Chris Harman

 

Anti-capitalism:
theory and practice

(Part 2)

 

Marxism and the 20th century

Marx died in the early 1880s. He therefore had little chance to see how the trends he described, basing himself mainly on the development of British capitalism, worked themselves out as time went by. But the generation of Marxists who wrote in the first third of the 20th century were able to do so. The Austrian Rudolf Hilferding described the increasing role played by financial institutions like banks, and by stockmarkets, and how with this emerged a growing connection between firms inside each country and the state to give rise to “finance capital”. [70] Rosa Luxemburg described how the capitalists of Europe and the US scoured the rest of the world for markets and raw materials, reducing other countries to colonies and vassals, and in the process impoverishing their peoples. [71] Nicolai Bukharin and Vladimir Lenin analysed the rise of “state monopoly capitalism”. They pointed to the growing merger of the capitalist firms in each country with the state so as to carve out empires as a way of supplementing the profits to be obtained through “peaceful competition”-and the inevitable outcome of this, wars between the great powers to repartition the world. Leon Trotsky showed how, faced with great economic crises and threats from the workers’ movements, ruling classes were prepared to turn to the leaders of mass fascist movements of the middle class as a tool to maintain their position, even if the result was barbarism on a previously undreamed of scale.

The world analysed by Hilferding, Luxemburg, Bukharin, Lenin and Trotsky was very different in a number of respects to that described by Marx. The state and war, hardly mentioned in Marx’s economic writings, played an enormous role. So did the rigging of prices by monopolies, trade bargaining between national states, the machinations of financiers on money and commodity markets. What is more, the system which had been in Marx’s time overwhelmingly based in Europe and North America was now expanding out to bind the whole world into its networks of buying, selling and, increasingly, production.

But there was one great element of continuity. The driving force of the system as a whole remained the pumping of labour out of workers and its transformation into capital, “dead labour”, whose circuits on a world scale laid down limits within which the great bulk of the world’s population had to lead their lives. It was the competitive drive between those who controlled these great accumulations of dead labour that led to the First World War and the Great Slump of the early 1930s.

 

 

The high point of state intervention

The great trend noted by Hilferding, Luxemburg, Lenin and the others, the growing integration of industrial management and the state, continued with an accelerating pace before, during and after the Second World War. Faced with wars and conditions of economic crisis, states intervened to merge national firms and co-ordinate their functioning with that of the state bureaucracies. Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and then, as war erupted, Britain and the US followed this path. So did weaker capitalist classes elsewhere, feeling that only by using the state to mobilise resources could they stand up against their international rivals: countries as varied as the right wing regime in Poland, the populist regime in Brazil, the Peronist government in Argentina, all embraced nationalisation and often some degree of “planning”. Many newly independent Third World countries followed the same path in the post-war decades. And even in countries like Britain and France, important chunks of productive industry as well as transport, water and electricity generation were state-run. It was Chamberlain’s Conservative government that nationalised Britain’s airlines, and it was de Gaulle’s government that nationalised Renault in France.

This context enables us to understand one other important feature of the world in these decades-Stalinism. It used to be habitual on the left to regard Stalinism as a form of socialism, albeit distorted to some degree or other. Now it is almost fashionable to regard it as a form of society radically different to capitalism, but worse. Stalinism is, however, better seen as one extreme on a continuum of increasing statification of economies subordinated, like the old fashioned capitalism of Marx’s time, to the pressure of competitive accumulation. It was the most thoroughgoing form of state capitalism.

The Stalinist economy arose not in the early 1920s, in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s revolution, but in the late 1920s as a new exploiting class arose on the back of counter-revolution. Such a class could only maintain its position in a world dominated by great existing capitalist classes if it tried to industrialise so as to catch up with them. Stalin did so by imitating within Russia many of the means used a century and more before in Britain’s industrial revolution – the driving of peasants from the land, the forcing down of real wages, the use of child labour, the establishing of a huge slave system of gulags. And along with all these things went, as in so many other industrially undeveloped countries, reliance on the state to carry out a task which private industrialists would not or could not do.

The state was central to the productive core of capitalism virtually everywhere all the way from the early 1930s to the mid-1970s. The doctrines justifying this role varied from one part of the world to another. In the West, the main one was Keynesianism, after the mainstream economist J.M. Keynes, who felt that state intervention was the only way to keep capitalism afloat after the great crisis of the early 1930s. In the Russian bloc – and among those who admired its methods in the West and the Third World – the Stalinist doctrine prevailed, although it was given different names after 1956. In the Third World, “developmentalist” notions prevailed, which sought to achieve industrialisation by reliance on the state to cut out foreign competition and build up new industries.

Regardless of the doctrines used, there was a common thread to policies pursued in each country. Firms relied upon states to provide some stability to their markets, while states relied on firms to build up their national industrial strength, expecting – at least in larger countries – to contain within national boundaries the full range of industries needed to provide for the needs of a modern economy.

In this period, all those who wanted to reform capitalism while avoiding thoroughgoing revolution looked to intervention by the state to achieve their aims. In the advanced countries Keynesians said that such reform could save capitalism from itself, and social democrats said it could do away with the need for any sharp change to socialism. In the Third World, Communists, social democrats, populist politicians and middle class intellectuals alike saw such intervention as enabling the local exploiting class, workers and peasants to ally together to break the economic hold of the imperialist powers and achieve economic growth. Only when this had been done should the workers fight for power themselves. Those of today’s activists who hold that the central problem is erosion of the power of the state with “globalisation” of the economy are hankering for a return to such conceptions.

Yet this identification with the state as a benevolent agency for managing capitalism rested on a very shortsighted notion of what that state is. It is based around “armed bodies of men” whose job is killing. The era of state direction of industry was not one of benign treatment of the people. It was the phase in which the abiding image of the life of the worker was that of the appendage to the machine presented in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times or Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals. The phase included the Nazi regime in Germany and the ultimate horror of the Holocaust, the starvation of some four million people in British-ruled Bengal in the early 1940s, the French colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, and the US war against Vietnam. It also included the horrors associated with Stalinist forced industrialisation in the former USSR. It was the period in which Latin America tended to be dominated by military dictatorships, like that which ran Brazil in the late 1960s, and in which the “Great Leap Forward” attempted instant industrialisation in China in 1958-1960, leading to many millions of deaths from starvation.

Capitalism ruled the world through this phase, just as it had before and would after. And with its rule went horrors to parallel any known in the previous history of humanity. Anyone who looks back on that period of capitalism with nostalgia is allowing the horrors that exist today to block out memories of the horrors of just a few decades ago.

It is true that for a 30-year period after the Second World War the system was able to experience considerable economic expansion, and that during these years some of the world’s people were able to force their rulers to concede improvements in living standards. Even then, however, the motor for expansion was not the benevolence or rationality of rulers. Rather it was a Cold War driven worldwide level of arms expenditure unprecedented in peacetime. [72] At the high point of the Cold War in the early 1950s something like one fifth of the wealth produced in the world’s wealthiest country, the US, went directly or indirectly to the military budget, and possibly twice that proportion in its poorer military competitor, the USSR.

