The Terrain of Social Justice

By Gindin, Sam | Canadian Dimension, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Terrain of Social Justice


Gindin, Sam, Canadian Dimension


Any serious discussion of social justice must acknowledge the defeats the Left has suffered over the past quarter century. The scale of those defeats was captured in the global resonance of Thatcher's all-too-familiar proclamation, "There is no alternative!" While the Right was shouting this slogan from the rooftops, much of the Left was whispering that though it wasn't completely true, it was true enough to lower our sense of the possible and affect our expectations for social justice.

Such despair over the possibility of change isn't new. In the summer of '62, a group of American students calling themselves Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) issued a manifesto, which noted that "Beneath the ... stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives." When, a few short years later, the rage and hope that was subsequently labelled "the sixties" exploded, the same organizers who had worked to realize that rebellion were themselves surprised at its suddenness and scale.

The significance of Seattle

Seattle is arguably our era's antidote to the debilitating pessimism of there-is-no-alternative. Where social democracy saw the power of capital and was cowed by it, the Seattle protestors saw that same power and understood that building a decent world meant actively resisting it. They did not yet have any ready-made alternatives to offer, but in response to the prevailing demoralization they reclaimed the slogan French students had painted on Parisian walls in the late sixties: "Be realistic. Demand the Impossible."

The significance of Seattle, it needs to be stressed, did not rest on the 59,000 people of diverse backgrounds in the streets. The Ontario Days of Action in Hamilton brought out double that number, and Toronto followed with double the numbers in Hamilton. Nor was it that Seattle caught the police ill-prepared and brought the protestors a tactical victory. As important as that achievement was to morale, we could all assume that the state's lack of readiness would be temporary. Even the star-wars footage of black-clad police wielding clubs -- which graphically suggested a particular connection between globalization, power, and democracy -- will, I suspect, merge into other images of our times.

Seattle's significance was also not, as many enthusiastically declared at the time, the American labour movement's readiness to join, if not lead, a new internationalism. The AFL-CIO's ensuing narrow response to China and accommodating response to the WTO quickly dispelled such premature assessments. And it wasn't that the mobilizing capacity and sense of injustice Seattle demonstrated was directly transferable to other crucial domestic issues. There has, for example, been little evidence that the social movements that led to Seattle are as yet either inclined to embrace, or capable of realizing, the larger task of organizing sustained mass demonstrations within the United States against American poverty, racial oppression, and the most aggressively anti-union administrative practices in the developed world.

Seattle's importance lay, rather, in something that remains at this point symbolic. In the course of their resistance, a new generation of protestors -- a minority, but a significant and increasingly self-confident and influential minority - dared to name the system that bath no name. If social justice could no longer be discussed without addressing globalization, Seattle declared that globalization could no longer be addressed without addressing capitalism. By naming the previously unspoken social system behind globalization, globalization was being politicized. Where "globalizatlon" had become a weapon brandished by business, politicians and the media to explain what we couldn't do, placing capitalism itself up for discussion and criticism was part of insisting that the limits we faced were socially constructed, and could therefore be challenged, stretched and, one day, overcome. …

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