top
International
International
Indybay
Indybay
Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz
Indybay
Regions
Indybay Regions North Coast Central Valley North Bay East Bay South Bay San Francisco Peninsula Santa Cruz IMC - Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area North Coast Central Valley North Bay East Bay South Bay San Francisco Peninsula Santa Cruz IMC - Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area California United States International Americas Haiti Iraq Palestine Afghanistan
Topics
Newswire
Calendar
Features
From the Open-Publishing Calendar
From the Open-Publishing Newswire
Indybay Feature
Our World is Not For Sale!
by Frauke Banse, Friederike Habermann & Jai Sen
Tuesday Jun 15th, 2021 7:14 AM
People's Global Action (PGA) was organized in a decentralized way by movements from all parts of the world. But we had no staff and no fixed funding. Everything was through crowdfunding. People were inspired by what PGA stood for, which was, first, the rejection of capitalism. Later, at the second conference in India in 1999, the rejection of all kinds of domination was added, including sexism, racism, and so on.
"Our World is not for Sale!"
What did the global protest movement of the 1990s achieve - and what didn't? Review of a virtual fireside chat in September 2020.
By Frauke Banse, Friederike Habermann, Jai Sen, Peter Choice & Aram Ziai in PERIPHERY
[This conversation published on 6/4/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.;inksnet.de.]

As part of the final webinar series of the Hans Böckler Foundation-funded junior research group Protest and Reform in the Global Political Economy from the Perspective of Postcolonial Political Research at the University of Kassel, a panel discussion with activists from the anti-globalization movement was organized in September 2020. They discussed where it was successful and where it was not. Which excesses of neoliberalism did it prevent, which reforms did it initiate, which reflection processes did it set in motion? But also: Where were its blind spots, and what strategic mistakes did it make? Finally, what has become of it and where does it stand today? Friederike Habermann, long-time activist with Peoples' Global Action (PGA) and author of History Is Made. Stages of Global Resistance; Jai Sen, director of the Critical Action Centre in Movement Institute in New Delhi and editor of Challenging Empires and The Movement of Movements; Peter Wahl, co-founder of World Economy, Ecology & Development (WEED) and founding member and member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Attac Germany; and Frauke Banse, who has worked at Bewegungsstiftung, medico international, the Clean Clothes Campaign, and the Stop EPA Campaign, among others. The conversation was moderated and questions asked by Aram Ziai, who was also active in the movement. It was transcribed, edited and translated by Manyakhalé Diawara, Anne Reiff, Dustin Schäfer, Eric Otieno and Sabrina Keller.
Chiapas, Mexico 1996...

Friederike Habermann: Since I was lucky enough to be part of the movement, I will describe the background against which the anti-globalization movement began. From our postcolonial perspective today, it shows that it was a grassroots movement that started from the Global South. An important starting point in this was the Zapatistas in Mexico, who called for an international meeting in the jungle of Chiapas in 1996, which was attended by about 3,000 people. During the next meeting of the international Zapatista network a year later, held for a week in Spain, movements from around the world created the Peoples' Global Action (PGA) network. In essence, then, the creation of PGA, the first international network to coordinate the globalization movement, dates back to these two meetings. The official founding conference then took place in Geneva in February 1998 with 400 people from movements and organizations in over seventy countries.

Not everyone who came together in Geneva influenced the further dynamics in the same way. The network included Maori from Aotearoa (New Zealand), Adivasi from India, and indigenous organizations and movements from several countries in Latin America; as well as peasants and farmers, especially strong in India, the landless movement from Brazil, teachers from Argentina, the Canadian Postal Workers Union, an organization of homeless people from Ontario, textile workers from Bangladesh, fishermen from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and some African non-governmental organizations (NGOs). From Eastern Europe, mainly environmental movements participated. These diverse grassroots initiatives made the network very special.

The summit protests and the "white" gaze
This first PGA conference was held in Geneva because the second ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was to meet there three months later. The protests were so strong that the police chief spoke of a "New 68." For the first time, there were coordinated days of action and concerted activities worldwide. A major issue during this period was the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). In 1998 there were strong protests against it, for example in India with a demonstration of 200,000 people, which was not reported in the Western media. Therefore, activists decided to make their protests visible in the cities of the Global North as well.

