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Hazard Warning

This article is over 19 years, 7 months old
Arundhati Roy continues her thoughts on ‘Public power in the Age of Empire’ with a look at the pitfalls that resistance movements face
Issue 1923b

The first militant confrontation in the United States between the global justice movement and the neo-liberal junta took place famously at the WTO conference in Seattle in December 1999.

To many mass movements in developing countries that had long been fighting lonely, isolated battles, Seattle was the first delightful sign that their anger and their vision of another kind of world was shared by people in the imperialist countries.

In January 2001, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 20,000 activists, students, film-makers—some of the best minds in the world—came together to share their experiences and exchange ideas about confronting Empire.

That was the birth of the now historic World Social Forum (WSF). It was the first formal coming together of an exciting, anarchic, unindoctrinated, energetic, new kind of “public power”.

The rallying cry of the WSF is “Another world is possible”. It has become a platform where hundreds of conversations, debates and seminars have helped to hone and refine a vision of what kind of world it should be.

By January 2004, when the fourth WSF was held in Mumbai, India, it attracted 200,000 delegates. I have never been part of a more electrifying gathering. It was a sign of the social forum’s success that the mainstream media in India ignored it completely.

But now the WSF is threatened by its own success. The safe, open, festive atmosphere of the forum has allowed politicians and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are imbricated in the political and economic systems that the forum opposes to participate and make themselves heard.

Another danger is that the WSF, which has played such a vital role in the movement for global justice, runs the risk of becoming an end unto itself.

Just organising it every year consumes the energies of some of the best activists. If conversations about resistance replace real civil disobedience, then the WSF could become an asset to those whom it was created to oppose.

The forum must be held and must grow, but we have to find ways to channel our conversations there back into concrete action.

As resistance movements have begun to reach out across national borders and pose a real threat, governments have developed their own strategies of how to deal with them. They range from co-optation to repression.

I’m going to speak about three of the contemporary dangers that confront resistance movements—the difficult meeting point between mass movements and the mass media, the hazards of the NGO-isation of resistance, and the confrontation between resistance movements and increasingly repressive states.

The place in which the mass media meets mass movements is a complicated one. Governments have learned that a crisis-driven media cannot afford to hang about in the same place for too long.

Like business houses need a cash turnover, the media need crises turnover. Whole countries become old news. They cease to exist, and the darkness becomes deeper than before the light was briefly shone on them.

We saw it happen in Afghanistan when the Soviets withdrew. And now, after Operation Enduring Freedom put the CIA’s Hamid Karzai in place, Afghanistan has been thrown to its warlords once more. Another CIA operative, Iyad Allawi, has been installed in Iraq, so perhaps it’s time for the media to move on from there, too.

While governments hone the art of waiting out crisis, resistance movements are increasingly being ensnared in a vortex of crisis production, seeking to find ways of manufacturing them in easily consumable, spectator-friendly formats. Every self respecting peoples’ movement, every “issue”, is expected to have its own hot air balloon in the sky advertising its brand and purpose.

For this reason, starvation deaths are more effective advertisements for impoverishment than millions of malnourished people, who don’t quite make the cut.

Dams are not newsworthy until the devastation they wreak makes good television (and by then it’s too late). Standing in the rising water of a reservoir for days on end watching your home and belongings float away to protest against a big dam used to be an effective strategy, but isn’t any more. The media is dead bored of that one.

So the hundreds of thousands of people being displaced by dams are expected to either conjure new tricks or give up the struggle.

Colourful demonstrations and weekend marches are vital but alone are not powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircrafts, when people boycott the economic outposts of Empire that are strung across the globe.

If we want to reclaim the space for civil disobedience, we will have to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of crisis reportage and its fear of the mundane.

We have to use our experience, our imagination and our art to interrogate the instruments of that state that ensure that “normality” remains what it is—cruel, unjust, unacceptable.

We have to expose the policies and processes that make ordinary things—food, water, shelter and dignity—such a distant dream for ordinary people. Real pre-emptive strike is to understand that wars are the end result of flawed and unjust peace.

As far as mass resistance movements are concerned, the fact is that no amount of media coverage can make up for mass strength on the ground.

There is no option, really, to old fashioned, back-breaking political mobilisation. Corporate globalisation has increased the distance between those who make decisions and those who have to suffer the effects of those decisions.

Forums like the WSF enable local resistance movements to reduce that distance and to link up with their counterparts in rich countries. That alliance is an important and formidable one.

For example, when India’s first private dam, the Maheshwar dam, was being built, alliances between the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the NBA), the German organisation Urgewald, the Berne Declaration in Switzerland and the International Rivers Network in Berkeley worked together to push a series of international banks and corporations out of the project.

This would not have been possible had there not been a rock solid resistance movement on the ground. The voice of that local movement was amplified by supporters on the global stage, embarrassing and forcing investors to withdraw. An infinite number of similar alliances, targeting specific projects and specific corporations, would help to make another world possible. We should begin with the corporations who did business with Saddam Hussein and now profit from the devastation and occupation of Iraq.

A second hazard facing mass movements is the NGO-isation of resistance.

It will be easy to twist what I’m about to say into an indictment of all NGOs. That would be a falsehood. In the murky waters of fake NGOs set up to siphon off grant money or as tax dodges (in states like Bihar, they are given as dowry), of course there are NGOs doing valuable work. But it’s important to consider the NGO phenomenon in a broader political context.

In India, for instance, the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and 1990s. It coincided with the opening of India’s markets to neo-liberalism.

At the time the Indian state, in keeping with the requirements of structural adjustment, was withdrawing funding from rural development, agriculture, energy, transport and public health.

As the state abdicated its traditional role, NGOs moved in to work in these very areas. The difference, of course, is that the funds available to them are a miniscule fraction of the actual cut in public spending.

Most large funded NGOs are financed and patronised by aid and development agencies, which are in turn funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the UN and some multinational corporations.

Though they may not be the very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose political formation that oversees the neo-liberal project and demands the slash in government spending in the first place.

Why should these agencies fund NGOs? Could it be just old fashioned missionary zeal? Guilt? It’s a little more than that. NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way.

Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance. NGOs form a sort of buffer between the sarkar (government) and public, between Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.

In the long run NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work among. They’re what botanists would call an indicator species.

It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neo-liberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs.

Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than the phenomenon of the US preparing to invade a country and simultaneously readying NGOs to go in and clean up the devastation.

In order to make sure their funding is not jeopardised and that the governments of the countries they work in will allow them to function, NGOs have to present their work in a shallow framework more or less shorn of a political or historical context—at any rate, an inconvenient historical or political context.

Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political) distress reports from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims.

Another malnourished Indian, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another maimed Sudanese…in need of the white man’s help. They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and reaffirm the achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilisation. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world.

Eventually—on a smaller scale but more insidiously—the capital available to NGOs plays the same role in alternative politics as the speculative capital that flows in and out of the economies of poor countries. It begins to dictate the agenda.

It turns confrontation into negotiation. It depoliticises resistance. It interferes with local peoples’ movements that have traditionally been self reliant.

© Arundhati Roy 2004.


In the concluding part of this article in tomorrow’s Socialist Worker, Arundhati Roy talks about the power of the state, and how to take it on. Part one, ‘Public power in the Age of Empire’ can be read online here


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