As we find ourselves in the grips of a myriad of crises, unsure of what our collective future holds, the freedom sounds of social movements building power from below can be heard from Egypt and South Korea to Argentina. Guided by principles of self-determination, autonomy and cooperation, these movements offer us antidotes to fascism, authoritarianism and exploitative economic systems.
Movements made up of cultural producers and trade unionists, farmers and feminists are calling us to action through the work that they do. Mutual aid initiatives, land occupations and people’s assemblies are setting an example of how movement building practices can help us to break out of the marginalising and oppressive confines imposed by the neoliberal system.
These ideas, actions and processes are not answers in and of themselves; they are not meant to dictate a singular revolutionary path that allows for only one way of doing things. Instead, they function as provocations that we can study as we build towards the revolution in our own communities; to engage with as we rupture the neoliberal economic model by imagining and enacting economies outside of the practices that created it.
Abahlali baseMjondolo, a national movement of shack dwellers in South Africa, was founded in 2005 by an alliance of 14 communities that struggle for a dignified life for all through a network of land occupations. The movement began as a land occupation at the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban, whose residents were told that the land they were living on had been sold to a private buyer even though the municipality had promised the land would be allocated for public housing.
Over the last 15 years, Abahlali baseMjondolo has grown into a 75 000 member-strong movement. They have built their national mandate by forming people’s assemblies and councils. Direct democracy is the heartbeat of the movement. From land occupations to protests to popular education, Abahlali baseMjondolo has made, and continues to make, key connections between systems of governance, oppressive economic systems – including capitalism – histories of colonisation and imperialism, and the collusion between all of these. In drawing these connections, the movement exposes the fact that African people have been deliberately impoverished and dispossessed of land and basic services. At the same time, the movement ensures that tens of thousands of people have land to live and build community on.
In 1984, a similar movement emerged in Brazil under the shadow of a military regime. As rural workers across the country resisted displacement from their lands, increasing unemployment, and widening class stratification with the rise of industrialised agriculture, they formed the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST). For more than 20 years, the MST has continued in the quest to ensure people have land on which to grow food, to protect the biodiversity of Brazil, and to create work that is not alienating. MST has won 7.5 million hectares of land, built people’s schools and demonstrated what radical agrarian reform can look like in practice.
Land struggles in Brazil and South Africa are not just about amplifying theoretical positions in support of rupture from the neoliberal order. These struggles have concrete forms because people need to be able to eat, drink clean water, and live in safe and consistent housing. MST and Abahlali baseMjondolo show us the importance of fortifying practices of liberation.
It is mid-May in 1980 and the uprising in Gwangju, South Korea has just started. As described by George Katsiaficas, people have taken to the streets to protest authoritarian rule as well as to call for the end of martial law and to fight for labour rights. In response, the government imposed martial law across South Korea and brought in the military to disperse the protesters. Fighting back, the people of Gwangju managed to drive out the military and create a liberated zone that they held for six days.
During those six days, there were daily people’s assemblies attended by thousands of people. Health care practitioners provided medical treatment to anyone who needed it; some built and provided shelter for each other while others cooked food. Taxis and buses were recruited to transport people when they needed to move. For those six days, the functioning of the city was in the hands of the people and access to services or goods was not determined by your ability to sell or buy something.
About a decade before the Gwangju uprising, the Black Panther Party in the United States was also experimenting with decommodification in action. Starting from its establishment in 1966, the Black Panther Party instituted a network of Survival Programmes to provide for the needs of the people. They formed medical clinics where people could find treatment, they ran breakfast programmes for students and food programmes for the community. Through other programmes, one could acquire clothes, transportation and childcare, among many other services and goods – all free and organised by the Party.
In both Gwangju and in the communities where the Black Panther Party operated, life was de-commodified – even if only for moments or days – because the farmer and the taxi driver and the doctor and the cook and the tailor and the plumber and the teacher decided that the services and goods they knew how to grow, or make, or give, were going to be shared simply because someone needed or wanted them. A critical tenant of the capitalist economy – alienated labour – was upended.
Just as in the first two provocations, there are examples we can draw on to concretise this point.
In South Africa, once the borders closed and a lockdown was put into place due to the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, what we saw – and not only in South Africa, but across the globe – is that governments allowed businesses and services deemed essential to stay open. Unsurprisingly, most of those were corporations, while those who worked in the popular economy, such as in markets, for example, were forced to close down. What this meant is that the structural inequality that was already present before Covid-19 grew even deeper.
In response, the C19 Gauteng Food Sovereignty Working Group, part of the broader C19 People’s Coalition – an alliance of social movements, trade unions, community organisations and NGOs united in the struggle for a just response to Covid-19 – connected small-hold farmers who held surplus produce to people in urban centres. They created localised supply and distribution systems run for and by the people – bypassing state institutions and corporations.
