Social Movements: Five Years After Seattle

01 December 2003
Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the cement holding together the regime and consensus imposed by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s has been loosened at five year intervals. In 1994 it was the Zapatistas who rose against the atrocities of free trade. In 1999 it was the turtles and teamsters of Seattle who provoked the first great defeat of the World Trade Organisation. In 2004, by contrast, this five-year celebration of the global movement has been substituted by a period of deep reflection and repositioning in which the bases of future victories (and defeats) are being laid. In this context, making a balance sheet of the resistance movements centered only on a description of their evolution and characteristics would be a useless exercise that, in any case, would not respond to the needs of the moment. This article is a journey through the “now” of the movements. A “now” necessarily marked by a trajectory that covers not just recent years but decades, and that responds as much to these inheritances as to the movements’ own characteristics. My intention is to present the disjunctions faced by a movement that has been able to generate a change in the political cycle but that often does not recognise itself in the way this change has taken place. The article looks at the relationship of the social movements with “politics” and cooptation; the risks of continuing to submerge ourselves in the internal debates from experience and the current moment of the Social Forums; the (non)debate over strategies; the importance of not renouncing grassroots movements and a bottom up approach; and, finally, offers some “possible futures” in relation to concrete and immediate challenges. Change of cycle The world has changed a lot in the last 15 years, and above all in the last five. From the triumphant declarations of the “end of history” and the overwhelming imposition of the “Washington Consensus” and the “pensée unique”, we have moved to massive protests, electoral surprises and the birth of counter powers that, from above and from below, have put in check a corporate and neoliberal globalisation that is well established but also very disputed and de-legitimised. Evidently, the social movements have played an important role in this process as the backbone of dissident activity, and have produced chain reactions that have catalysed the mobilisation of important social majorities in many parts of the world. Overcoming the identity positions and single-issue campaigns of the past has made possible the development of movements with an unheard of capacity for mobilisation, capable of functioning globally and as a network, and able to identify capitalism as the common enemy. Furthermore, the activity of these movements has put an end to decades of stagnation on the left with original and radical new approaches that have forced the traditional progressive sectors to brush off the dust – even if just in order to keep the place they’ve been sitting at for the past 20 years. Nonetheless, five years after Seattle, although the social movements are in a moment of growth in terms of the level of mobilisation and their capacity to affect wider social dynamics and mainstream thinking, some of their foundations appear to have hit the bottom and to be victims of insatiable repetition and stagnant analysis. It is true that the international financial institutions, many multilateral organs and the economic system itself have been de-legitimised by the activities of advocacy and resistance groups of the whole world and by the consequences of their own policies. But… what now? What content do we give to the post-de-legitimisation? Equally, after the first effect of the new social movements, when the colours and the fashion have stopped seducing the cameras and some radicalities have filled with nuances, how do we recover the initiative and unity? Thanks to the very high level of social mobilisation that we have experienced during recent years, we have achieved the unthinkable: to say loudly and clearly that the emperor has no clothes, that the neoliberal mantras only respond to the needs of a handful of fat cats and that, while their mansions grow, our living conditions worsen and social inequalities border on the obscene (as much in the “poor” as well as the “rich” countries). In the world of the globalisation of multinationals and capital, we have been able to create a movement that has been born global (instead of having to internationalise or globalize itself, as in the 1960s) and that has gone beyond the interests of each of us to create a space in which we all are able to fit in. However, after being in the streets for five years, the initial consensuses, the implicit and the explicit ones, are running their course, and the symbolic victories have opened up fields of action which we still don’t know how to handle. The Movement and Politics One thing that is exploding in the face of the social movements is the issue of its relation with formal politics. It is undeniable that the spirit of today’s movement has achieved a breadth and a degree of mobilisation unthinkable until very recently, going way beyond the “militant belts” and managing to penetrate the collective consciousness; but, until now, one of the areas where this “new global power” has most clearly manifested itself has been in the ballot boxes, in formal politics, changing the colour of governments, above all in European and South American countries, or serving as a base for launching new electoral initiatives more left-wing and radical than the social democratic parties, like Respect in Great Britain and the Initiative for employment and social justice in Germany. Still, from the beginning, the new social movements have wanted to separate themselves from “politics”, the parliamentary, from the political parties and political traditions. Understandably, to the young activists, the history of tensions, betrayals and divisions of the revolutionary movements of the 20th century, together with the reality of having a left and right in parliament that are indistinguishable, and the fact that these theoretically democratic spaces are filled with bureaucrats, have certainly produced the healthiest reaction: rejection. This, together with their arrival on a public scene that they treat with mistrust or indifference – a trait today’s social movements share with the new social movements of the 1960s – has generated a willingness to differentiate ourselves from any previous political experience and to generate our own rejection of Politics (with a capital ‘P’), of power, of the “great subjects” and the “great ideas” of