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A roundtable discussion
Crisis and resistance: Where are we headed?

December 13, 2002 | Pages 8 and 9

GEORGE W. BUSH and the war makers in Washington are sending a message to the world with their never-ending "war on terrorism": What we say goes. But at the same time, huge numbers of people, from the Middle East to Europe to the U.S. itself, are questioning Washington's war--and taking a stand against it.

The high point for the international antiwar movement so far was the 1 million-strong demonstration in Florence, Italy, in early November. The massive protest was the culmination of the European Social Forum--a conference that brought together unionists, political organizations and social movements to take an important new step in the development of the left.

Socialist Worker talked to a panel of socialists about the political situation today--and the future of the resistance to both Bush's wars and the madness of the free market.

ANTONIS DAVENELLOS is a member of the International Workers Left in Greece and editor of Workers Left newspaper.

KATHERINE DWYER is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.

TOM LEWIS is the editor of a new book on neoliberalism and resistance in Latin America, due out next year from Haymarket Books.

AHMED SHAWKI is the editor of the International Socialist Review.

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WHAT ARE the most important features of the political situation right now?

Ahmed Shawki: The starting point has to be the U.S. "war on terrorism." The Bush administration is using September 11 to try to significantly alter the position of the United States in relationship to the other powers in the world--both in terms of its ability to intervene militarily and also to gain economic advantage. This is very clear with the war on Iraq.

They now claim that they can undertake regime change whenever they want--that is, overthrow governments that they don't like. They claim the right to take preemptive action, on the suspicion that a country may act in the future in a way that's hostile to U.S. interests. And they talk openly about creating a situation where Iraq becomes a protectorate of the United States.

But the Bush administration will face several problems in trying to ensure the dominant and unchallenged position of the U.S. in the next 30 or 40 or 50 years. They fall into different categories. First is the opposition from the other powers. You have the naked advance of U.S. interests, and the other powers will, at a certain stage, begin to object to and resist. But much more important is the resistance that will come from below.

First, to any attempt to spread U.S. dominance in the Middle East, there will likely be resistance from the mass of the populations of the Arab countries themselves. They have learned bitterly over the last 25 years since Anwar Sadat of Egypt began the peace process by visiting Israel that peace without justice equals no peace at all--equals the continuation of oppression and the impoverishment of the mass of the population.

More generally, what has been taking place internationally for the last three or four years has been the development of a movement that opposes aspects of capitalist globalization. That movement hasn't gone away, and in a number of countries, it has made a very clear connection between the issues of economic domination and war. And the war itself is bound produce even bigger social explosions.

No one can foretell what will happen as a result of the wars that Washington is planning--from instability in a number of countries and unforeseen results that stoke even more anger, and deepen the resistance.

WHY WAS the European Social Forum was such a success?

Antonis Davenellos: The launching of the European Social Forum in Florence is a large step forward for the movement against capitalist globalization.

The success wasn't just in the gigantic demonstration of 1 million people against the war in Iraq. In the hundreds of discussions and in the gathered of social movements, there appeared the elements of a political framework for the movement.

The first element is that we say no to war--without hesitation or equivocation. This position will put massive pressure on the reformist parties in Europe--the moderate left parties, like Britain's Labour Party or France's Socialist Party, with ties to the working-class movement. For example, in Italy, if the Democratic Party of the Left supports right-wing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in backing the U.S. war--or if it fails to take a clear position--it will be considered an opponent of the movement.

The conference made a call for international antiwar demonstrations on February 15, or for the first Saturday after the beginning of an attack on Iraq, and my feeling is that they will be massively successful.

The unions are already feeling the pressure to be involved. For example, in Greece, the main union federation decided that if the war begins, it will immediately call a nationwide strike, which will give the opportunity to organize a large demonstration with the participation of workers.

Also, in Florence, the proposal for a Europe-wide strike against war gained a lot of support. The proposal is already supported by some of the radical "rank-and-file" unions, such as COBAS in Italy, but it's gaining ground in the ranks of official trade unions.

The second element that appeared at the conference was that the movement isn't a soft opposition to neoliberalism--but is fighting systematically for its overthrow. This is already being demonstrated in the large strikes against the automaker Fiat in Italy, but also in the public-sector strikes in France against privatization.

