After Standing Rock, a new unity emerges

Photo: Dark Sevier
Photo: Dark Sevier

by Nancy Romer

After eight months, starting with a few hundred young Native Americans and swelling to up to 15,000 people in the sprawling encampments of Standing Rock, North Dakota, a victory was celebrated. President Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers denied the request for an easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners (ETP)* and their “family” of logistics corporations to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, which that could threaten the water supply and sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. The Army Corps of Engineers further required a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which usually takes months and sometimes years, to reconsider granting the easement.

DAPL is a $3.7 billion project that would link 1,200 miles of pipeline carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota through the mid-west and eventually to the east coast and south of the US. The sunny and wind-swept prairie of Standing Rock reveals the absurdity of building fossil fuel infrastructure that will further harm the planet when renewable energy is everywhere, waiting to be developed.

The December 4th decision came immediately after 2,500 US military veterans joined the “water protectors”, as they are called, at Standing Rock. The vets formed a human shield protecting the water protectors from the myriad local law enforcement officers who work on behalf of the interests of the private oil and gas industries. Several of the vets said that, after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their effort to protect Standing Rock was the first time they actually felt they were protecting the American people.

After almost 500 years of white settlers and the US government stealing land from Native American tribes and forging divisions between them, over 200 Native tribes have coalesced to protect Standing Rock. The history of government-sanctioned genocide and colonialism are recurring themes in this struggle.

The main “road” in the encampment is Flag Row, a long dirt path lined with hundreds of colorful tribal flags from all over the Americas, signaling unity. Strict rules of decorum prevail—no drugs, alcohol, or weapons of any kinds, total non-violence, respect for decision-making by the tribal council and for elders, and dedicating the encampment to non-violent prayer. Their slogan is “Water is Life”. Thousands of Indigenous peoples from all over the world and tens of thousands of non-Indigenous peoples have come to Standing Rock to defend Indigenous rights and to protect Mother Earth. They want to kill the “black snake”: DAPL. There lie the seeds of unity and dissent.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

Mother Earth and/or Indigenous Rights

Indigenous activists such as Tara Houska, Anishinaabe lawyer for Honor the Earth and Tom Goldtooth, Navajo leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, see fighting the pipeline as more than defending the tribes; they see it as defending Mother Earth. They see fossil fuel infrastructure as dangerous to the future of humans on earth. They want to see the development of renewable energy and the end of fossil fuels.

Dave Archambault, II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and primary spokesperson for the coalition of tribes, will be satisfied if the pipeline is re-routed away from the Sioux orbit. He has told the water protectors camping on the grounds to go home to their families for the winter: their jobs are done. He has repeatedly stated that he is not opposed to infrastructure projects or to “energy independence” but rather is opposed when Indigenous peoples are not consulted and when the pipelines go through their lands and waters. Native Americans, many of whom are desperately poor and denied opportunities, have sold mineral rights to their parcels of land to fossil fuel developers.

This is a basic contradiction for Indigenous peoples: those who see Mother Earth as their responsibility to protect for the next seven generations (a common saying for some Indigenous groups), versus those who want to address their own poverty which seems much more immediate. This is a global phenomenon.

Months of battles with brutal local law enforcement have left hundreds of water protectors facing arrests, rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, water cannons used in sub-freezing temperatures, serious injuries and brutal treatment when incarcerated. Images of this police brutality against Indigenous peoples and their supporters have galvanized support for the protests and brought thousands of people to the 5-6 camps that make up the sprawling Standing Rock encampment. Tribal elders often look askance at many of the “unofficial” actions advanced by the “Red Warrior Camp” and their allies because they have drawn so much violence against them. Nonetheless, the tribal leaders decry the violence and partisan nature of the “law enforcement’s” savage response. Red Warriors see these direct action confrontations as the reason that Standing Rock has gotten any publicity at all and has attracted the attention and won the hearts of radicals and human rights advocates across the world.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

Life at Standing Rock: Building liberated spaces

Standing Rock has developed massive camps, replete with many cooking tents each serving hundreds at every meal, large-scale donation operations, legal, medical, and psychological counseling services, schools, orientation sessions, and direct action trainings. Each morning and evening people gather around sacred fires and hear information, speeches, and music, and they dance and feel the power of unity.

They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent.

