Tag Archives: Bolivia

What We Communists Want

Following on my last post concerning the danger of reproducing the dismal logic of contemporary capitalism in representations of uneven development, this morning I began thinking about the question of what we communists want.

well-being-map-gallopPart of the problem in trying to think this question today is that utopian horizons have been smashed and discredited by the patent failures of “really existing” socialism around the world during the last half century. But another strong problem is the way in which capitalism has gotten under our skin and into our minds, defining what is possible.

So, if we’re going to insist that another world is possible, what kind of world do we want it to be?  Certainly not the one we currently inhabit. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been doing a great deal of work on the issue of Well Being. Two key facts they mention: since 1970, the UK’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled, but people’s satisfaction with life has not changed; 81% of Britons believe the government should prioritize creating the greatest happiness rather than the greatest wealth.

The NEF has participated in some important attempts to redefine Well Being on a national and international level, shifting the conversation away from GDP, which, as they point out, can be augmented through increased sales of guns and tobacco just as much as through increased spending on education and child care facilities. The projects of theirs that are worth checking out: Happy Planet Index (the “leading global index of sustainable well being) and the National Accounts of Well Being project.

Part of the problem here is that prescriptions for well being can often come across as pretty banal. NEF’s Five Ways to Well Being thus includes a list of actions that seem pretty obvious:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Take Notice
  • Keep Learning
  • Give

They also seem hopelessly oriented to middle class citizens of affluent, overconsuming nations of the global North. It makes sense on some level to target such hyperconsumptionist subjects since the materialistic values that we Northerners have been coaxed to embrace are at the leading edge of destroying the planet through anthropogenic climate change, and our materialism is being disseminated through the global media as the paradigm to which all developing countries should aspire. We have to shift values in the global North if we are to avert catastrophe.

We also need to dismantle the skein of false desires generated by capitalist culture. This has been a dominant preoccupation of the Left over the last century, from the Frankfurt School intellectuals’ dyspeptic critiques of consumer culture, to Thomas Frank’s more recent discussion of the rise of Right-wing sentiments among the U.S. working class in books like What’s Wrong With Kansas?, to Sara Ahmad’s The Promise of Happiness, which discusses the ways in which the imperative to be happy leads to straightened and oppressive definitions of the self and social being.

Despite, then, the importance of this discussion of alternative definitions of well being in the North, it’s important to simultaneously ask what the question of well being would look like from a global South perspective. A partial answer to this question is given in the Vivir Bien project. Growing out of the insurgent Bolivarian movement in Latin America, the project is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

An immediate set of demands on the path to well being were articulated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  The People’s Agreement crafted at this conference in Bolivia includes the following demands:

  • harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, and equality;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • people in harmony with nature;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;
  • peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth;

I’d be very interested to hear what kinds of other models of well being have been articulated by social movements around the globe in recent years. At the beginning or the end of these lists, of course, should come the abolition of capitalism and its drive to ceaseless accumulation, which is of course at the roots of everyone’s unhappiness as well as the threat of planetary extinction.

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Pachamama o muerte!

Before everything else, the Cochabamba conference was remarkable for bringing together a large group of radical activists from all around the world.  The social connections and sense of possibility that resulted from the exchanges that unfolded in this setting were immensely valuable.  For an overview of the conference that includes many interviews as well as the official publications of the various different working groups, check out the conference website.

These social connections will be hugely important in building the movement for climate justice on a local, national, and international plane in the coming months and years.  Based on my interviews with activists on the trip back to the U.S., being in Cochabamba made North Americans particularly aware of the responsibility they have as citizens of the most affluent and most powerful (but also most energy-consuming) nation on the planet.  What kinds of accountability can we articulate in response to the experience of meeting activists, intellectuals, and campesin@s from the global South?  More importantly, what specific actions can we say that we are engaged in in order to challenge the U.S.’s disproportionate carbon footprint and regressive politics on climate change?

One of the most immediate steps on people’s minds seems to be to continue organizing and networking efforts.  Activists who were at Cochabamba are already planning to link up again at the U.S. Social Forum, creating a special stream within the forum in order to continue to develop strategies for organizing.  The goal will be to develop a consistent position to take to the Cancún meeting of the UNFCC in late 2010.

