“EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED. NOTHING HAS CHANGED.” I cannot say how many times I’ve heard that sentiment expressed by leftists since September 11. We all know it. The elites’ aspirations are exactly the same as before. They have found a way to use September 11 to their advantage, to accelerate already-held plans for increased global hegemony — economic, military, political, and cultural.
The social climate in which our struggle takes place has changed, for both better and worse. Everyday people are more interested in the goings-on of the world in which they live than at any time in recent memory. That’s good. Suppression of viewpoints and repression of active dissent are on the rise. That’s bad.
Nevertheless, we have seemingly let the latter, negative changes interfere with our ability to take advantage of the one positive effect of these terrible events and their frightening aftermath. Society has finally woken up to the fact that there is an entire world beyond our borders, and the elites were there to serve everyone breakfast in the form of CNN’s regurgitation of State Department propaganda. The Pentagon and the American Red Cross were there to show us all that we could “do something” to “heal” the world.
Well, break time is over. The world has not changed all that much. The adversary’s goals and methods are almost identical. They are moving ahead with their hegemonic aims. It’s time for us to rejoin the fight where we left off.
The changing social climate means our strategies and tactics may need some adjustment. But that’s perfect, because they needed adjustment anyway. Now is our opportunity to reevaluate them, and reinvigorate them. So let’s take a long, hard look at our movement, and let’s rebuild it. Now.
I first wrote the remainder of this essay prior to September 11, based on a lecture I gave in June. I have read and reread it, and even rewritten parts of it. But the fact is, the criticisms and suggestions I present here with regard to the anti-capitalist globalization movement have not changed at all as a result of the terrorist attacks or the “War on Terror.”
Movement Definitions and Context (Global)
EVERYONE KNOWS IT, BUT MOST OF US don’t really know what it’s supposed to look like: The anti-capitalist globalization movement needs to be a grassroots effort at broad-based economic change which takes people, the environment, and cultures into account as primary concerns of trade and investment policy.
The term “anti-capitalist globalization” is my preferred label for the movement, because it forms a relevant double entendre. Our movement is against capitalist globalization — it is profoundly anti-capitalist. At the same time, it is a movement for globalization — it is internationalist.
If we always mention that we are anti-capitalist, we stand a chance of recognizing that all resistance to capitalism, and all promotion of radically alternative economic methods and systems, are in turn opposed to capitalist globalization.
And if we avoid calling our stance anti-globalization (since we’re only against a particular version of globalization), we acknowledge that we operate in a certain global context. We recognize that the world is in fact a globe. This has been undeniable since the time of Columbus, who set the stage for globalization. Now that the world is truly connected across borders in so many ways, we shouldn’t deny reality. An internationalist perspective is our only hope at this juncture. North American leftists cannot afford an attitude that doesn’t recognize our collective responsibility for helping to repair the world our society has played such a major role in ruining. This is commonly understood by most of the anti-capitalist globalization movement — but you wouldn’t know it from the way we often behave.
Finally, our perception of the anti-capitalist globalization movement must be that it is a global movement, of which North Americans form a crucial but not all-important component. It is the height of arrogance to suggest we are the center of the movement. Despite all the lip service among European and North American leftists about our recognition of noble struggles throughout the Third World, reality is we haven’t demonstrated that we really give a fuck about the movements in the global South. We have all but forgotten the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, let alone the other movements against capitalist globalization that truly define our social context.
Case in point: Last summer, four demonstrators in Papua New Guinea were killed by police during a protest against the International Monetary Fund. Most leftists I talk to don’t know that event took place. There were blurbs here and there, but the U.S. alternative media covered it little more than did the mainstream press. The victims’ names appeared virtually nowhere. Less than a month later, an Italian protestor was shot dead by paramilitaries during the G8 demonstrations in Genoa, Italy. His name, Carlo Guiliani, resonates throughout the movement. He has been regularly called the first martyr of the anti-globalization struggle by naÃ¯ve and arrogant “radical” reporters.
In reality, thousands of activists have been martyred in the struggle against capitalist globalization. They are union organizers, teachers, guerillas, clergy, and everyday peasants who cried “Enough is enough!” But who’s name do we remember? The white kid from the First World country. Our global blinders are on, and it should be an embarrassment.
Movement Context (Historical)
OUR HISTORICAL BLINDERS ARE ALSO WELL-AFFIXED. The slogan leading up to the FTAA protests of April, 2001 said, “It didn’t start with Seattle, it won’t end with Quebec.” But how many of us truly understand that this struggle predates our avid participation in it? Many North Americans and Europeans were awakened to capitalist globalization — which was then called “neoliberalism” — when the Zapatistas chose January 1, 1994, to punctuate indigenous Mexicans’ opposition to NAFTA and to assert their own humanity. Some of us had organized against NAFTA, yet we had not realized the global context of the struggle — much less the historical context — until a few thousand Mayans took it upon themselves to shake the world. But the vibrations have since dissipated. Caught up in our own activities, we once again fail to see our struggle in the larger historical context.
True, Seattle sparked the most recent incarnation of the movement here in the global North. But we were way behind the times. In our self-centeredness, we continue to fail at learning the lessons of those who came before us. Our post-Seattle attempts have been mostly superficial, at best, more mimic than any actual reflection of having learned real lessons. Who better to learn from than the Zapatistas, who base their campaign on the heritage of five centuries of rebellion, and on a culture which promotes democracy and participation? Most North Americans have nothing of that sort to speak of, yet we remain isolated in our arrogance.
OF COURSE, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES HERE have precisely that heritage. But, again, we don’t give the impression that we care.
In spring, 2001, the Mohawk Warrior Society offered to ensure a relatively open Canadian border at the Akwasasne Reservation crossing so U.S. activists could pass, en masse, into Canada to take part in the anti-FTAA demonstrations. False sentiments of solidarity with the Mohawk people permeated the white American attitude at the event. One couldn’t help but wonder if even 5 percent of the people who intended to take advantage of the Mohawk offer would have attended a Mohawk demonstration at Akwasasne had it not been conveniently on the way to a bigger, more spectacular, white-organized event against a huge summit of elites. In the end, that query was answered. Hundreds of U.S. activists turned back in tune with a perplexing decision made the night before that if Canada Customs denied entry to a single activist, all would leave in protest. This perversion of “solidarity” with one another was a spit in the face to Mohawk Warriors who had worked tirelessly to enable a safe crossing into Canada, and it was a gift to the Canadian customs and immigration services.
In the fall of 2001, Colorado AIM, in coalition with an impressive list of grassroots organizations, put out a call for activists to attend demonstrations against the celebration of Columbus Day in Denver. The white component of the anti-capitalist globalization movement ignored the call. At least two popular left websites neglected, after persistent requests, to so much as list the Denver event alongside white-organized summit protests enjoying prominent promotion on their front pages.
For all our rhetoric about cultural diversity and international solidarity, the white Left really has not learned the lessons of past movements, regularly divided by racism and white chauvinism. We constantly wonder aloud, “Why aren’t there more people of color in our movement?” Meanwhile, people of color aren’t wondering where the white people are when it comes to addressing the issues important to them, because they know exactly where we are. We’re saving the world, one globe at a time.
So what are the issues important to people of color and poor people? Why don’t activists of color seem interested in the anti-capitalist globalization movement?
Capitalist globalization is seen by many nitty-gritty activists as abstract, far removed from the day-to-day struggles taking place in communities and workplaces throughout the country. Like those of us who’ve devoted significant energy struggling against the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and various free trade agreements, community activists recognize capitalist globalization for what it is: an ally and a weapon of their adversaries in government and big business. Still, those same activists and organizers know that despite the looming specter of neoliberal financial institutions and policies, the struggle in the neighborhoods, farms and factories continues as ever — and it must be attended to. If anything, they perceive many of us as having abandoned those day-to-day struggles in favor of the new, sexy, trendy movement of the moment.
There’s only one way to demonstrate our commitment to tangible “bread-and-butter” issues to all the activists who stay home while some of us go summit hopping — we have to become and/or stay involved in those everyday conflicts whose perpetrators don’t meet in high-profile summits. We have to continue to take on the mid-level bosses, the landlords and the bureaucrats.
Let’s face it, opposing capitalist globalization does not make much of a dent in all those struggles we have known and cared about since long before Bretton Woods redefined global economics. Our best hope is to keep those struggles from becoming harder to fight. And for that reason, we know we must continue to fight the globalization of capitalist exploitation and misery in all its forms. But we should recognize that struggling against the capitalists and politicians on the home front, in all the ways we always have (while bringing to that battle lessons learned from the anti-capitalist globalization movement), does indeed contribute to the fight against capitalist globalization.
Activists focused on community, labor and environmental issues need to see that they have not been abandoned. If this new movement is growing in terms of the numbers of people willing to hit the streets at major, international actions, but not in terms of the numbers of people becoming involved in practical issues in their hometowns — then we have indeed failed ourselves. Most people’s primary concern is not this or that new trade policy, but a new racist domestic policy, or a new anti-union law. We shouldn’t patronizingly nod our head in recognition of the priority of such concerns on some people’s parts, meanwhile thinking to ourselves that the real issue of the moment is capitalist globalization. Instead, we should recognize and admit that globalization is at best an outgrowth of other oppressions, and that fighting those oppressions — albeit on less-than-sexy battlefields — is the appropriate priority for most of us, not just for those underprivileged enough to suffer from less abstract forms of social wrongdoing.
Perhaps, then, when people of color and working class folks see that anti-capitalist globalization activists are not removed from the real world, but instead are primarily immersed in the everyday concerns of everyday people, they will be more interested in struggling explicitly against neoliberalism. Then again, maybe they won’t — in which case their priorities will still be very much in order, and we’ll need to continue attending to issues of immediate concern to our and their communities. The point is, paying attention to bread-and-butter struggles at home is not a recruitment ploy — it’s actually an integral part of the movement against capitalism, and thus against capitalist globalization.
As if the ignorance and arrogance of those dominating the character of the current movement were not enough to repulse poor people, we have found other ways to alienate them. For starters, we’ve based accredited membership in the movement on presence at and participation in protests which are geographically inaccessible to people of limited financial means. This is especially relevant for those holding down full-time jobs and raising families. Additionally, whatever one’s view of the ethical and public relations aspects of increasing violence and legal ramifications of today’s protests, it’s hard to deny that these conditions serve as greater deterrents to those for whom police confrontation poses more severe repercussions, and for whom it is indeed an ominous part of daily life anyway.
We need to recognize new forms of valid participation in our movement. But, again, such efforts should not amount to privileged activists finding token means of incorporating working class folks into “our movement.” The preferred approach would be to actually acknowledge the typically less-visible (but at least as valuable) contributions of those who tend to hold down the fort while the self-proclaimed global revolutionaries are off fighting cops and shouting at delegates.
FIRST RUNNER UP in reasons more people aren’t turned on by our movement may be its lack of clearly defined and widely-articulated alternatives to capitalist methods. Many people have put forth ideas for alternative approaches to international trade — from highly-internationalist, radically-conceived institutions and policies prejudiced for poorer countries rather than against them; to weak and modest reform goals aimed at altering the policies, but notably not the makeup, of existing international institutions.
The reformist goals aren’t attractive to most people. If convincing someone that neoliberal policies are horrible, and the institutions which promote and facilitate them devious in intent, is a prerequisite of turning people against capitalist globalization; then suggesting moderate alternatives which leave the institutional perpetrators essentially intact is not going to float. Most people recognize that real change isn’t going to come about through a less insensitive WTO, nor a more humane IMF/World Bank.
This type of understanding — that radical change is the only viable solution — has perhaps never before been so widely acknowledged as truism throughout an entire movement, as currently seems to be the case. In the active circles of the anti-globalization movement, the radicals outnumber the reformists many-fold.
Why, then, do the radicals, who favor the abolition of the WTO, WB and IMF, not explicitly espouse what we are actually for in anything resembling a common statement or a visible presentation? Certainly there are and always will be disputes as to the best approaches. But several good ideas have been set forth (see, for instance, Michael Albert’s proposals in Z Magazine (10/01), or those described in Globalization from Below (Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, Brendan Smith; South End Press; 2000).
Any radical vision for international trade structures and policies will necessarily be based on an understanding that capitalist systems are unlikely to produce, let alone be able to participate in, a truly revolutionary global economy. Therefore, in addition to presenting our visionary alternatives for world trade and international aid systems, we need to lay out viable alternatives to capitalism itself. If the root of capitalist globalization is, in fact, market capitalism, then a real alternative to market capitalism is needed. If we cannot present such an alternative, or if we rely on half-baked and half-assed visions, we should not expect to convince people that this struggle is worth the effort. The ends must validate the means.
This essay is not the forum for articulating visions — but at this juncture, it would seem, we haven’t suitably provided ourselves such a forum. Without the ability to present clear alternatives, we shouldn’t expect many more people to get excited about protest. There’s just so far any movement can go without knowing where it’s headed. And angry protest will only fuel a movement just so far
SHORT OF OUR EVENTUAL VISIONS, we need to know what our immediate goals are while out in the streets or, better yet, going door-to-door or speaking at neighborhood and other group meetings. What are we after this year or next year?
Lest we get ahead of ourselves, I suggest our primary objective at this point should be outreach. We are still at the stage where many, many more people need to become informed, inspired and active before we can hope to make significant gains against the fast-expanding forces of capitalist globalization. Many constituencies haven’t been reached at all, and many more haven’t been shown ways to get involved in the struggle. Everything from demonstrations to teach-ins to everyday conversation is a necessary medium for drawing more and more people into the folds of our movement.
In addition to outreach, we need more in-reach. The movement is in its infancy here in North America, and we’re thus still at a stage where our knowledge and skills leave much to be desired — and achieved. This we must continue to admit and attempt to remedy.
Finally, other short-term goals should include directly resisting and impeding capitalist globalization’s barely-bounded growth. Our presence can’t simply be to attract more people to join that presence itself. Part of attracting them, in fact, will be demonstrating not just our opposition, but our ability to affect it in such ways that we are a real nuisance and a definite hindrance to our adversaries. We must continue to beat them in the eyes of the public, but we must also continue to drive them to retreat. If we can’t shut down their meetings, we must pressure the politicians and NGOs whose acquiescence they require. We must raise the costs of continuing down the current path until they exceed the perceived benefits of free trade, exploitative lending practices and structural adjustment programs. And we need to attack new, more stationary targets with the same vigor with which we besiege global summits. Only then will we stand a chance of implementing whatever visions we come to agree on.
BUT HOW DO WE GET FROM HERE TO THERE? How do we achieve our short-term goals? And how do we accomplish them in ways consistent with our long- term visions?
Our presence in the street at global summits must continue. It inspires not only those who hear about the goings-on through various news outlets, but it also inspires those of us who’ve already been around awhile. The demos are indispensable at this point, to be sure.
But major demonstrations are also a very limited tool. They may frighten elites, but only moderately. Massive street actions scare them to different venues, but not to different policies. And, indeed, regardless of the tactics we employ at demos, their range of appeal is decidedly limited in terms of who they’ll actually attract.
Many people, quite understandably, require face-to-face interaction and direct engagement before an issue really makes sense to them, or truly hits home. We must always follow up our boisterous street activities with down-to-earth dialog in venues more amenable to most people’s comforts. This is where the hard work comes in. It is the work that will not impress those focused on the spectacle of street action, nor make exciting stories to tell the grandkids (or your new love interest). Once we realize that high-profile demonstrations are more self-benefiting than movement-building, we come to understand the need for outreach in everyday life.
So we need to bring the street battles home, in a sense, to our own neighborhoods (with a minimum of the actual melee that now characterizes modern protest). We need local demonstrations, but we also need to create numerous other forms of anti-capitalist presence in our communities. The act of supporting all forms of anti-capitalist organizing — be it of a radical or reform nature — is an integral aspect of anti-capitalist globalization strategy itself.
SINCE LONG BEFORE THE SEATTLE ACTIONS OF FALL, 1999, a debate has raged over “violent” vs. “nonviolent” tactics. When the Zapatistas rose up in armed struggle against the Mexican government in 1994, there was not much discussion in North American leftist circles regarding Zapatista ethics. It was understood that the EZLN consisted of super-oppressed peoples who had exhausted other means of resistance, and were using moderate forms of violence as a last-ditch effort.