Comparisons with Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs would reveal a much larger, more on-going, and much more disciplined space in Standing Rock. It has captured the imagination and support of hundreds of thousands of people across the planet, from the Indigenous Sami peoples of Norway to workers from all over the US who are angry at the lack of support from organized labor, specifically the AFL-CIO.

The presence of youth is immediately noticeable at the camps though there are plenty of elders and children as well. Supporters mostly camp out and help to winterize the teepee, yurts, army tents, recreational vehicles, camping tents, vans and school buses that create a small city of protest. They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent. The pull of such a liberated space is all the more meaningful in the face of US President-elect, Donald Trump. The encampment is simultaneously a historic throwback and a futuristic village of care and commitment to a more egalitarian and caring world.

The parallels with Occupy Wall Street are many—both aiming to build a new way with progressive and humanistic values, addressing the oppression of our people. Both captured the hearts of progressive folks and engaged mostly young people but Standing Rock’s supporters include many more people of color of all backgrounds. The history of Indigenous tribes welcoming people of African descent, especially during slavery, is not forgotten in this solidarity. Standing Rock’s success is grounded in Indigenous cultural values of respect, formal representative decision-making, discipline, and work that is further expressed through a deep spirituality that connects our human activity to the earth. Standing Rock is orderly and behavioral norms are clearly articulated and encouraged, if not enforced.

Naomi Klein, in her groundbreaking book, This Changes Everything, asserts that the climate movement can only be successful if it addresses racial, gender, and economic oppression as its main strategy and if it takes leadership from those most affected by climate change and the savages of capitalism. Without so much explicit language this is evidently what is happening at Standing Rock. The power of this strategy impacts everyone who enters the camp and the movement; the pull of this approach is enormous.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

What lies ahead?

On December 4 and 5, over 15,000 people celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny the permit to complete DAPL as planned, but the struggle is nowhere near over. Several factors make for a complex web of possibilities that underscore the necessity of the encampment and wide support to continue.

First, Trump can overturn Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers’ decision and force them to grant an easement to ETP. That will be challenged in court as the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal agencies cannot change a settled ruling of a federal agency that is based on facts when a new administration takes over. The US Supreme Court declined to take up this ruling, leaving the Ninth Circuit decision to prevail. If Trump tried to get the permit without an environmental impact statement he would have an immediate lawsuit on his hands that would prevent the easement from taking effect, at least immediately. Additionally, Trump’s reported investments in DAPL of $500,000 to $1 million may create a conflict of interest he cannot navigate. Other lawsuits against ETP are already in the courts and proceeding, further slowing down the process.

Further, Trump has talked about privatizing over 56 million acres of Native American reservations in order to facilitate exploitation of the natural resources of those lands. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Indigenous reservations cover 2% of US land but contain an estimate 20% of its oil and gas plus vast coal reserves as well. That fight will ignite much more organizing and fight back.

Second, and perhaps most important, are the specifics of the contracts between ETP and Sunoco Logistics, their partner organization in this project, and the dozens of major financial institutions that have invested in DAPL. These contracts can be negated and/or open to re-negotiation if the pipeline is not completed by January 1, 2017. At that point the financial institutions will have the legal right to back out of or diminish their investments. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of groups in the US that are pressuring these very financial institutions to drop their investments in DAPL. Many of the pension funds of public workers and others are invested in these financial institutions and supporters are mounting campaigns to uncover them and demand divestment.

Supporters have been cutting up their credit cards and closing their accounts from banks investing in DAPL. The Sightline Institute did a study of DAPL financing and found them to be “rickety”. They found that the value of crude oil has declined by about 50% since these contracts were signed, making the windfall profits from this venture much less likely. They found a sharp decline in oil production that may signal no further need for the pipeline. For some of the investors, DAPL is looking risky on many levels.

Third, ETP has a way to sneak out of the job as well. Their contract indicates that they are not liable for project completion if “rioting” takes place. ETP along with their allies in local North Dakota law enforcement have been calling the direct action by water protectors “rioting”, setting the stage for a possible exit from liability. The demonstrators have been peaceful if sometimes provocative and a great deal of video evidence indicates that the violence has emanated from the law enforcement officers, not the protesters. But “rioting” is the language ETP and the cops use, and for a specific purpose.

