Individualised Activism With No Structural Analysis Offers Only Half Solutions


At the first Oslo Freedom Forum held on African soil, activists from around the world shared stories of working to try and overcome authoritarianism and repression around the world, from Middle East dictatorships to the scourge of child brides in Malawi. However, not much of these conversations featured an analysis of the interconnectivity of Western economic systems with repressive regimes around the world. The world’s problems cannot be solved by individual activists and campaigners alone. We need to challenge the system that fuels authoritarianism directly.

At the beginning of the Oslo Freedom Forum in Johannesburg, the founder Thor Leonardo Halvorssen Mendoza made it a point to say that anti-authoritarianism isn’t a ‘left or right’ issue, but a ‘right or wrong’ one. He said that people should be against left-wing or right-wing repressive regimes.
Halvorssen’s own activism – as the head of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) – is rooted in opposition to left-wing, Latin American governments, according to a 2010 profile in The Economist.

He put up an HRF-generated map of the world, which divided it into democratic and authoritarian regimes, with countries like India, Israel and Indonesia listed as ‘democratic’, while Turkey, Nigeria and Hungary are listed as ‘authoritarian’. Even with more nuanced identifiers such as ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes, it’s an imperfect understanding of the world. The exporters of war, refugees and economic misery like Syria do not exist in a vacuum, and criticism of these regimes that fails to recognise the interconnectivity of these issues only offers half an analysis of what’s gone wrong in global politics.

Authoritarianism is on the rise, Halvorssen argued in 2017 in a Washington Post editorial co-written with Gary Kasparov.

This trend must be recognised in the proper context: the collapse of the liberal world order’s ability to answer the most pressing questions of our times, which include the unaccountability of globalised, multinational corporations, stagnant wages, sharply-rising inequality, the support by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom of repressive regimes (as long as they are ‘strategic allies’), increasing ecological disasters, and West-sponsored endless war.

Manu Bhagavan, a professor at the City University of New York, made this point brilliantly in his own explainer on authoritarianism, writing: “The systems of global corporatism are already bigger than any one person or group, and people the world over are feeling increasingly anxious. They have sensed a loss of control over their lives and the conditions that inform their communities. It is no longer enough to plan to go to school and to work hard in order to secure a good job with a secure future.

“The Long War has fed these insecurities, multiplying concerns for economic well-being with those for personal safety. Planning for the future has seemed more and more difficult as energies are diverted to the struggles of daily life. Public health threats like Ebola and Zika coupled with terrifying weather conditions have further amplified the sense that forces beyond anyone’s control could destroy us at any moment.

“The systems of global corporatism are already beyond any one person, and people the world over are feeling increasingly anxious. These threats transcend borders, easily crossing from one part of the world to the other. Both drones and terror actors can survey anyone, strike anywhere.”

These issues are interlinked. You wouldn’t have necessarily got that impression if you listened to Halvorssen speak. The TED Talk style of the talks at the forum too, lent themselves to the kind of personalised, ‘I can change my environment by changing myself’ activism of the atomised, disconnected, neoliberal subjects we all increasingly are becoming. How this particular activist led a march in Zimbabwe. The inspiring story of this young woman, challenging a grotesque child bride culture in Malawi. And so on. All of these activists and their individual campaigns are of course difference-makers and are inspiring examples in their own right. However, surely it should be for the Oslo Freedom Forum to put all of these stories together into a narrative that deepens our understanding of global problems?

It was left to individual speakers to start to put those threads of thought together. Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, spoke about how that country’s current dictatorship is aided and abetted by the Chinese government, which is buying up Maldivian land at a rate not seen since the East India Company.

Meron Estefanos highlighted how the Eritrean regime cannot survive without the continued support of companies like AngloGold Ashanti.

There are many stories like this: how the cobalt in our Apple or Samsung smartphone batteries originates from war-lord controlled mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. How global demand for vanilla is ruining the Madagascan communities that farm it. How the demand for cheap fashions in the West helps to sustain slave wages and child labour in countries like Bangladesh.

It is not enough to speak about how authoritarian regimes are sustained without asking where the money comes from. (Would it make sense to critique the regimes of Saudi Arabia or Egypt without also speaking about the billions of dollars in annual funding both countries receive from the US? How does one talk about the war in Yemen without asking why the UK still sells arms Saudi Arabia?)

The kind of corporatised activism of the Oslo Freedom Forum and Human Rights Foundation has to have the guts to turn the analytical lens that shines so fiercely on Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea onto the multinational corporate and Western government that enable authoritarianism, or that export war. Otherwise it will continue to miss the bigger picture of global freedom and democracy.

Featured image supplied by the Oslo Freedom Forum

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