What were we wrong about ten years ago, when our mass direct action shut down the Seattle WTO summit? I’d say we missed articulating and sharing lessons, and allowed our movement of movements to be narrowly defined and contained.
After those protests many of us went full steam into the next round of organising. We did not take the time out to analyse what had worked, what had not, and why. And now, a long and ongoing series of mass actions in the US is missing the lessons that hundreds of organisers could have provided. As radical researcher Paul de Armond writes in his outsider analysis of the 1999 week-long battle, Black Flag Over Seattle,
Law enforcement, government authorities, and even the American Civil Liberties Union have conducted instructive after-action analyses of the Battle of Seattle. By way of contrast, none of the protest organisations has rendered an after-action analysis of the strategies and tactics used in Seattle, even though the Internet teems with eyewitness accounts. In all forms of protracted conflict, early confrontations are seedbeds of doctrinal innovation-on all sides.
Many movements and networks converged in Seattle and, as they swarmed around the WTO in their ad hoc and accidental alliances, they opened up a space. But we allowed this space to become narrowly defined as the ‘anti-globalisation’ or ‘global justice movement’.
There is no global justice movement. At best, ‘global justice’ is a common space of convergence – a framework where everyone who fights against the system of corporate globalisation (or capitalism, Empire, imperialism, neo-liberalism, etc.) and its impacts on our communities can recognise a common fight and make those efforts cumulative. The concept of a single ‘movement’ focused on the ‘issue’ of corporate globalisation is used by the corporate media, as well as left writers, often in an attempt narrow the movement of movements, to marginalise its ideas or to declare the movement dead.
The same is now true of the ‘climate justice’ movement of movements – the current space of convergence against the system. It can become a space of convergence for all of us who fight the doomsday economic and political system that creates climate change (and offers false solutions to it). Or we can let it become narrowed into a movement focused on the ‘issue’ of climate change.
In 1999 David Solnit organised in Seattle with the Direct Action Network. He is currently active with Mobilization for Climate Justice West. He edited Globalize Liberation (City Lights Books, 2004) and co-edited/co-authored (with Rebecca Solnit) The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle (AK Press, 2009). He is a member of Seattle WTO People’s History Collective. www.realbattleinseattle.org
Imagination and alternative paths
We were at a crossroads, the end of an era. But people don’t jump blindly into the unknown, into uncharted territory, unless they have hope. We were unable to nourish their hope, perhaps blinded by the power of our ideas.
Hope is the very essence of popular movements. We took for granted that everybody would see with us the nakedness of the Emperor. We were thus unable to see that he is still clothed, because many people believe that they see the clothes constructed by politicians, intellectuals and the media.
We lacked practical examples of alternative paths and we lacked imagination.
Alternative paths. In 1996, at the end of the Intercontinental Encounter, the Zapatistas told us that to change the world is very difficult, perhaps impossible, but it is feasible to create a whole new world. We did not listen. We were postponing the creation of worlds – a world in which many worlds can be embraced. And we were thus unable to present real alternatives, illustrating what we think. Most people are no longer interested in another discourse, another critique; they need to see that other worlds are possible and necessary.
Imagination. Trapped for 100 years in the ideological dispute between capitalism and socialism, we stopped thinking. We were unable, ten years ago, to imagine the alternative. We were so concentrated on the critique of what is wrong in the world (the world we don’t want and is falling), that we were unable to imagine, live, and share with others the new world beyond it.
Gustavo Esteva is a deprofessionalised intellectual based in Oaxaca, Mexico. He is an advisor to the Zapatistas and founder of Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca
Politics, movements and institutions
Ten years ago, I had the greatest hope in the movements that would shortly afterwards come together in the organisation of the World Social Forum (WSF). The ‘scream of Chiapas’ had just been heard, and the strength of peasant movements such as the MST and mobilisations like the one in Seattle made it possible to launch a global opposition to the WTO. In the WSF, it seemed that the ensemble of forces that could lead the process of overcoming neo-liberalism was becoming organised. However, we ran up against the hegemony of NGOs and a limited, reductionist concept of ‘civil society’. The protagonists of the passage from the phase of resistance to that of building hegemony turned out to be political (rather than movement) forces and governments – starting with Hugo Chávez’s election as Venezuelan president in 1998, and then spreading across Latin America.
Social movements did not realise this and lagged behind, clinging to a narrow conception of ‘autonomy of social movements’. They became weaker and some have practically disappeared. Those, on the other hand, that found a rearticulation with institutional politics (Bolivia being a clear example) now have an active participation in the construction of ‘another possible world’ – something to which the presence of five Latin American presidents at the last World Social Forum (in Belém, Brazil, 2009) bears witness.
Emir Sader is a Brazilian sociologist and political scientist, with historical ties to the Worker’s Party (PT). Actively involved in the organisation of the World Social Forums in Brazil, he remains a member of the WSF International Council
From horizontal to diagonal
In 1997 I was intoxicated. The ice age was thawing. 1789, 1848, 1871, 1917, 1968… Now it was our turn. We were swarming. And then suddenly… we vanished. Were we just a dream?
