By many measures, the South today is a contradictory place. While big emerging economies such as China, Brazil, India and South Africa assert themselves on the world stage and challenge western hegemony over international institutions and forums, they are essentially treading the crisis ridden path of export oriented growth based on cheap labour with little consideration to social and ecological costs. Immense wealth and grinding poverty co-exist in much of the south, fuelling social crises on a daily basis.
Social movements and activists in the South are not only challenging this destructive development model but also going beyond resistance to articulate systemic alternatives. For instance, take agriculture from which millions in the South continue to earn their livelihoods. In many developing countries, the agrarian crisis (manifested in struggles for land and decent wages, distress migration, low per capita availability of food and environmental degradation) and its resolution continues to be the central question for social and political movements concerned with equity and justice. Global movements such as Via Campesina – the north-south network of peasants and agriculture workers – have advanced the concept of food sovereignty and agro-ecology as a solution to both the agrarian and climate crisis. These alternative models reclaim peasants control over seeds, soils, water and embrace principles of co-operation and collectivism.
Another inspiring example is the Asia Floor Wage alliance (of trade unions and grassroots organisations) which has formulated the demand for a living wage for Asian garment workers (who are predominantly women). Today, less than 3% of the retail cost of a garment goes to a worker in Asia. The AFW aims to hold garment corporations in the North accountable by forging a wage consensus across Asian countries ranging from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Cambodia. By including basic needs such as housing, food, education and health care into wages, the AFW calls for a living wage, questioning the current ‘poverty’ wages. AFW squarely challenges the ability of companies to re-locate to countries with cheaper wages and bad working conditions. While the AFW is an international alliance that is led from Asia it builds both South-South and South-North partnerships.
There are several other examples of alternatives from the South such as the attempt from Latin American groups to forge Alternative Frameworks for International Investment and the ongoing effort by over 100 organisations for an International Peoples Treaty for the control of Transnational Corporations.
Way forward: Re-thinking Internationalism
The obvious question is whether these initiatives are resulting in a radical transformation of the system. Powerful as these movements are in influencing a re-thinking of development options, they often do not encapsulate an integrated perspective of social and political transformation. Further, as David Harvey points out in his latest book ‘The seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism’ the challenge is to build alternatives that go beyond localism. This is where experiments in Latin America in building a new vision of 21st century socialism have provided a much needed impetus to movements in the global south. Progressive Governments in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia have articulated the centrality of participatory and decentralised planning, popular protagonism, environmental consciousness and regional integration as key elements towards transformative change.
In December 2014, the 9 member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America-Peoples Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP) celebrated 10 years of advancing a new model of regional integration in Latin America. Since 2004, ALBA has created new regional institutions for affordable health care (ALBA-Med), medical education (Latin American Medical School–ELAM), telecommunications (Telesur), financial architecture (Bank of ALBA) and regional payments for trade (SUCRE). Social movements in these countries are pushing further, recognising that transformative and systemic change is a continuous process and progressive governments can often be co-opted by the system.
The current global conjuncture requires a new internationalism; a far more sustained engagement by social movements and trade unions (both in the South and North) with these progressive Governments. We need to be building more cross-border networks, identifying areas of cooperation and mutual learning to re-imagine and re-invent a new socialist politics that puts democracy, human development, ecology and protagonist politics at the centre. The axis of hope might currently be in Latin America; who knows where the pink tide might spread to next.
(This article by Benny Kuruvilla was originally published in Red Pepper in it’s March edition 2015)
Photo Credit: Susana Barria