Where Do the Anti-Global Movements Come From?

By Giovanni Mazzetti | Read our interview with Mazzetti

ROME, NOVEMBER 2003— In an article that appeared in il manifesto, Marco d’Eramo reported a conversation with Barbara Epstein, professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. According to Epstein, "the peculiarity of American history lies in the degree of discontinuity between generations of the Left. Each generation ignores the preceding one. The younger generation thinks: ‘we have to re-invent everything from scratch.’ And this is quite harmful, since it implies that every generation basically starts from zero, as if history had just begun and, as a result, repeats exactly the same mistakes (of those who preceded it)". I believe that the question posed by Luigi Cavallaro in his Provocazione al Popolo di Seattle (Provocation to the ‘People of Seattle:’ But Karl Marx Wouldn’t Agree With You)—was largely moved by the awareness of this persistent trap, which catches not only Americans, but individuals of all modern societies. I believe it was a very sensible appeal to the movement: identify the historical premises of your existence. Reject the vision of yourselves as a fruit of a generatio aequivoca (spontaneous generation) that came to the world without ancestors.

Cavallaro’s plea is made even more urgent because of the tenacity with which members of the movement defend their "networked" structure. In their view the networked form, by negating all forms of hierarchical relations, is seen as a progressive development over traditional forms of political action, rather than a limit related to the nascent development of the movement. Even without saying so explicitly, Cavallaro suggests that, by bringing the same forms of opposition to Capital and the State and by refusing to come to terms with the crisis of communism, the movement puts itself—maybe without the awareness that it is doing so—in the trail of the Anarchist movements.

A reconsideration of Marx prompts certain critical questions. How is it that one hundred and fifty years after the Poverty of Philosophy, many critics of capitalism still think about the Market in the same way Proudhon did in the 1840’s? For which reason, if the market had really allowed an evolution of society like the one indicated by some of the supporters of the so-called ‘fair trade’, reformists like Saint Simon, Sigdwick, Veblen, Polanyi, Mumford and Olivetti would have gone absolutely unheeded? Why then would there be today the need for a movement that, in spite of a starting point similar to the aforementioned thinkers—but with a much poorer analysis—nevertheless imagines itself to possess radically different potential? In short, aren’t we really facing a compulsion to restart from zero of the sort described by Barbara Epstein?

Marx’s position in 1848 on the question of free trade reminds us that our social life is saturated by history. That we cannot really choose where to go, without knowing where we are. A knowledge that can be acquired only by learning how and when we got there. How foolish it is to expect to live in a world in which ‘Time always resumes from the beginning and History is always at Year Zero’!


The question posed by Cavallaro, in my opinion, does not exclude a comparison. He only asked for some critical thinking on these issues—to reflect in a such a way that we are not satisfied with moving forward based upon intuition alone—but must organize our thought based upon proper logical constructions, so that we do not proceed blindly, otherwise we risk the destructive consequences of relying upon intuition. In short, Cavallaro is simply looking for mature interlocutors. If they happen to be Anarchists, they should at least identify themselves as such. But, if they are not Anarchists, they should be asking themselves, “Where do we come from?” They should face up to their ancestry and the problems with which their ancestors grappled, instead of making a positive ideal of being without roots.

The way things are going does not give us much hope. Some of those who are satisfied of the movement as it is, believe that we should "abandon the conceptualization of Capital as the only vector of socialization". They believe that new social relations could arise, especially when Western Society allows the knowledge of Other peoples to circulate freely and with dignity, from communitarian relations. It is therefore hypothesized that local cultures carry within themselves the germ of universality, a universality that encompasses the ability to comprehend Otherness. In these terms, the process of development is turned upside down; something that Anarchists do in the very structure of their thinking. But Marx affirmed the necessity for a new socialism, counterposed to conspiratorial and utopian forms as well as to anarchism, precisely because the facts of history undermined the way that anarchists and utopian socialists envisioned the history of society. He insisted on the intrinsic particularity of pre-capitalist human cultures, all based on a symbiotic form of community, and saw Capital as the first contradictory form of the wealth of all human beings.

