A Topic For All Seasons

Article published on March 31, 2002
community published
Article published on March 31, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

You have to join the game in order to change the rules

In June 1998 the first anti-globalisation day of protest erupted in synchronicity in major cities around the world. London reacted with shock at the curious spectacle of riot police clashing with demonstrators in the heart of its financial district, and the tremors of this initial explosion reverberated internationally when, five months later, the World Trade talks in Seattle were disrupted by massive public disturbance. Since the genesis of global protest three years ago, the mainstream news has been punctuated by similar episodes of popular unrest, in Gothenburg, Genoa, Toronto.

Whenever and wherever the architects of corporate hegemony convene, in various guises and acronyms, the WTO, IMF, G8, the World Economic Forum, they are accompanied by large scale demonstrations in opposition to the consequences of their activities, which can be broadly summarised as the death of national democracy and inequality in the first world, economic exploitation of the third, environmental destruction, the privatisation of public services, and the monopolisation of global culture and information by a few multi-national companies.

The outbursts of unrest have been extremely successful in generating public debate of these issues, in particular giving a voice to the powerless populations in developing countries, simultaneous gold mines and rubbish dumps of Western economic policy. Unfortunately the lifespan of discussion lasts as long as the protest itself, often eclipsed by the acts of violence perpetrated by a small minority which concentrate the coverage of the mainstream media, biased in its depiction of mindless anarchists but also wanting to waft the scent of drama into the living rooms of a public bored by details of trade and business summits. Contemporary reaction to these regular demonstrations is similar to those who have just viewed a compelling play, all encompassing but short lived, forgotten until the next one arrives. A theatrical tour bus of protest regularly shows up in relevant global destinations, erects an impressive spectacle of defiance and then demobilises. Though the performances are still of huge symbolic and emotional value, their predictability has reduced their effectiveness and subsequent potential for change. The organisers will need to find an alternative platform, or at least complementary means to break the cycle of protest then silence, to enforce globalisation as the political issue for all seasons.

Ironically, the unelected bodies such as the WTO may have played into the hands of the protestors by new methods to thwart them. In a move which says a lot for the democratic transparency of the organisation the next round of trade talks will take place in the Middle Eastern oil state of Qutar, where any potential demonstrators will come up against policing measures far more draconian than their Western counterparts, who have repeatedly used tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition against bottles, stones, the vocal and the unarmed. In Genoa in July one man was shot dead and scores were wounded.

Therefore a combination of strategy and necessity will force anti-globalisation into a new tactic. How successful the movement will be in evolving may depend significantly upon the willingness of those involved to unite into a coherent voice capable of maintaining a strong and dissenting presence in public life. To do so would require a major re-emphasis of a political philosophy which distrusts rigid and ossified structures that marginalise ordinary people and reject diversity. To not do so might exile the anti-globalisation movement to the political wilderness. It is now at the crossroads of a fundamental dilemma.

Whatever the future holds, the success of those groups to occupy a space of public life is remarkable given the current trends of widespread political inactivity.

The fact that demonstrations have not been confined to the West but have flowered in places like South Korea, Cambodia and Brazil has not only conferred a sense of international solidarity upon the protestors (the irony of anti-globalisation is that it is global movement) but an example of equality between the Northern and Southern hemispheres so patently lacking in mainstream politics. The very existence of a heterogeneous cluster of groups pressing for change not only contradicts an apathetic civil society but also the depressing cynicism of the age fostered by neo-liberal economics, that human nature is fundamentally self serving and has reached the end of its development. Adherents of this theory point to the collapse of communism, genetic science and the new religion of consumerism to show that the history of improvement is at an end. Save for technological innovation, this is a good as it gets, nothing more we can do. It is the antithesis of this belief, the faith in human potential, which has galvanised and sustained the protestors in the face of a silent media and hostile governments, wearing an optimism which views contemporary pessimism as a self fulfilling prophecy, inspired by the words of the one true icon of anti-globalisation, Subcommandante Marcos History is yours to make.

And throughout the past, movements for social justice, civil rights in America, Castros Cuban revolution, have been by sheer will and the moral strength of a principle, seized control of history. Anti-globalisation is a forceful echo of that historic voice of dissent. But change requires favourable circumstances which must already exist or be created. The boom or bust nature of capitalism will usher in a period of recession in the near future, where the complacent societies of the West, now predominantly service sector economies, will be badly affected as jobs will disappear once people have less money to spend. Since Cobbetts axiom that it is difficult to agitate a fellow on a full belly still applies, an economic downturn, buttressed by the hopeful ideas of community and co-operation (which at present are a little abstract for many), would provide the opportunity for a sympathetic public constituency.

