Politics matters – including at home

At my previous employer, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, we worked to reform the global trading system, to make trade policies more just and the trade policymaking process more inclusive. To do this, we worked some with international partners at the international level. But for the most part, we focused on U.S. policy. To some progressive internationalists this might seem overly limiting, but we had a fully thought out defense for this strategic choice, given our limited capacity.

The reasoning is simple: if you’re trying to improve the lives of marginalized and disadvantaged people around the world, no matter where in the world you’re talking about, U.S. policy matters. The U.S. is still a global superpower, despite the fact that many believe it’s in a long, slow state of decline. Given that reality, the fact is that U.S. policy has huge, far-reaching consequences for policy and outcomes around the world, perhaps especially in developing countries.

(Disclaimer: I, of course, no longer work at Public Citizen and do not speak for that organization in any way.)

For this reason, it isn’t short-sighted for U.S. activists, development professionals, etc to focus to some extent on U.S. policies. On the contrary: it’s necessary. If we’re fighting for political change in developing countries without also fighting for change in U.S. policies, the fruits of our efforts are likely to be fairly limited – not to mention there’s a basic hypocrisy in working for change in someone else’s society without also trying to change our own.

With that in mind, I submit that for those of us who work in development and are U.S.-based or U.S. citizens abroad, U.S. social movements should be higher on our radar. Right now, the Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to grab more of my attention. The financial crisis has roots in Wall Street and U.S. financial deregulation (as well as financial deregulation through international instruments like the WTO Financial Services Agreement, which were pushed by the U.S. and U.S. corporations). This crisis is obviously global, with far-reaching effects on developed and developing countries alike. Surely a nascent movement that seeks to shine a light on some of the major actors that caused this crisis deserves the attention of the development world, even if it might be easier to pigeonhole is as domestic U.S. politics best left to more partisan types.

Will Occupy Wall Street actually be anything significant? I have no idea. But it’s headed in the right direction. After almost two weeks of street protests in New York City, the movement is gaining momentum, not losing it. A random act of police violence went viral on the Internet and added to the sense of outrage. Last night, the 200,000-strong Transport Workers Union officially endorsed the protest and its members will be joining it on the streets today. For a movement that started out without any resources or institutional support, that’s potentially a very big deal. (As Frances Fox Piven might tell us, truly disruptive social movements don’t generally start from an institutional base, but I’d argue that institutional support is often needed to take them to the next level.)

I found this piece in Dissent to be very helpful in thinking about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Will it amount to anything? Who knows. Is it perfect? Of course not. It is worthy of the support of those of us interested in systemic change and global justice? Absolutely. In the wake of the financial crisis, the lack of any kind of powerful structural critique of the modern global financial system has been pathetic. Occupy Wall Street might not be the place where that critique finally comes into the public consciousness. But, on the other hand, it just might be that place, and therefore it’s worth getting behind.

Image above of the Occupy Wall Street protests by David Shankbone, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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