The way we were: reflections on summit protest, rituals, new technologies and networks

25 May 2007
Article
The G8 protests in Heiligedamm, Germany will add another date to the long timeline of summit protest. Gemma Galdon Clavell reflects on what these timelines tell us about the state of the movement, and examines what role these rituals can play in achieving social change.
In a few days, thousands of people will protest against the G8 in Heiligedamm, Germany. This time it’ll be June 8, which will join a long list of other memorable global action days, like 30 November 1999 in Seattle; 20 June 20, 2001 in Genoa, and February 15, 2003. But what do timelines tell us about the state of the movement? Does it make sense to repeat the same rituals every once in a while? What role does summit protest play in the current strategy for social change – if there is one? Over the last few years, the alter-globalisation movement (or whatever one might want to call it) has heavily relied on summit protest and “dates” as a way to get media attention and expose the “dates” of the “others” (ie. World Economic Forum in Davos). Reflecting on the movement over this period, it is quite tempting to think of it along the lines of a timeline. We all have our own timeline in our head, especially if we have been involved in many of the landmark events of the global peace and justice movement – if not, several can be found on the internet, tracing the big moments of the movement whether as lists (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-globalization_movement) or maps (http://www.euromovements.info/maps/wmob.htm). However, and even though we are encouraged to think of the movement in chronological terms (organisers of the Heiligedamm summit protest often refer to Gleneagles in 2005 or Evian in 2003 as a way to mobilise), timelines hide very important information. This is not to say they are useless, as they do reveal some things - the timeline, for instance, shows the shift to anti-war activities after 2002, and the map reveals an overwhelming presence of mobilisations in Europe - but there is a lot more to say about the movement and summit protest, about its dynamics, composition and ways of interacting with the world. And so it is worth digging a bit deeper, and going beyond the timeline, the list, the succession of events. A changing movement in a changing world It’s been a long time since the alter-globalisation movement emerged – eight years if we take Seattle as starting point; 14 if we use the anti-World Bank mobilisation or the Zapatista uprising. And many things happen over a long time. The movement has changed, so have we, and so has the world we live in. Eight years ago we were all somewhere else, doing different things: our jobs have changed, our friends and relationships have changed, the way we see the world is at least a little bit different. However, the fact that we can picture one single person (sometimes ourselves) going to all of these protests gives an illusion of continuity that I think explains why a timeline is so inappropriate to explain where we’re at. Some might still be wearing the same t-shirt they wore to the first protest they ever attended, but they are not the same people, they don’t live in the same world – nor are they active in the same movement. In a timeline-approach, Heiligendamm and the coming anti-G8 mobilisations would just be the 2007 version of Seattle or Genoa. But they are not, and it makes no sense to try to “package” them in the same way. The changes experienced by social movements are so profound that some have declared that the movement that is usually associated with the Spirit of Seattle is dead. Most people would agree that, if not dead, the movement has at least changed a lot. So, what happened sometime around 2003-2004 that shook the foundations of what the New York Times once called the world’s “second superpower”? Dealing with winning On the one hand, I think that one of the main things that has happened is that the movement has won the argument to the best of its ability. That is: it seems that most of the movement’s realistic expectations in terms of exposing globalisation and its institutions, and breaking the Washington Consensus, have been accomplished. The world hasn’t been changed, but the movement has planted a seed of distrust in the neoliberal system, and established a dynamic of dissent that means that there isn’t a need for a World Social Forum or international calls to make sure that Bush, the World Bank, the IMF or the G8 are met with protests wherever they go. Some of the political priorities of the social movements have also made it to the mainstream agenda, like participatory democracy and climate change, in a way that is comparable to how women’s issues entered the mainstream political discourse in the 1970s. To say that there have been victories is not an exercise of willing optimism, but a way to highlight the fact that the movement has accomplished what it set out to accomplish and what it had the consensus, as a movement, to accomplish. No more, no less. Where to go from here will require some more consensus-building and new strategies - as we saw during the G8 mobilisation in Gleneagles (UK) in 2005, when all of a sudden the likes of Bono and Bill Gates appeared to be part of our movement. How do we deal with the mainstreaming of our issues? How do we expose the new Mother Theresas? Therefore, it is not only us and the world we are relating to that has changed, but also the way this world related to us. What new movements and strategies will be able to address this new scenario? What role do the current mobilisations play in furthering the cause for social change? This is us, now The significant changes of the last few years are not limited to the