What Do We Do Now?
Building a Social Movement in the Aftermath of Free Trade
The 1988 election was an important and bitter setback for all who
desire a Canada that is more than an appendage of U.S. corporate
We know that the free trade deal will erode Canada's already limited
independence. It will make it that much more difficult to resist
the neo-conservative crusade to eliminate or cripple anything that
stands in the way of making profits in the marketplace.
We will be facing an aggressive campaign to put in place a purer,
harsher capitalism in which the rich get richer and the poor and
powerless get hurt. Social and environmental programs will be attacked
in the name of reducing government spending and staying competitive,
as will working people's wages, working conditions, and unions.
This is a world-wide phenomenon, not simply a North American one:
a concerted drive to reverse many of the gains of the welfare state
which have been won since the Second World War.
We will be told that we have to cut the deficit, but without raising
taxes, especially corporate taxes, since that would cause capital
to shift elsewhere (i.e. to go on strike, but they don't like to
call it that.) Wages and fringe benefits will have to be kept low,
or companies will move to anti-union states in the U.S., or to the
Third World. We'll be told that we can't afford environmental safeguards
and workplace health regulations because they will put 'us' at a
competitive disadvantage. 'Rolling back' unions will be an important
part of the agenda.
But the situation is far from hopeless. The groups and coalitions
fighting free trade were able to rouse a substantial majority of
Canadian voters to vote against the deal. Only an undemocratic electoral
system - and tens of millions of dollars' worth of corporate advertising
in favour of free trade - enabled Brian Mulroney's Conservatives
to emerge with a majority government despite being rejected by well
over half the electorate. Even then, the government was able squeak
back in only by swearing from one end of the country to the other
that social, cultural and environmental programs would not be harmed
by the deal, that women and seniors would not be hurt.
The record of those promises, and the continued widespread opposition
to free trade, will make the government politically vulnerable if
it moves too blatantly to dump this set of 'sacred trusts'.
The Birth of a New Coalition
One very positive result of the free trade deal was the emergence
of a broadly based coalition to fight it. Trade unions, women's
groups, environmental organizations, churches, senior citizens,
native peoples, cultural groups, and many others worked together
to arouse opposition to free trade. And this was not just a negative
'anti' campaign, nor simply a nationalist one either.
Rather, it became clear during the election that a majority of
Canadians want a society with meaningful social programs and a healthy
environment, rather than one in which the imperatives of profit-making
take precedence over all else.
If we are able to build on the connections and alliances that were
fashioned in the campaign, we have the potential to create a social
movement in this country that goes beyond single-issue organizing
to work toward an integrated vision of a more just and caring society.
Indeed, we are virtually compelled to try to create such a movement.
The neo-conservative forces have had their position strengthened
by the arrival of free trade, and we will all be feeling the results.
It is time to 'hang together, or hang separately'. If free trade
is not to be the beginning of a snowballing series of setbacks for
working class Canadians, for women, for the poor and the unemployed,
then we have to find ways of resisting the corporate agenda and
advancing our own.
Becoming a Movement
A new social movement does not have to be created from scratch.
In many ways, it already exists, in the network of thousands of
grassroots groups woven across this country. This is an important
beginning, for a true movement must encompass and represent a diversity
of constituencies, regions, issues, and ethnic and linguistic groups.
It needs to be decentralized, democratic, and diverse.
But this embryonic social movement is not quite a movement yet.
It still needs to announce itself. It needs to arrive at a widespread
consciousness of itself as a movement, to think of itself as a movement
rather than as a patchwork of separate interest groups. It needs
to learn to act like a movement, and to become as good at 'thinking
globally' as it is at 'acting locally'. We need to learn to network
better outside of our own constituencies. We need to make the effort
to understand each others' concerns and how they relate to our own.
We need to become better at working together in a spirit of solidarity,
not to do someone else a favour, but because we understand that
our goals and interests are inextricably linked.
A New Social Vision
Such a movement needs a shared vision, a set of goals and principles
which give it direction while leaving room for differences and organizational
autonomy. It should be our objective to arrive at common approaches
to strategies and tactics to the greatest extent possible, because
the more we are able to work together and combine our efforts, the
greater our potential power will be. Working together does not have
to mean the politics of the 'lowest common denominator', if we remain
committed to respecting each other's right to take autonomous initiatives
within a pluralistic movement.
What are some of the principles around which a new national social
movement might coalesce?