There was then a caravan of about 500 people in 1999, 50 from countries around the world and more than 400 from India. The Indian farmers wanted to go to Europe to be seen. They toured Europe for five weeks, the last big event was in Cologne, where the double summit of EU and G8 took place. For me, the core question of Gayatri Spivak's postcolonial theory is "Can the subalterns speak?" Cologne 1999 proved that they were not heard, because when they held a press conference, only an intern from the local newspaper showed up. It was so frustrating that I cried afterwards. They had come from so far away: Chairmen of peasant movements from India and other great people. Later, Europe's disinterest in the contributions of the participants became even more obvious: Said daily newspaper ran the headline "300 autonomists occupied streetcar". In fact, they were Indians wearing white robes and scarves, they were very obviously not a black bloc that had been hogtied by the police.

Decentralization and (In)Visibility
PGA was organized in a decentralized way by movements from all parts of the world. But we had no staff and no fixed funding. Everything was through crowdfunding. People were inspired by what PGA stood for, which was, first, the rejection of capitalism. Later, at the second conference in India in 1999, the rejection of all kinds of domination was added, including sexism, racism, and so on. A third principle of PGA opposed lobby politics because it ultimately reproduces power structures. Instead, we called for direct action - just as the Zapatistas inspired others to work for democracy and justice, rather than hoping for the powerful. Fifth and last of PGA's principles (hallmarks) was decentralized organization. In addition, we tried to write a manifesto but failed because we could not unite the different realities.

There was also an imbalance in our opportunities between activists from the North and grassroots movements from the Global South. For example, the adivasis from Kerala were represented on some international occasions by their leader C.K. Janu - who spoke five languages, two indigenous, then that of her state (Malayalam), then the national language (Hindi) as well as Urdu spoken by local Muslims. But none of the imperial languages. Let alone that they would have had Internet access in the jungle. We tried to deal with the resulting bias.

Looking back, I appreciate our decentralized approach, although it meant being seen less compared to an organization that had staffers, fixed funding, and representatives. So in addition to the subalterns not being able to speak and not being seen, these two elements were added and made the beginnings of the globalization movement invisible. This problem has not been solved until today. It also persists in the climate movement, where activists from the Global South are not really seen. This gives the impression that the climate movement started in the Global North, which is not true.

Occupy was often accused of not having demands. But what they were doing was creating a different way of life in the squares. Instead of making demands on the state while reproducing the power structures. I see this in the context of the emerging importance of the concept of commons. I learned about the concept of commons within PGA. There were many debates about it, because initially we knew what we were against, but not what we stood for. At least we from the north did.

Commons came into play because of the realities of grassroots movements from the South, which often had to defend their natural resources or ways of life based in part on commons. The Zapatista movement was also inspired by the defense of commons. I don't think it's a coincidence that many activists from this period started Solidarity Agriculture and other projects of a commons logic.

The protests as a wave movement
Jai Sen: First of all, I would like to thank Aram Ziai and his colleagues for digging me out of the rubble of history, because I have moved on since then, but it is a pleasure to go back and deal with what happened. A lot of my work since 1999/2000 has been in some ways trying to make sense of that. I bring multiple perspectives, but I want to highlight a few points in particular.

First, at that time it was the rise of a new wave of global movements in which the subalterns, or whatever term you want to use, were actually speaking and being heard. That was historically and structurally new on a global level, and it still reverberates in much of the world today through the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the heart and belly of the empire.

Moreover, I welcome the fact that the issue is framed here within the larger framework of postcolonial perspectives on protest and reform. I think it's interesting because the language is different than it was 20 years ago, the phrasing of the questions being asked is different. I think that's extremely important because in addition to the Black Lives Matter movement against White Supremacy, we're also seeing the crisis of capitalism, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, and the climate crisis coming back at us. So, yes we need to theorize, but looking at action and looking at the real world out there - how can we move that forward?

What's also important to name here is my caste and my class and the role they've played in who I am, what I've learned, and what I haven't learned. I'm obviously male and feel that way, but I'm also upper class and upper caste in the Indian context (but I think that's true on a global level as well), which is critically important to the work I've done over the last 30,40 years. This has given me tremendous privilege and access, especially to the corridors of power, but it has also blinded me to many realities.

I think the movement was important as a kind of ripple effect that came up at that time. There were other manifestations of it in different parts of the world, it was just one crystallization point among many. But it drew the empire's attention, it confronted it with a different kind of action than it was used to. It had been preceded by actions, for example in Germany against the World Bank, among others, but this kind of street militancy was new to the North. In that sense, it was an extremely important contribution.

