To a (Social Democratic) Youth

It is a pleasure to have the chance to speak to you. I suspect that there is a lot that we share. As the young activists of the NDP, you are a part of this party because you have some progressive ideals. If you just wanted a taste of power, you would have joined the Liberals. If you had regressive ideals, you would have joined the Tories. But you are here, and to me that suggests that you want a better world. You want a world where equality is a shared value and a norm, where solidarity takes precedence over competition and greed. As democrats, you want a world where individual rights and freedoms are protected. So do I.

As youth, you have probably had to listen to all kinds of paternalism from the older generation. They pat us on the head and tell us how wonderful it is that we are idealistic now, but that we’ll grow out of it. They say that because it has been their own experience.

When older people tell us that we will become more realistic when we get older, they are actually saying that as we get older, our investment in the system grows. We will need to earn a living somehow; we will have less time to dedicate to political life; and, on an uglier note, we may receive privileges-fruits of inequality-that we become so attached to that we are willing to forsake our ideals in order to avoid confronting that the system is an unjust one.

What these older people are actually saying is that the system is far more resilient than we think it is. That our vision of how we are going to change the world will come up against the power of that system, and the power of that system will win. It happens over and over again, and this presents us with a real dilemma. Do we give up on trying to change the world? I believe that we have no right to give up. There are millions of people struggling in far more adverse circumstances than we, there are tens of thousands of people dying every day of war and hunger that is totally gratuitous, and for us to give up on all of them would be wrong. The only choice left is for us to retain our ideals, but adjust our strategies of how we are going to change the world. We should have ideals, we should struggle for justice, but we must also be realistic about how power works, where power lies, and what power can do to us. That’s what I want to talk about today. I want to appeal to you to understand power realistically and struggle against it with your ideals intact.

Where is the power?

I am going to describe an electoral strategy for social change-tell me if it matches what you have in your mind.

The government makes decisions and sets agendas. It is the big spender-it chooses whether to favour private or public interests. It decides whether money is to be spent on military or corporate subsidies or on social welfare and public investment. It decides whether the poor or wealthy will bear the tax burden. So, the task of people serious about social change is to wrest control of government institutions away from the wealthy and powerful and use them in the public interest. The electoral system provides a way of doing that. Get good, idealistic people to run for office; support them while they are in office; and they will enact a progressive platform.

If this is how we believe the world works, the older generation is right: we are destined to lose, and be disillusioned, and give up on our ideals. That’s because, while the government is powerful, it is not the only, perhaps not even the main, source of power. Decisions over investment, employment, over where and how – and whether-people work, over what and how people consume-these are not made by governments, or at least not by governments alone. They are made by capitalists and their corporations who can threaten to pick up and move if governments don’t fulfill their agendas. The tremendous disparity in wealth infiltrates everything: the wealthy own the mainstream media, and so control what information is presented. Capital flight is a sanction that most governments simply cannot afford to gamble with. Politicians depend on the wealthy to finance their campaigns. All this is the power of wealth, of capital. Progressive regimes that manage to get elected immediately face the wrath of the wealthy, at which point most all of them back down. Lucio Gutierrez, in Ecuador, was elected on a popular platform and immediately backed down after threats from the US, and interestingly, from Colombia. Now the indigenous, peasant, and worker’s movements that helped him get elected are preparing to mobilize against him. But we don’t need to go to Ecuador to see such an example. We have one right here in Ontario-many progressives disagree about how much Bob Rae could have done, but everyone agrees that his government faced threats of capital flight and all the venom the mainstream media could find.

Is it possible to deal with capital flight? Is there such a thing as counter-power to capital? Counter-power lies in popular mobilization and organization. In worker’s unions, in social movements, in alternative social networks and institutions that can reach people and create communities that are resilient and independent. If a progressive government is going to be able to survive the wrath of the wealthy, it has to be very popular, and it has to count on the power of organized people. This means there has to be some kind of relationship between social movements (the only source of power that can act as a counterweight to wealth) and elected politicians. But the nature of that relationship has been a source of tremendous weakness in the past, and we have to come to grips with it.

Power versus Ideals?

The example of Ecuador is quite telling. The national indigenous organization, CONAIE, wrote a very strong communique on August 6, saying:

“The government has betrayed the mandate given to it by the Ecuadorian people in the last elections. This mandate envisioned the defense of national sovereignty, of natural resources, the reactivation of the economy (aparato productivo) with an eye towards equity, and a commitment to peace. Instead, during these last six months, the government of Lucio Gutiérrez has maintained a position contrary to the national interest by signing a Letter of Intent with the International Monetary Fund…”

They are breaking off relations with Gutierrez’s government.

