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The Trajectory Of Struggle
From Seattle to Quebec, we have grown a steadfast and strong opposition. Thousands of people turn out in city after city to oppose globalization and corporate power. They reveal the horrible impact of the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and FTAA. They put profit-making under fire. Yet I wonder if perhaps we need some mid-course correction.
We want to prevent oppressive trade agreements. We want to end the IMF and World Bank. We want to win new institutions that foster cooperation, equity, self- management, and solidarity in place of capitalist profit-seeking. To do all this requires massive movements that combine multiple tactics to raise social costs sufficiently that elites ultimately give in. We therefore need more people and wider constituencies to join our anti-globalization (and other) movements. We need our activities to highlight large events when doing so is appropriate for growing our movements, but to also emphasize more regional and local organizing in smaller cities and towns to reach people unable to travel to LA or Prague or wherever else. Folks are working to achieve all of this, but they need more help and these trends need greater respect and support.
Even while celebrating the successes of recent times, we also have to ask: why aren't our numbers growing as much as we'd like them to? Why aren't new constituencies joining quite as fast as we would like them to? Why aren't the venues of activism diversifying even more quickly to local sites in addition to national focal points? Why is violent conflict crowding out non-violent activity as the visible and highlighted focus of our efforts?
Part of the answer is that progress takes time. Another part is that there is, in fact some very rapid growth—for example, the proliferation of IndyMedia projects providing alternative local news and analysis that now interactively span nearly 40 cities in 15 countries. But IndyMedia growth occurs by refining the involvement of people who are already committed. That's internal refinement, not outward enlargement. Similarly, there is steadily improving preparation, creativity, knowledge, and courage among those who have been demonstrating most actively. Consider the reports about militants street fighting in Quebec or about the developing and evolving medic teams. Unlike Seattle, what I have heard repeatedly about the most militant protestors in Quebec is that, despite the worst police violence to date, they had solidarity with others, they defended others, they showed courage and discipline, and thus won support. But this, too, occurs not based on wide outreach building our movement larger, but by increasing insights and connections among those already highly involved. We have to face the fact that from Seattle through Quebec, our demonstrations have hardly grown at all.
Like a marathon, movement struggle goes a long distance, requires endurance, and has to overcome obstacles. A big population is involved and speed of attaining our ultimate ends matters greatly. But seeking social change is in other respects not at all like a typical race. With social change, the winning logic shouldn't be for those who develop unequally and are “faster” to leave the slower pack behind and cross a finish line first. To cross alone is to lose. The only way to win the “social change race” is for everyone to cross together. The best informed and most committed activists need to stay with the pack, not break away from it. Their greatest accomplishment is to increase the whole community's “speed,” even if it means holding themselves back a bit.
I am concerned that along with a stupendous achievement in birthing an anti- globalization movement, we may have a developing disconnection between many of our most informed activists and the bulk of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo but inactive or just beginning to become active. This induces some of us to interact fantastically well with one another, even having our own supportive subculture, but to lose touch with others who then become long-distance spectators.
I am not saying that this disconnection is a done deal. It isn't. But I do think it is a difficulty that we need to address. On college campuses the division is easy to see. As compared to their schoolmates, committed activists look entirely different, have overwhelmingly different tastes and preferences, talk differently, and worst are largely insulated from rather than immersed in the larger population. The situation exists in communities as well.
Lots of factors contribute to such disconnections, of course. One factor that is particularly relevant for our anti-globalization movement is that over the months since Seattle dissent has come to mean traveling long distances, staying in difficult circumstances, taking to the streets in ever more militant actions that highlight civil disobedience and street fighting, and risking arrest and severe mistreatment. This is partly due to how the mainstream media covers our efforts, but it is partly due to our choices, as well.
Regardless of what we may think about different tactical options, being prepared to be clubbed, gassed, rubber-bullet shot, and jailed is a lot to ask of people at any time, much less at their first entry into activism. And consider people who are in their 30s or older, people who often have pressing family responsibilities, people who hold jobs and need to keep them for fear of disastrous consequences for their families. How many such people are likely to join a demonstration that demands great mobility and involves high risks of brutality, and to do so, no less, as their initial step in becoming activist?
The irony here is that the efficacy of civil disobedience and other militant tactics—however great or little one thinks it may be—is certainly not something cosmic or a priori. It resides, instead, in the connection between such militant activities and a growing movement of dissidents, many unable to join the most militant tactics but supporting their logic and moving in that direction. What gives civil disobedience and other militant manifestations the power to force elites to submit to our demands is not the immediate militancy, but the fear of more widespread activism. If there is no larger, visible, supporting dissident community from which the ranks of those sitting-in or battling will be replenished and grow, then there is no serious threat of increasing activism.
Plateaued dissent is an annoyance that the state can control with clean-up crews or repression. In contrast, dissent that keeps growing is more threatening and thus more powerful. Civil disobedience involving a few thousand people, with 10 or 20 times as many at associated massive rallies and marches, and with all these going back to organize still larger local events, gives elites a very dangerous dynamic to address. Through personal encounters, print, audio, and video, teach-ins, rallies, and marches not only are experienced activists continually refining and enlarging their commitment, but new people are moving from lack of knowledge to more knowledge and from rejecting demonstrating to supporting it and, when circumstances permit, to joining it.
