The establishment and the media were condemning the May Day protests before the demonstrations had even taken place. The would-be protesters were characterised as an assortment of anti-capitalists, anarchists and oddballs and therefore unworthy of engaging with. The protests and the state reaction to them are a test of democracy and all the principles that modern western societies claim to hold dear. Not for the first time, the police abrogated the rights of many citizens to protest.
Historically, May Day has been celebrated across the world with shows of workers solidarity and the airing of grievances as happened in Turkey yesterday. Interestingly, Turkish workers were protesting about the impact of globalisation on the economy and the level of wages. The demise of the Soviet Union heralded the birth of a new arrogance and yet another falsehood – that capitalism had triumphed and that there is no alternative to capitalism. This echoes the sentiments of the Tories under Mrs. Thatcher when the industrial sector in Britain was laid waste between 1979 and the early 1980s. The British electorate was repeatedly told that there were no economic alternatives to the monetarist policies adopted. The mass unemployment visited upon the citizenry affected certain sections of society more acutely, namely Black communities and White working class people. The uprisings of 1981 came as a surprise only to the government of the day and precipitated Mrs. Thatcher’s naďve and ill-considered comments that such behaviour was ‘mere criminality’ and that Britain did not have a history of rioting. She was wrong on both counts as any even cursory reading of history demonstrates.
The uprisings marked a watershed that changed the climate towards Black communities. Suddenly money was channeled into Black projects, equal opportunities policies began to be considered by local authorities and steps were taken to ensure that White working class communities would not identify with the Black underclass. (This had been an agenda of governments since the abolition of slavery because of the threat posed to capitalist accumulation by a united working class of Black and White.) There was one other, generally unrecognised change that came in the wake of mass unemployment – a shift in attitudes towards stereotypical gender roles. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the attitudinal changes did not precede changes in overt behaviour. Rather the opposite occurred. Large numbers of men were laid off and had difficulty in securing new employment. However there were opportunities open to women, although some of these involved part-time work. Due to financial circumstances significant numbers of men became househusbands – at least for part of the day. Necessity is the mother of invention. This led to some degree of re-evaluation of men and women’s work and roles. Large numbers of Asian women, often from rural backgrounds, and unaccustomed to paid work, found themselves propelled into the workforce to make ends meet. Gender equality still had a long way to go, but the uprisings certainly changed the then prevailing situation.
The election of the Labour government promised a great deal and delivered little in terms of countering poverty and inequality. Poverty, already at appalling levels under the previous administration, reached new heights under Labour. The rights of workers eroded by successive Tory governments have not been restored, but further eroded by ‘flexible working’. Workers in mainland Europe have more rights than their British counterparts. Labour has been very selective in its adoption of EU policies and legislation. Labour has largely abandoned its traditional constituency of the working class in favour of the middle classes and bought into capitalist policies in a big way. It is interesting that the ‘mother of parliaments’ no longer serves as the guardian of our rights – that role is played by legislation passed in Europe. The Strasbourg court has protected the rights of British citizens often in the teeth of opposition from our elected governments.
Globalisation is too big a topic to explore in this short piece, but its impact is felt in highly industrialised countries as well as in the South (Third World). Globalisation is the new phase in capitalism. It is era of big business in the form of multinationals that respect no national boundaries or cultures. The only dictate of big business, is big profit. If that means relocating businesses from Britain to where labour is cheaper and un-unionised that is what happens. Many workers laid-off in Britain and Europe have discovered that capitalism does not see people only work units and profit margins. However, globalisation also makes possible a form of asset stripping, previously unattainable. Globalisation is coercing countries, many in the South to open their markets to western exploitation in a manner not dissimilar to the colonialism of yesteryear. The GATT (general agreements on taxes and tariffs) negotiations are heavily biased in favour of the North (western nations) and perpetuate inequality. Globalisation has begun to produce transnational elites who owe no allegiance to their countries of origin or residence. These elites do not care if the population is further impoverished by financial rules laid down by the World Bank and World Trade Organisation – both institutions heavily dominated by the US. The debt crisis in the Third World continues to results in untold misery, suffering and death. This is exacerbated by the imposition of financial rules by the World Bank and WTO. The result has been that even basic healthcare programmes are under-funded, clean water and sanitation projects are set aside – all because of the financial cutbacks imposed by the conditions for loans from the World Bank. Furthermore, multinational companies whether Shell in Nigeria, or Rio Tinto Zinc in sub-Saharan Africa, or logging companies in Indonesia (and the US!) continue to devastate the environment. Corrupt governments work hand in glove with multinational companies to accumulate vast amounts of personal wealth while the masses suffer. There will be no talk of suspending trade because of human rights violations. Human rights have always been a card played by the North to further its economic and other agendas, when it suited the North. Don’t expect any consistency on this issue! Multinational drug companies did suffer a setback in terms of profits in the decision of South Africa to continue to make cheaper versions of anti-Aids medicines. However, the agreement by the multinational drug companies was motivated more by the bad publicity generated (- and the prospects of continuing bad publicity if the court case continued-) rather than any great concern for the plight of HIV positive Africans. Less well known is Nestle’s refusal to permit South African companies to make and sell cheap versions of baby formula for HIV positive mothers who wish to avoid passing on the disease through breast-feeding. It highly unlikely that the multinational drug companies will come to agreements with other countries in the South that face difficulty in meeting the inflated price of drugs produced in the North. In fact these same multinationals are actually suing various countries in the South for infringing drug copyrights. Meanwhile, the companies will continue to dump in the South, drugs considered too dangerous to use in the North – and of course these are available without prescription!