One of the most incredible movements in the world is the Movimento Sem Terra, the Landless Peasant’s Movement in Brazil. A lot of folks here are impressed with the Worker’s Party or PT, Lula’s government, with its history of participatory municipal budgets and so on. But the MST is a movement that has won land for 300,000 families by direct action-style occupations, followed by negotiation. They have education and literacy programs. They recently met with Lula and made some demands for agrarian reform. Lula put on an MST hat and shook hands with their leaders. But no one really knows what is going to happen in Brazil. What we do know is that Lula’s government has gone out of its way to placate the IMF and the World Bank and to try to stave off capital flight-enacting a pension ‘reform’, avoiding any sweeping social changes. Meanwhile in the countryside the big landowners are arming militias and trying to provoke the MST to violence. The MST was trying to tell Lula that they will mobilize to defend an agrarian reform program-he could count on them to fight the backlash of capital if he made changes that were in the interests of the landless. But Lula must also fear what capital flight can do in a very poor, very divided society. He must fear what the media can do to his presidency. And something else, too: there are still memories of a dictatorship, installed in 1964, with US help. Progressive leaders in the poor countries have reason to fear for their lives. That’s not so true here, but the point is that Lula-the President of Brazil– is in a position where he has to try to serve two masters.

Why such an uneasy relationship between movements and politicians? It isn’t just the power of capital. Randy Shaw from San Francisco writes in his ‘Activist Handbook’:

“The typical characteristics of the contemporary ‘progressive’ officeholder explain much of the problem. The career path for such individuals no longer begins with years of service fighting for change at the grassroots level; instead one becomes an aide to a legislator, a job that provides access to funders and puts the aspirant in the position to be tapped for electoral openings. The modern ‘progressive’ official, with rare exception, is not a product of a grassroots or democratic nominating process and views politics as a career vehicle rather than a means for redressing social and economic injustice. He or she is not ideologically driven, takes pride in ‘pragmatic’ problem solving, values personal loyalty over ideological consistency, and views social change activists as enemies because they place their constituency’s interests ahead of the official’s political needs…

“Many elected officials at the local level receive low salaries, making them receptive to the often luxurious fundraising events that are a regular part of political business. Like most other people, elected officials are awed by power and wealth. They don’t go home and report ‘I met with some poor people from the Tenderloin, and it was exciting’; they boast: ‘I met with the president of the Bank of America!’…

“Although progressive-identified officeholders have helped facilitate social change, many of these officials, considered allies, end up suppressing activists’ as effectively as clearly labeled enemies do. Having helped elect these officials, progressive constituencies feel loyalty toward them, show reluctance to hold them accountable for their campaign commitments, and hesitate to attack them for acts the constituency would strongly oppose if undertaken by conservative politicians. Concerns over maintaining access, appearing “reasonable”, and fulfilling the personal ambitions of organizational leaders contribute to this pattern of nonaccountability.”

Is it possible to go too far in the opposite direction? Perhaps. Before the recent elections in Argentina, many in the social movements were campaigning for abstention. They thought that a high abstention rate would delegitimate the system, and much of what’s amazing about the Argentinian movement-the neighbourhood assemblies, the piqueteros, the occupied factories, the ‘barter’ markets-has existed completely outside of the electoral and political system. In the event, most people voted-but they voted for the lesser evil. The newspapers were quick to proclaim the irrelevance of the social movements for calling for abstention in the first place, but the movements are still going strong. They are, however, wondering about what the relationship between movement and elections should be. A friend, Ezequiel Adamovsky, said: “maybe a naïve rejection of electoral politics is just as bad as a naïve acceptance of it.”

Why You Must be Anti-Imperialists

The examples I’ve been giving are from Latin America. But there are certain critiques of social movements themselves that apply here in North America that don’t apply in the poor countries. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s analysis is that the labour unions in North America don’t realize that elites are no longer interested in negotiating, but want to eradicate social opposition. The unions are shadow boxing, elites are knife-fighting-I won’t get into that because OCAP can speak for itself, far better than I could.

But what I want to say about movements here is something else. That is, that we are part of an empire now, and there’s no point using any other word. The other side talks openly about it. SR Rosen wrote in Harvard Magazine:
“A political unit that has overwhelming superiority in military power, and uses that power to influence the internal behaviour of other states, is called an empire. Because the United States does not seek to control territory or govern the overseas citizens of the empire, we are an indirect empire, to be sure, but an empire nonetheless. If this is correct, our goal is not combating a rival, but maintaining our imperial position, and maintaining imperial order.”
“[I]mperial strategy focuses on preventing the emergence of powerful, hostile challengers to the empire: by war if necessary, but by imperial assimilation if possible” (S R Rosen, “The Future of War and the American Military”, Harvard Magazine, May-June 2002)

There are insights to be learned about empire from the last time around. Think of Cecil Rhodes, the famous imperialist from the 19th century.

