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Baby Steps to a Global Revolution?

Bridging the gap between the generations, veteran feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich and A16 organizer Juliette Beck compare notes about the "new activism": its goals, problems and future.
 
 
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Seattle. A16. The WTO. The World Bank and the IMF. The protests against transnational corporate power have begun to sink in. A year ago, a mass movement that raised such issues as corporate accountability and Third World debt seemed an impossibility. But since the shutdown of the World Trade Organization meetings in November and the protests against international lending institutions in Washington, DC, it has become obvious that Americans -- particularly young Americans -- are not as apolitical as people have tended to think. A movement of young activists is afoot. And their target is not one politician or businessman, but an entire system of international capital that they insist is creating an intolerable corporate culture, strangling democratic freedoms and further impoverishing countries of the Third World.

Barbara Ehrenreich and Juliette Beck are activists separated by a generation, but unusually like-minded in political point of view. Ehrenreich, who came of age during the women's movement, is one of the country's most outspoken and respected writers on feminist and labor issues. She is an essayist and columnist for Time, The Nation, Mother Jones and Harper's and is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War." Juliette Beck, 27, is economic rights coordinator for Global Exchange, an international human rights group based in San Francisco. Since helping to organize the Seattle demonstrations and the World Bank-IMF protests, she has become one of the most visible leaders of the movement, profiled in The New Yorker, named among the "New Radicals" in Time magazine and invited to speak on public TV and radio. On April 26, Ehrenreich and Beck met at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to discuss the new activism: its origins, goals, problems and possible future.

If anti-corporate globalism is becoming the political movement of our time, why is that so? What passions have corporate culture and Third World labor issues activated in young Americans?

JB: I think what corporate America has imposed on people is a disconnect from reality, from the environment, from production processes. And so when young people start to connect these issues, it also connects them to the people who are making their clothes, to the people who are picking their food. They realize the corporations have created a very unjust and inhumane system, which brings people into action, quite literally. People realize that their clothes are made by girls in sweatshops who didn't have the opportunity to go to school as they are, and they know that's just morally wrong. They want to do something about it. The corporate globalization movement is connecting movements that have traditionally been more disconnected, such as the environment, labor and human rights movements. It is connecting people to the world around them, to the world we live in.

Why is the new activism focused on global rather than local or domestic concerns?

BE: It's been a long time that some of us have been saying capitalism is international and that the activism has to get international. You cannot organize anymore -- whether it's working-class organizing or any constituency -- without an understanding of globalization. And you’re just a fool if think you can attack your own issues within the nation state only. I think much of the activism today comes out our unique superpower situation. Plus, I never would have said this in the '60s -- because it sounds too melodramatic -- but I think we are becoming a police state. I used to cringe when people would talk like that, but now I don't think there's any question of it. The extant of incarceration, the targeting against minorities and teenagers and the attempts to outlaw groups indicates this. We're up against a highly militarized police and I don't think there's any parallel in the world.

Do you think the battle against globalization supports a police state mentality in the U.S.?

JB: Absolutely. The only way these free trade agreements have been able to be perpetuated and the only way to prevent citizen uprisings against globalization is through military force. Here in the United States, as some people have begun to challenge the system of corporate globalization, we are experiencing an attack on our First Amendment rights. And it's going to be our challenge to make people aware of the connection between issues of justice and human rights abuses. The fight against police brutality and the fight against the World Trade Organization are one in the same. They go hand in hand because we're all going to be subject to the same police state as we fight corporate globalism. Some of our friends from the global south, from the Philippines and El Salvador, watched the maneuvering of the police and their tactics in DC and they said, "Well, this is really familiar. Now we can see who trains our police."

One of the notable parts of the new activism is its organizational style, particularly activists' preference for consensual decision-making. Where does this non-hierarchical organizational style come from?

JB: It's a very conscious decision by people who have been involved in activism for a long time in the nuclear, environmental and other movements. Others have used consensus process in the past, but not very effectively. Yet they know it strengthens power and is an alternative to making top-down, hierarchical decisions, which of course is what we're fighting against. I was enlightened to the consensus process by a group here in Berkeley called Art and Revolution Collective. Through them, I realized the power and utility of consensus process in empowering every single person in a group to be an organizer. Previously, what I found in my organizing is that when I had to go sleep or leave work everything stopped. Or when I got sick the campaign stopped because it was so much focused on one person. Well, with the consensus process, everyone is committed, everyone is engaged and work can continue long past that one person. The action is self-perpetuating through this model. It's already achieved great success in that the mass actions we've organized in Seattle and Washington, DC have been decentralized and yet strategically connected. We shut down the World Trade Organization meeting this way.

