The paradigms of people power

October 8, 2004

The global anticapitalist movement links millions of ordinary people worldwide and has no historical precedent. So why are so few anthropologists involved? asks Nancy Lindisfarne.

The third European Social Forum will take place in London from October 15 to 17. This will be a true festival of resistance for tens of thousands. There will be 600 meetings and cultural events, a mass demonstration and a concert in Trafalgar Square.

I've been helping to organise the London ESF as an activist, but I can't help seeing the process with the eyes of an anthropologist.

I've done fieldwork before, on migration with nomads in Afghanistan, at rich weddings in the Damascus Sheraton, and in Turkey, Iran and the US.

This time I'm a participant, but part of me is still observing and thinking what all this means for anthropology.

The London ESF is part of the global anticapitalist movement that began in Seattle in 1999 when the meeting of the World Trade Organisation was closed down. In 2001, the first World Social Forum was organised in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Regional social forums have since taken place in Europe, Africa and Asia.

In July 2001, the Genoa Social Forum organised the huge demonstrations against the G8 summit being held in the city. I stayed at home. At 4am my partner phoned from Genoa. He said that our housemates, Rich and Nicola, and 90 others had been beaten for hours by the police and then disappeared into custody, no one knew where. My job, I was told, was to "telephone human-rights lawyers immediately. Call Jeremy Corbyn (our local MP)."JWe got them out of jail.

Three years on, Rich and Nicola have been witnesses for the prosecution in the case against the Italian police, and I've become a social forum junkie.

At the first ESF in Florence in November 2002, I helped organise the accommodation, and I was tickled pink when a photo of more than 2,000 neatly ordered sleeping bags laid out on the floor of the new sports hall appeared in the British newspapers. I missed most of the meetings, of course, but I did manage to get to the demonstration in Florence and was one of the 1 million people who marched against the war in Afghanistan and the impending war in Iraq. And I was at the Assembly of Social Movements the next morning when ESF participants called the international anti-war demonstration for February 15, 2003 that brought some 15 million people onto the streets of the world.

At the third WSF in Porto Alegre, in January 2003, I listened to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, "Lula", the president of Brazil, give an hour-long extemporaneous address to 100,000 people in an open-air amphitheatre. It was a virtuoso political performance beyond the imagination of Tony Blair.

And on the anti-war demonstration, I had a chance to shake hands with the writer Arundhati Roy.

At the ESF in Paris, November 2003, we decided to bring the next one to London. In Paris, I stayed up half the night wondering how we could organise the cultural events as a central part of the London gathering.

My vision of culture at the social forums expanded dramatically at the WSF at Bombay in January 2004. Some 120,000 people attended the six-day event at a defunct textile factory that had fallen victim to globalisation. My most vivid memory was of a seminar of some 300 people on honour killings, a perennial topic for us anthropologists of the Middle East. The chair herself translated between English and Hindi. Another woman translated into Tamil for the 50 or more dalit (untouchable) women in the audience. The three speakers made it clear that honour killings occurred among Hindus and Muslims. When someone from the audience began a sectarian diatribe against Muslims, the chair interrupted and stopped the bigot in her tracks: "You have not listened to our speakers, and I will not allow your question. It is not in the spirit of this meeting." The chair was given a round of applause.

A small elderly man was queuing to speak next. He said shyly: "I am kind to women, but I am a widower and if anyone here is looking for a husband, they might want to consider me." There was a roar of laughter.

The WSF in Bombay was a powerful energiser for organising the London ESF.

Thank goodness, because my learning curve these past months has been nearly vertical. My political education has accelerated enormously. My organising skills have had to take on another dimension. And the process has raised many new questions about the relation between politics and the academy, the discipline of social anthropology and the new social movements. Through participant-observation, I've begun to understand in my bones the dynamics of practical politics in the UK. I've learnt to ask about the individual players and the political tendencies they represent, and to make connections, all the time, between past politics and what people hope to achieve for themselves and the movement through the ESF. And I've learnt not to be naive.

