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Mobilising 'world public opinion'

Adam Parsons

A renewed air of questioning is being felt in the movement for global justice. Non-governmental organisations are wondering what to do next after the campaigns for more aid, less debt and better trade are proving inadequate to counter the sheer scale of mass poverty, whilst activists raising awareness of climate change have never been more prominent and yet overwhelmed by the task ahead.

At the same time, despite more newspaper reports of intensifying conflicts and widening inequalities, there is evidence of a gathering recognition on the required direction for change. Although long accepted that the demands for social justice must be led by civil society, there is finally emerging a crucial debate on how to unify the various campaigns with the global public on the same platform.

The conception of a ‘movement of movements’ evolved out of the historic Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation in 1999 that gave birth to the official struggle against ‘corporate globalisation’, or rather the economic process that puts the concerns of business and profit above the needs of poor nations, the average worker and the natural environment. Following a year and a half of demonstrations against the institutions and policies enforced by the Group of 8 nations, the first World Social Forum (WSF) in Brazil was billed, in the author Naomi Klein’s words, as “an opportunity for this emerging movement to stop screaming about what it is against and start articulating what it is for.”

The result was a passionate, loud and ostensibly confused affair with an undefined set of outcomes under the slogan “Another World is Possible” - hundreds of simultaneous activist workshops debating a gamut of social issues, the term ‘pro-democracy’ adopted instead of the aggressive stance of anti-globalisation, but certainly no single, united voice for change, nor any blueprints for action or strategies for reform. “What was strange was that we weren’t cheering for a specific other world, just the possibility of one,” wrote Klein in 2001. “We were cheering for the idea that another world could, in theory, exist.”

Three years and more than a dozen social forums later, the criticisms and appraisals of the burgeoning ‘brainchild of social movements’ are remarkably unchanged; attendance levels may have grown from 20,000 in 2001 to more than 150,000 at the 2005 gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil, but the basic criticism is still repeated that the WSF is in effect an “annual festival with limited social impact” and a “forum of ideas with no agenda for action.” 

The entire movement is “at a crossroads,” wrote Waldon Bello, Executive Director of Focus on the Global South and a notable strategic thinker within the WSF, after the “disappointing” seventh Forum held in Nairobi this year. Whilst acknowledging the critical functions that the Forum performs, not least in providing a site and space to debate the “visions, values and institutions of an alternative world order built on a real community of interests,” he also underlined the need for a “common strategy while drawing strength from and respecting diversity.” If the Forum is unable to anchor itself in “actual global political struggles”, he reflected, “...is it time for the WSF to fold up its tent and give way to new modes of global organisation of resistance and transformation?” 

The resulting question, seldom pondered by commentators, is what would such a “new mode” of resistance look like, what characteristics would it entail, and what form of “global organisation” does it require?

People Power

The origins of mass popular protest in the modern globalisation era are generally traced back to the ‘people power’ successes of the late 1980s, characterised by peaceful and spontaneous insurrections against autocratic governments. Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, has catalogued in detail why armed insurgencies are proving less effective than mass public action; “The moral power of nonviolence,” he writes, “is crucial in the ability of an opposition movement to reframe the perceptions of key parties: the public, political elites, and the military, most of whom have no difficulty supporting the use of violence against violent insurrections.”

Citing the example of the South African struggle against apartheid, nonviolent resistance is not only successful in dividing the status quo and immobilising government troops, he says, but also in “challenging the attitudes of an entire nation and even foreign actors.” The late 1980s is often referred to as the greatest era of revolution this world has ever seen, with the unimagined events of 1989 – the toppling of the Soviet empire amidst the emancipation of Hungary, Czechoslavakia, Poland, East Germany and the fateful student uprising in Tiananmen Square – as comparable to 1789 or 1848.