BE: There's a book by Barbara Epstein about nonviolent direct action in the '70s and '80s. She connects this style of non-hierarchical decision-making to feminism. But I don't know how much -- from her book and from my own experience -- this style is linked in this way. I think it is more a reaction to anarchism. And I mean anarchism in the sense of chaos, confusion. I was just writing a column on this for The Progressive about styles of protest and what I noted was that in the '60s it was much more common that a demonstration would be announced and you just showed up. Then god knows what would happen. You might get in the line of fire and get arrested. Or you might run fast. And the idea of being organized, but not in top-down way, was hardly mentioned.

Are many of the new activists the progeny of former '60s radicals and activists? Are we seeing a generational changing of arms?

JB: I come from a totally apolitical family. The people in my family are very opinionated but we didn't talk much about politics around the table. It wasn't until I got to Berkeley, right here on this campus, that I started to be concerned about global issues. I think that people experience epiphanies in many different ways. Some find out about corporate subterfuge through their parents, some through friendships; others got turned on to environmental issues in college. They learned about recycling in college and got on the path there.

What about the fact that most activists and protesters are middle class and white as well as in college, where they are benefiting directly from the wealth of corporations? How do young activists view this contradiction?

BE: I was just at the University of Oregon last week, which gets lots of money from Phil Knight of Nike. The students there are on to corporate politics in the university and they're challenging it. You know, something similar occurred in the '60s. You often had privileged young people looking at the painful underside of that privilege. During that time there was more focus on victims of military imperialism rather than corporate globalism, but the instinct was similar.

JB: One of the main groups that has come about in the last year is the Students Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC), which started at Yale University last fall and now has a couple hundred chapters across the country. STARC was initially founded to get their colleges to pull out of irresponsible investments, to put a social and environmental screen on endowment and other funds. So I think that students are getting really sophisticated in understanding that their institutions are part of the problem and that they're an easy target. The reason students got involved in sweatshop issues is because they've been able to go back to their campuses and challenge their administrations around issues of code of conduct, asking, for example, where the clothes that their university bookstore sells are coming from.

Many women are serving as visible leaders in the mobilization for global justice. In addition to you, Hillary McQuie of the Direct Action Network and Njooki Njoroge Njehn of 50 Years Is Enough have received media attention. Yet many report that the movement is male-dominated. Is gender an important issue?

JB: I think organizing people are very sensitive to gender issues, and not just gender but power relationships as well. The good facilitators always say: "Who hasn't spoken yet? Who hasn't voiced their opinion yet?" I think that as far as women getting the spotlight and being conscious of it, it's different. I see myself as doing work I'm committed to doing and I'm glad that I'm a woman and have an opportunity to inspire people. It's not a male-dominated movement. But I think it's been a breath of fresh air that there are these women in the movement. We've really shied away from the idea that there are leaders at all here.

BE: I think the issue "I'm a woman" doesn't have to be so self-conscious all the time. That, to me, is great. It makes me feel good that young woman are comfortable with, well I won't say, yes, I will say -- leadership -- and you [JB] can deny it. That's just great. If you want to be strictly gendered when looking at the movement, there is something to say. So much of the global assembly line is worked by women, by teenage girls. So there is a sisterhood and solidarity-type connection if you want that.

The mainstream press has made much of the presence of anarchists at Seattle and A16. Who are they? And, historically speaking, why do you think anarchism might be flourishing now? Is it a reaction to the economic forces of the Information Revolution, the demise of communism in Russia or the petering out of socialism in Western Europe?

BE: I can't really answer your whole theoretical question, but one thing that did concern and upset me about Seattle was the trashing of the young anarchists who broke windows. I wasn't in Seattle, unfortunately, but I did receive endless e-mail discussions, most of which were very scolding and parental and objecting in tone about the anarchists. In classical terms, something like direct action work is anarchist, with a capital A. But the reaction to the anar-kids is another thing. It worried me because I didn't see breaking windows as such a big deal. But it did make me wonder: Are we getting a little too ritualized with this nonviolence civil disobedience?

What do you mean by ritualized?

