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Strategy, Tactics, and Solidarity: The Anti-Globalization Movement and Its Discontents

Voices of resistance have increasingly penetrated the flow of discourse concerning these world powers, materialized in the form of street demonstrations against organizations such as the IMF, WTO, FTAA, the World Bank, and G-8.
Sarah Burdacki

Issue #65, January 2004

The evolution of our globalized economy and culture has not transpired without brutally taxing consequences around the globe, especially in our world's developing nations. Voices of resistance have increasingly penetrated the flow of discourse concerning these world powers, materialized in the form of street demonstrations against organizations such as the IMF, WTO, FTAA, the World Bank, and G-8. While these undemocratic organizations zealouly attempt to permeate the globe, their overwhelming power remains off the radar for most of the US population. The creation of false consciousness by the ruling elite, along with internal conflict within the anti-globalization movement itself, presents a two-fold obstacle for staging a revolution, or at least modifying existing conditions of globalization.

Political discourse in US media fuels the fire of ruling class ideologies. One of the most apparent examples occurs in the vague and overused term "free trade." Masked by linguistic association with the positive connotation of one of America's most beloved concepts, freedom, "free trade" misleads the American public into believing that free trade benefits the entire world. At the least, it leads us to believe that because it is in our best interests, free trade must uniformly benefit the world as a whole. The US's dominant world power status, combined with its frequently politically uninformed citizens, means that the real circumstances of free trade prevail without question.

While the oppressive repercussions of free trade are hidden from unquestioning Americans in one dirty four-letter word, linguistic ethnocentricity is also found in the misnomer "neo-liberalism," the term with which proponents of globalization choose to label their political position. Janet Conway defines neo-liberalism as "a conservative economic philosophy and political project that emerged in the 1970's in response to the uprisings and new social movements of the late 1960's. It appears as a bundle of policies promoting privatization, deregulation, and trade liberalization." The unsuspecting American audience is led to believe that neo-liberals are in fact proponents of the resistance to globalization and for the improvement of our world as a whole. Cloaked in the garments of free trade, neo-liberalism is yet another wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.

The exploitation of the Third World by the First World gets masked in capitalist discourse as the process of "development." Underneath this disguise, however, lies the dichotomy between those nations that are overdeveloped (G-8 countries) and those that are underdeveloped (Third World nations). Of course, the former are never referred to as overdeveloped, for to do so would indicate a negative connotation. Likewise, underdeveloped nations are instead referred to as "developing" countries, implying that there is progress to be made, and that in fact this progress is inevitable. The relation between overdeveloped and underdeveloped countries demonstrates the extreme polarization of today's global economy: in short, that the rich nations are getting richer as the poor ones are getting poorer.

In the theoretical limitlessness of our global economy, world powers will never be "satisfied" by a certain wealth or power, nor will they sacrifice much for actual development of their neighbors in the Southern hemisphere. As Maria Mies states in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, "The result of this never-ending growth model are the phenomena of 'overdevelopment,' that is, of a growth that has assumed the character of a cancer, which is progressively destructive, not only for those who are exploited in this process but also for those who are apparently the beneficiaries of this exploitation." We would be foolish to assume that mere "development aid" will solve the problems of the underdeveloped world in this polarized structure. In the meantime, despite its oblivious self-destruction, First World power grants itself the legitimacy to make empty promises ad nauseam through expectation that flexibility and development represent gradual "works in progress." The diction of the ruling class's discourse points under-informed audiences to the conclusion that globalization, like a tide that lifts all boats, will ultimately bring prosperity to the world. It is a dangerous assumption to make.

Yet despite the dominant ideology through which the ruling class operates, a strong anti-globalization movement has erupted, making its tumultuous debut at the protest of the WTO in Seattle in late 1999. The resistance movement has operated thus far in isolated incidents, at various meetings of organizations like the WTO, the IMF, G-8, and others. In the US, the majority of these protests have occurred with permits from the government. Major world organizations like the WTO, the World Bank, and the G-8 operate through meetings planned, organized, and executed with cooperation from the government and police. Their decisions are felt throughout the world; in short, they determine how the world's economy operates. The resistance, on the other hand, must initiate its power through tactics, or mobile, transitory, and isolated incidents. They must seize and take advantage of the chance opportunities available to them, and are dependent upon them. Because its opportunity for bringing about change is so limited, the movement must remain cautious about its tactics and ideals.

