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Triennial Day 3

Milan Rai reports from the WRI Triennial in India

On the second morning (the third day) of the Triennial, we had our first “reflectors” session. The reflectors were five people who had been chosen to give their reaction to the conference so far. There were four women (all English-speaking, one African, one Australasian, one European, one North American) and one man (Spanish-speaking, Latin American).

Incidentally, this reminds me of something Jai Sen said about the book he co-edited: World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. They set themselves a very difficult standard in terms of contributors: achieving balance between continents and genders. (For more about the book, and other valuable publications on the way: http://www.cacim.net)

Two of the women (I didn’t catch their names, but later found out one was Vanessa Boaz of the International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict) said that we had so far had a lot of “the problem”, but not a lot of “the solution”. One said that we had not lived up to the “nonviolent livelihoods” element of the conference. The other said we had not been sharing the many successes of small movements, no exchange of strategies and tactics. At the moment it felt like the problems were so big, there was no impossible to succeed by nonviolence.

Though there were valiant efforts by the chair, Stellan Vinthagen, to re-route the morning towards “solutions” and methods/strategies of success, the presentations by Maguiorina Balbuena (Via Campesina farmers’ movement, Paraguay) and Ramesh (Ekta Parishad land rights movement, India) were focused very much on “the problem”. One lingering question for me was the way in which Maguiorina’s other organisation, COMURI, a national network for women farmers and indigenous women, had struggled with sexism inside and outside the social movements. Exactly why had the organisation been formed (in 1999), and what problems had it overcome?

As for the “nonviolent livelihoods” question, this is in the title: “Nonviolent livelihood struggles and global militarism – links and strategies”. I haven’t heard any speakers address it specifically, and it is in the title of only one workshop (mine).

However, in the programme, Howard Clark explains the meaning used here: “nonviolent livelihood struggles – that is, nonviolent resistance by communities to localised threats”. That was supposed to be the theme of the two main panels – about Indian resistance to mining and Paraguayan farmers’ land rights struggles. The emphasis in both was more the violent repression of such struggles than the nature and successes of the nonviolent resistance.

Lots of the workshop titles had this theme, which is to say “the violent repression” rather than “the nonviolent resistance”.

So we have had: “Mining, threat to community, fuel for war”; “Military bases and displacement”; “Violence against regional identities (with special reference to Kashmir and north-east India”; “Displacement and indigenous communities”; “Women and development-induced displacement”; “Corporate Gujarat with special focus on land”; “Mediterranean cemetary – African refugees”; “Militarism and energy development projects in Latin America”.

On the more positive side (I am only speaking of titles, I don’t know what actually happened in the workshops), we have had: “India and the struggle for land rights”; “Resisting Zionism: nv resistance in Palestine and war resistance in Israel”; “The essence of a strategic perspective on nonviolent struggle”; “Resistance to a globalised NATO”; “Peace movement in Iraq”; “Another development vs overdevelopment”; and my own “Towards nonviolent livelihoods: class, peace and conversion”.

During this session, we had a brief small groups discussion throwing up possible definitions of “nonviolent livelihood”. People were in threes or fours. We had a Hindi/Gujarati group (6), a Korean-language group (4) and three English-speaking groups (3 in each). The definitions varied widely. In one group, a man had proposed self-sufficiency (growing and making what you need for daily life) as the test of a nonviolent livelihood. The two women in the group said this was not feasible as they didn’t have the time to do that. I teased them: “So, a nonviolent livelihood is good… but you’re too busy.”

There was quite a strong emphasis overall on low personal consumption and “small is beautiful” – small workshops rather than giant factories, for example. (One person pointed out that if the economy was structured in the way most people wanted it to be, most people in the room could not have travelled to the conference in the way that they did….)

Curiously, given this “small is beautiful” feeling of the group, the final thing I did in the workshop was to set out the Lucas Aerospace example, a high-tech factory-based positive example.

Lucas Aerospace was a 17-plant 13-union company whose workforce created a unified “combine” of shop stewards elected from the workforce, bringing together clerical, technical and shopfloor workers, which drew up a conversion plan for replacing military contracts and aerospace work with alternative, generally socially-useful products. That process of workers’ planning took a whole year (1975) and led to the Lucas workers’ “corporate plan”, an inspiring document detailing 150 products with 1,000 pages of technical detail backing up the feasibility and marketability of the products. The final proposal to the corporate management focused on 12 products. It was rejected.

Both trade unions and management were aghast at the combine idea. There was lukewarm support in the Labour government and the Lucas plan was never implemented.

There were particular features of the Lucas situation – a highly-skilled workforce, plant configured for short-run production, and a heavy reliance on government funding (50% of income was military, tax breaks from the government almost exactly balanced the taxes Lucas Aerospace paid).

This was a situation of maximum flexibility and maximum opportunity for government influence – especially given the Labour Party’s 1974 industrial strategy of “compulsory planning agreements” championed by Tony Benn (Industry secretary). (As minister, Tony Benn met with the Lucas Aerospace combine and encouraged the planning process.)

Under the compulsory planning agreement system, government grants would only be given to companies (as they regularly were/are) if the company (a) had long-term production goals acceptable to the government and (b) produced a plan for the future in conjunction with the government and the workforce. It was a long way short of nationalisation/socialisation and a long way short of workers’ control, but it was a move towards both.

After the workshop (which had spectrum lines, large group discussions, small group discussions, go-rounds – every single person in the group got to speak at least once to the large group and almost everyone got to speak twice), someone referred to the participatory budgeting process used in Brazil and in Kerala, India.

It would be wonderful if that kind of cross-continental inspiration (Kerala, Sao Paolo, compulsory planning agreements, the Lucas plan) could be brought together, if that could have been the core of this Triennial. Ideas that people have had, strategies that they have carried out, policies that have been implemented. The gold is here, no doubt, and quite a lot of it glints out during the formal sessions. The challenge is to create structures, cultures of meeting that make it mostly “the solution” rather than “the problem”.

A challenge not only for War Resisters International, but for everyone holding conferences, gatherings. (Some food for thought for the Peace News Summer Camp….)