Placing workers at the heart of 21st struggles for social, economic and political emancipation is the objective of the newly launched ‘Global African Worker’. Bill Fletcher, leader of the project, sets out the importance of building ‘real links between individuals and social movements who are conducting similar and sometimes overlapping struggles against racism and global capitalism.’
The African World and Pan-Africanism itself have undergone dramatic changes over the last 40 years. On the African continent, for instance, the last remaining colony is the Western Sahara, and their coloniser is another African nation (Morocco). The apartheid system, as we knew it in Southern Africa, is gone. In the diaspora legalised racial segregation is largely a thing of the past.
Yet the African World faces a series of crises and challenges. In the diaspora, for instance, de facto racial segregation remains quite strong, this despite the rise of black superstars in fields such as sports, entertainment, and indeed, the presidency of the United States of America. Social movements in the African diaspora have emerged, sometimes in tandem with other progressive social movements, sometimes on their own, raising consciousness regarding racial and national oppression as well as conducting struggles around racial justice.
In Africa, independence and the failure to reexamine colonial boundaries has resulted in protracted struggles involving ethnic groups, religions, regions and suppressed nations, while at the same time new social movements have also emerged representing class forces, women, HIV/AIDS victims, and displaced peoples. Such social movements have on occasion coalesced while at other moments operated entirely on their own. This post-independence reality has challenged the Pan-African vision of a progressive, unified Africa. And even where efforts at unification have taken place, e.g. the formation of the African Union, it has largely been a top-down effort, for the most part excluding the breath of the African diaspora and tending toward neoliberal economic theories as the direction for development.
The moment in which we live is also characterised by the restructuring of global capitalism. Not only are the formal empires of the 19th and 20th centuries largely gone, but the capitalism of the 21st century is very interconnected (and not just through the trading that we have witnessed throughout the existence of capitalism), challenging the sustainability of many nation-states and raising questions as to the legitimacy of the nation-state as a whole. Not only has the rise of transnational corporations posed the question of what is ‘national’, but with the restructuring of global capitalism has also come the rise of a transnational capitalist class that draws its members from the ruling elites of the global North as well from the ruling elites of the global South. This restructuring of global capitalism and the emergence of the transnational capitalist class has challenged the very notion of sovereignty and national liberation, while in no way challenging the subordination of most of the global South. The instantaneous transfer of capital, for instance, has undermined economies, yet such developments occurred not as the result of some spontaneous and inevitable process within capitalism but as the direct result of decisions made by the political elites of nation-states in the interests of transnational capitalism.
The relative hegemony of neoliberal globalisation has transformed struggles in many ways, including demanding that progressive forces engage in greater international/cross-border connections and forms of solidarity. The nation-state, as a field of struggle, remains key, but conducting a struggle on the plane of the nation-state alone is simply insufficient. To this one must add that neoliberal capital has placed a bull’s eye on the backs of workers and the organisations of workers around the world. In order to not only increase their own profits and seize greater portions of the world’s wealth, but also to solidify their control, neoliberal capital has sought the annihilation of all forms of progressive worker organisations, including but not limited to labour unions, that they perceive to be in the way of their struggle for domination. Workers are increasingly finding it difficult to conduct struggles solely on their domestic plane given the interconnections developed by neoliberal capital.
In this context several challenges emerge for progressive forces in the African World not the least being the need to build and sustain a mechanism of connection, coalition and solidarity within the African World that focuses on the struggles of those who are so often ignored, specifically, working people.
The rise of neoliberal globalisation has brought with it the collapse of many of the projects that Egyptian theorist Samir Amin has characterised as ‘national populist’ and the rallying of many national elites – including some that not long ago pledged allegiance to the international working class – to the flag of so-called free market capitalism. This turn of events has been disastrous for the majority of peoples of the global South, including but not limited to people of the African World. It has resulted in mass privatisation, the destruction of industries, dramatic wealth polarisation, environmental destruction, and with it the shrinking of the political realm for popular participation.
