Monday, April 07, 2008

Pro and anti

Terry Glavin has a superb essay up at Z Word about the anti-Zionism of the Canadian left. It is an essential read. His analysis has much to inform a wider audience. I particularly liked his take on the contemporary ‘peace movement’ as reflecting a counter-cultural rather than a social-justice tradition.

He sees anti-war campaigners emerging from the mobilisations of the anti-globalisation movement and quotes Moishe Postone that these “did not express any sort of movement for progressive change”. I haven’t read Postone, but if that judgement is applied to the anti-globalisation movement as a whole it is harsh, certainly for a section of the movement. However, is easy to see how it could be seen in that way.

Firstly, the most visible face of the movement was presented by the decidedly counter-cultural methods of tactical frivolity. However amusing it is to see someone on stilts dressed as a giant pink fairy confronting baton-wielding riot police, it doesn’t inspire confidence in analytic rigour.

Secondly, the movement was partially a defensive one against a specific model of global capitalism that was not based on free markets, as often stated, but on markets fixed and governed by powerful multi-lateral institutions, which were rapidly transforming societies and destroying communities. In such a situation a movement against change is a progressive one.

Finally, the alternative political economy that the movement offered was disparate and inchoate, ranging from anarchist inspired localism to the more conventional left social democracy of those such as Susan George.

The anti-globalisation movement was always trying to shake off that label in favour of being known as the global justice movement and its heart was not the young activist, but the coalition of trade unions, landless peasants, small farmers, indigenous peoples, worker co-operatives, leftists and environmentalists. And this is where Terry’s essay really hits home. As the global justice movement morphed into the anti-war movement, where did this coalition go? It vanished to be replaced by groups of activists with a simplistic anti-Western sentiment. There was always a struggle by political activists to try and wrest control of such an iconic movement. The events following 9/11 allowed an unrepresentative section of the left, informed by “cultural codes” and “ideational packages”, as identified by Shulamit Volkov, rather than the real interests of the global poor, to take control and build an explicitly political anti-Western coalition.

It was a disaster, Islamists were embraced and the landless jettisoned. Iraqi trade unionists faced a barrage of abuse. The left flirted with anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory. It divorced itself from reality in a rather convenient way. There was no need for any great sacrifice for the 'struggle', just for the constant expression of the requisite anger. But we should not feel too smug. There is a parallel with some in the anti-totalitarian left. So when Marco Attila Hoare recently wrote that "the principal ideological division in global politics today" is "pro-Western vs anti-Western" I think that he too was oversimplifying. For the left, it is not about being reflexively pro or anti-Western. It is about standing with the poor, the oppressed and the exploited. It is about being consistently pro-social justice.

This is where Terry's piece is devastating. He writes that the left's obsession with anti-Zionism at the expense of social justice has meant that:

They have preempted the possibility of a legitimately robust international peace movement that might have found a way to intervene on behalf of ordinary Israelis, Palestinians, and Lebanese during the bloody crises of this century's first decade. And they have given courage and comfort to antisemitic fanatics and anti-modernist zealots from the crowded tenements of Gaza to the scorched opium fields of Kandahar.

In Canada, they have effectively infantilized important Canadian debates about the Afghanistan mission, upending these debates into a lurid discourse about American imperialism.


They have undermined labor-movement solidarity campaigns on behalf of the persecuted trade unionists of Iran. They have "problematized" the potential for Canadian leadership in a multilateral intervention on behalf of the suffering people of Darfur.


Reading Terry's article makes it perfectly clear that a left that simply defines itself purely in terms of its position vis a vis the West is not just a left that has lost its way, but one that has abandoned judgement and, thereby, integrity.

6 comments:

bob said...

Another great post comrade. See my related thoughts here

Waterloo Sunset said...

I can't really talk about the Canadian anti-globalisation movement with any knowledge. I think your analysis of the British movement is somewhat skewed though. It misses some points and overstates others. I'll start by addressing some of your points, then move onto other factors that I think were in play.