Meanwhile the old logic of capitalism continued to work itself out. Big firms continued to take over small firms or drive them out of business until a few “oligopolies” dominated the major sectors of the economy of most countries. In Britain, for instance, some 200 firms, run by perhaps 600 or 800 directors altogether, produced more than half of the total output. And in the countryside of most of the world agriculture increasingly moved towards the pattern pioneered in Britain, with massive migration to the cities as capitalist farming employing waged labour displaced peasants toiling on their own plots.

The process went furthest in Europe and North America, with the number of people engaged in agriculture falling from over 30-40 percent of the population in countries like France, Italy, Ireland or Spain in the early 1950s to well under 20 percent by the mid-1970s. But it was also underway in many ex-colonial countries long before anyone talked of “globalisation”. In India, for instance, the most fertile land in regions like the Punjab was increasingly in the hands of medium sized capitalist farmers employing wage labour – and able to afford the new seed types, the tube wells and the fertilisers associated with the “Green Revolution.” In Algeria a newly created middle class of capitalist farmers, not the rural poor, were the main beneficiaries of the land reform carried out after the end of French rule. Everywhere, capitalism was reshaping society in its own image.

 

 

The birth of neo-liberalism

The stage of rapid economic expansion came to a sudden end in the mid-1970s. What economic historians sometimes refer to as the “golden age of capitalism” gave way to a “leaden age”. Country after country experienced a succession of traumatic economic crises. And each of the doctrines associated with the previous age – Keynesianism, Stalinism and developmentalism – fell apart. It was then that ruling classes and their attendant intellectuals underwent sudden, mass conversions to the doctrine at first generally known as monetarism, then as “Thatcherism” or “Reaganism”, and now as neo-liberalism.

Such conversions did not result, as Bourdieu seems to imply, simply from the insidious propagandising of the apostles of neo-liberalism. Rather they reflected the desperate attempts of the various groups who presided over and benefited from the workings of economies in the previous period to enforce their interests on the rest of society in the face of successive crises. The first such group were the heads of the world’s biggest firms. After decades of near-effortless growth of markets, they were suddenly faced with the need to restructure their operations and find new sources of profit.

Restructuring meant both “rationalising” production – sacking workers and closing plants – and reaching out beyond established national bases. Usually this meant a stress on increasing their penetration of foreign markets and, at a slower speed, beginning to organise production across international boundaries (although not always: rationalisation for Chrysler and British Leyland, for instance, meant divesting themselves of overseas operations).

New profits could only be obtained by finding sources of surplus value not tapped before. One such source lay in industries and services built up by the state in the past because private capital was not up to the job, even though they were directly or indirectly necessary to its operations. Taking over what had now become viable concerns was a lucrative addition to profits – especially when they were monopoly concerns which enabled private capital in effect to levy a tax on those consuming their products. Another source lay in grasping resources from the economies of the world’s weaker states, relying on the power of the world’s biggest states, especially the US, to achieve this in the course of trade and debt negotiations. Finally, after-tax profits could be raised everywhere by shifting the burden of taxation from profits to wages and consumer goods.

Although neo-liberalism as an ideology opposes state intervention, the practical implementation of these policies always depended on the state – or at least bargaining between the world’s most powerful states. This is why its implementation through international trade and business meetings has been far from smooth. The Financial Times can still worry that something as apparently trivial as the row between Europe and the US over banana imports “could be escalating transatlantic retaliation that would bring the already enfeebled WTO to its knees”. [73] There are similarly intractable disputes over what preparations the IMF should make for intervention in any further international financial crisis like that which hit Asia in 1997. [74] The “theorists” of neo-liberalism do not themselves have any easy answers to these conflicts. For although their creed preaches non-intervention by the state, it has been an ideology reflecting the needs of the state-industrial complexes of the US, the European powers and Japan in their collisions with each other and the world’s smaller states.

The second group to convert wholesale to neo-liberalism were those running states. During the full employment of the long boom they had been forced to placate workers by granting various welfare benefits and services. The “welfare state” had developed as an annexe to the main state institutions based on armed bodies of men, weapons of mass destruction, prisons, courts and so on. So long as economic expansion led to growing profits, capitalist interests had been prepared to tolerate the welfare system as an unfortunate necessity. But once profits began to be squeezed, they applied every sort of pressure to cut it back. Those running the state were caught. They dared not resist this pressure – attempts to do so led to balance of payments crises, massive movements of currency across national borders, even threats of national bankruptcy. Neither could they easily just dismantle the welfare system, for this risked provoking immense social turmoil. What they could do was use competitive mechanisms to set both producers and consumers of these services against each other. In this way they could cut the bills they paid for wages and for the “social wage”.

This sometimes involved privatisation and a complete “retreat of the state” from the provision of certain services. But often the same goals were pursued by other means: imposing cash limits on government departments, cutting the budgets of local authorities or educational institutions while increasing the amount they had to do, introducing “internal” market mechanisms in state-run structures (such as Britain’s NHS and schools system). In these cases the state did not “retreat”. It did, however, aim to improve the profitability of the capitalists operating within its territories by increasing the pressure on the mass of people.

Privatisation had a further benefit for those running the state. They could use it much as states in the past had used the contracting out of tax collection to private individuals (“tax farmers”). The state could pay for the current provision of certain services by selling to private firms the right to collect future revenues (most recently this has occurred with the “auctioning” of mobile phone rights: the British government has collected some 20 million and the German government some 30 million by giving private companies the right to levy monopoly prices – effectively taxes – on those who use the phones in the future).

The third group to convert to neo-liberalism were ruling classes outside the advanced industrial countries. From the 1940s to the 1970s many had tried to build up industry under their own control by a greater or lesser degree of state capitalism. This was hard going, even during the years of world boom, and their populations often paid a very heavy price for it. The end of the world boom and the successive economic crises of the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s doomed such efforts. Rulers previously committed to state capitalist “planning” switched sooner or later to attempts to integrate into the world market. This began happening in Egypt, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia in the mid-1970s, in various Latin American countries and India in the 1980s, and throughout the former Soviet bloc and much of Africa by the 1990s. Effectively those in charge of state-protected or state-run industrial complexes agreed, together with their friends in the state bureaucracy, to abandon near-monopoly domination of the local economy for the greater personal rewards of becoming junior partners to one or other section of multinational capital.

It was Sadat, who as a member of the “free officers” group had gone along with Nasser’s nationalisations in the 1950s and 1960s, who opened Egypt up to the market in the mid-1970s. In India, the same Congress Party which preached state control in the 1960s began dismantling that control in the late 1980s. In China, Deng Xiaoping, who had helped establish the monolithic state capitalist economy of the early 1950s, took the initiative in turning to the market, and then to the Western multinationals, in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Susan George has noted that Third World ruling classes have been very happy to go along with IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes:

Wealthy and influential people in the debtor countries are not necessarily displeased with the way this crisis has been handled. Structural adjustment has forced down workers” wages, and laws – such as they are – concerning working conditions, health, safety and the environment can easily be flouted ... Having largely escaped debt fallout, their concern is to belong to the increasingly globalised elite to play on the same courts as their counterparts in New York, Paris or London. [75]

In countries like India or Mexico, the last 20 years have seen certain firms that built themselves up during the period of protected markets now begin to transform themselves into multinationals in their own right. They might not be as big as General Motors, Microsoft or Monsanto, but their aspirations lie in the same direction.

