Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement, Part II
Review by Chuck Morse
What was remarkable about the movement that erupted in Seattle 1999 was not so much that previously adversarial sides of the progressive opposition—the “teamsters and turtles”—had started working together or that old revolutionary flags were flying once again. These things had happened at various times in recent history to no great effect. What was extraordinary was the dialogue that emerged between members of the revolutionary, ideological Left (anarchists and communists) and activists whose primary interest lay in pragmatic, bread-and-butter reforms. These two tendencies have long been divided and often regarded one another suspiciously, but somehow the anti-globalization movement created a political space in which they could come together and jointly imagine a movement that is utopian and yet faithful to the demands of day-to-day activism.
The challenge was to figure out how to hold these dimensions together in one more or less unified movement—how to be realistic and demand the impossible—and activists across the world confronted this challenge with a vigorous campaign of education from below. They held teach-ins, Internet discussions, and sponsored countless other activities designed to flesh out the contours of this compelling new movement. Although their work helped raise the level of discourse among activists immeasurably, the movement’s common principles remained embodied in a sensibility and shared activist experience rather than in clear political statements.
Thus the significance of On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-capitalist Movement and The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization. These anthologies attempt to constitute the anti-globalization movement as a coherent project. They draw upon its history and culture to elaborate its internal cohesiveness, identify its continuities and discontinuities with other political tendencies, and clarify its problems. They reveal a movement that is exciting and dynamic but also struggling with difficult theoretical and political questions. In fact, the future of the anti-globalization movement will be determined to a great extent by our response to many of the issues raised by these books.
On Fire is a short (141 pages) collection of sixteen accounts and analyses of the July 2001 demonstrations against the G8 in Genoa, Italy. The essays were written by members of the most militant, confrontational wing of the protest, and the book’s purpose is “to encourage debate about theory and tactics so as to empower us to take on those who currently are ruling this world.”(1) Although the anthology has no “About the Authors” section (and many essays are signed with only first names), political references in the articles indicate that most of the writers are European (particularly British).
The Battle of Seattle presents a sweeping account of the anti-globalization movement as a whole. The anthology is divided into five parts: the first provides historical and political background on the movement that leapt to world attention in Seattle 1999; the second explores debates that unfolded during and after the Seattle protests (especially over tactics and organization); the third considers the relationship between the protest movement, left-wing advocacy groups, and right-wing anti-globalization tendencies as well as examines the question of racial diversity within the movement (which is also treated in articles throughout the book); part four contains accounts of post-Seattle actions (in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Prague, Genoa, among other places); and part five examines the convergence of diverse theoretical and political tendencies within the movement. The Battle of Seattle shares a distinctly militant orientation with On Fire, yet unlike On Fire, it has deeper roots in the movement’s direct action faction than its explicitly anarchist wing. The majority of the authors in this book are from the United States and some are well-known (such as Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein), although most have little reputation outside activist circles. Surprisingly, there is little repetition or academic jargon in either On Fire or The Battle of Seattle, and almost every contribution offers something unique. These books are also well edited and attractively designed, containing ample photographs and illustrations (and not the same ones that have been floating around the Internet for years).
They do this in two ways. First, virtually all the accounts of the protest insist that the tremendous state violence unleashed on activists undermined neither their humanity nor their indignation against the G8. Indeed, many passages read like therapeutic writing exercises designed to encourage recovery from a terrible trauma:
Entries such as these, which explore the fear and confusion experienced by thousands, reveal that it is possible to persevere amid the savage cruelty that the system imposes on those who resist. Activists show that they were not conquered simply by writing about these traumatic experiences and linking them to larger patterns of social conflict.
The second major point of On Fire is to justify the black bloc’s aggressive tactics, which were often blamed as the source of the police terror. On a practical level, multiple authors give examples of vicious police assaults on nonviolent, unarmed, and sometimes sleeping protesters, thus refuting the claim that the black bloc provoked the police’s sadistic frenzy. They underscore the obvious point that the police initiate violence against those who threaten the powerful, not those who break the law.