Fourth, the popular support for Standing Rock seems to grow with each day and each report of violence against the water protectors. There are similar challenges of fossil fuel pipelines in many parts of the US and they are gathering people to protest in those places as well. The model of encampments, of creating liberated spaces that protect the activists, land, water, and movement, has taken hold. No force will hold that back. From the AIM Spectra Pipeline, slated to go under the Hudson River and immediately past the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station 10 miles from New York City, to the Black Mesa Water Coalition of the US southwest, the struggles to reject fossil fuel infrastructure and to build a sustainable energy economy are everywhere in the US as they are across the planet.

A new solidarity is emerging. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many.

A new solidarity is emerging. One that has a great deal of potential to unite the left under the joint banners of the oppression of people, particularly people of color, and the oppression of the earth itself. The hope lies in navigating that unity with a vision of solving both oppressions simultaneously. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many. While its opponents are on the ascent, the struggle continues. Compassion, respect, clear demands and decision-making and solidarity can guide the way.

*The “Energy Transfer Family” of corporations involved in the logistics behind building the Dakota Access Pipeline are: Enbridge, Inc., Energy Transfer Partners, Energy Equity Partners, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Sunoco LP and Phillips 66

Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America.

“Docs Not Cops”

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Photo: Emily Hatcher

by Sophie Lewis

Who works indirectly for the UK Border Agency? Volunteers help burn down migrant camps in Calais and elsewhere. In part due to cuts to its maritime services, bodies continue to wash up on EU shores. And as a result of recent policies, the government has made it clear that it would like the border control team to include landlords, neighbours, teachers, bank clerks, social workers, welfare administrators, and doctors. It is increasingly clear that the enforcement of the UK border is not limited to its ports of entry.

But the activists and medical trainees who go by “Docs Not Cops” are not going to comply.  In the context of the EU’s ongoing inadequate and even murderous response to migrants, I interviewed activists at DocsNotCops for Uneven Earth.* This group of medical workers and activists represent just one example – in Britain – of a struggle against border regimes that exclude and stigmatize migrants, to the detriment of everyone.

 

Why DocsNotCops?

The UK National Health Service (NHS), a system of socialized healthcare introduced in the aftermath of World War II, has been universally operative and “free at the point of use” since 1948. But advocates of privatizing public infrastructure (as pioneered by Margaret Thatcher) are gaining ground in their longstanding assault on the NHS.

In the years since, millions of people have taken to the streets to defend “Our NHS” against those who would tamper with it. The campaign of opposition to “our” NHS has been multi-pronged—involving de-funding, speculation, and propaganda—but the consensus is that it seeks to convert a public good currently organised along principles of universal welfare into a lucrative and stratified medical marketplace based on private care and insurance premiums, similar to that of  USA.

In 2015 and 2016, it is the NHS doctors on the “junior” contract, which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is threatening with reform, who have occupied the bulk of the spotlight within the wider social conflict over healthcare provision. In his attempt to impose the exploitative new terms, Hunt has come up against a tireless wave of resistance he visibly did not expect. Although public sentiment in support of a fully public health service was known to be high, the junior doctors surprised many by handing their union, the British Medical Association, an extraordinarily strong mandate for taking strike action against the government: the ballot showed that 98% of more than 37,000 in England had voted in favour of full strike action. Perhaps even more surprisingly, doctors on strike have consistently been found to enjoy full support from a vocal majoritarian cross-section of society.

Most of those involved with DocsNotCops are also heavily involved in the junior doctors’ struggle. One interviewee, who asked not to be named, explained the current state of affairs for the fightback against Hunt’s reform: “The vast majority of its members have said they’re willing to escalate things. Unfortunately the BMA (our trade union) has been dragging its heels and not wanting to appear too militant. We’re seeing many medical staff talking about simply quitting the National Health Service, or even quitting the profession altogether. They’re still a minority, those suggesting a mass exodus, but it’s catching on, and it’s a terrible argument for many reasons—most of all because it would play right into the hands of privatizers. At this point, any “emergency meetings” the government tries to have with our BMA reps will be stormed by activists so as to ensure that continuous, 48-hour plus, strike action is on the table.”

The [Immigration Act] enlists doctors themselves in a closing of the borders.

