ImageReport of the activist symposium “Global resistance and summit protest: critical retrospections & future visions”

On Sunday, 18 March 2007, around 90 persons gathered at the Crea Theatre in Amsterdam for an afternoon of analysis and brainstorming on the recent past and the possible future of the globalisation movement (announcement and programme) .

he event was organised by Dissent-nl , the Transnational Institute and the solidarity fund XminusY . Several 'activist intellectuals' shared their reflections and ideas in two interrelated panels.

Part One: What have we learned from the past?

The first panel focused on the 'historical trajectories of global resistance'. The speakers were Peter Waterman, a specialist on labour movements and the social forum process and Gemma Galdón from the Transnational Institute and the research project "New Politics".

The labour movements and the global justice movements

Kees Hudig introduced the panel with an outline of the last decade, highlighting several important historical developments and trajectories of the resistance against neo-liberal globalisation and suggestions as to what we can learn from them. Peter Waterman starts his presentation by critically proposing that the ‘new movement’ is often not aware of its own history. The start of new social movements is often related either to the Zapatistas who stood up against free trade agreements in 1994 or to the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999. The history of the labour movement long before the 19th century and its political importance and achievements are frequently forgotten.


He asks why it is that representatives of the third world, women and peasants are present at the World Social Forums and the labour movement is not? The majority of humans are workers, but the topic of ‘labour’ has marginalised itself and has been marginalised, the low representation of labour at the World Social Forum (WSF) is only one example of this development. Why did the labour movement vanish as an archetype of the privileged actor? Waterman points out that working class organisations suffered from deregulation and the individualisation of the production process, but that they were also seduced by capitalist ideologies through the incorporation of the working class in mass consumerism. Further, many of the trade unions allied themselves to governing neo-liberal forces. Waterman argues that the link between labour unions and the new global movement is therefore not a simple one but comparable to ‘how porcupines make love: very carefully’. There is a tension between both movements and an asymmetrical relation between their institutions. The tensions, however, could be surmounted if the labour movement adapts itself to new political realities, becomes less hierarchical and learns from the new social movements in spaces such as the WSF. Hopefully, the future will give us new insights about how this process will evolve.

Reflecting on summit protests

Gemma Galdón starts by raising the question of how we should look at the past decade of protests, how we could reflect on them and represent them. An interesting insight is given when we look at the historical chronology of protests or at, for example, a geographical map of anti-globalisation actions. It shows us that the world around us is changing and not only the movement itself changes, which we often fail to notice. There have been major changes in the international world order, considering for instance the impact of 9/11 and new technological developments, specifically in media and communications technologies. According to Galdón, the global justice movement has mutated especially in the last three years. There is a higher pressure on neoliberalism, dissent has established itself and climate change, for instance, has been put high up on the political agenda. She points out that there are new challenges around us. One example is that the ‘we and them’ distinction is blurred, referring to the Make Poverty History and the ‘Live8’ campaign during the G8 summit in Scotland where Bono, Geldof and even Blair presented themselves as allies of the movement. These actors adopt the movement’s concepts and ideas and co-opt its confrontational tactics. Galdón argues that the ‘we’ that we use is a traditional concept which has become unstable because of changes in the constitution of political movements, the evolution of technology and the individual ‘blog’ explosion.

Different protests in our collective memory function as a metaphorical glue. We should ask ourselves what we achieve with these protests. Are summit protests more of a ritual than a strategy? According to Galdón '"we all should go to the G8 protests, but we should debate why we are going". She proposes that we are focusing too much on protest events; we should not forget that history will not change through summit protests but by everyday practice. The question now is how we translate new forms of politics into our daily atmosphere and how we claim back our streets and institutions. Galdón ends her talk with the question of “how can we make the G8-protest more than a ritual?”

Part Two: The future. Where do we go from here?

