Notes from the NS archive

RSS

3 July 2000: Does protest need a vision?

After worldwide May Day riots, Naomi Klein argues in favor of the anti-corporate movement's "decentralised" nature.

New Statesman
10,000 union workers particpate in protests to commemorate the 115th May Day in Seoul, South Korea. May 1, 2005 (Photo: Getty)

Very soon, you will hear more of the anti-corporate protest movement that first came to British attention in the "Stop the City" protest on 18 June last year and to world attention on the streets of Seattle last November. My e-mail inbox is cluttered with entreaties to come to what promises to be "the next Seattle". It may be at the Republican and Democratic conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this summer; or at the International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague in late September; or perhaps we shall have to wait until the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001. It is in the nature of this protest movement that we cannot predict when or how effectively it will strike. But is this really the way forward for protest - a movement of meeting-stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats as if they were the Grateful Dead?

The anti-corporate protest movement is not united by a political party or a national network with a head office, annual elections and subordinate cells. It is shaped by the ideas of individual organisers and intellectuals, but it doesn't defer to any of them as leaders. Such ideas and plans as it has are swept up and tossed around in the tidal wave of information - web diaries, manifestos, academic papers, home-made videos, cris de coeur - that the global anti- corporate network produces and consumes each and every day.

The persistent criticism is that these people are so disorganised they can't even get it together to respond to perfectly well-organised efforts to organise them. They are dismissed as MTV-weaned activists: scattered, non-linear, no focus. Unlike the youth movement of the 1960s - which, for all its factions, managed for the most part to present a clear agenda and a roster of likeable, articulate leaders to the public - it seems to have no PR savvy. According to Newsweek, "one thing that seems to be lacking today is a mission statement, a credo . . ." Writing in the Guardian after London's May Day riots, Hugo Young attacked the "herbivores" behind the protest for making "a virtue out of being disorganised". He added: "A more serious political radicalism would engage with the economic complexities, and find a better way of pressing the case than providing the backdrop for anarchist destruction." If there is one thing on which the left and right agree, it is the value of a clear, well-structured ideological argument.

But maybe the protests in Seattle, and against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, look unfocused because they were not demonstrations of one movement at all. Rather, they were convergences of many smaller ones, each with its sights trained on a specific multinational corporation (such as Nike), a particular industry (such as agribusiness) or a new trade initiative (such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas). These smaller, targeted movements are clearly part of a common cause: they share a belief that the disparate problems with which they are wrestling all derive from global deregulation, an agenda that is concentrating power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands. There are disagreements - about the role of the nation state, about whether capitalism is redeemable, about the speed with which change should occur. But within most of these miniature movements, there is an emerging consensus that building community-based decision-making power - whether through unions, neighbourhoods, farms, villages, anarchist collectives or aboriginal self-government - is essential to countering the might of multinational corporations.

Despite this common ground, these campaigns have not coalesced into a single movement. Rather, they are intricately and tightly linked to one another, much as "hotlinks" connect their websites on the internet. This analogy is more than coincidental: the communication technology that facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its own image. Thanks to the net, mobilisations unfold with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy; forced consensus and laboured manifestos are fading into the background, replaced by a culture of constant, loosely structured and sometimes compulsive information-swapping.

What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralised, interlinked pathways of the internet - the internet come to life. Just as the internet has been described as a network of hubs and spokes, so the protests adopted this model. The demonstrators formed hundreds, possibly thousands, of "affinity groups" of between five and 20 people, each of which elected a spokesperson to represent them at regular "spokescouncil" meetings. Although the affinity groups agreed to abide by a set of non-violence principles, they also functioned as discrete units, with the power to make their own strategic decisions.

In the four years before Seattle and Washington, similar protests, organised in a similar fashion, converged around international summits in Auckland, Vancouver, Manila, Birmingham, London, Geneva, Kuala Lumpur and Cologne. The ad hoc coalitions behind these demonstrations frequently named themselves after the date of the event: J18, N30, A16 and now, for the Prague meeting, S26. When the events were over, they left virtually no trace behind, save for an archived website.