In a short article, Network, Swarm, Microstructure, cultural theorist Brian Holmes identifies two preconditions for swarming. First, ‘the existence of a shared horizon – aesthetic, ethical, philosophical and/or metaphysical – which is patiently and deliberately built up over time’, a ‘making worlds’ that enables members of a group to recognise each other. And second, the ‘capacity for temporal coordination at a distance’, via the communication of information and affect. Intoxicated by the discovery of the second, we took the first for granted. Our shared horizon was like a dream. What had induced it?
Firstly, the perceived demise of interstate rivalry seen in the triumph of the neoliberal consensus evidenced by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), agreements on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) and so on. The political hype of the time was around corporations ruling the world: the enemy had started to look like a fused bloc. Secondly, a literally millenarian enthusiasm about our new capacity for ‘temporal coordination at a distance’. In the different movements and networks, the most persuasive voices were those most enthralled by the possibilities of this new communication. Thirdly, the amazing story of the Zapatista rebels – and, in particular, Subcomandante Marcos’s poetry – offering a fresh and open concept of collective action.
Back then I naïvely believed that all we needed to do was work on Holmes’s second precondition (‘coordination at a distance’); the first (‘shared horizon’) would look after itself. Provide forums, computers, email lists, opportunities for exchange and joint action, and the thing will just take off by itself: multiplication, not addition. Partly this was a response to the history of the left and the understanding that sclerotised identities and sectarian deformations are among our biggest hindrances, coupled with the idea that taking (especially direct) action together with others was the perfect antidote to it.
Maybe that dream was a premonition come early. In any case the problem of coordination at a distance now seems straightforward – the work rather is around constructing a shared horizon.
One no, many yeses; patchworks of minorities; networks of networks; horizontal exchanges… All these lack punch when the enemy disaggregates itself, when it’s no longer a fused bloc, and when it’s not self-evident how or why we are in this together, or who ‘we’ even are.
French philosopher Alain Badiou associates ‘we’ with that which is most common, most generic, most shared in our situation, but which is at present invisible, uncounted and unnamed. Inside, but excluded. How can we act – here and now – to affirm this common, this generic, this shared aspect of our situation? How, acting locally, is it possible to find a universal address, to demonstrate and enact the equality without which we are simply another interest group? How is it possible to name this common part and paint our horizon with the aesthetic, ethical and metaphysical colours that will render us visible to each other?
Then my question was: how to network local activisms and facilitate global exchange? Now my question is: how to forge a militant universalism and construct a generic will? Organising perhaps not on the horizontal plane, but on the diagonal?
Phil McLeish was an activist with Reclaim the Streets in London in the 1990s. In 1997 his mind was permanently altered by the second Zapatista encuentro – held in the territory of the Spanish state – and subsequent emergence of Peoples’ Global Action. After hiding in fatherhood for a few years, he became involved with Climate Camp from 2006 onwards
‘We’ll make it through!’
We were among those who realised in the 1990s that, while neoliberalism promotes the free circulation of capital and consumer goods, it sustains migration policies that control and criminalise the circulation of people, especially those of the most impoverished and discriminated ethnicities and groups.
Today, we continue to recognise international migratory movements as a strategy of resistance to neo-liberal economic policies imposed on the global South. But the political risks of generalisation have led us to distinguish between two kinds of protagonism. The first kind, non-intentional, configures an individual strategy of response to the structural dynamics of violence and exclusion. Although it is ambivalent and has a reduced reach – since it aims at inclusion and the transformation of individual situations – it is still an important sign of resistance in the international context. The second type, critical and conscious, incorporates practices of intervention in the symbolic and political spheres, a strategic fight against racism and different forms of discrimination, and the formulation of alternatives. It too can be ambivalent and have a reduced impact. But this does not make it any less relevant, as it implies taking an antagonistic ethical and political stance that exposes discriminatory structures and makes migrants appear as protagonists rather than victim.
This distinction in itself, however, would show its limits in time: in striving for the visibilisation of migrants as protagonists, conscious protagonists risk speaking on behalf those who are constituted by the discourse of represantation. Radical counter-discourses can often practice this violence, which silences those it would supposedly represent. Today, our critical attitude is directed not only at the so-called hegemonic elites but, in a self-critical gesture, towards migrant activists and intellectuals in European territory.
One thing has not changed. Despite restrictive measures and discriminatory laws, despite deaths off the European coast, despite the collaboration programmes with Southern governments to stop migration, despite the violence and precarity that the sans papiers are exposed to, people keep on coming to Europe. Once here, many manage to stay. The European Commission estimates the number of new migrants every year at somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000.
Some time ago, I watched a TV report showing Black men, their hands and feet tied, who had been captured by police around Ceuta and Melilla. One of them, interviewed by a reporter, stared straight into the camera and, speaking with a firm voice, said: ‘They can build as many fences and walls as they like. We’ll keep on trying, and we’ll make it through!’
