The Trajectory Of Struggle


Michael Albert


From Seattle to
Quebec, we have grown a steadfast and strong opposition. Thousands of people
turn out in city after city to oppose globalization and corporate power. They
reveal the horrible impact of the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and FTAA. They put
profit-making under fire. Yet I wonder if perhaps we need some mid-course
correction.

We want to
prevent oppressive trade agreements. We want to end the IMF and World Bank. We
want to win new institutions that foster cooperation, equity, self-
management, and solidarity in place of capitalist profit-seeking. To do all
this requires massive movements that combine multiple tactics to raise social
costs sufficiently that elites ultimately give in. We therefore need more
people and wider constituencies to join our anti-globalization (and other)
movements. We need our activities to highlight large events when doing so is
appropriate for growing our movements, but to also emphasize more regional and
local organizing in smaller cities and towns to reach people unable to travel
to LA or Prague or wherever else. Folks are working to achieve all of this,
but they need more help and these trends need greater respect and support.

Even while
celebrating the successes of recent times, we also have to ask: why aren’t our
numbers growing as much as we’d like them to? Why aren’t new constituencies
joining quite as fast as we would like them to? Why aren’t the venues of
activism diversifying even more quickly to local sites in addition to national
focal points? Why is violent conflict crowding out non-violent activity as the
visible and highlighted focus of our efforts?

Part of the
answer is that progress takes time. Another part is that there is, in fact
some very rapid growth—for example, the proliferation of IndyMedia projects
providing alternative local news and analysis that now interactively span
nearly 40 cities in 15 countries. But IndyMedia growth occurs by refining the
involvement of people who are already committed. That’s internal refinement,
not outward enlargement. Similarly, there is steadily improving preparation,
creativity, knowledge, and courage among those who have been demonstrating
most actively. Consider the reports about militants street fighting in Quebec
or about the developing and evolving medic teams. Unlike Seattle, what I have
heard repeatedly about the most militant protestors in Quebec is that, despite
the worst police violence to date, they had solidarity with others, they
defended others, they showed courage and discipline, and thus won support. But
this, too, occurs not based on wide outreach building our movement larger, but
by increasing insights and connections among those already highly involved. We
have to face the fact that from Seattle through Quebec, our demonstrations
have hardly grown at all.

Like a
marathon, movement struggle goes a long distance, requires endurance, and has
to overcome obstacles. A big population is involved and speed of attaining our
ultimate ends matters greatly. But seeking social change is in other respects
not at all like a typical race. With social change, the winning logic
shouldn’t be for those who develop unequally and are “faster” to leave the
slower pack behind and cross a finish line first. To cross alone is to lose.
The only way to win the “social change race” is for everyone to cross
together. The best informed and most committed activists need to stay with the
pack, not break away from it. Their greatest accomplishment is to increase the
whole community’s “speed,” even if it means holding themselves back a bit.

I am concerned
that along with a stupendous achievement in birthing an anti- globalization
movement, we may have a developing disconnection between many of our most
informed activists and the bulk of people who are dissatisfied with the status
quo but inactive or just beginning to become active. This induces some of us
to interact fantastically well with one another, even having our own
supportive subculture, but to lose touch with others who then become
long-distance spectators.

I am not saying
that this disconnection is a done deal. It isn’t. But I do think it is a
difficulty that we need to address. On college campuses the division is easy
to see. As compared to their schoolmates, committed activists look entirely
different, have overwhelmingly different tastes and preferences, talk
differently, and worst are largely insulated from rather than immersed in the
larger population. The situation exists in communities as well.


Lots of factors
contribute to such disconnections, of course. One factor that is particularly
relevant for our anti-globalization movement is that over the months since
Seattle dissent has come to mean traveling long distances, staying in
difficult circumstances, taking to the streets in ever more militant actions
that highlight civil disobedience and street fighting, and risking arrest and
severe mistreatment. This is partly due to how the mainstream media covers our
efforts, but it is partly due to our choices, as well.