The founding principles of the WSF, and the movement as a whole, are based on ordinary people stepping forward, finding consensus and organising from the bottom up. Inclusion is central. More than 2,000 organisations are committed to the process in London, including Friends of the Earth, Survival International, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Globalise Resistance, lecturers' union Natfhe, the Trades Union Congress and Indy Media.

Being involved has meant I've been doing what amounts to day-to-day practical ethnography. The temptation to later write a formal ethnography is enormous.

I ended up helping to organise "culture". I now speak glibly of concert rigs, set-up and get-off times for jazz bands, marching bands, salsa bands, drum jams and Bolivian folk musicians. I talk knowingly about lumis, beamers and hanging artwork on paneling, and I've spent days in tutorials on Excel spreadsheets.

But I have had a bit of thinking time. This new global movement of anticapitalist groups has no historical precedent in terms of size, style and political determination. It deserves anthropologists' attention.

Certainly, other academics have joined the movement. Kate Hudson of South Bank University and Alex Callinicos, of York University, are among our gurus, but Chris Knight from the University of East London is the only other academic anthropologist I know to be involved.

This is curious, but many factors dispose anthropologists to conservatism.

The audit culture, with its financial and funding constraints, affects the content of teaching and research and inhibits intellectual innovation.

Since the early 1980s, funding constraints have favoured the recruitment of "safe" anthropologists, who remain overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class. Moreover, conservative forces also influence the study of new social movements. The number of recent titles in this area is staggering, but the content of many of these tomes is anything but radical. Much is reminiscent of the most dire sociological work of the 1950s: abstract labelling exercises written in gobbledegook with flow diagrams to describe social change.

Moreover, most anthropologists have been heavily influenced by identity politics. Yet, as Naomi Klein has argued, the global anticapitalist movement can put an end to identity politics. It is a movement that emphasises class while abhorring ethnic and racial exclusion, and argues that disparate groups of people suffer in similar ways at the hands of a single international social system. Such an argument is particularly challenging for anthropology, which has long emphasised culture and difference. Tired old "identity" and "representation" are still racialising and individuating social analyses while deflecting attention from questions of collective action and reaction.

This will no longer do. Anthropology will now either become a ghetto of esoterica or move on to re-engage with political economy. Today, every person on the planet has their own explicit home-made model of Bush's Project for the New American Century. This means that whatever topics anthropologists study, they must at some point acknowledge the preoccupations of the people with whom they work. Nowadays, the anthropologist who does not have her own cogent political analysis of empire and global capitalism looks the fool. Such analyses depend on reading and thinking widely outside the discipline. Yet academic anthropologists who do so risk intellectual discomfort, a loss of specialist authority and accusations of disloyalty.

Considering the depth and sophisticated social and political analyses of journalists such as John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Gary Younge and George Monbiot, anthropologists have some catching up to do. There have always been some who have been able and bold enough to ask big new questions.

Tracy Kidder has written a superb biography of anthropologist Paul Farmer - Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man who Would Cure the World . Here is the anthropologist as hero. And Carolyn Nordstrom's new ethnography, Shadows of War: Violence, Power and International Profiteering in the 21st Century , is exemplary. It fundamentally challenges conventional ways of thinking about violence, politics and the global economy. And it points the way forward.

Each lunchtime in Bombay, demonstrations of activists called attention to their causes. One day, I watched a group of Nagas in feathers and tribal gear pass, then a contingent of spectacularly dressed Bombay transvestite prostitutes and 200 Korean socialists I'd marched with the day before. I saw Bob Crow, general secretary of the British railworkers' union, the RMT, watching the demonstrations: he too was mesmerised. He had also already begun to organise union support for the London ESF. It made me think - the movement is for everyone who cares about ordinary people and their quality of life. Anthropologists, too, have every reason to get involved.

Nancy Lindisfarne is an anthropologist and formerly worked at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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