Local or global trade - debate in the anti-capitalist movement

We wanted this debate today (WSM Ideas & Action 31 March 2001) because we recognise that we share a considerable number of points of departure with those who advocate local sustainable development from an environmental rather then a nationalistic perspective. The idea for the session came out of a discussion I was having a couple of months ago with some of the activists involved in the S26 collective. They were a little annoyed at the description of the movement against corporate globalisation being labelled 'anti-capitalist', as this was not how they choose to define themselves.

So it's worth asking where this label came from. It is after all somewhat inaccurate. Of those involved in building the movement only the anarchists really described themselves as anti-capitalists although this situation has now changed as post &endash; Seattle other left organisations, notably the SWP have jumped on the bandwagon.

Anarchists organising against the FTAA Quebec summit in April are doing so under a rather neat slogan 'It's didn't start in Seattle, it won't end in Quebec'. This is a welcome alternative to 'Turn X into Seattle'.

In fact the term 'anti-capitalist' was consciously chosen in the planning protest for the J18 demonstration in the City of London in July of 1999. Although this protest is often forgotten in the 'histories' of those who came on board at the time of Seattle it was an often quoted inspiration for those organising the blockage of the WTO in Seattle.

J18 was clearly anti-capitalist in that it directly targeted the workings of one of the centres of international capitalism, the futures exchange in the Liffe building in London. Without going into a detailed history the central event on J18 was when several thousand people tried to storm this building and almost succeeded.

The media coverage of this demonstration then used the 'anti-capitalist' label, as did a layer of the activists who organised the Seattle blockade. To this extent it was a very useful label, at the time we were delighted that the media were finally describing what we were about - fighting capitalism - rather then just looking for reform.

However this shouldn't lull us into the idea that the entire movement is 'anti-capitalist'. All the sizeable demonstrations from Seattle to Nice involved a coalition between a very small number of anti-capitalists and a majority that came from groups concerned with particular aspects of modern capitalism.

The Christian group Jubilee 2000 which has played a role in the movement from the start merely wants the World Bank/ IMF to have an amnesty for third world countries where debt repayments are resulting in health and education cuts. ATTAC originated in France around concern over the loss of national economic sovereignty, in particular the loss due to the rapid currency speculation made possible by new technology. They simply propose an international tax, the Tobin tax on such speculation to reduce it and generate aid funds for the third world. Many of the US unions at Seattle were concerned with protecting US jobs from cheap Chinese imports, the unions in Nice were focused around demanding a stronger social charter that would guarantee rights for European workers.

Another important section of activists is motivated by what can be broadly described as environmental concerns. Today we had wanted a debate with these sort of activists, in particular those who have concluded that organisations like the Green party are a dead end because far more radical action is needed to combat capitalism.

We wanted this debate today because we recognise that we share a considerable number of points of departure with those who advocate local sustainable development from an environmental rather then a nationalistic perspective.

We draw this distinction, many environmentalists don't, because we see little point in arguing with those who imagine a local Irish capitalist class would somehow be kinder or gentler then the current combination of Irish and multi national capitalists. Just in case anyone is attracted by the nationalist argument I'll simply point out at this stage that one of the worst large employers in the country is owned by an Irish man, Michael O'Leary, whose union busting and low pay regime at Ryan Air is rightly infamous.

Leaving that argument aside many radical environmentalists make what often seems like a similar argument, particularly to the generation of activists who grew up in the period when anti-EU campaigns were dominated by the like of Raymond Crotty. On the other hand we often find that these activists (as opposed to Crotty) talk of a society that at least at the local level sounds a lot like what an anarchist society might look like. And of course on the tactical level like us they see the importance of the anti-corporate globalisation protests in being not simply the existence of large numbers willing to protest but in the emergence of large numbers willing to take direct action to make these protests effective.

However we also find the tendency to confuse the abolition of political power that anarchism advocates with decentralisation. In the 1980's and 1990's this led many such activists to join the green party in the hope that decentralisation of political power would be a winnable step forward. Today people have learned the lessons of that period and radical members of the Green party who imagine themselves to be anarchists are an extinct species.

Apart from politics however the perceived connection between decentralisation and anarchism was often expanded to the idea of economic organisation.

