Movement Building in the 21rst Century
Political Economy Newsletter XVII
George Hewison September, 2014
In memoriam to those who died in that other 911-Chile, September 11, 1973
Movement building is essentially about connecting dots. It’s about people coming together to deal with the economic and social realities around them. It’s about making common cause between people with diverse opinions, interests and approaches to life framed from diverse life experience.
Movement building is the stuff of history. In a distant hunting/gathering past when life was simpler, obtaining the necessities of life was a collective effort and life in the community was a shared experience. When our forebears lived in harmony with nature and each other, decisions were by consensus, and movement building was totally unnecessary.
What about movement-building in modern Canada? Less than a century ago, life and experiences in rural Canada were still a much simpler, more shared experience than today. Bringing in the harvest, erecting a barn or setting an extra plate at the table for the stranger was a common experience. Yes, there were divisions based on race, ethnicity, religion and creed, and they got in the way of movement building. But it got serious when it focussed on the price for farm commodities and fighting evictions and the greed of the bankers. In the cities where factories sprang up, tens of thousands of workers collectively laboured for long hours, with low wages and shared a collective work experience. And that experience, despite differences, and after much trial and error, led to movement building in the form of unions!
There were always plenty of diversions to prevent the coming together of people in common cause. Tommy Douglas’ story, of the mice electing, first the white cats, and then the black cats to lead them, is instructive here. The mice have a hard time moving forward so long as their horizons are collectively limited to electing cats of any colour.
As opposed to the days of the Regina Manifesto when most lived in rural Canada, our population is now largely urban; and life and experience for working people is exceedingly more diverse. The division of labour is constantly growing as humanity’s technological prowess expands exponentially. In such circumstances, the heterogeneous working class that produces and distributes the wealth of society has a growing multitude of faces, incomes and experiences. The complexities of movement building under such circumstances also increase correspondingly.
But despite the complexities of current society, crisis is the order of the day for the present socio-economic system (capitalism), and the present and on-going crisis has resulted in an explosion of popular movements all over the planet, including in Canada. And every movement has both the possibility of merging into a mighty stream for positive change, or can be deflected by “cats” into channels directly opposite to the interests of the mice. The Tea Party in the U.S., the Reform Party, Ford Nation, Fox News, Sun Media and the Fraser Institute are instruments to ensnare the modern would-be adherents to a movement that favours the mice.
A huge contradiction of the system, revealed by political economy, now takes on its most urgent complexion. The ever-present objective character of profit-seeking capital to expand or die has finally collided with the finite resources of a planet. Human-induced climate change is starkly placed on history’s agenda and humanity’s greatest challenge is unfolding. Some are alarmed by the prospect that the human species is headed for an end game. Individuals with an attention span extending only as far as their wallets and/or stock portfolios limit their alarm to the prospects that their profit ledgers will take a hit if measures to curb environmental disaster are enacted.
Noting this big societal contradiction, progressive movements, with an eye on human race survival, have contradictions of their own resulting from their own diversities. To move forward, these contradictions can and must be resolved.
Despite growing movements for change and new opportunities, connecting the dots between the movements is complicated. On the progress side are millions of new energetic activists engaging for the first time in the seedlings of political expression. They are joined by veterans of past struggles with experiences, positive and negative, sharing and adding to a fermenting brew. On the negative side are the institutionalized powers of: big money, the mass media and (the ultimate defenders of the power of privilege and big money)…the state.
This writer has spent the entire spring and summer as a participant and observer in just one of millions of global protests. The experience has been both illuminating and humbling. I have met neighbours, young and old, who are natural organizers, brilliant tacticians, and others who demonstrate a wide range of expertise. It is a smorgasbord for the political junky.
Our neighbourhood is like so many others in Canada (and around the globe). It is an area caught up in transition. Aside from First Nations, this area is home to a core population five and six generations removed from immigrant stock, original grantees of land when the canals were being built in Upper Canada in the 1830s. It has since been layered over with more recent settlers. It has been a Tory bastion for most of its settler history with the odd flirtation with Liberal Red and once even for an independent-minded Anglican minister who wore NDP orange during the Bob Rae election. There are large pockets of invisible poverty in the community as hard-working members of the several churches in the area can attest. The food banks are being overwhelmed by the influx of the working poor, and the one in Bobcaygeon is now considering closing its doors because it can’t keep up. The class divide has been somewhat overlooked in many movement-building efforts.
The area has also become a retirement home for thousands of “baby boomer” refugees from Toronto and the rest of the Golden Horseshoe, who sold their working-life homes, taking advantage of the housing boom in Toronto and bought or built nice places in the Kawarthas, escaping the speeded up pace of life and the traffic congestion for cleaner air and tranquillity in one of nature’s most beautiful areas...until now.
