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by Amy L. Dalton
Monday, Jan. 21, 2008 at 4:33 AM
ald - at - riseup dot net
Selma James and Andaiye chart a path from the 60s to Tomorrow
Two prominent international women's movement leaders visited Los Angeles in December as a part of a special North American tour. Selma James of London and Andaiye of Guyana spoke to a packed room at the Southern California Library on what we can learn from the past and present of autonomous socialist organizing in the Global South. Both women organize with the Global Women's Strike, which calls for recognition of and payment for all unwaged work, and an end to the twin terrors of poverty and war. The Strike's signature event is an annual work stoppage on International Women's Day, March 8.
Photo by Sidney Ross-Risden: right to left — Selma James, host Margaret Prescod, and Andaiye
sid_andaiyespkg.jpg, image/jpeg, 2592x1944
Global Women’s Strike organizers Andaiye and Selma James closed out 2007 with a 17-city North American tour, including three California stops — at the Southern California Library in Los Angeles, Humboldt State University in Arcata, and the Centro del Pueblo in San Francisco. Both women are longtime organizers with grassroots movements against global capitalism, James from London and Andaiye from Guyana. The goal of the tour was to bring their political perspective and practical experience to the service of current theoretical and strategic debates, and to orient those debates and discussions toward action. Each stop of the tour addressed a theme shaped in careful conversation with organizers on the ground in those communities and universities.
In Los Angeles, the pair focused on the theme “Bringing the 60’s to the 21st Century: The New Independence Movements”. Alongside host Margaret Prescod of KPFK's “Sojourner Truth,” James and Andaiye spoke to a crowd of over 100 people on December 2nd about the sort of autonomous, third world mass movements that have the potential to be, as Marx wrote late in his life, “the fulcrum of social regeneration” for societies that have been decimated by capitalism. Both women focused their talks historically, setting the current movements in Oaxaca and Venezuela on a continuum of organizing spanning decades and crossing continents, and drawing connections to the possibilities on the home front.
Andaiye started off discussing the organizing vision that drove the formation of the Working People's Alliance of Guyana, of which she — along with others including Walter Rodney, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa — was a founding member in 1979. Her remarks were especially resonant because of the presence of elder Eusi Kwayana, who — along with Moses Bhagwan — started the process that led to the formation of the WPA. Andaiye described the central role of cross-race organizing between the people of African, Indian and Indigenous descent that enabled this process, as well as the strong relationships that existed between people organizing within parties, within unions, as well as from other fronts in the community.
James focused her remarks on the “Arusha Declaration,” a path-breaking document that came out of 1967 Tanzania, which the Strike has just re-published in order to spur discussion about its prescient ideas. Authored by the nation’s first president, Julius Nyerere, it lays out his perspective on the problems of his people and their economy as they were emerging from years of imperial rule, and proposes the sort of socialist economic development that would enable the grassroots to develop themselves and their power in the course of changing their conditions. Central to Nyerere's thinking, explained James, was the perception that women bear the vast majority of the uncounted labor that “sustains” the exploitative capitalist economy. She read from a section in which Nyerere acknowledges the dependence of development on women in rural villages who work 12- to 14-hour days regularly without any sort of wage, while their male counterparts in the country and some women in the city are often “on leave for half their lives.” Nyerere wrote that this inequality was incompatible with effective grassroots socialist development, and proposed that within the central economic unit— which he called Umoja (or “unity”) village — there must be parity between the sexes.
James and Andaiye’s tour was organized to mark the 35th anniversary of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, a precursor to the Strike, that since 1972 has demanded the counting and remunerating of the unwaged work that women overwhelmingly perform in the home, on the land, and in the community. Between 1975 and 1985, Campaign organizers attended a series of conferences organized by the United Nations as part of the UN Decade for Women. At the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Andaiye — as part of the Guyana government delegation and one of the advisers to the Caribbean Community Ministers — led negotiations that at last resulted in the agreement among governments (including the US government) to measure and value unwaged work in economic statistics. Among the attendees of this conference were Nora Castañeda, who currently heads the Women’s Development Bank of Venezuela. She and other Venezuelan women have gone on to implement similar reforms to what the Wages for Housework Campaign pushed for: Article 88 of the Venezuelan constitution recognizes that housewives create added value and must be compensated with social security.
But not everywhere has this insight taken hold. Both in the English-speaking Caribbean and in Tanzania, the takeover of the economies by IMF-World Bank policies has been almost complete. As a result, these economies are being destroyed, Andaiye explained, literally as we speak. And yet the norm in these countries is silence when new neo-liberal policies are proposed. Horribly, this silence is especially pronounced amongst the feminist community. She told of a recent example where Red Thread, the women's organization she co-founded and helps coordinate, was the only voice among women’s organizations to rise up in opposition to a proposed value-added tax, based on a simple and obvious analysis of its unbearable cost to the poorest members of society — the women and the children.