Seattle did not reflect the diversity of the world

Another important point is that the movement opened up the question of the relationship with the Global South. That was a great opportunity, but my impression was that it didn't happen as much. Seattle, for example, did not reflect the diversity of the world. There was some presence of people from different parts of the world, but it wasn't just white people, it was mostly people from the middle strata of civil society who led that process. I think we need to look more critically at the achievements of the global protest movements of the 1990s. We also don't pay enough attention to two other things: one is - it's even here in the title - that it's understood as a global protest. I think that's a misnomer.

You have to trace the history for that. In other words, there were earlier waves that ran through the seventies, eighties, and nineties that I don't think are sufficiently acknowledged. PGA certainly played a very important role in mobilizing direct action in the United States, but that's not the whole story. I think there is much more that happened that needs to be brought in. I would point out that the perception is not really global, and also the places that were mentioned-Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Washington DC, Quebec City, etc.-are all in North America or Europe. And I think we need to broaden our perspective to understand what happened on a global level - if we want to make the claim that it was a global movement. So: it wasn't just one movement and it wasn't really global! If we want to talk about a global movement, we also have to acknowledge what precursors there were on the different continents.
It is also important to place these actions in the broader framework of history. Because this kind of resistance against the imperialist structure of the world and the North-South relationship starts already in the 1950s at the state level, because of course there are the liberation movements that take place at that time.

If we include all these currents in our understanding, then a slightly different picture emerges. From the non-aligned movement starting in 1956, the organized solidarity with the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America in Havana in 1966, to the emergence of independent, non-aligned thinking, which led, among other things, to the promulgation of a new international economic order, the formation of cartels like OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), the liberation struggles. All of this played a very important role. So, the postcolonial begins with the liberation struggles of the 1940s and 1950s.

I can't speak for other countries, but in India there was a rise of popular movements in very many areas: Movements against large-scale projects, movements of solidarity with indigenous peoples' feminisms (Adivasi and others), movements of peasants and farmers and their organizations, and of fishermen and forest dwellers. I point this out because this organic intersectionality was already emerging and very widespread in the 1980s. It manifested itself in an overarching understanding of movement and intersectionality and of identity, even though those terms were not used. And I think we need to go back to that understanding and that literature, to the extent that it's still available, and bring it into a contemporary understanding of intersectionality and postcoloniality.

In addition, new institutions emerged. Movement-spanning networks developed between independent movements, in India since the 1980s. Then, when India faced structural adjustment programs in the 1990s, there were coalitions with political parties. Discourses also evolved in the 1990s. In 1993, for example, human rights organizations recognized for the first time that economic, social, and cultural rights were also human rights. Until then, all the leading international human rights organizers had focused only on civil and political rights. And I think that was also a turning point in terms of thinking.

The Global South speaks
So, I'm just mentioning a few scattered things to show that there were currents of movement and thinking that were extremely important. They contributed to what became a crashing wave in the late nineties. At this point we also see the subalterns starting to speak, with all due respect to Gayatri Spivak. They were speaking before, too, but in their own context. If you look at the rise of the Black Panthers, they were speaking even then. If you look at the rise of the Dalit Panthers, they were speaking in India and in South Asia, but not necessarily to the same audience and not to us. So I think discourses of resistance and revolt emerged much earlier. I'm talking here about liberation movements and their expressions. We need to go back to find out what that tells us. We need to critique and look at the bigger picture. And today we are at a point in history where the structural Global South, that is: both the "South in the South" and the "South in the North," is speaking, particularly through the Black Lives Matter movement. And it is extremely eloquent, its expressions are powerful. And she is shaking the foundations of empire, and not just in the United States, but in many countries of the imperial North. She is being joined by sections of the immigrant community because the message is resonating in the immigrant diaspora around the world and in Europe. Fortress Europe is now under attack, as is Fortress USA.

Global capitalism, global protest movement?
Peter Wahl: Before I come back to the question "What are the failures? What are the achievements and where do we stand today?", I would like to make some brief introductory remarks about the character of the movement. In my opinion, it was a movement that wanted to change or reform neoliberal capitalism, and some currents within the movement also tried to overcome capitalism as such. So that's its first characteristic.