The Marxian theory of the separation, in each individual, between the bourgeois and the citizen—ignored by almost all modern-day individuals, even though they feel it personally—is the portrayal of the perversa via (perverted path) through which locally determined individuals learn to cooperate with other human beings they don’t know, and towards whom they are indifferent. Such indifference is carried by the inertia of the past, as if, as Marx has maintained, ‘human beings, far from setting out to constitute a society, have allowed that society has reached a level of development, as they have always wanted to develop solely as isolated individuals, but because of that, their own development can only take place in and through society.’ Mercantile cooperation seems to be consistently superior to all preexisting forms of local cooperation (of all particular communities) by the fact that it presents itself in the chaotic and antagonistic form of private property. Mercantile cooperation, in fact, corresponds to a development in which human beings act in forms that are obscurely intuitive and primarily exterior, but are nevertheless still a form of development. How can one sensibly debate with those who ignore and undervalue these problems and—victim of their own delusions—imagine themselves to be by nature evermore capable of cooperating with others and by extension, with all human beings?

Nor can we meaningfully debate those who do not recognize this complexity of human development. Some critics say, "Commerce cannot be an end in itself. It can only be an instrument to serve people’s needs." However, the only serious description of the Market—Marx’s own formulation—recognizes that the intentions of individuals are necessarily limited by the market relationship and that any ‘political discourse’ superimposed upon as fundamental a category as price, is bombastic. (Whoever sees commerce as an instrument, instead of the very form of life itself, should ask herself seriously, empirically, why Owen’s commendable experience did not become a general model and why Polanyi had such a shabby following).

In the meantime, business has learned to partially subjugate the market and to use publicity and lobbying to impose administered prices, that is, to use ‘political discourse’ to accomplish economic ambitions. However, the contradictory development of new forces, in trying to express themselves on the old social relationships, generates a deep social dynamic. If the alternative movements do not want to mimic this practice [using ‘political discourse’ to accomplish economic ambitions] they must not indulge in non self-critical expressions that are business as usual for the hegemonic classes. Those who attempt to set prices on a "just" bases, should not be satisfied with their own intentions, but should recognize that they are questioning the very principle of equivalence.

In short, one should modestly learn Marx’s lesson on the nature of the commodity exchange and point in concrete terms to how one expects to proceed beyond that relation. In this process Anarchists and Mutualists cannot pretend to be better situated than Communists. Their historical weakness was not the expression of an arbitrary rule imposed by capitalists and state-interventionists. It was rather the manifestation of the intrinsic weakness of their positions in comparison to the Leftist alternatives. We should add that there has been more development in the establishment—first—of the capitalist market and—then—the Welfare State, than in the romantic outlook critical of them. Their general procedure is quite the opposite. When trying to escape from the power of their opponents, they end up not facing the criticism directed to dissidents of the past. They limit their development to a self-proclaimed ‘diversity’—as if this ridiculous social virginity were sufficient to claim public attention. Therefore, Cavallaro’s question is not only sensible but it is also the only question that can contribute to awakening the movement from a hypnotical state that will certainly not be helpful in the inevitable future conflicts with the hegemonic classes.


What does Cavallaro’s question really mean? In my opinion, a possible answer is: we need to acknowledge that the construction of an alternative development project has yet to begin and that the so-called "anti-global’’ movement can only expect to have a future if it faces up to the problems related to its origins. We can’t deny that an existing need is finally trying to a rudimentary expression and that, in relation to the recent past, a small step forward has been taken. However, the existence of a need does not guarantee its satisfaction.

Those who lived as adults through the Sixties and Seventies know that in those years society expressed a strong desire for change. But the proponents of change were unable to come up with a socially viable form that anticipated the inevitable social contradictions conjured up by the struggle itself. They ended up speechless, overwhelmed by the confusion generated by their own claims and by the changes produced in society.

