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A Conspiracy of Hope

Ever since global trade began to transform cultures, people have worked together across borders of nation, religion, and race, finding strength together that they lacked separately.

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Solidarity among workers

The same radical ideas of justice and equality that spurred the abolition movement also led to an international movement focused on the rights of workers in the globalizing economy of the mid-19th century. Marx's description of that time could easily describe our time: “All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries...whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe ... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.”

It was in this context that, in the 1850s, English factory owners fought back against the growing power of unions by importing workers from poorer European countries to replace striking workers, including cigar makers, tailors, and builders.

The workers then developed an international strategy. With Karl Marx's involvement, they formed the First International Workingman's Association in 1864. In 1866, the First International helped prevent the bosses of striking tailors in England from hiring strike breakers from Belgium, France, and Germany by convincing their comrades overseas not to become “scabs.” In 1867, a delegation of striking Parisian bronze workers visited London to seek support for their right to unionize; the First International subsequently sent hundreds of pounds from British unions and contributed to the success of the strike.

The First International crashed in 1872 due to internal conflicts that make today's tormented consensus meetings look orderly. Still, in the long-term, the First International played a key role in the development of national labor unions and working-class consciousness in Europe. These new unions and new ideas made significant changes not only in labor conditions, but also in national policies, from free speech laws to the expansion of the right to vote beyond the propertied classes. Like the global justice movement, the international workers' movement was a multi-issue struggle that included domestic as well as global goals.

One of the broad lessons of the First International is the importance of going beyond economic nationalism for solutions to labor exploitation. The Teamsters', Steelworkers', and other unions' involvement in the 1999 Seattle coalition was a hopeful sign of the U.S. labor movement's renewed focus on internationalism. Yet labor's involvement in today's global justice movement remains fragile. The First International also teaches us that union leadership must aim to involve a broad base of rank-and-file members in international policy. Also, the non-labor branches of the global justice movement should work harder to strengthen relationships with workers, whose past struggles have achieved major victories for all of society. It is workers—that is, all of us who work for a living—who stand to lose or gain from changes in the international economic order.

Opposing ‘free' trade

The movement against King Leopold's colonization of the Congo provides additional evidence of continuity between past social movements and the current global justice movement. From 1890 to 1910, a particularly brutal form of colonization took place in the Belgian Congo. The King's henchmen not only worked Congolese to death through forced labor gathering rubber in the jungle. They also chopped off the hands of any who rebelled—even the children of those who rebelled.

Adam Hochschild's superb book, King Leopold's Ghost, tells the story of the movement against these offenses. As Hochschild relates, the movement was sparked by a manager from an English shipping company, who recognized that his company's “free trade” with the Congo was not really free. As Edmund Morel supervised the loading and unloading of ships in Belgium, he observed that a great wealth of ivory and rubber was being imported from the Congo, but only soldiers and guns were being exported. Helped by exposés from two charismatic African Americans who had lived in the Congo and a gay Irish republican who served as a British diplomat, Morel led a solidarity movement that eventually included activists in England, the United States, Italy, and even Australia.

New technologies played a large role in the development of the movement: transportation innovations and the telegraph made international communication and cooperation more feasible, the camera was used to document the atrocities, and slideshows helped spread these images to a wide audience. Like today's multinational corporations, the King fought back with his own information campaign: strategically placed advertisements and articles in newspapers the King supported financially, brochures and booklets distributed to elite decision makers, and high-paid lobbyists in America and England. Eventually, however, the activists succeeded in tarnishing the King's reputation and portraying his rule as a “crime against humanity,” a term that African-American George Washington Williams invented to describe Leopold's lethal role in the Congo. The movement's success in education did not produce a complete change in policy, but gradually, some reforms were made, and the worst abuses of the colonial regime ended with King Leopold's death.

Just as King Leopold purported to be a philanthropist, interested only in the well-being of the Congolese, the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and FTAA all present a public face of benevolence, development, and assistance for the poor. The activists of the turn of the last century had less sophisticated technology to document abuses, but they used what they had more successfully to convince the public and politicians that the allegedly benevolent institutions of the colony were in reality incurring injury of almost unbelievable dimensions. Just as King Leopold's image became linked in the public mind to the image of a child with hands cut off, the World Bank could be linked to the image of a starving child.

Today's global justice activism has one great advantage over Congo activism: it is largely a movement of the people affected by globalization, not just a movement for them. Global justice organizers in the North must build on this strength by using their power to amplify the voices of the activists from the South, not to speak on their behalf.

History's long arc

Just as the movement against the slave trade contributed to the struggles for workers rights and human rights in the 19th century, all three movements laid the foundations for the major social justice movements of the 20th century: the anti-imperialist movement, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, and more. Each of the older movements provides lessons for today's activists. While some aspects of the current global justice movement are new—the use of the Internet for informing and organizing, small groups coordinating to produce mass demonstrations, and a high degree of economic literacy—its roots are deep. The latest technology, innovative protest styles, and information politics have been used for hundreds of years by activists seeking to oppose the devastating effects of global trade on their communities and communities in other countries. Perhaps the most important lesson to draw from this history is not to get discouraged by short-term defeats. The arc of history is long. Though it may not seem so at the time, each movement bends it further toward justice.


Zahara Heckscher is the co-author ofHow to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas(Penguin, www.volunteeroverseas.org). This article is adapted from a chapter in Global Backlash: Citizen Initiatives for a Just World Economy, ed. by Robin Broad (Rowman & Littlefield).

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