But, specifically, DocsNotCops came into being in response to the passing of the UK Immigration Act. Hotly contested and repeatedly blocked prior to its approval in 2014, the Immigration Act was justified by a series of xenophobic discourses in mainstream newspapers (from the Daily Mail to the Guardian). These ill-substantiated anti-migrant narratives, fuelled by soundbites from politicians across the party spectrum, connected widespread ill-feeling generated by austerity policies and slow post-crisis economic recovery with a supposed immigration and asylum-seeking crisis. According to them, an unsustainable influx of both “medical tourists” and refugees has “swamped” Britain’s capacities to provide care at taxpayers’ expense: supposedly “stretching” the NHS to its breaking point.

The bill enlists doctors themselves in a closing of the borders, inside institutions. It changes the fundamentally unpoliced nature of public medical provision by introducing unprecedented screening, designed to identify those the state deems (as above) “undesirables” at the point of healthcare provision, in order to charge them fees, exclude them, or else dissuade them from seeing a doctor in the first place. In other words, the bill – as they see it – essentially turns civil, medical and caring professionals into agents of harm: “cops”; border agents; spies and debt collectors.

The policy changes have already produced tragic effects. Reem Abu-Hayyeh (DocsNotCops) cites, for example, “the sad case of Dalton Messam (44), an undocumented migrant who died in 2013 in East Ham from an unknown illness, too afraid to seek medical treatment in case he was deported, is testament to the potentially fatal consequences of limiting or cutting off access to healthcare for migrants.”

The energetic ad-hoc network came together to prevent this kind of shameful occurrence from ever being repeated. In their own words, the aim is “a society in which people aren’t scared of illness.” One trainee doctor and DocsNotCops activist observed: “As we move on with this fight, we’ve all been obliged to re-think the question ‘What is cost, in the NHS?’ Because we’re constantly confronting the fact that it’s the capitalists themselves who are putting the numerical value on what happens to people’s bodies under this system.”

The activists frequently point out in their written materials that Aneurin Bevan, the minister who founded the NHS, understood this profoundly. Bevan famously affirmed: “Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalized, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community”. For these reasons as much as epidemiological ones, as DocsNotCops maintain, if a health system isn’t for everyone, it just won’t work.

 

The Immigration Act: paving the way for more austerity and privatization

As one of their first initiatives, DocsNotCops devised a consciousness-raising survey: How will the Visitor & Migrant NHS Cost Recovery Programme affect you?  By responding to the survey’s prompts, anyone can easily learn that the government’s proposed measures include the introduction of charges attached to accessing A&E and general practice. There is also now a £200 surcharge on work visa applications, even though the majority of migrants already pay for the NHS in various ways: taxes, VAT, National Insurance, tuition fees.

Are hospitals simply complying? No. Unofficial protocols, for now, still operate in most places to simply go ahead and provide care to those with the wrong documents (or none).

So, it’s not universal charges for the time being, but rather, charges for some of us—those of us who don’t meet certain residency and citizenship conditions. Rhetorically, this is justified in the language of ‘sacrifice’ with reference to overcrowding and balancing the budget. Yet it requires that hospitals work with the UK Border Agency’s data to scrutinize people – everyone, not just some of us – for their legal status, rather than just their illness. They must, of course, acquire the computer and bureaucratic staff capability to do so. DocsNotCops sees the introduction of this kind of administrative functionality as the thin end of a wedge that is designed to kill off any collective sense of entitlement to “no questions asked” medical care.

Are hospitals simply complying? No. Unofficial protocols, for now, still operate in most places to simply go ahead and provide care to those with the wrong documents (or none). To combat this resistance, as Sophie Williams (DocsNotCops) notes: “The Act states that NHS Trusts will receive ‘financial incentives’ to recoup costs. This could mean pressuring staff to racially profile patients … those deemed eligible for free care, and those not.” The ‘Overseas’ debt-collection teams now being introduced in many hospitals look set to start transforming UK healthcare into something more like the world’s infamously chaotic, ineffective, and inhumane for-profit models.

On a case-by-case basis, pro bono UK legal workers have argued for waiving medical fees on behalf of denied asylum-seekers awaiting appeal, and various other vulnerable people such as undocumented and mentally ill homeless migrants. Enormous quantities of time, money and energy have had to be invested for every individual in court in order to prove the principle: “can’t pay, won’t pay”. In 2015 DocsNotCops found out via a Freedom of Information request that one hospital’s eight such full-time staff, dedicated exclusively to recouping costs from migrants, succeeded with just 10% of invoices.