Rubia Salgado is a founding member of maiz, an autonomous centre by and for migrant women in Linz, Austria, where she does cultural and educational work. The centre was founded in 1994. www.maiz.at
Ten years ago, Brazil was living the heyday of neo-liberal policies. The Cardoso government had used its first term to do the dirty work; the hegemony of finance and privatisation was imposed on the working class manu militari. It was the period of the army’s intervention against the oil workers’ strike and of two massacres of peasants, in Corumbiara (nine murdered) and Eldorado dos Carajás (21 dead). Significant sectors of the intelligentsia and the institutional left, in the universities, civil society organisations and even some so-called leftwing parties, adhered to neo-liberalism.
At the time, we underestimated the new hegemony. Dazzled by the size of our defeat, we still gambled almost everything on Lula’s possible electoral victory in 1998, when not even he believed it could be done.
This stopped us from undertaking a serious and deep critical appraisal of the pervasiveness of neo-liberalism and its consequences, and we failed to meet the process of privatisation with a decisive response. We failed to organise our social base in building our own means of communication, and deluded ourselves about the importance of the odd small space in the bourgeois media. We were wrong in not prioritising the formation of new militants and cadre that could analyse the new context of class struggle. As a result, we lost almost everything that had been achieved in the previous upsurge in social mobilisation (1979–1990). We thus lost a decade in which the hegemony of capital became consolidated, the left fell into fragmentation, the trade union movement became weaker and the social movements had no strength to react.
Maybe we can still learn from these mistakes and, today, invest again in social struggles, in forming cadre, in building our own means of communicating, in debating a popular project for the country. We might then be prepared for a new historical moment of ascension of mass movements, without which it will be impossible to change the correlation of forces – something that, fortunately, can already be seen in some neighbouring countries.
João Pedro Stédile is a national coordinator of the MST (the Brazilian Landless Peasants’ Movement) and of the international network of peasant movements Via Campesina
After the end of history
In 1999, we were situated differently than many US activists involved in the ‘counter-globalisation’ movement. While some of our comrades focused on injustice overseas, our point of departure was the alienation of our daily lives as workers or lumpenbourgeois. This gave our revolt a certain immediacy, but it also meant we started with little long-term vision or global perspective. We set out to discredit the myth of bourgeois happiness and contentment that kept both workers and managers on their treadmills. This may have been a sound strategy in the 1990s, but we were unprepared when the exaggerated placidity of the ruling order was ruptured by a series of disasters and ‘the end of history’ began to look more like the end of the world. We had banked on stasis as an essential aspect of domination, not predicting that domination could also be perpetuated through crisis.
A CrimethInc. ex-Worker. CrimethInc. ex-Workers’ Collective is a decentralised anarchist collective composed of many cells which act independently in pursuit of a freer and more joyous world. www.crimethinc.com
Political bodies vs. bodies politic
Ten years ago, some certainties traversed us. That doing politics was something for more than a handful: we had to connect to many others. That we lacked names with which to account for our experience: we wanted to draw cartographies that would re-situate what happened to us (our lives, precarity, the privatisation of the world, mobility). That politics could not be a question of identity: it had to pass through the elaboration of situations shared with different others. (We then asked: what is there in common between what happens to us and what goes on in other parts of the world? What is the relation between the various worlds that compose the world?) That to grasp the complexity of global transformations opened the possibility of producing a response and, above all, new questions. That investigation was in itself a form of action. That bodies could not be at the margins of politics: they are part of the field of operations of power and of multiple struggles. That feminisms and post-colonialisms were our allies.
We had left the okupas [squats] to build open and heterogeneous social centres, but we had not really broken away from identity and the ghetto. We started to understand ourselves within global processes and the global movement opened a new sense of the destiny imposed by neo-liberalism, momentarily displacing fear and catastrophe. And on returning home we still wished to give names to the miseries of daily life and to break with isolation and silence. We thought precarity as an existential condition, and thought of it not only in its negative form, but also in its potency and positivity. We left the social centres and threw ourselves into the open space-time of the city.
On the one hand, we thought that naming things would allow for their immediate transformation; on the other, we thought that if we filled precarity with potency, joy and desire, we would connect to people’s experience from a different side. Neither happened. We ran up against the proliferation of infinite narratives, dispersion and the difficulty of delimiting a territory: an experience that seemed impossible to take in and didn’t become translated into new rights or new spaces. Besides, our ‘positive’ idea of precarity didn’t connect with the social malaise. Paradoxically, we started idealising others.
We threw ourselves into concrete alliances and lost along the way the ‘starting from oneself’. In a way, the alternative to classic politics, ideologies, ready-made formulas, was to be found in others more than in ourselves: we failed to successfully articulate the starting from oneself with the encounter with others, and fell in the gap between life and politics, between experience, the body and the idea. On one side, the proper thing, what is done with (and for) others, the truly political. However, in separating life from politics, politics becomes, materially and affectively, unsustainable. And an encounter without bodies is an abstract, unreal idea.