It's worth starting with a note about definitions I think. Those that were identifiying as "anti-globalists" specifically were largely the more liberal reformist wing of the movement. Part of the advantage was the vagueness of the term- it can cover everything from market socialists to reformists. The bulk of the radical strand of the movement refered to ourselves as anti-capitalists to make it clear that we wanted to overthrow the whole system. In the UK, that strand (which was actually pretty diverse in terms of specifics) was dominant for most of the time. A lot of the propaganda we produced mention capitalism specifically. A pithy summary of the two camps is that they wanted to protest the city. We wanted to stop it. There were still some tensions within the radical camp, which I'll go into in a second.

Firstly, the most visible face of the movement was presented by the decidedly counter-cultural methods of tactical frivolity. However amusing it is to see someone on stilts dressed as a giant pink fairy confronting baton-wielding riot police, it doesn’t inspire confidence in analytic rigour.

That's a difficult one. On one hand, it can seem laughable to people outside the 'alternative' subcultures. And you're right, it did reflect an anti theory bias among many of its proponents.

On the other hand... I cut my political teeth on antifascist "squaddist" work. I stand by that, but it was pretty grim at times. The anti CJA movement was the first mass social movement I got involved in. And it wasn't like the handful of more traditional demonstrations I'd been to before. It was fun. I had a good time. And it was far friendlier then normal. The anarchists tend to be quite closeknit at demos. But outside that, you only ever get approached by someone if they want to flog you a paper. This wasn't like that. I've never been a believer in the power of E to save the world. But even so, I was dancing with people I'd just met, chatting merrily away, being offered cider by dodgy crustys. If I lost my friends, it wasn't stressful as someone would make sure I got back to my coach.

And, to be honest, I believed in the cause. But I'm not sure I'd have kept at it, and at the anticapitalist movement (which I'd argue is a far more direct line then the anti globalisation/anti war link) after if the element of fun and playfulness hadn't been there.

And yes, that side of things will have put some people off. But I'm pretty sure it attracted as many people, especially young ones.

(I am not biased by any attraction to hippy lasses and anyone who claims otherwise must be a cop).

Secondly, the movement was partially a defensive one against a specific model of global capitalism that was not based on free markets, as often stated, but on markets fixed and governed by powerful multi-lateral institutions, which were rapidly transforming societies and destroying communities. In such a situation a movement against change is a progressive one.

Yes and no. That's probably the case with most of the anti globalists- the NGO's were mainly interested in reform. It's not the case with all of them though, the Trots were nominally antiglobalists in terms of tactics, despite their belief in revolution. But the anticapitalists had at least some idea of what they were after. Some quite detailed (the anarchosyndicalists), others were more vague (the more politicised party crowd). But it was very broadly libertarian left, even if not everyone would have described themselves as such. Just for the record, the infamous "overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer!" placard was a spoof. By the comedy crusty band, Cyderdelic. Most people I knew found them funny, but they were satirical.

Finally, the alternative political economy that the movement offered was disparate and inchoate, ranging from anarchist inspired localism to the more conventional left social democracy of those such as Susan George.

Yes, I'd broadly agree, particuarly when looking at the movement as a whole. The NGO's were pretty much holding entirely separate activities to us. The Trots started off with the union march before they jumped on later. And even the anti-capitalist demo itself was pretty disorganised. I remember six of us picketing the Guardian over their coverage of the protest one year. I'm not convinced that was a bad thing though. The NGO's never interfered with us and vice versa. We did tell the Trots to fuck off, because they actually did do a hijacking attempt. And some of the younger trade unionists used to sneak off early so they could join our demo as well.

The anti-globalisation movement was always trying to shake off that label in favour of being known as the global justice movement and its heart was not the young activist, but the coalition of trade unions, landless peasants, small farmers, indigenous peoples, worker co-operatives, leftists and environmentalists.

Again, that's true, if you're looking just at the anti globalists. The anti capitalists took a somewhat different approach.

