“I’m here to talk about people who fight for social justice,” said Jaggi Singh, addressing a small but engaged crowd at the Concordia Student Union (CSU) lounge on Wednesday afternoon. “Meaning a world where we don’t accept injustice, but confront it, and reject this corporate […] vision of the world, which I describe as, ‘It looks like Disney. It tastes like Coke. It smells like shit.’”
Singh, a well-known Montreal-based activist, spoke as part of Solidarity Concordia’s week-long teach-in on the growing movement against austerity in Quebec. His talk, “Resisting Capitalism and Austerity: From Seattle 1999 to Printemps 2015,” traced the history of the anti-globalization movement up to today’s anti-austerity movements, drawing partially on his own experiences on the front lines of protests across North America.
“The spirit of this presentation is to […] understand the different policies and measures that have taken place in the past and how they impact where we are today, and to understand the resistance to those policies,” said Singh. “That’s important: it helps inform how we’re going to resist today.”
Intersectionality in activism
Singh began his presentation with a survey of the various summits, trade agreements, and organizations that had, in recent decades, become flashpoints for anti-capitalist resistance. Each of these, said Singh, from the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Vancouver, to the 1999 conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, were “different facets of managing global capitalism in the interests of major corporations.”
The protests sparked by such events have succeeded in mobilizing tens of thousands of people, he explained, and brought the anti-globalization debate into the mainstream. Yet these demonstrations tend to be limited in one crucial respect: intersectionality.
“My point here is that capitalism inherently is quite barbaric.”
Singh argued that anti-WTO protestors in Seattle were fighting the same oppressive system as the Black Panther Party and Indigenous resistance groups.
“What’s unfortunate […] is that somehow, those movements, [involving] people of colour and their communities […] are seen as separate from the [economic protests],” said Singh. “Talking about abolishing the prison-industrial complex, and talking about police brutality, for a lot of people, is a distraction from the ‘real’ economic issues.”
Singh pushed the audience to keep this at the forefront when mobilizing in the future. “What I’m urging, as we […] look forward to Printemps 2015, is that we not make the same mistake.”
He continued, “If anyone ever tells you [… that] because you’re bringing up issues around feminism, or around race, or Indigenous issues, that that’s a distraction, we’ve got to fight, because it’s going to destroy our movement from within.”
“I think it’s really important to highlight the sweeping nature of the austerity measures,” Mike Finck, an organizer with Solidarity Concordia, told The Daily in an email. “How they touch not just university budgets, but public workers and healthcare, among others, and to take note of the important cross- sectoral bridges being made between students and workers.”
No compromising with capitalism
Singh also called attention to the “privileged position” of North American activists who, he said, are protected from the most damaging byproducts of global capitalism – sweatshops, poorly-regulated factories, and toxic waste dumps that are typically established in the developing world. As a result, these activists often lack solidarity with true anti-capitalist movements.
“When you have Western unions or […] social movements who are critiquing [social injustice], they’re often doing it in a way that’s not about opposing capitalism, but accommodating certain […] sectors of society.”
For example, Singh compared the stances taken by different groups in reaction to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), launched in 1994. Many unions in the U.S. and Canada, he explained, did not actually oppose the agreement, simply advocating for the addition of “social clauses” to protect workers’ rights. The Mexican Zapatista movement, on the other hand, adopted a far more radical approach: to protest NAFTA – which eliminated pre-existing laws protecting Indigenous land in Mexico – they launched a major armed uprising, declaring the agreement “a death sentence on their people,” said Singh.
Singh argued that activists must stop making compromises with capitalism. “My point here is that capitalism inherently is quite barbaric and savage.”