Why the left should take the time to celebrate its victories.
Published in the January/February 2012 issue of the New Internationalist.
Imagine a “free trade” area stretching from the Canadian arctic to the lower tip of Argentina. Like other trade deals before it, the hemisphere-wide, 34-nation pact would be crafted by and for multinational corporations. It would allow the demands of international capital to override any national citizenry with the gall to enact inconvenient environmental and public interest protections.
Such a thing existed. Or, at least, it almost did. It was called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and, in the late 1990s, plans for it were plowing forward.
Then something got in the way.
Trade ministers accustomed to sealing deals behind closed doors were publicly confronted by stilt-walkers dressed as butterflies and by seemingly endless busloads of union members who came uninvited to their summits. Misty clouds of tear gas wafted over Seattle and Genoa. Throughout Latin America, mass uprisings drove acolytes of market fundamentalism out of office, and voters replaced them with presidents critical of the “Washington Consensus.” The FTAA, once a safe bet, became a deal in peril.
The last act for the trade pact took place at a 2005 gathering of hemispheric leaders in Mar del Plata, Argentina. In a seaside resort, guarded by navy vessels offshore and fighter jets overhead, George W. Bush watched the agreement unravel around him. Meanwhile, in the streets, huge crowds led by fútbol legend Diego Maradona danced on its grave.
The thing is, if you weren’t there, you might not have heard about the collapse of the FTAA. The media did little to highlight its historic reversal of fortune. And, although tens of thousands of people invested extraordinary effort in educating and mobilizing against earlier “Summits of the Americas” in Quebec City and Miami, few even seemed to get the news of the FTAA’s defeat. There were no victory parties or high fives. Instead, we let the deal slink out with a whimper.
I think this is a problem, and part of a trend. We don’t celebrate our victories.
At the end of each year, I usually write about a few of the accomplishments that social movements eked out in the previous twelve months, uncovering some glittering gems that might have been buried in an avalanche of depressing news about exploitation, war, and despoliation. This year, it is hardly necessary to dig for them. We’ve seen dictators overthrown, tar sands pipelines suspended, and occupations from Tahrir to Madrid to Wall Street capture the global imagination.
And yet, developments such as the Occupy movement have often been met with snide dismissal. Instead of exploring its potential, or lauding its remarkable early success in transforming political discussion in America, mainstream commentators declared the movement dead on arrival. They deemed it destined for irrelevance because of, in the contemptuous words of the New York Times, its “apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably.” Looking for precedents of ephemeral protests, these pundits invoke past globalization demonstrations as efforts that accomplished nothing.
They get away with it because we don’t celebrate. We rarely remember the apartheid laws we have boycotted out of existence or the FTAAs whose inevitability we have erased. Often, we do the job of the detractors ourselves, allowing self-criticism to cloud any sense of accomplishment.
Surely, there is a need within social movements for tough strategic debate and for hard-nosed analysis that doesn’t shy from the depths of the difficulties we face. But we are good at these things. We’re not good at acknowledging moments when, against all odds, the power of democratic resistance prevails over the influence of privilege and wealth.
Let’s do it now. Spend a moment commemorating a remarkable year. Better yet, throw a party. Toast the courage and vision of those whose sacrifice made it possible. Dance like those Argentineans.
Rest assured, the work ahead will still be there when you’re done.