The area is known as the “Land Between”. It sits between the Canadian Shield and the Great Lakes region. It is where the northern-most extremity of vast limestone deposits and the southern-most granite of the Shield touch each other. The limestone is prized for its dimensional stone for landscaping. In crushed form, the aggregate is used in construction and for highways. The area is now the developers’ modern variant of the gold rush.
Now to add insult to misery, there is an open-pit graphite mine being contemplated in our back yard, potentially the largest in the world. Graphite is highly prized in the high tech sector and in the production of steel.
People flying over the area have already described our once pristine scenery as a “war zone”. As our water and air are degraded, endangered and “at risk” species that share our area become more endangered and “at risk”(the proposed limestone mega quarry sits immediately adjacent to a fish sanctuary), while tandem trucks loaded with tons of rock and aggregate roar through the quiet little villages all in the name of “economic progress”, posing health and safety risks, and wearing down roads and bridges that local citizens have to pick up the tab for, along with empty Tim Horton’s paper cups and Burger King wrappers. So it has become a war zone!
What was once a tiny protest in a sleepy village here has now turned into a wide, engaged community affair, and the dots are connecting rapidly. The Council of Canadians has helped us connect many of the dots. So too have committed environmentalists. The most popular t-shirt slogan in the area is one that made the rounds in trendy environmental circles a couple of decades ago, inscribed “Think Globally-Act Locally”. This time the slogan and t-shirts are being worn by folks who had never, ever, marched, or sang, or sat in, or organized before. They are marching and singing, sitting in and organizing as never before.
But there are still many dots to connect as a community struggles to maintain liveability. The political economy of a system in crisis, the blind greed of developers anxious for the quick buck and disdainful of economic, social and environmental costs to the community make conflict and movement-building inevitable. There are still many lessons to learn, but we are learning them.
One lesson that is coming to the fore: the rights and struggles of First Nations. The settler community has not had a good track record on First Nations’ rights, but First Nations have succeeded in informing the rest of Canada about the centrality of the environment and what lies behind the fierce struggle for First Nations’ rights. Those fighting for a future in our community are developing a deeper appreciation of the importance of First Nations issues.
The local movement is also taking first tentative steps to engaging in independent political action, holding politicians accountable, both locally and to some extent provincially (and, more remotely, federally). Entrenched and heretofore largely unaccountable political forces at all levels have a need to be wary of an engaged and better informed citizenry. They will have to go beyond spin. It is a fascinating and unfolding process.
Thus far, that other great movement that has shaped so much of Canadian social and economic history, i.e. the labour movement, has not yet made its presence felt here in any significant way.
Labour is itself trying to defend itself from the greatest attack it has seen since it became a mass phenomenon decades ago. It is in its own transition phase of connecting dots trying to throw off years of administrative unionism that tended to isolate labour from its natural allies. Efforts by labour to build coalitions and common cause with the community now have fresh energy and there is little doubt that the dots between environmentalists, community activists and the labour movement will become clearer in the course of struggle.
As local movements grow the dots to Bangladesh, the Middle and Far East, Latin America, Africa, Russia, the Ukraine and everywhere, people and their movements are trying to get power back into their lives, will be connected. The struggle to defend our community can only grow. It starts at Nogies Creek. But our individual movements are just like Nogies Creek. It joins other waterways when it opens at Pigeon Lake and then the Trent River and finally the mighty St. Lawrence and ultimately empties into the Atlantic where it touches the peoples of the world.
I had initially intended this piece to be about the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but I’ve rambled far too long to initiate a discussion on these institutions this month.
But when we start connecting dots, even at Nogies Creek, it’s examining the big picture, including the World Bank and the IMF that allows us to properly frame strategies for movement building and, within those strategies, to adapt flexible tactics for success.
So we will catch up next month, but I’ll leave you with this slogan from the epic victory of Salvador Allende in the 1970 Chilean election that was temporarily stalled in that other tragic 9-11 in 1973. It is not a substitute for strategy, but something much more important-- an affirmation about the power of the people and about real democracy in action. Like the songs of the martyred Chilean singer, Victor Jara, this slogan is for the ages. Roughly translated it means: “The People United Will Always Win”
EL PUEBLO UNIDO JAMÁS SERÁ VENCIDO!
George Hewison is a lifelong union organizer and former officer of his union, the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union on Canada’s west coast. He embraces political and social activism in the interests of social justice and fundamental social change. He believes in the power of working people, who, if given the proper tools, can change the world. One of those tools is a deepening understanding of how our society is put together. He has been the recipient of many important lessons, both positive and negative, from veterans of Labour’s struggles stretching back decades. He has spent most of his adult life sharing those lessons with others.
For a number of years, he has also engaged in a study of the political economy of capitalism, including its current iteration, and conducts discussion groups with interested folks who share his desire to understand and explain the complexities of the social, economic and political world around us.
He continues a tradition of combining working class activism with the power of song and continues to tour and perform extensively. He may be reached at email@example.com .