Trade unions- not in terms of the institutions. We did do some rank and file work. That's probably my biggest regret politically. I think we wasted (when it was still Reclaim the Streets) the potential of our linkup to the dockers. I've got some really fond memories of that time. Stuff like dockers happily belting out the Internationale to a rave backing. But we didn't learn from it like we should of. That's not universally true. Tyneside Anarchist Group and Newcastle Earth First were heavily involved in solidarity work for the Magnet strikers. But we were unusual, sadly.

Landless peasants/Small farmers- Kinda, but very haphazardly. We did provide the lion's share of support for the Zapatistas.

Worker Co-operatives- Not really, apart from the occasional activist working in the local radical bookshop.

The Left- The SWP weren't really liked by either section of the movement. Standard reasons really. They never had much success with our wing of the movement. The class struggle anarchists were never their target for recruitment. But both the hierachial politics and the fact that they never really understood the subculture they were dealing with meant they got short shrift from the party people. That was pretty much sealed by Schnews' "Monopolise Resistance" pamphlet and "Vampire Alert" leaflet in 2001, which had a major influence on the less experienced anti capitalists. Their final swansong was an attempt to organise an event in 2004 when the Mayday Collective had cancelled the event. That just looked laughable compared to the size of every previous event and they never tried it again. They're often seen as more influential then they were. I'm still not sure if this was the right tactical decision. But most of us refused to talk to the mainstream media. Which naturally meant they forced their way into the spokesperson position. While their "vote Labour, orientate to the unions" spiel never reflected the movement, I can see why those outside might have thought otherwise. There were several major problems caused by the SWP though, which I'll return to.

The other group who orientated to the anticapitalists was Revo, Workers Powers' youth group. They were a lot more accepted. Possibly because of size, they were a lot more willing to incorporate their activity into what everyone else was doing. And the relative youth of their members meant that they were just more comfortable with the party scene then the SWP types were.

Environmentalists- Of the more radical type- the direct action Green Party people we were cool with. George Monbiot was widely disliked as was Darren Johnson, because they'd attacked the movement.

As the global justice movement morphed into the anti-war movement, where did this coalition go? It vanished to be replaced by groups of activists with a simplistic anti-Western sentiment. There was always a struggle by political activists to try and wrest control of such an iconic movement.

The anticapitalists didn't really move into either the global justice or the anti war movement. The standard anarchist block on demos not withstanding. I'm cynical about how big the link is. There's an obvious SWP connection. Maybe some of the older liberal pacifist types who hung round with the NGOs. But I suspect that those who are involved in anti war organising now aren't largely the same people. Obviously most anarchists were against the war. But our reasons were never going to play comfortably with support for clerical fascism. And when there has been a big anarchist presence, they've been deliberately pushed out, quite often by underhand means. Birmingham is a good example of that. So some of us still go on demos, some don't. But it's the standard tailend contingent. This isn't our movement, we're back in our traditional role as the Millwall of the left.

It was a disaster, Islamists were embraced and the landless jettisoned. Iraqi trade unionists faced a barrage of abuse. The left flirted with anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory.

I suspect that's not aimed at my lot, but that's mostly not true. (Although I could have done without Class War deciding to burn an effigy of Mohammed with their Jesus at a bonfire. Fucking social context guys). I'm not saying there's no antisemitism in the libertarian left, but as a quick perusal of Libcom shows, kneejerk anti Zionism doesn't go unchallenged the way it does elsewhere. The conspiracy theory stuff has always been a problem for us though...

What happened to the anti capitalist movement?

1. 9/11. We just didn't know how to react after. It threw us as much as everyone else. Most anarchist groups quickly put out statements condemning it, but then weren't sure what to do next. Partly because of the shock of the atrocity we'd just seen. And also because, for a long time, nobody wanted to hear about any other international issue.

2. The collapse of Reclaim the Streets. I'm not sure of quite why this happened- I know their long term social centre got shut down. But they just slowly disintergrated. That took some time to take effect, but it had a grave effect. We were talking about experienced activists, many of whom had a foot in both the class struggle anarchist and the party camps.

