Someone held up a hand-painted red sign over the heads of the crowd at Bockstael square in Brussels. An arrow pointed straight ahead: “Top,” it said the Dutch word for “summit.” Another curved off to the right: “Legal Route,” it read.
It was the direct-action way to ask all the demonstrators to think about what we were actually doing, there on Bockstael square. But when the huge, rolling Oxfam globe with its costumed dancers gesticulating out of the continents finally turned right, everyone just followed without asking too many questions.
And from then on, the whole demonstration seemed scripted in advance. The words “No Red Zone,” also written on the sign, were in vain. Nobody bothered the leaders in their castle.
The protests around the EU summit in the palace of Laeken, Belgium, got huge popular support despite the freezing wind. At least 80 thousand people came out for the union march on December 13, plus another 25 thousand for the “alternative” demo the next day and on Saturday, the anarchists and the Bruxxel street party met to find their own way through the city.
But the union march, which set off on a short and boring straight-line route to finish under huge hanging video screens and a sound system worthy of a football match, was overflowing with painfully reformist slogans like “Europe that’s us.” Yeah, that’s us, dumped like dead leaves whenever there’s a dip in the profit rate.
As for the alternative demonstration organized by a coalition of NGOs and far-left political groups, not only did it take the legal road and veer off towards an uninhabited industrial zone, it also ended up inside a fenced complex reached by a relatively narrow gate, which of course the protestors had to close when the police began provoking them with a water canon.
Result: a few thousand people were forced to submit to the humiliation of “selective searches” just to leave the place where they’d gathered to talk politics, and about 25 were arrested.
Only the street party refused to have its path preordained but even it had to stand still and nervous for an hour, surrounded by legions of state police while local burgermeisters negotiated. The entire series of demonstrations amounted to an object lesson in control and neutralization.
“What do you want?” people kept asking me. “More violence, like in Genoa?” Not at all. We had to avoid a sterile confrontation that could only be used against us, and we did. That’s totally positive. There are no terrorists in the movement for egalitarian, democratic exchanges, and the whole challenge of the Laeken protests was to get beyond the double specter of useless street violence and September 11.
But in a time of increasing popular support in Europe, that doesn’t mean we should just give up all our strength. In Brussels, the different strands of the movement conspired among each other to separate, the better to be identified and controlled by the coercive powers of Belgian/European state.
Unions one day, NGOs and splinter parties the next, freaks and pinks and anarchists on the weekend. What we didn’t have was political solidarity across the whole social spectrum, like in Genoa.
Do you ever get the feeling someone’s watching every move you make? The Rand corporation represents a typically American way of gaining the high ground, by concentrating huge intellectual resources and then openly publishing the results.
They’ve just released a new book on “social netwar,” with a chapter specifically on Seattle, which you can download for nothing (www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1382). The author of chapter 7 claims that no leftist organization has analyzed why N30 was such a great success, but that many law-enforcement and government agencies have done so.
So why were the actions against the WTO in Seattle so powerful? In the broadest terms, because they achieved a kind of contamination between the “normally” separate movements of trade unionists, NGOs and think tanks, and anarchists looking to make direct democracy happen on the street.
That convergence was no accident: it was made possible by the members of the Direct Action Network, who figured out how to non-violently immobilize the Seattle police at a moment when anything could happen, when union marchers could join ecologists to go see where the smoke was coming from (and maybe run into the Black Bloc on the way).
The DAN used precise lock-down and civil disobedience techniques, carried out by trained activists, to produce a strategically designed chaos that was stronger than any order the National Guard could try to “reestablish.”
And on the ground, everyone was sharp enough to see a great chance to actually make a difference, rather than just watching the human and other ecologies get stamped underfoot. In other words, the real activists in Seattle set up the conditions for spontaneous self-organization.
Do we have to leave the Rand corporation on top today? For sure, it’s unlikely that another Seattle is going to fall ripe into our hands. Not just the police but also the politicians have done their homework.
Everything will be done to keep the union marches as far from the anarchists as possible, and special “negotiating tables” (with sleeping pills in the champagne) will be laid for every NGO or union boss gullible enough to think that you get reform without the threat of revolution.
Divide and co-opt when you can, channel and neutralize when you can’t, arrest whatever’s left over: that’s the Belgian solution (I guess Freud would’ve called it “a progress in civilization”).
But if we analyze what their response has been, and make it public, then we can keep turning the tables, again and again, until substantial change starts to appear in a world-system whose dangerous and morbid nature is coming clearer all the time, for instance right now in IMF-battered Argentina.
Ronfeldt and Arquilla (the Rand twins) talk a lot about “swarms.” Means: something a lot like the unpredictable but precisely motivated self-organization of a mass-individual event, like a contemporary demonstration.
Why not be aware of precisely the point where people power is the strongest, and play it to the hilt? First of all, a movement that’s been based from the word go on direct action ought to admire those 50 people who occupied the CEFIC, that is, the European Chemical Industry Council, on December 12.
Brussels is full of lobbies like that: the European Round Table of Industrialists, the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue, UNICE (the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations of Europe) and the whole life of these organizations is a crime against democracy, it’s legitimate that they be closed down immediately.
It’s even more legitimate if union members, ecologists, leftists and anarchists get a flyer or an email explaining exactly what’s going on, while it’s happening, with an address and an arrow on the map.
We can’t fall into the illusion that just having everybody queue up separately on a different day to kiss the shields of the friendly, public-service police is really going to stop the engines of neoliberal globalization. But the people-swarms on the indispensable days of global action can be doubled and tripled by idea- and action-swarms that out-race and out-proliferate the co-optation of those enlightened men who govern us.
So Jospin talks about globalization with a human face? Let’s display the faces of all those French transnational companies laying off people in Brazil while their partner companies cut the work force in Paris and pollute the water in the Bouches-du-Rhone.
So Blair talks about education? Why don’t signs on the street corners compare what it now costs to get through college in Britain, compared to just five years ago? So Aznar’s flunkies mutter about the Moroccans taking away Spanish jobs? Let’s see how many Andalou tomatoes are produced by men and women with on sub-minimum wages, under semi-legal conditions with new papers authorizing exploitation – and let’s talk about the Universal Embassy back in Brussels at the same time.
Traditional governing “strategy” meant looking down from the top on all the fools below, who could be channeled into whatever path the powerful would like to see them take. Networked strategy means the self-coordinated action of intelligent people who refuse their supposed destiny, looking up past the leaders, past the summits, toward a better future.
The danger right now is that the last two or ten years of tremendous effort (depending on who you are) might just vanish into the thin air of that cold night when your little splinter-group finds itself all alone against the police force and their giant tweezers.
Now the powers-that-be think they know exactly how to deal with “the new kids on the black block”: you make some into partners, some into criminals, and just let the others hold their carnivals under surveillance.
But the better future is that we just keep on taking the lead, learning from our own inventions and continuing to risk every kind of crossover, every promising and positive combination, between the religious and ecologist NGOs, the revolutionary networks, the critical think tanks, the leftist workers’ parties, the anarchists and all the people who don’t even want one of those names, or neoliberal globalization either.
We have too much new knowledge at our finger- and tongue-tips to just give into prescripted scenarios. If we develop that knowledge, and share it with our neighbors the way neighbors were talking to neighbors everywhere last week in Brussels then there isn’t any reason why we can’t continue turning the tables on the top-down theory of capitalist globalization.