Old lessons for modern warriors

October 12, 2001

How do you organise 603 groups - each with its own agenda, political orientation and organising style - into a coherent force that can blockade the centre of a major city, halt an international summit meeting and contribute to the collapse of talks over an international treaty? How would you deal constructively with large numbers of strong-minded individuals streaming in, all wanting to influence events?

In Seattle at the end of 1999, individual activists arriving to protest at a meeting of the World Trade Organisation were asked to form "affinity groups" of five to ten people. Such groups were formed into "clusters". Each cluster sent a representative, or "spoke", to the "Action Spokescouncil", which met every night to debate the day's events and plan for tomorrow's. The spokes, in party hats to identify themselves, stood in the centre of a warehouse truck bay, surrounded by hundreds of groups organised into clusters, every person participating in "consensus decision-making". Thus was strategy developed for the Battle of Seattle, by consensus.

Direct, inclusive, participatory democracy is at the heart of the grassroots movement against corporate globalisation. These anarchist methods of organising and a fierce desire for equality colour the movement.

Anarchist ideas, on the other hand, are rather more problematic. The anarchist rejection of the state conflicts with the thrust of the anti-globalisation movement, which demands state control of corporate excess.

For some, this tension is only part of a workable politics. "In today's world," Noam Chomsky suggests, "the goals of a committed anarchist should be to defend some state institutions from the attack against them, while trying at the same time to pry them open to more meaningful public participation - and, ultimately, to dismantle them in a much more free society, if the appropriate circumstances can be achieved." For others, the conflict is unworkable, leading to a rejection of anarchism or of the stated goals of improved state regulation in various fields.

Over the past 25 years, a new anarchist youth culture has been evolving, in part out of the cultural detonation that was punk rock. This new anarchism has staked a claim to do-it-yourself politics. In Britain, this meant unlicensed rave parties, a surge of squatting, road protests and peace camps. The criminalisation of raves led to politicisation and seeded the idea of "the street party as demonstration/festival".

The politics of the political street party have always been hazy. Without speakers to educate, agitate and organise, and sometimes with no apparent agenda, the street party is spontaneous and ambiguous. For some, these "temporary autonomous zones" are ends in themselves - whether they challenge institutions is a secondary issue.

Others in the anti-globalisation movement seek to create social change and are painfully aware of the gap between the ability to mount spectacular mass demonstrations and the ability to confront transnational corporate power. There is an uneasy tension between ideals and methods. Few really believe that the replacement of capitalism as a social system can be accomplished by street parties. Within People's Global Action, an international network of anti-globalisation groups, "summit-hopping" has been disparaged for "lacking vision" and for its lack of continuity.

After Seattle, however, it is not difficult to see the attractions of summit-hopping. Local organising is harder, less glamorous, and attracts much less attention, although it may now prove more difficult to mount summit "spectaculars" in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the 1960s, community organising among the deprived, like anti-war protest, was a focus of US student activism. Today, those activists who advocate a similar local commitment are in a minority.

There is also the question of constructing feasible visions of the future to work towards. As the Financial Times observed recently: "The new wave of political activism has coalesced around the simple idea that capitalism has gone too far." This is "as much a mood as a movement, something counter-cultural". The feeling that "capitalism has gone too far" is some distance from the traditional socialist analysis that private ownership of the means of production is in itself an evil. And an even greater distance from the traditional anarchist or libertarian socialist position that productive resources should be controlled by voluntary workers' associations and community organisations, without the need for overarching coercive state structures.

Anarchism is an important element in the western anti-capitalist movement, which itself is one component of what we lazily refer to as the "anti-globalisation" movement. But some old insights have yet to be regained. "The fundamental basis of the revolutionary case against Capitalism is not that it makes the few rich and the many poor - though this is true; not that it creates social conditions which are a disgrace and an amazement in a civilised community - though this also is true; not that it brutalises the rich by luxury, stifles beauty, and frustrates the hope of craftsmanship for the worker - though, indeed, it does all these things; but that it denies and degrades the character of man (and woman) by the operation of a wage-system which makes the worker of no more account than a machine to be exploited or a tool to be bought and sold."

This statement, from a 1918 book on Guild Socialism, is part of an almost forgotten spectrum of libertarian socialist ideas. The Guild Socialists were committed to workers' self-management of industry in parallel with a residual state, ideas that could be revived profitably today.

Today's anarchist anti-capitalists have not so far developed visions to rival or surpass these ideas. For now, the struggle is tactical, single-issue, not strategic. The activists are bound together by their opposition to what BBC economics correspondent James Morgan has called the "de facto world government" in a "new imperial age" - the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Group of Eight and other structures that serve the interests of transnational corporations. The immediate problem is to create national and international organisations that can challenge and dismantle these structures, to create bonds and relationships between North and South.

Anarchism has always been in tension between nihilism and commitment, between the fight of despair on the one hand, and the constructive effort of social renewal on the other. On the streets of Genoa, Gothenburg and London, we have seen both tendencies at work.

Anarchism will continue to play a vital role among the anti-globalisation "street warriors", as much in the forms and the methods they adopt as in the analysis and vision they develop. Consensus decision-making, inclusive meetings and direct democracy are the tools of a deeply anti-authoritarian movement - though far from universally applied in the movement.

It remains to be seen whether the fragments of the movement can weld themselves together, and the party-hatted spokes can radiate out and infuse large masses with a persuasive vision of a new society. Anarchism has new opportunities, if it can regain and build on the advances of the past.

Milan Rai is author of Chomsky's Politics , published by Verso Books, £12.00.

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