But why was this the case? It is obvious that the movement emerged at a moment when the nature of capitalism was also changing. Neoliberal globalization, with finance capitalism at the forefront of capital accumulation, was appearing all over the world at that time. This, of course, was related to the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, capitalism became global for the first time in the last century with the Washington Consensus. That led to the emergence of such a movement in different places.

When capitalism became global, it naturally produced its own antagonisms and its counter-movements. These spread everywhere. In that sense, Jai, I would already say that it was global, although I completely agree with you that there was a clear dominance, not only of northern capitalism, but also of northern antagonists to capitalism: the movements from the global north.

This gap was a major problem worldwide and allowed the triumph of neoliberal thinking. Here I see the first success and merit of the movement, insofar as it gave a new emancipatory impulse. Some elements of the new movement culture that accompanied it have already been mentioned by Friederike. There were still traditional elements, but the way of organizing was different. There was this very strong grassroots orientation, decentralization, and of course, as a basic characteristic, an enormous heterogeneity of political approaches and political culture. And this diversity was welcomed at that time! There was the famous slogan "Diversity is our strength." I will come back to this point when we talk about the failures and the problems and the blind spots of the movement.

Main resource of the protests: discursive power.
Another fundamental feature of the movement, and here I fully agree with Jai, is that its main social base in Europe and in North America was the academic middle class and the youth, who strongly dominated. There were sometimes alliances with the trade unions, but the type of "old labor movement" that belonged to the past formed only a small part in this new movement. Because of this class base and the heterogeneity of the movement, its main power resource was its influence on the discursive balance of power. The traditional workers' movement also used this resource, but it had another: the strike. This allowed it to directly attack the functioning of capitalism. And that's something that was missing in this movement. So, it was very much limited to influencing the discursive balance of power and, if you will, public opinion, and thereby exerting political pressure and influencing the decision-making of governments and, more generally, the course of society.

Now I want to take a look at the successes. The great merit of the protest movement was that after this dramatic collapse [in 1989] of the traditional, old movements, it really took up the historical legacy of emancipation. Here I'm referring to the old labor movement, among others, as well as the solidarity networks, anti-apartheid, or Chile. Another success of the movement was its influence on public opinion and decision makers, which also had an impact on certain political projects that the ruling forces wanted to implement. Friederike rightly mentioned the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. I would add the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief, a debt program for heavily indebted poor countries, which was adopted at the G8 summit in Cologne in 1999 and was preceded by a major campaign in which even the Vatican and the Pope participated at the time. Of course, then there was Seattle, with the failed attempt to further liberalize world trade. So, there were certain elements and projects of the ruling forces that were stopped by this movement. To some extent, I would even count another success among them: Rio 1992 was interesting in that the environment and sustainability were no longer defined in narrow environmental or ecological terms, but the question of poverty and development and thus the social question was raised.

And then, of course, there were many, local or regional successes that didn't get as much attention in the big media theater. In Frankfurt, Attac and others prevented the privatization of the subway. There were several successes in the fight against the privatization of water in Italy, in France and in Germany. The blocking of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to this day - despite attempts to revive it - is also due to the movement. Although social movements played their part in the successes, there were certainly other influencing factors, such as governments from the South, for example India or Mandela's South Africa. Sometimes even those in power played a role, such as Clinton in Seattle.

Failure and blind spots
Now, what didn't go so well? Where were there failures, blind spots, or problems? I see two key issues here. The first is heterogeneity. The slogan I mentioned, "Diversity is our strength," was a nice slogan against centralism, the democratic centralism of the communists, of the traditional labor movement. But there were also contradictions and many differences that prevented the constitution as an actor, although there were many meetings and a global interconnection, for example at the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre and Nairobi. The differences that arose from the many cultural, national and social bases of all these heterogeneous movements nevertheless remained, it was a challenge to deal with the contradictions; between the need to become a collective actor on the one hand and to maintain heterogeneity on the other, which does not mean returning to democratic centralism.

My second point is the underestimation of the question of power. Many within the movement had illusions about how capitalism is organized, its power resources, and its ability to overcome crises. These things were underestimated and there was a certain naiveté in many cases, not all of them of course, to believe that showing a demonstration on television will change things. Certainly, in addition to these two basic problems, others can be mentioned, such as the aspect of material resources raised by Friederike.

