What's all the fuss about? – Jem Bendell

A Letter to Bystanders of the Emerging Real Democracy Movement.

What was all the fuss about at Seattle, then Washington, now Prague and last May Day? What are people getting so wound up over? Aren't things getting better - after all we haven't had a world war for over 50 years, economies are booming with the interne, and most countries seem to be moving toward electoral democracy, aren't they?

It's true that at the start of this new century we have much about which we can be grateful for, and proud of. World war does now seem unlikely, especially as most of Europe is working together. The human race has conquered once devastating illnesses such as smallpox and polio, increased life expectancy in less-industrialised countries by over a third and witnessed their infant mortality rates fall by more than half in thirty years (UNDP, 1993). Meanwhile new technologies are allowing people to communicate across great distances instantaneously, minimising national and cultural barriers, keeping people in touch, and creating new opportunities for people with vision, energy - and luck.

Yet, while this new digital economy drives forward on a pneumatic Nasdaq, and venture capitalists make millions within a month, approximately 1 billion of the world's people struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day. Their traditional means of providing for themselves through fishing or farming are continually undermined as time and time again their resources are expropriated by others to feed the global market. Even in the worlds' industrialised countries, high levels of unemployment, falling real wages and the increasing use of short-term contracts are creating a climate of stress and insecurity for the majority. The more extreme symptoms of this malaise can be found in growing violent crime rates around the world and increased levels of armed conflict within states (UNDP, 1994).

Meanwhile increasing numbers of people face environmental catastrophe. In the last few years freak weather episodes have become more common and devastating, such as the 1998 hurricane 'Mitch' in Central America, which killed approximately 20,000 people, and the 1999 floods in Venezuela which killed still greater, if unknown, numbers. For the people left to rebuild their lives, climate change is not a theory. Nevertheless, our societies continue to increase the rates of deforestation, air and water pollution and extinctions of flora and fauna. Biologists estimate that half of all life on earth is at threat from extinction, because of the actions of humankind. Disrupting the web of life may have untold effects on our own security. Already, environmental pollution is affecting our health and it is probable that you are currently reading this book with 500 more chemicals circulating in your body than someone living in the 1920s, increasing your risk of allergy, infection, infertility and cancer (Colborn, Dumanoski and Peterson Myers, 1997).

I don't list these events, concerns and injustices out of morbid fascination or pessimism. I list them because they are symptoms of a sick social and economic system. The environmental degradation and social dislocation we are facing is a direct result of the policy paradigm that now dominates political discourse in most of the world's nations. There are two pillars upholding this policy paradigm. The first pillar is the idea that increasing the production, consumption and amount of money changing hands in an economy is intrinsically good for society. The second pillar is the notion that international trade helps in this expansion and is consequently an important goal for society to pursue. Study after study proves these pillars are made of sand and that we need to reassess what really benefits people - yet business, the media and politicians ‘carry on regardless'. I’ll quote David Korten:

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The continued quest for economic growth as the organising principle of public policy is accelerating the breakdown of the ecosystem's regenerative capacities and the social fabric that sustains human community; at the same time, it is intensifying the competition for resources between rich and poor - a competition that the poor invariably lose. (Korten, 1995 p. 11)

That quest for growth has been accelerated by the globalisation of the world economy and the unveiling of a form of hypercapitalism where trillions of dollars are switched around the world in a day, where companies that have never turned a profit are worth billions, and where the future of corporations is decided by a handful of investment managers who are primarily interested in short-term share price. The collective opinion of these investment managers is the compass from which the courses of corporations are set, and in turn the course of governments seeking the favour of investors. Hypercapitalism is spiralling out of control, becoming disconnected from the people living in its midst. This disconnection is heightening the negative social and environmental consequences of the growth paradigm. A former banker and US political adviser, Jeff Gates, is worth quoting on this:

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Lacking a reliable human-based signalling system for identifying investments that have damaging, even transgeneric effects, today's capitalism - indifferent, remote and numbers driven - continues to direct resources into projects that endanger our planetary resources. (Gates, 1998 p. xxv)

The growing frustration with unaccountable institutions and corporations has now spilled onto the streets: the May 1998 meeting of the G8 in Birmingham, the January 2000 meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, and the November 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle where 50,000 demonstrators took to the streets, and recently in Prague (www.s26.org). NGOs and individual activists working on a wide variety of issues from turtle conservation to child labour have been uniting in opposition to the unfettered and unaccountable hypercapitalism that globalisation is producing (Lynch, 1998). The meetings and direct actions of May Day 2000 are part of this growing rebellion of people against an increasingly undemocratic system of global capitalism. The events on May Day have been described by many as 'anticapitalist'. The reasons for being against capitalism, especially its current global form, have been made clear. But what are we actually for? What is our alternative?

Margaret Thatcher once said of free trade and economic growth that "There Is No Alternative". In recent years and months people around the world have been sharing ideas and visions with the aim of proving her wrong. Some are coming to this debate from Marxist perspectives, others from Anarchist analyses, still others from the spectrum of light green and deep green ideologies. Some are more concerned with making immediate changes to people's lives today, while others see this as a waste of energy if we are to cure a sick system and not merely bathe its wounds. While the reformist vs radical debate rages about the means to cure the system, it's obvious to many of us that we share the same end goal: communities of environmental and social well-being shaped by real, meaningful democracy. Many of us have been turned off by 'democracy' as the term has been kidnapped by governments who use money from big business to con the electorate, seeking votes from people who are reliant on the corporate media for their information. But real democracy isn't about sham elections and meaningless choices between puppet politicians. It's about people having control of their own lives, and not being affected by groups that aren't accountable to them. In the world today the majority of the largest economies are corporations not states. These corporations affect our lives but are not accountable to us. As people who seek communities of environmental and social well-being, we expect to see every aspect of our society - businesses, governments, international agencies, charities, pressure groups, and religious organisations - contribute to this goal. If they don't they must be confronted and made accountable to us - the people who's lives they affect. This is real democracy.

I believe strongly that this can only be successful if we emphatically rule out violence as a means to achieving our common ends. This is because a non-violent society (in all senses) is our end goal. You don't spend to get out of debt, and you don't dig deeper in order to get out of a hole. Anyone who uses or advocates violence is working against the growing movement to see real economic, social, cultural and political democracy break out around the world.

As protestors on the streets we may be more visible to the world media, but we are not alone, as there are millions of people working in the voluntary sector toward progressive social and environmental change. The conclusion of the forum of non-governmental organisations that met 8 years ago in Brazil at the first Earth Summit, illustrates this growing global movement:

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We the people of the world will mobilise the forces of transnational civil society behind a widely shared agenda that bonds our many social movements in pursuit of just, sustainable and participatory human societies. In so doing we are forging our own instruments and processes for redefining the nature and meaning of human progress and for transforming those institutions that no longer respond to our needs. We welcome to our cause all people who share our commitment to peaceful and democratic change in the interest of our living planet and the human societies it sustains. (International NGO Forum, 1992)

Many people have responded to this call and are helping form a global movement for real democracy. Isn't it time you joined the fuss?

Jem Bendel
author of 'Terms for Endearment', www.jembendell.com