world out there and the way we relate to it, however. In the same way that the activist going to all the summit protests is not the same person anymore, the movement is not the same anymore either. The “teamsters and turtles”, the “get our of your single issue campaign and join a broader coalition” rattle that made Seattle possible is now history, mainly because this coming together created more than just an ad-hoc coalition. It ended up transforming us, creating a new space, a new agency, a new identity. All the small “mosquitoes” got together only to realise that they were not mosquitoes, but drops of water that that, as such, could not keep their shape and colour when mixed together. This coming together created a space that was not the addition of spaces, but something that made itself for itself, something that had agency independently. We were never the same after that. We never went back to our original movements and constituencies. A new category, the “movement activist”, appeared. We went from using networks to becoming networks. In this process, traditional concepts of organisation like hierarchy, representativity, membership, discipline, party line and a close and defined “we” have been replaced by openness, free collaboration, consensus, networks, autonomy, direct participation and a very loose and unstable “we” that is more the sum of “I”s. Movement 2.0 Interestingly enough, a timeline representing the development of new technologies in recent years sheds more light on the evolution of the internal dynamics of the movement than any timeline of events or demonstrations, because in a technology timeline we can actually see the changes in how we have chosen to interact and relate with each other. It exposes a social architecture. And so the explosion of the blog phenomenon (2002-2004) and Web 2.0 seem to say more about how we are evolving as individuals and as a society (and therefore as political actors) than any G8-2007 mobilisation. Isn’t it worth reflecting on how we are moving away from collaborative tools to embrace interfaces that allow us to present ourselves to the world as individuals, and to share “our” opinions without reaching prior consensus with the collective? Faced with conflicts nobody knew how to deal with (because, as networks and open structures, no one ever though there would be a need for strategies to deal with differences, and it seemed to be easier to look down on structures that did have mechanisms to deal with conflict, labeling them as bureaucratic), many chose to withdraw, to go back to our own, uncut, un-consensuated opinions and analysis. The example –or metaphor- of Indymedia is revealing in this context. Many Indymedia websites have three columns: a left column that is fixed, a middle column that is the result of a collaborative process that includes those active in the project, and a right column used for self-publishing. When conflict arises, it is the middle column that freezes. When the activists get tired or bored, the right column is the only one that survives – that one and, of course, the left one, based on earlier, minimal consensus. The movement today resembles this structure: unable to deal with conflict and to find new spaces to reach consensus, it seems to be frozen in its own picture. However, activity does not stop, dissent continues and the right column is as alive as ever. Has narcissism triumphed? Is consensus –or the possibility of it- dead? Summit protest as a ritual In this context, then, what sense does it make to continue to talk about a “movement” or a “movement of movements”? Doesn’t the use of those words suggest too much unity and continuity to describe what is happening today on the Net and on the streets? And more relevant to the issue at hand now: what role does summit protest play in this new context? It seems that the main contribution of summit protest nowadays is to provide a timeline, to be the “glue” that holds things together when everything else (social forums, internet tools) seems to have failed, to give us the collective memory of landmark events that we need to develop a sense, an illusion of a common identity and purpose. If this is what summit protest has become, it is not to be underestimated. We need the glue. But if that is the only role summit protest plays, then these events can very easily become just self-referential explosions, rituals that don’t need a political strategy to make sense anymore – why do we target the G8? Is it possible that social movements have relied too much on summit protest as a way of building a sense of themselves, and that somewhere along the line they forgot that experiencing making history as a festive interruption of everyday life is an act that dies in itself and cannot be incorporated into an everyday practice of dissent and resistance? If so, these events only make sense to us and are politically irrelevant. I will still go to Germany for the G8 mobilisation. I might even wear the same t-shirt I wore in 1999. I need the timeline because it is part of my biography or who I am. But luckily my complacency won’t take me as far as believing that I am changing the world by taking a plane to go protest against climate change. Rituals are important and necessary, but rituals won’t change the world. Nor will narcissistic, self-absorbed networks too complacent to show any real engagement or sense of accountability. But then, what WILL change the world? What role can summit protests play to be more usefully “embedded” in other struggles and linked to the recuperation of a political public space? Just posing the question, resisting the comfort of the rituals we’ve mastered, would be a first step towards building a new movement, a new wave that haunts the rich and powerful and reopens the green door of hope.