Indigenous voices echoed by Papal Encyclical on the environment

With the release of the Papal Encyclical on the environment, I am reminded of how indigenous peoples have been offering spiritual and practical guidance on the global ecological crisis for decades. These two statements seem particularly relevant to me:

Our cultural principles include the defense of the right to a dignified life, respect for mother earth and the environment, essential and sacred elements that we should leave as an inheritance to our children, grandchildren and their descendents. Read More »

An Anarchist Response to Ebola

Anarchists are part of the global conversation on what’s broken in the world, but when things really fall apart — like with the current Ebola outbreak — is the state the only answer? How might a stateless society respond to a challenge like this one? This article provides an anarchist response to these questions, while highlighting issues that require those of us with anarchist politics to carefully think through our position.

This article, written with Chuck Munson, takes on that question: “An An Anarchist Response to Ebola.” It was written for Agency, a new anarchist PR project. Here are “Part One: What Went Wrong?” and “Part Two: Envisioning an Anarchist Alternative.” A single-page, prettified version is posted here on Medium.

Watching the Maidan protests in Ukraine

This post will differ from most on this blog in being more of a pure log of links than an a formulated story or opinion.

I’ve been loosely following the protests in Ukraine and its capital Kyiv since they began in November. No surprise there since my main research topic is how protest movements use urban spaces. The EuroMaidan movement is happening just a bit north to Turkey’s Gezi Park protests, but the ability of the rolling waves of antiglobalization, antiwar, Occupy, Arab Spring, take the square, anti-austerity movements to see it as an extension of or parallel to themselves is much more complicated. Like these protests, EuroMaidan raises questions about how politics is done in the street, the rights (or wrongs) of protesters occupying public buildings and interrupting public life, the ways that mass movements involve an interplay between mass calm gatherings and (smaller) mass confrontation, the tactical interplay between unarmed and armed forces, and the quickening and fracturing of political coalitions. These sorts of questions seem pretty similar across different nations, and there are lessons to be learned from each mass movement for all.

While tactical affinities are obvious, the evidence of the presence or absence of political affinities is contradictory. Is an encampment that began with a defense of a European Union agreement comprehensible to those occupying squares against EU austerity inside the Union itself? Is this a movement for democracy, and is democracy being rethought from the street, as Occupy-ers found? Or are politicians “engineering” the occupations and clashes for their own ends? Is the threat of foreign domination in this case represented by Russia and Putin or by NATO and John McCain? Is this a challenge to corruption and concentration of wealth, or the opportunism of a right-wing and its merely ecstatic allies?

I don’t feel close enough to the situation to sort out all the answers to these questions, but the protesters are not just occupying the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, they’re occupying my thoughts. Here are some sources of insight if they are of interest to you as well:

Big Plans: Scientists, indigenous people urge new frameworks for development

Last week, a group of scientists and development experts and the Colombian indigenous confederation each urged a fundamental rethinking of the priorities for planning “development”* in the twenty-first century. The technical experts published their perspective in a commentary in the prestigious journal Nature,Sustainable development goals for people and planet,” while the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia published a report called Another Vision, Indigenous Peoples and the Millennium Development Goals. (coverage from Intercontinental Cry). Both texts are intervening in the global discussion on the next version of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Outside of the United States (where this kind of international planning is treated as purely a foreign policy matter that won’t affect our future), the MDGs are taken as a general yardstick for directing aid and setting policy objectives, with goals like achieving universal access to primary school and eliminating extreme poverty that may change hundreds of millions of lives. Since I write from the USA, however, let’s pretend that this is just an intellectual discussion for how to think about the world. Even from that perspective, the scientists and the indigenous people raise some really important questions.

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From Bolivia to Egypt: Overcoming Death and Fear

As I alternate between interviewing Bolivians about the process of mass collective action that overthrew two neoliberal governments in 2003 and 2005, and watching the unfolding uprising in Egypt by the Internet, I’m doing my best to learn from both situations. For now, here’s one bit of writing describing Bolivia’s 2003 Gas War that seems especially relevant to events in Egypt in 2011:

Hay ocasiones en que la muerte y el miedo son los puntos infranqueables que detienen una insurgencia social frente a las murallas del gobierno. Por eso el Estado necesita monopolizar la coerción legítima pues ésta, que encarna el posible uso de la violencia y muerte en contra de la sociedad, es la garantía última y final de todo orden político constituido. Sin embargo, hay momentos en que la muerte cataliza el ímpetu de la sublevación, en que la muerte es la seña que permite unificar colectividades distanciadas dando pie a un tipo de hermandad extendida en el dolor y el luto. En ese momento la muerte es derrotada por la vitalidad de una sublevación de voluntades sociales llamada insurrección.

