Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Risk of Change: Thinking and Acting Globally and Locally

By Matt Dineen

Think Globally—Act Locally,” read the fading bumper stickers on thousands of cars and guitar cases across the United States. This influential statement has defined a popular activist strategy that politically connects our local movements with those in other countries. But what does this idea really mean and where has it gotten those of us working toward social change in our communities and across the world? How does the challenge to think globally and act locally play out in our everyday lives?

These questions have been plaguing me lately. Three years after the start of the Iraq War, I’m trying to reconcile the gap between my antiwar activism as a student before the bombing began and my current reality as a twentysomething worker struggling to survive. Three years ago I was part of a vibrant global movement working to obstruct the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. It was powerful to know that we were in the streets protesting simultaneously with millions of other people in solidarity around the world. Despite our numbers and sustained efforts against the war “the other superpower,” as the New York Times called us, was defeated and the brutal occupation continues to this day. The antiwar movement is still active but the urgency that fueled us in 2003 has been largely extinguished as we attempt to figure out what went wrong and what we can do now.

Recently, now nearly three years out of college, I found myself trying to remain politically active while working an alienating service job. After speaking with a number of my coworkers off the clock it was clear that we all had issues with our boss and the way things were run. If we could get together and organize then we could collectively address these issues and improve our working conditions. The primary demand, beyond more dignity and freedom, was an increase in the length of our lunch breaks to match the legal standard. I saw it as an opportunity to put my politics into action. It didn’t work out that way though. Without a union we were vulnerable to the economic control our boss exerted over us. After all, we were all working there because we needed jobs so we could pay the bills and feed ourselves. It became too risky.

What is the connection between these failed global and local struggles? I want to dissect both of them in terms of how they are intertwined in a larger system and to try to learn from our failures as we forge ahead toward creating a better society—locally and globally.

In these two campaigns, one to prevent a war and the other to democratize a workplace, the targets of power were very different. On the one hand we had Bush as the personification of the empire that was waging war. On the other was the owner of a small, local business. The former wielded vast political power on a global scale, while the latter possessed power that only affected her small staff. How did our relationship to this power, in both cases, affect our strategies for affecting change as activists?

It seems obvious that the potential for the successful reform of a workplace would be greater than that of the ambitious task of stopping a war. This is clearly true but it becomes more complex when we factor in the dilemma of risk involved in each campaign. In my personal experience the risks associated with protesting the war was less than organizing my workplace. This may appear counterintuitive but the reality is that the cost of dissent is higher when we are able to directly confront our oppressors. The possibility of change is better but the act of initiating such a confrontation can be downright terrifying.

I think back to World War I and the Vietnam War and the passionate struggles against both of those horrific episodes in our history. During World War I, antiwar agitators were imprisoned and sometimes even deported for merely speaking out against it. Decades later, the young people drafted into the unjust war in Southeast Asia faced immense risk, until the movement reached a critical mass, when they burned their draft cards or demonstrated in the streets. Some were jailed or denied the right to an education while others were forced to flee the country.

My experience as a student antiwar activist was dramatically different. In my work mobilizing groups to represent our school at national actions or local protests, reporting back from these events, and speaking publicly against the war I never felt that what I was doing involved any serious personal risk. In fact, my activism was inspired by the belief that to not take action, to remain complicit in my government’s policies was more dangerous. I also went to a liberal college where there was a virtual consensus for peace and against Bush. And even though it was surrounded by a conservative population in rural New York State, our local activity was supported by other activists in the area. The day after the invasion began we marched into the center of the small neighboring town where tension between the college and the locals was present but complex. Despite a prevailing pro-war sentiment we never faced the threat of violence or repression.

The week before the war started we held a campus-wide student strike in conjunction with hundreds of schools across the country. Most of our professors worked with us as classes were transformed into antiwar teach-ins. Even the president of the college participated in the evening panel discussion on the responsibility of educational institutions in opposing war. This further strengthened us as we felt part of a global movement working against the proposed military action. The month before that we marched with over one million others in New York City in solidarity with dozens of other protests around the world. February 15th saw the largest worldwide demonstration in history as millions of people in every single continent (even Antarctica) sent a powerful message to Bush to rethink his plans.