At present however, the structures of rather lack of structures within anti-globalisation effectively prohibits any advantages which would derive from such an opportunity. The protestors have been described as a mosquito cloud. How much more effective would this swarm become if it was co-ordinated in a coherent manner to begin disabling the mammoth?

What the movement suffers from as much as anything is a lack of balance. At grass roots level, initiating community development and education schemes and creating a society external to orthodox channels, it is fostering the regeneration of democracy from the bottom up, its communal values empowering the isolated individual. The low electoral turnout of the recent British general election was an indication not so much of the apolitical character of the voters but the apolitical nature of a process which provides a choice between two sides of the same coin. But the lack of leadership is self-defeating on many fronts. It denies the accessibility of ideas to the public and therefore dislocates itself from society, the entity it is attempting to dynamise. If the task of the protestors is to erect loudspeakers into the public conscience, it requires a platform to do so. At present, even if physical damage to a McDonalds can be justified as a political act in the same vein as burning a national flag, it is still a negative articulation destined to alienate those it might convert. Martin Luther King once said that violence is the voice of the unheard, and identifiable and accessible voice would not only disseminate ideas to a wide audience but distance the peaceful majority from a violent minority, making it harder for the media to distort events.

It is axiomatic that any movement attempting to penetrate society must allow that society to digest its ideas. The present esoteric nature of anti-globalisation group operating in local secrecy prevents this. If grass roots activity was complemented by a powerful presence at the highest plane of public life, not only would a clear focus emerge but also a positive vision for the future. Defining a movement by what it is against not only appears negative but also unimaginative in its failure to provide an alternative blueprint.

Human nature requires leaders. To believe otherwise would be fitting reality around ideas rather that ideas around reality. Initiatives by those nurturing the roots of an organisation need articulation at its peak in order to be heard and understood by society. Ideas and debate flow between top and bottom but ultimately people need a central mast to pin their flag to, and to know in which direction the ship is heading. Such structural development is an anathema to many anti-globalisation groups. Reclaim the Streets for instance calls itself a dis-organisation, and many would view cohesion as the destruction of the creative essence and independence of the various groups, but the sum strengthens, not weakens its parts, reflecting diversity and gaining the force of unity. Some sort of umbrella organisation must evolve, at local and national level with international links, cohesive enough to be effective, flexible enough to be permit differences. Only then could ideology permeate society at a broad level. To not undertake this transformation would be like cutting off the branches of a tree that needs to be climbed.

The anti-globalisation protestors face a stark choice. Do they wish to see their ideologies implemented or do they wish to cradle them in the permanent purity of opposition? Political protest must engage in the political arena or be condemned to remain at the fringes. Like it or not, in the West, parliamentary democracy is still the heart that pumps life into the national arteries. Rejuvenation, not a bypass operation is the medicine which must be applied. One has to make use of the available materials. This does not imply the immediate participation in orthodox elections, but lobbying, debate and creative innovations such as the initiation of regional and local forums to supplement existing structures could be an option. Revolution is unobtainable and does not work as it engenders a destructive, not a creative, dynamic.

The previous schisms of the left have always been over the questions of betrayal and selling out over principle, but one which cannot be applied to the real world is an imperfect principle. If the anti-globalisation groups refuse to enter the mainstream arena (with the attendant possibilities of creating an information service for people fed on the non-news of the current media), then not only are they opting out of a society which they are trying to enhance, but also fuel the suspicion that really they prefer the idea of change to the reality of it. The promotion of a mantelpiece philosophy to be revered but never used, lest its contact with the outside world strip it of its innocent virginity and permanently corrupt. But to not actually allow an idea the chance of life in the real world is an inherent corruption.

But because the anti-globalisation groups are far weaker that their opponents, they have little choice but to join the game in order to change the rules. Governments and multi-national companies will not reform institutions or practices by virtue of incoherent and sporadic demonstrations. The aims of the protestors constitutes a fairly hefty shopping list, and they must accept that negotiation will not buy them all, at least not at first, but compromise is the art of human life, and they can always take comfort in the fact that it is far better to get something than nothing, which, maintaining the current trajectory, is exactly what would be obtained.

The idea of co-operation and community is essentially a balance between the individual and environment. The fabric of the anti-globalisation movement is woven with many different strands, environmentalist, socialist, anarchist, English, Mexican and Indonesian. It is this diversity which should be celebrated, its unity could be celebrated. Fundamentally, all these groups believe in this similar principle, to harmonise society. There is far more that binds than separates. But if they do not take the leap together, they will never know what could be found. If anti-globalisation does not balance grass roots activism with a coherent and united presence at the visible summits of human life, then the ideas will be relegated to the mantelpiece where they do not belong.