The final group to adopt the neo-liberal doctrines were many of the intellectuals who had previously put their faith in state-directed reform within national economies. In Britain, many members of the current government so eagerly pushing privatisation were just as enthusiastic for an “alternative economic policy” based upon state intervention and control of imports in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Just as enthusiastic at the time were the Marxism Today group of intellectuals around the Communist Party who by their embrace of designer fashions and the market prepared the ideological ground for Blairism a few years later.

Petras and Morley have told how very large numbers of Latin American intellectuals made the switch from the statist “developmentalism” of the 1970s to the neo-liberalism of the 1990s, pointing to “a visible right turn of many of the left wing (social democrat, populist, socialist) parties and their intellectual ideologues – the latter primarily ex-Marxist intellectuals of the 1960s”. [76]

In parts of the world the switchover of intellectuals and once-radical politicians is still taking place. In South Africa, the ANC in government has embraced big business and privatisation. A Sudanese Communist recently showed me a statement from one of his party’s leaders arguing that the only way to achieve “development” was through export-oriented free market policies. On this issue Vandana Shiva is absolutely correct: “The powerful in the world – in government, politics, the media and business – are emerging as a global alliance, transcending North-South divides”. [77]

Two or three generations of middle class intellectuals had looked to the state to reform capitalism in a way which would enable there to be economic growth based on a “national consensus” between the different classes (even if, in the Third World, this was said to include only part of, but not all, the bourgeoisie). When it became clear that this programme would no longer work most turned, like the ruling classes, to a different model based on the market and opening up to international capital flows. They were not victims of the conspiracies of the multinationals but enthusiastic participants in them – just as some had previously been enthusiasts for the horrors resulting from the attempts to build industry in isolation in economically backward countries.

Such intellectuals performed a valuable function for the classes which benefited from neo-liberalism in the 1980s and early 1990s. They provided a justification not just for the latest stage in the trend, as old as capitalism itself, for the system to spread out beyond national frontiers. They also provided rallying cries for attacks on the gains in wages, working conditions and welfare that those who laboured for capital had been able to make during its “golden age” from the 1940s to the mid-1970s.

The importance of the new wave of critics of neo-liberalism comes from the way they have refuted one by one the fallacious arguments put across by such intellectuals. It is their great merit that they can see what is so wrong with neo-liberalism, even if they are not clear where it comes from and what it represents. They recognise that behind the hype about “globalisation” lies the reality of a system that wreaks havoc across the whole world. However, their failure to locate its roots leads to the contradictory standpoints they take when it comes to posing alternatives.

 

 

Limitations and contradictions

The organisation of trade, the flows of finance or the burden of debt are particular aspects of the much wider system. Attempts to deal with any one of them in isolation can often be easily evaded by those who run that system – or even merely deflect its horrors from one set of victims to another.

This is shown by the arguments over “fair trade” and child labour. To tolerate low wages and child labour in Third World countries (or First World countries, for that matter) is to allow employers, big and small, to ruin people’s lives as they push exploitation to its extreme limits. But simply to fight over these issues leaves untouched the conditions that drive poor people into the hands of such employers. The poverty of much of Africa, Latin America, Asia and the former Eastern bloc will continue, whether or not there is child labour and low wages. It cannot be tackled by struggles which limit themselves to these issues. Small victories over them only make sense if they are a stepping stone to bigger struggles and bigger victories.

The same goes for struggles to stop employers closing plants and shifting production to places where they can pay lower wages. Not to wage such struggles is to give a free hand to sections of capital to follow a global slash and burn strategy, destroying people’s lives in one part of the world after another in the endless pursuit of profit. But to restrict oneself to such struggles is, at best, to win a temporary respite, and at worst to end up, as so many union and community leaders have, begging the state to bribe firms not to move. Meanwhile, the poverty which forces people elsewhere to contemplate working for lower wages does not go away. Only a strategy that challenges the power of capital globally, rather than simply trying to restrict its ability to move, can deal with that problem.

The arguments arising within the debt campaigns have a very similar source. Not to challenge the burden of debt is to collude in the robbing of the world’s poorest people by the biggest banks. To restrict oneself to that challenge alone is to leave all the other causes of Third World poverty unresolved. In particular, it is to leave in the hands of the great corporations and the ruling classes of the advanced countries the resources that are needed to begin to overcome such problems in a way that does not inflict immense pain on Third World workers, peasants and indigenous peoples, and cause enormous damage to Third World environments.

One demand that is raised by many activists is for the “Tobin Tax” on financial transactions across national frontiers. It is the central demand of ATTAC in France. The idea originated some 22 years ago with the mainstream US economist James Tobin. He argued that a tax as low as perhaps 0.5 percent on such transactions would deter financiers from speculating against weak currencies and so strengthen the ability of governments to stabilise national economies. The argument is respectable enough to have appealed even to Anthony Giddens, and to have split the social democrat group in the European Parliament down the middle. At the same time, a lot of activists see it as providing a radical solution to the problems they identify with globalisation. Robin Round argues:

The world of international finance has become a global casino where investors seeking quick profits bet huge sums around the clock. Unlike investors in goods and services, speculators make money from money alone. No jobs are created, no services provided, nor factories built ... The game has far-reaching impacts on the losers...as the Mexican, South East Asian, Russian and Brazilian financial crises illustrated ...

By making crises less likely, the tax would help avoid the devastation that occurs in the wake of a financial crisis. It would also be a significant source of global revenue ... Conservative estimates show the tax could yield from $150-$300 billion annually. The UN estimates that the cost of wiping out the worst forms of poverty and environmental destruction globally would be around $225 billion per year. [78]

Any effort to force governments to shift the burden of taxation from the poor to the rich is to be welcomed, and that is what is positive in organisations like ATTAC. They open up arguments about challenging the vast wealth in private hands. But the idea that the tax by itself is the answer to humanity’s problems at the beginning of the 21st century is gravely mistaken.

First, financial flows are only one source of crisis among others. More important is the way in which the blind competition of industrial and commercial firms leads them to seek to raise profits by holding back living standards at the same time as expanding capacity at maximum speed. Global crises of overproduction are the inevitable result. The villains behind these are as much “productive” firms like General Motors, Toyota, Monsanto, IBM or Shell as “speculative” financial institutions.

