New Internationalist, September 1993

The Poor Fight Back

Jeremy Seabrook, Pioneers of Change : Experiments in Creating a Humane Society. New Society Publishers (Philadelphia) & Zed Books (London) 1993.                     

By Tapani Lausti

After all the debate about 'the end of history', it is refreshing to have this reminder that we actually could be approaching the beginning of history. There is a growing realisation, as one of the visionaries in Jeremy Seabrook's new book puts it, that "however different the problems of North and South appear, they derive to a considerable degree from the same root cause: the absence of, or limited space for genuine democratic participation by citizens".

After centuries of capitalist disempowerment, spaces for popular initiative are opening up from the sheer need to survive. Thousands of movements everywhere in the world are imagining a different future.

Frances Moore Lappe, from whom the quote above comes, is one of many recipients of the Right Livelihood Reward — or the alternative Nobel Prize — who talk to Seabrook in this illuminating book. These people have seen the poor of the earth fighting back. What they have witnessed, and taken part in, is not an armed struggle which would hasten Western editors to send correspondents to relay exciting satellite pictures. It is an amazing story of completely powerless people recreating semblances of life where international economic forces have sown human misery and ecological destruction. The poor of the world show ingenuity and imagination which are rarer in the rich countries where almost all spaces for autonomous action have been destroyed in the grip of the consumer society.

The fight for independent survival in the Third World is complicated by modern forms of domination. Seabrook describes how "some of the transnationals, far from creating crops that resist disease and pests, are simply modifying them so they become tolerant of their own brands of pesticide and herbicide".

Seabrook adds: "Those struggling for the preservation of genetic diversity, and for the people's right to control it, are resisting the entry of the ugly neologism 'bio-imperialism' into the language of domination."

Seabrook reminds us that Third World farmers have been breeding new crop varieties for 12,000 years. For Northern scientists it took only ten years of work on genetic material and a minor modification to earn praise as geniuses. "And they 'own' the property thus created," Seabrook notes.

With centuries-old arrogance Western civilization has claimed universalism for its distorted values. The book's interviewees know from first-hand experience the destructive force of the industrial culture.

Anwar Fazal, the founder of Consumer Interpol, describes how modern times arrive in Malaysia. As local productive life is replaced by "some of the world's most flagrant corporate excesses" (...) "the imported Western paradigm is accompanied by an upsurge of new social problems, the costs of which are not borne by those who make profit of them".     

Fazal's comments point to the distortions so familiar in the rich countries: "The category of the 'sufficient' is basic in traditional societies. Once you start to measure wealth in cash, then 'enough' ceases to exist, for it cannot be found in the realm of monetised riches."

This point is made in a different way by John F.C. Turner, an expert in self-managed home and neighbourhood building who has witnessed the incredible resilience of slum dwellers in the Third World: "Hope for the future lies in the fact that so many of the poor in poor countries manage to do so much with so little. While the rich do so little with so much, there can be no future."

      

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