As a final comment on where we are today, I would say that this movement was a cycle in the overall history of emancipatory social movements. That cycle is now over and a new one is emerging. The old forms of this movement, like the social forums, are a shadow of their past and with some exceptions are not really strong. A striking example was the absence of the movement in the financial crisis: there was Occupy Wall Street for a few weeks, but this had no real impact on solving the crisis, although Occupy Wall Street more or less predicted what happened in 2008. The only movement I see right now that has the potential to take up the economic and also the social question of capitalism and its future is the environmental movement. Parts of this movement understand that the solution to the crisis is systemic, that it cannot be done by fixing capitalism or aspects of it, but that we are in an extraordinary crisis of civilization and that this crisis of civilization needs tools, strategies and alternatives that go beyond capitalism. In Germany, for example, there are Fridays for Future, where some are moving in this direction, and there is Ende Gelände, the radical climate movement that raises the question of the economic system. But still, we are in a transitional phase, the old cycle is over and how it will continue is still undecided and a bit unclear. This is the current conjuncture and I think that the next months and years will be crucial for these new social movements.

The mobilizations as an important experience of solidarity
Frauke Banse: First of all, thank you very much for the invitation and also for the other very exciting contributions. I speak from two perspectives. With my experience in organizing civil disobedience actions in Heiligendamm 2007, I will point out the successes and maybe also failures. But I will also bring my perspective as a researcher on trade and investment relations between the EU and Africa and also speak from the perspective of the "Stop EPA" campaign (EPA - Economic Partnership Agreement). So it is about a form of protest and a specific form of trade and investment relations.
I agree with most of it, especially what Peter said. However, in terms of achievements, he has a very German movement perspective. But maybe that can be applied to other experiences in other parts of the world, because what we achieved here took a very long time and was a cooperation between formally very opposing groups. The non-violent groups from the anti-nuclear movement and the so-called post-autonomous movement, the former black bloc. These two groups joined together to organize these very large actions of civil disobedience. We blocked the streets for three days with 13,000 people or so!

So it was quite successful and there was a conflictual but very fruitful working relationship. We had this very strong set of symbols, as Peter said, a very discursive kind of intervention. But the culture of collaboration developed in a long conflictual process that spread to other movements, like anti-fascist movements and Ende Gelände. So, the radical climate movement developed a new movement culture, and I think that's still the case. When people talk about their experiences in these and other movements, they remember the experience of that time, where we really managed to have a very good and fundamental cooperation and an overcoming of previous conflicts. We brought together opposing cultures. This mobilization process was an important experience of solidarity for all participants, but also for many observers. We formulated a decisive "no" to capitalist globalization. This was an important experience. Although it was very symbolic and on a discursive level, important elements for further interventions on other levels were learned and created. We overcame the "there is no alternative" syndrome, the passivity of the early nineties and the crisis of the left. In my opinion, these were the lessons of the "G8 bloc" and also of the globalization-critical movement more broadly.

"Capitalism is finding its way"
Now to the failures: I fully agree with Peter about the underestimation of the power and actions of capitalism and capitalist states. To take the example of the WTO, which is still blocked for various reasons: the response to the blockade is the bilateral trade agreements, which have also been blocked in some ways, such as the Europe-Africa Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). But what we see now is that the European Union is putting pressure on African countries to implement even more radical liberalization elements at the individual country level.

So, we can see a constant forum-shifting here, implementing the same or even worse things than what we saw with the EPAs. So, I think that the shenanigans of power are underestimated and also that there is too much focus on multilateral organizations, which for various reasons have their own unique problems. But we see here, capitalism finds its way, or the capitalist, imperialist states find one. I think, like Peter, that every movement has its time. And that's okay, it has served its purpose.

But I also think that if you underestimate the angularity of power, the way capitalism or capitalist states work, you also underestimate the relevance of place-based organizing. Yet locally-connected organizations have other power resources at their disposal to influence political dynamics. And while according to Peter, only the climate movement addresses economic issues, I don't think that's true. In 2019, for example, I think it was the Economist who said that we haven't seen so many global protests at different levels and over such a long time. And a lot of them were directed at economic grievances, like in Chile, for example, there the trigger for the protests against inequality was the increase in subway fares, in other countries it was unfair taxes. So, we have these economic issues that come up and fuel protest movements. We see a lot of protests also during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement was mentioned and economic issues play a role there as well. We need to look at what is happening here.

Working against North-South asymmetries
Aram Ziai: Friederike, in relation to the question of postcolonial perspectives, you mentioned the dominance of the North, which is also reproduced in the movements, because of unequal resources. You said you tried to deal with that in PGA. How exactly?