Perversely, increases in pointless salaried administrative staff, who are hostile to patient care and an encumbrance to those delivering it, are completely typical of ‘cost-cutting’ privatization drives across institutions.

Perversely, such increases in pointless salaried administrative staff, who are hostile to patient care and an encumbrance to those delivering it, are completely typical of ‘cost-cutting’ privatization drives across institutions. Similarly, both of the recent attempts to trial the type of computer system that is required to terrorize newly convalescing people in this way (linking the Home Office and NHS records), and thus supposedly enable savings, incurred a cost of around £10 billion and ended in complete failure. On the other hand, NHS workers found that the government had “inflated six-fold” the NHS ‘cost’ of migrants. These precedents make clear that, even if the figure for the “savings” represented by denying migrants free care were true, introducing the requisite computer system would likely be a financial fiasco that completely buried that sum.

With the advent of DocsNotCops, theatrical “border controls” (“Checkpoint Care” stunts) have appeared outside hospitals. Asylum-seeking Virgin Marys—unable to pay the £5,000 fee for maternity care for non-resident migrants—were symbolically prevented from giving birth at Christmas, and videos circulated in which a white coat is peeled off to reveal a border guard’s badge. These protests expose the introduction of selective charging in the NHS as racist, a perversion of care, and detrimental to all. As the manifesto states: “Instituting this scheme will drive vulnerable migrants away from NHS services. … No doctors should have to police the people they treat. … Charging migrants for healthcare is the first step to normalising charging for everyone”.

NHS workers found that the government had “inflated six-fold” the NHS ‘cost’ of migrants.

It is important to stress that the punitive UK border already existed to an extent within the National Health Service, insofar as it permeates British society in the form of immigration controls, raids, checks, and xenophobia. A 2015 report  by Doctors of the World found that, contrary to xenophobic tabloid narratives, the majority of migrants have felt deterred from using the NHS. And that’s before the Immigration Act had even been announced.

At a Docs Not Cops rally in April 2015, one doctor (active with Tower Hamlets Keep Our NHS Public, or KONP) was contemptuous of these reforms, which she referred to as racist: “This is an NHS which entirely depends on foreign workers. [Yet] a real hatred of foreigners is being stirred up in the country and in the NHS. … Our borders exist for rich people only when it suits them. … And they have the cheek to say that … people who come in to work in the country in poorly paid jobs are not entitled to healthcare! … We have to say no to this. We need to have humane care, we need people to come and work in our health services, and we need to have borders that are open for people.”

 

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Photo: Mark Boothroyd on Twitter

 

“Making both arguments at once”: Connecting migrant justice and politics of care

Belief in the possibility of universal welcome and care for all is not utopian. For decades, among the ranks of public health-workers, it’s been practiced and substantiated – and that includes all sorts of workers, not only those who swear to do no harm. Pitted against their values and experience are the border regimes that gratuitously detain hundreds of thousands of people every day, in prisons and detention centres which – perversely – rely on doctors to function.

By strategically refusing to collaborate with the immigration police, DocsNotCops is innovative but not unique. While the experience of a defensive “rear-guard” campaign to defend a public good from buy-out is, at this point, an all too familiar one for the Left, in many ways it is when activists are on the ‘offensive’, making impossible-deeming demands and affirming a positive transformation, that they are most united worldwide.

DocsNotCops say they have been inspired by acts of resistance by doctors on the other side of the world. In February 2016, for example, amid migrant solidarity demonstrations, one hospital in Brisbane, Australia refused to discharge a baby whose parents are seeking asylum. And when staff at Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital protested against Australian government policies in October 2015 of placing children in detention and denying sick asylum-seekers care “a thousand doctors, nurses and other workers [had] finally howled in protest”—as Dr. Ranjana Srivastava put it.

So, today, DocsNotCops and their allies (a vast network including Doctors of the World, SolFed, London Black Revs, London2Calais, Together Against Prevent, ACT UP, 999CallforNHS, and KONP),  have mounted a counter-offensive against migrant scapegoating and capitalist enclosure of common resources. As they make the case for no borders, their members are also taking part in the nationwide industrial dispute raging over the government’s attempts to squeeze more profits out of the national junior doctors’ contract.

While anti-migrant austerity narratives can be exposed on their own terms, the principle that ‘docs will not be cops’ also goes beyond the fiscal—gesturing toward logics of care outside of nationalism and capitalism. 