Furthermore, in broader terms, numerous contributors contend that the profound existential rage at the system expressed by the black bloc is a constructive, eminently creative part of the movement. As one writer explains, protester violence “illustrates the depth of our discontent, it demonstrates the fact that we reject the state’s ideological policing of our political activity, it indicates that we recognize the fact that unfortunately some level of violent confrontation will have to be had with the wealthy elite if we are going to achieve our goals of a different world to the one they currently control.”(4) In other words, the urge to destroy is also a creative urge.
On Fire demonstrates that activists will not recoil when faced with state terror and that militant rage is a positive contribution to the movement against global capital. They refute those who indict the Black Bloc and redeem its antagonism toward the system as such. They show that despite all the chaos, the Battle of Genoa was a positive moment in the broader project of shaping “a protest movement into a social movement into world revolution for global human community.”(5)
Treatments of the movement’s internal norms and debates attempt to clarify some of the driving issues within the movement, whereas those exploring its external alliances try to sketch out its differences with the official progressive opposition and parallel movements on the Right. Expressions of the movement’s internal identity can be found in essays throughout the book, although the articulation of this theme tends to be more diffuse than others (which makes sense, given that the collection’s purpose is to constitute the movement). Nonetheless, one of the best takes on this question can be found in Eddie Yuen’s introduction. He emphasizes the movement’s commitment to direct democracy and practice of militant direct action, and points out that the movement draws (demographically and culturally) from an overwhelmingly white activist milieu. Efforts to make distinctions between the anti-globalization movement and parallel groups on the Left-liberal spectrum are weaker, although Jim Davis’s essay, “This is What Bureaucracy Looks Like: NGOs and Anti-Capitalism,” is notable for its sharp exploration of the conflict between NGO reformism and the aims of the movement’s more radical wing. Regrettably, there is no critique of the Democratic Party, destructive communist sects like the International Socialist Organization, or academia (On Fire, on the other hand, contains a valuable essay titled “Trots and Liberals,” which focuses on the United Kingdom’s largest authoritarian socialist group, the Socialist Worker’s Party). The treatment of the uncanny parallel between some right-wing groups and the anti-globalization movement is developed most fully in James O’Connor’s essay, “On Populism and the Antiglobalization Movement,” which elaborates the differences between left- and right-wing populism.
Summaries of the movement’s development thus far and attempts to identify its future challenges revolve around a number of related issues. There is a consensus that the movement needs to diversify its membership (particularly in ethnic, but also economic terms) and develop a positive relationship with communities of color that are facing and fighting the weight of the “New World Order.” The anthology not only does a good job of stressing the need for such transformation but also scrutinizes many of the concerns that have emerged during attempts to accomplish it. For instance, Andrew Hsiao discusses efforts made by the Mobilization for Global Justice to reach out to communities of color before the April 2000 protests against the World Bank and IMF in Washington, D.C. (their only paid staff person was directed toward this work), but he also underscores the inadequacy of “outreach”—as opposed to active solidarity—especially considering the striking resurgence of activism among young people of color in recent years around issues such as police brutality, juvenile justice, and the death penalty. Colin Rajah looks at the conflicted relationship between communities of color and the anti-globalization movement, emphasizing paternalistic and “in-group” behavior among white activists, yet frames the discussion in terms of the challenges faced by activists of color. Pol Potlash offers a harrowing account of the unique brutality visited on activists of color by police and fascists alike in his excellent “Infernal Pain in Prague.”
There is also widespread agreement that the movement needs to grow beyond its focus on large, international protests and engage in sustained, transformative community work. The general divide between these two types of organizing is expressed in Juan Gonzalez’s “From Seattle to South Central: What the Movement Needs to do Next,” which highlights the broad disconnect between the anti-globalization movement and the struggles of poor communities in places such as the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles. Several essays mention the student anti-sweatshop movement as a positive example of long-term, non-protest-oriented activism, including Naomi Klein’s “The Vision Thing” and Lisa Featherstone’s “The New Student Movement.” These articles, however, were less than satisfying: the anti-sweatshop movement wants to reduce, but not abolish capitalist exploitation, and hence expresses presuppositions shared by only one part of the anti-globalization movement. Besides, even a decent paying job at the Gap or Nike would be an exercise in alienation: no one should ever have to spend their days making sneakers or T-shirts for rich First Worlders.