In addition, activists will continue to pressure the Obama administration to adopt a more progressive position regarding climate negotiations.  One of the concrete outcomes of the Cochabamba conference was a series of proposals that are intended to place pressure on the UNFCC process.  Apparently at least 7 of the Working Groups were designed to produce proposals to influence the UNFCC.  The deadline to submit these proposals is this coming Monday – hopefully the Bolivian government and activists working with them will submit them in time.  These proposals will then be used to pressure the Obama administration.

I personally am not particularly sanguine about any significant shift happening in the Obama administration.  And even if Obama were to adopt more progressive positions and, say, to pledge to cut U.S. emissions to a point where global carbon dioxide levels could be reduced to 350ppm, he’s stuck with a Congress that is virtually guaranteed not to go along with such pledges.  But one has to work at rolling this stone up the hill, even if it threatens to roll back down on top of one.

Given this political reality, though, it makes sense to adopt a two- or three-track approach that involves using the modicum of access that activists have to Obama in tandem with campaigns to transform and to green urban and regional economies.  Involvement on organizations such as the Regional Plan Association, Urban Agenda, and the Apollo Project will be important in this regard.

I also think it’s essential to engage in direct action.  There’s been relatively little discussion of this at the conference, but this is largely because Evo was seen as an ally.  Direct action is likely to figure far more prominently in Cancún.  But I don’t think that protests should be limited to the mega-conferences.  Local action is obviously important as well in order to continue to challenge fossil fuel industries.

In the meantime, hopefully the Bolivian government’s relatively progressive position will also begin to turn the tide internationally, forging a block of developing nations interested in green alternatives to the established path of development while also prodding big polluters like the U.S. and China to begin changing their policies.

But all of this feels like reading tea leaves in very murky waters.  Whatever may come, participating in the conference has been quite transformative for me on a personal level.  I came into the conference with a very pessimistic analysis.  Basically, looking at the failure of the Copenhagen conference as a result of the growing conflict between the U.S. and China, I felt that we’re leaving a moment of super-imperialism in which the U.S. dominated the globe, in combination with a series of regional subsidiary proxy powers, and entering a moment of increasingly strident inter-imperial competition.  We’re returning, in other words, to similar conditions to those analyzed by Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.  This time, however, the theme should be more along the lines of Imperialism: The Final Stage of Capitalism since the eco-imperialist component of current capitalist culture is pushing the world’s ecosystems to the breaking point.  Given this rising eco-imperialism, I think it’s unlikely that either the U.S. as global hegemon or rising powers such as India or China are going to sign on to any climate accords.

I still don’t think that this analysis is incorrect.  This is the big picture we’ll have to cope with in coming years.  Nonetheless, the Cochabamba conference showed that it’s possible to at least formulate and advocate for a rational alternative to such suicidal policies.  By getting involved in policy formulation and social movement politics, in other words, it’s possible to overcome the sense of apocalyptic despair that the status quo inspires.  It’s also important to note that while attending the conference I was fortunate to meet many truly extraordinary people.  This too inspires great hope.

Perhaps most importantly, what I witnessed and participated in while in Bolivia was the birth of a global counter-force to the eco-imperialist juggernaut that seems so unstoppable in North America.  The odds are stacked very high against this global movement for climate justice, but that should not and cannot stop us from giving our all to this movement.  After all, what alternative is there?  Pachamama o muerte! [Mother Earth or Death]

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People’s Conference on Climate Change, Analysis of Day 2

Pache mama o muerte! (Mother Earth or Death)

Evo’s rallying cry at the beginning and end of his speech confirmed everything that I’d hoped to find in Bolivia.  Here is a leader who really understands the stakes of the epic struggle that we face in climate change and articulates that struggle to potent revolutionary traditions.  Before coming on stage, Evo sang the Bolivian national anthem, which ends in an assertion of loyalty to the nation something along the lines of patria o muerte.  So, when Evo says pache mama o muerte (Mother Nature or Death), he’s linking the struggle for climate justice to Bolivarian traditions of battle against Spanish colonialism and U.S. imperialism.