This double focus of their struggle requires DocsNotCops’ messaging to be more thoughtful than others when refuting their opponents’ arguments for surveillance and austerity. For instance, they often come up against false statistics which suggest that non-tax-paying migrants and ‘medical tourists’ greatly burden taxpayers, or that the NHS is ‘bust’ and requires private buy-out. While these frames can be exposed on their own terms, the principle that ‘docs will not be cops’ also goes beyond the fiscal—gesturing toward logics of care outside of nationalism and capitalism. As Sophie Williams (DocsNotCops) said to me, “it’s about making both arguments at once”. It is not enough to point out that non-British people in fact bring net income to the NHS – not to mention indispensable labour (although this is true). To stand in solidarity with migrants and asylum-seekers, and to centre them in NHS organising in the context of their persecution, cannot be conditional on their cost-effectiveness, usefulness or unobtrusiveness within the system.

The distinction breaks down anyway: diseases don’t make distinctions around visas or passports, and people who avoid health services, out of fear of questioning or deportation, won’t just die but will tend to spread them. Their suffering—from the viewpoint of the owners of capital—should represent false ‘savings’ that, as DocsNotCops activists have argued, lead to far more expensive outcomes for society.

But what they demand is an “expensive” imperative that is simultaneously ethical and medical: far more migrants in the UK should avail themselves of health services than currently do. DocsNotCops are unapologetic about the cost of both junior doctors and truly universal healthcare. To those who would turn health infrastructure and carers into a nationalist surveillance mechanism funneling the poor and marginalized onto deportation planes—or, who knows, highly profitable debtor’s prisons—demanding the very best of healthcare for literally everybody who needs it, literally everywhere, is the only conscionable response.

 

You can get in touch with DocsNotCops by visiting the website docsnotcops.co.uk, finding their Facebook page and events, joining the mailing-list docsnotcopsnhsgroup@googlegroups.com, or following them on Twitter @DocsNotCops.

 

*some DocsNotCops activists asked not to be named in this piece.

 

Sophie Lewis is researching the uneven geographies of reproductive technology and ‘outsourced gestation’ (aka surrogacy) at the University of Manchester. She pursues joy and feminist killjoyism in equal measure and enjoys dancing, writing (e.g. at Mute, The New Inquiry, Jacobin), mushrooms, and militancy. She tweets @reproutopia.

Is Europe staring at a second Renaissance?

by Ashish Kothari

A day after I reached Barcelona in Catalonia (Spain) in the last week of May, its first woman mayor was elected, much to the delight of large sections of its civil society. Ada Colau, a 41-year-old activist who has fought with social movements against forced evictions, is with Barcelona En Comú (formerly Guanyem Barcelona).

This is one of many new political outfits in Spain that are rising from peoples’ movements of various hues, including those seeking fundamental changes away from an economic system that has left 50 percent of the country’s youth unemployed, created a massive unpayable public debt, and caused ecological devastation.

Over the next few days I met with a number of researchers and activists and practitioners in Barcelona who are in one way or the other seeking alternative futures. There seems to be an explosion of experiments towards sustainable farming and producer-consumer cooperatives,eco-housing and communes, solidarity networks, complementary or alternative currencies, occupation of empty buildings (squatting) by the homeless or for social activities, cycling and car-free spaces, reclaiming the commons in cities, and much else.

Bank squatted for social purposes, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

Though still marginal in a society that is overwhelmingly consumerist and wasteful as also facing enormous social problems (including a resurgent right-wing in many areas), these initiatives are growing and provide hope for a different future.

This would especially be the case if the grassroots mobilisation in such initiatives can be combined with progressive new elements in the state, such as the ones that have taken power in Barcelona … and if the rapidly rising political formation Podemos takes over Spain in the coming national elections.

 

Promises for another way of living

I will illustrate this with a few examples that I got to know of during my visit. One is theCooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC), a network of activists working on various aspects of collaborative, ecologically sensitive living.

Its aim is to be “a tool to create a grassroots counter-power, departing  from self-management, self-organization and direct democracy, and one that would help overcome the actual state of dependency on the structures of the system, towards a scenario of liberty, full awareness, free of authority, and in which everyone could flourish under equal conditions and opportunities.

