IN THE BELLY OF THE BEASTPART IV
THE ANTI-CAPITALIST SIDE OF THE MOVEMENT:
PROTESTS TARGET WTO & THE WORLD SOCIAL FORUM EMERGES
[turn of the century: 1999-2002]
The 1999 "Battle in Seattle" exploded this globalized, grassroots networking onto the world stage, and the news media had no idea what to make of it. Focusing on trade unionists carrying protectionist placards and environmentalists dressed in turtle suits, the media urged the world to conclude, as New York Times columnist and free-trade cheerleader Thomas Friedman did, that the "ridiculous anti-WTO protesters" are working "against the wrong target with the wrong tools." (Friedman 2001)
Not surprisingly, the corporate news media failed to discover the roots of this grassroots phenomenon. Instead, in the days and weeks after Seattle police used teargas and rubber bullets on protesters, the corporate media discovered the caricatures they required to tell the story they wanted to tell. In addition to vilifying environmentalists dressed as sea turtles, thick-headed unionists and bandana-disguised youth dressed in black, the mainstream media grasped for "known quantities" rather than trying to understand the social, economic and political roots of the protest itself.
One such "known quantity" in Seattle wasinterestingly, not American. French activist José Bové, who came to Seattle as part of the peasant group Via Campesina to raise awareness of food sovereignty, food safety and food patenting issues in the WTO, had become notorious for a direct action in which he and supporters dismantled a McDonald's restaurant under construction in Millaua famously picturesque village in southwest of France. So José Bové appears in a number of reports and articles from the time, the worst of whichlike the right-wing "Executive Intelligence Review" portray him as a dangerous Luddite.
The treatment of Bové in the American media is an interesting lesson in "acceptable" distortion. In fact, Bové is a seasoned political organizerby no stretch of the imagination a nationalistwith a political history stretching back to the early 1970s. That's when he began working full-time with French conscientious objectors. The group of conscientious objectors was approached by peasants of the Larzac plateau whose land was being confiscated by the Army for the expansion of a military base. The peasants wanted help to organize groups of resistors. This is how Bové became involved in the peasant movement, and through it, in the global justice movement.
In addition, contrary to his portrayals as a single-issue fanatic, Bové and the groups he has worked with have built solidarity over the years with other groups fighting for immigrants’ rights, the rights of the unemployed and homeless and especially the rights of landless peasants around the world. The Confédération Paysannewhich he helped to foundgrew into the Coordination Paysanne Européanne [CPE], with offices in Brussels. The CPE ultimately forged ties with peasant groups worldwide to create Via Campesina, with members as diverse as the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association from South Indiawhich represents 10 million farmers and is highly organized against genetically modified seedsand the Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil, the landless peasants who swung the vote for Lula in 2002 and then became his populist Left opposition.
Asked in a November 2001 interview in New Left Review about his political influences, Bové outlined two:
One was the libertarian thinking of the timeanarcho-syndicalist ideas, in particular: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon, the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War. There were still a lot of Civil War veterans living in Bordeaux, and we used to have discussions with them. The other was the example of people involved in non-violent action strategies: Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the States; César Chavez, the Mexican farm-worker who organized the Latino grape-pickers in California. There was a strong Gandhian influence, too: the idea that you can’t change the world without making changes in your own life; the attempt to integrate powerful symbolic actions into forms of mass struggle. (Bové 2001)
Fusing these traditions with his own experience, Bové participated in direct actions that go far beyond the notorious McDonalds incident. In January 2001, at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Bové led an action with more than 1000 landless farmers from Movimento Sem Terra [MST]. They pulled up three hectares of genetically modified soybean crops at a Monsanto experimental farm in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Then in April 2001, Bové led a march on an Israeli checkpoint near Bethlehem in solidarity with Palestinians. "I'm a farmer," he was reported to have said in a Slate.com article that was highly critical of his motives, "and these [Palestinian] people are farmers too. So I am fighting with them to help them protect their land." While the article's author interpreted the comment as a glib mask for anti-Americanism, it is instead the reasoning of a progressive internationalist peasant leader whose life-experience gives him a feeling of deep solidarity with the landless and dispossessed. His activism on behalf of the Palestinianswhich ultimately led to his 2002 deportation from Israel, when he led a group into Arafat's besieged compound in Ramallahflows logically from this perspective.
Fighting for social justice, for a healthy, sustainable environment and for the reclamation of the commons are core beliefs shared by Bové and the US anti-capitalist activists who converged on Seattle in 1999, and who hadin some casesmet via the Encounters for Humanity.
At this point, let us clarify the following: we are not using the terms "anti-capitalist" and "global justice" interchangeably. Our understanding is that the global justice movement is the larger entity, composed of a large, anti-capitalist rank-and-file as well as NGOs and Left partiesparticularly the Brazilian Workers Party [PT]. The NGO-Worker's Party group is clearly more powerful in an organizational sense because it is largely composed of institutions and their leaders, but it also covers for groups in civil society that have serious conflicts of interest with capital. [Gloves Off interview with Emir Sader, "A Brazilian Perspective," addresses this.]
