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The new gravediggers

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

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Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Globalisation Debate by Naomi Klein; LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2002; pages XXVIII+268, Rs.150.

OVER a hundred thousand people gathered on a cold January day in the capital of the United States to signal their opposition to the Pentagon-Big Oil-led war on Iraq. Among the multitude were seasoned peace activists, many from the generation that participated in the struggles to end the war on Vietnam. But, the centre of Washington, D.C., was filled with a large number of young people. Veterans of many protests, they came with an acute sense that the issue was not just war on Iraq, but a take-over of the world by the global right-wing. Signs proclaimed "No Blood for Oil" or else "Education Not Devastation". The nefarious motives of war came to life on the thousands of hand-made signs across the city.

The rapid growth of the anti-war movement in the U.S. is a testament to what Canadian journalist Naomi Klein calls the "globalisation movement". Despite the Bush administration's attempt to use the tragedy of 9/11 to push for war, almost two-thirds of the U.S. population oppose any unilateral invasion of Iraq. "Peace in Hand is Better than Two Bushes", said one sign at the Washington march. Across the nation, scores of municipal councils have voted against war and vigils as well as protests are legion.

When the activist groups gave a call to mobilise against the war, they did not have at their command organised groups, which could bring members to Washington and elsewhere. The call went to a largely disorganised population, but one schooled in the deceit of those in power by the several protests that erupted in December 1999.

It took the world by surprise. Klein calls the demonstrations in Seattle "the coming out party of the movement", the debut of this new thrust within the U.S. The protesters in Seattle, she writes, "are not anti-globalisation; they have been bitten by the globalisation bug as surely as the trade lawyers inside the official meetings. Rather, if this new movement is `anti' anything, it is anti-corporate, opposing the logic of that what's good for business - less regulation, more mobility, more access - will trickle down into good news for everybody else". The demands of the protesters, Klein astutely noted, are not rooted in provincialism or protectionism. They denounce the type of globalisation put forth by the powers and demand a kind of globe that is wedded to planetary norms of justice for all. It is in this spirit that this fundamentally international movement proclaims, "Another World is Possible". When Naomi Klein went to Seattle, she was not yet 30, a peer of the many young people who put much of the shine on the demonstrations in Seattle (although, of course, the youth were not alone). A few months before those five days that shook the world, Klein had published her first book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. In that extraordinary book (which The New York Times called the "movement Bible"), Klein explains how hyper-capitalism seeks to produce brands or logos to screen off the production of commodities. The brand (Nike or Coke) is more important than the product, though it is eventually the sale of the product that fuels the system (Frontline, March 30, 2001).

The last third of No Logo took the readers on a journey into the various creative ways that young people, those targeted by the Brand Bullies, disrupted the Logo Logic, either through media campaigns or else through the take-over of the streets. Reclaim the Streets (RTS), mainly a European and North American movement, emerged in 1995 to hijack streets and turn them into places for spontaneous gatherings. The people who came out to reclaim streets took over public space and attempted to "fill it with an alternative vision of what society might look like in the absence of commercial control". RTS held some spectacular protests across Europe, and after one of them in Berlin in 1998, they sent out an e-mail message, "Next time it'll be bigger". Although RTS was not the main agent at Seattle, it was bigger.

Naomi Klein's new book is not as weighty as her first, because it consists mainly of her newspaper and magazine articles - ranging from those filed from the streets of Seattle in 1999 to those on the "War Against Terror" in mid-2002. Insightful and honest, these articles offer a window into the myriad protests of the globalisation movement against the corporate attempt to take absolute control of the commons. Easy to read, the book is an introduction to the problems of our present as well as of the movements of social justice that try to tackle our burdens. Klein details the authoritarian measures taken by local police forces when the globalisation movement came to protest against the meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and others. When those in power meet, the police act for them and not for the people. "In the era of corporate globalisation, politics itself is becoming a gated community, with ever more security and brutality required for it to conduct business as usual." After 9/11, the language of terrorism is used not only to ensure that protests are shut down, but to pass measures otherwise thought to be unwise by those in power, but with a liberal conscience. "Welcome to the brave new world of trade negotiations," Klein wrote in October 2001, "where every arcane clause is infused with the righteousness of a holy war." The ruthlessness of the police tends to dissuade people from being active against the onslaught of neo-liberalism. "The police take their cue from us," Klein writes. "When we walk away, they walk in. The real ammunition is not rubber bullets and tear gas. It is our silence." If anything, Fences and Windows is a manifesto against silence.

