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Grassroots Power and Non-Market Economies
An Interview with Beverly Bell
Beverly Bell is program coordinator for Other Worlds, an international multimedia education and organizing collaborative. She is the author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She most recently wrote the report, “Who Says You Can’t Change the World? Just Economics and Societies on an Unjust Planet.”
Multinational Monitor: You write in a recent report that there are historically unparalleled levels of people’s mobilization. What do you mean by that?
Beverly Bell: There are primarily two factors behind the current spike in people’s mobilization. One is the level of crisis that people around the world are facing, economically and environmentally. Second is the Internet, through which movements have been able to communicate and unite to a degree that is historically unprecedented.
Some of the qualitative changes are, now there are people organized across many sectors that have never chosen to step out into the popular movement before. For example, indigenous peoples in the last 10 years or so, in Latin America especially but in many parts of the world, have made a determination that they could no longer organize just as indigenous — itself a remarkable achievement — but had to become part of the so-called anti-globalization movement.
People guarding traditional societies are realizing now that they have to actively defend their traditions. There are now extraordinary levels of organizing to save non-market economies, to preserve traditional ways of living, healing, community values, agriculture.
And people are making links and connections that have never before even been imagined, offering new possibilities to build popular power. My reigning favorite example of unsuspected allies comes from the anti-incinerator movement, which is uniting with garbage pickers, who effectively salvage reusable garbage, and Teamsters, who see better job opportunities in recycling than incinerating.
MM: You referenced the protection of traditional lifestyles and communities and resources. Protection against what?
Bell: Globalization is challenging in very devastating ways people’s livelihoods and lives. They’re losing their land and the natural riches that reside in and on those lands. People are losing traditional agriculture because their lands are being taken over by multinational plantations and being turned into mono-crops. Traditional people are finding their communities destroyed as they are pushed off their land, often for development projects, or they are forced into the cities for jobs because of worsening poverty in rural areas. Many societies that exist outside of market structures, that have never been penetrated by cash economies, are suddenly finding themselves under threat by the so-called free market.
To give one example: in Mali, West Africa, communities who have relied on gifting — a cultural practice based on giving without expectation of receiving back, as a way to take care of each other for the survival of all — are suddenly finding that they need cash in ways they never did before, or they perceive they need cash to purchase things they never felt they needed before. This is thanks to advertising and thanks to cost-recovery requirements to pay for health and education, part of World Bank policies. This is eroding their ability to live through gifting; suddenly gifting is coming into competition with the need to hoard cash. Increasingly, people in many societies are realizing that they need to organize to protect what they once had assumed would always be theirs.
MM: A lot of what you describe are traditional ways of doing things outside of the market. What innovations are occurring in non-market spaces for interaction and economic production?
Bell: Here’s a case where tradition meets a globalized world: The food sovereignty movement is a movement largely comprised of small-family, peasant and landless farmers. A lot of what they are doing is fighting the World Trade Organization and its role in agriculture, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and their role in destroying local agriculture through the spread of corporate production. But small producers are also realizing that seeds — for them, a fundament of life that they could rely on from one year to another to grow the food that they needed — must be not just saved, but shared. Seed-sharing is now an element of most international peasant gatherings. You will not go to a gathering of Via Campesina — which is a coalition of more than 100 small producer organizations from around the world — without finding a seed-sharing, where you give your ancient corn for the seed of my ancient bean. Together, people are protecting those seeds against Monsanto patents and against genetic modification. In the process, there has grown a beautiful reverence and organized guarding of something that maybe 30 years ago was completely taken for granted as a non-market good in the community.
MM: To what extent are communities doing this kind of organizing self-consciously trying to protect space or create space outside of the market?
Bell: In the case of most indigenous movements, and in the case of organized small producers, fisher folk, pastoralists and campesinos, people are typically extremely explicit in their intentions. They see the threat of corporate-dominated markets coming upon them with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. They know that if they don’t act, their potential to survive is going to be quickly wiped out.
Another example is the zero waste movement. From time immemorial, people have survived off of what was available to them — scraps of fabric, perhaps, and corn husks and leaves from trees. Suddenly, there is a very intentional movement of people saying, “If we continue living off of the teat of capitalized consumption, we are going to watch the further destruction of our waterways and our lands.” People in the zero waste movement are finding ways to step outside of consumption of capitalist-produced goods. They are finding ways to regenerate what they need from what they have within their societies already, and thereby also produce cooperative forms of income, and foster community while they’re at it. That is another movement which is very intentional, and is very clear and explicit in its analysis about the role of corporations and the international financial institutions in destroying their ways of life and their lands.
MM: One sector you’ve mentioned is indigenous movements. There, there is a level of global organization that was inconceivable two decades ago. Could you talk about that and how it’s happened?
Bell: Indigenous peoples have developed some tremendous strategies to protect sovereignty, typically the first priority. Protecting their control over land and resources is their second primary objective.
A very powerful moment was birthed — in Latin America, especially — when indigenous peoples’ organizations realized that they had to make common cause with other movements because the nature of globalization requires a global response. In Latin America, there has been a very explicit effort of indigenous peoples to link with the environmental movement, and the campesino movement, and other social movements.
They have changed national laws and national constitutions so as to protect their sovereignty. They are also using international law. Up until a couple years ago, the main tool for that was Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which enabled indigenous peoples’ roles in protecting the resources on their lands. Now we have the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is a powerful vehicle.
