author: autonomous - 27.08.2002 21:50
Replacing capitalism with networks of free, autonomous and self-reliant spaces
[This text was written in February 2001 for the book 'Restructuring and Resistance - Diverse Voices of Struggle in Western Europe' ( firstname.lastname@example.org) and will soon be updated to take into account the important changes that have happened since Genoa and September 11th]
From Resistance to Revolution
When this book was about to be finished, the editor proposed a title which included the word 'Revolution' to the authors of the chapters, most of whom are actively involved in anticapitalist movements in Western Europe. Some expressed very serious reservations about it and the hope that it would not be used, arguing that this word is too deeply associated with the disgraceful atrocities and despotism of communist dictatorships, or that the idea of revolutions in this continent is nothing but wishful thinking. One even said that he would withdraw his chapter if this word would be included in the title of the book.
This anecdote reveals the extent to which a very basic and necessary concept has been appropriated by the advocates of hierarchical and despotic bureaucracies. As a result, those who uphold revolutionary ideas in this continent are seen by most people as violent nostalgics of grey tyrannies, as anachronistic and demagogic power freaks. Even by people who believe that we need 'a drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving', in other words… a revolution.
This is more than a semantic problem. The negative connotations of this term have led to an unprecedented erosion of our revolutionary imagination which, together with the objectively impracticable conditions for large-scale social change in Western Europe, have led many people with anticapitalist and antiauthoritarian convictions to build their own alternatives away from the rest of society, or to focus on restricted areas of work where they feel that they can at least achieve some concrete results (like denouncing the practices of certain transnational corporations, working in fair trade shops, campaigning against temporary job agencies, on narrowly defined environmental topics, etc). Consequently, a great deal of potentially revolutionary energy and creativity ends up in remote places with very little interaction with the rest of the world, or pursuing processes of gradual transformation within the existing architectures of power, rather than working towards the collective construction of totally different social, economic and political relations.
This chapter aims to encourage those who reject the existing social order, but also oppose centralised power structures and hierarchical regimes, to reclaim the concept of revolution and redefine it through practices that go beyond the framework of nation-states and classical (and increasingly outdated) conceptions about the working class. It takes a strong stand in favour of diverse, self-determined and decentralised (but connected) revolutionary strategies to create free, autonomous spaces that relate to each other on the basis of equity and respect. It doesn't give recipes about how these spaces would look like or what would be the process to construct them, since it proposes autonomy and decentralisation in both respects, but analyses a few critical factors that could hinder the process.
But more than anything else, the chapter invites those who identify with the new and rapidly growing 'movement' against capitalist 'globalisation' to reflect collectively about how we can move from resistance against the institutions that embody capitalism to the construction of different relations between humans and with the environment. About what organisational processes could stimulate the kind of social change that we so often speak about. And about how to express all this in a language that is understood by people around us and a praxis that gives space and encouragement to many people from different backgrounds to participate.
This appeal is not motivated by romantic, aesthetic or dogmatic reasons. It is motivated by the conviction that the social and ecological devastation caused by our economic system will continue to worsen at increasing speed in the next few years, striking very large sectors of the Western European population, and provoking a crisis of political legitimacy unprecedented since the creation of nation states in our continent. This process is already opening political spaces with a tremendous potential to change society, expressed primarily in the so-called 'anti-globalisation movement'. But if we don't analyse and act on alternatives soon enough, these spaces could well be occupied (as is already happening) by authoritarian and hierarchical ideologies with a coercive and top-down approach to social change and a proven record of disasters, atrocities and oppression.
Maybe a discussion about revolution is not the best starting point for this debate; in any case, it will hopefully be controversial enough to stimulate a lively debate.
The slaves of the 21st century don't need to be hunted, transported and auctioned through complex and troublesome commercial networks of human flesh. There are plenty of them lining up for an opportunity to work away their lives for a salary of misery in the export-processing zones of the South, most of which prefer to exploit young women. Others mortgage their future to moneylenders in order to finance the hazardous trip to the booming areas of capitalist development in the North, adventuring into the murky depths of clandestinity, vulnerability and exploitation as illegal immigrants. The governments of the countries that they leave behind, the former colonies where Western nations deployed inhuman tactics to get access to resources and take over economic control, where so many people sacrificed their lives for 'national liberation', are now competing with each other to attract foreign investment (the same capital that has abused them for centuries), finding new ways to help anyone willing to 'invest' a few dollars to multiply them by abusing workers, trashing nature and taking control over people's lives.
This is what capitalist 'development' is delivering to most of humanity today. It has reached such a level of sophistication and cruelty that most people in the world have to compete in order to be exploited, prostituted or enslaved if they want to survive.
Since the Second World War, most of the population of Western Europe has benefited from the material outcomes of this model. Our countries concentrate a great deal of the wealth looted by global economic interactions, by the on-going deterioration of the terms of trade for the commodities produced by Southern countries. The welfare state distributed a minimal part of that affluence, enough to protect most Western Europeans from the crudest forms of capitalist exploitation and at the same time promote consumerism.
In this period, most Western European governments have also devoted substantial chunks of their budgets to policies aimed at balancing the inequalities between different regions, in order to compensate partially the natural tendency of capital to concentrate where it finds the best conditions. As shown in different parts of this book, competition has already concentrated most of the production and consumption in privileged regions and metropolitan areas of Europe, making the rest increasingly dependent on subsidies.
