4 Apr 2010

Grassroots Power and Non-Market Economies

An Interview with Beverly Bell

Beverly Bell is program coordinator for Other Worlds, an international multimedia education and organizing collaborative. She is the author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She most recently wrote the report, “Who Says You Can’t Change the World? Just Economics and Societies on an Unjust Planet.”

Multinational Monitor: You write in a recent report that there are historically unparalleled levels of people’s mobilization. What do you mean by that?

Beverly Bell: There are primarily two factors behind the current spike in people’s mobilization. One is the level of crisis that people around the world are facing, economically and environmentally. Second is the Internet, through which movements have been able to communicate and unite to a degree that is historically unprecedented.

Some of the qualitative changes are, now there are people organized across many sectors that have never chosen to step out into the popular movement before. For example, indigenous peoples in the last 10 years or so, in Latin America especially but in many parts of the world, have made a determination that they could no longer organize just as indigenous — itself a remarkable achievement — but had to become part of the so-called anti-globalization movement.

People guarding traditional societies are realizing now that they have to actively defend their traditions. There are now extraordinary levels of organizing to save non-market economies, to preserve traditional ways of living, healing, community values, agriculture.

And people are making links and connections that have never before even been imagined, offering new possibilities to build popular power. My reigning favorite example of unsuspected allies comes from the anti-incinerator movement, which is uniting with garbage pickers, who effectively salvage reusable garbage, and Teamsters, who see better job opportunities in recycling than incinerating.

MM: You referenced the protection of traditional lifestyles and communities and resources. Protection against what?

Bell: Globalization is challenging in very devastating ways people’s livelihoods and lives. They’re losing their land and the natural riches that reside in and on those lands. People are losing traditional agriculture because their lands are being taken over by multinational plantations and being turned into mono-crops. Traditional people are finding their communities destroyed as they are pushed off their land, often for development projects, or they are forced into the cities for jobs because of worsening poverty in rural areas. Many societies that exist outside of market structures, that have never been penetrated by cash economies, are suddenly finding themselves under threat by the so-called free market.

To give one example: in Mali, West Africa, communities who have relied on gifting — a cultural practice based on giving without expectation of receiving back, as a way to take care of each other for the survival of all — are suddenly finding that they need cash in ways they never did before, or they perceive they need cash to purchase things they never felt they needed before. This is thanks to advertising and thanks to cost-recovery requirements to pay for health and education, part of World Bank policies. This is eroding their ability to live through gifting; suddenly gifting is coming into competition with the need to hoard cash. Increasingly, people in many societies are realizing that they need to organize to protect what they once had assumed would always be theirs.

MM: A lot of what you describe are traditional ways of doing things outside of the market. What innovations are occurring in non-market spaces for interaction and economic production?

Bell: Here’s a case where tradition meets a globalized world: The food sovereignty movement is a movement largely comprised of small-family, peasant and landless farmers. A lot of what they are doing is fighting the World Trade Organization and its role in agriculture, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and their role in destroying local agriculture through the spread of corporate production. But small producers are also realizing that seeds — for them, a fundament of life that they could rely on from one year to another to grow the food that they needed — must be not just saved, but shared. Seed-sharing is now an element of most international peasant gatherings. You will not go to a gathering of Via Campesina — which is a coalition of more than 100 small producer organizations from around the world — without finding a seed-sharing, where you give your ancient corn for the seed of my ancient bean. Together, people are protecting those seeds against Monsanto patents and against genetic modification. In the process, there has grown a beautiful reverence and organized guarding of something that maybe 30 years ago was completely taken for granted as a non-market good in the community.

MM: To what extent are communities doing this kind of organizing self-consciously trying to protect space or create space outside of the market?

Bell: In the case of most indigenous movements, and in the case of organized small producers, fisher folk, pastoralists and campesinos, people are typically extremely explicit in their intentions. They see the threat of corporate-dominated markets coming upon them with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. They know that if they don’t act, their potential to survive is going to be quickly wiped out.

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