The global backlash

You think you know this story. You don't. In a journey from Soweto to Papua to Mexico, Paul Kingsnor

May Day started early this year. In London, the Evening Standard began to celebrate the approach of the ancient festival of spring on 9 April. "Anarchists' call to arms for May Day", it squealed, warning of a "hard core" of "extremists" threatening corporate targets all over the capital with "violent clashes". A week later, the Standard was following up this exclusive investigation (obtained by exclusively looking at a couple of websites) with an even bigger scoop - "May Day anarchists recruit children". This time, another "hard core of anarchists" (or possibly the same one) was planning to "infiltrate pupils' meetings" to recruit the young innocents for their bloodthirsty riots.

For the British press, the first anarchist riot of spring is as sought after as the first swallow. Who could forget the Daily Mail's story before May Day 2000 about how yet another "hard core of anarchists" would be using garden forks and spades as weapons to attack the police? Or the Daily Mirror's brilliant exclusive that same year - "Anarchists have threatened to blow the roof off the Millennium Dome"? Whatever actually happens this year, we already know how the press will handle it. What we may not know is quite how much the media's May Day ritual will serve to distract us from a real - and much bigger - story.

For out in the real world, beyond the radar screens of the media and political classes, something is massing. Something bigger than most have yet realised; something that is beginning to look like a genuine, global revolution. Perhaps not a revolution in the sense that recent history has taught us to understand it: not a series of power grabs by red-starred guerrillas or "people's parties". But a revolution none the less; one that aims to turn existing power structures upside down; that is tens of millions strong; that began life in the poor world and only later arrived on the streets of the west.

You may think you know this story already; but you may need to think again. What is happening out there is wider, deeper and more significant than most people yet understand. It could turn out to be the biggest political movement of this century; possibly the biggest ever. And it's still growing.

Just over a year ago, I was sitting in Pimville library in Soweto among a sea of people. Most of them were wearing T-shirts in one of two colours: red, inscribed with the words "Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee"; or yellow, reading "Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum". All of them were angry. For the past few years, Soweto has been in rebellion again; not against apartheid this time but, perhaps surprisingly, against the policies of the ANC government that overthrew it. That government, which promised its people a national project of state-led reconstruction, has instead embraced "globalisation" with all the zeal of the newly converted. The results are painfully clear.

One of those in the library was Dudu Mphenyeke, one of the founders of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. The committee began life in 2000, set up by a group of people whose electricity was cut off by the state company, Eskom, for non-payment of their bills. Unemployment in Soweto runs at around 70 per cent, and most could not afford to pay. Before the last election, the government promised free electricity and water for the very poor. It didn't deliver. It can't afford to. Eskom, along with many other state industries in South Africa, is being prepared for privatisation, and the government, on the advice of the World Bank, will not subsidise prices for the poor. It would not make economic sense in an "emerging market" such as South Africa. Investors would run a mile.

It is not just Soweto that is suffering as a result, and it is not just electricity which is the problem. All over the new South Africa, water and electricity cut-offs, rent hikes and evictions have become commonplace since the ANC began to embrace globalisation. The gap between rich and poor has grown and the poor - 95 per cent of whom are black - have got poorer. What happened to the hopes and dreams of the new South Africa is summed up best by, of all people, George Soros. "South Africa is in the hands of global capital," he said in 2001. "That's why it can't meet the legitimate aspirations of its people."

The realisation that Soros is right has, in the past few years, been spreading all across South Africa. Failed by those they expected to save them, the people have begun to take things into their own hands. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee has done so by illegally reconnecting the power of those who have been cut off. It is dirty, dangerous and illegal work. It is also, said Mphenyeke, their last option.

"Life in Soweto has got worse," she told me. "It was better under apartheid . . . It's really alarming. People are being retrenched, unemployment is going up, companies are being privatised . . ." She sighed and looked me in the eye. "We don't have freedom yet in South Africa," she said, "and we feel deceived."

A few days later I visited the ANC's head office in Johannesburg to ask the party why such discontent was spreading across the country. Michael Sachs, the party's head of policy and research, sat me down and tried to explain.

"If you place what we are doing in the context of our national democratic revolution," he said,". . . it's a situation which is really very difficult - basically, no other revolutionary movement has had to contend with a unipolar world . . . such an unbridled victory for finance capitalism. We achieved democracy in 1994 and immediately had to confront the issue of globalisation." The problem, he said, was that in a world where distant investors can pull the rug out from entire economies in a matter of hours, governments are seeing their options shut down. Sachs knew what was happening in places like Soweto. He also knew that the ANC had to be careful whose toes it trod on. That was the party's excuse for unleashing what he called the "horrible, stinging winds" of neoliberalism on to its people.

"I mean, you can't just go and redistribute things in this era," he sighed. "You know you will be defeated. They were defeated in Chile, they were defeated in Nicaragua . . . you can't do it now." He looked glum. "You've got to play the game," he said.

A few months later, I was in a wooden house in the tropical lowlands of New Guinea. With me were three tribal guerrillas, wanted by the state for leading a separatist revolt against Indonesia, which invaded their nation - West Papua - in 1962 and had ruled it brutally ever since. The guerrillas were armed with axes, knives and a revolver. Now they were talking about their struggle to rid their country not just of Indonesian occupation, but of the multinational corporations that were extracting their oil, gas, gold, copper and timber, at great human and environmental cost, and taking the proceeds elsewhere. Ostensibly, their plight was a million miles away from that of the people of Soweto. But there was a link.

