In preparing a book on anti-corporate globalization and international organizing, I have been interviewing activists around the world. Here are the results an interview with an Australian activist/scholar, Brett Neilson, author of Free Trade in the Bermuda Triangle and Other Tales of Counterglobalization. His words follow…
Watching live stream of police storming the Usine media center in Geneva or television footage of scuffles in the streets Thessaloniki, it feels like the global movement is happening elsewhere. Firmly entrenched in the pro-Iraq war Anglosphere, Australia languishes in a national fantasy as if it existed out of this world-a kind of sanctuary of organic food, unique flora and fauna, and non-SARS infected clean living.
But this national fantasy has material conduits, not simply the quarantine restrictions recently challenged by the EU in the WTO but also the desert Lagers, the offshore detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island, and the floating hulk of the Norwegian tanker MV Tampa, stormed by Australian SAS troops in August 2001 after its rescue of some 438 Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers. Australia’s elsewhere is not an outside.
And the most distinct register of the country’s integration into global circuits of capital and labor is the coercive measures that feed this fantasy of isolation, from the despotic regimes of border control (the new White Australia policy) to the recently passed emergency laws (the USA Patriot Act remade and localized).
Australians are accustomed to the feeling that things are happening elsewhere, which is to say there is no need to provincialize Australia. In no sense is the nation a ‘weak link’ in Empire, rather a case study in the way the operations of network power can be incorporated into the continued effectiveness of the state. Even initiatives involving the dissolution of the state powers and responsibilities (the abandonment of pensions to global financial markets, the rolling back of national health systems, and so on) are undertaken in the name of a pervasive nationalism.
And resistance also often claims the mantle of the nation-state, not necessarily as a bulwark against the ravages of global neoliberalism (although this nostalgia permeates certain sections of the movement) but also as a strategy to forestall criticism at the national scale. As in other contexts, Australian conservatives (of both the left and right) misrepresent the movement as ‘anti-globalization.’ But their more effective claim has been that the movement is anti-Australian-paradoxically a label that many in the movement are happy to accept.
At least since the first explosion of violence at the Melbourne meeting of the World Economic Forum in September 2000, the accusation of un-Australian-ness has been obsessively deployed by the social mainstream, so much so that it has emerged as a point of contention within the movement itself.
What is new about this ‘movement of movements’ is precisely its globality (and this means recognizing the precedents for the contemporary struggle in the global north among the subaltern and decolonization struggles of the former ‘third world’);.
Among anti-systemic movements this is the first that takes the unification of the world not as a finish line but as a starting point. But in different contexts the effort to articulate local and/or national struggles to the global dimension is unevenly expressed, meaning that many sections of the movement remain enclosed within local and/or national realities and largely unchanged from struggles that have dominated since the 1970s (including their outdated models of international solidarity). This is perhaps more the case in Australia than in Europe or the Americas.
Let us take three exemplary episodes: the protests surrounding the Sydney Olympic Games of September 2000, the Woomera breakout of Easter 2002, and the Iraq war protests of early 2003. Each exposes tendencies in the Australian movement, particularly the tensions and overlaps between anti-capitalist protesters, indigenous sovereignty campaigners, and those fighting the ongoing presence of the concentration camps (both in Australia and offshore).
The Olympic protests were a disappointment. Despite months of media rhetoric (and a proliferation of international news stories documenting the dispossession of the indigenous population), Aboriginal protesters distanced themselves from anti-capitalist groups that were planning action against the corporate globalism of the Games and its effects upon the city (gentrification, homelessness, the appropriation of urban spaces by the Olympic movement, the passing of laws allowing military action against civilians).
The indigenous decision (which by no means reflected the tendencies of that entire community) was taken in light of the earlier demonization (by nationalist politicians) of anti-capitalist protesters at the September 2000 Melbourne World Economic Forum as un-Australian. Here was a situation where a group of indigenous activists who make a radical claim of sovereignty against the Australian state paced their activities to the hyperbolic nationalism that dominated during the Olympic Games, choosing not to alienate their struggle from a mainstream ethos obsessed with sport, and the unobstructed flow of traffic through Sydney streets.
But the solidarities between indigenous and anti-capitalist protesters are also often tested from the other side, since those who refuse the myth of national sovereignty as a defense against global capitalism tend to understand the indigenous struggle simply as an attempt to establish another nation-state. One of my projects has involved building dialogue between these groups, an exploration of the continuities and discontinuities between indigenous struggle against constituted powers and the anti-statist stance of autonomous and anarchist militants.
By contrast, the Woomera breakout of Easter 2002 was a moment of bliss. Protesters (many of them associated with the Melbourne group ‘No-one is Illegal’); tore down the fences of this notorious horror hole in the South Australian desert, leading to the escape of 35 refugees. This is undoubtedly the most spectacular act of disobedience that has emerged from the Australian movement, with images splashed across television screens worldwide (not to mention the circulation of activist videos like Holiday Camp).
But the action was not approved by organizations like the Refugee Action Coalition, which opposes the Australian government’s detention policy under cover of international law, human rights, and the (narcissistic) search for a ‘non-embarrassing’ national image. Radical action on the part of the movement was censured for ‘setting back’ the refugee struggle and perpetuating the government’s caricature of opposition to the camps as the folly of extremists.
The Australian movement must constantly struggle with and against national (and nationalist) groups that work within the constitutional frame of the state. This was never clearer than in the context of the Iraq war protests, which attracted the high per capita numbers in Australia but primarily under the compromised slogan ‘Bring the troops home.’ The dominant position here was a reflexive anti-Americanism that elided the culpability of the Australian state, as if the withdrawal of the troops would exonerate the nation and eliminate the need for action.
The Australian situation presents complex questions about the relation of the movement to institutions, the possibility of thinking about institutions in new ways, and the building of concrete agendas to construct another ‘possible world.’ The country is in no sense a pressure point for the movement, although every so often events do explode.
Attempts to establish social centers along Italian lines (such as the Midnight Star Social Center in Sydney) have been smashed by state repression and the question of organization, particularly among autonomist groups, remains an open debate. It is safe to say that there is a stronger streak of anti-authoritarianism in the Australian movement-a suspicion against any form of central representation or leadership. There is also a tendency for activists to refuse the use of theoretical concepts (like ‘the multitude’);-although this is shifting with the appearance of forums such as spectre (www.spectre.cat.org.au).
To operate from Australia and network with militants in Europe, as I have done, is at once to be impressed with their organization and success in orchestrating huge (utopian) events but also to question the tendency of the movement to fashion itself as a lifestyle choice or logo (I purchased a European Social Forum tee-shirt just as if I was at Disneyland-it’s a great conversation starter here in Sydney).
At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that despite the local inflection of global struggles (detention centers here, AIDS anti-retrovirals there, ‘global war’ almost everywhere), there is a commonality of desires, modes of struggle, and even lifestyles that spans the movement. In this way, the movement does present a ‘new principle of reality,’ although one that must constantly struggle against the ubiquitous equation of humanity with state-ness.
* Brett Neilson is lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, where he is also a member of the Centre for Cultural esearch. He is author of Free Trade in the Bermuda Triangle . and Other Tales of Counterglobalization (http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/N/neilson_free.html). Email: [email protected]
* Andrej Grubacic is a historian and social critic, from Belgrade, post-Yugoslavia; author of the book Globalization of the Refusal. He can be reached at [email protected]