However, the vast majority of North Americans are not in the same conundrum as the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico. We are desperate — some more so than others — but we have not exhausted all options. Notably, we have also not even discussed armed struggle with a straight face.
Some elements of our movement have, though, engaged in various forms of violence. On occasion, this violence has not even been in direct self-defense. During rare instances, protestors have instigated violence in police encounters by literally throwing the first stone.
And so, the debate continues: are violent tactics acceptable? Do they further our aims? Do they turn people on or off to our movement? None of the answers are whole truths. Recognizing this, some people have begun to support a concept known as “diversity of tactics.” Quite often, though, that phrase has been used as a euphemism by those who support only tactics which are highly militant and confrontational, including property destruction or violence against agents of the state. Recognizing this, “diversity of tactics” has been maligned by pacifists who consider it a euphemism for mayhem. Nevertheless, the true spirit of diversity of tactics has for a while now seemed the only sensible stance for our movement to take. We should all tolerate each other’s tactical preferences — even when they seem insane or nonsensical — so long as the implementation of any such tactic does not interfere with that of any other performed by allied groups. Easier said than done, but still the ideal we must aspire toward respecting.
This debate has been compounded somewhat by the post-September 11 political climate. There is growing concern that militant resistance to the status quo is much less likely to be tolerated by the public or the state now that the U.S. is leading a so-called “War on Terrorism.” Being seen as even remotely terrorist will be highly problematic to our movement and its members.
FOR THE PAST COUPLE OF YEARS, my involvement in anti- capitalist globalization street protests has been as a street medic providing emergency first aid to demonstrators injured by police violence. In that capacity, I have had the opportunity to meet some interesting people — ordinary activists placed in terrifying circumstances. My patients have often inspired me. Despite personal suffering, instead of asking about their condition, “how bad is it?”, the overwhelming majority of activists being treated by medics simply want to know when they can return to the action. They are brave and committed, very much unlike their typical portrayal in the media as spoiled brats itching to raise hell before it’s time to sell out.
In Quebec City last April, I encountered a young “Black Bloc” activist named “Cabbage,” who had been beaten over the head by a riot cop, resulting in a torn earlobe, a nasty gash across his scalp, and quite possibly a skull fracture. As battered as he was, this young radical insisted he was going to return to the front lines to confront the police. During a physical examination, I discovered Cabbage had sustained several nasty bruises from plastic bullets during the previous days’ activities. Although this young radical had been wounded on two separate occasions, he wasn’t ready to quit.
It’s difficult to resist wondering if all the suffering I see as a medic is really worthwhile. Sure, it often radicalizes the victims, who tend to increase their commitment rather than shy away (it surely has the opposite effect on some, too). But in the end, is it achieving anything? There is some glory inherent in directly clashing with those who protect elites and elite interests, but it’s quite limited. Street fighting involves significant losses, and it distracts both activists and the public at large from the real issues of wealth and privilege which we need to address. (And we have trouble understanding why those marching under the anti-capitalist globalization banner aren’t more diversely representative of the populace, as we misdirect our energy against the guardians of elites instead of elites themselves, and pay a price so many cannot afford.)
Not so glorious is the job of actually articulating complex viewpoints on topics like political economy and global trade — not in journals or position papers, but in social settings where we can influence and learn from the perspectives of people outside our normal milieu. Far less spectacular than the street battle is the comparatively invisible conflict of working day in and day out to build the institutions which make real-world economic change in our communities and between societies.
If we can take the courage that so many of us carry into the streets each time a summit of world leaders/corporate delegates is held, and channel it toward work that really contributes to changing the world in tangible ways, then we will be onto something. But if our protest movement remains just that — a movement based on successive demonstrations but little change in people’s economic lives — we’ll accomplish little more than modest consciousness raising. If we can fight capitalism and capitalist globalization at the same time, why focus primarily on the latter and isolate ourselves from the people most in need of change?
If there were more people with the dedication and passion of someone like Cabbage actually working for change outside of the summit circuit, there would be no reason to believe anything can stop us from transforming the world.