Friederike Habermann: Already at the very first conference of PGA, we had a, I would say, queered speakers:inside list. So, it was not only gender balanced, but it was also balanced in terms of where people were coming from, whether someone was white or positioned as a person of color. And then, when we started organizing, we had a rule, for example, that representatives from the Global North were asked to rotate in discussions and votes so that the same representatives were not the deciding factor. So, to create a balance between people who represent the movements from the Global South and other people from the North who maybe represent feminist, autonomous or other movements.

On the other hand, people who were able to form a support group, mostly people from the North, actively supported movements from the South. And for example, when I was chosen to do the press work, I always understood it as coordinating the press work, but letting other people from the movements from other regions of the world have their say, if possible.

But I would also like to take this opportunity to disagree a little bit. Sometimes you look back at an event in the past, say Seattle, and it's said that it was predominantly white. That's true, but I think it's more diverse than other occasions, at least in the United States. For example, with our intercontinental caravan, we visited pickets of steelworkers who had a decidedly protectionist position. And now we were coming together with people from the very countries where their jobs might be moving. That's when people started to understand that it's a common struggle.

Nation states of the South as resistant actors
Aram Ziai: With the death of David Graeber in September, we lost a brother-in-struggle. In his essay "The shock of victory," he highlights the concrete successes of the anti-globalization movement, such as preventing the Multilateral Agreement on Investment; not only paralyzing the WTO in Seattle, but paralyzing it in the longer term - in part, WTO delegates say, by goading Southern governments to stop submitting to the North's free trade agenda. Jai, when we say that the movement has been wildly successful. What would be your replication?

Jai Sen: I think in some ways that's exactly the point. I thank you for acknowledging David's contribution and what it means. What I wanted to say was that the resistance of Southern countries within the WTO negotiations in 1999 did not come about because they were incited by the movements to take these positions. These currents of resistance have been there for a long time, not only in the WTO, but in other multilateral institutions. That's political history, and I think we also have to acknowledge that part of the resistance, which is at a very different level with very different interests, as part of the movement. If you look at it historically, there's a lot more of it that we need to understand and digest and carry forward in terms of what we're doing now. I think the situation is changing because the demands today are very different. We have to ask ourselves how the nation states of the Global South look at the alliances of castes and classes that are forming in the Global North today.

Dealing with contradictions
Aram Ziai: Peter, quick question for you: You mentioned "diversity as a strength" as a characteristic of the movement on the one hand, but on the other hand you mentioned that this in fact prevented it from being constituted as an actor. And here I hear an echo of what people from social movement research and also in BUKO (Bundeskongress entwicklungspolitischer Aktionsgruppen/Bundeskoordination Internationalismus) have said: For a movement to be successful, you need clear demands, you need a clear actor and a clear, unified agenda. It can't be this fuzzy "changing the world without taking power," which was one of the central slogans, and the title of a book by John Holloway. You actually also need, to a certain extent, a homogenization of demands and of actors in order to be politically effective and to confront power. Would you agree with that?

Peter Wahl: It's like medicine, it depends on the right amount. If you take too much of it, it becomes a poison, that was the problem in many cases of democratic centralism. But also, if you look at contemporary movements, there were some, for example, the Arab Spring, which also had some success in Tunisia or in Egypt, at least in the first period. So if you look at the mechanisms, the reasons and the conditions and the environment why these movements were successful, you will find that there were elements of unity where heterogeneity did not play such a big role that it destroyed the movement or at least hindered it a lot.

But take Tahrir Square and the Egyptian movement, where there was a high degree of heterogeneity: there was the faction of young people, academic, educated, Westernized. And on the other side, there was the Muslim Brotherhood as a very strong movement. So there is such a great heterogeneity that we haven't had in the West for a long time. As soon as the movement was successful and Hosni Mubarak was thrown out, the heterogeneity came back into play. In other words, the contradiction is there. In a very differentiated and complex world, contradictions will always be there, and the movements reflect that complexity and diversity, we will never get rid of that. What we have to do is accept that to some degree and find ways in which the contradictions, the contradictions don't play such a big role that they can destroy the movement or hinder it altogether. So, dealing with contradictions would be my motto, or to go back to my example of medicine: you have to have both in the right dose.