As CIC activist Ale Fernandez told me, sitting on the roof of one of their working spaces in the midst of an urban herbal garden, the initiative has a very interesting origin. In 2006-08, activist Enric Duran Giralt carried out an act of financial rebellion, borrowing 492,000 Euros from various banks, distributing this to a number of initiatives described as alternatives to capitalism, and refusing to return the money, arguing that banks had been stealing from ordinary people for decades (earning the nickname ‘Robin Bank’!).

When arrested (and later released on bail), Duran pointed out the irony that chief executives of banks who had ruined the lives of millions of people by their irresponsible acts leading to the 2008 financial crisis, were being let off scot-free.

The CIC was started by him and others as a model of how people could live perfectly well without capitalist institutions such as banks, through solidarity and collective actions.The CIC has also evolved into the proposal for a global cooperative called Fair Coop with its own currency (faircoin), similar to Bitcoin but with justice and sustainability principle.

Joel Morist I Botines, CIC, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

CIC worker Joel Morist I Botines took me out for coffee, and with his eyes shining brightly and a big unruly beard flying in the wind, gave me a run-down on all that the collaborative does: The use of unused buildings or other available properties for collective, social housing; community-led, free and alternative education that is integrated with community living; sharing knowledge platforms; producer-consumer exchange especially of organic, ecofriendly products (food, soap, laundry items, toothpastes, etc); technological innovation and collective repair spaces; social or ‘free’ community currencies in which exchanges can take place without using euros and movie-making through crowdfunding.

CIC is involved in these and much else. It has one permanent assembly for decision-making, but many individual processes or projects linked to CIC have their own assemblies, in an attempt towards decentralised or direct democracy. There are about 5000 user members in the producer-consumer exchange.

The full-time paid employees of CIC, interestingly, can even have their salaries reduced as they are encouraged to obtain more and more of their living needs through sharing, alternative currencies, and other ways that reduce the need for money!

The second initiative I saw is fascinating because it is not something we are used to in India. Can Masdeu is an old hospital building that had been abandoned for a few decades and was occupied by an international group of activists who converted it into a housing and social centre in 2001.

They achieved fame in early 2002, when some 100 police came to evict them. Using passive resistance and tactics that would have meant the police possibly injuring themselves and the occupants if forcible eviction was attempted, and eventually winning both significant public support and a local court’s favorable judgement, the activists managed to stay on. Since then, repeated attempts by the Barcelona administration to evict them failed. (Incidentally, the new Barcelona mayor was involved in protesting against these attempts).

The 24 people who now occupy Can Masdeu have converted it into an example of collective living, permaculture and organic farming, simpler lifestyles, baking and cycle repairs and other survival or livelihood activities, and through all this less need for money.

The 24 people who now occupy Can Masdeu have converted it into an example of collective living, permaculture and organic farming, simpler lifestyles, baking and cycle repairs and other survival or livelihood activities, and through all this less need for money.

Can Masdeu’s building and surrounding fields and forests have also become a space for residents of Barcelona (and elsewhere) to come and volunteer for practical work, do joint activities on Sundays, tend to little garden plots assigned to them, bring schoolkids to get exposed to a different life and more.

Claudio Cattaneo, one of Can Masdeu’s veterans, father of a two-year-old child, and also a researcher who has studied the ecological economics of squatting in Barcelona, was quite frank that this was still an evolving experiment. There are many weaknesses to be addressed still (for example, energy use remains relatively high, and it is not yet clear how elderly people would fit in), but even in his statement of gaps one could see that there is already a lot that the place has achieved.

Can Masdeu’s occupation is still technically illegal. I asked Ale Fernandez, one of the early residents, whether he would prefer it to be legalized; he said he was in two minds, it would be ok if there was a good law covering it, but it was also scary to be “part of the machine,” referring to the system that could gobble up such initiatives in a minute.

This is a dilemma many alternative, radical initiatives face in many countries: whether to remain ‘outside’ the system and face continued harassment and possible closure, or to get legitimised by it, which entails the risk of getting institutionalised, less ‘edgy’ and less radical.

Can Masdeu – the fields and the house, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

 

It’s not all about money!

Another widespread trend in Europe encompasses a similar paradox. People in several towns are trying out social currencies of various kinds. In this experiment, the unit of exchange between producer or service provider and consumer is a locally generated ‘money’ or equivalent unit. For that particular exchange, therefore, the relationship is outside the dominant monetary system.

