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Revitalizing Left Internationalism

COVID-19Social Movements

Protesters demonstrate against selling arms to Saudi Arabia, September 2017. Photo by Alisdare Hickson/Twitter.

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing a lot about the current capacities of social movements and communities in struggle. Much of this is hopeful, as people across North America are organizing workplace actions, resistance to prisons and detention centers, combative protests against racist police violence, rent strikes, and community-based mutual aid initiatives. It’s also inspiring to see emerging collaborative efforts to generate political vision for moving forward in the midst of deepening crises.

At the same time, this pandemic illuminates significant challenges facing our organizing efforts. One of these came up clearly at the recent Montreal Anarchist Bookfair, held online this year. In a generative session on “Collective Care vs. Containment”, an activist from Mali asked the featured speakers how anarchists in North America are thinking about mutual aid beyond the borders of the US and Canada.

This is a pressing question for all of us committed to collective liberation. As activist-scholar Adam Hanieh writes: “It is not enough to speak of solidarity and mutual self-help in our own neighbourhoods, communities, and within our national borders—without raising the much greater threat that this virus presents to the rest of the world…. Without a global orientation, we risk reinforcing the ways that the virus has seamlessly fed into the discursive political rhetoric of nativist and xenophobic movements—a politics deeply seeped in authoritarianism, an obsession with border controls, and a ‘my-country first’ national patriotism.” Hanieh is right: this pandemic requires movement responses and relations at a scale well beyond the nation-state.

The “global orientation” that Hanieh emphasizes is what has been known, historically, as “internationalism” on the left. While it has taken different forms, the basic idea is working across national borders to offer tangible solidarity in struggles against oppression and exploitation and for dignity and self-determination. In a useful 2015 editorial on this topic, activist journal Upping the Anti poses a fundamental question animating internationalism: “While we organize for liberation close to home, what is our role in getting others free—especially when the governments and economies in North America cause so much exploitation and harm abroad?”

Underlying this orientation is an understanding that successfully challenging ruling systems requires building movements that connect, communicate, and collaborate globally. This is the substance of the slogan from the global justice movement of the 1990s and early 2000s: “let our resistance be as transnational as capital.”

Over the last decade, experienced radical organizers have talked more frequently about the decline of left internationalism. Upping the Anti sums this up as “a retreat in continued, cultivated forms of international solidarity from various grassroots activists and labour unions in North America.” Compared to even the movement activities of the 1980s and 1990s—such as the anti-apartheid movement, Latin American solidarity efforts, global AIDS activism, and anti-war mobilizations—this retreat is unmistakable. In a recent webinar hosted by Briarpatch, activist-scholar Nandita Sharma put it starkly: “we’re living in a time where the left is the least internationalist (for lack of a better term) than perhaps at any other time in our history.” How should we understand this decline in left internationalism in the US and Canada? I have yet to see a rigorous account. That said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this decline has happened amidst the accelerating hardships coming out of the 2007-2008 global economic crisis. A lot of people have, understandably, been focused on immediate struggles for survival, and a lot of radical initiatives have become much more domestic in practice.

In addition, many activists and organizers experienced intense demoralization after the historic anti-war mobilizations of the early 2000s failed to prevent unfathomably devastating US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the last couple of decades, there have also been impactful discussions on the left about the problems of activism that focuses only on faraway places while ignoring injustices closer to home.

This decline has not been absolute. Many Indigenous peoples, as Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson emphasizes, have long practiced elaborate forms of internationalism in relation to other human and nonhuman nations. Whether in defense of Standing Rock or Wet’suwet’en territory, recent Indigenous-led efforts have built on these practices, fostering international relations in joint struggles against colonial dispossession and ecological devastation. Internationalism includes solidarity among and with Indigenous nations, even within the colonial borders of nation-states.

There have been other internationalist efforts in recent years. Palestine solidarity organizing has been growing, particularly since the launch of the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign in 2005. As the Kurdish freedom movement has propelled a revolution in Northeastern Syria, activists have developed solidarity groups. There are radical diasporic efforts, such those mobilizing in solidarity with struggles in India against the far-right BJP government. In the labor movement, there are some small but stalwart initiatives, such Labour Against the Arms Trade and US Labor Against the War. There are also significant internationalist dimensions in current organizing around migrant justice and climate justice, especially those activities that center struggles in the global south.

If we want to revive a global orientation in our movements, all of these efforts are worth building on, as we also learn from previous initiatives. And if any moment calls for a revitalization of internationalism, it is this one. As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies crises from Guatemala to Gaza, the stakes grow higher by the day. Radical historian Mike Davis observes that we’re currently witnessing “a kind of triage of humanity where wealthy countries have retreated from even the pretense of moral obligations to the poorer countries.” The only force that will change that is collective and resolute international solidarity in action.

Internationalism is also about hope. This is something that socialist-feminist organizer and theorist Sharmeen Khan has consistently argued. “In terms of dealing with despair,” she writes, “one of the things that really helped me was becoming more of an internationalist…. Things may be very frantic, but if you can talk to people around the world who are doing good work, it is a way to keep going…. My fight includes them and really helps me work through that despair.”

In concert with people around the world doing good work, we can resist despair and isolation. We can build strong relations, individually and collectively, across movements and borders. We can recognize our responsibilities, rooted where we are, in getting one another free. We can win a new world by winning across the world.

Chris Dixon is a long-time activist, writer, and educator. Originally from Alaska, he lives in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory, where he is a member of the Punch Up Collective. Find him online at writingwithmovements.com.

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