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Issue #1931      September 7, 2020

OP-ED: The end of this road

I’m sure that, like many people, I’ve been trying to consciously unpick my reaction to this pandemic’s complete upheaval of the society in which I live. How can anyone come out of this shock to the entire economic and value system of their world believing that nothing should change?

I’ve begun to question the way I have always protested about the things I believe wrong in our society: the marches to Aldermaston in the fifties, the burning of bras (not literally) in the sixties, along with my fury at the Vietnam war; Thatcher’s bedroom tax; the endless May Day rallies; the Iraq lies: over seventy years, what has my protesting achieved? As Arundhati Roy (what a woman!) remarked after the 2003 Iraq war protests: “You do not stop a war with a weekend protest [...] You need to literally stop the companies that profit from war.”

Here we are in 2020, not looking at a brave new world, but looking at a decidedly sick one. Protesting at the behaviour of the one per cent at the top of the pile has got us nowhere and now COVID-19 forces even those who felt relatively comfortable living in this capitalist system to start doubting it. When this scourge has ended, where will those at the bottom of the pile and a lot of those currently in the middle of the pile, be?

What are we hearing after this pandemic? That the rich have become even richer, while the poor die in their thousands. These are not the values I want to live by in this increasingly authoritarian world. I’m sick of hearing that I live in a democracy. If that were so then those I elect to represent me would be doing just that but, increasingly, they are doing the opposite. Like the other eighty-four per cent of the electorate, I want them to tackle climate change. Their lack of action is destroying our world and this pandemic is also a case in point.

We now learn that, as early as 1990, a young virologist, Stephen Morse, coined the term “emerging viruses” and spoke about potentially devastating pathogens emerging because our urbanisation was causing the proximity of humans to forest animals that serve as viral reservoirs: warnings about the worldwide spread of microbes accelerated by war, the global economy, and international air travel. Who was listening? Certainly not those profiting from raping the planet. Joshua Lederberg, then president of Rockefeller University stated that “the single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.”

Realising how powerful people can be en masse, governments of all colours have brought in restrictive legislation – especially for unions – preventing strikes with prohibitive fines. When the fury of the people erupts, as after yet another killing of a Black American, George Floyd, by white police, they are faced with a police force equipped like an army.

So, if peaceful protests prove ineffective what is left? We’ve tried being peaceful in the case of global warming: hundreds of scientists signed letters, people gather regularly outside parliaments: yet nothing changes. What do we learn from this? After a lifetime, I’ve learnt that peaceful protests are not working, and that other avenues should be explored.

And finally, this is beginning to happen – hopefully not too late – with movements being mobilised to deal directly with a problem. Now we’re seeing lawyers becoming involved to challenge companies involved in destroying the planet. And, if this increasingly authoritarian society keeps making protest marches and strikes illegal, the next step is civil disobedience.

While we continue to obey laws made to keep us quiet, continue to bend our backs producing and consuming their goods – as workers in factories, companies, and universities – we feed the status quo. The current system – neoliberalism – has alienated us and divided our sense of community, but this pandemic has given us the opportunity to imagine a new, much fairer, society: to mend our communities and join together in achieving the world we want. The power of civil disobedience and strikes are far more powerful than protests and appeals, though a strategy involving all four would be phenomenal! To achieve social change, we need a constructive and organised resistance. All the presently divided groups on the left of the spectrum need to come together and organise.

The amazing deployment of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement which has become one of the largest protest movements in US history has affected the US psyche like a tsunami and is already having political repercussions: defunding of police, new laws to effect charging racist police, and end police militarisation. Once again professional groups are involved – as in civil rights lawyers. But what I consider amazing is the return of community action: there’s strength in numbers.

Another powerful “ripple” in the US, revealing of a people’s revolt is the People’s Strike [www.peoplesstrike.org], which sees people co-ordinating online, combining worker strikes in exploitative corporations such as Walmart, Amazon, and Wholefoods, united under the slogan that “Capitalism is the Virus.” I never thought to see this form of constructive resistance in America. Perhaps Americans are realising they’re not so free after all.

Stellan Vinthagen, a professor of resistance studies at University of Massachusetts, and an activist in War Resisters’ International, is a keen advocate of “constructive resistance,” believing it enacts alternatives in a form of resistance combining the affirmatives and negatives in the struggle for social change. He advocates that it “avoids the co-option trap that hunts the construction of alternatives which risks them becoming just another alternative in the capitalist market while simultaneously avoiding the repression and marginalisation trap that hunts radical resistance movements.” Building this resistance involves “dignity, resources, empowerment and hopeful alternatives to existing problems, while mass mobilisations of resistance tear down and obstruct the power systems of dominant elites to exploit, repress and destroy people, nature and the planet we live on.”

It will be a busy time during this pandemic for us to re-orient, develop strategies, and form alliances and, perhaps, find another way to organise ourselves. Unless we do this we will have lost an opportunity to emerge from COVID-19 prepared to deal with the capitalist system that threatens us, our way of life and the planet.

To quote my favourite author, Arundhati Roy, again: “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.” She also added “The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.”

People must realise that united we can have a better world. We are in the majority and those who subjugate us are few: they need us more than we need them. Our poor, suffering earth certainly does not need them.

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