"if you don't have a strategy, you're part of someone else's strategy."
– a. toffler
"What can we do today, so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?"
– Paulo Freire
on a glaring omission from an otherwise alright manifesto
Has a good segue into the idea of “minimum programmes”.
Today saw the publication of a “Global May Manifesto” by the Occupy movement; or rather it’s International Assembly. It is described as the output of collaboration through the internet, the combination of individual statements by cities and online discussion. After reading it, I decided to consider, and attempt analysis, of its demands. It is my opinion that this is an excellent initiative by the movement, to finally put their ideas in writing, as the ambiguity had to my mind seriously undermined their movement by depriving it of focus. Whether their demands are wise or useful, we shall see.
1. The economy must be put to the service of people’s welfare, and to support and serve the environment, not private profit. We want a system where labour is appreciated by its social utility, not its financial or commercial profit.
This is sort of vague anticapitalism that is difficult to argue with: I challenge you to produce any non-sociopath who advocates placing profit above people. Luckily, they follow this up with some more concrete statements.
“Therefore, we demand:
• Free and universal access to health, education from primary school through higher education and housing for all human beings. We reject outright the privatisation of public services management, and the use of these essential services for private profit.
• Full respect for children’s rights, including free childcare for everyone.
• Retirement/pension so we may have dignity at all ages. Mandatory universal sick leave and holiday pay.
• Every human being should have access to an adequate income for their livelihood, so we ask for work or, alternatively, universal basic income guarantee.
• Corporations should be held accountable to their actions. For example, corporate subsidies and tax cuts should be done away with if said company outsources jobs to decrease salaries, violates the environment or the rights of workers.”
These demands are good, social-democratic ideas. The obvious retort would be “Well, who is going to pay for them”, but they are affordable notions, and in some cases (the conditions upon industrial subsidies, and the provision of universal childcare) would probably pay for themselves.
Unfortunately, despite a strong start, the manifesto immediately begins to career off the rails of sanity:
“• Apart from bread, we want roses. Everyone has the right to enjoy culture, participate in a creative and enriching leisure at the service of the progress of humankind. Therefore, we demand the progressive reduction of working hours, without reducing income.”
How, exactly? As it stands, Western capitalism, social democracy and the trade union movement has consistently reduced working hours and increased conditions over the past century. Simply saying “We want more money for less work” is a little pointless when the economy is in the shitter, companies’ profits are decreasing, and states such as Greece and Spain are hamstrung by their uncompetitiveness in the globalized marketplace.
“• Food sovereignty through sustainable farming should be promoted as an instrument of food security for the benefit of all. This should include an indefinite moratorium on the production and marketing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and immediate reduction of agrochemicals use.
• We demand policies that function under the understanding that our changing patterns of life should be organic/ecologic or should never be. These policies should be based on a simple rule: one should not spoil the balance of ecosystems for simple profit. Violations of this policy should be prosecuted around the world as an environmental crime, with severe sanctions for those convicted.
• Policies to promote the change from fossil fuels to renewable energy, through massive investment which should help to change the production model.
• We demand the creation of international environmental standards, mandatory for countries, companies, corporations, and individuals. Ecocide (wilful damage to the environment, ecosystems, biodiversity) should be internationally recognised as a crime of the greatest magnitude.”
It is at this point we get into seriously stupid territory. 14% of the world’s population are starving, and you want to ban genetically modified food and improved fertilizers? We’ve been modifying nature to fit our appetite literally since the dawn of agriculture: what you use to make your dinner is completely unrecognisable next to its natural state. There is no proven risk to GM food, and calling to ban it makes you sound horribly anti-science. Do you think the natural state of the countryside is being covered in crop fields? It ain’t, but you’d be going hungry tonight if we hadn’t decided to “spoil the balance of ecosystems”.
Another problem here is the tendency (which shall reoccur, I warn you) to make demands for international enforcement of laws, without any indication of how. If some African country decides to flood a valley, committing an “environmental crime”, who is going to convict them? Who is going to enforce the sanctions? The fact of the matter is, any attempts to do so would be immediately labelled as imperialism.