But the redistributive policies that limited social and regional disparities are rapidly disappearing. The accelerated expansion of capital, provoked by an economic system which requires continuous growth and accumulation to survive, has made even the largest national and regional markets too small for most industries to survive. Consequently, the framework in which business operates has gone far beyond the national and regional frameworks where policy is made, compelling governments to orient their policies to the needs of capital, in an attempt to keep the largest possible share of the cake within their countries. The most important factor that business takes into account when making these decisions is profitability, which is naturally reduced by the taxes needed to fund redistribution policies. Therefore, it will not take long until these policies become part of history. Along with them, the social and environmental regulations that restrict the 'freedom' to exploit and destroy are slowly being removed to promote competitiveness.
The elimination of redistributive and environmental policies on our continent is still in the early stages, but it is already having devastating consequences for a lot of people (especially women, the elderly and children) and regions. Eventually, social relations will probably be determined entirely by competition between people and regions, and growing numbers of Europeans will see themselves excluded from production and consumption processes, or with positions within them that cannot guarantee a life in dignity. This trend will certainly intensify in the next years, encouraged by the growing economic role of highly sophisticated knowledge and technologies, which have an even more accentuated tendency to concentrate in particular regions (the so-called 'global cities') than traditional industries. It is also a normal phenomenon in a world where the expansion of capital has reached geographical limits (since there are almost no new territories to be conquered and exploited) and accumulation happens more and more on the basis of market concentration, by bankrupting, merging with or taking over the competitors. This exacerbates the existing trend to the formation of global oligopolies, making the owners of capital increasingly powerful.
Hence, unless something very spectacular happens in the next years, many people in Western Europe will soon be faced with social conditions similar to those faced currently by the poor in the South, as is already the case in the USA. The Northern governments will surely continue using a wide range of tools to make sure that the massive macroeconomic gap between North and South continues growing (from trade agreements to the direct use military force, disguised as 'humanitarian interventions' or as 'war on drugs', but this will not translate in a good life for the majority of the population, it will only expand the influx of economic refugees. Social tensions will increase dramatically as wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands and regions, making growing sectors of the population unable to meet basic needs and forcing them to live in appalling environmental conditions. The illusion of the benevolent state and a socially and environmentally sensitive capitalism that can provide welfare, abundance and harmony for all, already heavily questioned, will in all probability soon be gone. Its decay is already providing a perfect context for the growth of fascism, xenophobia and exacerbated nationalism, already visibly strengthened all over the continent as analysed elsewhere in this book.
All this is not only (not even primarily) caused by policy choices of national governments. These are of course responsible for their decisions, particularly the governments that apply neoliberal policies with unnecessarily sadistic dedication and those which promote, either directly or subtly, nationalistic and xenophobic reactions. But the main engine of these developments is purely economic. The only way to stop the social and environmental deconstruction of Western Europe would be to stop the expansion of capital, which means to abandon capitalism and shift to a different economic system. Any government that would do so would make its economy the target of a massive attack by all the important economic forces of the world, which would not tolerate a challenge of this kind (especially not in Western Europe). This is a cost that no government is prepared to bear, regardless its pretended ideology. Consequently, 'representative democracy' is becoming, more than ever before, a set of useless mass rituals (elections, referenda, etc) and bodies (parliaments, senates, etc) with less and less room of manoeuvre to make independent decisions in the most important policy fields. Their continued existence responds to the need to legitimate the repressive machinery of the state, increasingly active in these times of global social tensions.
Similarly, the disappearance of social and environmental policy in Western Europe is not really a consequence of the policies of multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation (which do bear a lot of responsibility for the accelerated disintegration of most Southern and Eastern countries), not even of the European Commission or any other EU body. These institutions are essential tools and symbols, but not originators, of the economic processes described above. Even if they would want to, they would not be able to slow down these processes, much less to give a 'human face' to capitalism by regulating it at the global level, as advocated by the dominant trade unions, most NGOs, etc. The best example of this impossibility is that the very few positive and binding results of the cycle of conferences that the United Nations did in the late 80s and 90s are becoming tools to legitimise further destruction and exploitation, as is the case with the Climate Convention. Similarly, if the World Bank and the IMF would suddenly stop all Structural Adjustment Programmes, nothing much would change since the same role that these institutions were playing in the 80s and 90s has now been adopted, in a much more efficient and less visible way, by the conveniently private Credit Rating Agencies that determine the behaviour of the large investment funds that shape the global economy.
Consequently, all efforts to reform or 'democratise' supranational institutions are, in the best case, a complete waste of time. Although they present themselves as 'pragmatic' and 'result-oriented', they have not made any difference at all in the destructive nature of policies that are designed to satisfy the needs of global capital.
These needs would still exist, and continue to be equally dominant, if the international institutions that fulfil them would disappear. But the recent Global Days of Action against bodies such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank (See part 16, Summit Hopping to the Bank), by successfully attacking their legitimacy and questioning their very existence, have opened up a space to think and act against capitalism that would have been inconceivable in the North just three years ago. Each one of these mobilisations has motivated growing numbers of (mainly young) people to organise themselves in autonomous action groups, and has awakened the consciousness of large sectors of the population and received their sympathy due to the embarrassment that they have caused to very powerful institutions and governments.
The anticapitalist communication networks through which these groups have been coordinating themselves and preparing the global days of action, particularly Peoples' Global Action (PGA), have enabled a large number of groups and activists from the North and a diversity of experienced grassroots movements from the South to get to know each other and to increase their contacts. These networks and the string of successful global actions that have taken place since 1998 have put into practice the slogan 'Our Resistance will be as Transnational as Capital', which became globally known during the second Global Day of Action in June 18th 1999. Now all the institutions that symbolise global capitalism know that, no matter where they go, their meetings will be disrupted by decentralised civil disobedience and direct actions.