It’s one thing to understand the stakes and science of climate change in a relatively dry analytical way.  This is obviously an important issue, one that Bill McKibben and Jim Hansen both commented on in their panel today on the politics of climate science.  The climate change denialists continue to gain ridiculous amounts of traction through their control of the media and their ability to play on people’s fears of the federal government in the U.S.  So we nee to read Hansen and McKibben and understand their explanations of the science as well as their well thought-out calls for radical shifts in contemporary U.S. culture in order to avert climate chaos.

But such calls pale in comparison with the resonant anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist stance of Evo.  And this is the kind of leadership we need now.  All day I was thinking about what it means to be in this present moment in history.  Being here at the conference certainly makes one feel aware of participating in a truly epochal moment.  Some people I’ve talked to here have referred to it as “our Woodstock,” perhaps because of the rock concert quality of the inaugural ceremony.  But I would compare it much more to the so-called greatest generation, the men and women who fought against fascism and Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s, or to anti-colonial nationalist militants in the decades that followed.  These people truly remade world history.  But today, we face a struggle that goes way beyond those great battles for liberation –  we’re literally fighting for the survival of the human species, and of most other species on the planet as well.  I don’t think the gravity of this challenge, as well as the intoxicating sense of mobilization and possibility that come with such world-defining moments, have sunk in with most people yet.  But this conference is a blast from the future, a clarion call to make the world anew.

With the People’s Conference on Climate Change, Evo has occupied the high moral and political ground, and he’s standing there alone.  Just to hear him to through the climate science honestly in his speech and urge the adoption of measures to reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations to 350ppm is to hear words that virtually no other world leader is willing to pronounce.  Certainly not Obama, and not even any of the other progressive leaders of Latin America such as Lula or Chavez.  In addition, Evo has very cannily created a virtually bulletproof set of alliances for himself with social movements from other parts of the world.  It’s going to be very hard to marginalize or even depose him given the alliances gestated at this conference.

Not that Evo doesn’t have feet of clay.  His homophobic reference to GMO chicken leading to effeminancy among men suggested that he’s not in touch with progressives working on gender and sexual orientation issues domestically or internationally.  In addition, apparently during the meetings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the water wars that preceded the conference, many Bolivian activists criticized him for not developing a real environmental agenda for Bolivia.  For example, he continues to rely on natural gas exports to Brazil to produce significant revenues for the country rather than shifting to renewable energy.  Perhaps there’s an element of hypocrisy then in his strident call to save pache mama, but it’s also true that he needs to maintaining regional alliances, including those with Brazil, the regional super-power where most of Bolivia’s gas goes.  But obviously the social movements within Bolivia need to keep the pressure on him for progressive change.

And it is these social movements that give one real hope.  There’s an amazing alliance of indigenous leaders, leftists, women’s groups, etc. evident here on the ground.  This alliance is leading to fascinating cross-fertilization and transformation.  And now the international social movements fighting for climate justice are tapping into and helping build these movements.  The world is being made anew.  Pache mama o muerte!

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People’s Conference on Climate Change, Coverage

My second day at the conference, including a massive inauguration ceremony.  All documented over at Social Text.

I should add that there is, of course, lots and lots of media coverage here.  Not enough international though.  But Democracy Now, beating mainstream coverage by a mile as usual, is covering the events.  Check out their coverage here.  It’s going on all week.

Also, some of the NYC delegation who are media workers have already begun posting their material online.  The photographer Alexandra Corazza has some up here – check them out for a different angle on the conference.

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People’s Conference on Climate Change, Analysis of Day 1

Many of the pronouncements and plans advanced during the Action Strategies Working Group on day one were important, perhaps even essential, but did not strike me as particular original.  The need for better networking and better education around climate change, the importance of building organizations on both a local and a transnational level, the crucial role of coordinated days of direct action around the world, the ongoing symbolic importance of global summits – these are all fairly familiar issues within the radical green movement (and, in fact, within the global justice movement in general).

