminist theorist Silvia Federici gave two talks in Philadelphia. On the 3rd, she spoke at the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore about her book, Caliban and the Witch, on “The True Nature of Capitalism.” That event literally overflowed with an audience eager to connect the pieces of the historical violence against women, and the ongoing crisis of capitalism.
The next night, on March 4, Silvia spoke at Studio 34 Yoga in West Philly to another packed crowd, on the subject of “Our Struggles, Ourselves: Rethinking Healing Work.” This was a more personal, and in many ways a much deeper talk, which touched on a multitude of subjects from capitalism’s attacks on humanity and the Earth, to how to build self-reproducing movements that avoid the mistakes of past generations.
Today I am posting the audio recording from that amazing event!
One of Silvia’s most powerful insights that continues to work its way through my brain was the distinction between “suffering,” which may be necessary in movement work, and “sacrifice,” which ultimately harms the movement because it harms us as individuals. She makes it clear that there should be no place for sacrifice in a movement for our liberation:
“What do we mean when we say sacrifice? Because, it’s very true, in many ways, when we say, ‘I’m not going to go into this career, and instead I’ll do the struggle. I’ll be poor, but eh!’ It may sound like sacrifice. But I would like to say that it’s not!
[Sacrifice] means that I’m taking away something vital from my life, something that I need, and then give it up for the struggle…
It doesn’t mean that the struggle does not make you suffer. But suffering is not sacrifice. It’s really different. There may be pain that comes too. But maybe it’s a pain that is better than the pain you would have if you didn’t struggle.
Maybe it’s a pain that prevents you from dying. Because we can die from numbness, irrelevance, wasting your life in triviality, despair, inertia, passivity, from giving up whatever creativity you have in yourself. So, sometimes it’s worth suffering not to see that in yourself. But i wouldn’t call that sacrifice.”
I am very proud to post this inspiring discussion, including the Question and Answer period, which we recorded in audio format. There are 2 video recordings which were also made, 1 of each of the talks, and I look forward to making those videos available in the near future. For now, please enjoy the audio!
This is a 2-hour recording, so you might want to download it and put it on your mp3 player or computer. There is a LOT here, so it may not be possible to get through it all in one sitting!
Also, here I’ll post some notes I’ve taken while re-listening to Silvia’s talk:
At 4 minutes – How can we build movements of resistance without destroying ourselves? How can we build self-reproducing movements?
5:15 – Thesis: We cannot liberate our individual selves without changing the world. At the same time, we cannot change the world without liberating ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »
As the “democracy uprising” spreads from Tunisia, to Egypt, and now to Wisconsin, it seems the whole world is starting to look a little more like Latin America. Social movements “south of the border” have been pumping out progressive change, and winning, for a couple decades now. This victorious and active Latin left goes back at least to the Venezuelan “Caracazo” of 1989, an uprising very similar to what we’ve been watching lately in Tahrir Square, Cairo. This was long before Chavez showed up on the scene, you may notice.
As the following interview of Ben Dangl highlights, leftist states such as Venezuela are not by themselves particularly revolutionary, and in fact often play a counter-revolutionary role. Democratic, participatory, grassroots social movements have always been the real engine of change. Political leaders can choose to follow those movements (“lead by obeying” in Zapatista language), or they can choose to be largely a facade for neoliberalism and reaction. The question is not the quality of the leader, but the quality of the movement holding that leader’s feet to the fire.
This is the reason President Obama has been largely a flop. As FDR said to labor organizers in 1932, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Real leadership comes from below.
Let’s hope we can follow the examples of Bolivia, Egypt, and Madison, WI and continue to work towards a global movement for justice. [alex]
Dancing with Dynamite in Latin America
by Nikolas Kozloff
Originally published by Huffington Post.
February 11, 2011.
Recently, I sat down with Benjamin Dangl, author of the recently released Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, for an interview.
NK: You’ve written an extremely ambitious book which takes the reader all across South America. One of the most impressive things about the work is that it is largely based on your own personal interviews with political participants at the grassroots as opposed to mere secondary research. How long did it take to research and what was the most fascinating country that you worked in?
BD: The book is the result of over eight years of research, traveling and interviewing across Latin America. This period of time coincided with the rise to power of most of the region’s current leftist leaders, and so the interviews I draw from in the book reflect a lot of the initial hope and subsequent disappointment among many social movements. The most interesting place I’ve worked in is definitely Bolivia, where the power of the grassroots movements is the strongest, and the impressive relationship between these movements and the government of Evo Morales is constantly changing.
NK: It can be tough in many ways to conduct research in South America. What prompted your interest in the subject matter and what were some of the obstacles that you encountered along the way?