One key theme is that of democracy. We need to make a real issue
of democracy, to challenge our society to take seriously its oft-proclaimed
commitment to democratic ideals. We have to make an issue of the
fact that what currently passes for democracy is at best a two-dimensional
shadow of what a democratic society ought to be. We should refuse
to settle for a version of democracy which has us trooping to the
polls every few years to choose our governors from among a set of
politically similar candidates, with most of the winners heading
off to be parliamentary back-benchers, while the crucial decisions
are made elsewhere, beyond the reach of even token parliamentary
In its place, we should be offering the model of a radically democratic
society, in which power is taken away from corporations, governments,
bureaucracies, and experts, and dispersed widely. Such a society
is possible only to the extent that we do away with inequalities
of wealth and power. It means a real commitment to popular control
of social life, including workers' control in the workplace and
community control in our towns and neighbourhoods. At the same time,
institutions and activities, including the economy, must be democratically
accountable to society as a whole and to its environmental, economic,
and social needs.
In putting forward such a vision of a radically democratic society,
we have to challenge the idea that politics is just about elections
and elected office. All social and economic decisions affect the
'body politic' and so are political, and ought to be subject to
democratic control and scrutiny.
The specific issue of free trade made it clear how distorted a
vision of democracy is held even by the parties that opposed the
deal. Neither the Liberals nor the NDP ever challenged the right
of the government to use its parliamentary majority to push ahead
with the deal even though a majority of Canadians voted against
free trade. There was no challenge whatever from within Parliament
to what by any democratic standards should have been opposed as
a blatantly illegitimate use of power. It is clear that if we are
achieve a truly democratic society, we need to seriously raise the
issue of what democracy really is, and to challenge the claim of
the official political parties to limit the definition of democracy
to their narrow range of perspectives and activities.
Looking Beyond the State and the Corporations
Another theme of the emerging social movement is likely to be the
idea that we can't look to the state and to the corporations to
solve society's problems. This is especially true at a time when
virtually the entire Canadian business class, as well as the government,
have made it clear that their agenda is to reduce the role of the
state to the greatest extent possible, except of course when it
comes to ensuring a safe 'climate' for business, or to military
activity. The Canadian business class has evidently concluded that
its interests lie in continental integration, and in dismantling
any national programs or institutions that stand in the way of that
The inescapable conclusion is that if we wish to pursue a different
set of economic and social goals, we will need to wrestle economic
power away from the corporations. Nor is this a peculiarly Canadian
situation. Anyone familiar with the behaviour of transnational corporations
on the world scene knows that they owe allegiance to no country.
On the contrary, they are driven by their very nature to pit nation
against nation, community against community, in their quest for
more tax concessions, more government assistance, fewer environmental
restrictions, and lower wages.
If corporate capitalism is the source of much of the misery and
economic injustice in the world, it is also clear that state control
is not a viable alternative either. Nations that have relied on
the state to be the principal agent of economic development and
social justice are everywhere in crisis. A social movement that
is seeking to create a truly just and democratic society will have
to develop alternatives to the centralized state.
Sustainable, ecologically sane economic activity
The relentless multiplying of environmental disasters, threats,
and degeneration has made us much more aware of the need to live
in harmony with the natural world. We are also aware of the extent
to which environmental issues are economic issues. Air pollution,
water pollution, acid rain, toxic chemicals, the garbage crisis,
the destruction of the forests, the extinction of species, the greenhouse
effect - all are tied to destructive economic patterns that cannot
be sustained. Our efforts to clean up existing messes and save remaining
bits of wilderness should not distract us from the need to change
the economic structures that are responsible. Many threats to the
environment are the result of economic activities that are useless
or harmful, such as military production, monoculture dependent on
massive quantities of fertilizers and pesticides, planned obsolescence,
and urban designs that force dependence on the automobile.
It is our challenge to develop new patterns of economic activity
that are sustainable and in balance with the environment. Such patterns
are more likely to be small-scale and decentralized.
They will also have to based on different decision-making criteria.
Economic activities should have to justify themselves on grounds
of social usefulness if they are to consume our resources. They
will have to clean up after themselves, so that they have no negative
impact on the environment. They will have to safeguard the health
of their workers and of the communities in which they are situated.
They should be efficient and make economic sense - which is not
the same as maximizing profits for their owners.
Economic activity, in other words, should be seen as being for
the welfare of society as a whole, and should be subject to social
Too often, we tend to assume that 'we are all in this together',
that everyone in society ultimately shares the same social goals.
The free trade election served as a powerful reminder that that
isn't so. In the campaign, Canada's capitalists declared almost
unanimously that their interests and social agenda revolve around
the entrenchment of a continentalist, market-dominated model of
society. Everything else - including the working and living conditions
of the majority of Canadians - is to be subordinate to that goal.
The business class is clear about where its own interests lie.
In constructing a viable alternative, it is our responsibility to
become equally clear, to identify all those other groups in society
with whom we have shared interests, and to learn to work together
with them. If we can do so, the way lies open to a new social movement
which brings together working class people, farmers, native people,
the poor, environmentalists, women's groups, and many others.
