When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit on Sustainable Development can save the world—the question is whether the summit can even save itself.
"This conference is not like other conferences."
That's what all the speakers at "Re-Imagining Politics and Society" were told before we arrived at New York's Riverside Church. When we addressed the delegates (there were about 1,000, over three days in May), we were to try to solve a very specific problem: the lack of "unity of vision and strategy" guiding the movement against global corporatism.
This was a very serious problem, we were advised. The young activists who went to Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization and to Washington, DC, to protest the World Bank and the IMF had been getting hammered in the press as tree-wearing, lamb-costumed, drumbeating bubble brains. Our mission, according to the conference organizers at the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning, was to whip that chaos on the streets into some kind of structured, media-friendly shape. This wasn't just another talk shop. We were going to "give birth to a unified movement for holistic social, economic and political change."
In the aisles of Loblaws, between bottles of President’s Choice Memories of Kobe Sauce and Memories of Singapore noodles, there is a new in-store special: blacked out labels on organic foods. These boxes used to say “Free of Genetically Modified Organisms” but then Canada’s largest grocery chain sent down an edict that such labels were no longer permitted.
At first glance, Loblaws’ decision doesn't seem to make market sense. When the first frankenfoods protests came to Europe, chains like Tesco and Safeway scrambled to satisfy consumer demand by labeling their own lines “GMO-Free.” And when Loblaws entered the health food market with its line of President's Choice Organics, it seemed to be going the same route. In advertisements, the company proudly pointed out that certified organic products “must be free of genetically modified organisms.”
Then, the about-face, made public last week: not only won't Loblaws make the GM-free claim on its own packages, it won't allow anyone else to make the claim either. Company executives claim there is just no way of knowing what is genuinely GM free – apparently, it’s too confusing.
I've never joined a political party, never even been to a political convention. Last election, after being dragged by the hair to the ballot box, I was overcome by a wave of ennui more acute than the pain suffered by my friends who simply ingested their ballots.
Does this mean I'm a no-brain, knee-jerk anarchist, as many a Globe letter writer has claimed? Perhaps. But then why do I find myself agreeing that we need a new left political alliance, maybe even a new party?
What's clear is that the left as it is currently constituted—a weakened NDP, and an endless series of street protests—is a recipe for fighting like crazy to make things not quite as bad as they would be otherwise. A revolutionary goal for the left would be to actually make things better.
Is the New Politics Initiative the answer? It could be.
A woman with long brown hair and a cigarette scratched voice has a question. "What does this place look like to you," she asks, with the help of an interpreter. "An ugly ghetto, or something maybe beautiful?"
It was a trick question. We were sitting in a ramshackle squat in one of the least picturesque suburbs of Rome. The walls of the stumpy building were covered in graffiti, the ground was muddy, and all around us were bulky, menacing housing projects. If any of the 20-million tourists who flocked to Rome last year had taken a wrong turn and ended up here, they would have immediately dived for their Fodor's and fled for somewhere with vaulted ceilings, fountains and frescoes.
But while the remains of one of the most powerful and centralised empires in history are impeccably preserved in downtown Rome, it is here, in the city's poor outskirts, where I caught a glimpse of a new, living politics. And it is as far away from Roman emperors and Caesar's armies as you can possibly get.
When I was 17, I worked after school at an Esprit clothing store in Montreal. It was a pleasant job, mostly involving folding cotton garments into little squares so sharp that their corners could take out your eye.
But, for some reason, corporate headquarters didn't consider our T-shirt origami to be sufficiently profitable. One day, our calm world was turned upside down by a regional supervisor who swooped in to indoctrinate us in the culture of the Esprit brand—and increase our productivity in the process. "Esprit," she told us, "is like a good friend."
I was skeptical, and I let it be known. Skepticism, I quickly learned, is not considered an asset in the low-wage service sector. Two weeks later, the supervisor fired me for being in possession of that most loathed workplace character trait: "bad attitude."
I guess that was one of my first lessons in why large multinational corporations are not "like a good friend," since good friends, while they may do many horrible and hurtful things, rarely fire you.
A little over a year ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a major feature about poverty in the United States headlined "The Invisible Poor." It was a well-reported piece, with beautiful photographs, but there was something strange about it. It was as if, at the height of the high-tech boom, in the richest country in the world, "the poor" inhabited an exotic foreign country, there for journalists to discover, but not to cover.
The official story for most of the decade, supported by record low unemployment rates in the U.S., was that poverty was yesterday's "old economy" problem. Sure, food bank use is up 75 per cent in some American cities, one in five U.S. children live in poverty and 44.3 million are uninsured, but you'd never know it as a casual media consumer. The occasional story may have appeared about the people prosperity "left behind" (as if by some cosmic typo), but in the major national media, there has been little very little appetite for these downer tales.
The idea of turning London into a life-sized Monopoly board on May Day sounded like a great idea.
The most familiar criticism lobbed at modern protesters is that they lack focus and clear goals such as "Save the trees" or "Drop the debt." And yet these protests are a response to the limitations of single-issue politics. Tired of treating the symptoms of an economic model—underfunded hospitals, homelessness, widening disparity, exploding prisons, climate change—there is now a clear attempt to "out" the system behind the symptoms. But how do you hold a protest against abstract economic ideas without sounding hideously strident or all over the map?
Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, is condemned for not calling off Maude's Mob. Activist Jaggi Singh is in jail for allegedly possessing a weapon that he never owned or used—a theatrical catapult that shot stuffed animals over the infamous fence in Quebec City during last weekend's Summit of the Americas.
It's not just that the police didn't get the joke, it's that they don't get the new era of political protest, one adapted to our postmodern times. There was no one person, or group, who could call off "their people," because the tens of thousands who came out to protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas are part of a movement that doesn't have a leader, a centre, or even an agreed-on name. Yet it exists, undeniably, nonetheless.
"Where are you," I screamed from my cellphone into his. There was a pause and then, "A Green Zone—St. Jean and St. Claire."
Green Zone is protest speak for an area free of tear gas or police clashes. There are no fences to storm, only sanctioned marches. Green zones are safe, you're supposed to be able to bring your kids to them.
"Okay," I said. "See you in 15 minutes."
I had barely put on my coat when I got another call: "Jaggi's been arrested. Well, not exactly arrested. More like kidnapped." My first thought was that it was my fault: I had asked Mr. Singh to tell me his whereabouts over a cellphone. Our call must have been monitored, that's how they found him.
If that sounds paranoid, welcome to Summit City.
Less than an hour later, at the Comité Populaire St-Jean Baptiste community centre, a group of six swollen-eyed eyewitnesses read me their hand-written accounts of how the most visible organizer of Friday's direct action protest against the free-trade area of the Americas was snatched from under their noses.