In 1812, bands of British weavers and knitters raided textile mills and smashed industrial machines with their hammers. According to the Luddites, the new mechanized looms had eliminated thousands of jobs, broken communities, and deserved to be destroyed. The British government disagreed and called in a battalion of 14,000 soldiers to brutally repress the worker revolt and protect the machines.
Fast-forward two centuries to another textile factory, this one in Buenos Aires. At the Brukman factory, which has been producing men’s suits for fifty years, it’s the riot police who smash the sewing machines and the 58 workers who risk their lives to protect them.
Review of Letters to a Young Activist, Todd Gitlin, Basic Books: 174 pp.,$22.50
Two years ago, I was invited to the South Australian desert to meet a group of Aboriginal elders who were fighting a radioactive waste dump on their land. I went to Coober Pedy expecting to be bombarded with alarming facts about toxic waste leaking into groundwater, cancer risks and the half-life of radium. Something else happened instead. Immediately upon my arrival, I was scooped up by a group of young environmentalists who dressed like "Mad Max" characters and took me camping.
For five nights we slept by a bonfire on the cracked red earth under the stars. During the days they showed me secret sources of fresh water, plants used for bush medicines, hidden eucalyptus-lined rivers where the kangaroos come to drink. It was amazingly beautiful, but by the third day I started getting restless. When, I asked 22-year-old Nina Brown, were we going to get down to work? She replied that the senior Aboriginal women, who called themselves the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, had taught her that before you can fight, you have to know what you are fighting for.
On April 6, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spelled it out: There will be no role for the United Nations in setting up an interim government in Iraq. The US-run regime will last at least six months, "probably...longer than that."
And by the time the Iraqi people have a say in choosing a government, the key economic decisions about their country's future will have been made by their occupiers. "There has got to be an effective administration from day one," Wolfowitz said. "People need water and food and medicine, and the sewers have to work, the electricity has to work. And that's a coalition responsibility."
The process of getting all this infrastructure to work is usually called "reconstruction." But American plans for Iraq's future economy go well beyond that. Rather, the country is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neoliberals can design their dream economy: fully privatized, foreign-owned and open for business.
As a kid, I had trouble understanding why my parents and siblings lived in Montreal and the rest of my family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – were scattered across the United States. On long car trips to visit relatives in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, my parents would tell us about the Vietnam war, and the thousands of US peace activists who, like us, snuck across the border to Canada in the late sixties.
I was told that the Canadian government not only stayed officially neutral during the war, it offered sanctuary for US citizens who refused to fight in a war they believed was wrong. Derided as “draft dodgers” at home, we were welcomed in Canada as conscientious objectors.
My family’s decision to emigrate to Canada was made before I was born, but these romantic stories planted an idea in my head when I was far too young to fend it off: I believed that Canada had a relationship with the world that was radically different from that of the United States; that despite cultural similarities and geographic proximity, more humane and less interventionist values guided our dealings. In short, I thought we were sovereign.
On a muddy piece of squatted land in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Florencia Vespignani is planning her upcoming tour of the United States, where she will be speaking with students and activists about Argentina's resistance movements.
"I'm a bit scared," she confesses.
"Of the war?" I ask.
"No. Of the plane. We have wars here all the time."
Vespignani, a 33-year-old mother and community organizer, is a leader in the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD), one of dozens of organizations of unemployed workers, known as piqueteros, that have emerged out of the wreckage of Argentina's economy. When Florencia describes life as war, it is not a metaphor. In a country where more than half the people are living in poverty and 27 children die of hunger each day, she has simply learned that to stay alive, you have to go to the streets and fight-for every piece of bread, for every student's pencil, for every night's rest.