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The Role of Boycotts in the Fight for Peace

Notes on Post-Election Strategy

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

After the election of George Bush, it took less than a week for peace activists to reach a consensus: "Stand and fight."

The U.S. election is simply unacceptable. No president, no matter how large the vote, has any authority to commit war crimes, to destroy cities from the air, to create inhuman prison systems beyond the rule of law, to violate the sovereignty of states. No franchise anywhere entitles any leader to subjugate foreign peoples, or to violate international law. Far from being a democratic "mandate" for Bush, the election is a mandate for worldwide resistance. As James Madison wrote: "Elective despotism is not the government we fought for."

Notwithstanding the consensus of defiance, questions of strategy remain to be addressed. How and where and by what means do we carry on the fight for peace? Do we continue to work within deformed, money-drenched elections? Or do we move into a new phase of direct, economic actions?

At the turn of the 20th century, when imperialism was in its ascendancy, British economist J.A. Hobson, wrote: "Consumption alone vitalizes capital and makes it capable of yielding profits...It is idle to attack Imperialism or Militarism as political expedients or policies unless the axe is laid at the economic root of the tree."

No country is more market-driven, more intertwined with foreign commerce and trade, more dependent on the good will of workers and consumers, than the United States. Its war machine depends on parts produced in foreign countries, and there is growing feeling throughout the world that farmers, entrepreneurs, workers and consumers should do unto the U.S. what the U.S. does unto others.

As peace organizations formulate strategy and co-ordinate actions, the teachings of Arundhati Roy, the most visionary and sagacious strategist on the world stage, take on immediate significance.

In her address at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 27th, 2003, Roy put out a call for a new strategy of non-cooperation. Steeped in the traditions of Gandhi, Roy's books and speeches emphasize the economic vulnerability of the U.S. empire.

"The U.S. economy," she writes, "is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts are exposed and vulnerable. Our strategy must be to isolate Empire's working parts and disable them one by one. No target is too small. No victory too insignificant."

"We could reverse the idea of economic sanctions imposed on poor countries by Empire and its Allies. We could impose a regime of People's sanctions on every corporation that has been awarded a contract in post-war Iraq. Each one of them should be named, exposed and boycotted -- forced out of business. It would be a great start."

Weekend protests, Roy tells us, are not enough. "What we need to discuss urgently are strategies of resistance...Gandhi's salt march was not just political theatre. In a simple act of defiance, thousands of Indians marched to the sea and made their own salt. It was a direct strike at the economic underpinning of the British Empire."

"Already the Internet is buzzing with elaborate lists of American and British government products and companies that should be boycotted...They could become a practical guide that directs and channels the amorphous but growing fury in the world."

For Roy, it is not enough to communicate ideas, to write letters to Congress. "We must make it materially impossible for the empire to achieve its aims." She does not ignore elections. But she believes that "Free elections, a free press, and independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available for sale to the highest bidder...The machinery of democracy has been effectively subverted."

The Pending World-wide Boycott

All over the world, peace and anti-globalization movements are preparing to put Roy's concepts into practice. They are calling for a new kind of strategy to end the occupation of Iraq: a well-organized, sustained boycott of U.S. and British goods. In its range and scope, the coming boycott (including divestment from U.S. corporations) could resemble the historic boycott of South African apartheid.

The theme of the boycott, unencumbered by riders or secondary demands, is clear and simple: end the heinous occupation of Iraq. The boycott will not subside until all U.S. and British troops are withdrawn from the sovereign soil of Iraq; until all U.S. military bases are dismantled; until all U.S. corporations on Iraqi soil are closed down.

Boycotts have often changed the world. The American Revolution began with the Boston Tea Party. The non-violent movement that brought down the British Empire included Gandhi's boycott against British textiles. The Montgomery bus boycott launched the civil rights movement. The United Farm Workers in the U.S., led by Cesar Chavez, were unionized through laborious national boycotts of lettuce and grapes. And of course, the international boycott of South Africa played a vital role in bringing down the system of apartheid.

Spontaneous Boycotts Are Already Happening

Sporadic and spontaneous boycotts, local in form, have been taking place in cities throughout the globe. National Public Radio (U.S.) reports that thousands of Europeans, repulsed by the election of Bush, are refusing to buy American goods. One placard in a Paris window says: "Promote peace. Don't buy American." According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, Europe is simmering. "You're going to see American profits disappear. American corporations are going to be in big trouble. It's going to be a mantra not to buy American. All our major manufacturers are reporting major slowdowns in Europe. You're going to see the dollar disappear."

The boycott is spreading. Greenpeace is already involved in a boycott against Exxon-Esso and Mobil Oil. Fermiamo La Guerre, a coalition of peace groups in Italy, called for a boycott of Esso when the U.S. invasion commenced. Sales of Pepsi and Coca Cola have plummeted in the Mideast during the occupation, and Islamic nations are creating alternative cola drinks called Zam Zam and Mecca Cola. Iran banned ads for U.S.-manufactured goods. South African protesters in Cape Town demanded that Denel, a South African contractor, cancel all its contracts to supply military components to the U.S. war machine. The people of South Africa are well aware of the power of boycotts. As South Africa Indymedia put it: We must "take aim at the only thing that can bring Bush to his knees -- the American economy."

In the capital of Pakistan, the bustling Jehangir restaurant has taken U.S. soft drinks off the menu. "We only serve Pakistani drinks," one waiter said in an interview with Inter Press Service. "We don't serve Pepsi or Coca-Cola or any other American soft drinks anymore." Fast-food chains -- Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken -- are under a boycott in Pakistan. As one member of the Islamist Party said: "We must stop buying anything American or British. We must hurt American interests as much as possible."

The Myth of U.S. Invincibility

Mussolini once said there is no greater sin than looking weak. All empires sustain themselves through a mystique of invincibility. The U.S. is no exception. Its leaders now choose their words -- "Shock and Awe," "Operation Iron Hammer" -- to cow the timid.

But all of its nuclear weapons, all of its attack helicopters and B-52s, its power to turn mosques, hospitals and cities into rubble; all of its tanks, cluster bombs, computers and depleted uranium, cannot protect the U.S. empire from the ubiquity and power of non-cooperation. The U.S. may post soldiers at its foreign bases. It may continue to bribe foreign officials, to blackmail foreign governments. But its economic outposts, from Starbucks to Disneyland, from Hollywood films to corporations that advertise on Fox "News," are open and vulnerable. It is the U.S. that depends on the people of the world -- on their land, their oil, their skills and labor, their buying power and good will -- not the people of the world who depend on the U.S. That is the key insight for peace strategists of our time.

The U.S. empire is weaker than its neo-cons dare admit. Laborers and farmers and entrepreneurs are stronger than they realize.

Spontaneous boycotts, however, are rarely effective. Without organizational support, long-range planning, creative tactics and publicity, boycotts lose momentum. Successful boycotts require leadership. They're arduous struggles that last for years. When the leaders of the peace movement are ready to seize the time, prepared to unleash the power of non-cooperation, the darkness and despondency of our post-election days will fade.

Christmas, the most commercial season of the year, will soon arrive. Under Bush, Christmas is a time to make war and shop. But for us, it is the time to make peace and boycott.

Gandhi wrote: "Non-cooperation with evil is as much a responsibility as co-operation with good."

Let the boycott begin.

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Published in In Motion Magazine November 20, 2004