The hubs and spokes model is more than a tactic used at protests: the protests are themselves made up of "coalitions of coalitions", to borrow a phrase from Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange. Each anti-corporate campaign is made up of many groups, mostly NGOs, labour unions, students and anarchists. They use the internet, as well as more traditional organising tools, to do everything - from cataloguing the latest transgressions of the World Bank, to bombarding Shell Oil with faxes and e-mails, to distributing ready-to-download anti-sweatshop leaflets for protests at Nike Town. The groups remain autonomous, but their international co-ordination is deft and, to their targets, frequently devastating.

The charge that the anti-corporate movement lacks "vision" falls apart when you consider these campaigns. It is true that the mass protests in Seattle and Washington were a hotchpotch of slogans and causes and that, to a casual observer, it was hard to decode the connections between Mumia's incarceration and the fate of the sea turtle. But in trying to find coherence in these large-scale shows of strength, the critics are confusing the outward demonstrations of the movement with the thing itself. This movement is its spokes, and in the spokes there is no shortage of vision.

The student anti-sweatshop movement in North America, for instance, has rapidly moved from simply criticising companies to drafting alternate codes of conduct and building its own quasi-regulatory body, the Worker Rights Consortium. The movement against genetically modified foods has leapt from one policy victory to the next, first getting many GM foods removed from the shelves of British supermarkets, then getting labelling laws passed in Europe, then making enormous strides with the Montreal Protocol on Biosafety. Meanwhile, opponents of the World Bank's and IMF's export-led development models have produced bookshelves' of resources on community-based development models, debt relief and self-government principles.

The decentralised nature of these campaigns is not a source of incoherence and fragmentation but a reasonable, even ingenious adaptation to changes in the broader culture. It is a byproduct of the explosion of NGOs which, since the Rio Summit in 1992, have been gaining power and prominence. There are so many NGOs involved in anti-corporate campaigns that nothing but the hubs and spokes model could possibly accommodate all their different styles, tactics and goals. Like the internet itself, both the NGO and the affinity-group networks are infinitely expandable systems. If somebody feels they don't quite fit into one of the 30,000 or so NGOs or thousands of affinity groups out there, they can just start their own and link up. Once involved, no one has to give up their individuality to the larger structure; as with all things online, we are free to dip in and out, take what we want and delete what we don't. It is a surfer's approach to activism, reflecting the internet's paradoxical culture of extreme narcissism coupled with an intense desire for external connection.

One of the great strengths of this model of laissez-faire organising is that it has proved extraordinarily difficult to control, largely because it is so different from the organising principles of the institutions and corporations it targets. It responds to corporate concentration with a maze of fragmentation; to globalisation with its own kind of localisation; to power consolidation with radical power dispersal. "You have to experience it to fully appreciate just how well organised they are, how many different ways they can come at you," said the Washington police chief, Charles Ramsey, on the second day of the World Bank protests, sounding a little like General Custer describing the wily tactics of the Sioux in 1876. Britain's John Jordan, one of the founders of Reclaim the Streets, says transnationals "are like giant tankers, and we are like a school of fish. We can respond quickly; they can't". The US-based Free Burma Coalition talks of a network of "spiders", spinning a web strong enough to tie down the most powerful multinationals.

But this multi-headed system has its weaknesses, too. There is no question that the communication culture which reigns on the net is better at speed and volume than at synthesis. It is capable of getting tens of thousands of people to meet on the same street corner, placards in hand, but it is far less adept at helping those same people to agree on what they are really asking for before they get to the barricades - or after they leave.