Second, the Tobin Tax simply is not a powerful enough mechanism to stop even the activities of the financial speculators. As the Keynesian economist P. Davidson has shown, the levels suggested for it are nowhere near high enough to stop them moving funds abroad when they expect currency devaluations on the scale of those in the Mexican, South East Asian, Russian and Brazilian crises. “Grains of sand in the wheels of international finance” are not sufficient, he writes, “to do the job when boulders are required”. [79] Even Robin Round admits, “Tobin’s proposed tax would not have stopped the crisis in South East Asia”. [80]

There is, in fact, a central contradiction in the view of the tax as the great panacea for dealing with the effects of globalisation. If it is effective in reducing speculative transactions then it is not going to raise anything like the sums suggested, since the flows to be taxed would be much smaller than at present. If it can raise such sums, then it can only be because it does not stop the flows and their destructive effects on national economies.

What is true is that any attempt to impose the tax would meet with immense resistance from the world’s rich. They would use every weapon at their disposal against governments that took the idea seriously-ideological, political and economic. And, to be effective, the tax would have to be imposed simultaneously by all major governments. This means the tax could not be introduced without enormous struggles. It certainly does not meet the claims of many of its proponents of offering a pain free way of dealing even with financial speculation, let alone all the other horrors of the system.

Like the issues of “fair trade”, child labour, debt and moving production, it can lead people to challenge aspects of the system. But also, like them, the challenge it makes can only be effective by moving on to further, more radical, challenges.

The argument between “developmentalists” and “traditionalists” has similar roots in looking only at partial elements of a total situation. The poverty of much of the Third World has its origins in the way the development of capitalism over the last five centuries has concentrated the wealth of the world – the product of previous generations of human toil worldwide – in the hands of the ruling classes of a handful of Western countries.

“Developmentalism” came from attempts by Third World rulers, with the enthusiastic support of many intellectuals, to compensate for that poverty by enforcing on their peoples forms of industrialisation and agrarian change similar to those which the West has experienced. But because they started so late in the game the “sacrifices” they imposed on their own people and the devastation they inflicted on the environment were even greater than those suffered during the West’s industrial revolutions. Yet even then, industrialisation was rarely successful. Returning to that path is no alternative for the great majority of their workers and peasants to the terrible devastation that follows from Structural Adjustment Programmes and opening up to the multinationals. But neither is embracing “traditional” methods. That is to substitute a romantic image of the past for a real challenge to the world system that is behind the devastation of the present.

Karl Marx had to deal with similar arguments a century and a half ago. Some of the most pungent criticisms of what capitalism was doing to people were made by Romantic critics of the industrial revolution who could see how it was dehumanising people but looked to the past for an alternative. Marx wrote of them:

It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois view has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this Romantic standpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as its legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end. [81]

The way to deal with the inhumanity of the present system is not to try to go backwards to a world of traditional peasant agriculture and local production. It is rather to work out ways of seizing the huge productive resources created by capitalist exploitation and subjecting them to satisfying real human needs. The sums spent on the US arms budget alone could transform the life of every worker and peasant in the Third World. Add to that the waste on advertising and sales promotion, and the luxury consumption of the 200 or 300 billionaires with wealth equal to the incomes of half the world’s population, and you have enough to overcome Third World poverty and provide workers in the advanced countries with the better life they want as well. There is no need to retreat into localism or traditionalism. And such a retreat cannot work.

The accumulation of capital has taken place on a global scale. You cannot deal with its effects by localism, either in the developmentalist or traditionalist sense. There is no room in the modern world for that, any more than there was half a century ago for “socialism in one country”. The whole point about the mood of Seattle was that it showed there is global opposition to the global system.

Particular struggles against particular effects of the system are of immense importance. They can delay the advance of the capitalist juggernaut, occasionally even halt it in its tracks. They can make life a little more bearable for at least some of those who toil within the system. But their real importance is in adding to the momentum of the wider movement against the system, of encouraging people everywhere under its embrace to fight against it.

 

 

The question of agency

This still leaves unresolved the question of who is going to do the fighting, of what forces can be mobilised, and of what forces have the power to bring about change. On this there are as many views among the critics of neo-liberalism and globalisation as there are on the question of alternatives to them.

For many activists at Seattle the way forward was still seen as one of putting pressure on existing governments. So William Greider puts a lot of emphasis on legal reforms to make multinationals more accountable, and argues for “reform legislation, both at state and national level”. “Congress” should require “companies to provide hard, precise data on environmental damage to the foreign communities and citizens who are usually kept in the dark about it”. [82] Steven Shryber looks on the pressure of public opinion to force governments to reform the WTO. [83]

Other activists see the difficulty of persuading the great powers to change their ways. Instead they look to the Third World governments to somehow take on the great powers. Walden Bello speaks of “the efforts of communities and nations to regain control of their fate”, and sees the key mechanism as being through the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in which Third World governments have a majority, “taking an active role in reducing the powers of the WTO and the IMF”. [84]

Such an approach runs away from an honest assessment of the Third World governments. They are nearly all dominated by local elites who see their future as integration into global capitalism, even if they haggle over the terms of that integration. The few exceptions are dictatorships like those of Iraq or rump Yugoslavia whose ruling classes are as remote from the mass of the population as any in the West, and which usually combine residual elements of state capitalism with enormous levels of corruption. To see such governments as the agency for transforming the world in a positive direction is to display enormous naivety. And it is just as naive to imagine that when these governments meet together in international bodies their motives are somehow changed for the better. If the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank are thieves” kitchens, so is UNCTAD, even if the thieves are not so successful.

The clear difficulty of convincing governments leads many activists to talk in terms of side-stepping the state and the multinationals by “going local”. Susan George tells how:

Myriad activities are taking place at a local level as people fight here a toxic waste dump, there an intrusive, unnecessary highway, elsewhere a plant closing. Some of these initiatives can be linked, for example, through the promising Sustainable and Self Reliant Communities Movement. The more economic activities that can be recaptured and withdrawn from the transnational orbit, the better.

Dozens of towns of different sizes are already experimenting with locally-held joint stock companies to supply goods and services satisfying local needs. [85]

But the economic resources such local activities can deploy are minuscule compared with those at the disposal of multinationals and states. They cannot begin to meet the great majority of people’s needs – unless people are prepared to live at subsistence level, in conditions barely better than those of medieval anchorites. They can be at best small enclaves which leave untouched the ravages of the world system.

Susan George herself makes this point:

Unless we can make sure the state retains its prerogatives, I can’t see who will stand between the person on the ground and organisational tyranny. Without the state – though not necessarily the one we have now – it will soon be McSchools, McHealth and McTransport. [86]

This fits in with her earlier, absolutely correct, observation:

We have to find ways to stop people who will stop at nothing. Transnational capitalism can’t stop. With TNCs and uninhibited financial flows it has reached a kind of malignant stage and will keep on devouring and eliminating human and natural resources even as it undermines the very body – the planet itself – upon which it depends. [87]

But despite the hint that we need a different state, it is to pressure on the existing ones that she returns after making this point. She looks to the Tobin Tax and “a trifling purchase/sales tax on stocks, bonds, options and their fancy derivative cousins” to “put money in the coffers of the UN and the agencies”. [88]

The pressure on governments is to be exerted by “alliances”. She writes, in The Debt Boomerang, of:

Building bridges in the North between environmentalists, trade unionists, people concerned about drugs, activists for immigrants’ rights, members of Third World solidarity groups or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and that broadest category of all-taxpayers. We hope that each of these constituencies will see the need to work together for alternative policies and, simultaneously, the need to work effectively with their counterparts in the South. [89]

Many activists saw Seattle as the example of how such an alliance could be built, bringing together, as it did, representatives of Third World peasants, French small farmers, ecological organisations, NGOs, Third World workers, indigenous groups and, most amazingly to many participants, the American trade unions. Yet in lumping all these components together activists often fail to see the differences between them.