So there is the legal set of strategies. There is also a lot of direct action. For example, the Maya-Lenca people of Honduras have been battling to protect their waters for many years. One of their strategies is to keep up 24/7 vigilance on their rivers. When they see surveillance equipment come in, which is the first step to building a dam, they go out in the middle of the night and push that equipment in the river.
Another strategy is to bring their voice to the international arena. Indigenous peoples are participating in international negotiations and international organizations in ways not seen 20 years ago. Another strategy is entering government, the most famous case of that being Evo Morales, an Aymara man, now president of Bolivia.
MM: You also highlight movements to create non-market, sharing arrangements in the high-tech world.
Bell: So many different kinds of people are working to fight back against the increasing commodification of, basically, everything. An example of this increase is, there is more slavery in the world today than there was even during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And now everything from babies to beans have been patented and commodified.
Information is a fascinating realm of struggle against everything being for sale. The movement to reclaim an information and knowledge commons involves everything from finding ways to protect our intellectual freedom against growing copyrights, to Native peoples fighting back against the patenting of some of their gene mapping — information that is now being sold to corporations for marketing purposes. Others are protecting free and open source software. The whole government of Venezuela, for example, now uses it and ensures that it is available to every Internet user in Venezuela. There are efforts to keep creativity and ideas out of the market space — Creative Commons and GNU Linux just being a couple of examples.
What is really interesting is the degree to which people are increasingly aware of how much our ideas, our creativity, our expression, our very bodies, are now a vehicle for other people’s profits. And they are saying, “We refuse to let this happen.”
MM: You assert that there are more slaves now than during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. What kind of slavery is that?
Bell: A lot of it is human trafficking, which is very easy to do now. There are ways to create and move slaves that weren’t possible in earlier times. It was pretty labor-intensive to go find slaves in the jungle and bring them to New Orleans or to Curaçao, but now it is much easier.
The fight against coerced labor and slavery is part of the larger fight against commodification, of course. There is a movement in Haiti right now, for the first time, against 300,000 child slaves, or restavèk, who exist there. There is a group of women, all former slaves themselves — about 3,000 of them in Port-au-Prince — who have organized to stop this practice. To me, this is especially powerful, because Haiti was the only country in world history that ever launched a successful revolution against slavery. But this form of slavery has been alive and well there for a long time. These women, most of them illiterate because their masters preferred that they work over going to school, are organizing very hard, with the fierce determination that nobody should be enslaved.
These initiatives are so inspiring. And the degree to which they are, in some instances, connecting up with each other offers a hope and a potential.
MM: In your report you write about some of the shared elements or principles of different kinds of organizing and different economic systems that are emerging. What are some of those?
Bell: Not only are the forms of organizing changing, but some of the values that underlie the organizing are changing. And for each value that people insist upon within the movement, there is a parallel demand for its flourishing in society at large.
Participatory democracy is huge. We have moved a far cry from some of the male-dominated, hierarchical socialist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. There is now a very beautiful flourishing of the assertion “Nothing about us without us.” Whole new ways of structuring organizations and networks — whereby the voices of many, including women and marginalized and excluded people, are central — are emerging.
Equality is a big principle. Certainly respect for gender; questions of racial oppression; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender attention were not part of counterpart movements in the 1960s and 1970s or 1980s. Now there is a real attention to respect for all types of people and diversity. It’s still a work in progress, but no one questions how central the goal is.
Human rights is another. By human rights, I don’t just mean the human rights movement demanding freedom of political prisoners. I mean the right to our basic socio-economic services and resources.
One priority for society that’s not always stated, but that’s really becoming a unifying theme across movements, is the global commons — the idea that we all together have responsibility for basic services, earth’s riches, information, cultural expression and forms of life. The movement defending the commons seeks to protect that which should be nourished by the community and protected for the well-being of the world. If you look at the 30 or so large-scale alternatives that Other Worlds is documenting, the global commons is a huge thread.
MM: Your project is documenting all of these movements and networks and experiences asserting control and resisting commodification. Do you see these things as glimmers of hope that are still trivial in the overall system, or are these now dominant features of the world system?
Bell: The alternatives are still quite small relative to the neoliberal paradigm. But what’s important is that they are growing. Also important are the implications of that growth in terms of inspiring others to step up. I was recently at a conference where Latin American activists kept talking about de protesta hacia propuesta — from protest to proposal. There still needs to be resistance, of course, while the U.S. government and other institutions promulgating free trade and profiteering around the world remain so dominant. However, I am seeing much greater attention to alternatives. And what has been very hopeful for me is to see how many of these alternatives that we in the U.S. might view as theoretical are actually alive and well. It’s also exciting to see how many seeds of these alternatives are actually already thriving in the United States. They’re not often connected up to a larger super-structure of movement and they’re not always articulated as opposition to capitalism, but especially among young people of color, there has been a surge in creation of real alternatives. It’s being done through stepping outside of the system and creating more fulfilling parallel micro-systems, or finding ways to overcome the obstacles and get their needs met within the dominant system, or changing unjust structures altogether.
So yes, I am hopeful. We have not won the battle yet. The global capitalists are still on top of all of us, but there is the strength of organizing that offers a potential that I’m not sure we’ve ever seen, certainly across sector and identity and national border.