The success of these global actions and networks comes to a great extent from the fact that their articulation is based on autonomy and decentralisation, not on bureaucratic structures and unequal power relations. This philosophy is also reflected in the PGA manifesto:
There are many diverse ways of resistance against capitalist globalisation and its consequences. At an individual level, we need to transform our daily lives, freeing ourselves from market laws and the pursuit of private profit. At the collective level, we need to develop a diversity of forms of organisation at different levels, acknowledging that there is not a single way of solving the problems we are facing. Such organisations have to be independent of governmental structures and economic powers, and based on direct democracy. These new forms of autonomous organisation should emerge from and be rooted in local communities, while at the same time practising international solidarity, building bridges to connect different social sectors, peoples and organisations that are already fighting globalisation across the world.
These global, decentralised and autonomous connections and forms of action have already provoked a shift in awareness and understanding for many people, who in view of their success have decided to actively participate in them. Within a very short time, the idea of resisting capitalism has become a reality for many people who until recently were overwhelmed by the apparent impracticability of such a large undertaking, or who were not even thinking about it until they saw that it is possible (and very satisfactory); even for some who, focused as they were in very narrowly defined campaigns, considered that talking publicly against capitalism in Western Europe would be counterproductive because of its historical connotations.
This excellent transformation in the political landscape of Western Europe (and North America, Australia and Aoteoroa, and to a lesser extent also of the South, where anticapitalist awareness and action has always been much stronger anyhow) is obviously related to the visible and appalling effects that globalised capitalism is having all over the world, but these have already been manifesting themselves for a long time without catalysing the social response that we have witnessed in the last years. This response was to a large extent induced by the enormous appeal of the free articulation at a global level of diverse, equal, autonomous and self-determined identities and forms of action within spaces of mutual support. The mobilisation potential of these networks has much of its roots in the conscious rejection of power structures and of leadership struggles within 'the movement', which preclude the possibility to 'capitalise' politically our collective efforts by any agenda or ideology. Such forms of articulation were already identified in the past as particularly effective by feminist thinkers such as Biddy Martin:
What leftists have criticised in the feminist movement as fragmentation, lack of organisation, absence of a coherent and encompassing theory and the inability to mount a frontal attack may well represent fundamentally more radical and effective responses to the deployment of power in our society than the centralisation and abstraction that continue to plague leftist thinking and strategy.
The recent internationally coordinated actions against capitalism have enabled the anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical collectives and activists to partially overcome the retreat provoked by the history of communist regimes. Consequently, in the last three years we have come a long way out of the closet of political self-restraint. However, until now we have used the potential of international decentralised and autonomous anticapitalist networks primarily to take the streets for protests and blockades, and for a limited (though very interesting) exchange of ideas and practices.
We have not yet explored to what extent these tools can help us to construct self-sustained, non-hierarchical spaces to create non-capitalist livelihoods, take back control of our own lives and realise our ideas about free and equal social relations with environmental sensitivity, exempt of economic exploitation and of 'all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds.' Inclusive spaces articulated in international networks of mutual support and exchange, and with room for the active participation of many people, motivated either by their ideas, by the dreadful conditions of life that society offers them, or just by curiosity.
There have been autonomous anticapitalist spaces in Europe for a long time: excellent experiences of collective ecological lifestyles free of coercion and exploitation, social centres with space for autonomous political participation, local networks of alternative economic exchanges, etc. But most of them are either quite disconnected from wider processes of social change (which is especially the situation of most rural alternative communities), or have very limited possibilities to solve the everyday problems of excluded people, since they base their self-sufficiency on totally normal economic interactions (like the social centres that sustain themselves with bars and parties). And, although there are brilliant exceptions to this, in general they are also rather closed spaces, countercultural retreat areas where people who do not share certain political standpoints, and sometimes even aesthetic preferences, usually feel rather unwelcome, resulting in homogeneity and sometimes even sectarianism.
This is reasonable in the social context that is still predominant Western Europe (excepting in specific regions and social sectors such as the undocumented immigrants, where the basic needs of most people have been covered, and consequently the main reason to participate in these spaces has been either political or aesthetic predilection. However, the dreadful effects of globalised capitalism are radically transforming the political landscape of Western Europe.
The idea of constructing autonomous and self-reliant livelihoods could very well become a real option for the people who suffer most from increased competition and decreased redistribution, who are either excluded from production and consumption by this process or profoundly unhappy with the precarious and insecure places reserved for them. At the same time, the regions excluded from the dominant economic networks, unable to compete in an open market economy other than as waste sinks, will not really need to make major decisions to opt out of the capitalist logic, since they are already being pushed out of the game, watching their economies decay and the subsidies shrink.
Consequently, in the next few years the construction of self-sustained spaces with equal and non-exclusive social and economic relations could become a real alternative for many Western European people and regions with no 'use' for the system. But this will not happen spontaneously, especially not in a continent where most people expect the state to solve structural problems, 'create jobs' and make sure that the basic needs of all the 'citizens' are covered.
People who see this expectation as naive and unsound in times of irreversibly globalised capitalism will have to work hard for the transformation of the dominant political culture before excluded people and regions start to seriously consider the idea of free, autonomous and self-reliant spaces as real alternatives with relevance for them. This will only happen if they see that they can expand their possibilities, improve their quality of life and increase the control over their destinies by changing the frameworks and principles that shape their understandings of social, economic and political relations. This implies making visible that self-defined autonomous groups of people can substitute the nation states as spaces for decision-making and for the resolution of conflicts, that relations of cooperation, solidarity and equity between fairly self-reliant groups can substitute monetarised exchanges and money, and that overcoming oppressive social relations that are deeply entrenched in the dominant culture (including sexism, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds, but also more subtle forms of domination like consumerism) can be liberating for everybody, not just for those who are visible oppressed by them. This might seem a herculean task, but it might be easier than it seems, for several reasons.
First of all, representative democracy is rapidly losing legitimacy in Western Europe due to the obvious contribution of all governments, regardless of their ideological composition, to the social and environmental crisis that is starting to manifest itself in our continent. The same process is also likely to undermine the legitimacy of the state as an institution, because of the increasing repression that it is likely to apply in order to protect concentrated wealth, with hardly any positive function or democratic legitimacy to help balance its image (See part 12, Your best friend may be your worst enemy-the myth of the “Weakening State”).
As mentioned above, the reaction of many people to this process is to yearn for authoritarian regimes (fascist or communist) to re-nationalise the economy, but fortunately most people in Europe still have a strong historical memory and refuse such 'solutions' for their problems. This can boost the social receptivity and sympathy to other possible ways out of the crisis which reflect positive ethical values (such as freedom, equity, environmental awareness, etc).
Consequently, depending on how we collectively respond to the globalisation of capital, we might construct a future with increased freedom and control over our lives, or face bleak perspectives of authoritarianism, control and (quite possibly) war and devastation. Most probably, we will have to deal with a mixture of both, but the balance will depend, to a great extent, on our own decisions (See part 3, An invitation to revolt, and it ain’t necessarily sweet…).
Second, we have already constructed international decentralised and autonomous networks that within a very short time did the seemingly impossible task of making global capitalism a controversial issue for social discussion. The combined effect of these diverse voices articulating a collective (though not necessarily identical) message in a horizontal and decentralised way has been a pleasant surprise. Before these networks came into being, these same voices, acting in relative isolation, could not have expected to have such an impact in such a short time. As expressed above, their success is deeply related to their conscious avoidance of divisive and unnecessary structures of power and representation, in order to prevent bureaucratisation and promote autonomous participation. The same principles and global connections could have equally astonishing results if they were used to collectively construct free, autonomous and self-reliant spaces, and make them visible and (at least partially) accessible to all people who are not happy with their place in society.
Finally, the construction of these spaces, in contrast with other responses to global capitalism, only depends on the determination, optimism and creativity of the people who want to do it. It is in our hands to make it happen, since it doesn't require any state intervention (rather, the opposite) or change of government. And the construction of such spaces can be done without much money (especially in excluded regions), searching for ways to reduce the need for cash as much as possible. Furthermore, the global networks have shown that we have, within a short time, collectively achieved surprising levels of organisational, technological and communication capacities. While they might not yet be sufficient, and sufficiently shared, to make non-monetarised economies based on solidarity a viable alternative, the way in which they are increasing is a good reason to believe that it soon we will possible not just to survive in such spaces, but to live a good and self-determined life.
Once there are spaces of this kind functioning successfully, they will surely inspire the creation of many more. These immediate revolutions in the social, political and economic relations can bring about real change in a much faster, effective and self-determined manner than any grand design for taking over power. However, many obstacles have to be surmounted before these noble purposes become a vibrant and dynamic reality.
As mentioned above, many spaces of this kind already exist, but most of them are quite inward-looking. Many have only limited connections to wider processes of social change, particularly at international level (though many of them are very active at the local level), and most of them don't make much of a conscious effort to reach out to people who don't share their political and/or countercultural views, maybe because those who make the efforts are often not very successful. For instance, many of the social centres that would want to be an open space for their neighbourhood end up attracting only the people who see themselves reflected in the aesthetic outlook of that space. This limited outreach derives from their fact that these spaces are normally constructed by relatively homogenous groups of people, who often define their collective identity in defensive or escapist terms, reflecting a mentality of resistance that distances them from the rest of society.
If we want to break out of the ghetto, we will have to take up the challenge of putting into practice the ideas that most of us defend about the importance of diversity, sacrificing the security, predictability and simplicity that come from relatively closed and homogeneous collective identities. This would not only reduce the tendency of those who see themselves as 'politically aware' to see themselves as 'too cool to mix', it is also a positive step on its own merits, because fighting for autonomy without diversity and respect for the difference is a very dangerous combination, with an important authoritarian and reactionary potential. Furthermore, collective homogeneous identities are based on conventions of what are appropriate behaviours, ideas and values; they consequently undermine the freedom and autonomy of the members of the collective (even when they accept the conventions voluntarily), partially deny people’s own particular identities, and introduce risky dynamics of power and leadership, and in some cases even of oppression. The self-denying capacity of these dynamics are highlighted in a critical pamphlet about the 'animal rights' movement, written by someone who was actively involved in it:
The ghettos that spring up around single issues, political groups, religions, tupperware mornings, etc. do come about out of a common desire to belong, to be part of the world, to be involved in a real community. But time and again this is reduced to playing a part in the world and corresponding to a set formula of phoney social identities... To 'fit in' it helps to adopt the same opinions, postures, attitudes and even vocabularies. Every fashion is an example of people refusing to think clearly for themselves, [about] the nature of their life and its relation to society as a whole.