Some are organisations of activist minorities, whose power is restricted by that fact. Others are organisations attempting to represent much larger numbers of people. But these too vary. Peasant organisations, for instance, rarely represent a homogenous group of people, for as capitalism has drawn countries into its orbit it has encouraged a differentiation within the peasantry, with the better off peasants aspiring to be capitalist farmers, intent on buying up the land of poorer peasants and employing some as wage labour. When Luis Hernandez Navarro writes of “rural producers in Europe and Japan, who form the backbone of the new mobilisations” [90], he is failing to see the degree to which farming has become a capitalist industry, and a very lucrative one, in the advanced countries, with very few genuine peasants remaining. And even in Third World countries like India it is all too often big farmers who dominate peasant organisations, since they have the time and resources to do so. They might mobilise alongside poorer peasants for certain immediate objectives (like holding down the price of fertilisers), but they still have a fundamental difference of interest.

The situation with community groups among poor people in Third World countries like Mexico or Brazil can show certain similarities to that with the peasants. They often arise from the shared needs for certain resources, like clean drinking water or electricity. This can lead to very militant struggles. But all too often these are co-opted by corrupt political machines, who buy allegiance using a limited provision of these services as patronage and so build up their own agents in each community. Hence the ability of corrupt, authoritarian regimes to undermine oppositional alliances, and establish their own networks among the peasantry and poor urban dwellers.

Some people see the NGOs as themselves an agency for achieving change. Hernandez Navarro claims that “modern computer networks, the proliferation of hundreds of NGOs and the ease of moving about the world have made possible the formation of pockets of resistance that transcend national boundaries”. [91] Many activists make great play of the ability of NGOs to use internet technology to communicate with each other, forming decentralised but well informed networks able to mobilise around strategic objectives at short notice. But simply to exult the NGOs in this way, to see them as the agency of change, is to forget one basic thing. The NGOs are themselves minority organisations that must find ways to mobilise broader layers of people if they are to go beyond lobbying and pressure group politics to force policies on states and multinationals. They cannot by themselves fulfil Susan George’s goal of “stopping” multinational capitalism. They can achieve a lesser goal, which is not to be sneered at-publicising what multinational capitalism is up to. But stopping it requires some other agency to be mobilised by them. That is precisely why some NGOs have moved on from simply lobbying to activist agitation in recent years.

Supporters of a strategy centred on the NGOs often point to the example of Mexico, where a mobilisation of NGOs made it difficult for the Mexican government to crush the Zapatista movement among the Mayas of the Chiapas in 1994-1995. What they forget to add was that the NGOs were not able to prevent the state from continuing to harass that movement. It remained confined to a region far from the country’s major industrial and agrarian regions, and Mexican capitalism was soon able to shrug off the rebellion. In the election of July 2000 it was the neo-liberal candidate, Fox, who gained from the weakening of the old authoritarianism, not the forces opposed to neo-liberalism.

It should also be added that the concern of most NGOs with single issues means that they can sometimes be co-opted by supporters of the existing system. This is the point Susan George made about debt campaigns-faced with the offers of concessions by governments, they have sometimes ended up backing schemes which in reality do nothing for Third World poverty. The same has happened at times to human rights organisations. During the Gulf War of 1991 and the Balkan War of 1999 some were to be found supporting the US-led alliances on the grounds of the appalling human rights record of their opponents. Indeed, US governments have long used talk of human rights as a cover for their aim of US global hegemony. Some human rights organisations have seen through this pretence – others have not. The point is that so long as they concern themselves with single issues, rather than opposition to the global system, they can be pulled this way and that as events unfold. That is why a recent study of the Zapatista movement in Mexico from the US State Department’s Rand Corporation suggests a strategy of trying to use NGOs to defend Western capitalist interests. [92]

Susan George has noted the limitations of existing alliances when she urges a further broadening of them. In The Lugano Report she writes, “Shifts in the balance of power require assessing one’s numbers, forces and capacity for making alliances ... The alliances ... must be trans-generational, trans-sectoral, trans-boundary and sometimes making the strangest of bedfellows”. [93] But at points she suggests broadening the alliances even to include right wing politicians opposed to specific multinational schemes, like those Republicans in the US who joined with some Democrats to defeat Clinton’s “fast track” authority to sign free trade agreements, and “sometimes the allies may even be ... transnationals” like the insurance industry. [94]

The trouble is that bedfellows like that are not going do anything to halt the destructive dynamic of the system Susan George has described so well, even if they are willing to curtail certain “excesses”. For that dynamic originates in the blind drive to accumulate, which they embody as much as any other capitalist politician or any other multinational. To achieve that goal they will override all humane or ecological considerations for the very reasons Susan George explains-even if they are prepared to put up certain obstacles to certain activities of rival politicians or multinationals. To really strengthen the movements against the global system we have to look elsewhere.

 

 

Workers and anti-capitalism

One important factor at Seattle was that many activists saw, for the first time, workers as potential agents of change. The experience of American protest movements, going right back to the Vietnam War, had been of the organised working class being indifferent or even hostile to their demands. And even among European activists, with more experience of sections of trade unionists joining protests, there has been a strong tendency to see workers in the advanced countries as “labour aristocrats” living off the back of the Third World. Yet in Seattle US unions led their members to support and strengthen the protests. Suddenly it seemed to many people that the fight for jobs and against flexibility in the advanced countries could be part of the fight against Third World poverty and environmental destruction.

Yet most of the writings of the post-Seattle activists lack any grasp of why workers could get involved in the movement, and still tend to see them as just one more ally alongside others in trying to counter the machinations of the multinationals. This is because there is not a full understanding that world capitalism is more than just a conspiracy of a few corporate bosses. The world system is not seen as a system of accumulated surplus value, with the great bulk of surplus value at the beginning of the 21st century coming from the exploitation of wage labour. Missing is a sense that the system is driven forward by the attempt to squeeze out ever more surplus value, so that nowhere in the system can workers have the security of knowing their conditions tomorrow will be the same as today.

There is still a tendency to treat workers in advanced countries as privileged collaborators with the system. The fact that they usually have rather higher living standards than the great majority of the Third World’s people seems to confirm this view. It nevertheless rests on a failure to analyse how the system works. Capitalist firms are driven by the drive to accumulate surplus value, and so they invest where they can most profitably exploit people. At the beginning of the 21st century that investment is concentrated in the advanced countries and a handful of “newly industrialising countries”. It is here that capitalists find they can most easily tap surplus value. This is because labour in the advanced countries is more productive than elsewhere, and therefore more productive of surplus value, for a whole variety of historical reasons-the established accumulations of capital in these countries, their transport, energy and water infrastructures, the big pools of literate and numerate labour resulting from four or five generations of compulsory education.