Christian Scholl introduced this panel by reminding us that already in June 1999, before Seattle, important global protests took place, such as in Cologne against the G8 and simultaneously in the financial district in London. After London’s ‘J18’, a debate evolved around the article “Give up activism”, which offered a strong critique of the reified identity of activists as ‘specialists of social change’. It argued that this specialist identity prevented connections with local communities, while activists focused on their next big protest events. Without wanting to repeat this debate, the second panel is an attempt to reflect on the consequences of such a critique. How do we have to organise in order to create participatory communities? How can we connect radical and broad demands to the realities of the people of our communities? Both speakers, Amory Starr and Ben Trott, are actively involved in social movements. Ben Trott was active in the mobilisation against the G8 in Gleneagles in 2005 and now in Germany and co-editor of the book ‘Shut them down ' - The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the movement of movements’ of the Dissent network. Ben now works with the Interventionist Left alliance in Germany. Amory Starr is based in the U.S., as a professor in sociology and author of ‘Naming the enemy: Anti-corporate movements confront globalisation’ (2000) and ‘Global Revolt’ (2007).


Building participatory democratic communities

Amory Starr introduces her talk with Zapatista statement well-known in activist circles: ‘Be a Zapatista wherever you are’, which was the answer the Zapatistas gave whenever people abroad wanted to know how they could support their struggle. The question arises how one might be a Zapatistas outside Chiapas. Starr recently worked on a project collecting data on the practices of participative democracy of the Zapatistas in Mexico and of the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil. Amory argues that these practices might be inspiring when thinking about ‘our’ future ways of organising and living together, this presentation outlines some of their main principles of organisation.

Within the civil structures of the Zapatistas, there is an emphasis on sharing the experience of government, that is the actual practice of governing. There are municipal councils and five regional councils, in which an equal number of men and women are elected and the functions rotate. The civilian committees take all the decisions. The major decisions take place in ‘consultas’ that are open for everybody and in which one can bring in all the daily life experiences one wants to talk about. Due to the high level of participation, major decisions can take up to six months.

The MST in Brazil mainly works on reclaiming land for the rural community. The whole organisation had to be organised from scratch. Reclaiming land necessitates that a community is formed first, afterwards land is occupied. This is why here also, many meetings are needed, however, the MST also believes that meetings are necessary in themselves for ‘ideological formation’. Every meeting starts with a ritual, which can be said to have catholic, Marxist and other cultural and political elements. The MST views these rituals as central to their functioning as they form part of the ideological underpinnings of the community, necessary for social cohesion. Similar to the Zapatista structures, community members participate in 'government' which implies that every MST member has to be involved in one or more decision-making bodies. One man and one woman are elected from the communities to the next higher meeting. MST has activists who receive intensive training to help new groups to occupy land. When a settlement is established, which takes around four years, the activists leave to help set up another community.

Participative democracy for both, the Zapatistas and the MST is learning and doing. Autonomy is fundamental to them. Both movements start with the own behaviour of the participants and emphasise self-government. Both have strict rules forbidding alcohol, drugs and domestic violence. But there are differences as well: participatory democracy for the Zapatistas is based on rotation, for the MST on continuity; resources are important for both movements, but the Zapatistas are against state resources, whereas the MST believes that they can use these resources strategically on their own conditions and in combination with challenging the state; both emphasise their autonomy and that means for the Zapatistas a clear ‘no’ to political parties, whereas MST allows cooperation with political parties. Their meeting cultures also show differences: in the Zapatista communities everyone can speak at meetings as and long as they like. When someone does not agree they talk further until the whole community agrees. In the MST meetings, talking time is restricted to 5 minutes for everyone. In both movements, people have to continue their education, including older people; having obligations to the movement is important. Amory concluded her presentation by arguing that the decision-making and other organisational experimentations of both these movements can and should be an inspiration for other social movements in the North.

Unity in diversity, how to move beyond?

Ben Trott’s presentation ‘Walking in the right direction?’ posed the question of the role of political militants and political interventions and how these could be generalised. He argues the global situation after Seattle has changed and a break has occurred with the ideology that people can do nothing to change their lives and a social and political system. A first challenge to the neo-liberalism dogma has taken place. But the neo-liberal crisis also confronts social movements with their own limitations. We have many different single issue movements dealing with workers, queers, eco-ideologists, etc., but also in this regard there is a major difference between before and after Seattle. Nowadays, there is a break with old anarchist and Marxist/Leninist slogans and ideas. We can, as the slogan goes, "Go Walking and Asking Questions" at the same time. But the question then is: Walking where? And which other world (is possible?).