Regardless of
what we may think about different tactical options, being prepared to be
clubbed, gassed, rubber-bullet shot, and jailed is a lot to ask of people at
any time, much less at their first entry into activism. And consider people
who are in their 30s or older, people who often have pressing family
responsibilities, people who hold jobs and need to keep them for fear of
disastrous consequences for their families. How many such people are likely to
join a demonstration that demands great mobility and involves high risks of
brutality, and to do so, no less, as their initial step in becoming activist?

The irony here
is that the efficacy of civil disobedience and other militant tactics—however
great or little one thinks it may be—is certainly not something cosmic or a
priori. It resides, instead, in the connection between such militant
activities and a growing movement of dissidents, many unable to join the most
militant tactics but supporting their logic and moving in that direction. What
gives civil disobedience and other militant manifestations the power to force
elites to submit to our demands is not the immediate militancy, but the fear
of more widespread activism. If there is no larger, visible, supporting
dissident community from which the ranks of those sitting-in or battling will
be replenished and grow, then there is no serious threat of increasing
activism.

Plateaued
dissent is an annoyance that the state can control with clean-up crews or
repression. In contrast, dissent that keeps growing is more threatening and
thus more powerful. Civil disobedience involving a few thousand people, with
10 or 20 times as many at associated massive rallies and marches, and with all
these going back to organize still larger local events, gives elites a very
dangerous dynamic to address. Through personal encounters, print, audio, and
video, teach-ins, rallies, and marches not only are experienced activists
continually refining and enlarging their commitment, but new people are moving
from lack of knowledge to more knowledge and from rejecting demonstrating to
supporting it and, when circumstances permit, to joining it.

If the state
can create an image in which the only people who come to demonstrate are those
who are prepared to deal with gas, clubs, and rubber bullets, then we are not
going to find parents with young babies, elderly folks, young adults kept away
from danger by concerned parents, or average working people unable to risk an
unpredictable time away from work. Add to that the difficulty of attending
national rallies and insufficient means to manifest one’s concerns and develop
one’s allegiances locally, and the movement is pushed toward a plateau
condition. Add to that the movement’s most committed members becoming slowly
more focused not on communicating analysis and goals to wider audiences, but
on discussing street tactics and police methods which others have no useful
comprehension of and are often scared by—and the problem intensifies. Under
the pressure of preparing for and dealing with ugly repression, activists get
caught up in the notion that it is the proximate battle that matters most, and
even caught up in an escalating choice of tactics that dissociates them from
non-violence, forgetting that the police can always trump our militancy
(though they can never trump our numbers), and the problem becomes acute.


Consider an
example. The Internet is a powerful tool, useful in many ways. But mostly we
are communicating with people who come to our sites and participate in our
lists because they are already part of our movement. How else would they know
where to find us? This is similar to what occurs with a print periodical or a
radio show. Only those who subscribe or who already want to hear what we have
to say find us. Don’t get me wrong. This is very good—and I have spent a lot
of my life working on such efforts of advancing our own insights, solidarity,
and commitment. The trouble is, this approach can result in a lead group
largely distancing itself from the constituencies who we most need to
communicate with and learn from.

Another kind of
organizing reaches people who differ with us. This is what is going on when we
hand out leaflets or do agitprop and guerilla theatre in public places. It is
what happens when we hold public rallies or teach-ins and we go door to door
in our neighborhoods or on our campuses, urging, cajoling, and even pressuring
folks to come to the events. This is what happens when we make those events
welcome to new people, rather than gearing them to the interests of veterans.
Even more important, this is what is going on when we go out of our way to
engage new people in conversation, debate, and exploration of the issues at
hand, at every plausible opportunity. This face-to-face interaction with
people who disagree with us is at the heart of movement building. It is harder
and scarier than communicating with those who share our views, of course, but
it is certainly equally important to do. We won’t and can’t all prioritize
this type of outreach—for it isn’t the only thing that needs doing—but we
can’t all not do it.

If we build our
demonstrations in ways that make us steadily less disposed and less able to do
this kind of outreach to new people, we are on a downhill track. Suppose, for
example, that we are on a major campus like the football-focused one in State
College, Pennsylvania that I recently spoke at. If our core campus movement of
a hundred activists is so constructed and oriented that we spend almost all
our time relating to one another socially and politically, to people very like
ourselves, and almost none of our time going into sports bars and
fraternities/sororities and all the other campus venues where 40,000 other
students congregate, then no matter how insightful and courageous and
committed we may be, how are we going to build a majority project? Of course
it takes great courage, commitment, and knowledge to become radical on such a
campus. Of course it is exemplary to make sacrifices in order to work for and
go to demonstrations miles and miles away, whether in Quebec or Washington DC.
But there is another step necessary in movement building and it also takes
courage and is also exemplary. We need to become adept at going into those
local sports bars or fraternity/sororities, or neighborhood social clubs, or
religious centers and starting a conversation, over and over, with the people
we need to win over to our movement.

It doesn’t end
at that. To the extent that outreach and consciousness raising is going to
entice and retain new people in our movements, it has to offer them ways to
maintain contact with activism and sustain and grow their initial interest. If
the end point of a face-to-face conversation about the IMF, for example, is
that we urge someone to travel 500 or 1,000 or 5,000 miles to a demonstration,
to sleep on a floor, and to take to the streets to be gassed and to face
arrest, then there is no way that these new people can retain contact with the
committed activist community that has piqued their dissident interest. Thus,
without mechanisms that not only reach out, but also preserve and enlarge
outreach’s initial impact, new folks won’t take hold in our movement.

The point to
keep foremost in our minds is that we are not fighting a little battle that a
small army of dissent can win. We don’t need to eliminate militant tactics.
Far from it. But we do need to be sure that they are used only at the right
time, in the right venues, and that they don’t drown out other equally
important projects able to welcome and incorporate larger numbers of
activists. We do need to give our militant activities greater meaning and
strength by incorporating more outreach with more local events and activities
that have more diverse and introductory levels of participation. We need to
spend more time clarifying issues, goals, and the logic of our activity to new
audiences who don’t yet agree with us.

Finally, there
is the matter of violence. Militant civil disobedience is one thing and
likewise for all manner of creative non-violent dissent. Throwing back tear
gas canisters or ripping down fences and other obstacles is also perfectly
warranted, depending on circumstances. Even destroying property has its place.
But hurling paving stones and Molotov cocktails at cops is an escalation
without a destination. It undercuts communication of issue content. It
provides pretext for further and unlimited violent escalation by police, which
in turn forestalls participation by folks not ready for or not supportive of
this type of conflict. It gives rationale for long jail terms. The issue isn’t
courage in this choice. It doesn’t take more courage to hurl things at cops
and run than it takes to sit and block access routes. The issue isn’t personal
damage to the powers that be. They aren’t on the field of engagement. The
issue isn’t tactical creativity, which hurling things at people tends to trump
and vitiate. What counts is growing numbers of involved and committed
activists spreading dissent, and choices that mitigate that possibility not
only don’t add to social costs for elites, they help elites act to reduce
those costs.


Politics is not
about the rage of a few manifested in ways that reduce overall effectivity.
Militancy, yes. Creative obstruction, yes. Even self-defense, even property
damage. All this has a place, properly utilized. But a relative few people
physically attacking police and thereby engendering all kinds of negative
dynamics, however understandable it may be in context, is not productive.

Our current
trajectory of struggle didn’t start in Seattle. It won’t end in Quebec. It
most immediately needs to get much bigger and more connected. If that happens,
and there is every evidence that it can, then militancy will grow as well, but
far more productively than otherwise.                     Z

Michael Albert is an activist, author of numerous books on participatory
economics, a co-founder of South End Press, and founder and staff member of Z,
Inc.