Ten years ago, we thought in terms of the potency of the desire of the mobile and changing subjectivity that constitutes us. Today we think that this potency unfolded on a plane over and above life, others’ and our own. How to stay alert in the face of politics’ claims to transcendence, if we are to stop it from becoming unsustainable? What is there of life – the real one, which allows us to connect to others in equality, rather than moral superiority or the abandonment of oneself – in the political that we make? How to go on encountering others, outlining common problems? And above all: what is the point of a politics today that doesn’t think through these questions?
The group Precarias a la Deriva was formed in Madrid in 2002. Since 2005 they have been mutating towards the construction of a laboratory of female workers, called the ‘Todas a Cien’ Agency for Precarious Matters, with its headquarters in the women’s public space, Eskalera Karakola
To advance one inch…
My face was in South African newspapers around September 1999. I had ‘dared’ to challenge the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), by questioning its privatisation programme. I was ANC regional leader and ward councillor for my area in Soweto. The press projected me as a victim of the ANC’s lack of democracy at a time when its hegemony was more or less unassailable. I did my best to use the attention to spread the message against neoliberal policy. I won public sympathy and maintained my immediate local support base.
But I failed to use the commotion to go back to the 200 or so ANC branches in the region and explain to ordinary members why I was opposed to neoliberalism as a socialist ANC leader. I should have gone there the same way I used to go there to build the ANC. I should have called meetings, visited people in their homes, distributed pamphlets, engaged in public debates and so forth. Instead I let the media tell my story while the ANC leadership did its damage control. I was catapulted from ANC leadership ranks into becoming the famous face of the then emergent anti-globalisation movement in South Africa. On reflection I should have ducked the fame and concentrated on advancing a thousand ordinary workers one inch, rather than the heady 10 mile revolutionary advance of myself and a few radical comrades. I was hero and centre of my political universe. I should have worked harder to make the masses their own liberators.
Trevor Ngwane was active in the ANC as an anti-apartheid activist in Soweto. He was later expelled from the ANC for opposing the privatisation of public services. Today, he continues the struggle in post-apartheid society
Walking a new path
What’s to come? No one can know.
– Billy Bragg
Beginning in 1986, in Bolivia and neighbouring countries, economic structural adjustment was initiated by multilateral financial institutions, resulting in the privatisation of public companies.
In 1999, the Bolivian government privatised the water system of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, and applied that policy nationwide. Over several months, we, the people, fought this policy under the umbrella of The Coalition for the Defence of Water and Life. People mobilised in the streets; the government responded with violence. In April 2000, after days of confrontations, the company was expelled and the law changed. The Water War, as it became known throughout the world, was the first popular victory in 18 years of neoliberalism in Bolivia, and it changed history.
Public management of the water company was then instituted in an attempt to clarify what ‘public’ means. However, our belief that we could manage our water resources better was naïve and mistaken. We couldn’t build a self-managed public company within a global context of privatisation. The Water War became not just about water but about what neoliberalism deprived us of: our right to participate in decision-making.
Throughout Bolivia and Latin America, people are working hard to replace the neoliberal system with new systems of government. Free-market philosophy has such a stranglehold on global economic development that new approaches are thwarted everywhere. We believe that one of our mistakes in re-visioning economic policies is that we always frame a ‘global economy’ when the people are building a different economy, one based on life’s realities, not capital. The media does not report these initiatives, so, they do not ‘exist’ in the formal world, but they are happening nonetheless. We are walking a new path that has many problems, both known and unknown. While we have made mistakes about what could be done, we know that our life of the past 20 years is not the way forward.
Marcela Olivera and Oscar Olivera are water-commons and labour activists based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Oscar is author of ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (South End Press, 2004)
Gambling with social currencies
In November 1999 – at the same time as the awakening of the intelligent multitudes in Seattle – a number of researchers and activists from nine countries gathered in Buenos Aires. They participated in a meeting at which the Latin American Network of Solidarity Socioeconomy (RedLASES) was created. Everyone had come to see how our barter clubs worked, to gain first-hand knowledge of that ‘social currency’ we had created with the (naïve?) intention of steering the fate of desperate entrepeneurship and two-digit unemployment rates towards a radicalisation of democracy…
It is true, we didn’t manage to do it. We were wrong in thinking that capitalism’s paradigm of scarcity could be overcome simply through the abundance represented by the barter fairs with social currencies. We mistook what we thought and believed in for what we needed people to believe in. We forget that Marxian truth that, in a class society, the dominant ideology is that of the dominant class. People wanted to have money in order to have things, to improve their standard of living – a legitimate desire. Without access to the mass media, we invested in academia as a means to diffuse our ideas – never a good bet for new ideas! We ended up fighting over minor questions, when the important thing was to show we were gambling on another model of development, a model which was not at all utopian, if one understood the importance of emitting and distributing another currency. Under pressure to present a ‘model system’, we were slow to absorb lessons coming from other experiences. We failed to convey the systemic dimension of the crisis, and thus the need for a systemic solution. We failed in producing a real-time articulation between the social currency, on the one hand, and other initiatives such as self-managed cooperatives, fair trade and ethical consumption, micro-credit and participatory budgets, on the other.