Anglo-American ideas/values are promoted through the setting up of western style companies, the training of Southern economists in the North, and the domination of the Anglo-American media. In this re-assertion of western domination of the planet, minority cultures are commodified – as can be seen in the new McDonald’s advert with British Asians singing ‘I’m a Londoner’ to promote an Indian dish. Capitalism sees other cultures are just another commodity to be bought and sold. White Britons may be less aware of the cultural domination occurring in this country because of the similarities between British and American cultures. The American television programmes that we all enjoy watching are powerful agents of cultural hegemony, domination and change, as evidenced in the uptake in Britain of the usage of American slang, eating habits and modes of dress. (New Labour seems determined to copy American style politics too.) The Disneyfication of other cultures, whether through ‘The Lion King’, ‘Hercules’ or ‘Mulan’ is mirrored in what American television has done to the traditional story of England’s socialist-robber, Robin Hood. All these programmes promote American and capitalist values that are out of place in the original narratives. Programmes and adverts promote individualism and unrestrained consumerism. The recent report concerning obesity in Britain failed to relate this to ‘imported’ eating habits a la McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Burger King, or to the commercial reform of school canteens that provide children with the choice of picking unhealthy foods. (School dinners may have been uninspiring, but at least they were nutritionally balanced and ensured that even poor children were properly nourished.) The mortality and morbidity caused by capitalist consumerism in the US alone is frightening and is slowly being visited upon the rest of the planet. Cars may be safer than before Ralph Nader appeared on the scene some thirty years ago, but the death toll on the roads is greater than that suffered in the Vietnam War. For young Black men, they are more likely to die from gunshot wounds than old age and of course the constitutional right of Americans to carry firearms will be provided for by the firearms industry. Logic will be turned upon its head rather than admit that limiting the availability of guns in society will reduce the number of violent deaths, or that the right to bear arms was legislation passed at a time when modern law enforcement was not in place. And if all this depresses you, why not go shopping, perhaps consume comfort foods like chocolate and ice cream? (- something promoted through a variety of American sitcoms.)
Tony Blair wants to reduce vandalism by paying young people with trainers and CDs. That keeps capitalist happy and might buy-off some of the youth of today – after all are not young people into consumerism and labels like Nike, Lacoste etc. Note that many writers in this field have drawn attention to the fact that in the North crimes against property are more severely punished than crimes against a person. No one wants to consider the extent to which some criminal activity is driven by poverty, envy and consumerism. It may not be fashionable to say that many of the ills of society today are due to the breakdown of community spirit. There has always been a tension between community demands and individualism. (Racism continues to project this tension as characteristic only of Asian societies.) But if one does not posses a sense of belonging to a community with responsibilities to it and some degree of reciprocity, why shouldn’t one do what pleases (with no regard for consequences for other people)? Until governments re-establish /rebuild communities and community spirit, the elderly will continue to live and die in isolation, the young will not learn responsibility towards others and take pride in their locality. (The literature has already coined a term for the individualism and consumerism – egology.) One must ask why governments (local & national) permit the design of housing estates without shops/businesses and community centres for people to meet and re-affirm their sense of belonging and community. It is instructive to compare how many Black working class communities fare in comparison with White working class communities. It is noticeable that in deprived Black communities (like Spinney Hill in Leicester), there is still a vibrancy and strong sense of community despite levels of poverty. It is only a strong sense of family and community with its resulting co-operation that has made possible the pooling of money to spruce up decaying properties and the setting up of businesses. (The sense of community is strong in even the poorest districts in India, Africa and Latin America.) However, these values are being eroded by the constant propaganda of individualism and consumerism. It is only a matter of time before Black communities too succumb to these forces of cultural hegemony.