In this situation, working people are finding means of resisting the ‘race to the bottom’ and the pauperisation of billions. Labour unions, for instance, have a long history in the African World, but as workforces are assaulted by rising unemployment and precarious employment, some union movements have virtually collapsed, while many other union movements have sought to ‘retool’ to address this situation. In addition, new forms of organisation have emerged among working people that differ from traditional unions. The so-called informal economy (non-regulated; non-taxed) has brought forth various organisations and associations, some of which have allied with the union movement. Organisations of the unemployed and the poor have also risen, sometimes allied with unions; sometimes in contradiction with them; and other times operating nearly in a different world. Worker cooperatives have been formed across the African World particularly in areas abandoned by private capital.
In the post-Civil Rights/post-Black Power, post-colonial/post-South African apartheid period, connections between struggles in the African World have largely dwindled or been relegated to periodic conferences. Social movements in one part of the African World that address race, class and/or gender are often in operation in relative isolation from potential supporters in other parts of the African World, thus making it easier for transnational capital and their domestic allies to carry out deeper exploitation, repression, and the consequent weakening of genuine democracy.
For these reasons, new efforts at solidarity within the African World are necessary in order to link progressive social movements and organisations, particularly those rooted in the struggles of working people. For this reason there is a need for a ‘Global African Worker’ project that begins linking individuals, struggles, movements and organisations that are focused on the worker of the African World. Let us be clear, however, that in using the term ‘worker’ we are not restricting ourselves to those in the formal economy or those in labour unions, though these are important sectors. We are including agricultural and domestic workers, as well as those who are unemployed and/or in the informal economy. To borrow from African American trade unionist and freedom activist A. Philip Randolph, we are talking about the despised and the dispossessed.
We propose this project as one that looks at the African World, and not Africa or the African Diaspora in mutual isolation. There is much to understand. There are certainly general tendencies that one can identify in the African World, such as, the fight for jobs and equity almost everywhere in the African World; the exploration of alternative economic strategies; the role of labour unions, including vis a vis the informal sector; the anti-neoliberal struggle; gender-based movements and their relationship to race and class; and racism, ethno-nationalism and the struggles for unity, to name only a few.
To this list one must add, quite explicitly, the question of race, and particularly race in the 21st century context. W.E.B. Dubois noted a century ago that the ‘color line’ would be the question of the 20th century. His observation was quite prescient. In the 21st century race has not disappeared, but it has evolved as a social construct aimed at both suppressing the global South, but also dividing up social movements. In each part of the world, race looks and is understood differently. A person who in the USA may be considered ‘black’ or African American, for instance, in Brazil might be considered anything other than ‘black’. Yet what is at stake is not any effort to generalise racial categories but to understand that the ramifications of the slave trade, colonialism and the wars against indigenous populations remain with us not by accident but as a result of the manner in which global capitalism was constructed and the ‘racial mortar’ that holds it together. As such, the struggle against racist oppression is a strategic struggle against white supremacy, global apartheid and imperialism. All parts of the African World need to understand the manner in which race plays itself out today, but especially how race intersects with class and gender in reinforcing the hegemony of global capital.
In each locale within the African World, there are particularities, and these cannot be brushed aside. To go through each would constitute a book in and of itself. The following, however, is a brief overview of some of the flashpoints and issues contained within them.
Africa has not been credited sufficiently as the source of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the popular name for the Arab democratic uprising. It is as if the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya (although the latter is very complicated), as well as the simmering situation in Algeria was not representative of democratic murmurings and movements on the rest of the Continent but only part of events in the Middle East. Throughout the Continent democratic struggles have been underway for some time. Many social movements on the Continent came together a few years ago to build continent-wide campaigns against dictatorships. The mainstream media of the global North largely ignored these efforts and simply treated Africa as a continent in perpetual crisis.
In each of these struggles there were varying degrees of conscious anti-neoliberal sentiment. In some cases the target might have been a particular dictator, e.g. Ben Ali in Tunisia, but such dictators were implementing neoliberal policies in line with the dictates of the global North. In the hot-beds of the Arab democratic uprisings –Tunisia and Egypt – working people played key roles in the overall movements. In Tunisia, the main labour federation, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, was a leading force in the uprising. In Egypt the newly developing independent labour movement also played a decisive role in the uprising, including through the use of strikes.