This is a complex issue, since there are obviously behaviours, values and ideas that cannot be accepted, no matter how much they enrich the diversity. But the limits are subjective and up for discussion. For instance, some people consider eating meat as almost equivalent to fascism, while for others it is the most natural thing in the world; similarly, there are different approaches to sexist or racist behaviour, depending on its perceived importance and degree, and the list could go on forever. Consequently, spaces characterised by diversity are bound to foster disagreement, which is actually positive since disagreement nourishes creativity and change. But then again, this does not mean that we should embrace a relativist perspective, or that collective values are necessarily a bad idea. On the contrary, they are indispensable, but they become a problem when they are approached in a moralistic manner, leading to homogeneity, sectarianism and isolation, and often also to ugly power relations.
A good way to create alternative political and socio-economic spaces with room for difference would be to consciously avoid the creation of political communities with precise boundaries and identities (such as parties, associations, assemblies, etc.) as frameworks for decision-making and action based on people 'being members of' or 'belonging to' them. This has been the standard way to articulate political, social and economic life since time immemorial, which explains why most people seem to need such a feeling of 'belonging' to work collectively with others. But in fact it is perfectly possible to go beyond single political communities by thinking and acting within different layers of affinity and free interaction, by combining several fluid and interconnected spaces of communication and cooperation, from small local groups to large global networks, without 'belonging' to any of them. In fact, all we need in order to act and cooperate in a context of partial disagreement, on the basis of our own identity, is some flexibility and imagination to move between different spaces, depending on the purposes of the cooperation in question and the degree of affinity that it requires.
Actually this is nothing new, most people relate in this way with each other in their everyday life. But most people, even those who believe in autonomy and decentralisation, adopt for their 'political' work one single collective identity with one single decision-making space, which very often becomes the scenario of atrocious power struggles. This is not only grossly inconsistent with the very idea of autonomy, it is also a brilliant way to discourage the participation of many people who have better things to do than witnessing badly camouflaged power games at neverending senseless meetings.
The organisational process of the action against the World Bank and the IMF on September 26th in Prague exemplifies quite well the problems associated with single decision-making spaces. In the August preparatory assembly, the last before the action, we wasted a complete (and very fatiguing) day discussing due to the stubborn insistence of the representatives of the Socialist Workers' Party, who wanted the protest to be expressed in a single march, although many people obviously favoured other forms of action. We finally came to a consensus 'by exhaustion' that ended up being totally meaningless anyhow, because most of the people who went to Prague to participate in the action had their own ideas about what they wanted to do in that day, and coordinated them in the very fluid and participatory space of the convergence centre, where many different layers of identity, connection and coordination came together in a very chaotic (in the best sense of the word) and creative process. We all knew beforehand that there would be a convergence centre conceived precisely for this kind of interactions, but this did not prevent a lot of people (not only the Socialist Workers, also some people from autonomous groups) to see the preparatory assemblies as the 'decision-making body' for all the people who wanted to join the action, although many of us considered them to be simply a space for communication between the different groups mobilising to Prague, with the primary role of ensuring that the people who would go to Prague for the actions would have the conditions to interact and decide freely among themselves. The same problems of conception were clearly expressed in the differences of understanding (or, to put it more bluntly, the total confusion) about the role of INPEG, the coordination that was formed to prepare the logistics of the day of action.
The problems faced in Prague are probably the most recent and complete example in Western Europe of the sort of organisational puzzles and conflicts that are likely to emerge if we want to work towards large-scale social change in an autonomous but coordinated way in our continent. This process will probably not be possible if we don't make conscious efforts to overcome, at local, regional and international level, the classical and monolithic conceptions about 'unity', organisation and political identity, working towards complex, multicultural and dynamic sets of autonomous spaces of coordination. While this conceptual shift is relatively easy and straightforward as far as the coordination at regional or international level is concerned (as was the case in Prague), it will surely not happen spontaneously within local spaces of articulation and organisation, where the vice of homogenisation within enclosed political identities is most intense and alienating. Whether it happens or not will depend on our own efforts.
A similar problem, also related to issues of identity and to classic understandings of 'unity' and 'resistance', is the strong inclination to react against 'globalisation' with nationalism (sometimes combined with religious fundamentalism). These 'solutions', tailored as they are for specific and select groups of people at the expense of others, miss the most important positive contribution that 'globalisation' has to offer to a genuine process of positive social change: the fact that today, more than ever, dreams of international solidarity and mutual support are within our reach. Such reactions have already engendered aberrations and tragedies in our continent such as the ascendance of a fascist party to the Austrian government and the war in former Yugoslavia (which was engineered with the active participation of Western countries, as shown by previous chapters. But this is only the beginning of what could become a frightening political evolution for Europe, and possibly the rest of the world, if we allow the destructive potential of nationalist reactions to unfold without challenge. And one of the main ways to challenge these reactions is to show to people who look at the future with anxiety that there are other ways out, other alternatives based on positive values.
What makes this problem particularly serious and relevant for us is the way in which mainstream media is strengthening these reactions through the way in which it represents our mobilisations. They usually give the impression that all we are unhappy with is globalisation, neoliberalism and transnational corporations, but that we would have nothing to object to capitalism if we as 'citizens' would convince the politicians to 'control' its expansion, be it by making sure that it remains within national borders, or thanks to global redistribution and control mechanisms like the Tobin tax. This is unfortunately the stand of many reformist NGOs and so-called 'intellectuals' who have no connections to any grassroots mobilisation processes in Europe (excepting in France, where things are a bit different than in most other Western European countries), but are always looking for opportunities to portray themselves in the media as 'intellectual leaders' or 'speakers' of 'the movement'.