But to say that we were ‘wrong’ would be even more naïve. We have undertaken an important process of evolution. We have learnt many lessons, and today the micro-credit/social currency nexus is still making history in the everyday lives of many collectively organised enterpreneurs, hand-in-hand with public policy. This is no small feat.
Our strategic gambles for the future lie in showing that solidarity economy will only be the development model that we hope for if we manage to bring together everything that is presently disconnected: self-managed cooperatives, fair trade, responsible consumption, participatory budget-making, solidarity finances and social currencies. We must gamble that social currencies will become an instrument in the radicalisation of democracy; or else they won’t change how we relate to each other in any significant way.
To that end, we have to overcome the cognitive obstacles that arrest the process of social transformation that our time demands. These obstacles include: the lack of comprehension that there is an abundance of available resources – for any purpose and practice – made inaccessible by the artificial scarcity in which we live; our resilient incompetence in finding modes of articulating differences in synergy, accepting the other and their practices as legitimately other; and, our limited concept of responsibility, which we need to abandon so as to recognise that we are always responsible for our part and the whole
Heloisa Primavera teaches at the School of Economics at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is founder of the Latin American Network on Solidarity Socioeconomy (www.redlases.org.ar) and of Colibri, a project that offers training for agents of endogenous development (www.proyectocolibri2008.wordpress.com)
How much is that black swan in the window?
Asked to reflect on how I got it wrong ten years ago, my first thought was to go back to my youthful certainty thirty years ago. Back then Jimmy Carter was US president, and my radical friends and I were sure that he was so far to the right the country couldn’t possibly go any further. There was no way Ronald Reagan could possibly be elected president! We figured Carter would coast to re-election, and then some kind of social democratic quasi-left, probably green, would challenge the Democrat/Republican duopoly in 1984… We got that seriously wrong.
We started Processed World magazine in 1981 and imagined we’d be part of an upheaval of workers at the point of circulation. Bank workers, office temps, claims processors, secretaries and programmers would somehow concur that the work we all did was utterly pointless and self-defeating, and through widespread tactics of disinformation and disruptive sabotage, help scuttle the capitalist system. Wrong again.
Chastened by misdiagnosing the rightward march of US politics, never anticipating the collapse of the USSR or anything big that happened in the past quarter century, I stopped prognosticating long before ten years ago. Still, I went to Seattle for the WTO protests, pretty sure it wouldn’t amount to much, and got that wrong. Afterwards I went to Washington DC for the 2000 IMF/World Bank protests, but didn’t expect it to be too effective – and got that right! I didn’t have high hopes for the new anti- or alter-globalisation movement, even if I was a cautious participant and supporter.
I never expected 9/11 – but when it happened, I wasn’t surprised, and not nearly as horrified as most people I knew. Immediately, I recalled a novel by Harvey Swados, Standing Fast, which follows an ultra-left group (loosely based on CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya’s Johnson-Forest Tendency) from some internecine struggles in 1934 all the way to 1963, when JFK is assassinated. One of its most compelling themes is the function of war in disrupting and dispersing social networks that have become crucial backbones of struggle. When the US entered World War II, a great number of people were in active unions, parties, groupuscules; the war had the effect of taking all those social groups and throwing them in the air like confetti. When they fell to the ground everyone was in a new place: having to start all over again, but on new terrain (geographically, politically and psychologically).
Similarly, in 2001 there was a great deal of ferment globally. Though ‘another world is possible’ was far from a coherent political agenda, it was gathering steam before being temporarily derailed by the recharged imperial belligerence of a wounded beast.
In 2009 global climate change is happening apace, and the Big Crisis of capitalism is here, but it’s not here either. Can capitalism muddle along for another year, another century? It’s easy to say the sky is falling (it probably is), but we can’t know the future. We especially cannot know the efficacy of our own behaviors, our own choices. Without certainty of ‘success’, we still have to engage. History is ours to make, one day, one year, one generation at a time.
Chris Carlsson is a San Francisco-based writer and activist. His most recent book is Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today (AK Press, 2008). www.chriscarlsson.com
Mad dogs and Englishmen
‘We tried that back in the early eighties… It’ll never work… For this reason, this reason and this reason.’ Sometime in the middle of 1998, a few people starting broaching the idea of an action in the heart of London’s financial district. It was easy for us to dismiss the idea. We’d been there and done it. Old cynical heads, we remembered the Stop the City demonstrations of 1983 and ’84 and we pooh-poohed the enthusiasm, the naivety, of younger bodies.
Of course, the ‘Carnival Against Capital’ – ‘J18’ – turned out to be a significant event. In Britain, newspaper headlines screamed ‘anti-capitalist’ and the worldwide demonstrations that day built the momentum for the Seattle shutdown five months later.
