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Archive for the ‘poverty’ Category

 

This short documentary shows a side of Greece that we don’t get in the news. In Athens, there are currently dozens of neighbourhood assemblies that have started organising their local affairs amongst themselves on the basis of mutual aid, outside of both the market and the state. Notwithstanding the tragic effects of the ongoing debt crisis on the Greek people, it’s good to keep in mind the various other connotations of the Greek word krisis: decision, choice, turning point. A crisis is a situation that forces one to leave the comfort zone, look upon one’s situation critically and make assessments on what’s actually important in life. This applies to individuals and communities alike. If the Greek people can keep these local institutions going even after the national economy improves, I think they’ll be better off when the next crisis hits than us here in the complacent North.

This film is a part of the upcoming DVD Our Present is Your Future from ReelNews.

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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.

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This is a speech given in 2008 by Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s most prominent environmental activists who has specialised on issues of food and water security. Here, she argues that the commodification of food and industrial food production have contributed to increasing poverty, malnutrition and outright famine in the third world. By dumping cheap, subsidised agricultural produce into the third world countries and by stealing their traditional crop varieties using intellectual property rights, Western corporations have practically destroyed whole subsistence economies in many parts of the world.

This commodification is of course not just a problem of the third world. Also here in the West, our food system has become inherently diseased with obesity and various food-related illnesses running rampant while millions of animals are tortured horribly in the food factories on a daily basis. When it comes to food, the “free market” is literally an engine of death.

Shiva has gone as far as to say that the only way we can actually survive as a species is by switching to a system of local, organic agriculture globally. Clearly, if we want to create sustainable communities, food production is one of the first things we need to take back from the corporate machine. So, support your local small-time farmers, or if you have a big enough yard, grow your food yourself! For a healthier culture and a healthier body!

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Perhaps the number one reason why camping on the streets has genuine radical potential is that it draws people from very different walks of life together. In everyday life, we tend to deal mostly with people of similar status to our own which makes it difficult to empathise with those who are in a totally different position within the society. What’s more, our culture teaches us to look down on those who have “failed in life”, the homeless, the beggars, the mental patients and so forth. Until we start getting rid of this tendency as a society, I don’t think any radical change is possible. As long as we keep excluding groups of people from our communities, we’re simply reinforcing the structures that create the inequality and oppression we’re supposed to be fighting against in the first place. It would be a fallacy to think that we’re not a part of those structures ourselves. Putting our bodies on the streets forces us to recognise and deal with this reality. Stanley Rogouski makes this important point about the Occupy Wall Street encampment in his article over at Counterpunch:

“To anybody who spent time in the now demolished Zucotti Park tent city, there are no longer two clear cut categories, homeless and not homeless, human and untouchable, dirty hippy or respectable protester. What made Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park so potentially radical is the way it taught us that homelessness is not an either/or proposition. There are not homeless people and not homeless people. There’s a continuum, running all the way from members of the “1%” like Michael Bloomberg all the way down to the demented, mentally ill man sleeping on the grating of a side street waiting for January, and the cold, to die. What separates a young idealist like Ketchup just starting her life, for example, from a lonely middle aged man like Ray Kachel headed for social oblivion? The answer would be “not very much.” What separates a member of the middle-class from the homeless man he walks over in Penn Station or the “dirty hippies” he used to smirk at as he walked by Zucotti Park? How many paychecks, how many medical emergencies, how many fights with his wife or his employer will it take before he’s out in the streets looking for a place to piss and finding that the Starbucks has converted them all into “employee only” restrooms. For most of us the answer would be “not very many.”

Occupy Wall Street at Zucotti Park took all of Wall Street’s victims and put them on public display, only a few blocks from the New York City Stock Exchange. It took the group of people most devastated by the “Great Recession,” people who were scammed into high interest, high risk mortgages by the casino on Wall Street, to the group of people who were most devastated by Bush’s crusade in the Middle East, homeless veterans of the Iraq war. But it did more. It gave them the opportunity to empower one another, to begin the process of building a community. It allowed the chronically homeless contact with people who had more social skills, who, perhaps, could teach them to pull themselves up off the streets. It brought the gay teenager who was kicked out of his home in the Bible Belt together with the middle aged liberal activist from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It brought the 22 year old, recent college graduate, too poor to move out from his parents house in the bad economy face to face with the laid off worker in his 40s and 50s. It dissolved the rigid social categories that separate us and allowed us to speak to one another as humans. It was, in short, the fulfillment of the words of Walt Whitman, that great New York poet who trod the ground around what is now Zucotti Park many times.

“STRANGER! If you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”

Had the encampment at in Zucotti Park been allowed to persist through the winter, had the activists in Occupy Wall Street would have continued to feed the homeless and protect them from the police, they might also, in time, have secured help from the surrounding community. People might have brought their donations, not to the United Way or the local mega church, but right to the people who needed them.  Zucotti Park might have become a successful laboratory experiment in how to reclaim people who had fallen through the cracks into social oblivion. It might have exposed both the “1%” and the governments they own as the frauds they are. Clearly that could not go on. Maintaining occupied spaces also develops collective leadership. It requires people to understand the importance of camp discipline well known to any NCO in the military. It requires people to learn how to organize, to conduct outreach, to drive working groups and coordinate through general assemblies. Getting hauled off the Brooklyn bridge in handcuffs and spending 12 hours in jail with 125 other men begins to create the kind of bonds people develop in the military, only, in this case, those bonds are developed engaging in class war against your real enemies, not in an imperialist adventure overseas.”

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