BD: The main things that drew me to writing about politics and social issues in Latin America were the impact US foreign policy and corporate activity had on the region, and the hopeful and relatively under-reported social struggles going on. On the one hand, the connection to the US in the so-called war on drugs, and the corporate looting of natural resources, were all issues I thought more readers of English-based media in the US should know about. And the sophisticated organizing tactics, grassroots strategies and victories of social movements in the region were stories I wanted to help amplify and spread in the US, for the sake of awareness, solidarity and lessons to be learned. The main obstacle in doing this research is the actual cost of the traveling. I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs over the years, in construction, farming, and various kinds of manual labor, to pay for the plane tickets to get to Latin America in order to conduct research and writing on the ground.
NK: Here in the U.S., many on the left idealize Chávez and the like, yet you suggest that many ostensibly leftist regimes may sap the energy of today’s social movements. How has this happened, and could one say, therefore, that “Pink Tide” regimes may ultimately exert a counter-productive or even pernicious effect upon local politics in their respective countries?
BD: The way this relationship has played out is different in each country. Some Latin American presidents, upon taking power, have been more willing and able than others to collaborate with the social movements that help bring them into office. The relationships in Venezuela and Bolivia are probably the healthiest in this sense. In other countries, such as Brazil with President Lula and the Landless Farmers Movements, the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the indigenous movements there, the relationship has been more difficult, with the governments repressing, criminalizing and demobilizing movements when possible. Dancing with Dynamite looks at how this relationship, this dance, has played out in seven different countries. It tells a story beyond what the presidents and major politicians have been doing or saying, and focuses more on the history of the past decade from the perspective of the grassroots. And this view from below is something I think more people in the US left would benefit from focusing on, if anything to understand the full picture of what’s been driving these momentous changes over the past ten years.
NK: Of all the South American countries you describe, Bolivia seems to have the most revolutionary potential. Why is this so, and what new radical developments can we expect from Bolivia in the coming years?
Learning about the exploitation of the factory workers of China is important not only because, as Johann Hari describes, their brutish toil produces most of our cheap consumer goods in the West. As I argued in my recent interview (Part 2B: Social Limits and the Crisis), we have an even more important connection to these Chinese workers – the hope that their liberation offers the possibility of our own.
Organizing outside the Chinese Communist Party’s official union, workers have initiated a series of crippling strikes that repeatedly shut down factories, among other forms of rebellion. They are openly defying the totalitarian state-capitalist government of China, as well as the Western corporations whose factories they are closing. And they are winning. Wages are being increased by 40, 60, even 100% at some plants.
If the Chinese workers’ movement continues to disrupt the sweatshops pumping out our electronics and car parts, they could throw a wrench into the China->U.S. cheap goods conveyor belt that has carried global capitalist growth for more than a decade. The destruction of this global trade alliance will not only free the Chinese workers from the abominable conditions Hari describes, but potentially free the entire planet from an economic system hell-bent on relentless growth and plunder.
In short, capitalism relies on China’s absurdly cheap labor for its profit margins. This unsanctioned frenzy of Chinese labor organizing is striking a blow in the heart of the system. More power to ‘em! We should support these workers however possible. [alex]
by Johann Hari, August 6, 2010
At first, this isn’t going to sound like a good news story, never mind one of the most inspiring stories in the world today. But trust me: it is.
Yan Li spent his life tweaking tiny bolts, on a production line, for the gadgets that make our lives zing and bling. He might have pushed a crucial component of the laptop I am writing this article on, or the mobile phone that will interrupt your reading of it. He was a typical 27-year old worker at the gigantic Foxconn factory in Shenzen, Southern China, which manufactures i-Pads and Playstations and mobile phone batteries.
Li was known to the company by his ID number: F3839667. He stood at a whirring line all day, every day, making the same tiny mechanical motion with his wrist, for 20 pence an hour. According to his family, sometimes his shifts lasted for 24 hours; sometimes they stretched to 35. If he had tried to form a free trade union to change these practices, he would have been imprisoned for twelve years. On the night of May 27th, after yet another marathon-shift, Li dropped dead.
Deaths from overwork are so common in Chinese factories they have a word for it: guolaosi. China Daily estimates 600,000 people are killed this way every year, mostly making goods for us. Li had never experienced any health problems, his family says, until he started this work schedule; Foxconn say he died of asthma and his death had nothing to do with them. The night Li died, yet another Foxconn worker committed suicide – the tenth this year.