BE: The reason I ask this is because I think that nonviolent civil disobedience is not potentially open to everybody. First of all, a lot of people don't want to get arrested. The direct action style can become a kind of subcultural thing. You have to attend the trainings, you have to be part of a kind of community. The people practicing direct action tend to be white and in terms of class, well, I'm not sure. On the other hand, there have been very creative things at the protests. I love the carnivalesque aspects and I think that's something we need a lot more of in protests: costumes, dancers, etc. But I think this business of every demonstration becoming a kind of professionalized thing, it's got to be rethought, if for no other reason than it no longer works to control police violence. And that was part of the original thinkingof nonviolent direct action -- that if you were civil enough and predictable enough, there would not be so many head-bashings and sprains.

What do you offer as an alternative?

BE: I'm saying what we need is some real creativity because I don't like the idea that you can't participate in a lot of things unless you've gone through extensive training, unless you're a vegan and so on. I would like to feel that there was the kind of openness -- an openness to lots of groups of people and lots of possibilities for individual creativity. I would like the activism to be not quite so doctrinaire. It seems wrong that if someone throws a rock everybody freaks.

JB: In regard to what you said about creativity, that's why we have so much emphasis on art. I think puppets are getting as much play as anything else. It's important to connect up creative art with creative politics, embrace the spirit of global music, techno, cutting-edge visual art. What we need is a new culture. A whole new culture.

As far as anarchism is concerned, I think the focus on anarchism has been over-sensationalized. The term is so loaded that it's hard to have a discussion about what anarchy is. Because Direct Action Network is organizing around anarchist practices and principles, it's easy to brand them as fringe. So we're having, frankly, problems with terminology in the movement right now. The mainstream media has also erroneously labeled us as flat-earthers and protectionists. They say we want to take people back to the Dark Ages and that we're opposed to globalization. On the contrary, we are for globalization -- but a form of globalization that is grassroots and non-exploitative. In terms of protection, we're fighting to protect water and the land and natural resources that are being used up by corporations. Our interest is to protect human rights and workers rights from corporate greed. The way the terms anarchism and protectionism are being used is clouding the issues.

Is there an effort to link American activists with international organizations waging similar campaigns against corporate power?

JB: Well, people around the world have been fighting against the World Bank and the IMF for decades. Thousands of people have taken to the streets against IMF policies in Kenya and the Middle East. So the fact that we had thousands of people taking to the streets to protest the World Bank and the IMF in the U.S. is nothing new in a global context, it's just the first time it happened here. Frankly, we're playing catch-up to the rest of the world. As far as linking organizations, the movement is incredibly decentralized. Yet we can remain decentralized and be strong because of the Internet. A lot of the solidarity work that's being done right now is around Chiapas and the Zapatistas. The revolution that started on the day NAFTA went into effect became known because the shot was heard around the Web. Because the Zapatistas communicate through the Internet, people are instantly connected to them.

BE: It doesn't bother you that the Zapatistas are violent -- that their movement started with guns?

JB: The question is: If what we're experiencing is the baby steps of a global revolution against corporate greed and unmitigated corporate power, can it be peaceful? I'm for nonviolence training and a peaceful movement here in the United States. I am working for a movement of protesters that can confront corporate power in a meaningful, deliberate way without taking up arms.

BE: Yet, on one level, violence is unavoidable. All revolutions to date have been militarized and what that leads to is hierarchy. No one's fought a non-hierarchical war. Revolutions tends to lead to hierarchy and then you’re stuck with it: swaggering men in fatigues. Look at the Sandanistas. We also have to realize that some people are so pissed off -- the Maya Indians -- that they are going to take up guns and we're going to have to think through that real hard and be respectful. But I'm sure your generation is never going to get into glamorizing the revolutionary violence as many did in my day. The other thing, though, is that pacifists can be more peaceable because corporations are not quite as well armed as nation states. There are many things you can do about corporations. We have consumer power. We have workers inside them. We have so many kinds of access to corporation that we don't have to the nation state.

Can a large group of people really be mobilized to protest corporate power?

BE: The problem with attacking corporations, however we do it, is that they have such a grip on people's imaginations and fantasies and desires. I think of those beautiful Nike commercials, which are powerful and even feminist. So I wonder how can you go about breaking the imaginative and fantasy grip of a consumer in a corporate consumer culture without looking like sourpusses and anti-aesthetics?

JB: Well, it's actually quite easy to do that because the corporations are so dependent on image and brand name. All you have to do is take the swoosh and put a cross through it and people know what that means in regard to Nike's sweatshop practices. We launched an advertising campaign against the Gap. They have an ad slogan that says "Everybody in Leather," "Everybody in Khakis," etc. So our campaign said, "Everybody in Sweatshops" with a picture of a garment worker underneath. I think we can use corporations' advertising and brand name to turn their tactics on their head and show the darker side of corporate activities. Because they spend so much time on advertising and their image, it makes them very vulnerable.

