What Do We Do Now? Building a Social Movement in the Aftermath of Free Trade - Diemer.ca
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We have to make an issue of the fact that what currently passes for democracy is a best a two-dimensional shadow of what a democratic society ought to be. In contrast to the parliamentary obsession of the NDP, we should be offering the model of a radically democratic society, in which power is taken away from corporations, governments, bureaucracies, and experts, and dispersed widely.
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The shadow which haunts the power structure is the danger that those who are controlled will come to realize that they are powerless only so long as they think they are. Once people stop believing they are powerless, then the whole edifice which they support is in danger of collapse.
Against All Odds

What Do We Do Now?
Building a Social Movement
in the Aftermath of Free Trade

By Ulli Diemer

The 1988 election was an important and bitter setback for all who desire a Canada that is more than an appendage of U.S. corporate capitalism.

We know that the free trade deal will erode Canada's already limited independence. It will make it that much more difficult to resist the neo-conservative crusade to eliminate or cripple anything that stands in the way of making profits in the marketplace.

We will be facing an aggressive campaign to put in place a purer, harsher capitalism in which the rich get richer and the poor and powerless get hurt. Social and environmental programs will be attacked in the name of reducing government spending and staying competitive, as will working people's wages, working conditions, and unions. This is a world-wide phenomenon, not simply a North American one: a concerted drive to reverse many of the gains of the welfare state which have been won since the Second World War.

Weathervane photo by Ulli Diemer

We will be told that we have to cut the deficit, but without raising taxes, especially corporate taxes, since that would cause capital to shift elsewhere (i.e. to go on strike, but they don't like to call it that.) Wages and fringe benefits will have to be kept low, or companies will move to anti-union states in the U.S., or to the Third World. We'll be told that we can't afford environmental safeguards and workplace health regulations because they will put 'us' at a competitive disadvantage. 'Rolling back' unions will be an important part of the agenda.

But the situation is far from hopeless. The groups and coalitions fighting free trade were able to rouse a substantial majority of Canadian voters to vote against the deal. Only an undemocratic electoral system - and tens of millions of dollars' worth of corporate advertising in favour of free trade - enabled Brian Mulroney's Conservatives to emerge with a majority government despite being rejected by well over half the electorate. Even then, the government was able squeak back in only by swearing from one end of the country to the other that social, cultural and environmental programs would not be harmed by the deal, that women and seniors would not be hurt.

The record of those promises, and the continued widespread opposition to free trade, will make the government politically vulnerable if it moves too blatantly to dump this set of 'sacred trusts'.


The Birth of a New Coalition

One very positive result of the free trade deal was the emergence of a broadly based coalition to fight it. Trade unions, women's groups, environmental organizations, churches, senior citizens, native peoples, cultural groups, and many others worked together to arouse opposition to free trade. And this was not just a negative 'anti' campaign, nor simply a nationalist one either.

Rather, it became clear during the election that a majority of Canadians want a society with meaningful social programs and a healthy environment, rather than one in which the imperatives of profit-making take precedence over all else.

If we are able to build on the connections and alliances that were fashioned in the campaign, we have the potential to create a social movement in this country that goes beyond single-issue organizing to work toward an integrated vision of a more just and caring society.

Indeed, we are virtually compelled to try to create such a movement. The neo-conservative forces have had their position strengthened by the arrival of free trade, and we will all be feeling the results. It is time to 'hang together, or hang separately'. If free trade is not to be the beginning of a snowballing series of setbacks for working class Canadians, for women, for the poor and the unemployed, then we have to find ways of resisting the corporate agenda and advancing our own.


Becoming a Movement

A new social movement does not have to be created from scratch. In many ways, it already exists, in the network of thousands of grassroots groups woven across this country. This is an important beginning, for a true movement must encompass and represent a diversity of constituencies, regions, issues, and ethnic and linguistic groups. It needs to be decentralized, democratic, and diverse.

But this embryonic social movement is not quite a movement yet. It still needs to announce itself. It needs to arrive at a widespread consciousness of itself as a movement, to think of itself as a movement rather than as a patchwork of separate interest groups. It needs to learn to act like a movement, and to become as good at 'thinking globally' as it is at 'acting locally'. We need to learn to network better outside of our own constituencies. We need to make the effort to understand each others' concerns and how they relate to our own. We need to become better at working together in a spirit of solidarity, not to do someone else a favour, but because we understand that our goals and interests are inextricably linked.


