Full Circle

Block G8 and the Heiligendamm Protests as a New Beginning in the Cycle of Globalisation Struggles

Ahead of the 2007 G8 Summit, a common criticism of both Block G8 and the rest of the mobilisation to Heiligendamm was voiced across much of the left in Germany, Europe and beyond. It argued that summit protests had become ritualised: repetitions of a period of struggle – broadly speaking: the cycle running from the protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle in 1999, to the G8 in Genoa in 2001 – whose limits had already become clear. In many ways, the scepticism was well founded.

Take three examples. Seattle was initially considered a tremendous success. 10,000 protesters stopped the Ministerial’s opening ceremony from taking place. The actions on the streets reinforced the bargaining power of a number of trade representatives from the global South. As a result, the Organisation failed to agree a basis for a new round of trade talks. It was the first significant rupture in the neoliberal project and a new global movement had been born. And yet, despite the affect of victory the Seattle protests produced, there was an immense difficulty in translating this into the kind of everyday transformatory practices necessary for more systemic change.

Two years later, hundreds of thousands took to the streets, first of Gothenburg against the EU Summit, and later in Genoa against the G8. Huge disobedient actions showed that large numbers of people from across Europe and beyond rejected the world for which both summits stood. Yet the price protesters paid for entering a logic of (near-)symmetrical conflict was high. In Gothenburg, 3 protesters were shot by police (one critically). In Genoa, 23 year old Carlo Giuliani was shot dead. Hundreds were beaten and brutalised.

In 2005, as the G8 met in Gleneagles, the global movement realised at once both how successful it had been in re-setting the global agenda (at least in discursive terms); as well as the extent to which its language and its desires could be recuperated. The movement for a different kind of globalisation had created a situation in which the G8 were obliged to address “it’s issues”; like poverty and the environment. Elements within the Make Poverty History coalition (largely made up of charitable organisations and NGOs), the organisers of the Live8 mega-concerts, and parts of the British government, lined up behind economist Jeffery Sachs’s policy proposals. In essence: a short-to-medium-term investment in poverty alleviation, with the goal of lifting a billion people “out of poverty” – and explicitly, into the labour-force – by 2025 to avoid global economic crisis and ensure conditions for growth. Such proposals, of course, were a long way from the movement’s earlier, essentially anti-capitalist, proclamation that: “another world is possible”.

Limits, Rituals, Repetition and Difference

So if the movement for a different kind of globalisation had already learned the limits of summit mobilisations ahead of Heiligendamm, why did so many of us – from far and wide – nevertheless decide to take part, often putting our bodies on the line? In hindsight, was it possible to move beyond these previous limits? And what can the global movement take as a lesson from the Baltic Coast?

The first point to be made is that recognising something as having become ritualised is not necessarily a reason to immediately stop performing it. Of course, there are problems with political rituals. They become known quantities and easy to control. The can mimic previous events, rather than being determined by the political situation in which they find themselves. And they often tend to be more about reproducing already given identities (of the ‘radical-left activist’, for example), rather than strategic intervention. But rituals do not emerge from nowhere. They tend to be the product of ‘successes’ (real or perceived), and it is often only in repetition that the limits of these successes become apparent. Moreoever, abandoning a course of action as soon as it’s potential is recognised as not-necessarily-infinite, constantly chasing after the ‘new’ (until it in turn reveals its limits), is not necessarily the wisest course of action.

Secondly, the repetition of a ruptural event does not always have to be a case of ‘First time as tragedy, second time as farce’. Shutting down the WTO in Seattle was a practical act aimed towards delegitation. But bodies like the WTO and the G8 are capable of relegitimising themselves; which calls for a ‘repetition’ of the delegitimative act. Legitimacy, in other words, is constantly contested.

Thirdly, and relatedly, many repetitions are in fact not really repetitions at all; at least, not in the sense that they are the same thing taking place time and again. Even for those who wanted to ‘Bring Seattle to Heiligendamm’, it was obviously not possible to do so in a literal sense. A partial (or even full!) attempt, then, to ‘repeat’ Seattle (for example) would inevitably produce something different to the ‘original’ event: new networks, connections and possibilities.

A New Beginning?

The partial failure of the movement to Heiligendamm to deal with the G8’s strategy of relegitimation (for example, as a social actor capable of dealing with the challenge of climate change) notwithstanding, many have lauded the mobilisation a success. New networks were produced, discursive space was opened up, and (in a limited way) counter-power was built. Despite a number of criticisms, the Block G8 coalition has been recognised – by both much of the left in Germany, as well as internationally – as having made two important contributions. Firstly, and most obviously, it played an important role in mobilising thousands of people to blockade the Summit. Through developing a clear concept for action, it created a space which was both ‘predictable’ in terms of the forms of action which could be expected (on the side of the demonstrators, of course); but where other types of action were not prevented – or discouraged – from taking place elsewhere. It was at the blockades organised by Block G8 and others where the contestation over the Summit’s legitimacy most practically took place.

Secondly, perhaps the most important ‘repetition’ of Heiligendamm was returning to the processes of cross-pollination that characterised the early period of the counter-globalisation movement. Whereas Seattle was noted for the extent to which an extremely heterogeneous constellation of actors – nuns and queer activists, environmentalists and trade unions – where nevertheless able to take common action together; protests such as those against the IMF and World Bank in Prague, and (even more so) the demonstrations against the G8 in Gleneagles, were characterised by political currents and preferences for action forms becoming separated out from one another. Everyone remained within their comfort zones. In Heiligendamm, however, there was a remarkable openness towards strategies of contamination and mutation, with diverse actors working together, finding commonality despite difference and translating this into new forms of political practice. Nowhere was this more so than within the Block G8 coalition and on the roads around Heiligendamm.

The preparatory political work carried out in the run up to Heiligendamm – and the renewed openness towards leaving behind old identities and established ways of doing things, which allowed this work to find resonance amongst many of those who travelled to the Baltic Coast last June – were both what enabled Block G8 and the Heiligendamm mobilisation to be the success that it was, and which provides cause for optimism for the future.

Ben Trott

German version here.

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