Whatever Happened to Anti-Capitalism?
Thursday February 01, 2007 13:44 by "Apparat" - ISN
ISN's Finglas branch on the move
The G8 will be visiting Germany next summer, and the “travelling circus” of protesters (as it was dubbed by Tony Blair) are already mobilising for the occasion. But it seems clear that the hey-day of summit protests is long past.
The great Seattle protest of 1999 put “anti-capitalism” on the mainstream agenda. Having been consigned to the dust-bin of history after 1989, the idea of a left-wing alternative to capitalism was again being discussed. It came as a bit of a shock for those, like Blair, who thought “socialism” had died out with New Romanticism and other naff 80s movements.
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Of course, it didn’t all begin in Seattle – people had been organising against the effects of capitalist globalisation for years, and forging solidarity networks around the world. But the mobilisation against the WTO conference in Seattle proved to be the decisive breakthrough – the moment when people started talking about “the movement”, and not just in activist circles.
This was a huge step forward in itself, because progressive politics had been steadily fragmenting for years. It seemed as if “the Left” had become a loose collection of single-issue campaigns, without any common project for changing society. The coalition behind the Seattle protest gave people a taste of unity in action, and they liked what they saw.
Coming up with a name that was more specific than “the movement” proved to be tricky. “Anti-globalisation”, the label chosen by the media, was universally panned; “anti-capitalist” seemed a bit aspirational, when many of the protesters clearly opposed specific features of capitalism, rather than the system itself. And so on.
For a while though, that proved to be a fairly minor problem. Over the next couple of years, left-wing protesters followed the global elite from city to city. When they had a chance to debate the issues, they won hands down, shredding the neoliberal orthodoxy. The summit protests reached a peak in June 2001, when 300,000 people marched in Genoa. Silvio Berlusconi turned the city into a police state for the duration of the summit, exposing the iron fist in the velvet glove of capitalist democracy.
But Genoa also showed the limitations of the movement. When Berlusconi’s government used the full repressive power of the Italian state to defend the summit from disruption, what could the protesters do? The Black Bloc strategy of fighting back on the streets seemed hopeless. To hold Berlusconi to account would have required a much broader mobilisation in Italian society – after all, his government had recently been elected by a majority of voters, thanks not least to the weakness and inadequacy of the Italian Left.
So one of the main lessons of Genoa was this – in order to move beyond summit protests, the post-Seattle Left needed to put down deeper roots in society. By challenging the neoliberal consensus, the movement had given people confidence to take on the status quo. Now its activists could revitalise the structures of the left and the labour movement – or create new ones.
A few years down the line, this hasn’t really happened, at least not to the extent that’s needed. Why not? Well, one problem has been the failure of the traditional far left to connect with the new movement. This isn’t for lack of trying – some organisations got very excited after Seattle and orientated towards its activists.
But there hasn’t been much meeting of minds, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that traditional leftists were trying to pour new wine into old bottles. The socialist tradition (or rather, traditions) is still the richest source of ideas for anyone who wants to change society in a more democratic, egalitarian direction. It’s not enough, though, to repeat slogans that worked in the (fairly distant) past and expect people to follow your lead.
Whatever their other weaknesses, the new generation of activists recognised the need for a fresh start. It’s not a question of ditching all the old ideas – many of the basic concepts of socialist theory are still valid, and anyone who ignores them will end up re-inventing the wheel again and again. But it’s definitely time to find a fresh language to express those ideas, and there’s plenty of room for pruning and revision.
Perhaps more importantly, the approach to organisation common on the far left didn’t sit well with the new mood. Tightly centralised parties would find it very hard to accommodate the diversity of post-Seattle activism. Without genuine pluralism in its own ranks, and a less domineering approach to broad campaigning groups, no socialist organisation can hope to win over a generation reared on “decentralised”, “non-hierarchical” forms of organisation.
This is a great pity, because the “movement of movements” badly needed to do some head-scratching about political strategies after its initial successes. Any movement for social change will ultimately have to confront the question of state power – if the state is on the side of the status quo, and using its power to back up the dominant class (as we saw in Genoa), then how do you get around that obstacle?
The socialist tradition contains a range of answers, from the reformist view that you can take over the state through the ballot box, to the insistence by anarchists and Trotskyists that it must be overthrown and replaced with a federation of workers’ councils. But without opting for one approach or another, social movements are bound to run out of steam sooner or later. And the chances of getting the right answer obviously improve, the more we know about past experience.
So far, the global justice / anti-capitalist movement hasn’t come up with a coherent strategy for going forward. It wouldn’t be fair to say that we’ve been treading water since the high-point of Genoa – many activists threw themselves into anti-war activism, and helped to build a remarkably broad movement. But opposition to the Iraq war faced a very similar problem after the mass mobilisation of February 2003 – what can you do when the state simply ignores you?
As one of the Left’s sharpest commentators, Gary Younge, put it last year, we know how to get mad, but we don’t yet know how to get even. And we won’t reach the next level without answering some pretty basic questions about our goals and our methods.