“I was in the West End of London yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for “bread!” “bread!” and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism… my cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.” (This in turn is quoted in VI Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1978 [1917]), pg. 75).

From William Robinson’s ‘Promoting Polyarchy’:

“The surpluses syphoned out of the underdeveloped regions and into the centers of the world economy, via direct mechanisms such as colonial plunder and a host of indirect mechanisms such as unequal exchange, would ameliorate in the advanced countries social contradictions germane to capital accumulation. The extraction of surpluses from the peripheral to the center regions of the world system, and the redistribution of these surpluses in the center countries via state policies, led to the emergence of a huge ‘middle class’ in the developed countries… averted… civil wars… and provided the social conditions for relatively stable… political systems. It is not without irony that some baptized as ‘democratic capitalism’ this particular social structure of accumulation that emerged in the center countries on the basis of state intervention in the free market and surplus flows from peripheral to center regions to sustain a high level of development. It was, after all, these two factors that provided the conditions for relatively stable ‘democracy’ in the centers of world capitalism. It is no coincidence that the enfranchisement of the propertyless, the poor, and the illiterate in the centers of world capitalism occurred in the final decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century – precisely as modern colonialism and imperialism were taking hold. The per capita income ratio between rich and poor countries was only 1:2 in the year 1900. Six decades later it was 1:30.”

Add to that the role of exploited, un-unionized, un-organized immigrant labour and the fact that the whole system in North America is based on stolen land whose inhabitants were murdered and driven out, and what you have is a ‘compromise’ between the capital and labour that is based on colonization and imperialism. This isn’t to say that workers shouldn’t fight for their rights or that we shouldn’t fight for democracy. But they must also have solidarity with the struggles of immigrants, of indigenous, of people in the colonized countries, of ‘the third world at home’. Rhodes was saying that ‘if you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists’. I would say ‘if you want social justice, you must become anti-imperialists.’ If you don’t want equality based on someone else’s misery, you must get ready to struggle against the most powerful and comprehensive empire the world has ever seen. You must figure out how to communicate in spite of mainstream media disinformation; how to relate to, and organize with, social movements to neutralize the power of capital; and how to keep the exercise of power accountable and democratic at every stage. How to do that?

Staying At the Edge

Let’s end back in Latin America. If Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador was elected and then betrayed his constituency, and Lula in Brazil was elected and may or may not betray his constituency, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was elected and has done a fair amount for his constituency. Land reform is taking place. The state oil company- of the country’s most important industry-has been shaken up and taken off the track to privatization. New laws protecting small fishers, media reform, constitutional change breaking the monopoly of the two tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee parties have all been enacted. And capital has fought back, with a great deal of wrath. A military coup, supported by the US, took place last year and lasted about 24 hours. A phony ‘national strike’ was set up in December 2002-Feb 2003 to try to oust Chavez by destroying the economy. It collapsed. Now elites are trying to use the constitution’s recall provisions, combined with nasty and slanderous media campaigns, to oust the government. At every stage resistance has come from popular mobilization. It was popular mobilization that reversed the coup in April 2002 and brought attention to the media’s role. It was popular mobilization that began to occupy factories and undermine the strike, especially at the oil company, in December. It is the Bolivarian circles and community media that are reaching the poor communities and creating communities that can resist the media onslaught.

It has been a struggle. At every moment Venezuela’s government is at the edge. A US intervention could come at any time. Colombian paramilitaries have made incursions into Venezuelan territory. Another coup, another strike, continuous media attacks-all could come because of the reforms the Chavez government is making. That kind of repression is to be expected, and prepared for, if we are serious about social change. If a government started making very serious reforms, and took as strong an anti-imperialist stance as the Chavez government (which hasn’t allowed colonized Iraq into OPEC, which opposed the war in Afghanistan, which has good relations with Cuba the ‘rogue state’, which has in the preamble its constitution a recognition of the genocide against the indigenous of Venezuela), even here in Canada, it would face all kinds of attacks as well. And if you want to be a part of a movement that is going to make change, you have to think of strategies to deal with this.

It can be done. It has to be done. There is no need to trade in our ideals for a ‘realism’ that accepts all the horrors of this world. Instead, keep our ideals, be realistic about what we’re facing, and fight.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.