Vol. 5, No. 1, December 2003

Privatization is Suicide*

David Redmon
Pratt Institute, Brooklyn

Between September 9 - 15, 2003 I participated in the direct action demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Cancun. On September 10, fifty-six year-old South Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae climbed atop the barricade, exclaiming out-loud, "WTO kills farmers!" as he sacrificed his life by stabbing himself in his heart with a knife. Lee sacrificed himself on Chusok day (the date that commemorates the dead in Korea -- Day of the Dead). After Lee lost his farm due to a foreclosure in 1999, and before his sacrifice in Cancun, he had camped out in front of the World Trade Organization in Geneva in a one-person hunger strike. His goal was to direct the world's attention to the genocidal policies of neoliberalism on farmers in South Korea and around the world. Lee and the farmers were ignored.

Neoliberal policies pushed Lee to take his life in Cancun as a way to protect Koreans farmers and as a symbol of the hundreds and thousands of farmers and peasants worldwide who die every year because of neoliberalism. According to Luis Hernandez Navarro, for example, subsidized rice exports to Korea from the U.S. are four times cheaper than the rice produced by Korean farmers (Food First). Over a thousand peasants committed suicide in India between 1998 and 1999; a large majority of them did it by drinking pesticide liquids. "In England and Canada the suicide rate among farmers is twice the national average.  In Wales one farmer commits suicide every week. In the U.S. Midwest suicide is the fifth largest cause of death among farmers. In China peasants are the social group with the highest suicide rate" (Navarro 2003).

One possible connection between rural suicide and consumption is that tax-subsidies given to U.S. farmers on rice, for example, are constituted through exclusions that impact rural farmers all over the world. Dumping cheap food in nations overseas displaces rural farmers in those countries and puts them out of business; it is simply impossible for them to compete with Empire. These subsidies return to haunt rural farmers in the form of collective suicides and other forms of slow deaths. In other words, the U.S. commodification and subsidization of food is a suicidal policy for other farmers. Emile Durkheim might argue that the increasing loss of hope that results from stolen land, military occupations, foreclosures on farms, collective punishments, and neoliberal policies -- in Palestine, rural country-sides such as China, India, South Korea, Chiapas -- are social facts that contribute to collective suicides. The dispersed net of economic bombs that Empire invisibly drop in Iraq, South Korea, Africa, Argentina, or the Palestinian Territories are much more lethal in the concentrated killing of thousands of people every year than suicide bombers could ever have. Empire puts pressure on people and destroys their hope, land, and homes by collectively displacing them from their livelihood of subsistence -- whether it's olive trees, corn, or rice.

Anomic, altruistic, or egoistic? Let's turn to the words of Lee himself, "I am a 56 year old farmer from South Korea who, like other farmers, has striven to solve our problems ourselves in the great hope of farmer unions. But I have mostly failed, as have most farmers elsewhere. Soon after the Uruguay round we, Korean farmers, realized that our destinies are already out of our hands. Further, so powerlessly of ourselves, we could do nothing but watch the waves destroy our lovely communities that we had built over the hundreds of years. To make myself brave, I have searched for the real reasons and major forces of those waves. At the front gate of the WTO, I am crying out my words to you that have boiled so long in my body. My warning goes to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation: that uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big W.T.O. official members are leading a globalization of inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer killing, and undemocratic policies. It should be stopped immediately. Otherwise, the false logic of neoliberalism will kill the diversity of global agriculture, with disaster consequences to all human beings."  

Lee's sacrifice is mobilizing millions of people around the world; it gives us/them/me strength to carry on the resistance to the commodification and privatization of agriculture directly in front of the faces of those who contribute to these invisible deaths. After I questioned the W.T.O. delegates about Lee's sacrifice, for instance, I realized that many of them were completely unaware or did not care about the seriousness of this event. A Mexican delegate simply said, "We're sorry his death took place in Mexico."  One U.S. delegate on the finance committee bluntly told me, "Well, we believe in generally free trade. We think it's the best vehicle to lift people out of poverty. The best way to do this is to ask people in poor countries to increase free-trade as a way to increase their standard of living. There are a lot of people around the world who give it a bad name. I think they are wrong. By trading, the whole pie gets bigger and we all share."

Critics oppose the neoliberal ideology of this W.T.O. delegate and claim that the poverty crises is manufactured by neoliberal institutions because they transfer human rights -- such as food and water -- into a commodity. They claim that commodification means seeing human rights through the policies of neoliberal privatization. Privatization is linked with issues in consumption because commodification is a logic that transfers human rights into free-market rules and regulations. One consequence for rural and poor people is that the price of water, for instance, increases. Therefore, those who live in regions of the world that cannot afford this human right are more likely to die from treatable diseases that develop from unclean water. Privatization means commodifying human rights, increasing their costs for poor and rural people, and increasing the concentration of scarcity. Privatization is suicide.

*Based on the documentary titled, "Tearing Down the Walls," a vivid account of the five days of resistance -- including Lee's sacrifice and an explanation of it-- against the World Trade Organization. To order a copy of the 48 minute documentary, contact David Redmon at david@calleymedia.org