Given the USA’s unique imperial status in today’s world, the reelection of George W. Bush inevitably has global as well as domestic implications, the direst of which is the readiness and indeed commitment on the part of all three wings of the U.S. Republican Party – the military hawks, the free marketers and the social conservatives – to rely on the state’s monopoly of the means of violence to impose their version of social order. There were plenty of signs even before the end of the 20th century that the contradictions of imperialism and neoliberalism would increasingly incline capitalist states in this direction. But under the shadow of the events of 9/11, this was accelerated, with the
It must not be forgotten, however, that the 21st century not only opened with the victory of the Right marked by George W. Bush’s inauguration in January 2001: the new global justice movement’s remarkable ascendance on the Left reached its peak at the same time. The first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil also took place in January 2001, and was quickly followed by the massive protests in Quebec City in April and in Genoa in July, which carried forward the spirit of the galvanizing protest at World Trade Organization’s ill-fated ministerial meeting in Seattle in November 1999, followed by those at the spring meeting of the World Bank and IMF in Washington, D.C., in April 2000]; the World Economic Forum’s gathering in Melbourne on
September 11th, it was immediately said, changed everything. However true or not this may be, it certainly brought home to Americans in a horrible manner that the contradictions of ruling the world are great. And these contradictions were soon measured in the effects that the
Those activists in Quebec City and Genoa who in the months before 9/11 engaged in practices oriented to breaking through the police lines and fences behind which the rich and powerful gathered, or who threw a rock at a McDonald’s window along the route of a protest march, or who managed to get so far as to toss paint at a politician or CEO, were clearly engaged in a form of politics that is fundamentally of a different order in terms of intent, in terms of the material employed, and in terms of effects, than the practice of armed conflict by or against a state. Indeed, the very charge of disturbing the peace leveled against people sitting down together to block intersections should have been brought into question by September 11th. Yet, with 9/11 and declaration of the war on terrorism coming so soon after the protests in Quebec City and Genoa, one immediate effect was that rather than these distinctions becoming clearer, they were further obscured.
Those agencies concerned with ‘state security’ were tempted to meld the role they were playing in relation to constraining or repressing such protests with the new roles that would be defined for them after 9/11 in the war on terrorism. And the mass fears that watching the events of Sept 11th induced in the population at large were further aggravated by those unscrupulous right-wing politicians and journalists who never overlook an opportunity to smear the Left. To take but just one example close to home, by September 18th we could read the following in the National Post: ‘Like terrorists, the anti-globalization movement is disdainful of democratic institutionsâ€¦ Terrorism, if not so heinous as what we witnessed last week, has always been part of the protesters’ game plan.’
Such claims were as absurd as they were mendacious. For what precisely had come to characterize this generation of left activists was the explicit eschewal, even among its most militant elements, of either armed revolutionary struggle or terrorism (along the lines of the Red Brigades or Weathermen) as a means of effecting change. In the current era, it is not among activists on the Left, but rather almost exclusively on the right that one finds violence adopted as a strategy and a life-style, as among those Christian fundamentalists or American militiamen or European neo-nazis who bomb abortion clinics, government buildings and refugee shelters. And the same must be said about the religious fanatics in the Middle and
By contrast, David Graeber, a Yale university anthropologist, himself an anarchist, was largely correct in writing in New Left Review (Jan/Feb 2002) that, despite the way the media deployed the word violence ‘as a mantra’ to describe anti-globalization protests,
what really disturbs the powers-that-be is not the ‘violence’ of the movement but its relative lack of it; governments simply do not know how to deal with an openly revolutionary movement that refuses to fall into familiar patterns of armed resistanceâ€¦ Where once it seemed that the only alternatives to marching along with signs were either Ghandian non-violent civil disobedience or outright insurrection, groups like the Direct Action Network, Reclaim the Streets, Black Blocs or Tute Bianche have all, in their own ways, been trying to map out a completely new territory in between. They are attempting to invent what many call a ‘new language’ of civil disobedience, combining elements of street theatre, festival, and what can only be called non-violent warfare – non-violent in the sense adopted by, say, Back Bloc anarchists, in that it eschews any direct physical arm to human beings.
The distinctive nature of this type of protest, and its contradictions and limitations in the current context, will be addressed in the final section of this pamphlet. It is first of all necessary, however, to put the question of political violence into some proper perspective.