"These companies," said the guerrillas' leader, Goliar Tabuni, who has spent decades living in the rainforest, barefoot, doing most of his fighting with bows and arrows. "These companies - who are they? Why should they be allowed to come here and take our land and our resources? When we get free, we must get free from them, too. Freedom is not just about Indonesia . . . there are many people in the world now fighting these corporations. We will fight with them."

Goliar Tabuni, though he had no way of knowing it, had hit on the same point as Michael Sachs, albeit with a more direct delivery. As I travelled through other epicentres of resistance across the world, I heard this same point again and again. I heard it from Thai women and American men. I heard it in Bolivia, in Brazil, in Mexico, in Italy. It was a simple notion but a crucial one: political freedom without economic freedom is meaningless.

This shared understanding is one of the rallying points for this new international gathering force of dissidents, conjured into existence by a capitalism more powerful and unchecked than anything we have seen for a century. The people involved know that "freedom" is about much more than the right to vote, once every few years, for one of a few increasingly identical groups of politicians. Freedom - sovereignty - is about the right to decide your economic, as well as your political, destiny; and this is precisely what globalisation - in other words, the spread of neoliberal capitalism to all corners of the earth - is removing from people all over the world.

As the World Bank and the IMF remake the economies of the poor world in the image of the Washington consensus, the de- regulated financial markets and increasingly free-floating multinational corporations remake the economies of the rich as well. The World Trade Organisation, due to extend its remit at its next meeting in September, regulates the activities of governments to prevent them regulating the activities of corporations. Governments are not powerless and corporations are not indestructible. But the balance of power has shifted so much that none of the old answers fits the new questions. A new politics is needed for a new century. And this is where this movement comes in.

In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, among butterflies, banana palms, mist-shrouded mountains and military bases, lie the rebel villages of the Zapatistas, a quarter-million-strong popular movement of Mayan Indians who on 1 January 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into operation, staged an armed uprising against the Mexican government. The Zapatistas said that Nafta, which created one great borderless free market between Canada, the US and Mexico, would be a "death sentence" for their communities, mostly made up of traditional, and poor, maize farmers.

They were right; Nafta phased out much of the Mexican government's support for its poorest farmers, in line with free trade ideology. Within a year, Mexico's corn production fell by half, as artificially cheap imports from prairie farms north of the border flooded in. Some agribusinesses in the US showed record profits as millions of small farmers in Mexico lost the only livelihood that they and their families had ever had - their land.

This was why the Zapatistas rose. But how they rose is what made their rebellion so important. They had no intention of seizing state power; they wanted to dissolve it down to the level of their communities instead. They talked not of a dictatorship of the proletariat but of a rebirth of democracy. They demanded the right to determine how their resources were used, in accordance with their customs, traditions and needs. They demanded the right - both political and economic - to determine how their lives were run. "Power is not taken," they said, "it is constructed."

The Zapatista rebellion has been called "the first postmodern revolution". It has also been seen as the birth of the inter- national coalition that has been labelled, inaccurately, the "anti-globalisation" movement; a movement whose principles the Zapatistas inspired. Principles based on devolution of power, local democracy, a rejuvenation of the commons - common public goods, common land, common social goals - a reining-in of corporate and financial power. It is a movement that seeks a diversity of economic and political systems within one global community, rather than the soulless consumer monoculture that the global market is building.

This is what makes this movement so different. It doesn't call for a workers' revolution, for the replacement of one power elite with another. It has no ideological baggage to weigh it down, no one "Big Idea" which, when applied everywhere, will provide solutions for all. It has learnt from the mistakes of the 20th century; it knows that the world is complex, that places are different, that systems must be tailored to local needs. But it also believes in global solidarity. With its e-mail lists, social forums and summit gatherings, it is the most global political movement that has ever existed. It is already taking solutions into its own hands and trying to apply them.

This, above all, is what I saw wherever I went; a living mosaic of applied principles being laid out across five continents. In Brazil, I accompanied landless peasants as they occupied unused farmland, claimed it for themselves, and set about building rural communities to keep them out of the city slums and provide a living for their families. In Bolivia, I met people who had taken to the streets of their town to drive out a US corporation that had bought up their water systems and jacked up their bills, in one of Latin America's first reversals of a major privatisation.

At the annual World Social Forum, I saw 60,000 dissidents, rich and poor, from north and south, come together for a week to thrash out workable alternatives to a world gone wrong. On the streets of Genoa, I saw carnage like I have never seen before; but as a quarter of a million people took to the streets to question their leaders, and to do so in largely peaceful solidarity, I also saw hope. In California and Colorado, I met people who were using local laws to place limits on corporate activity, with the active support of their communities.

At the same time, imperceptibly but definitely, I saw the momentum, the zeitgeist, the agenda, shifting towards these chaotically united dissidents and away from the increasingly hoarse defenders of a global ideology - neoliberalism - which, just like every other global ideology that came before it, is beginning to fail.

In the eight months I spent travelling through this movement, I saw the collapse of two of global capitalism's favourite poster boys - Argentina and the Enron Corporation. I saw the US government exploit the tragedy of 11 September to push its economic fundamentalism even harder than before - they called it "countering terror with trade". I saw three Latin American governments fall to opposition candidates on specifically anti-neoliberal tickets.

Perhaps most tellingly, I saw this movement grow so confident that when the head of the World Bank tried to invite himself to the World Social Forum, he was turned away. So many times, police and soldiers had turned people away from his meetings, with tear gas and baton rounds; now he was on the outside. It was a metaphor for how far this movement had come in just a few years. A metaphor, too - or a promise - of how far it can still go. For this is not over yet. It has only just begun.

One No, Many Yeses: a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement by Paul Kingsnorth is published by the Free Press (£10)