Third, it's becoming clear that the movement is separating itself from the "governmental left." This position, although it's not written down in documents, was the majority tendency in Florence, and it will continue to influence developments on the European left, as can be seen by the leftward shift of Communist Refoundation in Italy--one of the groups to emerge from the former Italian Communist Party.

Finally, it was clear in Florence that a new generation of militants is coming to the fore. The participation of youth at the European Social Forum was amazing. All the decisions about how the movement should be built were shaped by the effort to involve this layer.

THERE'S BEEN a very different attitude among global justice activists in Europe and in the U.S. about the connection between the issues of war and corporate globalization, hasn't there?

Katherine Dwyer: The global justice movement's strength in the U.S. was that it took up a broad range of issues--from Third World debt to the environment to workers' rights and so on. That's why it was so disappointing when the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the core of the movement refused to publicly oppose the war.

These groups were both politically unprepared and unwilling to deal with the massive patriotic campaign following the September 11 attacks. Right after September 11, the movement could have made the connection between global justice and global peace by turning the scheduled protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for later that month--which promised to be huge--into an antiwar demonstration.

That demonstration may not have been as big as planned, but it would have laid the basis for the kind of movement that we see in Europe today--which links the fight for economic equality and justice with the fight against U.S. military domination. Instead, the protest was canceled, and the movement has refused to take up the war ever since.

The justification for this was, first, to lay low because the "war on terrorism" was too popular--and second, to "keep focused" on the same issues that the movement addressed before September 11, so that the global justice message wasn't "watered down."

The NGOs weren't simply reacting to the popularity of the "war on terror." Even at the height of the movement, at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, there were debates about how the movement should position itself in relation to the public and also the powers that be. Sometimes, these debates were about whether NGOs should have a "seat at the table" at the big trade meetings. Sometimes, they were about tactics at demonstrations.

Frankly, it's a tragedy that the movement here hasn't responded to the war. Just look at what's happening today, with Bush trying to use the cover of war to quietly slash environmental standards and open up more areas to logging and oil interests.

Bush doesn't have two agendas--one of war, and one of attacks on global justice. Bush and his corporate allies have one agenda and one doctrine for U.S. domination. We have to have a similarly cohesive worldview if we're going to mount a challenge to that agenda.

Antonis Davenellos: One of the most important advances of the movement in Europe is the position that the struggle against neoliberalism is one with the struggle against war.

What you see is a widespread conviction that issues which appear to be separate--from Third World debt and hunger in Africa, to oppression in Latin America, to privatization in Europe, to the threat of a new slaughter in Iraq--can be dealt with in only one way. That way is the search for another world which is possible--where the needs of people will matter more than the profits of capitalists. This is a solid basis for the rebirth of the revolutionary left.

The period has gigantic opportunities, but also important dangers. The accusation of "terrorism" has already been used by Berlusconi in Italy to attack organizers of the European Social Forum, and to accuse unionists who refuse to accept layoffs and privatization. This has aroused an important solidarity movement.

We have a similar problem in Greece, where the accusation of "terrorism" is being used to pressure the left and threaten activists who take part in the building of the Greek Social Forum.

Katherine Dwyer: At the same time, it's important to recognize just how far the antiwar movement has come in the United States. Compare the movement today to activism against the U.S. war on Afghanistan. I think everyone who opposed that war last year had a sense of being an embattled minority.

The pressure to shut up in the face of a massive patriotic campaign was enormous, and the antiwar movement didn't really have the time to break out of its sense of isolation and defensiveness. That's why the demonstrations on October 26 this year were so important. Everyone who built for them knew that they would be large, but few expected 200,000 people.

I think that they were bigger than last year for a couple of reasons. First, most people simply don't see a connection between the "war on terrorism" and the war on Iraq. I think the most popular button that we had at the demonstration was "No Blood for Oil"--because people know that controlling oil is one of the main reasons for this war, not "security."

Second and perhaps more important, Bush began the new war drive by announcing his bold plans for U.S. domination of the globe--economically, politically and militarily--with the Bush Doctrine. When Bush started talking about imperialism and an endless war for U.S. control of the globe, he opened the door to a much broader questioning of his agenda by ordinary people. Especially when we're dealing with an epidemic of budget cuts, layoffs and corporate scandals right here at home.

Of course, there are many debates that need to be taken up. Some people who oppose this war supported the "war on terrorism" and agree with the idea that Iraq is a diversion. Many hope that United Nations inspectors may ward off military intervention.