“2. To achieve these objectives, we believe that the economy should be run democratically at all levels, from local to global. People must get democratic control over financial institutions, transnational corporations and their lobbies. To this end, we demand:
• Control and regulation of financial speculation by abolishing tax havens, and establishing a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT). As long as they exist, the IMF, World Bank and the Basel Committee on Banking Regulation must be radically democratised. Their duty from now on should be fostering economic development based on democratic decision making. Rich governments cannot have more votes because they are rich. International institutions must be controlled by the principle that each human is equal to all other humans – African, Argentinian or American; Greek or German.
• As long as they exist, radical reform and democratisation of the global trading system and the World Trade Organization must take place. Commercialisation of life and resources, as well as wage and trade dumping between countries must stop.”
Here we see the complete separation of the Occupy movement from the realities of planet Earth. Rich countries control the IMF because they give these institutions the money that makes them function. The Western powers aren’t going to carry on pumping billions into these organisations when the likes of Mugabe are going to be deciding how the money is spent. Again, massive questions arise over the issue of enforcement: how can we ensure that the people get democratic control over financial institutions when so much of the planets population don’t even have democratic control of their own government? And how can tax havens be abolished? Are you going to invade Switzerland?
Note also the wonderful bit of racism: Four different white nations can be distinguished, but Africa is just full of Africans.
“• We want democratic control of the global commons, defined as the natural resources and economic institutions essential for a proper economic management. These commons are: water, energy, air, telecommunications and a fair and stable economic system. In all these cases, decisions must be accountable to citizens and ensure their interests, not the interests of a small minority of financial elite.”
This is all well and good, but how are you going to make it happen? Nationalisation? You’re talking about Nationalising vast chunks of the economy, aren’t you? As for “democratic control” of “telecommunications”, I am a bit perplexed. Are they calling for the state control of the phone companies and internet providers? That isn’t really a commons: it wasn’t there already, somebody had to build it. Also, calling for a “fair and stable economic system” makes me wonder exactly who is calling for an unfair and instable one.
• As long as social inequalities exist, taxation at all levels should maintain the principle of solidarity. Those who have more should contribute to maintain services for the collective welfare.”
Progressive taxation? What a novel idea, only practised by almost every country in the world already.
“Maximum income should be limited, and minimum income set to reduce the outrageous social divisions in our societies and its social political and economic effects.”
Oh lord, what? Maximum income? How, by confiscating the wages of anyone earning over £100,000? That definitely won’t crush all entrepreneurship when we see Bill Gates lose 95% of his fortune to the government.
As for minimum wage, how novel, etc, etc.
“• No more money to rescue banks.”
Great, so when Halifax next has a problem with liquidity, we can look forwards to all their customers losing their life’s savings.
“As long as debt exists, following the examples of Ecuador and Iceland, we demand a social audit of the debts owed by countries. Illegitimate debt owed to financial institutions should not be paid.”
What exactly is “illegitimate debt”? This sounds a lot like opting to default, which is fine if you don’t want to ever, ever sell a government bond again, which in turn means massively cutting government spending. If that’s your plan, that’s ok I guess…
“• An absolute end to fiscal austerity policies”
“• As long as banks exist, separation of commercial and financial banks, avoiding banks that are “too big to fail”.”
Hey, that’s not a bad idea! Bring back Glass-Steagal! Mind you, the bit about “As long as banks exist” sounds horribly like they want to get rid of them altogether.
“• An end to the legal personhood of corporations. Companies cannot be elevated to the same level of rights as people. The public’s right to protect workers, citizens and the environment should prevail over the protections of private property or investment.”
What I think they want is actually good, but horribly termed here. Corporate personhood is actually quite important, although the concept has recently been horribly abused. What are corporations, after all, than organisations of people?
“3. We believe that political systems must be fully democratic.”