On the surface there are certain attractive aspects to the idea of local production for local need. It is certainly true that right now under capitalism there are some truly crazy examples of goods being produced in one location

And shipped half way around the world to be consumed in another. Later I'll outline the limitations of this arguments but to be clear there are cases where it does apply here are some examples

If you go to your local vegetable shop or supermarket you'll almost certainly find that they stock small and expensive cellophane wrapped trays of baby sweet corn and mange tout or sugar peas. If you look at the labelling of these packages you'll find that the sugar peas probably come from Kenya and the baby sweet corn from Thailand.

If you think about this you'll also realise that in order for them to be still fresh when you buy them they have actually been shipped by air. Air flight happens to be one of the best ways of making the hole in the ozone layer a little bigger.

It gets worse. If you go to Kenya you'll discover that peasants have been displaced off their land, where they were producing food to feed themselves and their families, in order to create ranches producing sugar peas and other cash crops. And still worse, these crops require a large amount of water in an area where rain fall and hence access to water is quite limited. But the ranches have the cash and influence to out bid or simply divert local water resources from the few local farmers who have not been forced to sell their land. So quite soon they are out of farming also to either become dollar a day workers on the ranches with little or no labour protection and exposed to all the nasty herbicides and insecticides that are necessary to keep the local bugs devouring the growing sugar peas. Or perhaps they are simply forced to migrate to Narobi and join the teeming hordes of urban poor in the shantytowns, destined to a life of un and under employment.

You might guess the World Bank and IMF are involved in this somewhere and you'd be dead right. The switch to export cash crops is one of the major policies pushed under 'structural adjustment'. You might guess the WTO is also involved and you'd be right, part of its role is to ensure that there is a 'free market' in water so it goes to the highest bidder rather then those who need it most.

This example of lunacy happens under capitalism because it allows the bosses in Kenya and Ireland to turn a profit. Whatever way you look at it I can't see an anarchist society deciding to do things that way. I reckon its either come up with a way of producing these crops locally or forget about them.

But this is not true of all commodities. Again another example

The production of aluminium under capitalism provides example after example for each stage of the most naked and ruthless exploitation.

World deposits of the ore from which it is extracted, Bauxite, are now quite limited. Some of the biggest reserves and mines are on the island of Bouganville. The inhabitants of this jungle-covered island are or were small groups of hunter gathers. Then the mining companies arrived and rapidly poisoned the rivers and felled large areas of jungle. The locals were often forced to work for the companies on starvation wages. When they resisted they were hunted down and shot. There is still a resistance movement active there but that is a discussion for another day.

To extract aluminium from bauxite you need massive amounts of electrical power and you produce huge amounts of semi toxic waste. Not surprisingly the cheapest way of doing this is to build a great big dam somewhere, put your refinery beside it off you go. Of course as people will be aware all too often such dams flood the land of the locals who are not adequately compensated and they get to join the urban poor in the cities. Did I mention that these projects tend to be funded by World Bank loans?

But and here is the big put which I can an anarchist society in Ireland deciding we can do without sugar snaps I can't see that same decision being made with regards to aluminium. Or steel or indeed any of the other metals for which there is no local source. I have no wish myself to go back to the stone age and I'm pretty sure that most if not all people would agree with me on this.

And the reality of producing these metals is that there are only significant deposits in a few locations around the world and that their production involves huge inputs of energy and large quantities of toxic waste. And for these reasons it often makes a lot more sense to have large centralised extraction and production rather then decentralising the process.

In short the idea of a pure 'local production for local needs' is either utopian (i.e. a dream that cannot be realised) or genocide (if we choose to return to the stone age the planet can only support 400 million).

The key point here is not trying to say now what decisions we wish to impose on the world. I have my opinions for instance on what should and should not be produced. I can do with tobacco but I'm rather fond of Sony playstations.

The key point is to point out the irrationality of capitalism and to argue for a society in which these decisions can be made in a rational manner.

This is only possible in a society where economic inequality has ceased to exist; otherwise it will always make sense for the rich to take the land of the poor in order to grow sugar snaps. Even on the local level a similar process often takes place where golf clubs take the local land and water. There has been

It is also only possible in a society where everyone effected by a decision has an equal say in how it is made. That is a society that consists of autonomous federations of people where there is freedom of discussion and decision making.

I have no idea if an anarchist society would decide that Sony Playstations or the equivalent are 'necessary production'. But the important thing is that for the first time in human history it would be a society capable of making that sort of decision on a rational basis.

Talk to WSM Ideas & Action dayschool 31 March 2001


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