"Give up activism?"
Aram Ziai: Now the last question to Frauke Banse. There was a text that was distributed in the movement in the late nineties or early twenties that was titled "Give up activism" and the argument was: actually, all these summit protests - Geneva, Seattle, Prague, Genoa.... - distract us from our real struggles, which are the day-to-day struggles in our workplace. Now, you've been on both sides as a trade unionist on the one hand, and as someone who was actively involved in organizing the G8 blockade in 2007 on the other. So how would you answer the author of Give up activism?

Frauke Banse: Don't play it off against each other! It's a question of time, you can't always do everything. There are different times in life for different things. And we also have movement cycles, different times for certain kinds of movements that also build on history. For example, at "Block G8" we also had the union youth organizations with us. I would say they became bolder through our experiences in the workplace as well. And they became more open to other forms of activism. In the same way, the former Black Bloc became more open to union action or nonviolent activism. There was a shared learning from each other and a kind of looking back at what you did yourself or what others did and learning from that experience.

I myself grew up in the anti-nuclear movement and what I learned there is that in bringing many people together, movements are about much more than their sheer numbers because we create a solidarity and a common force that was not visible before. And this experience is fruitful also for all other strategies in different movements. That's why I refer to the learning process at "Block G8": Learning solidarity, going beyond something, crossing rules, daring something, taking one's right and this can be transferred to other struggles.

Grassroots movements and the World Social Forum
Question from the audience: if we look at commons as a movement against the inadequacies of the economic and social aspects of capitalism, can we say it is a movement, or is it just a theory or a discourse?

Friederike Habermann: I see commons less as a movement than as an idea that makes people understand that there is an alternative, not only to neoliberalism, but also to capitalism. Margaret Thatcher said TINA (there is no alternative) and the activists responded with TAMARA (there are many and real alternatives). This means nothing more than that person A thinks something different than person B and the two do not believe in each other's solutions. And we in the Network Economic Change say that even if we start from a market, we have to democratize it and get rid of competition. We need to democratize the state and make sure it's not exclusionary. And then it means creating commons and organizing ourselves again in direct action to do what we stand for! Even though there are concepts for transformation, like the commons economy, in the end the solution is an economy that is aligned with people's needs to consume, but also to be able to spend our lifetime doing what we think is important. We need to see the solution, and the solution is so simple, because if we organize in our movements, as we did with PGA, as the climate movement and other movements are doing today, we just do what needs to be done and organize democratically from the grassroots. That's the way to go.

Peter Wahl: Commons are a way to sort of cushion the inadequacies of capitalism, and many movements are doing this under the banner of "protect our public services." With the pandemic, we have an intense debate about this against the commodification of health, and we're seeing something similar in movements against the commodification of water, public transportation, education, and more. In that sense, the struggle for public goods is in the same direction.

Question from the audience: regarding the World Social Forum (WSF), which was built when the anti-globalization protests took place in Seattle and Genoa and then criticism arose that the WSF didn't always take on the militancy of the anti-globalization protests and that it was supported by foundations and also states played a role and the World Bank, there's a whole conspiracy theory about that, at the same time I would say that we saw a real decline in the movement after that. You can say that the WSF brought a lot of new things, but that reading can't be ruled out either. I'm interested in your assessments.

Friederike Habermann: I can understand that it looked like that. Not directly after Seattle, but after Prague meetings were canceled, in Gothenburg people were shot at. After Carlo Giuliani was shot in Genoa, this cycle came to an end because the repression became so strong. So many people were also traumatized after the so-called "Chilean Night" and the subsequent tortures in the prisons, we could not continue like this. And also for other reasons, PGA decided, for example, to focus henceforth more on campaigning than summit hopping, which was criticized for being unsustainable and for focusing on the Global North. And the third PGA meeting in Cochabamba, where commons played a major role, took place right after September 11, 2001. That, of course, was another watershed. Because of all that, the radicalism of the movement collapsed. But we also saw the WSF as an opportunity to figure out what we actually wanted to achieve.

