By Susanne Schuster
In January 2015 the organisation formerly known as World Development Movement (WDM) officially relaunched under the new name Global Justice Now. This occasion was celebrated with an exciting event featuring discussions, music, films and an exhibition on 21 February in London.
When WDM was founded more than 40 years ago, development was a positive concept; it stood for the right of communities to develop according to their own needs, but over time it was hijacked by corporate interests and came to be seen as something imposed to serve outside interests. In contrast, Justice is a term that immediately resonates with workers and social movements around the world. The central reason for the name change described in the conference programme is this: “If we want to really change the way our societies work, we need to challenge the powerful and organise ordinary people to take back our world. Today's event is a contribution to making that happen.” The event took place at Rich Mix in the East End of London, a location where great workers' struggles for a better life have taken place.
The first session I attended was titled “Kobanê: the frontline of the struggle for real democracy?” I had heard a bit about the radical democratic project happening in Rojava, the Kurdish region in northern Syria, so I was eager to find out more. Memed Aksoy and Zeynep Kurban, the two speakers from the Kurdish community in London, provided a useful overview of the historical, economic, social and political context as well as the concrete steps being taken to build the democratic structures in the midst of war, oppression and an embargo. The ideological leader of the Rojava revolution is Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging an armed struggle against the Turkish state for 40 years. Öcalan has been imprisoned for 16 years, but there is a petition to free him and lift the ban on PKK. With the beginning of his imprisonment Öcalan realised that he had to develop an alternative to the vicious cycle of violence and retribution. His vision is an anti-capitalist economic system based on democratic self-rule and empowerment of women. The role of women in the struggle against Islamic State (IS) is significant: an estimated 35 percent - around 15,000 fighters - are women, organised in the Women's Defence Units (YPJ). But contrary to the impression in the mainstream media, this development didn't fall from the sky; women have been at the forefront since the beginning of the Kurdish movement.
The democratic structures in Rojava are being constructed since 2011. Everyone in the three cantons that make up Rojava was consulted to draw up a Charter of the Social Contract based on the principles of democratic autonomy. Key elements are religious and ethnic non-discrimination, gender equality and social and ecological aims. Women's rights are protected, which is unique in the Middle East and indispensable in tackling the problem of girls being married before majority. The charter is one of the most progressive and democratic worldwide and the Kurds say it could be a solution and model not just for the Middle East, but the whole world. But for this progressive project to succeed it needs massive international support and solidarity. Memed invited everyone to visit Rojava and see for themselves. The US anthropologist David Graeber said that he felt ten years younger when he went there.
Next it was “Make it public: turning the tide on privatisation” with Maria Kanellopoulou, Save Greek Water, Satoko Kishimoto, Transnational Institute and Gail Cartmail, TUC general council. Maria reported on the successful campaign to stop water privatisation in Greece. The Troika (European Central Bank, IMF and European Commission) tried to force water privatisation onto Greece, but a vigorous citizens' campaign building up a robust case against privatisation – without money but plenty of human resources and a large skills base – led to 70% of Greeks opposing these plans. Two factors in the campaign were crucial: a referendum in Thessaloniki with 98% of citizens voting against water privatisation and a court judgement about water essentially being a public good. The commitment by ordinary people seems even more impressive considering the dire situation they are in. Satoko Kishimoto is the co-ordinator of the Water Justice Project at TNI, she talked about the reversal of water privatisation, which is often called re-municipalisation. Worldwide there are at least 180 cases in the last 15 years where water was taken back into public ownership. The main motivations were: no savings, underinvestment, higher charges and no transparency. One of those cases is Paris – ironically the headquarters of two of the most powerful water corporations in the world: Suez and Veolia. The new public service company Eau de Paris took over operations when the contracts with the two companies expired. This has led to lower prices and full transparency. The governing council includes worker and civil society representatives and a Citizen Observatory was set up to promote citizen engagement. During my stay in Paris in August 2014 to attend the Attac Summer University for Social Movements I filled up my bottle with good quality water from the free public taps near the metro and at the university. In another high profile case in Berlin, the remunicipalisation proved very expensive for tax payers due to the share buy back. Even in places with more limited democratic space privatisation is reversed. For example, in Jakarta, Indonesia there has been a 10 year local struggle and the decision to remunicipalise is expected to happen this month. Gail Cartmail described how she, born in the 1950s, had a good life growing up with publicly run schools, transport, council housing, the public health service NHS and reminded us that the welfare state in the UK was built when the economic situation was much worse than today. She asked the EU negotiator three times whether TTIP will be viable without the sell off of public services, but never received an answer. Of course, it won't be. Maria commented that the challenge was to crack the neoliberal consensus between media, state and justice and to question the meaning of key words such as stability. We must imagine public services run in a more decentralised way and institutionalise their public character. Satoko added that privatisation was also about grabbing the intellect. Again, we had to fight for real democracy.