A New Social Vision

Such a movement needs a shared vision, a set of goals and principles which give it direction while leaving room for differences and organizational autonomy. It should be our objective to arrive at common approaches to strategies and tactics to the greatest extent possible, because the more we are able to work together and combine our efforts, the greater our potential power will be. Working together does not have to mean the politics of the 'lowest common denominator', if we remain committed to respecting each other's right to take autonomous initiatives within a pluralistic movement.

What are some of the principles around which a new national social movement might coalesce?


Democracy

One key theme is that of democracy. We need to make a real issue of democracy, to challenge our society to take seriously its oft-proclaimed commitment to democratic ideals. We have to make an issue of the fact that what currently passes for democracy is at best a two-dimensional shadow of what a democratic society ought to be. We should refuse to settle for a version of democracy which has us trooping to the polls every few years to choose our governors from among a set of politically similar candidates, with most of the winners heading off to be parliamentary back-benchers, while the crucial decisions are made elsewhere, beyond the reach of even token parliamentary control.

In its place, we should be offering the model of a radically democratic society, in which power is taken away from corporations, governments, bureaucracies, and experts, and dispersed widely. Such a society is possible only to the extent that we do away with inequalities of wealth and power. It means a real commitment to popular control of social life, including workers' control in the workplace and community control in our towns and neighbourhoods. At the same time, institutions and activities, including the economy, must be democratically accountable to society as a whole and to its environmental, economic, and social needs.

In putting forward such a vision of a radically democratic society, we have to challenge the idea that politics is just about elections and elected office. All social and economic decisions affect the 'body politic' and so are political, and ought to be subject to democratic control and scrutiny.

The specific issue of free trade made it clear how distorted a vision of democracy is held even by the parties that opposed the deal. Neither the Liberals nor the NDP ever challenged the right of the government to use its parliamentary majority to push ahead with the deal even though a majority of Canadians voted against free trade. There was no challenge whatever from within Parliament to what by any democratic standards should have been opposed as a blatantly illegitimate use of power. It is clear that if we are achieve a truly democratic society, we need to seriously raise the issue of what democracy really is, and to challenge the claim of the official political parties to limit the definition of democracy to their narrow range of perspectives and activities.


Looking Beyond the State and the Corporations

Another theme of the emerging social movement is likely to be the idea that we can't look to the state and to the corporations to solve society's problems. This is especially true at a time when virtually the entire Canadian business class, as well as the government, have made it clear that their agenda is to reduce the role of the state to the greatest extent possible, except of course when it comes to ensuring a safe 'climate' for business, or to military activity. The Canadian business class has evidently concluded that its interests lie in continental integration, and in dismantling any national programs or institutions that stand in the way of that integration.

The inescapable conclusion is that if we wish to pursue a different set of economic and social goals, we will need to wrestle economic power away from the corporations. Nor is this a peculiarly Canadian situation. Anyone familiar with the behaviour of transnational corporations on the world scene knows that they owe allegiance to no country. On the contrary, they are driven by their very nature to pit nation against nation, community against community, in their quest for more tax concessions, more government assistance, fewer environmental restrictions, and lower wages.

If corporate capitalism is the source of much of the misery and economic injustice in the world, it is also clear that state control is not a viable alternative either. Nations that have relied on the state to be the principal agent of economic development and social justice are everywhere in crisis. A social movement that is seeking to create a truly just and democratic society will have to develop alternatives to the centralized state.


Sustainable, ecologically sane economic activity

The relentless multiplying of environmental disasters, threats, and degeneration has made us much more aware of the need to live in harmony with the natural world. We are also aware of the extent to which environmental issues are economic issues. Air pollution, water pollution, acid rain, toxic chemicals, the garbage crisis, the destruction of the forests, the extinction of species, the greenhouse effect - all are tied to destructive economic patterns that cannot be sustained. Our efforts to clean up existing messes and save remaining bits of wilderness should not distract us from the need to change the economic structures that are responsible. Many threats to the environment are the result of economic activities that are useless or harmful, such as military production, monoculture dependent on massive quantities of fertilizers and pesticides, planned obsolescence, and urban designs that force dependence on the automobile.

It is our challenge to develop new patterns of economic activity that are sustainable and in balance with the environment. Such patterns are more likely to be small-scale and decentralized.

They will also have to based on different decision-making criteria. Economic activities should have to justify themselves on grounds of social usefulness if they are to consume our resources. They will have to clean up after themselves, so that they have no negative impact on the environment. They will have to safeguard the health of their workers and of the communities in which they are situated. They should be efficient and make economic sense - which is not the same as maximizing profits for their owners.

Economic activity, in other words, should be seen as being for the welfare of society as a whole, and should be subject to social control.


