The Lilliput Strategy

excerpts from the book

Global Village or Global Pillage

Economic Reconstruction from the Bottom Up

by Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello

South End Press, 1994


How can those who wish to oppose downward leveling do so effectively? Many routes seem closed. Local and national governments, political parties, trade unions, grassroots organizations, farm, environmental, and other advocacy groups all have been outflanked by global corporations and markets. International economic institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and GATT provide few mechanisms by which they can be held accountable. There is no global government to legislate on behalf of the world's people.

One starting point for a solution lies in expanding transnational citizen action. Just as genuine democracy at a local and national level depends upon people organizing themselves and acting independently of government-in what is often now called "civil society"-so transnational citizen action is the key to meeting the problems of globalization. Indeed, citizen action is even more crucial in the global realm because the institutions of governance there are so limited and so undemocratic. Those threatened by globalization are almost entirely excluded from influence in the emerging global realm. Transnational citizen action is the means by which they can start affecting the global players and eventually change the rules of the game.

Such action, as we saw in the previous chapter, is already under way. But in most instances it remains fragmented and ineffective. To transform common problems and common interests into common goals and action, and to construct a force that can counter downward leveling, we propose what we call the "Lilliput Strategy."

In Jonathan Swift's satiric fable Gulliver's Travels, the tiny Lilliputians, only a few inches tall, captured the marauding Gulliver, many times their height, by tying him down with hundreds of threads while he slept Gulliver could have crushed any Lilliputian under the heel of his boot-but the dense network of threads tied around him held him immobile and powerless. Similarly, facing powerful global forces and institutions, people can utilize the relatively modest sources of power available to them and combine them with often quite different sources of power available to other participants in other movements and locations. As the tiny Lilliputians captured Gulliver by tying him with many small pieces of thread, the Lilliput Strategy weaves many particular actions designed to prevent downward leveling into a system of rules and practices which together force upward leveling.

In some ways, the Lilliput Strategy parallels the new strategies pursued by global corporations. Just as the corporate strategy creates worldwide production networks linking separate companies, the Lilliput Strategy envisions strong local grassroots organizations that embed themselves in a network of mutual aid and strategic alliances with similar movements around the globe. And just as the corporate strategy seeks to create governance structures at local, regional, national, and transnational levels to support its interests, so the Lilliput Strategy seeks to establish rules protecting the interests of those whom globalization threatens.

Guidelines for Lilliputian Linking

The illicit Strategy requires a high level of cooperation among people who are diverse and distant and who have conflicting as well as common interests. These include geographical and historical conflicts between countries and regions; divergence among constituencies and concerns; and gaps between different social spheres, such as the split between economic and political institutions. Overcoming such divisions will require synergistic win-win approaches, mutually beneficial compromises, and agreements to disagree but still cooperate. It is not just a task for a few leaders, but for thousands and ultimately millions of people operating on their own initiative. For at the core of the Lilliput Strategy lies the work of overcoming divisions by constructing links.

Linking Self-interest with Common Interests

Most individuals are largely powerless in the face of economic forces beyond their control. But because millions of other people are affected in the same way, they have a chance to influence their conditions through collective action. To do so, people must grasp that the common interest is also their own personal interest. This happens whenever individuals join a movement, a union, a party, or any organization pursuing a common goat It happens when people push for a social objective-say universal health care or human rights-which benefits them by benefiting all those similarly situated. It underlies the development of an environmental movement which seeks to preserve the environment on which all depend.

While free market ideology may debunk the idea of common or social interests, in effect maintaining-to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher-that only the interests of individuals are real, the linking of self-interest and common interests is the starting point for effective resistance to downward leveling. For example, when people in one country support the right of workers to organize and strike in other countries, they are helping others, but they are also helping themselves by ensuring that they will not have to compete with those forced to work in degraded conditions.

Linking the Global to the Local

To link self-interest with common global interests, the first step is to clarify the connections between the immediate conditions people face and the global processes that are affecting them. For example, as part of the campaign against ratification of GATT, the Sierra Club published the study GATT Double Jeopardy: State Environmental Laws at Risk' which provides state-by-state information on how GATT could undermine recycling, packaging, fuel efficiency, and food safety laws. Similarly, in the long and bitter struggle of workers at the Caterpillar tractor company, the union made clear the international dimension; as one UAW official explained, "Cat would like to force workers in different countries to compete with one another to see who will work for the lowest wage." In both these instances, the link between local problems and the forces promoting downward leveling were made clear.

The second step is to link local struggles with global support. A classic example is the international network of indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and trade unionists who supported the struggles of Chico Mendes and the indigenous Amazonian rubber tappers, ultimately forcing the World Bank to shift its development policies in the Amazon rainforest. In the case of the Caterpillar workers, the International Metalworkers Federation convened a world conference of Caterpillar workers in Peoria, Illinois. UAW Secretary-Treasurer Bill Casstevens declared, "In the struggle to win a fair contract at Caterpillar, we need to reach across national borders. In sum, resist downward harmonization where you are and help others resist it where they are.

The third step is to link local problems to global solutions. For example, the International Labor Organization (ILO), a UN affiliate, has developed an International Labor Code-but the United States has refused to ratify most of the conventions that make up the Code. The Code would forbid many of the worst U.S. labor abuses, such as sweatshop child labor and the firing of union activists. In one recent case before the ILO, the AFL-CIO charged the United States with violating international labor standards by denying full bargaining rights to public employees. In 1993 the ILO upheld the charge that U.S. laws do not meet the "requirements of the principle of voluntary collective bargaining"-indicating how an international labor rights system with teeth could provide a "court of appeals" for abuses here at home.


Global Village or Global Pillage