What were you wrong about ten years ago?

Ten years after the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, Turbulence invited people from across the global movement to tell us what they were wrong about back then, at t-10. Here, editor Rodrigo Nunes explains the reasoning behind it.

2009 will go down in history as the time of the greatest capitalist crisis in almost a century; it will perhaps also be recorded as the period when the ecological crisis definitively established itself as a widespread concern, even if one that means very different things for different groups. It is also the tenth anniversary of the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, which made of 1999 the year when the ‘anti-’ or ‘alter-globalisation’ movement, or the ‘movement of movements’, or the ‘global wave’ became a visible phenomenon across the world.

Clearly, one of the reasons for the lack of anniversary celebration is the lack of much to celebrate. If anything, the problems highlighted then seem more pressing now, the threats they pose more acute. And while the danger grows, the redeeming power seems to recede. It is symptomatic that, as Olivier de Marcellus says in this issue, ‘faced with literally “the chance of a lifetime”, we are amazingly unprepared’. The mobilisation that was widespread in the years immediately preceding and following Seattle, the wealth of different experiences, the inventiveness, determination and hope of those days seem much weaker now. We are at a moment when it would be tempting to look back on the debates of a decade ago and say that time has proved we were right; the problem is it is difficult to find that ‘we’ from which to speak.

For this issue, Turbulence invited individuals and groups who were active in various ways at the time of the ‘global wave’ to respond to one question: ‘What were you wrong about ten years ago?’ Some have treated this as a question concerning that cycle as a whole, in its global dimension. Others, as one concerning local or national realities, or the practices of certain groups and movements, they were involved in – or even as a truly individual question.

To say ‘active in various ways’ is more than the usual, obligatory reference to the diversity of the social composition of that cycle. It advances one hypothesis about the period: that it was not a movement, but a moment – and that perhaps one of its problems was the confusion between the two. This distinction implies that what happened then was that globalisation itself made it possible, for the first time, for different social forces all over the world to be aware of the simultaneity of their struggles, their overlaps, mutual effects and differences (in terms of immediate targets, tactics, organisational forms, strategic horizons), and communicate in ways that allowed them to both support and learn from each other and converge at common points.

It is not, then, that ‘the movement’ is dead: ‘the movement’ never existed. It was a mirage, produced in a moment of hugely and rapidly increased capacity of communication and coordination, and wide-eyed astonishment at a just-discovered capacity to produce moments of convergence whose collective power was much greater than the sum of its parts. What ended up becoming tagged as a ‘movement’, then – mostly the cycle of summit protests and counter-summits – was nothing but the tip of the iceberg. It was a much deeper, wider web of connections, both direct (as when groups engaged in communication and coordination with each other) and indirect (when a story or experience inspired something somewhere else) that produced those convergences. And these connections existed among initiatives that were sometimes very local, sometimes very different, and sometimes even contradictory.

To speak of a mirage is not to dismiss some very real effects. Every convergence fed back into these initiatives creating and reinforcing connections, and above all strengthening what was most unique about this moment: the fact that it posed itself as global as such. There had been other cycles of struggle that had spread across the world – those of the 1840s and late 1960s, to name only two. What was unique about the cycle that started ten years ago was how the increased potential for exchange and production of commonality resulted in an expanding awareness of the different impacts of neo-liberal globalisation, their interconnectedness, the forms taken by resistance to them, and the ways in which the latter could be placed in relation.

This strength, however, would reveal itself as also a weakness. The ‘we’ of that period became progressively stabilised as corresponding to the ‘we’ of the summit protests and counter-summits. A multitudinous, diverse ‘we’, no doubt, but one which managed to sustain itself largely because of the temporally limited nature of those convergences, their externally, negatively given objects, and the positive feedback produced by their own mediatic, spectacular strength. More problematically, it generated the illusion that what was only the most visible side of what was happening all over the world was effectively the movement – and so treated more and more as the ‘real deal’, an end in itself rather than a strategic tool and a series of tactical moments in what should be the constitution of ‘another world’.