Finally, there is a consensus that the movement needs to clarify its relation to politics and the social and political alternatives it advances. Some argue that this clarification should take the form of an avoidance of the big questions; Klein, for one, suggests that the movement’s “true challenge is not finding a vision but rather resisting the urge to settle on one too quickly.”(7) Yuen cautiously disagrees in his post–September 11th prologue to the book: “The prioritizing of tactics over politics must, it seems to me, be reversed at least for the time being.”(8) But others are not hesitant at all; for example, Barbara Epstein points out that the “question of what demands the movement should make . . . has important consequences.”(9) And Stanley Aronowitz states that “while I would not want to see the incipient alliance adopt a sterile ideological framework. . . . I would want to see a vigorous debate over ideas. If anti-capitalism is the leading edge, what are the alternatives?”(10) These articles underscore the importance of the political questions for the movement; unfortunately, they are only touched on rather than thoroughly examined.
But these books also reveal that the movement is unified primarily around a tactical commitment to big protests against organizations such as the World Bank and the use of participatory activist structures. Clearly, this movement does not possess sharply defined political principles, and many of its participants hold deeply contradictory views about how the world should work (from Green Party social democrats, to Marxist-Leninists, to anarchists, to whomever).
Regrettably, these books do little to flesh out political differences in the movement, and in fact, seem designed to cultivate a sense of a common project despite the differences. Both share a focus on demonstrations and this necessarily orients the discussion toward tactical instead of political differences (that is, methods instead of principles). For example, On Fire contains an ample defense of the black bloc, yet virtually no analysis of the anarchist movement’s substantive goals. The Battle of Seattle, which provides a much more sweeping picture of the movement, only touches on the big issues. Indeed, neither anthology contains a serious discussion of the most compelling divide: the division between those who want to democratize global capital and those who want to abolish capitalism as such.
This movement has grown so quickly and become so popular partly because it has embraced a political style that facilitates the evasion of tough political questions. After all, social democrats, anarchists, communists, and various others all agree on the need to build a popular protest movement against global capital. For some, these protests prefigure a larger revolutionary movement; for others, they are merely a form of lobbying. Yet everyone agrees that the protests are a good thing.
Doubtlessly, the anti-globalization movement’s capacity to hold together contradictory political tendencies in a shared project has produced a fruitful discussion among members of the Left that have communicated too infrequently in the past. The dialogue between practical reformers and utopian revolutionaries has been especially productive: the revolutionaries have learned to be more concrete and the reformers have learned to be more far-reaching, and as a result, everyone has developed a richer sense of the possibilities.
Nevertheless, this movement cannot grow unless it confronts the big questions about the social order. For instance, contributors to The Battle of Seattle assert that the movement must diversify its composition, engage in community organizing, and clarify its demands. This is all true, but how should the movement diversify? What type of community organizing should it initiate? What convictions will frame its demands? These questions cannot be answered in a vacuum; they require clear commitments and political principles.
This suggests that the movement is in a contradictory position in which the source of its popularity prevents it from growing and therefore realizing the potentials that made it so popular to begin with. In fact, I think the movement is destined to shrink, and the pertinent question is not whether it will shrink, but how? It can avoid the big political quandaries and degenerate into a marginal and bourgeois clique (perhaps like the Greens). Or it can clarify its political vision and transform its constituency. Should this happen, the revolutionaries will leave if it becomes explicitly social democratic and the social democrats will depart if it becomes explicitly revolutionary. Either way, it will become a smaller though more focused movement.
There is no doubt that the movement has already expanded political discourse and introduced millions to a deep sense of revolutionary possibility. This is a tremendous achievement. However, it is also clear that the movement must confront many difficult questions to sustain and build upon its accomplishments. In many respects the hard work has only just begun.