WHAT are we to protest against? This is clear and Klein offers only a few pages on the problem: the theft of the commons by capital. The articles here are spotty and not as strong as the stuff on the protests, but they do make their point effectively enough: safe water, safe food, safe education, safe housing, and other basic needs are not to be provided to the people as a priority. On the contrary, capital will commandeer these sections hitherto held off from the market in the "public sector" and run them for a profit.

What is the alternative to these policies and what should the movement for an alternative look like? Klein offers an excellent snapshot of the alternative views of the main strands in the North American and European globalisation movement. In April 2000, in Washington, D.C., the globalisation movement showed up to close down the annual IMF meetings. Although the meetings took place, the demonstration produced a significant effect - it ensured that the Seattle dynamic continued. One indication of the anti-corporate mood came from a sign seen across the protest area: "If you think the IMF and World Bank are scary, wait until you hear about Capitalism." A few months later, in Prague (September 2000), Klein tells us that the globalisation movement is certainly anti-capitalist, but it is also opposed to communism - it is in favour of "decentralised power". "Today," wrote the French farmer activist Jose Bove, "people mobilise without wanting to take over state institutions, and maybe this is a new way of conducting politics. The future lies in changing daily life by acting on an international level." What Klein reports and what Bove argues is that the concentration of power in a movement or in a post-capitalist state is the problem. The state itself must be avoided in the struggle for justice. Klein says that this is why many of the youth in the globalisation movement call themselves anarchists. In the September 2001 issue of the New York-based journal Monthly Review, scholar Barbara Epstein reported on "Anarchism and the Anti-Globalisation Movement": "Anarchism has the mixed advantage of being rather vague in terms of its proscriptions for a better society, and also of a certain intellectual fuzziness that allows it to incorporate both Marxism's protest against class exploitation, and liberalism's outrage at the violation of individual rights. I spoke with one anti-globalisation activist who described the anarchism of many movement activists as `liberalism on steroids' - that is, they are in favour of liberal values, human rights, free speech, diversity - and militantly so."

In her 1999 book, Klein wrote, "Political solutions - accountable to people and enforceable by their elected representatives - deserve another shot before we throw in the towel and settle for corporate codes, independent monitors and the privatisation of our collective rights as citizens." What we did not get then and what we do not get in the new book is a sense of what these "political solutions" will look like. She is right in saying that the decentralisation of the movements makes the protests more vibrant and more meaningful to those who come to them. In this period, when people bring their diverse agendas and different constituencies to the movement, it is perhaps a good thing that there is no attempt to create singularity. However, as the movement develops, the issue of a common platform will be raised. If the globalisation movement makes a fetish of decentralisation now, then it may not be prepared to take the next step toward organisation.

Klein is well aware of the problems of a McMovement that does not organise in localities to build power in local struggles that are linked. "It is an article of faith in most activist circles," she writes, "that mass demonstrations are always positive: they build morale, display strength, attract media attention. But what seems to be getting lost is that demonstrations themselves aren't a movement. They are only the flashy display of everyday movements, grounded in schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods. Or at least they should be." Any movement that is grounded in this way must be prepared to take charge of these institutions. What happens if the globalisation movement wins a local struggle and must take charge of the public water supply? What does a movement committed to decentralisation at all costs do then? How will it make the institution accountable? Michael Hardt (co-author with the Italian leftist Antonio Negri of the celebrated Empire), in his analysis of the Porto Alegre summits, makes an analytical distinction between those who work to "reinforce the sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control of foreign and global capital", and those who "strive toward a non-national alternative to the present form of globalisation that is equally global". While this may be so in the style of the slogans, it is not clear what the latter may look like in programmatic terms: what programmatic demands can the latter make apart from getting rid of the entire class of elites, que se vayan todos! The best of those who do not want to relinquish the state institutions as the horizon of accountable justice do believe in the creation of "democratic globalisation", and their programmatic demands strive to build state capacity toward such an eventuality. To do any less is to abdicate the field of political action. The state, after all, is a formally accountable institution in a democracy and the people are within their constitutional rights to make demands on the state. It is important to lodge one's demands toward this institution to build capacity for the creation of a just global democracy. The anarchist spirit that governs much of the globalisation movement, as Klein notes, has not faced this problem as yet.

Fences and Windows is an exciting book, filled with passion for the movement that has learnt to reclaim the streets even as most of the public domain is being privatised into corporate hands. It is this movement that has now taken up the charge to stop the war. Without a doubt, within North America and in Europe, the globalisation movement has been the most significant political development on the Left in decades. Within this movement, for all its flaws, is the hope of a better world.

Vijay Prashad is Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Programme, Trinity College, Connecticut.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 28, 2003.)

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