However, the instrumentalisation of our mobilisations by reformist agendas is also the responsibility of the anticapitalist grassroots groups that have done most of the work for these actions, because we have not done very well at making our perspectives more broadly known. Our careful and sceptical approach to media is actually a good thing in itself, due to the very destructive role that media can play for grassroots movements, but we can look for ways to make our message clear and loud for all the people who will not have any direct interaction with us or access our autonomous and independent media.
Similarly, nationalist organisations, which were almost absent from the early stages of this process of autonomous anticapitalist resistance, are becoming increasingly interested in our actions. The last example are the plans of Catalonian nationalists to organise a meeting of 'nations without state' in Barcelona to protest against the Development Conference of the World Bank in that city, in June 2001. The main reason for their sudden interest on global institutions (when their traditional field of action has been the resistance against the states where they are located) is the public sympathy enjoyed by the so-called 'anti-globalisation movement' and the potential that they see to gain political space by projecting nationalism as a solution to 'globalisation'. Those of us who wouldn't like to see our work become political ammunition for nationalism should do something about it very soon, because otherwise it might be too late when we react.
An unfortunate meeting point between progressive and reactionary reformists and nationalists is their common obsession with 'citizenship rights'. Some of the progressive groups that make use of this concept insist that citizenship should not depend on nationality, and that these rights should be extended to anyone who lives in the country in question. But the dominant message of their campaigns (which cover a wide range, from minimum citizenship income to measures to protect national production from the competition of multinationals) is that the legitimate framework for policy-making is the nation state. This implies that rights (and duties) should continue to be defined by the national government of the country that you happen to inhabit, an unfair and unjust criterion (as five hundred years of colonialism demonstrates) which would lead to extreme inequalities. Because the only way to improve the lot of the European citizens whose situation worsens due to 'globalisation', while keeping the capitalist accumulation machine alive and kicking, would be to isolate completely their countries from the dynamics of international market competition while taking the exploitation of unprivileged continents and regions to such extremes that the global profit margins concentrated in their countries would not be affected by redistribution policies. This is not possible unless imposed by force on other regions, and it is certainly not desirable, although fascist parties all over the continent would surely be happy to do it in the same way that the US government is doing, with the collaboration of several Western European allies, in countries such as Iraq and Colombia. But it is the underlying message of all the people who speak up against 'globalisation' but keep silent about capitalism, asking for the reestablishment of national privileges in their countries or regions within a slightly reformed global economic framework.
A step that would greatly contribute to clarify our views would be to express actively and forcefully that we are not against globalisation, as the media repeat all the time, but against capitalism. We can celebrate globalisation, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt do in their book 'Empire', where they use this word to identify 'the regime of global relations' that many others call 'globalisation':
[W]e insist on asserting that the construction of Empire is a step forward in order to do away with any nostalgia for the power structures that preceded it and refuse any political strategy that involves returning to that old arrangement, such as trying to resurrect the nation-state to protect against global capital. We claim that Empire is better in the same way that Marx insists that capitalism is better than the forms of society and modes of production that came before it. Marx’s view is grounded on a healthy and lucid disgust for the parochial and rigid hierarchies that preceded capitalist society as well as on a recognition that the potential for liberation is increased in the new situation. In the same way today we can see that Empire does away with the cruel regimes of modern power and also increases the potential for liberation.
Negri and Hardt make a good point about the increasing space for liberation brought about by globalisation. But what they don't take into account, following a long tradition of Marxist thinkers, is the fact that not all pre-capitalist societies and modes of production were as parochial and hierarchical as European feudalism, a point that will be addressed more thoroughly in the next section
Another anachronistic legacy of mainstream Marxism is the continued obsession of many anticapitalist organisations and activists (including good numbers from the autonomous movement) with the industrial working class as the main actor of social change at national (and ultimately global) level. While the importance of workers is not questioned, the enthusiastic and fervent hopes of a proletarian revolution proclaimed at any occasion by many old-school Marxist organisations are totally misplaced. These organisations and their ideologues seem not to have realised the implications of the global economic restructuring which has happened since the '70s. We shall not see workers taking over power anywhere for a very long time, if we ever do, due to a complex combination of factors.
The massive introduction of labour-saving technologies in most economic sectors, the deep changes in the organisation of production brought about by post-fordism (by which large and 'solid' companies passed on responsibilities and risks to small and 'weak' subcontracted companies, the international division of labour (which concentrates labour-intensive production in regions with good conditions to exploit workers), and the displacement of several million people each year due to the destruction of their livelihoods (by wars, modern agricultural technologies, megaprojects, environmental catastrophes, etc.) who have to look for new means of survival within or outside of their countries, are some of the reasons that have combined to make most workers feel quite happy about being exploited, as long as they keep their job. The global production machine has never worked better for the owners of capital, who are now received with red carpets even in supposedly revolutionary countries such as Cuba and China. Meanwhile, the trade unions of all kinds and ideologies are losing their strength and credibility.