Violence, Order and the
Certainly, the various form of violence associated with state’s keeping order differ from those associated with the social forces making for change. A great 19th century writer – not Karl Marx but rather Mark Twain – once put this very well. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in the year of the first centenary of the French Revolution, had this to say about that truly historic occasion of violent change:
There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’, if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
The kind of reasoning Twain employed regarding the two reigns of terror goes far to explain the overwhelming balance of world public opinion against the American- led ‘war on terrorism’ launched after 9/11, especially in the world’s poor countries, where most people still experience first hand what Twain meant by ‘lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, injury and heartbreak’. On the other hand, if the majority of the world’s population were unsympathetic, as they were, to the momentary terror wrought by the September 11th acts themselves, this may well have to do with their recognition of their purely symbolic and atavistic nature. These acts were not only immoral from the point of view of the innocent people they killed, but also, unlike the French Revolution, driven by a reactionary, almost feudal, impulse. They were in any case counterproductive as a response to global inequality and American imperialism. For again unlike the French Revolution which – whatever the horrors of the transitional terror – did after all overthrow the old regime, the inevitable outcome of the kind of political action that September 11th represented could only be that of stoking the self-righteous flames of imperial power, and fueling their spread.
The concept of empire, which used to be quite unfashionable, has made a comeback in this context. Of course, the American empire is quite different from the old colonial empires. It would be a serious mistake to try to revive in the current context Hobson’s or Lenin’s notions of imperialism, connoting, among other things, a stage of capitalism marked by inter-imperial rivalry and war. Nor should we think that every intervention abroad by the
Its claim to be the foremost democracy as well as the foremost military power underwrote the American state’s conferral upon itself the right to deploy its unparalleled means of violence around the world in the name of human rights, electoral democracy and market freedom.
This global deployment, even when the interventions were legitimated and sometimes invited by international human rights advocates and agencies – from the first Gulf War to the war on Yugoslavia over Kosovo in the 1990s – did not, of course, necessarily lead to the spread of human rights and liberal democracy, although it certainly did lead to greater economic inequality. There was a staggering amount of self-delusion in the view of the Bush administration that
September 11th was ‘blowback’ from this – with such vengeance as could only have been stoked up over half a century. The term was first coined in Washington, D.C., in 1954, when CIA and Pentagon bureaucrats mulled over the possible consequences of their decision to overthrow of the left-nationalist Mossadeq government in Iran, and today as then strategic imperial visions at play in Afghanistan and Iraq are also about oil. But they are not only about oil. They still have much to do with what was still geo-strategically unsettled after the ‘liberation’ of
The United Nations served as an imprimatur for a policy that the
If the UN’s initial position vis a vis the second Bush war on Iraq in 2002 suggested that power and influence at the UN was becoming more tenuous, the Security Council’s vote in the spring of 2004 to endorse (with French and German support) the puppet Allawi government established under the American occupation also suggested that US power and influence at the UN was by no means yet a thing of the past. Moreover, the ‘coalition of the willing’ against terrorism the
Moreover, the larger implication of the post-9/11 ‘you-are-with-us-or-against-us’ stance of the
The very detachment of economic domination from political rule that makes it possible for capital to extend its reach beyond the capacity of any other imperial power in history is also the source of a fundamental weaknessâ€¦ National states implement and enforce the global economy, and they remain the most effective means of intervening in it. This means that the state is also the point at which global capital is most vulnerable, both as a target of opposition in the dominant economies and as a lever of resistance elsewhere. It also means that now more than ever, much depends on the particular class forces embodied in the state, and that now more than ever, there is scope, as well as need, for class struggle.
This has enormous implications for the Left everywhere today, with one of the most important questions being to what extent the new coercive domestic practices and legal measures adopted under the banner of the war against terrorism will foreclose the scope for struggle…
Strategic Questions for the Global Justice Movement
The mass protests that developed in recent years have been intended to be raucus and, if possible, disruptive. It is that character that made them different from set-piece march along a route pre-agreed with the authorities. Most of the demonstrators come with nothing more illegal, let alone violent, intended than marching without a permit, occupying public spaces adjacent to the meeting places of the assembled elites, and engaging in the remarkably creative street theatre for which these demonstrations have become justly famous. The ‘diversity of tactics’ approach adopted at these demonstrations (and especially elaborately preplanned in Quebec City) to allow people to choose to stay away from a confrontation with the police at the security fence, explicitly made allowances for those who come to the demonstration with such a confrontation in mind. To be sure, confrontations with the police at such demonstrations were already, even before September the 11th, leading a good many people involved in these protests to question the ‘diversity of tactics’ approach, and lack of accountability to the whole of those who undertake the most militant tactics. Those who want to engage in a classic strategy of civil disobedience have sometimes felt that they are effectively prevented from doing by those who come with the intent of physically challenging police lines. For the police truncheons and tear gas inevitably descend indiscriminately and push everyone off the streets. The image of generalized violence among those who watched the protests on television or read the sensationalized accounts in the papers also led many people inside the anti-globalization movement to question the diversity of tactics approach and to demand a serious discussion of which tactics are in fact most productive of building greater popular support for the movement against globalization.
But it is still true that the confrontations led by groups like the Black Bloc were minimally violent in comparison with anything remotely resembling terrorism, and actually resembled much more the pushing and shoving at a militant picket line during a strike where the police have a large presence. Moreover, most of those tear-gassed, assaulted by the police and even arrested at such demonstrations intended nothing but peaceful protest but in the face of what seems an overbearing and unjustified police blockage and interference, and only often joined in the pushing and shoving or resist arrest when they refuse to clear an area as instructed. Some of them then went off a join a better-prepared and more militant group for the next demonstration. Even to the extent that global justice activists were inspired by certain struggles where violence is a strategic element, from the Zapatista uprising in Mexico to the ‘Cremate Monsanto’ campaign in India, it nevertheless remained the case that this movement could only be seen, in any historical and comparative perspective, as very far away indeed from anything that might fairly be designated as terrorism let alone armed struggle. Even among the anarchist elements on the movement, the stress lay rather on inventing, through their street protest preparations, a form of direct democracy based on small consensus finding meetings rather than voting. This is seen to presage the participatory democracy at a local level that often constitutes the foundation of an alternative vision to the freedom of capital movements and export competitiveness that is the essence of globalization.
Direct action protests are hardly entirely new and have often proved effective, as the marches by the unemployed and the occupations of factories and streets in the 1930s and 1940s proved. Looking back, what is now considered more legitimate – the firing by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the unemployed marchers in
In any case, there is much more to the global justice movement than is visible at the large protest demonstrations. The protests, as Naomi Klein put it in the 2002 volume of the Socialist Register, ‘are not demonstrations of one movement, but rather convergences of many smaller ones, each with its sights trained on a specific multinational corporation (like Nike), a particular industry (like agribusiness) or a new trade initiative (like the Free Trade Area of the Americas), or in defence of indigenous self-determination (like the Zapatistas)â€¦ Rather than a single movement, what is emerging is thousands of movements intricately linked to one another, much as ‘hotlinks’ connect their websites on the Internet.’ To this could be added groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty whose radical egalitarian goals and tactics of direct action have become symbols of admiration for (and led such groups to attach themselves to) the anti-globalization movement and its protest demonstrations. The greatest success of this movement of movements has been its diverse transnational political subculture of activists, with each group still conducting their own specific campaigns, research, advocacy and related direct actions. This in turn has given critical researchers and writers against globalization a sense that they not only are heard, but also have a broad political base, and thus led them to redouble their efforts. This decentred movement often made it seem as if the agents of globalization, be they states, corporations or international organizations, were being ‘swarmed’ from a thousand directions.
In terms of moving forward, the hardest problem the global justice movement faced even before 9/11 was not at all its alleged orientation to violence at its demonstrations, but rather figuring out how to go beyond protest. What was already impelling the organization of the World Social Forum in
In this respect, one of the promising aspects of the anti-globalization and anti-war protests today, compared with the anti-war protests of the 1960s, has been that many of the groups associated with them have increasingly designated themselves as anti-capitalist, and have given some positive direction to what that entails by their decentralized and participatory visions of different social order. Even if the most visible and energizing characteristic of the global justice movement has remained its protests at the international economic and financial gatherings which foster capitalist globalization (seen most recently again in the 50,000 people protesting at the APEC meeting in Santiago, Chile in November 2004), there has also been a growing sense that such protest is not enough either. If the Internet has been an asset in unleashing the capacity to organize dissent and resistance on the global stage, it has proved no substitute for the hard work of class formation and political organization that the Landless Movement in
There is no question that the communications culture that reigns on the Net is better at speed and volume than it is at synthesis. It is capable of getting tens of thousands of people to meet on the same street corner, placards in hand, but it is far less adept at helping those same people to agree on what they are really asking for before they get to the barricades – or after they leave. Perhaps that’s why a certain repetitive quality has set in at these large demonstrations; from smashing McDonald’s windows to giant puppets, they can begin to look like McProtests. The Net made them possible, but its not proving particularly helpful in taking them to a new stageâ€¦. Now the police have subscribed to all the e-mail lists and have used the supposed threat posed by anarchists as giant fundraising schemes, allowing them to buy up all manner of new toys, from surveillance equipment to water cannons. More substantivelyâ€¦ the movement, no manner how decentralized, [is] in grave danger of seeming remote, cut off from the issues that affect people’s daily lives.
On my way to the World Social Forum in
This is the kind of direct action that may well come more and more onto the agenda of activists in Europe and
But for the present, despite all the justifiable concerns that post 9/11 anti-terrorist legislation and state action has raised, there still remains today considerable space for struggle. The repression of protest, while serious, has yet to exceed that which occurred in some earlier conjunctures in liberal democratic states over the past century. So far at least, the attempt to paint, in rhetoric and legislation, the protest activities of the current generation of antiwar and social justice movement activists as violent, let alone terrorist, has not worked. And in the face of the imperial state terror in