At Global Exchange, we're launching a campaign around fair trade coffee to get students and their universities to only buy coffee grown and harvested in fair trade conditions. It's taken off like gangbusters. We've had a huge victory with Starbucks. Before we even kicked off our campaign, Starbucks agreed to the demands of carrying fair trade coffee in their stores. It's a victory for farmers; it's going to triple their income.

Marc Cooper recently wrote in the LA Weekly that it's not clear that A16 strengthened the fledgling alliance between labor and the blue-green coalition that emerged after Seattle. How do you plan to keep the alliances that were formed out of Seattle and Washington together?

JB: Well, we have to pick the issues that unite us. There will definitely be a fair trade coalition following up on our work in Seattle and DC. We are launching a campaign to "shrink or sink the World Trade Organization." Right now it's just been a process of getting to know one another, building trust, and when that happens anything is possible in terms of connecting people and embarking on their own strains and coming together in a river.

What about the Democratic National Convention in August? If the emphasis is on trade issues and labor supports Gore, activist efforts could make the Democrats look bad. Protests could backfire much the way they did in Chicago in 1968.

JB: Yeah, it's realpolitik. There are discussions right now about finding common targets during the Democratic National Convention. Labor unions might be challenging corporations around contract battles, so there might be ways to focus attention and energy on labor struggles as a way to stay unified.

I think the challenge is going to be holding things together. Coming up with coherent messages about why we're at the Convention, why we're protesting and then defining our issues in a way so that the media does not label us as a bunch of crazies. I hope the theme that people will latch onto -- which has been the theme for all of our mobilizations to date -- is democracy. When we talk about building global democratic institutions, we have to look at the sorry state of our own democracy. What kind of foundation have we built here? Do we need to think the whole two party/corporate one-party system over and demand fundamental reforms in the U.S. before we say we can fix the problems in the global system? At the Convention, we will connect the question of democracy to the issue of campaign finance reform, healthcare, education. We will try to shape the spin to make it clear that people are protesting what's corrupt and wrong with our current government. This movement may look diverse and noisy and confusing, but that's what democracy looks like.

Is preventing China's entrance into the World Trade Organization still a top priority, should it remain an issue by the time of the Convention?

JB: Yes, it is. It is crucial if we’re going to put the nail in the coffin of the free trade agenda. The China battle is pivotal and like every trade battle it's the corporations versus the people, because the agreement is not in the interest of working people in China, the United States or any place around the world. I had hoped that since we're on the fast track -- stymieing the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, shutting down the WTO -- that we would have won a new type of trade policy in the United States by now. Americans are demanding this at the polls. They want labor and environmental protection in the corporate and trade agreements, and it's time to do that. If we lose over the China agreement, we'll lose a lot of the momentum.

What do you think about Ralph Nader?

JB: I think we have to do work on his campaign and make sure that we get the 5 percent. It's a real, achievable, strategic goal to get the Green Party funded. I support the organizing around the campaign. Building a third party in this country is essential to creating democracy.

BE: Despite my friend Katha Pollitt's attack on him in The Nation, I have offered to do whatever I can for the campaign -- anything except raising money.

Are you surprised by the new activism? For the last 20 years, progressives have stayed in their armchairs, occasionally giving a donation or signing a petition, but now a lot of young people are getting out there to march and protest. Why do you think this is happening?

BE: What surprises me more than the activism are the issues raised by the activism. Third World debt and trade issues are complicated. But these complicated issues have been made accessible to perhaps millions of people through activism, which is amazing. To me, what it deeply encouraging as a writer is that a lot of patient work -- not done by me in this case, but by people speaking in church basements over the years about the World Bank and other international issues -- has had an effect.

JB: We're evolving so quickly. I did not expect this to come out of Seattle. I expected to go on vacation this summer, not to plan the next step of the revolution. One of the things I've always said is that activism is not an extracurricular activity. It's a way of life. You have to be vigilant and an active participant in democracy or we get what we've got now: a hypocrisy of democracy. The whole system is out of whack and imbalanced. Corporations are in the driver’s seat, writing the rules of the world economy, which will impact everyone on earth. And so we need to democratize economic decision-making, so that it's not just free-market economists who are making the policies that effect everyone on the planet.