A global message from the people

Thanks to the audacity of thousands of diverse activists, being 'anti-capitalist' is back on the mainstream agenda, writes Hilary Wainwright

December 5, 1999
4 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

I have a right to express my anti-capitalist views, said a schoolboy arrested in the anti-WTO, anti-Railtrack fracas at London’s Euston station. Thanks to the audacity of thousands of diverse activists like him, being ‘anti-capitalist’ is back on the mainstream agenda again. Newscasters no longer say it with a sneer. What is needed now is practical thinking about alternatives, starting with a form of democracy that resists being co-opted and corrupted by capitalism.

It was revealing to see the grotesque paramilitary-style effort to keep the World Trade Organisation completely sealed off from public access, symbolising dramatically the extent to which governmental institutions have become separated from the people they are supposed to represent. While on the other hand we have witnessed the persistence of popular support for Ken Livingstone against some of the most determined manoeuvres this government has ever engaged in. This proves that ordinary people are doggedly determined to win back some power for themselves. That these two events coincided served as a vivid reminder that it is no longer enough to ‘think global and act local.’ We need to both think and act at both levels simultaneously.

Social movements are doing that already. The Brazilian landless movement occupies local land, marches on the federal capital and sends a mass delegation to international summits to block further deregulation of trade. The Exodus collective organises locally while also hosting activists from around the world at its Luton farm. But what about governmental and parliamentary institutions – the institutions of representative democracy, as distinct from the participatory democracy of DIY social activists? Do we even want or need such institutions? After Seattle, one is tempted to agree with the anarchists that state institutions have so thoroughly discredited themselves that we can no longer rely on them for anything.

One problem unresolved by anarchism is distribution. We need government institutions of some kind, both globally and nationally, because they are necessary for a massive redistribution of wealth if the majority of the world’s people are to enjoy real autonomy and self-determination. For example, a massive transfer of resources is the only way to unite the legitimate concerns of US trade unionists over child labour and the immediate needs of poor families in India and Africa.

Official OECD aid, for instance, has declined in recent years from 0.7% to 0.3% of GDP; merely raising it to the modest Development Decade target of 1% could provide families in the South with a basic income, in exchange for which they would promise to send their children to school – as has already been done in the Brazilian cities governed by the Workers Party. In the EU, a very significant move towards transnational redistribution was taking place; shamefully, the British government is forcing a compromise. The original European tax plan shows the way to what is needed globally.

But institutions with the power to redistribute on the sort of scale that is necessary will need to be strong; how can they be kept genuinely democratic and accountable? How do we avoid having state institutions that claim to act for the people but exclude us from effective control? This is where participatory democracy is so important. We need co-government, a sharing of decision-making and responsibility between representative and direct democracy.

Experiences across the world show that where radical social movements converge with left parties – or sections of left parties – with a foothold in power, a new effective democratic government is possible. Democratic institutions with a participatory base can have the necessary moral authority to call concentrations of wealth and power to account, and the necessary administrative capacity and political clout to carry out redistributive reforms of real scope and bite. Such sharing of power between parliamentary and direct democracy locally and globally is surely one alternative for ‘anti-capitalists’ to explore.


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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