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Uri Gordon © 2001

 

 
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A re-assessment of anti-capitalist theory and practice, which was apposite even before the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, now becomes crucial following their already-observable consequences. Public disaffection, a degeneration of political discourse, and violent clamp-downs on resistance initiatives will reinforce each other to create a situation which will be as difficult for activists as their initial successes were spectacular. The following is offered as an assessment of these factors and their possible outcomes, with the hope of surfacing several key issues and stimulating some constructive discussion. The style is intentionally abstract and condensed in order to cover as much ground as possible; and although an attempt is made not to renounce clarity of concepts and arguments, clarifications and examples will no doubt be necessary if and as a discussion develops.

The terrorist attacks on the US, in and of themselves, have changed nothing as far as the essential components of anti-capitalist critique are concerned. Social injustice, the loss of freedom and environmental destruction are still rampant and the war which has already begun adds an additional urgency to keep them in view. The impacts of the attacks on the US can, however, be seen to exacerbate certain existing trends in the global system, the signs of which were already detectable before the attacks and which are bound to have severe repercussions.

The preparedness of governments -- the monopolisers of the means of organised violence -- to attack initiatives which question the rationale of the system has always been high. Periods in which this preparedness was put into practice were more noticeable in ostensible democracies, which have historically renounced their lip-service to civil liberties once the exercise of these was taken to its logical conclusion. This phenomenon is not new. Before the attacks on the US it may have been conceivable, though doubtful, that the intensifying of activism and a parallel increase in public support would have forced concessions. However, at the current stage much of the ground gained in terms of public support has been lost. The observable shift in public opinion following the attacks -- a shift explained mainly by a sense of insecurity which, due to the lack of any meaningful experience in public empowerment, drives most people to put their fates even more whole-heartedly in the hands of their masters -- has created a new situation, one in which the proverbial rug of public support has been pulled from under the activists feet. In such a situation a new balance is created, where the capacity for legitimised (not "legitimate") state repression dramatically increases. A license to sweep away any opposition to the emerging cause will mean that activists will face what may be an insurmountable degree of violent repression if their practices were to continue unchanged. War has always been damaging to social struggle, but this qualitatively different war is even more so. This is especially because the acknowledged difficulty to identify the "enemy" requires the US-led coalition to construct it, and those who have the power to do so will use it to their best interests -- including a temptation to conflate activists with the terrorists. "If you are not with us, you are against us".

The recent tendency whereby the overwhelming majority of the public in the West falls into line to support military action is also an extension of a process already in place. The past decade has seen a palpable shift towards one-dimensional politics and culture in ostensible democracies, where the largest part of the political spectrum is usually occupied by two major parties who differ less and less in their essential policies. A commitment to "free" trade, a shrinking of public spending and steps towards privatisation of services and other forms of involvement with private corporations are among the characteristics of this shift. At the same time citizens, faced with the dwindling of choices within the established framework of political participation, either become disengaged, leading to falls in the percentage of voters voting, or they channel their political energies elsewhere. The question is whether a shift in the focus of public concern away from social and economic issues and towards external "enemies" can be sustained. If so, it is possible that even these alternative arenas of political involvement will disappear as the engagement in them becomes less relevant to the overriding political climate. This is especially important when realising that it is doubtful whether a difference can be made in the essential workings of an authoritarian-capitalist system through anything less than an overwhelming level of public pressure, to the degree that the latter transcends the established channels for its application. Such a level was not even close to being achieved by anti-capitalist activists, although the hope was always there, and now it seems more distant than ever. As members of a movement which seeks to educate and involve people in action, activists need to take this possibility into consideration.

Another existing trend which is given a catalyst by recent events is the centralisation of power and decision-making on a global level. As has been suggested in numerous analyses of the process of globalisation, the activity of transnational corporations is mirrored by a transnational decision-making structure which operates dually on the spheres of the economic (WTO, World Bank, IMF) and the political-military (G8, NATO, EU), and which accumulates increasing power for itself. It may be argued that the tendency to lament this shift of power from national to international structures as a "loss of democracy" rests on the misguided notion that there was any democracy to lose in the first place. But the key point is that whether or not this emerging structure is more undemocratic than its predecessor, it will -- if successful -- undoubtedly enhance the ability of the system to rationalise its crises and take concerted action, at least in the short term. The prospect of concerted military action in the near future has given impetus to this process of centralisation, for the time being mainly in its political-military component. This momentum can also be predicted to be carried forward after this conflict is over. The result could be that under the pretext of battling other crises, the existing structures will find the opportunity to enhance their authority even further and create a truly global Leviathan. In this process, even issues which were formerly ignored or dealt with cosmetically (most importantly environmental ones) can be taken on board as a justification for moving more authority into the hands of these centres of power. This was a process predicted before the recent developments, but the attacks have simply supplied a more obvious pretext than other issues, one which evidently is being taken up with all possible enthusiasm. The speeding-up of this trend towards political centralisation must bring activists to rethink their mode of resistance and its targets.

Faced with these elements, anti-capitalist activists could do well to develop new ways of working. This necessity was perhaps already felt by many before the US attacks, through an identification of the same trends that I have pointed to, but at the present it is fair to assume that this need is even more apparent. The tactical analysis of the outcomes of the processes reviewed above must take into account the different modes of activism, each of which is prone to somewhat different effects.

First, mass mobilisations. Many anti-capitalist activists (mainly in the west) have complained that the movement has suffered a success-cum-failure syndrome. The successful shut-downs at Seattle and Prague had brought many participants -- the overwhelming majority of whom are not "full-time" activists --into a frame of mind that sees the model of periodical mass mobilisations as the hallmark of anti-capitalist activism (although it is usually well-understood that this is by no means enough). However, things have changed since Seattle and Prague. Even before the recent terrorist attacks and the response of governments, it clearly had become impossible to shut down a summit as host governments are more and more prepared for such attempts. Now, any engagement in mass mobilisations is going to become even more difficult as activists are prevented from entering hosting countries even in the west, or as the locations become inaccessible altogether, or as the repression of activists becomes increasingly violent (what happened in Genoa is child's play compared to what we might see in the future). There is no value in creating martyrs. The call for Qatar recently issued by the PGA is a serious attempt to deal with this difficulty, including proposals to block the departure of trade ministers in each country and to block stock exchanges and financial centres. But it still falls short on a second point: that the very idea of coalescing around summits is problematic since it allows those we are resisting to dictate our schedule.

A recent action of the ACC in Washington moves a step beyond this. In a recent report of Ainfos:

"A group of ACC members had been planning for over two months to take over one of the abandoned buildings on the DC General Hospital campus. The people in this group saw this action as the major anarchist direct action of the World Bank/IMF protests in the original pre-9/11 scenario. The talk about taking down the fences was mainly a bluff. After Genoa, it was felt that the anti-capitalist movement needed to do a major empowering direct action that smashed the stereotypes that had risen after Genoa".

The point here is, however, that this kind of action could take place in any given day, not just during a summit. I believe that local action, having nothing to do with an externally-dictated time frame, should become one of our main foci at these difficult times. The recent PGA proposals for Global Sustained Campaigns -- against state violence, for the right of communities to freely organise and for the construction of grassroots alternatives to the capitalist system -- are very promising. People can take action and educate much more effectively within a context with which they are intimate, and with the experiences that they already have. The kind of actions that can take place in this context are manifold, and there is no need to design a master plan for them. Leaving it to people‚s creativity and trusting their ability to address their own needs in their own ways is a much more efficient way to go about it, as well as being more libertarian. The question remains how to keep a sense of belonging -- how to keep these actions threaded together and achieving an awareness that one's local campaign is part of something bigger? There are already channels for this -- Indymedia and the like -- to which may be added consultas and other forms of direct exchange of opinions and experiences. Besides, it seems to me that the real function of demonstrations around summits has never actually been anything else but the creation of a thread that linked together other, local and "everyday" activities around the world.

Today, direct action against a summit, even if still possible, would at best force the international finance and governance institutions to have all their meetings in places like Qatar (or by video-conference). This may have been useful when there was a leverage point for bringing the legitimacy of the system into question, but now a crisis of legitimacy is, as I have indicated, far from achievable. But the goal of creating a public display of opposition, as well as the thread of belonging that I have mentioned, can still be achieved in a more limited form of mass mobilisation, with less (if any) direct action and more marches and peaceful demonstrations.

This may actually be a good time to consider the ideas of the more moderate elements in the movement as far as big mobilisations are concerned -- while leaving room for direct action where it counts: in a more local campaigns, where sit-ins or monkeywrenching can have a direct effect on policies or actions that people want to oppose or prevent. Stopping loggers or shutting down an arms-fair is somewhat easier as well as more probable to have a substantial outcome than trying direct action during a summit. But will mass mobilisations still have enough resonance without direct action? I think this answer is yes. It may be true that the confrontational tactics used during the first few summits were valuable in drawing attention to the movement -- but this attention had come to be in place. What support was lost since the terrorist attacks will not be regained by the same mode of action, which will now probably produce the opposite results. Some advocates of the most confrontational forms of direct action justify attacking a bank or the offices of a multinational as a symbolic action -- but is it not much more symbolic in the eyes of those who engage in it than in the eyes of the public whom they wish to win over? It seems to me that for most people McDonald's is still just another restaurant, and if you trash it people don't really get it. Even if you write a graffiti outside the place you trashed saying why you did it what are the chances that this will be reported in the media? Overall, today I think that direct action against inanimate objects at mass mobilisations does more harm than good. Please note that this is a tactical, not a moral objection (unlike the moral objection which I do have against hurting people). It is very easy to set one's sights high when a movement is on the rise. But until someone convinces me otherwise, it seems to me that we need to face up to the reality that we are about to experience a major decline.

Is this proposition a sell-out? Am I renouncing radicalism and giving up the cause? No way. Limiting modes of action for a limited period of time, for considerations of what works best, is very different from a dilution of ideals. Actually, this is the area in which we can be most radical right now. We could now step back just a little and take more time for analysis and a review of our strengths and shortcomings. Novel models of decentralised organisation and decision-making, the way we interact with public opinion, the varied reactions of governments and international financial institutions to our critiques, and, perhaps most importantly, the attempts to formulate alternative political and economic models which emphasise democracy, social justice and ecological sustainability -- all of these are areas which deserve more thought. which we might have the opportunity to do now. What we have when we emerge from this suffocating period may very well take us to a new level when people are more ready to listen.

The Future Begins Now.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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