Building New Coalitions for a Democratic Economy

By Mike Prokosch

The Local Faces of Anti-(Corporate) Globalization

In the year since Seattle, the movement for global economic justice has shown that it’s here to stay. It has staged three national demonstrations against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the one-party system controlled by corporate capital. It has kept itself in the media, establishing protest as a frame for media coverage of the global economy. With its sister movements around the world, it has kept the IMF and World Bank on the run and helped block a new round of trade talks in the World Trade Organization.

Less visible, but equally vital, are the movement’s local gains. Across the country, activists are connecting global battles to local ones. The “globalization” movement is becoming a movement to take American democracy back from giant corporations—not just in the streets of Philly and LA, but in fights for family farms, living wages, and the seeds of a democratic economy.

Here are a few of the stories Laura Raymond and I have discovered while researching a book about the local face of the global movement (forthcoming from Nation Books in September). They paint a picture of “one no and many yeses” —a plural movement which is rejecting corporate globalization and building links with the many majorities that make up our society.

Maine. Bangor is a small city in central Maine, but it has a large core of activists who are always looking for ways to mainstream progressive principles. In the mid-1990s they decided to make Bangor a sweat-free city.

A petition drive that collected signatures from one in every ten Bangor residents was the first step. Since then a city council resolution, annual “Clean Clothes Fairs,” and a consumer-retailer pledge have kept expanding the base and visibility of the Clean Clothes Campaign. Its message is: We don’t want exploitation marketed in our city. Our values should shape our economy. And they can.

The message is echoing across Maine. New Clean Clothes Campaigns in southern Maine, the state AFL-CIO, the Maine Catholic Diocese and state Council of Churches have joined forces to develop a new state purchasing and investment law. Clean Clothes activists sit on the state commission which is drafting it. If the new law is challenged in the World Trade Organization as a “barrier to trade,” they are prepared to fight a battle that could echo around the world.

Iowa. Family farmers are front-line victims of corporate globalization. Transnational corporations are “consolidating the entire food chain,” to quote Monsanto spokesman Robert Farley. In the process, they’re turning family farmers into contingent contractors or forcing them off the land entirely. But in the early 1980s, many Iowa farmers couldn’t see the process clearly through the fog of government propaganda which blamed foreign farmers.

To cut through the fog, they went abroad. A series of cross-border exchanges took family farmers first to France, then Canada and Mexico. “I couldn’t believe that I was hearing the same stories in France that I heard in rural Vermont,” said Lee Light, a dairy farmer who joined one National Family Farm Coalition trip. “Those French farmers that our government told us were highly subsidized were in fact losing their farms.”

The farmers also started crossing borders in the United States. “We began to cross sectors and started developing relationships with labor and environmental organizations,” said Denise O’Brian of the National Family Farm Coalition. “The progressive farm movement was too small.... it needed to ally with other movements to make its voice heard.”

And it did. The Family Farm Coalition helped defeat “Fast Track” free-trade legislation and reached out to labor. Farmers organized an entire day of protest in Seattle and added their voice to the overall critique of corporate capitalism. We’ll be hearing more from family farmers as StarLink corn, mad cow disease, and other agri-business crimes arouse the public.

When you cross borders—borders of race, class, nationality—it changes you. The students and Steelworkers who got together in Seattle have made a formal alliance that is slowly transforming both their movements. The Tennesee workers and Iowa farmers who crossed the border gained an energy and a clarity that changed them and their communities. The new movement is creating its own kind of globalization that connects people across national and occupational lines. It is fighting destructive new trade agreements, often successfully, and carving out space for sustainable local economies. It is breaking down the free-market, big-business-knows-best ideology that walls us away from our future. It is a growing force.

Connecting Anti-Corporate and Grassroots Economy Activists

Where does the grassroots economy movement fit into this? In at least three places.

Same enemies. Under the mask of free trade, the world’s largest corporations are systematically eliminating the little enterprises. They are changing the rules to tilt the game in their favor, e.g., by making tax-based supports and government preferences for local contractors illegal, and by enabling giant, foreign corporations to gain “market access” and destroy local enterprises. Rule changes like these would monopolize economic development in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. They are far advanced, but incomplete. There is still time for the grassroots economy movement and the globalization movement to join forces and stop the corporate WTOWorld Take Over.

Some of the same solutions. The new South End Press book, Globalization from Below, advances the following strategies, on which both anti-corporate and grassroots economy activists could join forces:

• building a community controlled economic sector;

• protecting local and national economic development capacity;

• overall, making decisions as close as possible to those they affect; equalizing global wealth and power; creating prosperity by meeting both human and environmental needs.

Many of the same challenges. Among other things, both movements need to work much more closely with communities of color and support their struggles for economic justice, reach out to build a really broad base for a democratic economy, and take the fight for a democratic economy beyond the borders of the United States.

Some co-ops are actually showing the way. One of these, Equal Exchange, is profiled in this issue. Since 1986, it has developed strong connections between fair trade, ethical consumption, and the building of a strongly democratic economy—both in this country and worldwide.

Fine. These two movements share enemies, solutions, and challenges. How do they actually start working together?

First, through education. Find people near you who are working on globalization issues. Show up at their meetings or actions and start talking to them about your projects. Set up house parties, slide or video shows, or open houses at co-ops. Don’t just tell people how a democratic economy works, show them. In doing this educational work, keep focused on two themes:

Your values, the values of a cooperative, democratic economy. How they match the values of the people you are reaching out to. How both contrast with the values of transnational capital.

Where I (someone you’re trying to reach) fit into the present economy, and would benefit from a cooperative one. If you are talking to me, and you can help me discover my place as a worker/consumer/woman/man—and how to transform it—you have given me a starting point to change that economy and my relation to it.

Try it. You will find tremendous receptivity, especially among young activists. While there’s also skepticism, most global activists share an ecological critique of capitalism. They’re sympathetic with small-scale, democratic, sustainable enterprises. What they lack is direct experience of how they work. If you offer that, many people will eat it up. They’ve seen what’s wrong with the economy – now they want to know how their economic lives can be different.

Secondly, draw on the anti-globalization groups in your local area—they may want to may want to pitch in as well. The Clean Clothes Campaign in Maine publishes a Shopping Guide featuring democratically-run clothing workplaces (alongside relatively “clean” corporate retailers). The Inter-Religious Task Force used its global education work with congregations to make Cleveland the country’s fourth largest market for fair trade coffee. It may take some work to find a similar global group near you and do the initial educational groundwork with them. But if you are looking for more people to help build a democratic economy, the folks that are fighting global corporatism are a good place to start.

Mike Prokosch coordinates the globalization program at United for a Fair Economy, in Boston, MA. He can be reached by email at mprokosch@ufent.org .

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