3. Activist burnout. A lot of the legwork for organisation was being done by the same people every year. They got pissed off, understandably.

4. The old spiky/fluffy issue. This was less of a problem then it was in the anti CJA campaign. See http://www.geocities.com/aufheben2/4.html for details on that. But there were several issues that it became tense on. The first was the issue of movement propaganda. There was a lot of argument over whether it should be a celebration of "what I did" with photos or a focus for debate surrounding the movement. On the other hand, the hardcore spikeys were equally problematic, with their insistence on putting masked up activists on every leaflet. Secondly, the movement was starting to attract more mainstream lads who wanted to have a giggle and shout abuse at the cops. I never eally had a problem with that. It's an expression of their dislike of the current system for me. But some of the fluffies were outraged that these "thugs" were coming on "our demo".

5. The police trap. This was mainly the SWP's fault- they lead everyone there early and let the police hem them in, then spend the day charging the crowd. Most of the experienced activists had sussed out that something was up and didn't get caught in the corden. I spent the hour before running round telling groups of kids to move back. But a lot of people did get caught. Mostly the inexperienced, often on the first demo. And the SWP took no responsibility for protecting people. We were all outside. So it was the brew crew it fell to...

6. Ennui. It had ceased to be fun. In its own way, it became as formulaic as the traditional demos it was supposed to be an alternative too. That was at its peak for 2003. The joy was missing, it was merely a ceremonial game of cat and mouse with the cops, with the occasional punchup. Great for the Class War/brew crew contingent, who don't need anything else. But even for most of the more spikey types like myself, that wasn't what our aim was.

Where have people moved to?

This is just the anticapitalists, as I have a better idea there.

1. Away from activism. This is particuarly the case for the stilt crowd. They were always very lifestylist. And while some move onto different kinds of activism. And others stick with it (the Schnews old guard). For a lot of them now, I think it's just a cool thing they did when they were young.

2. Single issue campaigns. People like the Earth Firsters and the animal liberationists have probably just gone back to their pet issues now so you don't hear from them.

3. Antifa. A lot of class struggle anarchists are prioritising antifascism currently, due to the current BNP threat.

4. Community activism. This is where I am currently as are a fair few other people. We've taken a step back from the 'glamorous' stuff and are instead trying to work with the class on bread and butter issues. A minority have joined the IWCA. The rest of us haven't, but are largely sympathetic.

5. The Internet. There's a fair few people who's activity is almost all net based now.

Heh, I hadn't expected it to be that long. One day I'll learn not to write essays on other people's blogs. I hope it was of interest though- I've obviously got a somewhat different perspective on the movement then you have.

The Plump said...

It is a very interesting and informative essay though waterloo sunset. Thanks.

bob said...

Waterloo Sunset's personal history seems to uncannily echo mine... I would broadly agree with his/her analysis.

A lot of these issues crystallised (is that spelt right?) in the Social Forum movement. As someone at the possibilist end of the libertarian side of the anti-capitalist wing of the anti-globalization movement, the Social Forum movement was quite exciting to me. Although reactionary forces had been involved in this diverse movement from the begining, the first non-Porto Alegre WSF in Mumbai in 2004 signalled, for me, a real turn for the worse. Instead of developing an analysis of global capitalism and alternative forms of organisation, as the first three WSFs did (however inchoately), the Mumbai WSF concentrated almost entirely on a denunciation of "Ameican imperialism", and returned to a form of analysis frozen in 1917.

On a local level, the European Social Forum mirrored this decline. The third ESF in London was hosted by Mayor Ken and its organization was controlled by SWP hacks and their fellow travellers, who totally out-maneouvred both the libertarians and the ATTAC type liberals. They invited all sorts of authoritarian anti-imperialists and clerical fascists to address the gathering (Ahmed Ben Bella, tDr Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che, George Galloway, Barghouti), which took the form of Stalinist style mass rallies. Famously, supporters of Iraqi clerical fascism stopped Subhi al Mashadani, the leader of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, from speaking.

bob said...

P.S. As a South Londoner, I love the "Millwall of the left" line.

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