The only serious challenge to this accumulation process comes from people in the South who largely depend on nature for their survival, and who are resisting their displacement by so-called 'development' (as the Zapatista indigenous army does in Chiapas, defending the right of indigenous communities to control their resources and preserve their culture), or claiming back space for their survival (as the landless labourers movements are doing all over Latin America, and particularly in Brazil, with their land occupations). These growing processes of resistance are becoming a real problem for the further and accelerating expansion of capitalism, since they block the access to natural resources. But these are not the proletarian revolutions that most Marxists have been announcing for one and a half centuries. They are processes of resistance of people who are trying to avoid their proletarianisation, keep a minimum level of self-sufficiency and stay away from the miseries of dependency. Instead of aiming at taking over power at national level, they are defending or reconstructing spaces of autonomous power at the local level. Hence, even in countries where most people (not just the excluded, also those in work) live in appalling conditions, a proletarian revolution is totally out of sight.
But even if workers would be in a position to overthrow the government and take over power somewhere in the world, and even assuming (against all available historical evidence) that this would not lead to the creation of an authoritarian and despotic regime, these are still not the best times to romanticise national revolutions. The United States and its Western European allies (especially the UK) are more than ready to apply their powerful military machinery against any government that they perceive as a serious threat to their interests, as they have demonstrated often enough, and this is extremely unlikely to change in any foreseeable future. Hence, national revolutions in these times are predestined to the same slow defeat that was suffered in Nicaragua, with all the human suffering and demoralisation that this implies.
The repressive role that nation states have played in our continent since their formation, together with the problems inherent to national frameworks for social change (whatever their ideology), have led many people to react by mystifying the local. Many critics of 'globalisation' defend that equal and sustainable relationships are only possible through direct interaction at local level, and they hence choose to restrict most of their political work to that level, maintaining national and international connections only on a circumstantial basis.
Similarly, observations about the destructive use of most technologies have provoked a strong aversion to technology among many people (particularly those with environmental awareness), who react to this by idealising manual work and hating machines. However, primitivism is very alienating to most people of this world, who feel the totally legitimate wish to live in comfortable conditions and have as much free time as possible, in order to determine themselves what to do with it. It is totally clear that some technologies, such as biotechnology and the nuclear industry, are destructive regardless of the use given to them, and some technologies increase dependency and hence restrict freedom, although this is normally a consequence of the way they are made available and used, and not of the technology on itself. But there are also plenty of technologies that can help to achieve greater degrees of freedom and have negligible environmental consequences (like small-scale wind generations made out of recycled materials) and ways to reduce the dependency provoked by the use of certain technologies (like the anti-commercial networks that work collectively to produce copyright-free computer programmes). Even some technologies that do produce a certain degree of dependency can have an overall positive effect, like most contraceptive methods. Computers have, for instance, been indispensable for the creation of global networks of autonomous and decentralised action. Without them, we would have much more limited possibilities to combine our strength globally.
Unsurprisingly, localism is often connected to primitivism, and in these cases, the groups in question have often very closed collective identities; many of them actively distance themselves from the rest of society. This is their own choice and in most of the cases it is fine since it doesn't have any negative implications on other people. But such positions have a very dangerous potential when their ideological basis is solely the supposed destruction of the planet by 'humankind', disregarding that environmental problems are rooted on a system of production maintained by oppressive power relations. The expansion of these views offers a great potential to fascist proselytisers, as has been accurately identified by the social ecologists Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier:
During the Third Reich ... Nazi 'ecologists' even made organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship and related themes into key elements not only in their ideology but in their governmental policies. Moreover, Nazi 'ecological' ideology was used to justify the destruction of European Jewry. Yet some of the themes that Nazi ideologists articulated bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to the themes familiar to ecologically concerned people today... Updating their ideology and speaking the new language of ecology, these movements are once again invoking ecological themes to serve social reaction... [They] emphasize the supremacy of 'Earth' over people; evoke 'feelings' and intuition at the expense of reason; and uphold a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusian biologism... As social ecologists, we... uphold the importance of reason, science and technology in creating both a progressive ecological movement and an ecological society.
This is not a problem of the past. The Dutch antifascist group De Fabel van de illegaal wrote a series of articles when they decided to stop all their anti-globalisation activities showing how the environmental and the so-called 'anti-globalisation' movements have become the favourite 'fishing pool' for European fascists. According to them, "[o]ne of the strategies of the New Right is to look for conservative and nationalist tendencies in supposedly left-wing ideologies and to adopt these ideas for their own growth" One of the most shocking examples that they exposed was the links of Edward Goldsmith, editor of 'The Ecologist', the most important environmental magazine in the UK, with the New Right:
Goldsmith makes a plea for a green policy that will re-establish a "natural social order" and "the traditional relations between people". "The real problems are caused by the disruption of natural systems as family, society and the ecological system", he wrote recently in The Ecologist. Only when the human relations are again organised by "the laws of Gaia" is a stable society possible according to him. Goldsmith describes some political conflicts as "natural" or "ethnic" problems. He believes "different ethnic groups" cannot live together in one country... Goldsmith sees the Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants "as two different ethnic groups", which should be set apart. He also is a fan of Ataturk's who, according to Goldsmith, "separated Greeks and Turks very successfully, although there was a terrible outcry at the time and it undoubtedly caused considerable inconvenience to the people who were forced to migrate. But should we not be willing to accept measures of inconvenience in order to establish a stable society?"... Comparing human societies with biological organisms, Edward Goldsmith even argued: "What is today regarded as prejudice against people of different ethnic groups is a normal and necessary feature of human cultural behaviour, and is absent only among members of a cultural system already far along the road to disintegration." Many people in the New Right see Edward Goldsmith as one of their most important ideologists... [He] is the president of Ecoropa and a member of the board of directors of the International Forum on Globalisation (IFG).
