Occupy Monsanto: Occupy the Dialectic
According to Carmelo Ruiz Marrero, Western powers have been grabbing seeds from the global South for centuries in order to develop new plant breeds. His talk provided a political and historical context to the current global battle around the patenting of seeds and crops with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Carmelo Ruiz Marrero speaks at GMO Free Midwest, Sept 16 2012
It was September 16, the first day of GMO-Free Midwest, the St. Louis portion of Occupy Monsanto. On the panel with Carmelo was Dr. Ollie Fisher, whose first job after getting his Chemical Engineering degree was working at Monsanto. He left that position after becoming distressed with the way the company uses its technology to subjugate Africa and coerce it into producing food that compromises human health.
Dr. Ollie Fisher speaks at GMO Free Midwest, Sept 16 2012
Priti Gulati Cox was also on the panel “GMOs as a Weapon of Global Domination.” She described effects of GMO crops on her native India. Monsanto advertises heavily to persuade farmers to switch to its new wonder seeds. After multiple crop failures, thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide, unable to deal with the shame that bankruptcy has brought.
Priti Gulati Cox speaks at GMO Free Midwest, Sept 16 2012
The following day, September 17, Occupy Monsanto sponsored actions across the globe. By beginning with a day of panels, the St. Louis event encouraged a dialectical interplay between thought and action. Dialectics can help understand historical processes that develop over centuries and can guide the growth of a particular struggle.
Occupy Wall Street (OWS), the most significant mass movement in the US in over a decade, expanded the practice of having discussions interspersed with activities. Panels and lectures provide the information for understanding the need for activity. Demonstrations, marches and direct actions “concretize” or give meaning to the ideas on which they are based. Post-activity discussion helps “synthesize” the thought/action dichotomy.
Reflecting on what happened is when the group asks, “Did we reach our target audience or could we have put forth our ideas in a better way?” “Did we actually change anything, or, could a different type of action have been more effective?
Nowhere are these processes more important than in combating GMO contamination of food. Until a few years ago, climate change seemed too “abstract” for many people. But constant pressure from scientists and the environmental left pushed it to the fore and now even Americans are familiar with the threat.
Similarly with GMOs, safe food is still viewed largely as a white intellectual concern in the US. The contradiction is that, while everyone is affected by food contamination, farmers, and especially peoples of Latin America, Africa and Asia, are most affected by the international campaign of agribusiness to force people to give up sustainable agriculture and adopt industrial farming methods.
Until the US safe food movement becomes truly multi-ethnic, its effectiveness will be severely limited. Many events address the contradiction by focusing on informational sessions which include international speakers. Multi-ethnic panels strengthen the movement as participants realize that they share a common opponent with their allies. Those in other countries appreciate that, no matter how weak the left is in the US, opposition is alive in the epicenter of genetic tinkering.
The St. Louis forum covered the basics: Daniel Romano described Monsanto’s role in advancing herbicides and pesticides; Suzanne Renard looked at the specific effects of chemicals on bees; Stan Cox went into the big picture of industrial agriculture; and Eric Herm gave a personal account of a farmer making choices about using GMOs. Anne Petermann provided a link between these US experiences and the global advance of genetically engineered (GE) trees. Fraudulent claims that privatizing forests will help them are belied by the use of such schemes to drive indigenous forest protectors from their homes.
The second contradiction faced by GMO-Free Midwest was symbolic vs. substantive activities. The conference called for actions at the “Biosafety” Symposium, Whole Foods Market [WFM] and Monsanto World Headquarters [MWH]). They reached out to audiences with different levels of information about dangers of GMO food.
However, the action at MWH was primarily symbolic while the action at WFM was mainly substantive. The Gateway Green Alliance (GGA) has picketed Monsanto for years. Picketing provides a way for people to express their outrage at the company. Yet, picketing MWH is not substantive — if there were a thousand times as many pickets, it would not affect Monsanto’s profits. A substantive action against Monsanto would shut down distribution or in some other way interfere with its functioning.
Symbolic actions are important for building a movement. The GGA continually meets people coming from the other side of town or from across the globe because marching at its world headquarters is personally important to them. Never underestimate the importance of ritual. Whether singing, chanting, standing in a circle, or picketing Monsanto, symbolic actions strengthen the bonds of community.
It is difficult (but not impossible) to organize substantive actions against Monsanto because it distributes to other companies rather than to consumers. But WFM, a newly arrived stepchild in the Monsanto extended family, distributes directly to consumers. This makes it a potential target for substantive actions. Even more so because those who shop at WFM think that higher prices buys them better quality food. WFM customers are particularly likely to suffer the illusion that it does not sell GMO food.
A picket in front of WFM or signs on top of cars in its parking lot are symbolic actions which may irritate its management but do not interfere with its business. In contrast, a shop-in slows down the check-out line as participants ask if each item contains GMOs. It is substantive because of its potential. If thousands of people were to participate in dozens of cities, sales at WFM would plummet. Facing a potential boycott, WFM might reverse its hidden love affair with Monsanto. It could feel enough pressure to begin labeling GMO foods, which agribusiness itself says would be like putting a skull and crossbones on them.
Dialectical analyses often find contradictions within contradictions. In seeking to make the WFM action more substantive, organizers faced the contradiction of openness vs. guardedness.
Everyone agreed on guardedness. After the 2003 Biodevastation 7 Gathering in St. Louis an ACLU inquiry discovered our personal emails in files of Homeland Security, which had been working with Monsanto. Similarly, several reports on OWS actions in 2011 noted how police knew of plans before events happened.
A guarded approach in 2012 meant not putting details of the shop-in on the website or in email or discussing them during phone calls. As a result, police and WFM management were caught off guard and had no idea of what we were doing until we were in the middle of doing it.
But there was a downside. More open planning has the advantage of reaching a larger number of people eager to participate in direct action. Discussing plans with everyone weeks in advance gives them a chance to rehearse it in their minds. In our post-action discussion, we covered ins and outs of how the shop-in went and who it could be improved on. These thoughts are now being shared via personal contact with many organizations.
One type of open inclusiveness did not enter into planning because it recently proved so damaging to OWS. That is “consensus decision-making” by dozens or hundreds of people who come to a General Assembly. It clearly has the advantage of empowering people who have been excluded from corporate society. But it means that weeks of planning can be thrown out the window by 1 or 2 people who may have little commitment to the movement but decide to “block.”
Consensus is not only useful but necessary when practiced by a direct action group willing to risk arrest or coordinators who must make on-the-spot decisions during an action. Consensus by an undefined membership is so self-destructive that it is time to give it a belated burial.
Movements need to be governed by genuine democracy, which is neither money-driven elections nor artificial consensus. Democracy rests upon the realization that every movement has leadership and that leadership should be openly chosen by a defined membership (whether work-based, community-based or issue-based). Membership control over leadership is exercised, not by pretending that leadership does not exist, but by the ability of the members to immediately replace leaders.
Occupy Monsanto can become stronger by building on and learning from Occupy Wall Street. To grow, it needs to carry out more actions, intensify actions, and reflect on them. Historically, American movements have been weakened by “pragmatism,” which includes doing whatever seems to work. The recent trend toward post-action discussions are critical for building movements controlled by members.
Collective self-reflection on how to build a multi-ethnic movement, how to undermine the power of agribusiness, and which tactics are most effective are the foundation of synthesizing our knowledge and experience. It is also essential for our most important goal — contemplating the type of new society we wish to build.
Don Fitz works helped plan GMO-Free Midwest and is active in the Greens/Green Party USA.