Jai Sen: I think it's true that you see two different ways of approaching things. I think it was a different part of society where the role of so-called civil society played a dominant role in building the WSF. I've argued before that in many ways the WSF can be seen as a kind of alliance of a transnational social activist class that came together and also controlled the discourse. As Friederike described, there was a moment of increasing violence against the movement, which led to reflection. At the same time, this other way of doing things emerged, which was a very important opportunity for people to come together in this moment of violence, especially after 9/11, when the war on terror began, which also targeted activists: inside. The WSF also played an important role in providing private spaces for relationships and struggles to continue. It does not need to be understood as something that was itself a large movement, although it was in a discursive sense, but it was also a place where many movements met on their own terms to continue their struggles that went beyond the movement and beyond the forum. So, it has played an important role in the emergence of contemporary movement.

Peter Wahl: I think the problems of the World Social Forum reflect the problems of the movement as a whole, not the other way around. So, its weaknesses are the expression of the weaknesses of the movement itself. And I wouldn't say that money and the influence of foundations have broken the World Social Forum. If there was a vital and vibrant movement, these issues would not have had an impact.
Institutional reform, inclusion, and the knowledge industry.

Question from the audience: as a research group, we study institutional reforms as a way for the IMF, World Bank or WTO to respond to the protests. So, I would be interested to know how you perceived the movements' perspective on these reforms. Were they perceived as successes or criticized as inadequate, or were they not important because they were not the goal of the movements?

Frauke Banse: I can answer with regard to the European Partnership Agreements (EPAs). In the end, the EU could not achieve what it wanted to achieve, but the movements underestimated these things. What I always hear when I talk about this issue is that activists are shocked that the same rules that the EU wanted to implement bilaterally in negotiations with African regions are now going to be implemented even more radically at the national level, without laborious regional negotiations. There has been no real weakening of the EPAs. The arena, the level was changed and it was no longer just about the institution, like the World Trade Organization, but now about the national level. We should not just focus on institutions and ask about their reforms, but broaden the view and look at what is happening around them.

Peter Wahl: The question of reforms of institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and so on is very ambivalent. To a certain extent, they have to respond to pressure from outside and public opinion. But that means that they respond only when they reach a certain level and a certain quality. It's not just about demonstrations, but when the pope - to take this example of the Jubilee initiative - and other actors support debt relief for poor countries, then of course it becomes an issue for them. On the other hand, the institutions also try to integrate the protest and thus divide the movement. I was invited several times with colleagues to the World Bank and we sat for days with good food in expensive hotels and prepared papers. At the end came the "reality check", everything we had thought and added was nothing for them. They had invited several NGOs, sat with them, discussed, integrated them, but in reality, it is a strategy to integrate and, in a way, co-opt certain elements and divide and weaken the movement. Still, when there is a certain amount of pressure, they have to respond.

Jai Sen: I think we, that is, the intellectual class, also contribute to this ourselves by creating whole fields of research, for example, to hold international financial institutions to account, a whole industry emerges that thinks about it and makes us believe that we are in fact holding them to account. It's creating a whole field of work, conferences all over the place, books are being published about it, as if it's actually happening! And the ones I've looked at don't seem to critically reflect what's actually going on. I think we have to be aware when we do studies of this kind that we start believing what we're doing and confirming each other. I think there is that danger. We become part of a knowledge industry that has its own ideology. That's where we need to be critical-reflective. But I agree with Peter, I had similar experiences when I was invited to these consultations [at institutions]. And sometimes you see the beginning of the division of the groups that come together there.

One of the studies I did on the anti-globalization movement was on the movements' attempts to use the World Bank as an arena for reform. And in my interviews with the Bank, they were very clear about that: they had identified which movements were more radical and which were more moderate, and within the movements, who were the radicals and who were the moderates. And they use one to create space for the other to move forward. And they were very tactical in how they organized things. They invited the radicals, but only to create space for the moderates to advance, but unseen. They knew very well what they were doing. Within the World Bank, they also knew how to keep the Executive Directors in ignorance in the seventies and eighties, they even had a saying for it, "The Executive Directors of the Bank are like mushrooms, keep them in the dark and feed them garbage." This was a common practice within the World Bank, and they fed petty information to lots of other people as well.

Frauke Banse, PhD, is a political scientist and teaches at the University of Kassel. Her research focuses on German Africa policy, financialization and development policy, and trade unions. She was active in the Stop EPA campaign and has worked at medico international and the Clean Clothes Campaign.
Add Your Comments
We are 100% volunteer and depend on your participation to sustain our efforts!

Donate

donate now

$ 242.00 donated
in the past month

Get Involved

If you'd like to help with maintaining or developing the website, contact us.

Publish

Publish your stories and upcoming events on Indybay.

IMC Network