For this reason, an odd sort of anxiety has begun to set in after each demonstration. Was that it? When's the next one? Will it be as good, as big? To keep up the momentum, a culture of serial protesting is taking hold. And far too much expectation is being placed on these protests. The organisers of the Washington demo, for instance, announced they would "shut down" two $30bn transnational institutions, at the same time as they tried to convey sophisticated ideas about the fallacies of neoliberal economics to the stock-happy public. They simply couldn't do it. No single demo could, and it will only get harder. Seattle's direct-action tactics worked because they took the police by surprise. That won't happen again. Police have now subscribed to all the e-mail lists. Los Angeles has put in a request for $4m in new security gear and staffing costs to protect the city from protest during the democratic convention.

In an attempt to build a stable political structure to advance the movement between protests, the International Forum on Globalisation has been meeting since March in the hope of producing a 200-page policy paper by the end of the year. According to the forum's director, Jerry Mander, it won't be a manifesto but a set of principles and priorities, an early attempt, as he puts it, at "defining a new architecture" for the global economy. Most activists agree that the time has come to sit down and start discussing a positive agenda. But at whose table, and who gets to decide?

These questions came to a head at the end of May when the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, offered to "mediate" talks between the World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, and the protesters planning to disrupt the bank's meeting in Prague on 26-28 September. There was no consensus among protest organisers about participating in the negotiations at Prague Castle and, more to the point, there was no process in place to make the decision: no mechanism to select acceptable members of an activist delegation (some suggested an internet vote) and no agreed-upon set of goals by which to measure the benefits and pitfalls of taking part. Havel's approach simply sent those organising the demonstrations into weeks of internal strife which is still unresolved.

Part of the problem is structural. Among most anarchists - who are doing a great deal of the grass-roots organising and who got online long before the more established left - direct democracy, transparency and community self-determination are not lofty political goals; they are fundamental tenets governing their own organisations. Yet many of the key NGOs, though they may share the anarchists' ideas about democracy in theory, are themselves organised as traditional hierarchies. They are run by charismatic leaders and executive boards, while their members send them money and cheer from the sidelines.

So how do you extract coherence from a movement filled with anarchists, whose greatest tactical strength so far has been its ability to attack its targets from all directions? Maybe, as with the internet itself, you don't do it by imposing a preset structure but, rather, by skilfully surfing the structures that are already in place. Perhaps what is needed is not a single political party but better links among the affinity groups; perhaps what is needed is, rather than more centralisation, further radical decentralisation.

When critics say that the protesters lack vision, what they are really saying is that they lack an overarching revolutionary philosophy - such as Marxism, democratic socialism, deep ecology or social anarchy - on which they all agree, that nobody knows whether the people on the streets are shouting for a return to nationalism, to tribalism, to socialism or simply for a beefed-up United Nations.

That is absolutely true, and for this we should be extraordinarily thankful. At the moment, the anti-corporate street activists are ringed by would-be leaders, anxious for the opportunity to enlist them as foot soldiers for their particular cause: from those who look forward to the collapse of industrialisation and a return to "anarcho-primitivism"- a pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer Utopia - through the organisers of next weekend's Marxism 2000 conference in London, to those union leaders who are ready to tack social clauses on to existing trade agreements and call it a day.

It is to this young movement's credit that it has as yet fended off all of these agendas and has rejected everyone's generously donated manifesto, holding out for an acceptably democratic, representative process to take its resistance to the next stage. Perhaps its true challenge is not finding a vision but rather resisting the urge to settle on one too quickly.

It is high time, I think, for veterans of past social movements to stop lecturing young activists as if they were misguided children, and to start listening to them.

The manifesto of the emerging anti-corporate movement (an amalgam of environmentalism, anti-capitalism, anarchy and the kitchen sink) hasn't been written yet because the activists on the streets are going to write it themselves. Before they sign on to anyone's ten-point plan, they deserve the chance to see if, out of the movement's chaotic, decentralised, multi-headed webs, something new, something entirely its own, can emerge.

A version of this essay first appeared in the American weekly the Nation. The writer's book No Logo was published by HarperCollins in January (£14.99)