Sometimes it’s hard to escape your own shadow. Analysis and past experience provide essential illumination, but they also cast a shadow that distorts or obscures optimism and openness. In particular, ‘sound judgement’ and healthy cynicism can blind you to the fact that situations change. Why was J18 a success, why did it resonate, when Stop the City did not? Because the context had changed: 1999 was not 1983. You can’t step in the same river twice.
The river has flowed some more. We don’t know what the important moments of 2010 or 2011 will be. Events will happen. And events will always exceed analysis. The question is: how will we recognise them? Whilst we’re focused on the potential and contradictions of struggles around climate change, will we appreciate the importance of a refinery workers’ strike – also messy, also full of contradictions? Sometimes you need to suspend your judgement, rein in cynicism. Our analysis always has to remain permeable to events.
In the 1990s members of The Free Association were active in the UK-based Class War Federation. They were part of a faction that tried to dissolve Class War in 1997. They then helped organise MayDay’98, a conference that sought to bring together an older generation of anti-capitalists with the burgeoning radical environmental and counter-globalisation movements in the UK. They write together at: www.freelyassociating.org
The righteousness and ineffectuality of victimhood
Ten years ago we underestimated the power of neoliberal culture and its unconscious impact on our collective self-esteem.
We thought an opening for resistance would create new spaces for trade unions to mobilise and reach beyond defensive and cooperative postures with the bosses. We would embrace and learn from indigenous struggles, from peasants, farmers, the poor, immigrants and refugees. Some barriers would come down. There would be more gender equality in our structures and practices. Strategic planning and a culture of permanent resistance, in whatever form, would result. Hoping that we would take the offensive again and again, I underestimated how reactive we were to remain.
We underestimated how pervasive a culture of victimhood was in our practices. To this day, we spend more time talking about the results and impact of neoliberalism and capitalism than we do confronting, surrounding and isolating it wherever we can. Being a victim is righteous, but it changes little.
This has had an impact on how effectively and honestly we respect different kinds of intelligences, practices and roles for working together in struggle from diverse places. Victimhood ultimately hinders our collective capacity to hear immigrant and refugee voices, to move beyond charitable approaches to a place of real solidarity. In the end, it reproduces the hierarchy that continues to paralyse us with many of the same voices, no matter how well-intentioned, doing the talking. I was wrong about how those precious moments and the different complementary roles we have to play would be celebrated and nurtured.
Love could still fill us up with respect, energy and collectivity; it’s a key ingredient of any true liberation.
Dave Bleakney is National Union Representative of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and was active in Peoples’ Global Action
Muscle and bone
Ten years ago, we were still in the shadow of the fallen Wall, the ‘end of history’. The most radical network to appear at the time called itself ‘Peoples’ Global Action against “free” trade and WTO’. It was the de facto space of coordination for Northern and Southern groups with anti-capitalist instincts, but ‘anti-capitalism’ only became a hallmark in 1999. Even the Zapatistas only called for a revolt against ‘neoliberalism’, not capitalism itself – although their intentions were clear enough to launch a new cycle of struggle worldwide. This timidity wasn’t necessarily ‘wrong’ in context, but shows how ‘wrong’ the political context was at the time.
Today in France the ‘New Anticapitalist Party’ runs successfully in mainstream politics. But how much flesh (not to speak of muscle!) does ‘anti-capitalism’ have on the slogan’s bones? Isn’t it generally still a preamble for social-democratic demands?
Ten years ago, criticisms of neoliberalism were correct, but no one predicted this major crisis. We severely overestimated capitalism. It had put the crisis off so long that even we were doubting our Marx. And now, faced with literally ‘a chance in a lifetime’, we are amazingly unprepared.
And if we’re talking of ‘muscle’, ten years ago most of us thought that our real ideological victories could produce concrete gains and change – radicalise unions, parties, etc. The system revealed itself immensely more rigid, desperate and terrorist than that. Meanwhile, the (Northern) masses remain passive. Perhaps they, or we, are awaiting credible visions and forms of organisation…?
Olivier De Marcellus is a Geneva-based activist and a founder of Peoples’ Global Action
Unpicking Japan’s fabricated homogenous sociality
Japan already experienced a financial meltdown in the mid-1990s. At that time, people realised that every dream they had been given by the post-war regime was entirely bogus, and they began to nurture a deep scepticism of capitalism itself. Since then we have sensed that sooner or later it would also happen on a global scale. But now that it is really happening, we, the anti-capitalists, recognise after the event that we failed to grasp the full implication of that early crack that opened between then and now. We recognise that we missed the chance to act.
First of all, we were still haunted by the failure of the New Lefts, the failure of their authoritarian vanguardism, which ended up destroying the impetus of mass militancy and resulted in a general state of inertia with a stifled pacifism. Such conditions prevented us from developing creative strategies and tactics necessary for drawing the possibilities from the crisis and organising an anti-capitalist sociality in the Japanese context.
