A text without a context

WE LIVE in a world where capital marches across the borders of the countries of the South as if they were simply not there. We live in a world where armies of major powers march across the borders of the countries of the South as if these borders were just irrelevant. But we also live in a world where people have come together in massive demonstrations to protest both these developments. At the end of 1999 for instance, protests involving some 700 organisations and about 40,000 students, workers, NGOs, religious groups, and representatives of business and finance brought the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at Seattle to a halt. The WTO was to set in motion a new multilateral round of trade negotiations. Collective anger at the relocation of industries to the Third World, at the unsafe and abusive work conditions in the sweatshops found there, at environmental degradation, and at the widespread exploitation of working people, exploded in a series of angry demonstrations. Though large-scale protests against the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank were not new, what was new was the scale of mobilisation and the intensity of the protests. Demonstrations by students, unions, environmentalists or `tree huggers', economic and xenophobic nationalists, church groups, anarchists, protectionists, consumer groups, NGOs, and even business and financial groups, were hailed by some scholars as `globalisation from below', or as heralding a new internationalism. The space where all this took place is global civil society.

Ever since the latter part of 2002, when it became clear that the United States was preparing to invade Iraq for its own purposes, we were to once again witness major mobilisation, this time against the war. Mammoth demonstrations in practically all cities of the world exhibited both ire and revulsion at the idea of the U.S. invading a sovereign country without any substantive reason and without the sanction of the United Nations. The enormity of the protest against the war is truly impressive. Political activists were connecting via the Internet, the Security Council of the U.N. was bombarded with anxious e-mails, major rallies protesting the war dotted landscapes from Spain to Washington to London, and politically committed observers authored impassioned pieces on why the Bush Government should not subject the innocent people of Iraq to more suffering. The space where all this took place is global civil society.

Political commentators compare incensed demonstrations in cities across the world with the anti-War protests in the late 1960s against American intervention in Vietnam. Yet, we find a major difference between the two protests. For, the anti-Vietnam movement was to have some kind of impact upon the American Government, even as it forced it to withdraw from its determination to fight communism in a Third World country. Further, allied as it was to other protest movements — the civil liberties movement of the Afro-Americans, the women's movement, the sexual liberation movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and the labour movement — the anti-Vietnam movement marked a turning point in American politics.

Most of the progressive legislation in American politics can in fact be traced to the social upheavals of the late 1960s. Today, the American and the English people have, along with people in other parts of the world, launched a virtual tirade against the war in Iraq. But this has had little impact on the determination of George Bush and Tony Blair to make the world safe for their own projects. Why is this so? Why did the anti-Vietnam protests make history, and why have the current demonstrations failed to speak back to the making of history in an imperialist mode?

The difference perhaps does not lie in the text; it lies in the context. Recollect for instance that protests against American involvement in Vietnam were to take place in an era of virulent anti-imperialism, in an era of politicisation. When we look back at the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, the one thing that strikes us is the way ordinary people across the world had been politicised through processes of sustained mass struggle. People became aware of what was it that they were fighting for; they became conscious of what is possible and probable; what is politically desirable, and what is not, what has to be fought against, and what has to be fought for. In short, ordinary people became supremely conscious of both the constraints as well as opportunities of history, or indeed that ordinary people have the capacity to speak back to histories of oppression.

Remember in this connection how people, forsaking the ordinariness of their daily lives, were to participate in the major political events of the twentieth century — the Bolshevik revolution, the Chinese revolution, the Vietnamese revolution, or the revolution in the small undistinguished colony of Guinea Bissau. The last overturned the regime in the capital of the colonial power, Portugal. Above all, people were politicised all over the continents of Asia and Africa in the cause of anti-imperialist movements. In the course of these struggles, they were inspired by the grand visions that Marx, Mao, Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, Frantz Fanon, and Amilcar Cabral had fashioned for human emancipation. Not all these protests succeeded in the long run — many of them failed — but that is not the point. The point is that ordinary people garnered the courage to speak back to history, to participate in the making of history.

But history can be made only if people have both the vocabulary and the vision of an alternative world to struggle for. This vision was given by the vocabularies of the twentieth century — imperialism, anti-colonialism, oppression, power, struggle, emancipation, and `swaraj'. It was in this context that the struggle against American involvement in Vietnam was waged. It was waged in the midst of political imaginations that resonated with anti-imperialism, with the determination to roll back any kind of muscle-flexing.

By the last two decades of the twentieth century, however, a gigantic process was set in motion — a process of taming unruly and recalcitrant civil societies; a process of de-politicisation of people who had once been made aware of the possibilities of history. Witness the political languages that have erupted recently on to the political scene: globalisation instead of imperialism, governance instead of politics, social capital and trust instead of struggle, community instead of class, civil society instead of the revolutionary imaginations, and NGOs instead of popular mobilisation. These vocabularies are so trite that they seem banal — our political visions are so ordinary that they seem commonplace.

No longer do we find any idea of struggle and emancipation in these political vocabularies, only ideas of resignation. In the middle of these political languages that call for social capital and for building networks of trust — vocabularies that conjure away the fact of political, social, and economic oppression through semantic engineering — anti-war protests and also the anti-globalisation protests stand alone. And we all know what happens to political struggles when they stand alone and bereft of support from attendant ideas of solidarity against anti-imperialism, they become isolated.

If global civil society has to make any headway in its appointed task of bringing states driven by imperatives of power back to civility, its members will have to bring back the revolutionary imagination.

They will have to sharpen political sensibilities and generate new visions of what is a desirable world. Global civil society will have, at some point, to begin to think of contexts instead of isolated texts.

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