For two decades now, you and I have shopped until Chinese workers dropped. Business has bragged about the joys of the China Price. They have been less keen for us to see the Human Price. KYE Systems Corp run a typical factory in Donguan in southern mainland China, and one of their biggest clients is Microsoft – so in 2009 the US National Labour Committee sent Chinese investigators undercover there. On the first day a teenage worker whispered to them: “We are like prisoners here.”
The staff work and live in giant factory-cities that they almost never leave. Each room sleeps ten workers, and each dorm houses 5000. There are no showers; they are given a sponge to clean themselves with. A typical shift begins at 7.45am and ends at 10.55pm. Workers must report to their stations fifteen minutes ahead of schedule for a military-style drill: “Everybody, attention! Face left! Face right!” Once they begin, they are strictly forbidden from talking, listening to music, or going to the toilet. Anybody who breaks this rule is screamed at and made to clean the toilets as punishment. Then it’s back to the dorm.
It’s the human equivalent to battery farming. Read the rest of this entry »
Republished by Energy Bulletin, Countercurrents and OpEdNews.
The following exchange between Michael Carriere and Alex Knight occurred via email, July 2010. Alex Knight was questioned about the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway.
This is the final part of a four-part interview. Scroll to the bottom for links to the other sections.
Part 3. Life After Capitalism
MC: Moving forward, how would you ideally envision a post-capitalist world? And if capitalism manages to survive (as it has in the past), is there still room for real change?
AK: First let me repeat that even if my theory is right that capitalism is breaking down, it doesn’t suggest that we’ll automatically find ourselves living in a utopia soon. This crisis is an opportunity for us progressives but it is also an opportunity for right-wing forces. If the right seizes the initiative, I fear they could give rise to neo-fascism – a system in which freedoms are enclosed and violated for the purpose of restoring a mythical idea of national glory.
I think this threat is especially credible here in the United States, where in recent years we’ve seen the USA PATRIOT Act, the Supreme Court’s decision that corporations are “persons,” and the stripping of constitutional rights from those labeled “terrorists,” “enemy combatants”, as well as “illegals.” Arizona’s attempt to institute a racial profiling law and turn every police officer into an immigration official may be the face of fascism in America today. Angry whites joining together with the repressive forces of the state to terrorize a marginalized community, Latino immigrants. While we have a black president now, white supremacist sentiment remains widespread in this country, and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. So as we struggle for a better world we may also have to contend with increasing authoritarianism.
I should also state up front that I have no interest in “writing recipes for the cooks of the future.” I can’t prescribe the ideal post-capitalist world and I wouldn’t try. People will create solutions to the crises they face according to what makes most sense in their circumstances. In fact they’re already doing this. Yet, I would like to see your question addressed towards the public at large, and discussed in schools, workplaces, and communities. If we have an open conversation about what a better world would look like, this is where the best solutions will come from. Plus, the practice of imagination will give people a stronger investment in wanting the future to turn out better. So I’ll put forward some of my ideas for life beyond capitalism, in the hope that it spurs others to articulate their visions and initiate conversation on the world we want.
My personal vision has been shaped by my outrage over the two fundamental crises that capitalism has perpetrated: the ecological crisis and the social crisis. I see capitalism as a system of abuse. The system grows by exploiting people and the planet as means to extract profit, and by refusing to be responsible for the ecological and social trauma caused by its abuse. Therefore I believe any real solutions to our problems must be aligned to both ecological justice and social justice. If we privilege one over the other, we will only cause more harm. The planet must be healed, and our communities must be healed as well. I would propose these two goals as a starting point to the discussion.
How do we heal? What does healing look like? Let me expand from there.
Five Guideposts to a New World
I mentioned in response to the first question that I view freedom, democracy, justice, sustainability and love as guideposts that point towards a new world. This follows from what I call a common sense radical approach, because it is not about pulling vision for the future from some ideological playbook or dogma, but from lived experience. Rather than taking pre-formed ideas and trying to make reality fit that conceptual blueprint, ideas should spring from what makes sense on the ground. The five guideposts come from our common values. It doesn’t take an expert to understand them or put them into practice.
In the first section I described how freedom at its core is about self-determination. I said that defined this way it presents a radical challenge to capitalist society because it highlights the lack of power we have under capitalism. We do not have self-determination, and we cannot as long as huge corporations and corrupt politicians control our destinies.
I’ll add that access to land is fundamental to a meaningful definition of freedom. The group Take Back the Land has highlighted this through their work to move homeless and foreclosed families directly into vacant homes in Miami. Everyone needs access to land for the basic security of housing, but also for the ability to feed themselves. Without “food sovereignty,” or the power to provide for one’s own family, community or nation with healthy, culturally and ecologically appropriate food, freedom cannot exist. The best way to ensure that communities have food sovereignty is to ensure they have access to land.