Despite these unqualified turnarounds led by civil society, wider questions are now being asked of their lasting effect in the post-Clinton era. The analysis of ‘people power’ successes becomes more complicated when considering non-violent movements against U.S.-backed governments, resulting in counterinsurgency strategies such as ‘low-intensity conflicts’ to retain some measure of legitimacy for the government, counter-elite plots and stage-managed elections to preserve the current political order in line with U.S. economic interests, or the inimical power of financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund which, as Zunes argues, “can essentially determine the economic policies of newly democratic countries and hold them responsible for debts accumulated by previous dictatorships.” Nonviolent movements may be victorious in enhancing civil and political rights in a country, but “such movements may be unable to improve people’s social and economic rights.”

People Power Fatigue

This is the crux of the emergency facing the global justice movement as a whole, solely united on the basic cause – as defined in the first principle of the World Social Forum Charter – of non-violently opposing the “domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism.” Until this elusive public ‘force’ can by unified internationally for greater humanitarian causes than simply the ousting of repressive rulers, the phrase ‘people power’ will continue to be replaced in newspaper commentaries with ‘people power fatigue’.

A second form of people power emerged on January 1st, 1994, when an indigenous army walked out of the remote Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, in Mexico’s poorest and southernmost state, and staged a revolution in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that came into effect that day. The Zapatistas, taking their name from an earlier Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, became a symbol for the ideal of non-violent resistance against corporate globalisation through the means of civil society support and international solidarity. The Zapatista struggle, visioning a truly democratic and ‘bottom-up’ political system that prioritises human rights over economic growth, set the pace for later transnational protests at meetings of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Economic Forum (WEF) and the annual G8 summits.

Arguments once fought out in the pages of academic journals, easily dismissed by the well-paid staff of multilateral financial institutions, were now being fought out on the city streets, as outlined in an Irish Times commentary from 2000; “The last two decades have seen the dominance of a narrow, individualistic economic ideology whose inspiration can be summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s classic phrase that there is no such thing as society. We are now witnessing the revolt of that society, demanding that its needs be taken into account and challenging the assumptions that giving greater freedom to market forces results in a better quality of life for all.”

An Emerging Democratic Globalisation

Mass campaigns headed by non-governmental and civil society organisations such as Live 8 and Make Poverty History, whilst undoubtedly all positive expressions of an “emerging democratic globalisation,” are forced to manipulate celebrity and music culture to engage the global public on issues of shared humanitarian responsibility. The reasons for the undermining of citizens’ faith in the efficacy of democratic government have long been debated; in an age that pays idolatry to supposed democracy, the democratic claim of universal equality is harshly mocked by the intensification of global inequalities that has defined the late 20th century, not to mention the endlessly commented hypocrisy of the Bush administrations championing of warfare in the name of ‘freedom’.      

Add to this a widespread distrust of radical alternatives to capitalism with the outmoded rhetoric of ‘power’ and ‘revolution’, a fear that is expertly reinforced by the mainstream reporting of large-scale protests, then the limited means of garnering popular support for critical issues can be readily perceived. The global public are long since disillusioned with politics, turned off by televised images of violent demonstrations, increasingly wary of making donations to distant causes without any end, and generally suspicious of any movement that begins with an ‘anti’ or ends with an ‘ism’. The militant Left, historically privileged with the badge of honour when it comes to social transformation, are being forced to realise - like the Zapatistas - that the magnitude of the world’s problems requires a great intercontinental movement never heretofore seen, not with bloody courageous violence or with the pointing of a gun, but with the peaceful, implacable joining of minds who finally recognise that “they need us more than we need them.”

World Opinion: The New Superpower

It required the spontaneous assembling of millions of ‘ordinary people’ during the Iraq anti-war demonstrations to begin questioning this ‘new superpower’ in global affairs: world public opinion. The protests themselves may have been subject to the usual criticisms of strewn debris and confusion, a carnival atmosphere, and tacitly racist messages next to lewd or silly slogans, but the fact remained that history was made on 15th February 2003, that no previous political demonstration across the UK had been larger than half a million people, let alone the estimated turnout of 1.8 million, three times bigger than anything before. With a racially-mixed middle England composition including grandparents and everyday families, the crowds were not only protesting against the lies of politicians and the ignominy of an illegal war, but also against the uncontrolled prioritising of greed and the dominance of economic values over human lives, with an unvoiced prescient sensing of worse to come.

World public opinion is often depicted as a product of the end of the Cold War period, first evidenced in the ending of apartheid in South Africa, the formidable campaign against landmines, and the ongoing demands to cancel Third World debt. Such spontaneous outpourings of public goodwill as the response to the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004, or the compelling of the Queen of England to have a civic procession as part of Princess Diana’s funeral, are also cited as part of its manifestation. World public opinion, in this literal sense, is not a ‘movement’ at all, but rather a ‘public space’ within which everyone - from the journalist to the bureaucrat, the student to the housewife - can “make up their mind”, as reasoned by the Open Democracy founder Anthony Barnett.

Mass protests and demonstrations, the trademark and personification of the global justice movement, must take place outside the systems of power and hope to make themselves ‘heard’ through the media to influence and shape policy; world public opinion, on the other hand, is an unmitigated force of consensual mass agreement that holds no party allegiances or crystallised form. “I am describing something new, still uninformed and open,” wrote Barnett. “How will it balance emotion or reason? Can it sustain itself? Is it really beyond fashion and the moods of the mob? Is there just one world opinion?” The Social Forums, he adds, can only seek to influence or inspire the impalpable cycles of world opinion that “exists in different ways in different places” and constitutes a substantive force of change.

Lessons from Live Earth

This reshaping of our conception of ‘the movement’ was reiterated in the recent example of the Live Earth pop concerts, the purported “most mass marketed show of celebrity activism in history” reaching two billion viewers. Whilst Live Earth may have succeeded in augmenting and synthesising a worldwide awareness of the need for humanity to join together and avert mass catastrophe, it arguably failed to understand or effectively utilise the necessary power of world opinion. “People will get excited by seeing their favourite acts and may learn that climate change is a problem,” read the ‘About Us’ description of Alive Earth, the alternative web-based production that spanned the same hours as the international pop concerts. “But will they feel challenged. Will they feel angry. Will they feel involved in a global movement against climate change? We are less sure.” As the organisers of Alive Earth pointedly recognised - that people will not change “when they are told what to do: they need to feel supported and personally involved” - the key principle of world opinion is that it cannot be directed, commanded, or placed within somebody else’s opinion of what actions ‘must’ be taken.

World public opinion may not be a self-defining ‘movement’, but from this consensual global responsiveness an overarching vehicle of beneficent influence has the potential to be borne. “In all the years I’ve been a journalist, I’ve never know public consciousness to have risen as fast as it’s rising today,” said John Pilger in a recent speech, adding that “this growing critical public awareness is all the more remarkable when you consider the sheer scale of indoctrination, the mythology of a superior way of life, and the current manufactured state of fear.” As we have witnessed in the fateful consequences of the Iraq war, the irresistible weight of world opinion is often prophetic and seldom wrong; what this “second superpower” still awaits is a truly grassroots, democratic platform that can activate the process of its organisation, not a nebulous banner of what is “possible” without delineation. 

The Social Forums have revealed the lesson, over more than six years, of too many causes and not enough action, whilst displaying the promise of horizontal networking and unprecedented collective empowerment. The astonishing successes of ‘people power’ have also shown, over more than 20 years, that resolute and peaceful protesters can be more indomitable than autocrats or warmongers. After two decades of mass non-governmental campaigns, from Live Aid in 1985 to Live Earth in 2007, we also have the evidence of an untapped, international basin of goodwill that requires only its own expression instead of the top-down directives adopted by super-celebrities, CEOs and politicians with uncertain motives. The next critical question, which arguably constitutes the greatest hope against the emergency of poverty and climate change, is how will these differing elements of public pressure be unified, utilised and activated as a worldwide force.

Corporate globalisation, without any ready alternatives till today, has now the challenge of an emerging newborn influence that knows no national or racial barriers or religious differences. As individuals we may well feel impotent and unimportant, but as part of a global public movement with a selective petition of demands – based on the universal principles of sharing, freedom and justice – we may find ourselves in a position to definitely shape world affairs. The prospective rapidity of worldwide changes could reasonably prove, if the two-thirds majority world realise the power of joining hands, beyond the erstwhile dreams of even the late Mahatma and Luther King.