the previous paradigms (class, power, revolution…). These ideas have caught on, and it is undeniable that with them many of the tombstones that we were dragging along have been laid to rest. But together with these tombstones, we have lost a great deal of the collective learning of the struggles of the past 150 years and the historic examples that could offer ideas going beyond the extreme positions of either surrendering to the strongest power or dissociating from it. We cannot ignore the fact that formal politics continues to be, for many people, the best and only space for political expression – but this cannot justify us becoming cheerleaders for the social democratic parties or locking ourselves up in spaces that are “pure” but impenetrable. We have to explore how to go beyond the electoral horizon, knowing how not to lose the connection with (what is still the) the majority but without renouncing the idea of radical change from below. From repression to cooption Faced with the radical action of the social movements, one of the most usual reactions by the “powers that be” is ignorance. Nonetheless, once a threshold has been reached where denial becomes unsustainable, first repression and later cooption are the weapons chosen to neutralise dissent. The repression was predictable, although this does not mean it did not surprise us and force the movements to rethink their tactics, such as happened after Genoa. But cooptation, by contrast, as a better planned form of neutralisation, continues to turn us into a giant with weak feet. The diversity of the movement -which is one of its strong points- together with certain deficiencies in our approach, has made us very vulnerable to the strategies of cooptation and to the use of the actions and slogans of dissent by organisations and people committed to maintaining the status quo. The decision to not accept the direct participation of parties and political representatives in the Social Forums has allowed us to stop some of these initiatives (at a cost, on the other hand, of leaving out political organisations committed to social change), but has left the door open to all kinds of non governmental organisations that are professionals when it comes to cleaning the faces of the powerful. Before each and every one of the cooption attacks, the reaction has been disorientation and confusion: when members of parliament have showed-up at the Social Forums, when the Spanish authorities have organised a Forum of Cultures, when the big unions have wanted to intervene in the dynamics of the movement, when we have been offered money… after the confusion, we have divided ourselves more and more. It is probably normal that after the initial impulse and the euphoria of Seattle many have returned to their initial positions. Perhaps some of the divisions have been positive, fruits of an honest and open debate about strategy and objectives. But the reality is that today, if someone looks at us closely, at times we seem to be pretty similar to what we reject: small nuclei of activists terribly entrenched in fights that are excessively personal, and terribly jealous of our identity. The Social Forums From the inside, one of the themes that best exemplifies the current moment of the social movements is the debate around the form, the content and the frequency of the Social Forums, especially the World Social Forum. One of the evident symptoms that the initial consensus is wearing out is that the 2005 WSF has presented itself in a different manner, although it returns to Porto Alegre and continues to reproduce the non-democratic and opaque dynamics of previous versions. The space of the seminars and workshops will be much larger and the plenary sessions with the “big names” will disappear; the themes of the Forum, additionally, will be the result of a consultation open to the interested social movements, and not a decision of the International Council (IC). It is clear that the opportunity we had in Mumbai of showing that “another Social Forum is possible” has forced the hidden leadership of this event to partially open the dock they built between 2001 and 2003 and to accept a certain approximation of the Social Forums to the social movements they claim to bring together. Nevertheless, the role played by hidden leaderships in the social movements (both reformist and radical) continues to be worrying. There is still another element that defines the current situation: although the debate on the frequency (biannual or triennial) of the social forums has a background of political need and analysis, it is worth noting that there are at present no candidates for the next WSF; neither the South African or Egyptian social movements (the locations pre selected by the IC) want to host it, and the other possible options (Korea?) suggest a change of scenery that is too radical for certain sectors. Thus, the reflection on the current situation has forced a redefinition of the spaces of the movement, to try other paths, but the eternal debate about the Forums as spaces or movements, as universities or workshops, is still pending –above all in Europe. Surprisingly, these are debates in which we find strange bedfellows: those that denounce established politics end up defending the same things as those that only recognise its official spaces, and the most disparate extremes coincide in their proposals. The distrust this provokes is another cause of the current situation. Debating Strategy In relation to the debates that have not been dealt with, it is important to emphasise that, from the beginning, important sectors of the movement have denied the need to elaborate strategies and to think in terms of objectives and means, generating a dynamic that has caught on. However, this has not been the case because this approach responds better to the needs of the social struggle, but because this is the only approach that allows us to move forward without debate. Evidently, total agreement is not necessary (nor perhaps desirable), but to think that “the movement is everything” and that the ends are our own dynamics means giving up on the collective project and opens dangerous paths that accommodate everyone sharing similar tools, without considering what each actor wants to build with them. If we agree on the need to have a strategy but we diverge on its form, this is another matter. Do we want a broad movement or a radical movement? Do we want to focus on denouncing the war and imperialism or on the neoliberal system? Do we believe that the best prescription against globalisation is the reinforcement of the nation state? These are all real debates that deserve to be raised in an open and honest way. If it is believed that the only way to