Another example is the worker-recovered enterprise movement in Argentina that started during the late 1990s. After years of neoliberal measures that prioritised privatisation and caused deepened unemployment in the midst of an economic collapse and large-scale protests, workers who had lost their jobs due to factory closures occupied their workplaces. A new wave of economic practices rippled through Argentina, as workers driven by principles of horizontal management and worker-ownership took over factories, hotels and schools.
The workplace occupations came with a steep learning curve around administration and the management of production and distribution. These were not without complications and contradictions, both ideological and practical. But what is important to emphasise is that workers took their power with a desire to begin enacting a different economic model – one that roots itself in collectivity, cooperation and the well-being of the workers and the community.
Just like any other social construct, capitalism is created and reinforced by ideas, people and institutions. What social movements are doing every day is building a power from below to counter the ideas and practices of the neoliberal empire. This is true of activists, scholars and movements theorising and calling for specific and immediate economic action. This is also true of movements, activists and scholars whose focus is not explicitly tied to economics but whose work nonetheless disrupts the logarithms that capital depends on to reproduce itself and yields processes which are critical to actualising new economies.
In 2020, the calls from Black communities in the United States for abolition – a world where we engage each other without coercive, carceral and punitive systems – have got louder. Organisers from the Movement for Black Lives have built a movement platform that, among other things: “reject[s] the funding of practices, policies or personnel that create danger for Black people and deprive our communities of what the privileged have long enjoyed in this country: basic rights, safety and freedom. Through participatory governance and budgeting processes that engage and invest in underserved communities, we can work together to design a future that does not rely on police and punishment.”
This call for non-coercive, non-punitive accountability measures directly attacks the centralised power and monopoly of violence that are the lifelines of capitalism. We cannot have new economies while still relying on nation-state structures such as the police and military, whose very existence is meant to defend imperial and colonial interests.
The reverberations of resistance to coercion, to the monopoly of violence and to authoritarian rule of the nation-state can also be felt in the work of Egyptian artists who were part of Egypt’s popular uprising in 2010. In this movement, artists used graffiti to depict an African subject that is explicitly working against coercion and the violence of authoritarian rule.
According to Egyptian graffiti artist El Zeft, cultural production is one way that people who are seeking anti-authoritarian alternatives amplify their messages and build with one another. In an interview with journalist Timmy Mowafi, El Zeft concedes that there are challenges to actualising anti-authoritarian political formations and practices, but nonetheless believes that “we’re going to win whether it’s now, tomorrow or 20 years from now because we have something we believe in, while [people who believe in authoritarian rule] are just fighting because [they’re] scared of [their] superiors”.
By proposing different visions for transformative justice in our communities and using art to amplify and build those visions, movements fighting for Black life and against authoritarian rule are also part of building new economies.
During the 2019 uprising in Sudan that was led by students, trade unionists, feminists and cultural producers, songs, visual art and writing helped to shape and amplify demands for dignity and freedom that eventually successfully toppled a government. The graffiti art of the Egyptian uprisings in 2010 similarly provided a visual manifesto of the struggle for freedom. These two examples remind us of the real impact that cultural production has on movement building. Cultural production creates a space for creation, for conversation, for amplification and for beauty.
The liberation struggle fought by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) is another instance in which cultural production was used to build collective visions of freedom and to conduct popular and political education. The EPLF would take well-known stories and stage theatrical plays in which the main storyline would be changed to include revolutionary characters fighting for their self-determination. There are many more examples across historic independence struggles in Africa and the rest of the Global South that show how movements use cultural production as a site for popular education and dialogue – such as the PAIGC’s Rádio Libertação in Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde and the ANC’s Radio Freedom to the visual art of the Organisation of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
But we do not just have to look to historical examples for inspiration. We can look to the protest songs, murals and writings that came out of the struggle in Chile throughout 2019 or to the poetic writings of the Zapatistas that paint a picture of revolution realised while also offering models for horizontal political formations rooted in reciprocity and interdependence.
Counter-hegemonic cultural production bursts through the constraints of the white walls of bourgeois art galleries, flowing into the streets and spaces where people live and build life. It nurtures possibilities by creating sites from which dialogue, collective imagining and the incubation of freedom practices can take root. Paraphrasing the words of the author, academic and activist Toni Cade Bambara, the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.
The power to act
The examples found across these five provocations are just a few of the many pathways that a constellation of movements have offered us. These examples may seem like isolated points but when our perspective spans out, there is a clear continuity across time and space. We can hear the echoes of the Gwangju uprising in the Juneteenth port shutdowns that happened across the West Coast of the United States in solidarity with the Black liberation movement. We can feel the reverberations of the Black Panther Party’s Survival Programmes in the hundreds of Covid-19 mutual aid networks that have been created throughout the last year.
This article was first published by Roar Magazine.