Often under capitalism those who are poorest are not those who are most exploited, but those who have been cast aside by the development of the system. This is true of the long term unemployed, whose poverty comes from the fact that capitalism does not find it profitable to employ and exploit them. It is also true of very large numbers of the poor in the giant cities of the Third World, who suffer because capitalism does not allow them to have more than intermittent access to the means of making a livelihood for themselves and profits for it. Their pitiable existence is a massive indictment of the system, but the well springs that keep the system going lie, in the main, elsewhere, among the workers it employs. And its drive to increase competitiveness and raise profits necessarily leads to repeated clashes with them.

If most investment is in the advanced countries, then capital has to apply pressure on the wages and working conditions of their workers. Hence the continual pressure for more “flexibility”, the efforts to make workers compete with each other for jobs, the “reforms” which cut back on sickness, old age and unemployment provision. This is having a long term effect on the social psychology of American and European workers. In the 1960s and 1970s workers in the US or Germany looked back three or four decades and felt how much better off they had become. Today workers look back three or four decades and feel how much more overworked they are, and how much more insecure they are. This, for instance, is the feeling that pervades the scores of interviews carried out by Pierre Bourdieu and his colleagues in France in the early 1990s and published as The Weight of the World. [95]

Meanwhile, the rulers of Third World and former Communist countries concur with the IMF and the World Bank in squeezing their workers and peasants even more than workers in the advanced countries are squeezed. Hence the succession of Structural Adjustment Programmes, the savaging of welfare budgets, the privatisation of health and education, the ending of subsidies for food and transport.

Neo-liberalism is intent upon making people’s lives worse in the interests of capitalism. But people rarely just sit back and allow this to happen to them. They try to defend their conditions in one way or another. Often their reaction is localised and defensive. In any local newspaper virtually anywhere in the world you will find a scattering of reports of such reactions-protests at a hospital closure, at the lack of medicines in a health clinic, at increased bus fares, at the removal of food subsidies, at the imposition of fees for education, at new water charges, at the slashing of jobs in a factory or government office. Often people do not make the connection between their localised protest and the big picture of the world system. They see their problems as arising simply from corrupt politicians, a particularly nasty employer, an inept local council, an authoritarian regime. This narrowness of vision can make it difficult for different protests to generalise into a general onslaught on the real source of their problems.

But the bitterness can also produce generalised responses that open people’s eyes to aspects of the system as a whole. This happened to some degree with the first defensive struggles in the 1980s against neo-liberalism – for instance, with the year-long strike of Britain’s miners in 1984-1985 and of News International printers in 1986-1987. It happened again with the explosion of angry protests and strikes that shook France in November-December 1995.

The first half of 2000 has seen the temporary overthrow of the Ecuadorian government by a surge of protests from workers and indigenous peoples, general strikes in Argentina, South Africa and Nigeria, huge landless protests in Brazil, riots over fare rises in Guatemala, a public sector strike in Norway and the threat of one in Germany. These have been as much a reaction to the dynamics of global capitalism as were the street protests in London, Seattle, Washington and elsewhere.

Workers have a power to challenge the system that street demonstrators do not. They are concentrated together in workplaces and conurbations on a permanent basis. And it is their labour that produces the value and surplus value that drives the system forward. If they do not exercise this power it is because they lack the confidence and understanding to so. Serious anti-capitalist activists have to move on from simply demonstrating in opposition to the system to find ways to tap this power. As the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote shortly before her murder in January 1919, “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken.”

 

 

The dynamic of protest

Every successful protest movement goes through two phases. The first is when it bursts upon the world, taking its opponents by surprise and bringing joy to those who agree with its aims. The longer the time since the last great movement of protest, the greater the joy. And it seems that the sheer momentum of the movement is bound to carry it forward from strength to strength. This draws its adherents together, and leads them to play down old differences of opinion and old arguments on tactics.

But those against whom the protests are directed do not simply give up. Once the initial shock is over they strengthen their own defences, seek to ensure they are not taken by surprise again, and try to stall the movement’s forward motion. At this point, arguments over tactics necessarily arise within the movement, even among people who have sworn to forget old disputes in the interests of consensus.

This happened, for instance, with the movement against nuclear weapons in Britain in the late 1950s. The euphoria of unexpected success gave way after three years to bitter arguments over tactics between those who looked to changing Labour Party policy and those who put their faith in mass non-violent direct action. Similar arguments erupted a decade later in the US in the movement against the Vietnam War. Was the way forward to try to pressurise the government, or was it to try to find the forces that could revolutionise society?

Failure to resolve these arguments can all too easily lead to movements beginning to fragment and fall apart just as they reach their peak. As Tony Cliff used to put it, they rise like a rocket and then fall like a stick. The movement which burst upon the world at Seattle has still some way to go before peaking. But there are already incipient signs of debate and polarisation as questions are raised which, if not resolved, could lead to fragmentation and decline. The debates have been most bitter among the various forces involved in London’s 1 May demonstration.

Minor damage to bits of property – the breaking of windows in a McDonald’s, the painting of a statue of Winston Churchill, a few scrawlings on the Cenotaph war memorial – caused a predictable outcry in the media. Less predictably it produced an anguished debate on the website of the organising focus for 1 May, Reclaim the Streets, and a bitter attack on the behaviour of the protesters from the movement’s most prominent journalistic sympathiser, George Monbiot of The Guardian: “The movement ... has lost the plot,” he wrote. “It has turned into an association of incoherent vigilantes, simultaneously frivolous and menacing ... The nutters in the crowd smashed up shops and defaced the Cenotaph”. [96]

The arguments that arose after 1 May were not, however, completely new. They had begun to raise their heads in the aftermath of Seattle. Medea Benjamin, a leading figure in Global Exchange, which played an important role in organising for Seattle, wrote afterwards, “The mass, non-violent protests in Seattle represented the culmination of a months-long process of coalition-building by organisations.” But “a small number of protesters took it upon themselves to break the sense of solidarity and collective cohesion ... in the most sectarian manner” by “breaking windows, overturning trash bins and looting; roughing up WTO delegates, store employees and customers; and blanketing downtown Seattle with graffiti”. This was “negative in the eyes of the general public”. [97]

Medea Benjamin attributes the responsibility for this to groups of anarchists – although she was quick to add she does not mean all anarchists. George Monbiot went further. Not only were the anarchist groups who attacked property to blame, but so too were Reclaim the Streets organisers, despite wanting a peaceful protest. Their mistake was not to understand the limits of what any action could achieve:

Non-violent direct action is a misnomer. It is not a direct attempt to change the world through physical action, but a graphic and symbolic means of drawing attention to neglected issues, capturing hearts and minds through political theatre.