Andaiye placed the blame for this political drift to the right on the rise of “NGOs” — short for “Non-Governmental Organizations — which in the past few decades have entered into the movement and shifted the focus from class struggle to identity politics. She marked the onset of this phenomenon at 1983 — three years after the assassination of Walter Rodney — when splits in the movement began to create a vacuum in the conversation. The implosion was exacerbated by the collapse of the Grenadian “revo” (as the Grenadian working people called it) in October 1983, followed by the US invasion of Grenada (which was backed by right-wing Caribbean governments). The vacuum that resulted made space for the ambitious, including the voices of western-directed liberal feminist academics, to enter and dominate the discussion. These individuals and organizations they ran were usually funded through NGOs whose agendas accorded with the form of development being pursued by the IMF and the World Bank, and in many cases were established by beneficiaries of those systems. As a result, these “women's movements, wittingly or unwittingly, pursued an agenda in keeping with the policies pursued by the IMF and the World Bank.
These power shifts had wide implications for both the debate and action that followed, bringing unions and other quasi-grassroots voices into alignment with the wishes of these international financial institutions. “And those of us who were not academics were raised up to be consultants,” she quipped, recalling efforts to draw her into the role of “gender expert”: interpreting, advising and disguising neo-liberal economic policy. “But the gender expert is the same as the race expert is the same as the class expert is the same as a pimp! ...there is no way that putting women in an IMF/WB document can make it into anything that is friendly to working people.”
And yet Andaiye reminded the group that while Red Thread's actions (with its growing grassroots network) are virtually alone in Guyana, there is at this point in time a veritable grassroots movement in Haiti and Latin America — which is led by grassroots women who were not wrapped up in the trap of NGO politics. Both Andaiye and Selma focused especially on the rare example that Venezuela is providing us now. The gathering was held on the same day as the constitutional referendum in Venezuela, and just days earlier, reports had surfaced of extensive CIA efforts to destabilize the regime by discouraging voter turnout. In a moving moment, James said she felt that “what happens to them [today] writes our futures, everywhere in the world. At this moment in time — it’s not always true; I hope there will be many revolutions, today and tomorrow and the day after — but at this moment in time, our fate is in their hands.”
The referendum was defeated — by a narrow margin, with low turnout across all sectors. Mainstream press interpreted the outcome as a blow to Chavez's social agenda, but coverage tended to focus on the personality instead of the agenda’s substance.
In her remarks, James emphasized that a strong leader is not a necessary component of a dynamic, socialist movement, but she critiqued the unilateral dismissal of strong leaders. Specifically, she derided the idea of “Chavismo without Chavez,” which she said is how some leftists in her hometown of London are making sense of the impressive social movement currently afoot among Venezuela's grassroots. In her view, such an analysis is more expressive of these individuals' ambition to be in leadership than it is of specific critiques of those leaders' actions.
Both James and Andaiye instead placed great emphasis on knowing how to judge and how best to support movement leaders in ways that strengthen the movement. In a mirror of their critique of NGO-style identity politics, they are not primarily concerned with the gender of a leader, but rather with how the leader sees the fundamental situation at hand, and whether they are willing to mobilize the population to help those who suffer most and work hardest — and first of all, women. Referencing Nyerere, James explained that grassroots organizers are always looking for “the committed expert” — someone who has special skills, expertise, power, or knowledge that can help people, and demonstrates necessary immunity to personal ambition. These individuals, said James, must either be recruited or bypassed. “To leave them alone,” she said, “is to once again be dominated — in spite of the size of the movement we have built to change the whole circumstance of our lives.” James and Andaiye's endorsement of Chavez and celebration of Nyerere are closely tied to these men's repeated recognition of the central role of women in any successful revolutionary process — and the pursuit of policies that increase their power.
James identified the recent movements in Oaxaca, Mexico as an example of a decentralized uprising with a collective leadership coming from both trade unionists and community activists, as oppose to a single powerful leader. Andaiye described also signs of hope in the grassroots of the English-speaking Caribbean — specifically noting the exchange of ideas and perspectives that is accompanying increased migration, largely by women who often are making their living as self-employed traders. She said the networks these women are building have the potential to re-federate the Caribbean quicker and more effectively than any government plan. “It is not possible for the English-speaking Caribbean to remain permanently insulated from all that is happening,” she declared in closing. “We will eventually join them!”
Following their speeches, the audience viewed clips of “Oaxaca: Megamarch for Justice,” a film produced by the Strike in London, and Andaiye and James then took comments and questions from the crowd. Nearly a dozen people lined up to comment and the room stayed full for hours as deliberations ensued. Host Margaret Prescod closed the dialogue with an inspired appeal for donations, which the Strike plans to send directly to the teachers’ fund in Oaxaca. The group then broke for a reception, during which songster Kerry Getz provided entertainment.
Sunday’s gathering was sponsored by the Global Women’s Strike and the Women of Color in the Global Women’s Strike, an autonomous, affiliated collective. The Strike, an which formed out of the Wages for Housework Campaign, calls for recognition of and payment for all unwaged work, and an end to the twin terrors of poverty and war. Each year since 2000, women and men allies in over 60 countries have taken action on March 8, International Women's Day, under the banner “Invest in Caring Not Killing.” According to organizers, the tour strengthened both the Strike network in the US and the global movement for change of which it is a vital part.
Strike Actions on March 8, 2007 |
Red Thread |
Selma's Biography |
Tour Coverage from Philly IMC: Pathbreaking Movement Theorist and Activist Selma James Launches Anniversary Tour in PA |
Rediscovering the Arusha Declaration in London and Tanzania |
To purchase the Arusha Declaration or other Strike media, click here.
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