Class Perspective

Too often, we tend to assume that 'we are all in this together', that everyone in society ultimately shares the same social goals. The free trade election served as a powerful reminder that that isn't so. In the campaign, Canada's capitalists declared almost unanimously that their interests and social agenda revolve around the entrenchment of a continentalist, market-dominated model of society. Everything else - including the working and living conditions of the majority of Canadians - is to be subordinate to that goal.

The business class is clear about where its own interests lie. In constructing a viable alternative, it is our responsibility to become equally clear, to identify all those other groups in society with whom we have shared interests, and to learn to work together with them. If we can do so, the way lies open to a new social movement which brings together working class people, farmers, native people, the poor, environmentalists, women's groups, and many others.


Solidarity and Internationalism

The coming years will undoubtedly bring attempts to cut social spending, to privatize social services, to attack unions. Our response must be to stand together, to practice solidarity, to remember the old union slogan that 'An injury to one is an injury to all'. This will be a real test of our emerging movement, which will be a real movement to the extent that it responds collectively to a threat to one of its parts.

A Canadian social movement must also be one that thinks globally. Most of the problems that we face here in Canada exist around the world, because the corporate-based economic system is a global one. As a result, it often ends up pitting us against each other, nation against nation, region against region, ethnic group against ethnic group.

Our only hope of prevailing in the face of this is to join together across international borders and other dividing lines to work together and support each other. We have a special responsibility to the Third World, which, already desperately poor, is being plunged into further human misery and environmental devastation by massive debt payments to first world banks and by irrational economic patterns dictated by multinational corporations and the local elites they enrich. We owe the peoples of the Third World a debt of solidarity, but beyond that we must realize that the issues of world peace and the global environment that concern us here in the West cannot be solved unless the issues of poverty, women's liberation, and sustainable economic development are dealt with in the Third World.

An international perspective also requires us to look to the United States. We should make it clear that opposing the increasing subordination of Canada to the U.S. does not mean anti-Americanism. On the contrary, we have to work all the harder to make contact with our existing or prospective allies in the U.S. (as well as in other nations). In the final analysis, we can only succeed if we succeed internationally, although we can make progress locally.


Being Radical

Sometimes those already active in the social change movement are themselves the greatest obstacle to the further development of that movement, because they are convinced that ordinary people will only listen to groups that stick to narrowly defined issues and offer simple, modest solutions, often presented as appeals to those in power.

In their efforts to not be 'too radical', they forget that the meaning of the word 'radical' is 'to go to the root'. Yet if we are not radical in that sense of the word, if we do not go to the root of problems, we will not arrive at solutions that are real solutions. The prospect of trying to make radical changes in society may seem daunting, but does it not make more sense to aim at change that can really solve problems, than to waste our time working for reforms that cannot achieve what they are supposed to because they leave the roots of the problems untouched?

If we are committed to bringing into being a society that is truly democratic and just, we have to go beyond lobbying or electoral politics and other attempts to merely influence the existing power structure. A preoccupation with these things all too frequently means the end of a movement as a living movement.

A genuine social movement has to do most of its work at the grass roots, fashioning a variety of approaches to change while always keeping its goals in sight.


The Idea of Alternatives

One of the most important and difficult tasks of a social movement in Canada is to persuade ordinary Canadians that there are possible alternatives. We have to promote the idea that there are alternative ways of dealing with day to day problems, and also that it is possible and desirable to have a fundamentally different world, in which the goals of freedom, justice, security, and cooperation are realized.

We have to convince Canadians - and quite possibly ourselves - that a society with extremes of wealth and poverty, in which most of us have to sell our labour, our lives, to others, is not the only one possible.

One of our major continuing goals has to be to break through the deadening conviction that "nothing can be done" because of the weight of the 'system', with its virtual monopoly of resources, land, public space, media, and human energy.

Yet we need only look at activities of the thousands of people working in grassroots groups across this country, and around the world, to see that people do join with others to block what they see as harmful and to fight for what they consider to be desirable and just. When they do, that which seemed impossible to achieve starts to become possible, because enough people believe it is possible and are working to make it so.

As we create a movement to change society, we change ourselves, and in changing ourselves, we make social change more possible.


February 19, 1989
Published in the Connexions Digest #48 (Winter 1989) and in Green Revolution.

A number of responses to this article appeared in Green Revolution. For Ulli Diemer's reply, see here.
Aussi disponible en français: Maintenant qu'est ce qu'on fait?Établir un mouvement social suite aux conséquences du libre échange.
También disponible en español: ¿Que hacemos ahora? Construir un Movimiento Social en el Resultado del Libre Tratado.
Also available in Polish: ¿A co teraz? Kasa Oszczednosciowa nastepstwem Wolnego Handlu.



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