If we take up these debates while building activism on the ground in every school, neighborhood, workplace and union, we'll build a stronger antiwar movement and a stronger left.

THE DRIVE to war is coming in the midst of a global economic slump and after several years of a growing rejection of Washington's free market agenda, known as neoliberalism. What's the impact of this?

Tom Lewis: In Latin America, the collapse of the neoliberal model has ushered in a period of intensified class struggle from Tijuana to Patagonia. Mass protests against privatizations, trade agreements and state violence occur regularly.

Argentina, where last year a mass uprising drove out a government committed to Washington's austerity program, is the most obvious case. But Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Perú, Paraguay, Uruguay and Ecuador are all experiencing potentially insurrectionary situations.

Brazil, Mexico and the rest of Central America have also witnessed dramatic conflicts and huge protests. Even Chile--which became the darling of neoliberalizers after Argentina's implosion--has lost its apparent immunity from social unrest.

The rising tide of struggle in Latin America explains the recent victories of two left-wing presidential candidates--Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva in Brazil and Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador--as well as the second-place finish of Evo Morales in the early round of Bolivia's presidential contest.

Although elected officials have been ready to make concessions to U.S. business and military interests, Latin America's urban and rural workers are seizing every opportunity to oppose Plan Colombia, U.S. military bases in Ecuador and Brazil and Bush's "war on terrorism."

There's great opposition among ordinary Latin Americans to Bush's impending war against Iraq. Bush's military buildup and his doctrine of "preemptive strikes" are viewed as thin disguises for putting more military muscle behind U.S. economic domination.

If Bush gets away with using force to establish U.S. control over Iraq's oil markets, many Latin Americans fear that their region--with its rich natural resources and millions of potential consumers of U.S. exports--will be next.

That's why the main continent-wide struggle today is against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would legalize neoliberalism everywhere in the Western Hemisphere and expand the power of Corporate America.

All this means that real openings exist for socialist ideas and for building an anti-imperialist movement in Latin America today.

Antonis Davenellos: In Europe, it's clear that a new period of the neoliberal attack on workers' rights is beginning, with an emphasis on privatization and labor market flexibility. The strikes that have already broken out show that the working class has the capacity to react. These struggles are very important, because they limit the capitalists' freedom of action in the crisis.

I think we will see an escalation of the class struggle in Europe--especially in Italy and France. In those circumstances, the outbreak of war will bring large parts of the working-class movement in opposition to their governments and to imperialism. It will quicken the process of politicization.

This perspective shows the importance of the movement against capitalist globalization. There is already a force capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands, which is proposing a unified resistance to war and neoliberalism. This force can be the catalyst for the creation of a new, mass radical resistance in Europe.

WHAT QUESTIONS will this new resistance pose, and what can socialists do to offer answers?

Ahmed Shawki Over the last several years, opposition to aspects of the system has grown--whether the issue of sweatshop labor, or defense of the environment, or opposition to Bush and the Republican right.

In reality, these issues are tied to one another, though people don't always recognize how. But a war on Iraq will make the connections that much clearer. And it will bring home the reality of the capitalist system for millions of people.

There are a number of questions that I think will be posed--and they're already beginning to take shape in Europe. The first is what to do about what were the parties of labor--whether the Labour Party in Britain or the social democratic parties in other European countries. These parties said that they stood for the advance of the working class, but they've embraced neoliberalism completely. Here in the U.S., the Democratic Party is a pale reflection of social democracy, but it accepted the same program of neoliberalism even more ardently.

The fact that the parties of labor have made this shift forces open the question of an alternative politics on a mass scale--of the creation of new mass working-class parties. Thus, a number of unions in Europe are thinking for the first time seriously of breaking with what were the historic parties of labor.

In the context of war and recession internationally, that raises the prospect of class politics pushed to a level that we haven't seen, really, since the early 1970s. It raises the potential of creating a political alternative that can attempt to win the mass of workers, who right across the Western world are less committed to what were the traditional parties of labor.

But that's still a potential, not a reality. And I think in that context, the role of socialists will be critical. The role of socialists is to insist that capitalism as a system needs to be overthrown--and that a real democratic system, which produces for human need and not for profit, is in fact the alternative. That's something that has to be consciously organized for.

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