Similarly, a deeper interpretation of democracy would emphasize participation by an individual or community in the decisions that affect them. For this definition I follow in the footsteps of Ella Baker, the mighty civil rights organizer who championed the idea of participatory democracy. With a lifelong focus on empowering ordinary people to solve their own problems, Ella Baker is known for saying “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” This was the philosophy of the black students who sat-in at lunch counters in the South to win their right to public accommodations. They didn’t wait for the law to change, or for adults to tell them to do it. The students recognized that society was wrong, and practiced non-violent civil disobedience , becoming empowered by their actions. Then with Ms. Baker’s support they formed the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organized poor blacks in Mississippi to demand their right to vote, passing on the torch of empowerment.
We need to be empowered to manage our own affairs on a large scale. In a participatory democracy, “we, the people” would run the show, not representatives who depend on corporate funding to get elected. “By the people, for the people, of the people” are great words. What if we actually put those words into action in the government, the economy, the media, and all the institutions that affect our lives? Institutions should obey the will of the people, rather than the people obeying the will of institutions. It can happen, but only through organization and active participation of the people as a whole. We must empower ourselves, not wait for someone else to do it. Read the rest of this entry »
Republished by Energy Bulletin, OpEdNews, and Countercurrents, and translated into Turkish for Hafif.org.
The following exchange between Michael Carriere and Alex Knight occurred via email, July 2010. Alex Knight was questioned about the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway.
This is the third part of a four-part interview. This part is a continuation of Alex’s response to the second question. Click here for Part 2A. Scroll to the bottom for links to the other sections.
Part 2B. Social Limits and the Crisis
MC: Capitalism has faced many moments of crisis over time. Is there something different about the present crisis? What makes the end of capitalism a possibility now?
AK: As I described in the last section, the current crisis can be understood as resulting from a massive collision between capitalism’s relentless need for growth and the world’s limits in capacity to sustain that growth. These limits to growth are both ecological and social. In this section I’ll discuss the concept of social limits to growth.
The Extraordinary Power of Social Movements
Social limits to growth function alongside the ecological limits but are drawn from a different source. By social limits we mean the inability, or unwillingness, of human communities, and humankind as a whole, to support the expansion of capitalism. This broadly includes all forms of resistance to capitalism, a resistance that has arguably been increasing around the world through innumerable forms of alternative lifestyles, refusal to cooperate, protest, and outright rebellion.
As a disclaimer it’s important to recognize that not all resistance is progressive. There are right-wing, fundamentalist, and undemocratic forces that also resist capitalism, for example the Taliban, or North Korea. These are not our allies. They do not share progressive values, we cannot condone their attacks on women, or on freedom more generally, and I don’t see anything to be gained by working with them. However it is important to recognize how these forces are aligned against capitalism and U.S. imperialism, in addition to being aware of the danger they present to our own hopes and dreams.
Progressive resistance, on the other hand, has always taken its strength from grassroots social movements. Silvia Federici writes about the immense and varied peasant movements in medieval Europe that fought for religious and sexual freedom, challenging both feudal lords and emerging capitalist elites. I like to think of these rebels as my European ancestors – they were just commoners but they rose up to fight for a better world. This is the nature of social movements. Ordinary folks, daring to pursue their deepest aspirations, interests and dreams, join together with others who share those desires, and thereby create something extraordinary. The magic exists in the joining-together. Isolated individuals lack the power to accomplish what a group can achieve.
We can appreciate this extraordinary power if we look at how social movements have transformed our lives. A century ago, millions of American workers joined the labor movement and won the 8-hour day, Social Security, and workplace safety. Regular folks carried forward the Civil Rights Movement and broke Southern segregation. The feminist and LGBT movements have transformed the way gender and sexuality are viewed all over the world. It’s hard to overstate how dramatically these and other social movements have improved society. While capitalism has invented ways to co-opt social movements and redirect them into outlets that do not challenge the system on a deep level (like the “non-profit industrial complex”), movements have remained alive and vibrant by empowering people to reach towards a different world.
Have social movements limited capitalist oppression recently? To answer this we need to learn the story of the Global Justice Movement.
The Global Justice Movement
David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist, wrote a remarkable essay called “The Shock of Victory” in which he looks at this movement that suddenly flared up at the turn of the millennium and seemed to disappear just as quickly. Although most Americans may not remember the Global Justice Movement, and those who participated in it may feel demoralized by the fact that capitalism still exists, Graeber points out that many of the movement’s ambitious goals were accomplished. Read the rest of this entry »