This is all to say that to speak out and take action against the onslaught of war was simultaneously empowering and risk-free. I vehemently argued against the notion that the war was inevitable and sincerely believed that we could prevent it from happening. Coming out of the global justice movement that successfully shut down the World Trade Organization in Seattle just a few years before I felt that if our numbers were big enough and we were persistent in our actions and our persuasive case for peace and justice then we were destined to win. But this is not how things turned out. Even though we had the entire world on our side the targets of power in this campaign were too untouchable to directly confront. Or maybe we just did not try hard enough.

The situation at my workplace differed immensely from the daunting landscape of this effort to slow down empire. Unlike Bush or Rumsfeld we would see our boss virtually everyday that we worked. She had opened the business just a couple years before and would often put in 90 hour work weeks—in other words, she was always around. Her micro-managerial psychosis created a stressful environment for all of her staff. Many of my coworkers were on friendly terms with her despite the underlying tension and discontent. Some even attended her wedding. The first two months I worked there I felt isolated and alone with my issues about the workplace conditions. The fast food-like pace seemed inhuman to me and after working a 9 hour shift with only a 15 minute break from being on my feet I knew that something was wrong. My analysis ran deeper as I resented the hierarchical and undemocratic decision-making structure that is the standard of capitalist workplaces. We had little or no say over things that seriously impacted our lives. Bi-monthly “staff meetings” involved our boss telling us what we were not doing well enough followed by a brief discussion of what we could do to improve our communication. Nobody dared to bring up any grievances primarily out of fear of prolonging these tiresome meetings.

With another staff meeting looming less than two weeks away some of us began to talk about getting together outside of work beforehand to discuss issues that we wanted to address to our boss. Without going into the unnecessary details we failed to gather before the meeting as we had planned. This caused us to be unprepared when it arrived and instead of putting her on the defense about her illegal business practices we were subjected to a lecture about improving customer service. When the floor was opened for discussion nobody said anything critical and we just walked out of there in shock. I left the job later that week for reasons unrelated to these issues. It was frustrating because I was sick of merely complaining about how bad things were and wanted to actually stand up and do something about it. It made me realize that people will often passively endure unhealthy conditions in order to maintain financial and personal stability. We compromise our desire to survive under capitalism. We could’ve tried taking the place over but none of us wanted that kind of responsibility for something in which we were so alienated. Even politely asking our boss to change things seemed scary, too risky.

This makes me wonder how bad things have to get before we have no choice but to do something. How can we expect to improve things on a global scale when we can’t even successfully improve our immediate conditions locally? I think of my universe of obligation and how much it has expanded since I became politically active as a student activist. I was no longer just concerned with the wellbeing of myself, my family and friends. Working for peace and justice is about also improving the lives of those in our communities and doing something about how our government’s actions influence and often destroy other communities around the world.

In terms of connecting these issues together I think back to one of the most compelling arguments the antiwar movement presented to the supporters and logicians of the “war on terror.” In response to their claim that invading Iraq was essential to avenge the 9-11 attacks and to prevent further terrorism we responded that the war will have the opposite effect making us less safe. Here we prophetically connected the global and local while turning the case for war on its head. As the occupation continues and the number of casualties on both sides mount we begin to see who is most directly affected by this war. This explains why the most outspoken and most active segment of our movement, despite the very serious risks involved, are veterans and their families.

But how can we prevent other wars from beginning in the first place while also working toward improving our local communities and the schools and workplaces that shape our lives? One month before the war began, Michael Albert of Z Net provided some constructive insight for this struggle. He wrote, “Success is not a single ‘all or nothing’ affair…Whether this war occurs or not, our on-going task is unchanged. We must grow larger, more conscious, more militant, more organized—to try to prevent this war and the next one, to reverse globalization, and to continually challenge and eventually replace basic defining institutions.” Albert continues, “None of this will happen overnight. But we are on a path toward all of it, and we need to realize that's our trajectory, to take it seriously, and to work tirelessly toward it.”

As I write this I find myself back at my old workplace drinking coffee that one of my former coworkers served me. I overhear some of the regular customers, oblivious to the issues of worker discontent here, conversing about Iraq and Bush’s plummeting approval rating. I think about the potential for change here, in this space where I sold so many of my labor hours, and about change on a global scale. Despite the challenges we face I remain hopeful that a new world is on the horizon. I think it will be worth the risk.
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This article was written for Toward Freedom, a progressive perspective on world events.

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