expand the movement is by renouncing radicalism and moving towards the institutions, it has to be said openly and clearly, rather than simply filling up spaces in order to brush aside dissident voices. If it is considered that the fight against neoliberalism belongs solely to the big unions and that they should carry the initiative, this has to be made clear, instead of organising demonstrations coinciding with union activities without saying so. If someone thinks that the best way of counteracting the imperialism of the United States is by building a European imperialism based on strong nation-states, they should defend it openly, and not force everyone else to back the critical “yes” to the militaristic European Constitution, hiding themselves under the smoke screen of “there is no consensus”. The lesson of the past few years is that the alternative to the open expression of the debates that divide us is inevitably the discouragement and fragmentation of the movements, and even political utilisation and betrayal. From the Top Down of from the Bottom Up One of the most dangerous consequences of the lack of debate and tendencies described above is that it could lead to the movement becoming the antithesis of what it was at the start. From the beginning, the radicalism, the plurality and the innovative approaches of the resistance movements meant that the bureaucrats and hierarchical large traditional organisations were absent. If fact, horizontality became one of the movements’ big battles, the one that ended up building the wall that repelled and moved away those who were not willing to accept the principle of equality in its assemblies. This is what made possible the organisation of big campaigns in which, for the first time in many years, the consensus was no longer on the right. We put into practice the possibility of building unity in our radicality and autonomy. And the result was so huge (in Spain, the campaigns against the World Bank and the Europe of Capital and War, for example), that those who had rejected participating in horizontal assemblies were forced to get on a train which had never closed its doors to them, but which has said clearly that it was not willing to stop or change course for them. The big unions and NGOs had to admit, in practice, that something was moving to their left, and that defeatism was no longer convincing their own members. This was how the movement was built during the first years, from the bottom up. Today, however, it seems that the social movements have had time to create their own elites, capable of being at the level of the big bureaucrats and of accepting meetings at the top level. The entrance of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in the European Social Forum through the top door is the clearest example of this dynamic -and the most deadly: the consensus on the right is back, and the ETUC, for instance, has vetoed the social movements saying no to the European Constitution. Forgetting our grassroots orientation and looking for shortcuts to mobilisation and respectability means selling our soul. If the movement had negotiated at the top level, 30,000 people would never have taken the streets of Seattle against the WTO, nor would it have blockaded a single politician in a single meeting. The movement, in short, would never have been born. The autonomy and the radicality, the non-existence of debts and servitudes with the past, have been the ingredients that have lead to the victories of recent times. Recuperating them has to be a necessary part of any vision of the future. Possible Futures Despite all the obstacles and challenges, what we have is precious. In contrast to a few years ago, today dissidence and active resistance are part of the world’s everyday. We already have a global movement for peace and social justice which fights against corporate globalisation and exploitation. And we also have a “civil society”, a “pueblo”, a “working class”, that is clearly stating worldwide that to silence those without a voice will not be easy, and is showing to be much better than those who claim to represent them (be they politicians or social movements). However, despite the victories, the neoliberal project keeps going, sweeping away the results of the struggles of our predecessors: a century after winning a 40 hour work week, current law places it at 48; little more than 40 years after the tram strike in Barcelona, which began the anti-Franco struggle, under the European Constitution public services will, if we do not stop it, be turned into “economic services of general interest” (evidently, open to privatisation), and the right to a “decent job” will become the right to “work”. Across the whole world, the Free Trade Treaties are expanding, condemning to misery and death workers and farmers (lets not forget the project for a free trade zone in the Mediterranean); the balance of power between capital and labour is worse than ever, and the fracture of the Washington Consensus in the streets has not been able to modify, even slightly, the ultra-neoliberal plans of the European and world elites; they continue waging wars for oil, and the diamonds are paid for with genocide before the complacent eyes of those who have their pockets full of them. Meanwhile, the popular victories end up damned by parties that exchange the hopes placed in them for credits from the IMF and the World Bank, privatisation and war. In the face of these challenges, it remains to be seen if the new wave of movements will succeed in preventing another generation from living in an upside-down world, or will end up succumbing to what the system sells: the dream of individual gratification and private consumption –even if this entails consumption of different things. The ingredients are there, the path exists. But in order to take back the initiative, the movements have to be able to concentrate on their ultimate goals, and to plan out paths that lead to them, leaving behind the repetition of slogans and actively looking for the weaknesses of our adversaries, their contradictions, and identifying what could be our key victories in the short and medium term. To achieve this we will have to reinforce, or even re-found, this movement from the bottom up. To fight to maintain or create spaces of convergence that do not became burdens nor impose themselves on the will of those that make them possible, to recognise that the movement generated is much bigger and goes much further than ourselves and refill the gaps that until now have impeded us to be stronger: the local work, in the workplaces, linked to the capacity to respond as a network to the global challenges and to move, finally, from symbolic victories to real ones.