After lunch I watched the Spanish documentary Sí se puede about the citizens' movement for the right to housing. The film follows PAH Barcelona over 7 days portraying their activities and campaigns. PAH is the abbreviation for Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for Victims of Mortgages); it was created in 2009 in Barcelona as a response to the unprecedented wave of foreclosures and forced evictions and there are now 200 sections in Spain. Before the crisis of 2007/8 Spain had one of the largest housebuilding programmes in Europe which led to shameless speculation and high property prices in relation to salary. At the same time, renting was fiscally and materially discouraged. People were sold the idea that owning a home was the sensible thing to do. However, it turned out to be a fraud: In the wake of “austerity” ordinary workers' wages were slashed and once people had used up their savings, many of them fell behind with mortgage repayments. Spain now has one of the highest rate of repossessions in Europe (as well as the highest number of empty homes), causing untold misery and leading to high suicide rates. The reason the situation is so extremely bad is due to the abusive mortgage law: “In Spain homeowners are liable for 40% of the valuation of the house, plus interests and judicial costs, even once their house has been foreclosed. This leaves evicted families with huge life-long debts. In a country with 27 percent unemployment rate, the consequences of this law are dramatic.” The key to PAH's campaign is to empower people to take control of their negotiations with the bank, with the practical and emotional support as well as the public power of PAH behind them. PAH stopped over a 1000 evictions and provided housing to over 1000 people. Its demands for a change to the housing laws enjoy overwhelming public support, but the government so far opposes these demands.
As part of the launch conference Global Justice Now commissioned an exhibition of Mexican street art. ¡Democracia Real Ya!, meaning 'real democracy now', was created by Rosario Martínez Llaguno and Roberto Vega Jiménez, members of the art collective Lapiztola Stencil. Lapiztola was formed as a response to violent oppression by the state authorities to the teachers' strikes in Oaxaca in 2006. Political street art and murals have a long history in Mexico; during my travels there in 2001 and 2004 I was lucky enough to see some of the works of the great muralists.
At the closing plenary at the Amnesty Centre Luciana Ghiotto stressed the importance of including trade issues in social movements. There are now more than 3000 free trade or bilateral trade agreements in existence in the world, but corporations are still pushing for more profit as they cannot abide any limits. On the upside, the free trade agenda is increasingly being questioned. For example, Ecuador has done an audit of all trade agreements and the results are due in March/April. Samia Nkrumah, representative of Food Sovereignty Ghana and leader of the Convention People's Party, is also the daughter of Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana. She acknowledged the great inspiration her father is; he laid out a plan for economic development that her party wants to pick up again to continue the unfinished business of independence. The number one priority is the increase in domestic production with the inclusion of women and youth in a participatory democracy. She insisted that “Africa must be free of economic exploitation.” Maria Kanellopoulou stated that “economy kills”, illustrating the humanitarian catastrophe in Greece with shocking statistics, while at the same time the wealthy got richer by 56%. The political landscape in Greece has completely changed, and the country is now facing the historical task of reinstalling democracy. Jeremy Corbyn, Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, was unequivocal in his stance against TTIP. He found it ludicrous how undemocratic this trade deal is. It contained absolutely no social and environmental aspects and leading UK politicians are unable to grasp why so many ordinary people think that this is a problem. More progressive agreements such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) show that it is indeed possible to include social and environmental aims in trade policy. Jeremy concluded very bluntly by stating that we have a choice between a nasty society and solidarity and progress. Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now, related our struggle to the history of the East End of London and emphasised that democracy is not possible among obscene levels of wealth and inequality. Resistance must start in the heads. Another world is not just possible, but necessary. The three priorities for this year are the fight against TTIP, the campaign against climate change and solidarity with Syriza.
I left the closing plenary feeling energised and very alive and with much to reflect upon. We have more than enough evidence to show why we urgently need to abolish capitalism and develop an alternative society. The old world of the nihilistic, destructive, cynical hunt for ever greater profit is consigned to the dustbin of history. We imagine and create the world we want, a world founded on humanity, peace, emancipation, participation and radical democracy. In short: a good life for all!
A roundup of the day is available on the Global Justice Now blog and recordings of some of the sessions will be posted on the website and Facebook and Twitter over the next couple of weeks.
For my writings, articles and translations in German visit missubuntu.wordpress.com
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