‘Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.’ Frantz Fanon
At a time of unprecedented anxiety and insecurity, building truly global movements may well prove arduous. The panel discussed how authoritarian power can be challenged and the pandemic could become a turning point in the struggle to defend humanity’s very survival.
According to Thenjiwe McHarris of the Movement for Black Lives in the USA, discussions around challenging the patriarchy often get lost within social movements – ‘men with guns’ serve hierarchies of power. The ‘NGO-isation’ of movements leads to an emphasis on individual campaigns, losing sight of the bigger strategy of social transformation.
In a country where a disproportionate number of black and indigenous people lose their lives to state violence, the recent ‘black-led multiracial uprising’ across the US confronts a system which treats blackness as ‘criminal’ and ‘deviant’, and seeks to control it.
Indian human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover understands that ‘working from home is not an option when you don’t have a home or don’t have a job’. As the pandemic deepens inequalities in the Global South, it is possible to see ‘schisms further aggravated’. In India, care, compassion, and public consultation have been conspicuously absent as its government favours a punitive approach, further extending its authoritarian power. With Parliament prorogued, decisions are made through executive decree and courts are hesitant to intervene. Following reelection in May 2019, Modi’s government has stepped up stifling freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, and association, while arresting and incarcerating prominent human rights activists. Press and broadcast are increasingly used as propaganda, while those protesting the government invite ‘the wrath of social media’.
Secretary General of the SENTRO trade union in the Philippines Josua Mata sees the rich live through lockdown in comfort, while the poor are imprisoned in their shanties. President Duterte has mishandled COVID-19 but remains popular following years of neglect. The Marcos dictatorship, followed by periods of kleptocracy and neoliberalism, and now state terror and creeping authoritarianism, have severely eroded people’s confidence in themselves and their collective capacities. In a period of mass unemployment, it becomes clear that the system has ‘never been working for the working class’.
Hakima Abbas of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development feels that 2020 has proven to be a long year in which the ‘economy has gone from the alienation of labour to the coercion of labour’. It began in ‘rebellion’ within countries as diverse as Haiti, Lebanon, Chile, Guinea, West Papua, France, and Palestine, where people made demands for an absolute transformation of the economy. The COVID-19 crisis then kick-started the ‘deepest economic recession in history’, with stay-at-home orders and other restrictions negatively affecting four in five of the world’s workers, while wealth at the top has increased. Women in work continue to be at the bottom of the global supply chain – they undertake the most precarious jobs, yet are paid less than men and experience violence.
Palestinian performance poet and lecturer at SOAS رفيف زيادة states that when COVID-19 hit, the economy was already in a dire condition with Palestine’s manufacturing base destroyed. Subsequently, the Netanyahu government has positioned itself as a leading global exporter of surveillance equipment that has proved successful in monitoring and dictating every aspect of Palestinian life.
The panel outlined an internationalist agenda for social movements – how to mobilise and emerge from the crisis with a confidence in people power to fundamentally transform the global system.
Thenjiwe McHarris hopes people develop a ‘multi-decade strategy’, as social movements ‘can’t do everything at once’. Difficult conversations need to take place about how to envisage global movement infrastructure, governance and resources. In this particular moment, the traditions of black resistance and black liberation can be learnt from, while rejecting notions of incremental reform, and the differentiation between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ protestors. Furthermore, people should be unapologetic about naming their opposition: ‘the billionaire class’. Power is not some ‘weird mythical creature’, and though it may be difficult to imagine a radical realignment, there is a ‘real possibility of victory’.
Vrinda Grover compels activists not to indulge in ‘the politics of distraction’. This may be a ‘moment of anxiety’ but ideas and imagination can flourish from it. Society is involved in an ‘intergenerational struggle’ – many existing structures like the nation state must be interrogated with ‘compassion and dignity’. Where political leadership is lacking, activist citizens should fill the gap – the feminist movement in India showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter in the US points the way forward in a spirit of internationalism, friendship and solidarity.
Josua Mata thinks that ‘things will get tougher before they get better’, but there are signs of hope. In Manila, many workers – street cleaners, garbage collectors, domestic workers, food vendors – used to be invisible; now they are ‘essential’ to people’s survival. Community kitchens are establishing themselves, while social media sheds light on state corruption and Filipino youth rises up against a government ‘creeping towards fascism’. The country can be rebuilt through educating, organising and building unions, reaching across organisational as well as ideological lines.
Hakima Abbas believes that, at a time when mutual aid and collective care is providing disaster relief, now is the moment to ‘capture the imagination’ and ‘squash myths’ around the ‘inevitability and pervasiveness of neoliberal capitalism’. A ‘feminist bailout’ is needed – only the ‘first step towards a feminist economy’. The concept of ‘growth’ should be rejected, economies recentred towards health and wellbeing. There may even be opportunities to build a ‘communal tapestry across the world’, linking previously disparate struggles. If factories are taken over or popular communes created outside the state, real tangible experiments can blossom. Social movements should bring humour and irreverence to the situation, though ultimately people need to believe they can win and ‘transform society’.
رفيف زيادة understands that as ‘austerity is back on the table’, movements must build their own ‘infrastructure of dissent’. They can take as an inspiration the struggle of the Palestinians, who continue to ‘resist’ – ‘we have survived and in our survival is strength’. The planet is no longer sustainable so citizens across the world have no choice but to confront power.
Further resources: ‘Social movements in and beyond the COVID-19 crisis: sharing stories of struggles’, Interface Journal