What was more significant for me and I should imagine most other people was simply to be surrounded by so many activists from different walks of life.  Despite the growing importance of networked technologies, I think that people remain hugely influenced by face-to-face connections.  This morning I was woken up around 4am by a cacophony of dogs barking, cats mewling, and roosters crowing at the place where I’m staying for the conference.  I tried listening to the BBC to go back to sleep, and happened on a broadcast about the role of book fairs.  Seems that personal encounters of the type that unfold at the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs are essential, ironically, to the success of the written word.  The same thing, to a certain extent, seems to me to be true among environmental activists.  Simply feeling power in numbers is one thing.  Drawing on the wisdom of people from completely different places (in class, race, gender, as well as geographic terms) is even more important.  Just walking around the grounds of the university where the People’s Conference on Climate Change is held was an incredible experience.  As one of my friends in the delegation, Byron Silva from Ecuador, pointed out, as recently as ten years ago, none of the bowler-hatted women and various other indigenous people who were ubiquitous in the university grounds and in the university lecture halls where the conference working groups were held would have been allowed onto the property.  They were seen as marginal to the political life of the nation.  What a massive transformation in Bolivia we are witnessing, then, as we participate in this conference.

In addition, the People’s Conference on Climate Change is also the culmination of a decade of global organizing in forums such as the World Social Forum (which began in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 2001).  Indeed, many of the forms of dialogue that this conference uses, such as the speak-out format of the working group I attended yesterday, draw on this history of non-hierarchical organizing.  I’ll include more reflections on the forms of organizing I see unfolding as the conference continues.

It’s also surely no coincidence that this conference is being held in Cochabamba, site of the water wars in 2000.  Here, popular movements mobilized to reject the privatization of municipal water supplies by multi-national corporations such as Bechtel.  The location of this conference in Cochabamba should help ensure that the voices and needs of the people of the global South are heard prominently.  Of course, this is precisely the opposite of what happened in the Copenhagen conference, where backroom deals between super-powers such as the US, EU, and China excluded the populations who are already being impacted most severely by climate change.

So, being at this conference is an immense privilege and an incredibly uplifting experience.  But of course that’s not enough.  I tend to see social change in terms of a model of punctuated equilibrium, with grassroots organizing and popular discontent bubbling away mostly unseen until moments of revolutionary upheaval.  Previous social movements such as the abolition movement, the women’s movement, anti-colonial nationalist movements, and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. took decades to achieve their goals (and, one might even argue, they still are engaged in struggle for equal rights).  But the world simply does not have decades to deal with climate change.  The longer we dally and procrastinate, the worse the effects of climate chaos are likely to be.

In addition, this is the mother of all crises, one that draws together all the threads of inequality and crisis that have characterized this planet over the previous three centuries or so of capitalist, imperialist development, expansion, and exploitation.  So thinking about and being active around issues of climate change means being engaged with all previous progressive social movements as well as staying attentive to the many different voices that are all too frequently silenced today.

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From Copenhagen to Cochabamba

Last night I attended an orientation session for the New York delegation to the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Boliva.  The forty-odd members of the delegation were an extremely exciting bunch of grassroots activists, the majority of whom came from the Bronx, although other boroughs were also represented.  I’m extremely excited to be attending the conference, and will be blogging about it here and on the Social Text website, where we’ll be debuting a new live blogging feature.

Our NYC delegation seems particularly important to me given the decision taken late last week by the U.S. State Department to deny economic assistance to countries opposing the (virtually meaningless) Copenhagen accord.  I say meaningless because the accord was so watered down.  The accord takes the heroic step of “recognizing” the scientific case for keeping temperature rises to no more than 2C but contains no commitments to cut emissions to achieve that goal.  It’s gutless and meaningless, in other words.

Those who watched the Copenhagen conference closely will remember that the Obama administration tried to ram this fig-leaf of an accord down the throats of vulnerable poor countries by making $30 billion of promised mitigation funds contingent on acceptance of the accord.  The resistance of Bolivia and Ecuador to this poisoned apple means that they are now faced with a refusal on the part of the U.S. to dispense aid for the very grave environmental damage caused by the behavior of industrialized countries over the last 200 years.  Check out this article for more on the U.S.’s strong-arm tactics.  For more on Copenhagen in general, check out the online forum I curated for Social Text.

I hope that the NYC delegation will organize a very public protest against this U.S. policy while we are in Bolivia.  We in the (over)developed world bear such disproportionate responsibility for climate injustice.  Now the U.S.’s policy has become belligerent as well as mendacious.  Time to speak up!

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