Fundamental to ‘our’ movement is the question: how to create a world that makes many worlds possible. For this creation we need some directions. Ben Trott pledges for the use of ‘directional demands’ which the movement should formulate and which aim to break with capitalism. However, it is not only important to know the direction these demands show us, but also where they came from. Trott sees two important directional demands: First, a guaranteed global basic income. The demand for basic income, he argues, is not naïve, but can realistically be implemented. Ben mentions different economists who defend basic income and who see it as realistic politics. Secondly, the right to migrate. This includes the rights for legalisation, for open border, etc.

In the late 1890s, social democratic movements with minimum programmes for mass parties hoped to create the condition for socialism. Trotsky criticised social democracy and asked for transitional demands and international struggles. But both, social democrats and Trotskyites used the same (hierarchical) strategy. Directional demands may appear reformist, however, Ben argues, they are not if they are unconditional: there is no limit with regard to the articulation of the demand. A difference to Trotsky’s transitional demands is that now we are in the historical period of post-Fordism: transitional demands have to be changed into directional demands. Ben argues that such demands are a political necessity and important strategy to achieve the reality of ‘a different world’.

(report by Jerry de Mars and Saskia Poldervaart)


Some points arose our of a discussion with the public:

Discussion points on the first panel revolved around the role of NGOs in the movement and the question if trade unions and new social movements were compatible, as trade unions tend to be hierarchical and untransparent. Gemma Galdon was asked why she did not mention capital and other economic factors as influences in the changes that have taken place these last decades. In relation to the second panel, Amory Starr was asked if there is no longer any alienation in the Zapatista and MST-movements and if their claim to participative democracy and autonomy holds true. Further, the question arose if we should not be suspicious of rituals and ideological formations such as promoted by the MST, given the historical lesson we learned from real socialism and its anti-individual tendencies that often violate fundamental civil liberties. Amory replies that she is an anti-anti-romantic and values the participatory personalism in both movements. She also concedes that there is a problem with predominantly male leadership in the MST (and perhaps in the Zapatista’s as well). Also, consensus is a faulty system as any other and often problematic.

Peter Waterman expressed enthusiasm about the demand for global basic income, but expressed doubts about the directional demands which sounded like slogans to him. Ben replied that directional demands were not his personal concept but taken from the feminist movement and utopians, etc. He concedes they contains element of uncertainty but they also contain the possibility to move beyond the current limits, so that the spirit of the demands is its strength. Gemma Galdon brings in the issue of leadership: What happens when consensus is not supported by everyone? Amory emphasises the role of trust within these decision-making processes and points out that the MST to her was one of the most pleasant groups to work with that she ever experienced.

Other discussion point with the audience:

- The danger of demanding basic income is its remaining within the capitalist economy. Ben counters that basic income can be practiced on different levels; it could be a social democratic demand, but demanding global basic income points out the responsibility of the state in providing basic provisions particularly within a world system.

- The role of the new governments in Latin America: how do movements position themselves to governments such as Chavez in Venezuela? This remains a difficult one to answer, the MST is against collaborating with state advisors but not against using their money (on their conditions), while the Zapatistas reject any collaboration with the state at all, arguing that it will ultimately corrupt the political movement.

- The danger or importance/innocence of utopias: utopian means not unrealisable but applying your imagination. A comment from the audience with regard to the positive evaluation of utopia was that the extreme right also had utopian elements and that it would be preferable to organise movements on practical demands instead.

During an evaluation of the conference it was agreed to continue organising these kind of meetings. A follow-up event will be organised at the end of June, a few weeks after the G8-protests, also acting as a debriefing for activists who joined the protests. More details will be announced later.





Interventionistische Linke:

Peter Waterman:

Amory Starr: