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A contemporary essay in the Catholic Worker tradition

Global Capitalism and Its Challenge For Nonviolence

Angi O'Gorman

Reprinted from Catholic Peace Voice, Summer 97, the newspaper of Pax Christi USA.

The globalization of capitalism has created a new challenge to nonviolence theory and practice. As capitalist economic arrangements have become more international, economics has replaced military might as the arbiter of human value. The right to wealth is the sole surviving entitlement; the last human right.

Unfortunately, our historical lessons in nonviolence are inadequate to the task of creating meaningful resistance to the systematic global impoverishment of human beings such as the global economy requires to insure its necessary supply of low wage labor.

In the past we have seen effective nonviolent resistance applied in more contained struggles such as liberation from colonial powers, civil rights efforts, labor struggles, resistance to nuclear weapons and US interventions in foreign conflicts. But global capitalism dwarfs these contexts of struggle in its calculated trade off between profit and human suffering and its internationalization of the underlying socio-economic systems.

On the international scene we see an example of globalization in the World Bank's Structural Adjustment policies forced on developing countries such as Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras. While wealth has increased for a few; poverty, disease, hunger and illiteracy have increased for the majority.

On the domestic scene, the effects of globalization can be seen in a variety of recent changes in US public policy regarding welfare, taxes and immigration. Each "reform" aims at redistributing wealth upward, by, in part, forcing a steady supply of low wage labor to the bottom of the economic scale.

The arms race has been replaced by the race to the bottom. In the present global economy people are no longer marginalized, they are disposable.

How do we effectively address the violence of the world economic order through nonviolent means? Nonviolent practitioners in the United States are accustomed to challenging the causes of suffering by attempting to affect those in power. I believe we are wasting our time if we continue to do this. The internationalization of economic structures and the mobility of power and capital while labor migration is c o n strained by immigration laws, has created a safety net for the system. Witness the corporate response these days to labor struggles. Too much turmoil, and the factory in St. Louis closes down only to reopen in Indonesia where labor is more malleable. Like a bird of prey, vulture capitalism feeds off those whose survival is most vulnerable and simply moves to another location when the carrion gets scarce.

If change is not currently possible "at the top", where do we focus? The primary role of nonviolence, as lived by Jesus, Gandhi and King, has always been to empower the oppressed in their struggle to survive oppression without being defined by it. It is time to retrieve this primary power of nonviolence. The first power is the power of self, and it must be reclaimed in the midst of the dehumanization of global capitalism.

First power is the power of the "disposable" to redefine themselves, throwing off the paralyzing projections of the non-poor. Nonviolence can facilitate this reclaiming on the personal, communal, economic and spiritual levels. I suggest that this is our task for the foreseeable future.

To facilitate such empowerment, the nonviolent movement can develop an analysis of the current domestic agenda from a non-capitalist perspective, refusing to accept trickle down theories of power and wealth whether they are economic, class, race or church-based. For example, distractions such as the current emphasis on volunteerism, which function to keep structural inequities from view, should be unmasked for what they are, moral blinders.

Nonviolence requires solidarity with the oppressed whether that oppression be economic, political or ecclesial. We learned this lesson in Central America. It needs to be translated into our domestic context.

Solidarity places us wherever we can best grasp the underside of global capitalism. We embrace this for the sake of doing the necessary reflection and analysis of the consequences born by those most negatively effected by the new world order. We do this for our own salvation.

Programs such as Breakthrough, the economic literacy program initiated by the American Friends Service Committee which brings together poor and non-poor to examine economic structures, is the kind of effort that combines solidarity with analysis to achieve empowerment. The nonviolent movement is capable of salting the country with such efforts.

Such solidarity also requires what Margaret Norris has called "a spirituality of reduced circumstances." Because we need to keep our faith focused, our creativity sharp, our compassion supple, and ourselves honest, simplicity will continue to be a defining mark of nonviolence in the global economy and will include a radical rejection of consumerism and materialism.

Spirituality, as always, is our food for the journey: the scriptures our compass. In this effort it is not our physical death which we fear, but the death of hope and energy in the face of the unrelenting greed which capitalism calls virtue. Whether the Church will join us in the effort remains to be seen. In its absence we have our base communities and theological reflection groups. We have our Eucharist.


What we cannot do is rely on outdated modes of activism which are comfortable, but create little but the delusion of accomplishment. Empowerment, not protest, is the needed work of nonviolence. Empowerment includes direct non-violent actions with the oppressed. Such actions change a local manifestation of the global economy, rather than symbolize change. Direct action should be the agenda for resistance.

A greater internationalization of our efforts is also necessary. Capital is mobile and international. Our efforts must be likewise.

In order to free human and financial resources for international networking, a paring down of current duplicative programs may be needed within the movement.

The irony in all of this is that by creating a world system utterly dependent on a labor pool of disposable poor people, vulture capitalism has given the poor a unique position of power: the system cannot survive without them. It is truer now than ever that the poor have the power to change the world. If the nonviolent peace movement wishes to facilitate Systemic change in the future, it must accompany the poor in their retrieval of their own power today. First power is the first step.

Angie O'Gorman is a teacher nonviolence trainer and Pax Christi member living in St. Louis, MO.

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