The NGO-PT faction is in contrast to the rank and file of the movement, which is overtly anti-capitalist in orientation and largely organized in the political tradition that José Bové refers to. This islargelythe tradition of anarchism, which has historically focused on empowering the peasant and dispossessed classes. The American anti-capitalist activists who put out the call for a convergence in Seattle on N30 are strongly influenced by this tradition as well.
The idea that the global justice movement is exploring new forms of democratic politics in its creation of spaces of resistance, is one that originates from this tradition. And the most global new space of resistance thus far has certainly been the World Social Forum, which first convened in Brazil in 2001. Therefore the disparity between the organizational leaders and rank-and-file of the global justice movement has been an issue for some who have participated in and written about the World Social Forum gatherings.
Michael Hardt, for instancewho co-wrote Empire with Italian autonomist Antonio Negri in 2000explored the nature and divisions of the movement at the World Social Forum in a 2002 New Left Review article, "Today's Bandung?" Hardt confirms that these are the two primary positions toward globalization and capital within the movement. The NGOs work to "reinforce the sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control of foreign and global capital." The rank-and-file works "towards a non-national alternative to the present form of globalization that is equally global."
The first poses neoliberalism as the primary analytical category, viewing the enemy as unrestricted global capitalist activity with weak state controls; the second is more clearly posed against capital itself, whether state-regulated or not. The first might rightly be called an anti-globalization position, in so far as national sovereignties, even if linked by international solidarity, serve to limit and regulate the forces of capitalist globalization. National liberation thus remains for this position the ultimate goal, as it was for the old anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles. The second, in contrast, opposes any national solutions and seeks instead a democratic globalization. (Hardt 2002)
Hardt described the majority of participants at the 2002 WSF, including its original organizersATTAC and the Brazilian Workers’ Partyand the majority of featured speakers, as occupying the national-sovereignty position. The minority, he observedin presence if not in numberswas the position occupied by the rank-and-file of the movements, the thousands who turned out to protest in Seattle, Quebec, and Genoa as well as those who make up the landless peasant, unemployed, and undocumented movements worldwide.
Hardt also noticed an absence of the sort of confrontation one would have seen in an earlier era, with the supporters of sovereignty arguing that the new-internationalists were playing into the hands of neoliberalism and the new-internationalists arguing that national forms of all kinds are unreformable obstacles to globalized democracy. He suggests that the absence of this sort of debate has to do with the "organizational forms" that correspond to the two factions.
The traditional parties and centralized organizations have spokespeople who represent them and conduct their battles, but no one speaks for a network. How do you argue with a network? The movements organized within them do exert their power, but they do not proceed through oppositions.
One of the basic characteristics of the network form is that no two nodes face each other in contradiction; rather, they are always triangulated by a third, and then a fourth, and then by an indefinite number of others in the web. This is one of the characteristics of the Seattle events that we have had the most trouble understanding: groups which we thought in objective contradiction to one anotherenvironmentalists and trade unions, church groups and anarchistswere suddenly able to work together, in the context of the network of the multitude.
The movements, to take a slightly different perspective, function something like a public sphere, in the sense that they can allow full expression of differences within the common context of open exchange. But that does not mean that networks are passive. They displace contradictions and operate instead a kind of alchemy, or rather a sea change, the flow of the movements transforming the traditional fixed positions; networks imposing their force through a kind of irresistible undertow. (Hardt 2002)
Traces of this public sphere can be found in an ever-changing collection of sites and links on the web. From N30's convergence in Seattle, we find not only the ephemeral residue of interlinkinga collection of broken links and no-longer-existing urls, the web equivalent of flyers left after a demonstrationbut also the growth of a serious institution in the form of Indymedia [Independent Media Center-IMC]. According to Indymedia itself, the IMC was formed as "a clearinghouse of information," whose open publishing system made it possible for independent activists to upload reports, photos, audio and video to a centralized website. Indymedia has since become a global open publishing project, with more than 140 city and regional sites around the world. Anyone can go to indymedia.org (or one of their regional sites) and post reports, pictures, video, and commentaryblog style.
Other sites, like those of the Ruckus Society, Art and Revolution, and the Raging Grannies of Seattle, maintain a presence on the web because each one reflects an active and ongoing group of members. On the other hand, a site like People's Global Action makes it hard to determine the level of genuine activity in the network. Their homepage is recently updated, but their historyas recounted on the site in a series of "Global Action Days," "Caravans," and regional conferencesseems to end in the last part of 2001. Not surprisingly, the actions listed in their calendar for 2004 seem less grassroots than in the days before 9/11.
Still others, like Direct Action Network, seem to reflect an active group, what they call "chapters," in their list of network participants, yet most of the regional chapters[the "Freedom Smugglers" from Orange County, California, the "Norwich Anarchists" from the UK, "Anarchist Action" from Australia, the "Juventude Organizada com Ideal Anarquista" from Brazil are a few]show inactive homepages and defunct email addresses.