Jason Hickel makes an important point when he writes in his article over at Common Dreams that the Occupy movement has failed so far to capture the imagination of the Global South. Despite the international nature of the movement, the various occupations have been mostly concentrating their biggest efforts on local issues and the effects of the deterioration of the Western middle class. There’s of course nothing wrong with that per se, but eventually the movement will have to tackle the difficult issues of global inequality and poverty, including the environmental changes that are amplifying those issues, in order to be able to promote social justice on a global scale.
I would have to argue here that the only way to achieve lasting changes in global wealth and power distribution in the long run is for us in the West to wind down our consumer culture, and with it, the global trade structures that uphold it. We must realise that most of us living in the West are a part of the global 1% that is living comfortably on the expense of the other 99%. Hickel agrees when he writes that “instead of ‘developing’ the global South, we need to un-develop the West; we need to subvert and dismantle the flows of tribute that underpin Western affluence.” But this is, naturally, going to be a very long and gradual process, like any change on a cultural level is bound to be. There are, however, some things that we can do to decrease global inequality in the relatively short-term as well. Here, I list some of these things.
1. The very first thing we should address, I think, is the so-called intellectual property question. Intellectual property, that is patents, copyright and trademarks, has become one of the most important ways for global capital to integrate the Global South into its neo-colonialist system. Gene patents, in particular, are being used to steal the agricultural heritage of Global South peoples, as well as to place their farmers under debt slavery by forcibly selling them patented GMO seeds.¹ Medical patents are also used to deny the poor people of the Global South affordable generic drugs that could save millions of lives.
Discussion about intellectual property here in the West has been mostly revolving around the rights to the products of Western popular culture, which on a global scale is, let’s face it, a negligible issue. We who are critical of intellectual property rights should try to steer the discussion more towards actual matters of life and death. We should work to undermine the whole concept of intellectual property by showing how it’s being used to uphold massive global inequality and deprive people in the Global South of their right to self-determination and a decent livelihood. We should use these arguments to oppose any new international intellectual property treaties, such as ACTA, and also to demand a renegotiation of existing treaties, such as TRIPS.
Another way to undermine intellectual property monopolies is by civil disobedience. We should work meticulously to preserve and share information, in any form and by any means, disregarding any intellectual property rights that may be attached to it. Thus we’ll be able to create a more even distribution of information globally and start to dismantle the power structures inherent in the intellectual property regime. Here’s where we can put our beloved p2p-networks to genuinely beneficial use, not forgetting of course that many people in the Global South don’t have access to the Internet (although a growing number do).
2. The second important front of opposition is to the international “free trade” treaties. The only freedom these treaties provide is the freedom for Western corporations to extract cheap labour and natural resources from the Global South with impunity. We must demand a renegotiation of these treaties to allow the Global South nations to arrange their economies on their own terms. We can also organise boycotts against any corporations that engage in exploitative practices in the Global South.
On the side of the financial markets, we must engage in a full on war against the terrorist regime of the IMF. In this battle, we in Europe have a key position as we’re all at least indirectly partial to the schemes the IMF has concocted for the debtor nations within the EU. We should all in our own countries reject any “bailout” plans that involve the IMF, and also support the people of Greece and other debtor nations in their effort to throw out the IMF vultures once and for all. Such an action by the people is perfectly feasible, as Argentina’s experiences in the early 2000s showed. This would set an example for all the Global South nations that they don’t need to submit to the demands of fraudulent financial institutions such as the IMF and would also undermine the position of the IMF as a global player.
Furthermore, we must demand the cancellation of most, if not all of the debts the Global South nations owe to Western nations, banks and international institutions. These debts are a result of hundreds of years of extreme exploitation on the part of the West and have no moral basis whatsoever.²
3. We must also act against international weapons trade. The year that just ended provided many examples of how weapons imported from Western countries were used by totalitarian regimes in the Global South against their own people. Ideally, we should aim for a global ban on all export of weapons to any country, including “non-lethal” weapons and surveillance technology. The people of each exporting country can begin by demanding an export ban nationally. This would also cut down on the volume of global arms trade, thus making the world a safer place in the long run.
4. Finally, we should begin to forge more personal relationships with ordinary people in the Global South, not as a part of any “mission” or “aid program,” but as human beings of an equal standing. We must try to get rid of the idea of the Global South as “undeveloped” or “backwards.” As Hickel also points out, the notion that every nation should pursue Western living standards and consumer culture is a disastrous one, to say the least. On the contrary, we in the West should be following the example of the subsistence economies that still exist in the Global South on how to live well outside the capitalist system.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that we cannot fight the fights of the people in the Global South for them. Local problems must be solved locally. We can of course show solidarity and provide help in areas where we have something genuinely valuable to offer, such as in information technology issues. In the end, however, I think the old adage of “think globally, act locally” is still relevant here.
¹ Vandana Shiva has discussed these issues in length. See eg. the book Protect or Plunder – Understanding Intellectual Property Rights (2001).
² See the pages of The Committee for the Cancellation of the Third World Debt (CADTM) for more information.