Since the published literature is replete with references to the connection between capitalism and oppression, it is unnecessary to rehearse those arguments here. If capitalism is instrumental in the production and reproduction of oppressions, then it follows that tackling capitalism is essentially an anti-oppressive strategy. It is all very well making the oppressed aware of their oppression but unless such groups are capable of challenging the systems responsible for their oppression, these groups will experience only frustration. While community work talks about oppression and people’s rights, I’m not aware of community workers making any concerted efforts to link oppression with capitalism. Grassroots activism would naturally challenge businesses like McDonald (for some of the reasons mentioned earlier,) and take into consideration the company’s track record of depressed wages, despoiling the environment and cultural hegemony. The cities across the globe are increasingly becoming similar with Anglo-American companies dominating the markets. Not only is agribusiness reducing biodiversity of plants and animals, but Anglo-American domination of the world is also pushing non-European cultures/values into extinction. Many White Britons (mistakenly) resent being ‘forced’ to accept foreign cultures and falsely charge that they are being prevented from taking pride in the celebration of their own culture. Despite these mistaken and racist sentiments, little do such people realise that it is people of the South (whether located in Europe or their countries of origin) whose cultures are under threat due to globalisation.
The difficulty of the task of tackling capitalism should not deter us. After all, campaigning to change national and local policies is no easy task. I therefore applaud the assortment of protesters who through direct action at WTO venues and G7 meetings take up their traditional right to protest. The assortment of different groups involved in the May Day protests is not a major obstacle. There is a history of different pressure groups coming together in single-issue campaigns. Is this any different?
No doubt you are put off by the violence so deplored by capitalists. However, let’s be clear that capitalists have and continue to perpetrate a variety of forms of violence against the poor, dispossessed and oppressed of this world. The state uses violence against its own people, and others in foreign lands to further its capitalist agenda whether this involves controlling other countries or selling powerful arsenals to foreign governments to contain dissent. It is a powerful propaganda coup for the state (which itself uses violence) to convince its people that violence is unjustifiable. However, what mechanisms have the capitalists put in place for the masses to challenge the economic system? The ballot box? The system is loaded against those who would challenge our election system. But let us be clear that capitalism will brook no criticism. During the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State for Defense threatened not to accept the vote of the Italian people if the communists won the election. We also know that Kissinger was instrumental in removing the legitimately elected socialist leader, Allende in Chile because of the supposed threat to American exploitation of the country. Because of the removal of Allende by a foreign state (the US), people died and suffered in large numbers under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Sometimes violence has to be met with violence. Someone once said that riots were the voices of the oppressed. Of course, as community workers we can all quote Paulo Friere in our dissertations, but actually how much of his work do we take to heart? Friere said: In the struggle between the powerful and the powerless, to remain neutral, is in reality, to side with the powerful. So how neutral are you going to be today?
Shahid Ashrif is Current Affairs Commentator for the site.
© Student Youth Work Online 2001
Suggested reading for this area of commentary (kindly provided by the author):
Race & Class vol. 40 (2/3), 1999 contains the following relevant articles:
Globalism and the Left, by A. Sivanandan
Globalisation and the technological transformation of capitalism by Jerry Harris
Biotechnology under globalisation: the corporate expropriation of plant, animal and microbial species, by J. King & D. Stabinsky
Latin America and global capitalism, by W. I. Robinson
The MAI: multilateralism from above, by J. Davies & C. Bishop
See also, Race & Class vol. 34 (1) 1992 which contains the following articles
The reconquest of India: the victory of International Monetary Fundamentalism, by J. Seabrook
GATT and the Third World: fixing the rules, by K. Watkins
Debt and ecological disaster in Latin America, by E. Dore
Agri-cultural madness, by E.G. Valliantos
Tales of underdevelopment; Race & Class vol. 28 (3), 1987
New Circuits of Imperialism; Race & Class vol. 30 (4), 1989
Development as colonialism: the ODA in India; Race & Class vol. 37 (4), 1996