There are occasions when death and fear are the insuperable obstacles that stand in the way of a social insurgency outside the walls of government power. For this reason, the State needs to monopolize legitimate coercion, which embodies the possible use of violence and death against the society, since this is the last and final guarantee of every constituted political order.

Nevertheless, there are moments in which death [instead] catalyzes the impetus of the uprising, in which death is the sign under which formerly distant collectivities can unify, giving rise to a sort of extended bortherhood of pain and mourning. In that moment, death is defeated by the vitality of the uprising of social wills that is called insurrection.

—Álvaro García Linera, “La sublevación indígena popular en Bolivia
[The Indigenous Popular Uprising in Bolivia],” 2004

1.3 Million Asians* built this World Cup host

Tommy: Yea, its an Irish ship.
Fabrizio: It’s English…no?
Tommy: No, it was built in Ireland. Fifteen thousand Irishmen built this ship. Solid as a rock.

These lines rolled off the tongues of actors in James Cameron’s 1994 film, showing just how accessible a mentality that’s critical of capitalism (who owns the things a society makes anyway?), of ethnic bias (who are you calling a second class citizen?), and of xenophobia (among white countries, at least) is to Americans today. The RMS Titanic was in fact built in Belfast by Irish workers. Workers and third-class passengers, often Irish, numbered disproportionately among the dead in the ship’s maiden voyage sinking.

Flash forward a century from the Titanic, and we can see that the luxurious extreme of modern life is still often made possible by the hard work of second-class non-citizens. Case in point, the winning bid (official website) to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar.

Qatar is an absolute monarchy, ruled by an Emir and a 35-member Consultative Council, currently appointed. Elections for the Council were promised for 2007, 2008, 2010, and are now promised for 2013, although municipal elections have already been held. Qatar is proposing to build or upgrade twelve stadiums, each with a capacity of 40,000 or more for the 2022 World Cup.

Or rather, Qatar is proposing that foreign workers build or upgrade twelve stadiums. As of 2008, most everyone in Qatar was a foreigner: 1,305,428 people, making up 86.5% of the population, and rising. A year earlier, 92.5% of workers in Qatar were foreign nationals, including 72,765 domestic service workers (International Labour Organization, International labour migration and employment in the Arab region). Population estimates for Qatari citizens alone vary widely, although 180,000 in 2006 is one estimate. Those with citizenship could not fill the stadium seats to be built for the World Cup.

Throughout the region’s tiny monarchies, grouped in the US-allied Gulf Cooperation Council, citizenship coexists with a temporary rotating underclass of workers, who lack the right to organize and do not receive the social benefits they make possible. Their hardworking stays in the region are organized through the Kefala or sponsorship system (some times called Kafeel, the word for sponsor). Sponsored workers have their residence rights strictly conditioned on the approval of their employers. This results in illegal abuses such as “working and living conditions, irregular payment of wages and, in extreme cases, retention of travel documents. Foreign workers are more often than not forced to accept these circumstances having incurred the costs of finding jobs and travelling.” Or as the Guardian puts it less diplomatically:

Workers arrive in the country heavily indebted, having borrowed from moneylenders or mortgaged their land to finance inflated travel and visa costs. Their passports are immediately and customarily confiscated and they are typically forced to sign a revised contract that pays them a significantly lower rate than was originally agreed.

The results are depressingly familiar: unpaid wages, inhumane living conditions, unsafe working conditions and suicides.Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has been referred to as a “death trap for hundreds of thousands of construction workers” from some of the poorest countries in the world. Female domestic workers, meanwhile, are not covered by national labour law – an omission which, as Amnesty International rightly pointed out, “allows employers to exploit, enslave, abuse, assault and injure their domestic workers with virtual impunity”. There is a strong argument for saying that in the worst cases of abuse, the treatment of migrant workers constitutes slavery in international law.

The ILO is forced to make extremely minimal demands for the labor rights of migrants, such as its recent calls for Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to reform the sponsorship system, institute a minimum wage, and allow unions to form. (A theoretical right to unionize was established in 2005, but only applies to worksites with 100 or more Qatari nationals. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center reports no unions have yet formed; more from them here.)

Like the Titanic, the World Cup is the ultimate in luxury. It will be up to a global public to decide whether it can stomach a worldwide party built by rights-free labor. For now, at least, we can stop saying that Qatar is hosting a World Cup, and start saying that Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, and Yemenis are making possible a celebration of sport most of them could never afford to attend.

* Yes, the title is not technically accurate: I know Qatar is in Asia. However there is no short, identifiable word for the vast region that provides migrants to the Middle East monarchies. Maybe they’re should be. Also, I know that more than 1.3 million people (the current number of foreigners present) will have cycled through Qatar during the run-up to its World Cup bid. Sadly, details are hard to come by. Labor history is disadvantaged from the start under conditions of large-scale exploitation.