Numerous special interest groups from all over the world attend these protests, from environmental organizations, to trade unions, to death penalty opponents, to those vehemently fighting to cut the debt of "developing" countries. In theory, even though these groups represent a wide range of interests and views, they are united in the fight against globalization and its ills. Hence, although each group develops a specific message, often the chants expressed at such large-scale demonstrations are vague and generalized, as in the common slogan "These streets are OUR streets!" Some people believe that because the individual messages get lost in the crowd, the effort is diluted, but marches and chants are means of externalizing solidarity and energy.

Diversity of Tactics

To understand the movement and its politics, one must understand its terminology. All too often the terms "direct action" and "civil disobedience" are confused. Direct action is an all-encompassing term signifying numerous acts of protest, referring, as Janet Conway puts it, to "forms of political action that bypass parliamentary or bureaucratic channels to directly ameliorate or eliminate an injustice, or to slow down or obstruct regular operations of an unjust system or order." Strikes, street demonstrations, and occupations are prominent examples of direct action. All civil disobedience is a form of direct action, yet this more specified form of protest also seeks to break laws it finds unjust. Conway states, "acts of civil disobedience are premised on the existence of liberal democratic institutions and the rule of law. The public and principle breaking of the law by otherwise law-abiding persons is meant to call attention to the unjustness of that law." Famous examples of civil disobedience include the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement and the burning of draft cards in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Property damage resulting from both forms of protest is still considered non-violent by many activists' standards. In this view, any damage except that to a human being is considered non-violent. Thus, even mass-scale rioting and property damage including arson and rock-throwing, can be seen as non-violent, a complicated and problematic distinction. Beginning with the Seattle demonstrations, protesters sought to use all means possible to oppose their target, whether creative or "violent." This tolerance for a wide variety of demonstration tactics, as well as the need to find something to unify the various groups, led to the practical effect of a "diversity of tactics." By the Québec Summit of 2001, the term had become a familiar one, and was practiced successfully.

Respect for the diversity of tactics simply means that no member of the movement will publicly denounce any form of demonstration anyone else uses. One does not necessarily have to agree with the form of protest, nor participate in it in order to practice respect for the diversity of tactics. The notion of strategy versus tactics then enters the internal structure of the resistance movement. While the social forum, including discussion panels, informational tables, and marches, are planned and pre-arranged events by the propre demonstrators, can be considered strategy, the spontaneous, sometimes erratic actions of violent protesters can be viewed as tactics. Because tactics consist of isolated, often desperate actions, they can serve as temporary and ineffective solutions to a huge problem. While some see breaking the window of a McDonald's as a powerful, symbolic action against globalization, others view it as a destructive act since insurance will cover McDonald's loss and will not affect the company's economic foundation. Basically, the concept of embracing the diversity of tactics presents the resistance movement as a united front, theoretically appearing stronger in the eyes of the media and toward their enemy, world power-holding organizations.

While this surface solidarity brought about by embracing a diversity of tactics seems ideal, it also creates much turmoil and stifles voices. An activist vehemently opposed to violence as a means to particular ends cannot voice this opinion without being considered a traitor. Hence, there are internal pressures that advocate a fascist approach to demonstrating, which presents a dangerous situation that produces tension between those willing to work within the structure and those wanting to break it down. The opportunity for "anything to happen" at a protest also means that the police will be more suspicious and defensive of the resistance; a force not necessarily considered the enemy becomes vilified in the eyes of the resistance, as the protestors become demonized in theirs. Hence the real battle between globalization forces and the resistance may take a backseat. This gives rise to more arrests and more police brutality, which then becomes a focus of media coverage, thereby deterring attention from any peaceful advances. In addition, hardcore militant activists often want to expose more pacifistic protesters to police brutality in order to harden their views; yet the debate about whether the violence is initiated by the police or the protesters becomes very blurred, and more times than not will be portrayed in the press as the fault of the resistance. Opponents of a diversity of tactics see the threat of violence as an ominous, restraining, an invitation for bad press, and ultimately the discrediting of the movement.

