Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

So where did global resistance go?

G8 - Vast, angry crowds used to go to summits and try to shut them down. Things are different now, but not because the fences got too big or the anger went away.

by Paul Kingsnorth

New Statesman (July 11 2005)

It was known as the ring of steel. Eight feet high and embedded in concrete, it ran for miles through Genoa, encircling the "red zone" where the G8 leaders were meeting. On both sides were lines of carabinieri armed with live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas. The top of the fence bent back at 45 degrees: if you managed to get over, you wouldn't be climbing back out again.

The G8 summit of 2001 was a high water mark for what was known as "the anti-globalisation movement". After their successes at Seattle in 1999 and Prague in 2000, 250,000 people from all over the world arrived to harass the G8 leaders. Their message was clear: this was an illegitimate institution with no right to make world-affecting decisions about debt, poverty, the global economy or the environment. The fence would be breached and, as at the WTO in Seattle and the World Bank/IMF conference in Prague, the masses would shut the meeting down.

Four years on, things are different. This time no one openly plotted to breach the fences at Gleneagles: the G8 Alternatives coalition fought for weeks for the right simply to march past it. Now protest is scripted, celebrity-endorsed and organised by mainstream NGOs. Instead of the radicalism of Seattle, Prague and Genoa, we have stadiums full of washed-up rockers, Richard Curtis dramas and Tony Blair grinning with Bono. In place of a movement that wanted to overthrow the G8 and all it stood for comes a call to Make Global Capitalism A Bit Fairer.

So what, I hear you say. Who needs anarchist posturing when you can have results instead? Who needs the people Bob Geldof calls "hooligans" when you can have Coldplay, Bill Nighy and Gordon Brown? And who needs half-baked revolutionaries when you can have serious reformers seeking to abolish the debts of the poor world? You may have a point. The global movement that grew up in the late 1990s in response to the deepening iniquities of the global economy was never big on focus. It had its posers and nasties. It was often high on energy and low on strategy. But it was exciting and potentially powerful, and for a while it seemed to sweep all before it. Every May Day, every summit, every gathering of the global top dogs was besieged by thousands of people, from students in Europe to slum-dwellers in Africa and from Asian factory workers to Latin American indigenous people. The elites were openly disturbed. A movement of millions, from every continent, seemed to have called time on neoliberalism. To some of us, it felt almost like a revolution.

But we were getting carried away. And it seems pertinent now to ask a question that may seem odd in the light of Live 8 and Make Poverty History, but which is timely none the less: whatever happened to the anti-globalisation movement?

We need first to understand where it came from. It arose, not from the streets of Seattle, but from a long coalescence of grievances caused by neoliberalism. In the poor world, three decades of "structural adjustment", whereby countries received financial help in exchange for handing their economies over to multinational corporations, had failed to do what it said on the tin. Instead of reducing poverty, it had worsened it, creating in every country where it was tried a small, rich elite and a large, poor multitude. Meanwhile, in the rich world, labour insecurities, the grinding down of the welfare state and the removal of "barriers" to corporate profit all began to seem like a form of structural adjustment. Anger grew. At the local level, protests against neoliberalism became common, but for more than a decade they were ignored.

Then in 1994 came the Mexican Zapatista movement. Emerging from the forests of Chiapas and declaring "IYa Basta!" - Enough! - the Zapatistas lit the flame of a rebellion which sought to overturn an economic ideology and replace it with grass-roots power, real democracy, real control.

In Seattle, Prague, Genoa and the other mass protests, the pains of the poor world finally became evident in the streets of the rich, and there was a flowering of decades of resentment, largely leaderless, largely democratic and largely lacking in strategy. But at Genoa, a protester was killed by a policeman's bullet and hundreds were beaten and imprisoned: the protests were being hijacked from both sides and turned into war zones. Then 11 September 2001 changed everything. It was clear within minutes that there would be no more appetite for street showdowns, and that states the world over would no longer tolerate even mild dissent. When we came to war on Iraq, the energy that had gone into fighting neoliberalism seemed to be needed elsewhere.

And so to Gleneagles. This time around, the leaders have set their own agenda. Saving Africa and preventing climate change were hot topics, not because protesters decided so, but because Blair did. The NGOs, too, had got organised. Media-friendly, politically savvy, well-funded and fanatically mainstream, they left the radicals in the shade. Make Poverty History and Live 8 declared their intention of working with governments rather than against them: a "polite-but-firm" version of people power.

A few years ago, protests around the G8 were challenges to power. Now they are nothing of the sort. What we might call the Blair gambit seems to have worked. A quarter of a million people trying to breach the Genoa fence presented a genuine challenge to the system. Coldplay's Chris Martin and Oxfam don't, and neither do they intend to.

Yet this is not the whole story, because although there may be fewer summit radicals, the anger has not gone away. In Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, mass movements resist the privatisation schemes that come attached to G8 "debt relief". In Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela, anti-neoliberal programmes have been taken to state level. People have experienced enough conditional debt relief packages to know their true impact. In Mexico, the Zapatistas are back. From Pakistan to Martinique to Brazil, social forums focus the energies of the intellectual wing of a movement that, while nowhere near so prominent in the public mind as it was, is nowhere near dead either. In Africa and elsewhere, people are still committed to saving themselves.

We never got the global revolution some of us predicted, but the forces that shaped the global resistance movement have not gone away. As neoliberalism continues to spread, so does resistance to it. Rebellion is still abroad, and it is learning from its mistakes.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement (Free Press). His web site is .

Copyright New Statesman 1913 - 2005

Bill Totten


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