Alter-Globalisation after a 10 year pause
One of the things that has caught my attention most about the Spanish uprising in particular is the relative familiarity of the tone of the protests. Almost exactly a decade after the peak of what became known as the alter-globalisation movement, we find a movement picking up almost exactly where we left off.
I was a child during the anti-globalisation (sic) protests. OK, technically I was a teenager, but I was left watching from home and on the sidelines. I remember listening to the news with extra attention to see what the outcome of the MayDay protests might be and the distinctive, if simplified, sense that something brilliant had happened at Seattle. I was 15 for the latter and 16 for the former, but it was two years before I began my life as an activist.
The idea that these protests opposed globalisation always seemed a bit at odds – they were very ‘global’ protests. Naomi Klein introduced me to the idea that they were “alter-globalisation’ protests – seeking a very different narrative of globalisation that focused on common human needs and rights rather than expansion of corporate power. Better still, some referred to the movement as a global democracy movement. This went some way to explain the uneasy relationship between ideas and organising models of old school socialism and the means and messages coming from the streets.
These movements were about freedom from corporate control and the rule of money, they were against the notion that a more connected world should be ruled by an elite with no respect for cultures which could learn valuable lessons from one another. The movements in Spain, being both local to the situation in Southern Europe and global in their inspiration feel very much like the alter-globalisation protests of old. Messages about the commodification of life have found their way into the Democracia Real Ya statement, and a rejection of consumerist models of society seems to run through the more overtly political, more nuanced segment of the protests. And yet again, as with Egypt but also with Seattle, we see a mixing of messages relating to economic reality and democratic aspirations.
This leaves us in an interesting position. The alter-globalisation movements stalled and petered out for various reasons, and some of the challenges are likely to repeat themselves before our eyes. What is unlikely to happen is a repeat of the boom years that saw even the poorest households gain narrowly from rising wealth and which have lifted some people out of poverty. Sadly movements against injustice rarely tackle the deepest injustices when the system is “working” for people at the bottom of our own societies.
But the risk is that we make the same mistakes despite knowing which avenues they will lead down. A key error was the homogenisation of protest, particularly in Europe and North America. Issues that had connections were treated as the same issue. Movements that protested environmental degradation and the stripping of workers rights became a movement about “Globalisation”. A myriad of issues were consumed, sometimes maliciously to build the powerbase of elites within the movement and sometimes out of laziness and the desire for a shorthand. The shorthand was necessarily abstract and so lost its resonance with everyday struggles. Ask people what they think of “the cuts” and they’ll often give a very different answer to the closing of libraries or sell off of the NHS. In fact, Cuts is a pretty poor shorthand though it has proven very useful. Democracy Camp could talk about all manner of issues, but ultimately focused them on a specific systemic issue and not the experiences of individuals. In reality we will create democracy through struggle – its the only way we, humanity, ever have.
But to talk of uniting the various different struggles going on in our society today without risking a homogenisation strategy creeping in is problematic. We are powerful specifically because of the plurality of forces being brought to bare on the government, each acting in their own specific ways at specific times. Some issues pair with specific forms of action and some groups of people will only ever involve themselves in a struggle close to home. This is not inherently a problem if the cumulative effect is more difficult for the government to deal with. A unified force will allow a unified defence – something governments are by nature usually pretty adept at. A cabinet in retreat is a cabinet preparing to regroup, whereas a series of departments and ministries with their own battles is far less likely to put together a coherent government response. We must learn to use our own divisions to best effect in the struggle in much the same way the coalition is currently proving so adept.
We cannot allow decisions that have previously proven problematic to be repeated if we are to build a successful force against the government. Almost every successful movement has involved many organisations doing different things but keeping a loose sense of unity, and to unite in a homogenised fashion would be unnecessary, futile and ultimately alienating to most of those we are seeking to include in struggle. If we are to continue demonstrating our relevance to ordinary people, we must refuse attempts to make the movement a monologue.