Such organising must have multiple dimensions, involving the entirety of our social lives: workplace, school, family, and every stretch of urban space. Most importantly, it cannot happen without undoing the fabricated homogenous sociality of Japan, which is tightly netted and highly controlled by the dominant informatic machine of the state/media conglomerate. With the double financial crises, however, the basis of Japanese sociality – including the secure workplace, decent education, and conventional family hierarchy – is crumbling. Thus the target of our organising should be ex-workers, ex-students and ex-mamas/papas/children ousted/released hereby.
Also crumbling is the myth of Japan as an insular nation consisting of a pure race. This is why we need to build solidarity with migrant workers and a coalition with movements in other East Asian territories. By so doing we must concretise Japan as a borderless archipelago continguous to the Asian continent. The global solidarity which the secluded Japanese movement has long dreamt of can be initiated only along with the revolutionary current of East Asia.
Go Hirasawa and Sabu Kohso are both anti-capitalist activists and members of the editorial collective of the Japanese magazine VOL. They are editing a book about contemporary social movements in Japan for Autonomedia
Beyond the spectacular
In the late ’90s, a movement emerged that was ready to name global capitalism as the enemy and employ large scale mobilising and direct action methods to challenge its agenda. It was not without political limitations but, at its best, it linked with movements of resistance in the oppressed countries and took its fight into communities under attack.
This development provided impetus to many social movements including those fighting poverty. In retrospect, as we reaped the benefits in our organisation, we underestimated the resilience of conservative misleadership in unions and social agencies, and their ability to contain resistance or divert it into safe forms that do not pose a threat to capitalism. ‘The long retreat is over’, we announced in 2001 as we tried to spark a generalised resistance to the hard right-wing Ontario Government of the day. We have gone on fighting and even won victories but, as we watch major unions brokering austerity for workers in the present economic crisis and see networks of NGOs reducing resistance to poverty to polite ‘constructive engagement’ with governments, we need to realise that the mechanisms of containment are a tougher nut to crack than we thought.
Capitalism is in great crisis and the conditions are emerging to challenge it decisively, but a spectacular but relatively thin radicalisation will not be enough. We must advance demands and employ strategies that open up the prospects of creating a real mass movement that rejects the ‘solutions’ of this system and fights for social transformation.
John Clarke has been active with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty since it was formed in 1990. Prior to his involvement in anti-poverty movements, he was active in trade union struggles as a hospital worker in England and as a production worker in Canada
It seems quite a huge request to ask for the mistakes and errors we have made over the past ten years. I won’t assume a speaking role for the socialist left, diverse and fragmented as it is, but here are two points to contribute to the group therapy session.
Expectations were certainly very high. When so many people swarmed across the continent from the UK to Genoa, I saw a movement forming that would be greater and more powerful than anything since way before 1968. That was just two months before 9/11, Globalise Resistance was in its infancy and played a role in mobilising the biggest number of people to an overseas demonstration in the UK’s history, followed two years later by the biggest protest ever in the UK. But the move from issue to issue wasn’t as smooth as perhaps it may have been, the explanations we (as a whole movement) offered explaining the link between the corporate take over of the world and militarism weren’t as strong and as clear as they may have been.
The international demonstrations were certainly inspiring and exciting, and they served to invigorate the movement. But I think we concentrated too much on those mobilisations and didn’t build local groups of self-sustaining activists adequately.
Guy Taylor is a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party and a founder and spokesperson of Globalise Resistance
On multiplicity, decision and the common
Both our strengths and our weaknesses are the product of our world-historical imagination. Without really knowing it, we have inherited the dilemma which, around May 1968, separated the New Social Movements from the old. The latter concentrated on the problem of the central front, thus affirming labour and hence state power. The New Social Movements, on the other hand, placed their trust in the multiplicity of fronts, affirmed the right of non-labour and hence the anti-power of minorities. We think both of these positions together, and thus call ourselves movement of movements. Our weakness is that we have not taken this thought to its conclusion. We do not yet know how what is common to all fronts can be articulated and organised. We do not yet know what the power of anti-power is. The inevitable affirmation of multiplicity obscures the inevitability of a strategic decision.
We have not even understood, that this is in fact our problem, and that we have to solve it. The beginnings of a solution lie in the question of how we can create a party and a state without being simply a party or dissolving into the state.
On this, three suggestions. 1) A real problem is something that has to be solved like a riddle. It entails a moment of grace, hence openness for a result. 2) If there is a dialectic of the three sequential movements, then the point is not their synthesis, but something entirely new, something entirely different. This does not exclude but rather include specific negations. 3) John Holloway articulates not our strength but our weakness and lends philosophical credence to an exaggeration of Zapatismo, rather than trying to make a philosophical contribution to the further development of this important yet limited political innovation.