This might sometimes achieve limited objectives, like slowing down “the building of a road or airport”, but to do more it has to be “part of a wider democratic assault on the policies which gave rise to them”. Reclaim the Streets “might have been able to sustain an attack on global capitalism if it had identified a workable alternative. But without clear proposals for political change, the protests on both 18 June last year and on May Day this year were unmitigated disasters.” The movement ended up “floundering in huge and sticky issues, aping the language and actions of revolutionaries but without a revolutionary programme”. Moreover:

The problems are compounded by the myth of consensus. The direct action movement insists that it is non-hierarchical-but this has never been true. Some people, inevitably, work harder than others, making things happen whether or not everyone else in the movement agrees ... But in convincing themselves that there is no hierarchy, that the protests they start are spontaneous uprisings of the people, the organisers shed responsibility for their actions.

This lack of foresight and responsibility opened the way for the behaviour of the anarchists, he went on to argue: “Digging up Parliament Square to stop global capital is so futile, and so utterly frustrating and disempowering, that the more hot-headed protesters could almost be excused for wanting to do something spectacular”. [98]

Monbiot’s logic is impeccable, up to a certain point. Demonstrations and non-violent blockades are symbols which can be very important in providing a focus for people’s anger and aspirations. Seattle certainly did this – and so, despite Monbiot’s claims, did the anti-capitalist protests in the City of London in June 1999. But they are only symbols. And so are violent actions by small groups, despite seeming to display more serious intent. For they cannot in any way stop the system in its tracks, and bring to an end the production and circulation of surplus value, with all the horrors that follow from it. A whole world of alienated labour cannot be brought to a halt by breaking windows any more than by sitting passively in the street.

But Monbiot and many others fail to define their own alternative to simply relying on symbolic actions. Monbiot counterposed to the Westminster Square protest the London local elections, claiming that the protest “managed to jeopardise the best electoral chance radical politics has had in Britain for 15 years”. [99] Medea Benjamin said that campaigns that are “positive, inclusive and democratic” are “forcing corporations to change some of their most abusive policies”. [100] However, winning a few council seats or stopping a few of the worst forms of corporate behaviour will not, in themselves, stop or even slow down the mad delirium of the global system. In fact, both Monbiot and Benjamin have recognised this since their polemical pieces. He still backs some forms of direct action. She has played an important role in building the demonstrations in Los Angeles outside the Democratic Party convention, as well as providing a focus for the new movement by opposing both established parties in California’s November elections. Correct criticism of the behaviour of the anarchists should not lead people to believe there is some easy, non-forceful way of taking on the multinationals and their front people in the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and national governments.

We can learn something from the fate of the anti-system movements that existed in a whole number of countries in the 1970s. They mostly went in two directions in the 1980s. On the one hand, many activists trod the parliamentary road, boasting that new peace and environment oriented non-hierarchical parties would transform the nature of parliament. By the end of the 1990s their “Green” parties were in the governments of Germany, France and Italy, supporting NATO wars and scrapping plans to dismantle nuclear plants, while operating internally on the same hierarchical principles as the other mainstream parties.

On the other hand, small groups reacted to the parliamentarianism by opting for “autonomist” politics, trying to live in their own enclaves on the margins of capitalist society. Every so often they would take to the streets, their faces covered in masks, for ritualised attacks on property and clashes with the police. Smoke bombs or even petrol bombs would be thrown, the police would counter-attack, gleefully firing teargas and percussion grenades at everyone in sight, disorder would feature prominently in television news broadcasts, and then ... everything would return to normal. All that changed was that the movements from which they had once sprung grew ever smaller, those who had taken the electoral road ever more parliamentarian-and the police ever stronger.

The parliamentarian and the anarchist-autonomist approach both fail because of what they have in common – an inability to see that the forces exist to confront the system, and a lack of effort to mobilise them. And any movement without the power to fight genuinely against the system it opposes is under enormous pressure to find some way of coming to terms with that system. Peaceful coexistence with, or even acquiescence to, the system replaces systematic opposition to it.

To sustain such opposition, what is needed is to connect the initiative, energy and idealism of the anti-capitalist minorities that take to the streets with the day to day struggles against capitalist globalisation that occur everywhere in the system where people are exploited and oppressed.

In making such connections, violent actions by vanguard minorities are of little help. They provide a ready excuse for defenders of the system to use a much greater level of official violence against their opponents. Often non-violent action by a disciplined mass movement can serve to bring home to people the essentially violent nature of the multinationals and the state. But that does not mean that non-violence alone will ever break the system. Again and again in the history of capitalism, ruling classes have launched the most appalling levels of violence to destroy movements that boasted of their own non-violence. This happened to the Paris Commune in 1871, to the German labour movement in 1933, and most recently to the Allende government in Chile in 1973. If the answer to the violence of the system does not lie in the violence of vanguard minorities, it does not lie in the principle of non-violence either. Rather it lies in the development of mass movements that understand the need to use every means necessary to counter the violence of the other side. As the Chartist Bronterre O’Brien wrote in the 1830s, “The rich are now what they have ever been ... merciless and irreclaimable ... Against such an enemy it’s a farce to talk of moral force. It is the overwhelming fear of an overwhelming force which will alone ever conquer them to humanity.”

 

 

The question of organisation

Whenever a new mass movement emerges, its most impressive aspect is the way in which people spontaneously take initiatives, engage in imaginative actions and display immense creativity. All the mental energy they previously frittered away on 1,001 minor pastimes are now directed to taking the movement forward and solving its problems. This often leads people to believe that it has gone way beyond old questions of organisation and ideological direction. So, for instance, Naomi Klein sees the movement that took to the streets at Seattle and Washington as transcending old organisational forms:

The anti-corporate protest movement that came to world attention on the streets of Seattle last November is not united by a political party or a national network with a head office, annual elections and subordinate cells and locals. It is shaped by the ideas of individual organisers and intellectuals but doesn’t defer to any of them as leaders.

These mass convergences were activist hubs, made up of hundreds, possibly thousands, of autonomous spokes. The fact that these campaigns are so decentralised is not a source of incoherence and fragmentation. Rather, it is a reasonable, even ingenious, adaptation both to pre-existing fragmentation within progressive networks and to changes in the broader culture.

One of the great strengths of this model of laissez-faire organising is that it has proven 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.

She quotes Joshua Karliner of the Transnational Resource and Action Center in describing this method of organising as “an unintentionally brilliant response to globalisation”, and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians in claiming, “We are up against a boulder. We can’t remove it so we try to go underneath it, to go around it and over it.” The decentralised movement is a “swarm”, capable of suddenly coming together and disrupting the institutions of globalisation in a way that no centralised movement could:

When critics say that the protesters lack vision, what they are really saying is that they lack an overarching revolutionary philosophy – like Marxism, democratic socialism, deep ecology or social anarchy – on which they all agree. That is absolutely true, and for this we should be extraordinarily thankful.

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 ... Perhaps its true challenge is not finding a vision but rather resisting the urge to settle on one too quickly.