In so far as many of these are ‘complementary’ currencies – working in limited circles, supplementing rather than replacing the dominant currency – they do not really threaten or seriously challenge this system. But some, if they become big like the Bristol pound, can indeed be subversive.

In Barcelona, I met Susana Martín Belmonte, who has helped write a chapter on social currencies for the Barcelona En Comú party that has just come to power in the city. I did not fully understand it, but Susana stressed that this model moved away from bank-related interest, and money as debt and speculation, that was at the centre of the economic crisis. Instead, it focused on positive value creation and trust-based economic exchanges, an early version of which is to be tested in Barcelona.

This initiative is part of a wider European Union funded process of piloting social currencies.

There are however challenges to making this widespread enough to challenge the currently dominant money system. Researcher Kristofer Dittmer, whom I met at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, recently conducted an interesting review of local currencies of various kinds. He concluded that there was not significant evidence of them leading to ‘community-building, advancement of alternative values in economic exchange, facilitation of alternative livelihoods, and eco-localization’, all of which are criteria that the Degrowth movement in Europe espouses.

But there are indeed a number of local benefits, and he said he had not looked at the Bristol pound, which may be one of the few to achieve larger social and economic impact.

Dittmer’s own inclination is for reforms towards a “more democratically controlled monetary system, which is a prerequisite for public spending and taxation that favor communities, egalitarian values, ecologically rational supply-chains, and other principles that degrowth advocates cherish.”

Belmonte, however, feels that if the kind of social currency she is promoting spreads widely, it has the potential to undermine dominant economic powers. This ongoing experimentation and debate in Europe should be of major interest to us in India, as increasingly our movements will also want to look at fundamental changes in economic and monetary systems.

 

Other initiatives

The above initiatives are part of a growing search in Spain and the rest of Europe for alternatives: different ways of being, living, working, and relating that in various degrees question or rebel against the currently dominant economic and political order.

I learnt about these and others over several sessions and treks and meals with a wonderful team of people associated with the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, including the ecological economics guru Joan Martinez-Alier, and his younger colleagues Federico Demaria, Daniela del Bene, Aili Pyhala.

It is through my interactions with them that I came to know of Som Energia, for instance, which is a cooperative buying renewable energy and putting it on the grid, making it more accessible to households. Eticom is a cooperative offering mobile services as an alternative to the big private corporations while ECOS is common working space where many of these cooperatives and projects have their office, with shared cleaning, transport, insurances, finances, design and printing.I also heard more about the movement towards ‘degrowth’, which espouses a considerable scaling down of Europe’s energy and materials use, and encompasses philosophical, ethical, economic, political and socio-cultural elements in its advocacy.

With the above team at ICTA and other local researchers and activists, we discussed the similarities and differences between degrowth and other alternative approaches from elsewhere in the world, including Buen Vivir and Sumak Kawsay in Latin America, swaraj or radical ecological democracy (RED) in India and ubuntu from southern Africa.

A couple of presentations I made on RED/swaraj were well-attended and generated very interesting discussion on a host of complex issues. People were very interested in the various examples of alternative initiatives that I mentioned, and asked many critical questions about them. It was clear that the presence of such initiatives in both Europe and India offers us a great opportunity, to exchange experiences, mutually learn, evolve common futures where globalization is about freer movement of ideas and cultures and people rather than of finance, and build solidarity networks that can also be a political force.

These initiatives in Europe are of course still marginal in a continent that has made its ‘progress’ based on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the south, and where a highly materialist lifestyle is as ‘natural’ as breathing air.

These initiatives in Europe are of course still marginal in a continent that has made its ‘progress’ based on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the south, and where a highly materialist lifestyle is as ‘natural’ as breathing air.

Increasingly, however, as the economies of Europe themselves face crises and it becomes clear that tinkering around within the same system is not helping to resolve them, as knowledge of the ill-effects of these lifestyles for the rest of the world and for themselves spreads, and as ecological and social movements gain ground, the ‘ordinary’ person will be faced with choices for the future that are clearly either irresponsible or responsible.

Hopefully, the thousands of initiatives that are springing up will then also provide available pathways to choices of a more responsible life, forging a future in which the colonial past of Europe is replaced with a truly collaborative role vis-à-vis the rest of the world.

Thanks to Federico and Daniela for comments.

This article originally appeared in India Together.