So do I, but how are we going to make it happen in countries where there is little or no democracy at all? That’s the important question here.
“We therefore demand full democratisation of international institutions, and the elimination of the veto power of a few governments. We want a political system which really represent the variety and diversity of our societies:
• All decisions affecting all mankind should be taken in democratic forums like a participatory and direct UN parliamentary assembly or a UN people’s assembly, not rich clubs such as G20 or G8”
Again we find a serious failure to recognise the realities of how the world works. Without the Security Council veto, the UN simply would fall apart, as what the international community wants cannot happen without the consent of its superpowers. The UN can demand all it wants that Israel withdraws from the West Bank, but until the United States decides to make it happen, it’s not going to happen. These changes would condemn the planet’s institution to the same fate as the League of Nations.
“• At all levels we ask for the development of a democracy that is as participatory as possible, including non representative direct democracy .
• As long as they are practised, electoral systems should be as fair and representative as possible, avoiding biases that distort the principle of proportionality.”
This is a wonderful principle, but the unavoidable question of how to make it happen in dictatorships reoccurs.
“• We call for the democratisation of access and management of media. These should serve to educate the public, as opposed to the creation of an artificial consensus about unjust policies.
• We ask for democracy in companies and corporations. Workers, despite wage level or gender, should have real decision-making power in the companies and corporations they work in. We want to promote co-operative companies and corporations, as real democratic economic institutions.”
Again, good ideas, but the implementation makes me uneasy. More mutualisation of industry would be a good thing, but other than nationalisation, there is no really obvious route.
“• Zero tolerance of corruption in economic policy. We must stop the excessive influence of big business in politics, which is today a major threat to true democracy.
• We demand complete freedom of expression, assembly and demonstration, as well as the cessation of attempts to censor the internet.
• We demand respect for privacy rights on and off the internet. Companies and the government should not engage in data mining.”
More fine ideas. Except for the comments on internet censorship, which must be qualifiedː Would this apply to websites publishing child pornographyʔ Calling for the murder of Jewsʔ Describing how to make bombsʔ
“• We believe that military spending is politically counterproductive to a society’s advance, so we demand its reduction to a minimum.”
Well, that’d be nice, wouldn’t itʔ Lets take a look at the biggest military spenders (as a percentage of GDP), and pass this message on! So, write to Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Israel, Chad and Jordan, and let me know what they say!
The problem is that while most people would like a world without war, a lot of nasty people with guns disagree.
“• Ethnic, cultural and sexual minorities should have their civil, cultural, political and economic rights fully recognised.”
Woah there. What exactly is a cultural or ethnic rightʔ I’m pretty sure the Aztecs would have considered it their cultural right to sacrifice slaves in honour of Huitzilopochtli, and that the women of Somali would consider it their right to mutilate their daughter’s genitalia. Those are extreme examples, but you need to be incredibly specific here. Which rights get protectedʔ
“• Some of us believe a new Universal Declaration of Human Rights, fit for the 21st century, written in a participatory, direct and democratic way, needs to be written. As long as the current Declaration of Human Rights defines our rights, it must be enforced in relation to all – in both rich and poor countries. Implementing institutions that force compliance and penalise violators need to be established, such as a global court to prosecute social, economic and environmental crimes perpetrated by governments, corporations and individuals. At all levels, local, national, regional and global, new constitutions for political institutions need to be considered, as in Iceland or in some Latin American countries. Justice and law must work for all, otherwise justice is not justice, and law is not law.”
In my humble opinion, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a wonderful document, and unlikely to be bettered. The problem is yet again one of enforcementː how can dictatorships be brought to accountʔ This is a massive geopolitical question, and one yet again this manifesto restates without answering.
I don’t agree with all of these criticisms, but I think it does raise the point of how difficult it is to call for radical change if you’re not explicitly revolutionary.
The OP is right in that sense - a lot of these suggestions and demands are unfeasible within our current system. That’s why we need a new one.