Solidarity and Internationalism
The coming years will undoubtedly bring attempts to cut social
spending, to privatize social services, to attack unions. Our response
must be to stand together, to practice solidarity, to remember the
old union slogan that 'An injury to one is an injury to all'. This
will be a real test of our emerging movement, which will be a real
movement to the extent that it responds collectively to a threat
to one of its parts.
A Canadian social movement must also be one that thinks globally.
Most of the problems that we face here in Canada exist around the
world, because the corporate-based economic system is a global one.
As a result, it often ends up pitting us against each other, nation
against nation, region against region, ethnic group against ethnic
Our only hope of prevailing in the face of this is to join together
across international borders and other dividing lines to work together
and support each other. We have a special responsibility to the
Third World, which, already desperately poor, is being plunged into
further human misery and environmental devastation by massive debt
payments to first world banks and by irrational economic patterns
dictated by multinational corporations and the local elites they
enrich. We owe the peoples of the Third World a debt of solidarity,
but beyond that we must realize that the issues of world peace and
the global environment that concern us here in the West cannot be
solved unless the issues of poverty, women's liberation, and sustainable
economic development are dealt with in the Third World.
An international perspective also requires us to look to the United
States. We should make it clear that opposing the increasing subordination
of Canada to the U.S. does not mean anti-Americanism. On the contrary,
we have to work all the harder to make contact with our existing
or prospective allies in the U.S. (as well as in other nations).
In the final analysis, we can only succeed if we succeed internationally,
although we can make progress locally.
Sometimes those already active in the social change movement are
themselves the greatest obstacle to the further development of that
movement, because they are convinced that ordinary people will only
listen to groups that stick to narrowly defined issues and offer
simple, modest solutions, often presented as appeals to those in
In their efforts to not be 'too radical', they forget that the
meaning of the word 'radical' is 'to go to the root'. Yet if we
are not radical in that sense of the word, if we do not go to the
root of problems, we will not arrive at solutions that are real
solutions. The prospect of trying to make radical changes in society
may seem daunting, but does it not make more sense to aim at change
that can really solve problems, than to waste our time working for
reforms that cannot achieve what they are supposed to because they
leave the roots of the problems untouched?
If we are committed to bringing into being a society that is truly
democratic and just, we have to go beyond lobbying or electoral
politics and other attempts to merely influence the existing power
structure. A preoccupation with these things all too frequently
means the end of a movement as a living movement.
A genuine social movement has to do most of its work at the grass
roots, fashioning a variety of approaches to change while always
keeping its goals in sight.
The Idea of Alternatives
One of the most important and difficult tasks of a social movement
in Canada is to persuade ordinary Canadians that there are possible
alternatives. We have to promote the idea that there are alternative
ways of dealing with day to day problems, and also that it is possible
and desirable to have a fundamentally different world, in which
the goals of freedom, justice, security, and cooperation are realized.
We have to convince Canadians - and quite possibly ourselves -
that a society with extremes of wealth and poverty, in which most
of us have to sell our labour, our lives, to others, is not the
only one possible.
One of our major continuing goals has to be to break through the
deadening conviction that "nothing can be done" because
of the weight of the 'system', with its virtual monopoly of resources,
land, public space, media, and human energy.
Yet we need only look at activities of the thousands of people
working in grassroots groups across this country, and around the
world, to see that people do join with others to block what they
see as harmful and to fight for what they consider to be desirable
and just. When they do, that which seemed impossible to achieve
starts to become possible, because enough people believe it is possible
and are working to make it so.
As we create a movement to change society, we change ourselves,
and in changing ourselves, we make social change more possible.
February 19, 1989
Published in the the Connexions
Digest #48 (Winter 1989).
This article was also published in Green
Revolution. A number of responses appeared in Green
Revolution. For Ulli Diemer's reply to those responses, see here.
Aussi disponible en français: Maintenant
qu'est ce qu'on fait?Établir un mouvement social suite aux
conséquences du libre échange.
También disponible en español: ¿Que
hacemos ahora?Construir un Movimiento Social en el Resultado del
See also: Let's
Stop Kidding Ourselves About the NDP
Contact information for Ulli Diemer:
Sovereignty - Capitalism
Analysis - Class
Consciousness - Coalition
Building - Coalitions
Movements - Democratic
Socialism - Democratic
Values - Democratization
Alternatives - Economic
Justice - Electoral
Reform - Free
Trade - Free
Trade/Effects of - Internationalism
The - Manifestos
Alternatives - Political
Programs - Social
Change - Social
Justice Issues - Solidarity
Development - Tax
Reform - Taxation
Issues - Working
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