This is, however, a complex issue, since there is certainly an overlap between the message of fascist groups and the ideas that most progressive people in Western Europe defend when talking about indigenous peoples. Fabel reproduced the reflections about this overlap of Veldman, one of the most important ideologists of the New Right in The Netherlands:
"It isn't logical that the explicit identity politics of almost extinct or destroyed minorities, and 'undangerous' mini-peoples, get a lot of praise, whilst the same set of values are distrusted immediately when supporting the vigorous nationalism of a somewhat larger people", Veldman says, simply disregarding all history books full of "minorities" being killed by "a somewhat larger people" propagating such "vigorous nationalism"... "Seeing that so many well-meaning people value the culture and worldview of indigenous peoples, it is amazing that Europeans who also dislike progress and also try to recover their cultural roots and identity, get confronted with so much distrust and resistance by the people who say that they share the same values."
Of course, the solidarity of most European left-wing supporters of the struggles of indigenous peoples and other rural sectors struggling for self-governance (Afro-Americans who live in free rural communities, certain peasant communities, etc) has nothing to do with ethnicity or cultural essentialism. Instead, it is motivated by the anticapitalist and autonomist character of these struggles, by the realisation that many of these rural societies hold many positive social and environmental values and by the violent oppression that they have suffered since centuries (especially under European colonial rule). Consequently, there is a clear social analysis among the defenders of indigenous, peasant and Afro-American autonomy which immunises them against the co-option attempts of the New Right. But Veldman raises one extremely important issue that really needs discussion among the radical environmental movement: the understanding of progress.
A large part of the radical environmental groups in Western Europe (especially those close to the ideas of so-called 'deep ecology') consider themselves to be part of a vague 'anti-development' movement. The rejection of the concept of 'development' is totally justified if one looks at the history of abuse, destruction, displacement and exploitation that has been done in the name of this cosmetic concept, invented by the USA administration in the post-war period to dress in humanitarian and compassionate rhetoric the neo-colonial exploitation of the South. But this critique should not conclude in an idealisation of the past and a romantic perspective on static societies (which never existed, anyway). Again in the words of Fabel:
Left-wing activists should rather strive for a society that can change, and in which all newcomers can equally participate. The left should strive to develop autonomous internationalist cultures of struggle... Left-wing activists should not protest against a globalisation of solidarity or a global exchange of cultures and ideas. And most certainly not against progress. The real struggle is about the direction in which we are going to progress, and most important: who is going to decide about that.
The new networks of autonomous action groups can play an important role in promoting this important debate within the radical environmental movement. This is a good example of the importance of these networks and links to facilitate the exchange of ideas (including the mutual challenge when necessary, though hopefully in cordial terms) between groups that were previously quite isolated from each other. Such exchanges can be tremendously helpful to advance in our individual and collective analyses and understandings of the world, of social change and of our roles within it.
In addition to these and other debates, many other challenges will have to be overcome before the processes of creation of free, autonomous and self-sustained spaces in Western Europe can become revolutionary.
First of all, we need to work hard on our communication skills, in order to come to collective understandings, at different levels, of what we want and how we want to get there. This is not a small challenge, as the last three years have amply demonstrated. We should also experiment and improve ways to eliminate all forms and systems of oppression, domination and discrimination within our own circles (while keeping the right to difference and taking precautions against the formation of dominant collective identities) and to deal with conflict and dissent constructively (so that they enrich what we do, instead of dividing us), since we are not doing very well on both areas. Furthermore, a lot more of knowledge and skills sharing will be needed throughout the process, both on the level of analysis (through seminars, exchange with people from other parts of the world, etc), and to exchange tools for organisational and economic self-reliance (communication technologies, renewable energy, ecological agriculture, languages, etc), avoiding the establishment of leaderships and hierarchies due to specialisation. Finally, we should continue the brilliant efforts to develop more efficient and imaginative ways of transmitting our message to the rest of society without depending on the mainstream media.
Another challenge will be the repression from the state, which might become a real nightmare if this process takes root and strength, especially if these spaces block their access to exploitable resources (and much more if there are conflict over basic ones, such as water). This is one more reason to remain as much in contact with the rest of society as possible, since a delegitimised state will have a hard time repressing spaces that are seen with positive eyes by most of the population.
In connection with this, there are a couple of thorny issues that we will not be able to avoid, since they have been the object of very long and difficult discussions in autonomous spaces, but are still not resolved: violent forms of action (including those that do not pose any threat to life or health) and the self-destructive use of drugs. Both of them have been and are being used extensively by the state to successfully repress and destroy of social movements. Today's autonomous action networks are small and fragile compared to the movements that have already been smashed by unconstitutional (but, unfortunately, very popular) repressive measures against 'violent people', or by LSD and other drugs introduced by state apparatus in order to break down human lives and criminalise dissent. It’s important to discuss these historical experiences collectively, especially in a context of increasing (and very positive) interdependence bought about by the networks of autonomous action groups. Because, as the former animal rights activist puts it: "Building communities, bridging the gaps and healing the wounds amongst us, dealing with our own alienation and conditioning is a very hard and unromantic task, which has no room for heroes and martyrs... Chucking a brick through a pane of glass or building an incendiary device is piss easy in comparison"
The good thing about all these challenges is that, as mentioned above, it's in our hands to overcome them. A group of people are already discussing the idea of setting up a globally networked space for experimentation and knowledge/skills sharing, to promote these kinds of revolutionary processes. If you want to participate in this discussion process, or have any remarks or criticisms to share, please write to email@example.com