If the state can create an image in which the only people who come to demonstrate are those who are prepared to deal with gas, clubs, and rubber bullets, then we are not going to find parents with young babies, elderly folks, young adults kept away from danger by concerned parents, or average working people unable to risk an unpredictable time away from work. Add to that the difficulty of attending national rallies and insufficient means to manifest one's concerns and develop one's allegiances locally, and the movement is pushed toward a plateau condition. Add to that the movement's most committed members becoming slowly more focused not on communicating analysis and goals to wider audiences, but on discussing street tactics and police methods which others have no useful comprehension of and are often scared by—and the problem intensifies. Under the pressure of preparing for and dealing with ugly repression, activists get caught up in the notion that it is the proximate battle that matters most, and even caught up in an escalating choice of tactics that dissociates them from non-violence, forgetting that the police can always trump our militancy (though they can never trump our numbers), and the problem becomes acute.
Consider an example. The Internet is a powerful tool, useful in many ways. But mostly we are communicating with people who come to our sites and participate in our lists because they are already part of our movement. How else would they know where to find us? This is similar to what occurs with a print periodical or a radio show. Only those who subscribe or who already want to hear what we have to say find us. Don't get me wrong. This is very good—and I have spent a lot of my life working on such efforts of advancing our own insights, solidarity, and commitment. The trouble is, this approach can result in a lead group largely distancing itself from the constituencies who we most need to communicate with and learn from.
Another kind of organizing reaches people who differ with us. This is what is going on when we hand out leaflets or do agitprop and guerilla theatre in public places. It is what happens when we hold public rallies or teach-ins and we go door to door in our neighborhoods or on our campuses, urging, cajoling, and even pressuring folks to come to the events. This is what happens when we make those events welcome to new people, rather than gearing them to the interests of veterans. Even more important, this is what is going on when we go out of our way to engage new people in conversation, debate, and exploration of the issues at hand, at every plausible opportunity. This face-to-face interaction with people who disagree with us is at the heart of movement building. It is harder and scarier than communicating with those who share our views, of course, but it is certainly equally important to do. We won't and can't all prioritize this type of outreach—for it isn't the only thing that needs doing—but we can't all not do it.
If we build our demonstrations in ways that make us steadily less disposed and less able to do this kind of outreach to new people, we are on a downhill track. Suppose, for example, that we are on a major campus like the football-focused one in State College, Pennsylvania that I recently spoke at. If our core campus movement of a hundred activists is so constructed and oriented that we spend almost all our time relating to one another socially and politically, to people very like ourselves, and almost none of our time going into sports bars and fraternities/sororities and all the other campus venues where 40,000 other students congregate, then no matter how insightful and courageous and committed we may be, how are we going to build a majority project? Of course it takes great courage, commitment, and knowledge to become radical on such a campus. Of course it is exemplary to make sacrifices in order to work for and go to demonstrations miles and miles away, whether in Quebec or Washington DC. But there is another step necessary in movement building and it also takes courage and is also exemplary. We need to become adept at going into those local sports bars or fraternity/sororities, or neighborhood social clubs, or religious centers and starting a conversation, over and over, with the people we need to win over to our movement.
It doesn't end at that. To the extent that outreach and consciousness raising is going to entice and retain new people in our movements, it has to offer them ways to maintain contact with activism and sustain and grow their initial interest. If the end point of a face-to-face conversation about the IMF, for example, is that we urge someone to travel 500 or 1,000 or 5,000 miles to a demonstration, to sleep on a floor, and to take to the streets to be gassed and to face arrest, then there is no way that these new people can retain contact with the committed activist community that has piqued their dissident interest. Thus, without mechanisms that not only reach out, but also preserve and enlarge outreach's initial impact, new folks won't take hold in our movement.
The point to keep foremost in our minds is that we are not fighting a little battle that a small army of dissent can win. We don't need to eliminate militant tactics. Far from it. But we do need to be sure that they are used only at the right time, in the right venues, and that they don't drown out other equally important projects able to welcome and incorporate larger numbers of activists. We do need to give our militant activities greater meaning and strength by incorporating more outreach with more local events and activities that have more diverse and introductory levels of participation. We need to spend more time clarifying issues, goals, and the logic of our activity to new audiences who don't yet agree with us.
Finally, there is the matter of violence. Militant civil disobedience is one thing and likewise for all manner of creative non-violent dissent. Throwing back tear gas canisters or ripping down fences and other obstacles is also perfectly warranted, depending on circumstances. Even destroying property has its place. But hurling paving stones and Molotov cocktails at cops is an escalation without a destination. It undercuts communication of issue content. It provides pretext for further and unlimited violent escalation by police, which in turn forestalls participation by folks not ready for or not supportive of this type of conflict. It gives rationale for long jail terms. The issue isn't courage in this choice. It doesn't take more courage to hurl things at cops and run than it takes to sit and block access routes. The issue isn't personal damage to the powers that be. They aren't on the field of engagement. The issue isn't tactical creativity, which hurling things at people tends to trump and vitiate. What counts is growing numbers of involved and committed activists spreading dissent, and choices that mitigate that possibility not only don't add to social costs for elites, they help elites act to reduce those costs.
Politics is not about the rage of a few manifested in ways that reduce overall effectivity. Militancy, yes. Creative obstruction, yes. Even self-defense, even property damage. All this has a place, properly utilized. But a relative few people physically attacking police and thereby engendering all kinds of negative dynamics, however understandable it may be in context, is not productive.
Our current trajectory of struggle didn't start in Seattle. It won't end in Quebec. It most immediately needs to get much bigger and more connected. If that happens, and there is every evidence that it can, then militancy will grow as well, but far more productively than otherwise. Z
Michael Albert is an activist, author of numerous books on participatory economics, a co-founder of South End Press, and founder and staff member of Z, Inc.