Thomas Seibert is an activist in ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens) and the Interventionist Left. His latest publication is Krise und Ereignis: Siebenundzwanzig Thesen zum Kommunismus [Crisis and Event: Twenty-Seven Theses on Communism] (VSA-Verlag, 2009)
Natural laws, social systems and the limits to growth
In the 1990s, I thought that climate change, in the following decade, would become further discernable from background climate variability – but would translate into a relatively slow and distant problem for humanity. I thought the current mass extinction of species, the sixth in Earth’s history, would pose more immediate problems for larger numbers of people. It turns out that, like many other scientists and activists, I underestimated both the shorter-term magnitude of the impacts of increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere and the rate at which such changes are taking place. This was, in part, because of pervasive under-predictions of the sheer quantity of fossil fuels that would be burnt globally: current emissions are higher than even the most pessimistic scenarios suggested back then. In addition, we’ve discovered that ecosystems, and the people who depend most directly on them, are actually highly vulnerable to relatively small climatic changes, often with devastating consequences. Conversely, ecosystems appear relatively resilient to the loss of individual species, because other functionally similar ones often fill their roles.
However, there is a grander narrative of how wrong environmental scientists, such as myself, have been over the recent past. We largely gave up talking about the limits to infinite economic growth on a planet of finite material that can be transformed into useable resources – and the limits to the subsequent processing, by the environment, of waste materials generated by their transformation. In 1972 the Club of Rome’s (in)famous Limits to Growth study – the first scientific model spanning economics and the environment – was immediately challenged by free-market economists. This challenge was epitomised by the wager between economist Julian Simon and scientist Paul Ehrlich on the price of metals. Ehrlich bet the price of selected metals would rise as their scarcity increased. Simon, on the other hand, said market mechanisms would cause a fall in prices. And indeed, they fell. The outcome of this wager further aided the ascendance of a neoliberal ideology which held that the intelligence of the market alone could guide social progress around any environmental limits.
Yet, ‘the greatest market failure in history’, is how climate change has famously been described by the ex-World Bank Chief Economist Nicholas Stern. Environmental scientists are now back to where we were in the 1970s, having to argue that limits are real and that safety cannot be found in the invisible hands of laissez-faire economics.
Ehrich lost the wager because he failed to understand that prices are responsive to technological breakthroughs which can increase supply, and demand can alter as new materials can sometimes be substituted if prices rise. Yet, Simon was fundamentally wrong: markets can extend environmental limits but cannot abolish them. In 2008 researcher Graham Turner analysed the real data on economic growth, population, food production and so on, between 1970 and 2000, and compared these with the Club of Rome’s predictions for the same period. Their business-as-usual (‘standard run’) forecasts compare ‘favourably’ with what actually happened in the real world. The bad news is that this model predicts that while economic growth continues through the early 21st century, as does population, and food production keeps pace, there is increasing environmental stress due to long-lived pollutants, leading to a global collapse – drastic economic activity, food production and human population reductions – by the middle of the century, as environmental limits are breached.
Our socio-economic system is constructed by people and doesn’t obey ‘natural laws’ of economics akin to those of physics. However, it is a sub-system within the biosphere, and this certainly does operate according to physical laws. Without a more widespread acknowledgement of these facts, we are likely to soon see the extent to which we can destabilise our societies by ignoring our impacts on the Earth system.
Dr Simon Lewis is a Research Fellow at the Earth and Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds, where he is investigating how humans are changing the Earth’s workings as a system. He is also involved with Climate Camp in the UK
Myths vs. machines to problematise life
I don’t know if the problem was that I was ‘wrong’ as such. I believe it is more the case that I hadn’t made a discovery yet: the revelation of the (common) potency of thought. French philosopher Jacques Ranciére calls it ‘the good news’, and it is certainly an event that presents a break, a cut, a before and after. We truly think when we truly confront our true problems.
Before this encounter, what I was interested in above all were forms of ‘soft propaganda’. The creation of myths – mythopoeisis – was a sort of white magic to oppose to the black magic of the system, its web of images and discourses. In the end, however, it was magic nonetheless, aspiring to cast a spell and enchant; that is, it played on the edge of social engineering. It is no coincidence that the problem then was above all to ‘create movement’. Propaganda assembles, proposes models and solutions, synthesises and simplifies, assigns identities.
Today, I only see strength in a thought that is not a machine of counter-histories, but a machine to problematise life. Propaganda is like a voiceover: it comes from nowhere (however much it may talk about subjectivity). It is a word of pure exteriority. This is exactly why it can’t move, it can’t affect. Only the word of someone who thinks from their own life is believable – a life that always moves on many planes (rather than the cut-up self of activism). This is the word one can truly answer, be responsible for.
Propaganda desires hegemony, it competes. This is why its word generates refusal. Behind it there is always a position accumulating power of representation. The critical word, if it wishes to circulate, must constitute itself as a common place, an empty space that can be infinitely reappropriated, resignified… Ten years later, the question haunts me: what if struggling didn’t have to pass through de-problematising or convincing? What then?
Amador Fernández-Savater was an active participant in some initiatives of the ‘global wave’, such as Indymedia Madrid. Today he investigates new forms of politicisation from different spaces. One place where his current production can be followed is in the Público newspaper: blogs.publico.es/fueradelugar