Yet in the same article Naomi Klein recognises that the “decentralised”, “swarm” method of organising raised problems:

Of course, this multi-headed system has its weaknesses too, and they were on full display on the streets of Washington during the anti-World Bank/IMF protests. At around noon on 16 April, the day of the largest protest, a spokescouncil meeting was convened for the affinity groups that were in the midst of blocking all the street intersections surrounding the headquarters of the World Bank and the IMF. The intersections had been blocked since 6 a.m., but the meeting delegates, the protesters had just learned, had slipped inside the police barricades before 5 a.m. Given this new information, most of the spokespeople felt it was time to give up the intersections and join the official march at the Ellipse. The problem was that not everyone agreed. A handful of affinity groups wanted to see if they could block the delegates on their way out of their meetings.

The compromise the council came up with was telling. “OK, everybody listen up,” Kevin Danaher shouted into a megaphone. “Each intersection has autonomy. If the intersection wants to stay locked down, that’s cool. If it wants to come to the Ellipse, that’s cool too. It’s up to you.”

This was impeccably fair and democratic, but there was just one problem – it made absolutely no sense. Sealing off the access points had been a co-ordinated action. If some intersections now opened up and other, rebel camp intersections stayed occupied, delegates on their way out of the meeting could just hang a right instead of a left, and they would be home free. Which, of course, is precisely what happened.

As I watched clusters of protesters get up and wander off while others stayed seated, defiantly guarding, well, nothing, it struck me as an apt metaphor for the strengths and weaknesses of this nascent activist network. [101]

But if there are “weaknesses” as well as “strengths” in the movement, there needs to be discussion on how to deal with them. Otherwise the weaknesses will recur, providing opportunities for those who want to crush the movement to do so. The lesson of Washington – and even more so of 1 May in London – is that it is not good enough for everyone to do their own thing. There has to be some willingness to engage in the democratic formulation of decisions that are binding on everyone involved. Otherwise any minority, if it is determined enough, can undertake actions that have consequences for a majority that does not agree with them.

The decentralised, “network” style of operating of the NGOs is not in fact something historically novel. This was exactly how the activists operated, for instance, at the end of the 18th century – through the corresponding societies in Britain or even the Jacobin clubs in the earlier stages of the French Revolution – using the most advanced means of communications at the time, letter writing. But when people wanted to move from decentralised propaganda and agitation to any sort of serious struggle to break the existing concentrations of power, they had to look to more centralised forms of organisation – the Jacobins in 1792-1794, the United Irishmen, Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of Equals”. [102] This was precisely because the decentralised model did not allow the movement to decide in a united way when it was to concentrate its forces to move in one direction or another, but left it open to minorities to wreck any action by moving too soon or by standing back when everyone else moved.

The institutions of global capitalism may be like “boulders” it is difficult to break apart. But simply trying to walk round them leaves the initiative in their hands to suddenly turn on you and destroy you. In fact, every day they destroy thousands of people through their Structural Adjustment Programmes, their debt collection, their cutbacks in welfare, their environmental destruction, their wars. We cannot simply “walk round” this.

Nor is it good enough to say there are lots of ideas in the movement and to leave it at that. Of course there are vast numbers of ideas in the movement. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people are beginning, for the first time, to challenge the global system. They come from a vast range of backgrounds and experiences, and bring with them the differing ideas that have developed there. No one can dictate what they think and how their ideas develop. But that does not mean there are not arguments over ideas, or that any of us should abstain from those arguments. In fact, the movement will not be able to develop beyond a certain point unless such arguments are resolved. It is no good, when faced with an important argument about what to do next, simply to say, “Isn’t it wonderful we’re having this argument?” You have to engage in the argument, not simply comment on it. And if you think that experience shows that “democratic socialism” or “social anarchy” has failed dismally in the past, you have to say so as effectively as you can.

This is particularly important if the new generation of anti-capitalists are to succeed in making the connection with the millions or workers and poor people who are engaged every day in acts of resistance, big or small, to neo-liberalism and capitalist globalisation. In such struggles their whole livelihoods, and sometimes their lives, are at stake. They need to be able to work out a coherent direction, ways of getting solidarity from their fellows, ways of countering vicious attacks from the other side. Clarity of ideas is not a luxury in such cases. It is a necessity if terrible defeats are to be avoided. The only way to gain such clarity for the different points of view in the movement to engage in fraternal debate at the same time as unite in struggle.

The heads of the giant multinationals and the world’s states were right to be worried about Seattle. It crystallised a new mood of opposition to what their system is doing to people. It focused the aspirations of a substantial minority of people in every continent and every country. And in the bare ten months since, that mood has been growing. Even while I’ve been writing this article there have been further mass protests in Millau in southern France, against the G8 meeting in Okinawa in Japan, outside the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles, and planning is underway to challenge the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, and the IMF and World Bank in Prague.

Only a minority of those who have built these events see themselves as Marxists. Many, particularly in the United States, do not yet even see themselves as socialists. Yet in building movements against the system they are treading the same path that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels set out on nearly 160 years ago. In the process, they will be forced to face up to many of the issues that confronted Marx and Engels, and others who’ve followed the same path since. It is up to all of us to help build the new movement – and to help it to learn to deal with these issues.

 

 

Notes

70. R. Hilferding, Finance Capital (London, 1991).

71. R. Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London, 1963).

72. For elaborations of this point, see my Explaining the Crisis (London, 1999) and Economics of the Madhouse (London, 1995).

73. Financial Times, 15 May 2000.

74. See, for instance, E. Crooks and A. Beattle, Global Warning, Financial Times, 17 May 2000.

75. S. George, A Fate Worse Than Debt, op. cit., p.xiii.

76. J. Petras and M. Morley (eds.), Latin America in the Time of Cholera (New York, 1992), p.27. See also the book’s chapter The Retreat of the Intellectuals.

77. K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., pp.121-122.

78. Ibid., pp.175-177.

79. P. Davidson, Are Grains Of Sand Sufficient To Do The Job When Boulders Are Required?, Economic Journal, May 1997, pp.639-662.

80. K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., p.177.

81. K. Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth, 1973), p.162.

82. K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., p.150.

83. Ibid., pp.158-162.

84. Ibid., p.174.

85. S. George, The Lugano Report, op. cit., p.185.

86. Ibid.

87. Ibid., p.183.

88. Ibid., p.187.

89. S. George, The Debt Boomerang (London, 1992), p.xx.

90. K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., p.42.

91. Ibid.

92. The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico (Rand Arrayo Center, Strategy and Doctrines Program, 1998), available at http://rand.org/publications/mr/mr994/mr994.pdf

93. S. George, The Lugano Report, op. cit., p.184.

94. Ibid..

95. P. Bourdieu et al., The Weight of the World (London, 1999).

96. G Monbiot, Streets Of Shame, The Guardian, 10 May 2000.

97. K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., pp.68-71

98. G. Monbiot, Streets Of Shame, op. cit.

99. Ibid.

100. K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., p.72.

101. N. Klein, The Nation, June 2000.

102. On the way in which Babeuf tried to construct a party-type organisation, see I. Birchall, The Spectre of Babeuf (London, 1997), pp.54-70.

 


Last updated on 15.7.2002