The Continent has other major flashpoints involving social movements of workers. In South Africa, for instance, there is a very strong organised labour movement. At the same time there are independent movements of the poor and marginalised that have an ambivalent relationship to the formal union movement. Zimbabwe has a union movement that is largely in struggle against the regime of President Mugabe, but is also engaging in new forms of organising, having constructed an alliance with informal economy organisations several years ago, a nearly unprecedented step for the formal union movement.
In Europe, the struggles conducted by African descendent workers are often overlapping matters of immigration and religion. Migrant workforces have long travelled to Europe for either seasonal or permanent work. As the economies of European countries began to contract and restructure, there was the challenge for non-immigrant European labour to find new work, and immigrant labour was often displaced as well. Intense competition has emerged and is used by right-wing populists and fascists in Europe as a scapegoat for all of Europe’s problems.
The European labour movement has been inconsistent when it has come to anti-racism. While there is a long history of segments of European labour supporting anti-colonial struggles, the domestic anti-racist struggles have been complicated by the lack of a proper framework as well as political will. In this situation, the 2005 uprisings in France, for instance, of immigrant and first generation African workers did not become a cause celebre for the formal labour movement. This uprising was centered largely in a sector of the working class that has been outside of the formal union movement, lacking organization and forms of solidarity.
African workers in Europe also find their battles not only in the realm of immigrant rights, but also religion, where significant numbers of African immigrants are Muslim. The xenophobia in Europe has focused on Islamophobia and is an additional means through which African workers are being marginalized and scapegoated. They are being targeted as the source of Europe’s decline. As conditions in the global South worsen, however, migration can be expected to continue. Who then becomes the advocate for the migrants? How do the African European workers become part of a European labor movement? These are some of the key strategic questions for the upcoming years.
Latin America has witnessed the explosive growth of African descendant organisations and movements over the last thirty plus years. With a complicated form of white supremacy that delineated colour categories (‘Las Castas’ in Spanish-speaking Latin America) and that generally denied that racism was a significant factor in social events, ‘black consciousness’ movements have not only emerged but in many places have become major players in the domestic politics of their respective nation-states. This is increasingly apparent in Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. It is also apparent in Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama. The African descendant movements in Latin America overlap and, at the same time, are independent of Indigenous movements. Both have mounted and are mounting challenges to white supremacy and racist oppression, but at times are at odds with one another over objectives. The potential implications of the unity of these respective movements, however, could be significant for power shifts in Latin America (and, in the alternative, disunity also brings with it profound ramifications of a very different kind).
Despite the emergence of these movements, there is an interesting paradox and equally interesting challenge. The paradox is that black consciousness/African descendant movements do not necessarily translate into the activities and identities of African descendant individuals who are located in other social movements. A major case in point can be found in the trade union movement where it is far from unusual to find black trade union activists who see no relationship between the objectives of the African descendant movements and those of trade unionism.
The ‘challenge’ mentioned above is represented in the rise of pro-neoliberal African descendant movements in Latin America, some of which have reached out to African Americans in North America. During the administration of Colombia’s President Uribe, for instance, there were outreach efforts to both coopt the Afro-Colombian movements and activists, as well as efforts by the Uribe administration to win the support of African Americans in the USA for its initiatives.
Within Venezuela the African descendant movement has been on the rise and has constructed a relationship with the Chavez administration, while at the same time remaining very critical of racism in the country. Venezuela also raises some important issues about the relationship of the demands of the indigenous population to those of Afro-Venezuelans (specifically, the demands around land and citizenship rights).
In Latin America there is the on-going question of whether the union movement can be an instrument for black liberation. To a great extent, with the exception of Brazil, this question has largely been ignored. In addition, to what extent can informal economy movements be united with unions and other social forces in the fight around racial and economic justice?
The Caribbean has been the historic home of some very militant and left-wing labour movements. Yet due in part to globalisation and neo-colonialism, these labour movements have suffered badly. The labour movements, much like in Africa, played a positive role in the fight for independence throughout the region. With global economic restructuring and the end of the Cold War, the Caribbean ceased to be a strategic zone. Although there remain key labor movements, e.g. the Oilfield Worker Trade Union in Trinidad & Tobago, there has not generally been a reorientation in labor to address the current realities. Some Caribbean countries have been attracted to ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, initiated by Cuba and Venezuela), while others are either on their own or attempting to strengthen their relationship with the global North. Those in this latter category have little use for a viable labour movement. There are few places in the Caribbean where there is a project among the working classes to gain power and fundamentally challenge the neoliberal agenda.
Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti are special cases in the Caribbean. To a great extent Cuba and the DR are both part of Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba’s economic transition raises significant questions as to how its formal union movement will evolve and whether new workers movements will emerge both to deal with private employers as well as other issues of economic justice. Added to this is the Afro-Cuban question, and specifically, the rising importance in Cuba of the discussion of race (including some of the advances that have taken place in Cuba in addressing racism, as well as some of the limitations of the approach taken by the government and the party). The DR has a very complicated racial history given both its 19th occupation by Haiti as well as the racial malignancy of the Trujillo regime (and its deep hatred of anything Haitian and black).
Haiti holds a special place for all Pan-Africanists in that it remains punished for the crime of defeating Napoleon’s legions and winning independence. Years of occupations, corrupt governments, neo-colonial rule and terror have left a very weak civil society and only the elements of a labor movement. The earthquake along with the neo-liberal/puppet administration in power as of 2011 has presented the Haitian working class with immense challenges. For the most part supporters of the shackled Fanmi Lavalas party of Jean Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian working class has little open political or economic voice in the country’s current direction.
Added to all of this, the Caribbean has been the site of sometimes very intense ethno-nationalist tensions, most especially in Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana. The conflicts between ethnic South Asians and ethnic African populations has proven to be a very divisive force in those countries’ political lives, in addition to driving significant wedges through the heart of the working classes of those same countries. Other ethno-nationalist tensions exist in the region, including between indigenous populations and African descendants, but the South Asian/African descendant conflicts are special flashpoints.
In North America the African descendant population, and particularly its working classes, have been facing challenges brought on by automation, the relocation of industry, global capitalist restructuring, waves of immigration, and of course, de facto segregation. In both the USA and Canada, regions that were centres for major manufacturing (in the USA, the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast; in Canada, most especially Ontario) have witnessed dramatic declines and shifts, disproportionately affecting African descendant workers. Manufacturing has moved to areas with fewer people of colour, closed or moved out of the country. Immigrants have moved in, sometimes being used by capital in order to displace non-migrant workers of colour as part of the restructuring process of global capitalism. At the same time this migration has been changing the face of African Americans (USA) and Afro-Canadians. Among other things, in Canada the definition of ‘black’ tends to be much broader than in the USA, including not only African descendant populations, but often enough South Asians. For African Americans in the USA one question continues to haunt us: Can black workers play a significant role in the renaissance of a genuine labour movement in the USA or have they been so terribly marginalised as to minimise their importance? While we believe the former to be the case, in order for that role to realised, a new project must be undertaken.
ADVANCING THE GLOBAL AFRICAN WORKER
A project to advance the global African worker is a project to place the worker at the heart of the 21st century struggles for social, economic and political emancipation. The worker is not a symbolic reference, but rather an actual class of people who are in struggle for their own survival and dignity. A ‘Global African Worker’ project, then, attempts to build real links between individuals and social movements who are conducting similar and sometimes overlapping struggles against racism and global capitalism. In that sense, not only do these struggles need to inform one another, but where possible they need to start to move toward coalescing and coordinating their work. Such an approach is far from simple since we are not talking about the coming together of identical organisations, but rather an effort to engage in a dialogue – including theorising – and joint work based on a framework of emancipatory politics.
Most national liberation and national populist projects paid lip-service to the African/African descendant worker. While often using the rhetoric of class and class struggle, it was all too common for national democratic projects to suppress workers and their demands, all in the name of national unity. In building a Pan-Africanism for the 21st century, one that is not only committed to the unification of Africa but the complete emancipation from imperialism and white supremacy of the entire African World, the question of the worker can no longer be one on the margins. The Pan-Africanism of the 21st century must not only address race, gender and class, but it must be centred on the needs and struggles of the worker.
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* Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time racial justice, labor and international activist and writer. He is affiliated with BlackCommentator.com and is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. If you are interested in the ideas expressed in this commentary, please contact him at billfletcherjr[AT">gmail.com.
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