Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action'
I find this debate encouraging as it serves as an opportunity to reflect on my own personal activism and my work at Ibase—in the major UN conferences in the 1990s, in the twentieth century, and in the World Social Forum, mainly from 2001 to 2012.
Collective action depends on the mobilizing imaginary (visions, values, and proposals) combined with historical possibilities. The will and the ability to take action is something we ourselves construct, and therefore it only depends on us. However, the historical possibilities depend on all collective subjects and on the specific moments of the society where we belong to, being a synthesis of multiple contradictions.
GTI scenarios explore the possible combinations of given historical circumstances and the strategic choices and guidance of the collective subjects in political and cultural world struggle. Some combinations would lead to a world largely the same; some to a descent into barbarism, in which all life on earth is at risk; and still others to a virtuous transition to a better world. Collective action is a variable with potentially transformative impacts. The vast work of collective action requires the action of specific citizens in the specific territories where they live. How do we shape collective subjects as institutional and constitutional historical forces of power, economy, and society? To put it in simple terms, it can be said that historical conditions do not produce collective subjects. These subjects emerge in and through action, through struggle, and in contention with the options that the scenario presents, according to what they feel, dream, and see.
This introduction is important since we, one way or another, live scattered all over the planet, in very specific territories, contained within the borders of nation-states with internal social and territory segregation, between the poor and the rich, black and white people, big farms and indigenous communities, religious and nonreligious people, and so on. Neoliberal capitalist globalization, led by huge economic and financial corporations, is beyond the control of the state and the weak existing multilateral organizations, imposing the free market as the model to govern planet and society. Globalization’s effects have been a paradox. Globalization has fed the emergence of the sense of belonging to the same world, the same humankind. Yet, at the same time, capitalist globalization is fueling a concentration of wealth and huge social inequalities and destroying the environment without limits. Worse still, accompanying economic globalization has been a “colonization of hearts and minds” in which consumerism, individualism, and profits become paramount.
I should mention that I am writing this piece in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. President Temer's government is brutally attacking hard-won rights, dismantling social and environmental policies, and implementing undemocratic constitutional reforms that prioritize the private sector and market forces. All Rio de Janeiro’s state government political leadership of the last twenty years have been involved in a major corruption scheme in collusion with gangs of the private business sector. Due to poor management and a dependence on oil and gas royalties, the state went bankrupt, with civil servants facing unpaid wages and hospitals and schools facing the risk of closure. Poverty is clearly seen in the streets. And even worse, in a city with high social and ethnic segregation, violence has spread all over the urban periphery, in a real undeclared civil war of the police against drug dealers gangs. Under such circumstances, is it possible to think of creating a new world? Maybe our most urgent problem to solve now is how to dig resistance trenches to prevent this scenario from leading to the establishment of plain and simple barbarism.
To participate in shaping collective subjects to create another kind of world, we must face the fragmentation and weakness of our resistance groups, setting out the fundamental question: Is the scope of our dream just limited to restore what Rio de Janeiro and Brazil used to be in the last two decades? Or maybe adversity should lead us to think about the strategic mistakes we made and the lack of audacity of our dreams to take Brazil into the path of a real transition to another kind of world? After all, what kind of Brazil does the world need?
I am presenting these issues since I believe they can contribute to collective reflection (a precursor to collective action) and, mainly, because they are strategic for us. I think that the problem we have to address is not at an organizational one. Social movements are already doing very well at what they are able to do: shaping themselves as collective subjects, with their own identity, values, and common visions; organizing themselves; showing their ability and great creativity in their struggles for their fundamental agendas.
From local to global, we lack a robust cultural and ideological counterhegemony as Antonio Gramsci describes it: a process of contestation—in the heart of civil societies, in the public spaces—about visions and concepts, ways of acting and living as a human collective in a finite world. This is about countering xenophobia and racism, intolerance and hatred, and valuing rights of freedom and equality over privileges, individualism, colonialism and racism, nationalism, and market freedom. It is also about confronting unlimited mercantilization and defending the importance of public goods and the commons. We need cities for citizens, rather than for cars. What does wealth—meeting everyone needs and welfare—really mean? We need to confront “destructive production,” such as oil and gas, plastic, arms industry, advertising. We need to do more than what we are warned to do about climate change, since its cause is the colonization of our common atmosphere, resulting from the mass privatizations of capitalism.
It is fundamental to put our hearts and minds to debate in public spaces, in the media, in social networks, in cultural and religious spaces, in the gym, in the club, in the pub, and in civil society forums. We need to join social movements, listen and learn from them, and be inspired by them. This is a task of political and cultural construction, of creating movements of ideals that stick to reality. We are being defeated by a way of thinking that seems to have no alternative.
It is possible to create another kind of world, but we need to dream and believe, despite the difficult circumstances we may face. We need something like an immense cultural wave able to convey a sense of freedom, emancipation and humanity, a sense of equality among the differences, of well-being restrained in the many emergences and rebellions, the big and the small ones, the unequal, the inconsistent, yet legitimate, popping up all over the world. Such a mobilizing imaginary can only be constructed in a collaborative way, respecting diversity and the multiple struggles we are involved in. Rather than artificially joining together, we have to explore new philosophies of life as webs that connect us in the search for a greater common good, and fearlessly confront the backlash that this produces among the powerful collective subjects, who consider themselves the owners of everything, including history.