Over the last year, headlines generated by mass protests on issues of inequality have intensified. From Chile to Ecuador to Lebanon to Haiti to France and well beyond, a particular grievance like a rise in fuel prices or transport fares has been the spark for mass action by citizens who have simply had enough. Typically, this spark has given rise to a larger struggle for more systemic change. In most instances, as violence and repression is the response from the state, it is clear we are in desperately difficult and dangerous times for people who are bold and brave enough to seek a more just, equal and sustainable world.
Despite these dangers, as in times gone by, the will of the people who choose to make a better world finds a way. This week, the Fight Inequality Alliance have released a new report, titledThe state of the movement fighting inequality. With analysis, surveys, and interviews with activists on the frontlines of inequality struggles in 23 countries over 2018-19, the report provides us with some vital insights for the way forward for those of us seeking systemic change to the inequality crisis.
The work of organizing is long-term
The movement fighting inequality in its broadest sense extends far beyond the countries currently making global headlines. The work of organizing and movement building to build people’s collective power is long term work, with struggles against patriarchy, racism, colonialism, for LGBTQI+ rights and so on being the work of decades and centuries in different forms and stages. Much of it happens out of the spotlight with little in the way of plaudits. You are more likely to be ignored than feted, or in many countries attacked by a repressive state seeking to uphold the status quo. Our report found most inequality movements started in direct response to inequalities people were experiencing directly, such as for land rights in Uganda, or for the rights of street vendors in India, and often grew from there into wider and more systemic struggles connected to others facing the root causes of inequality and rejecting the neoliberalism at its heart.
Nationwide protests at crucial times will and should grab the headlines and be crucial levers for forcing progress, but the long-term work of consciousness raising and movement building to achieve change is also vital. Movements, not just moments.
Fighting inequality is about shifting power
The heart of the organizing that people are doing around the world is to shift power—from those who have too much, to those who do not have enough, and to re-make the system that has enabled the inequality crisis we are living in. This means between rich and poor, men and women, old and young, people of different races, castes, sexual identities, classes, etc. This work is happening within inequality movements as well as in society at large. Movements are reckoning with issues of patriarchy and sexism as well as their own feminist politics, as the re-making of the system needs to come from within too. Accountability within movements must be structured to the grassroots and frontline activists, and the leadership of women, young people and social movements so we do not replicate the power dynamics we are seeking to change.
Shifting power is also not defined by elite led ‘change’ which actually deflects from the real, structural change that needs to take place. This is skillfully taken apart by Anand Giridharadas in his book Winners Take All. He decries the market-led world of easy ‘win-wins’ proposed by corporates and philanthropy looking for a quick, charitable ‘fix’ to the problem, but that swerve the systemic changes that our agenda really entails like living wages for workers and increases in wealth and corporate taxes. The message in our report to funders who would like to be on the side of movements is to do just that—fund in a long term and flexible way that allows the people at the forefront of the movements to lead and define the agenda, not bend to those of the funder.
Equality is a vaccine against far-right populism
Another noteworthy finding of the report is that the movement is hungry to become more globally connected. Seventy-four percent of the respondents chose "opportunities for joint campaigning including targeting international actors or institutions or building international visibility or support" as a top form of support and connection they wanted from others in the movement. In this era of far-right populism, with leaders preaching hate, fear, greed, nationalism, and with failing multilateral institutions, this provides a tonic to the idea that an internationalist movement is possible, and wanted by those who need it most.
Despite the often-bleak picture we find ourselves in, the energy and dynamism of the movement that the report reveals is inspiring and cause for hope. The cautionary tale is that if we want systemic change then we have to do the hard work, both on ourselves and in our movements, as well as remaking the societies we live in to make it happen.
Access the full report: The State of the Growing Movement Fighting Inequality.