Now we can pretend as if that generation were an accident of history and, as Barbara Epstein said, start again from zero. However, that would be a mistake, just as it would be a mistake to accept the objections that some raise against the call to take into consideration the economic changes that have occurred, asking us to express our criticism in such a way that ‘everyone can understand’. Knowledge is not ready-made. It is always the result of hard work and presupposes individuals that, in face of the difficult concepts, do not blame the writer but rather themselves, who have not yet learned to read.

One can consider their "parents" guilty for this inability, but in any case, the children will be the ones to expiate that guilt. If they ask the world to be transparent and easier to understand, they will be destined to live within the limits of their ancestors and to make the same errors. They will therefore contribute to delaying the solution to the problems that afflict them, demanding that the world be tailor-made for them, and not that they finally take a real measure of the world. A world where we live not ‘per natura’ but thanks to the teachings of past generations.

Giovanni Mazzetti teaches economics at the University of Calabria, Italy. He is one of the most influential thinkers of the Italian left and has written extensively on many issues, ranging from the assessment of the really-existing socialist experiences in East Europe, the demise of the ‘golden age’ of capitalism, as well as the perspectives of the left in the XIX century. A great part of his research has focused on the importance and feasibility of the struggle for the reduction of working time as the core element in worker’s strategy for a new society.

Main Publications (In Italian):

Scarsità e redistribuizione del lavoro, Dedalo 1986
La dinamica e i mutamenti sociali del lavoro, Rubbettino, 1993
Economia e orario, Datanews, 1995
Quel pane da spartire, Bollati Boringhieri 1997.

Perspectives on the Global Justice Movement: Part One

Emir Sader: "A Brazilian Perspective" published for the first time in English. We interview Sader on the World Social Forum, neoliberalism, imperialism, NGOs and the Lula government. [Or read in Portuguese]

Giovanni Mazzetti: "Where Do Anti-Global Movements Come From?" published for the first time in English provides a snapshot in the polemics taking place in Italy between Marxists and anarchists. Mazzetti also talks to Gloves Off about his ongoing polemic with Italian anarchists.

Barbara Epstein: "The Global Justice Movement: A New Left?"
In late August 2003, we discussed the potential for meaningful convergence between the global justice movement, the antiwar movement, and traditional labor organizations in the US.

In two weeks we publish Perspectives on the Global Justice Movement: Part Two

Subscribe to Gloves Off for occasional updates.

The Italian DS and the Ostrich Politics

The global demonstrations held on March 20th against the US-led occupation of Iraq were massive. The largest rally seems to have occurred in Italy, where newspapers like La Repubblica estimated 1 million people marched on the streets of Rome.

Contradictions in the Italian Left were also present at the march, when the most important leaders of the center left coalition, formed mainly by the DS (former Italian CP) were forced out of the manifestation by members of diverse anti-global groups, like the Disobbedienti, raising tension to unprecedented levels a few months away from the election for the European parliament.

Tension between the extremely moderate DS and the social movements has been escalating in the past few years, as the DS-led coalition—la Quercia (the Oak)—supported Berlusconi’s policy of sending Italian troops to Kosovo and Afghanistan and abstained from voting against Italian military presence in post-war Iraq. The latest chapter in this history was DS’s idea of organizing a joint rally with the Italian right wing groups ‘against terrorism’ in the eve of the March 20th protests.

Piero Fassino, the main leader of the DS called the joint rally with the government an ‘institutional demonstration’ and denounced the attacks by the anti-global militants as a fascist-style aggression. The Disobbedienti released an open letter to the DS where they say the reaction of the crowd was only a legitimate expression of public outrage at DS’s reluctance to denounce Italian military participation in the new colonial occupation. They also accuse the party of opportunistically playing the victims in order to justify their ‘ostrich politics’ and not fully explaining their recent positions to voters.