The problem is that it is impossible to inhabit this global dimension as such. Firstly, because such convergences do not a movement make. However crucial it may be to maintain open the potential to focus activity on singular times and places, such potential exists only as a consequence of capacity built at the local level, not as its substitute. Communication at a global level is possible only to the extent that there are active local struggles. Secondly, because privileging convergences often saps resources from local capacity-building, when the point should be precisely that the former reinforce the latter. If they do not, this ultimately means that antagonism, rather than being the necessary other half of building autonomy, replaces it; and in doing so, it loses the grounds on which it can find support.

As a consequence, many made the choice of disengaging from the ‘global’ dimension altogether, directing their energies back to the local level. In other cases, investment in the ‘global’ at the expense of the local would lead to a disconnection between ‘politics’ and ‘life’ (as both Amador Fernandez-Savater and the former members of Precarias a la Deriva describe), with the danger of either burn-out, or a replacement of slow-built consistency for the quicker, wider, but also (often) less sustainable effects of engaging with the media (as Trevor Ngwane points out).

Treated in this way, convergences would end up operating largely on the representational level (even if despite themselves): expressing a dissent that had no way of enforcing itself. This kind of dissent, of course, has some effectiveness in a parliamentary democracy, provided it corresponds to a large enough constituency to constitute a relevant electoral variable. This highlights another reason why the global is uninhabitable, at least for politics’ antagonistic aspect: in itself, it allows little space for strength to be shown or demands to be placed, since there is no-one to directly address.

Of course, as some respondents highlight, there is another, very specific reason why this global dimension would become increasingly inviable: the landscape in which that moment unfolded changed significantly after 9/11 and the onset of the ‘War on Terror’. Not only was the main focus of conflict moved elsewhere – ‘good’ versus ‘rogue’ states, ‘fundamentalism’ versus ‘democracy’, ‘Islam’ versus ‘the West’ -, it was also displaced to a level of confrontation no movements were willing or able to occupy: state apparatus versus ‘terror’.  What is more, the combination of a constantly reinforced atmosphere of alarm, and the spread of legislative and policing measures that crept into all spheres and served to criminalise social movements, had the subjective impact of reinforcing isolation, fear and feelings of impotence. The joy that had been discovered in collective action (even at a distance), and which had been one of the most important glues keeping that moment together, became harder to attain. The hangovers from earlier moments of excess became tinged with darker, more anxious hues.

The criticisms and questions levelled here are retrospective. Speaking of the cycle fizzing out, as though that were purely the result of its internal difficulties, or imagining how things could have been different in other circumstances, might all seem rather speculative. We should be concerned with the present, not the past.

Why, then, ask the question: ‘What were you wrong about?’ Precisely because it is one way to bring out what is distinctive about the present. We must avoid turning the fact that ‘we’ have been confirmed right in so much of our analyses into an opportunity for simply turning back the clock and assuming we must have been right about everything else. The worst possible result of this would be to allow the resurrection of sterile oppositions and false dichotomies, the re-entrenchment of positions and identities, the pre-emption of discussions that need to start again. The return to a ‘we’ whose disappearance (or problematic existence, at the very least) it is necessary to question and work through; whose narcissistic resurrection could eventually ward off the constitution of a new one. In short, everything that could hinder the emergence of a new common ground.

What we are proposing could then, perhaps, be described as a therapeutic exercise: one that enables a collective evaluation of what has changed in our movements and in the world in these past ten years, and opens up the possibility of a new vulnerability that is the pre-condition for new dialogues. In more senses than one, this is an analytic exercise, or the beginning of one. A difficult, but necessary, attempt to transform the work of mourning the struggles of the last decade into a joyful affirmation of the persistence of their promise in the present.

Rodrigo Nunes, philosopher, was doing local organising ten years ago, until he stumbled upon a ‘global movement’ when the World Social Forum moved into his backyard in Porto Alegre. Today he is back in Brazil, after many years in the UK. He is a member of the editorial collective of Turbulence.

This article was published as an Outro to the t-10 series of texts published in Issue 5 of Turbulence.

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