G-8 Protests in Genoa

As a member of the Genoa Social Forum at the 2001 protest of the G-8 Conference in Genoa, Italy, I saw the tension over the diversity of tactics first-hand. I was protesting in a group consisting of two people from each of the G-8 countries. We were participating on behalf of Legambiente, one of the largest environmental organizations in Italy. Relatively unaware at the time of G-8 and the protest movement, I was initially apprehensive about participating. Luckily, a Canadian girl I had befriended and who had recently participated in the Québec Summit, assured me that the protest would be organized in such a way that fear and chaos wouldn't prevail. She almost guaranteed that we would be tear-gassed, but everyone would be looking out for it, and would work together to make sure people stayed safe and remained calm. Such was her experience the spring before in Canada, where protesters acted in a civilized manner, briskly walking away from danger rather than fleeing in stampedes. Due to cooperation, participants had remained active in the manifestation for long periods of time while being tear-gassed.

The situation was drastically different in Genoa. Perhaps due to the increase in protesters, the wider range of nations represented, and the language barrier, chaos rather than reason seemed to prevail. Without ever having heard of the diversity of tactics or the debate between violent and pacifist protesters, I encountered it in the flesh when two members of the Black Bloc anarchist group marched down the street where we were protesting with the intention of breaking down the fence separating us from the "Red Zone." This street had been designated as a peaceful zone. Pacifist protesters with raised white painted hands and white painted faces stood in front of them, attempting to create an obstacle against the potential violent encounter. The anarchists quickly left, and the pacifist groups lining the streets cheered for the apparent victory over them.

However, mere minutes later, around fifty Black Bloc members ominously marched back down our street, completely clad in black with black masks and makeshift armor on, ready for "battle" against the Italian Carabinieri. For about ten minutes, the two groups plus any other protesters in the area stood in a tense deadlock in the center of the piazza, ready to fight each other, when all of a sudden we heard the eerie sound of helicopters above us, and then metal cartridges of tear gas hit the ground. I remember thinking that the impact of a cartridge would probably give someone a concussion if it fell on their head. Unlike my friend's experience in Quebec, everyone scrambled all over the piazza in a scared frenzy.

Initially I was more scared of being trampled in a stampede than in being effected by the tear gas. That was before I felt the tear gas in my nose and eyes. People running in every direction, coupled with my lack of geographic knowledge of the city, meant I had to pay attention to where the leader of my group was and where he was directing us to go. I had to trust him as well, for the route he chose seemed an unwise path; Black Bloc members were headed that way as well and I associated them with danger. If I hadn't listened to the head of Legambiente, however, I could have easily wound up in a more dangerous part of the protest.

The dropping of tear gas, although it broke up the intensity of the internal struggle within the resistance, only allowed the members of the Black Bloc to march down to the Red Zone, where they would be confronted by the police, and almost assuredly, more violence. That day Italian police shot and killed Carlo Giuliani, a member of the Black Bloc. While Giuliani has become something of a martyr figure for the movement, the media effectively demonized the actions and destruction of the Black Bloc. The following day of protest, due to the excessive violence, I decided to stay in a village outside of Genoa, where I watched coverage of the protest on Italian television. My fellow members of Legambiente and I were horrified to see the raging fires, smashed windows, and overall chaos in the city's center. However, when our comrades who had participated returned from the protest, they raved about the peacefulness and organization that had characterized the day. "It was a beautiful manifestation" were their exact words. They knew of only one tumultuous part of the city, which the local television station had chosen to broadcast on continuous loop the entire day.

At the protest, I thought that the pacifists trying to stop the anarchists from entering the danger zone of the protest were foolishly trying to play heroes in a useless battle. However, under the diversity of tactics, because the street on which we were protesting was designated as a peaceful zone, it seemed hypocritical for the anarchist group to overstep the wishes of the pacifists occupying that street to maintain it as a peaceful area. The tension between the two factions caused much fear, needless chaos, and unrest in a place that officially denounced its occurrence.

It is also not clear how extensive the involvement of agents provocateurs, or police disguised as protesters, is in moments like this that threaten to tear apart the movement. These infiltrators, as Conway points out, "in the context of mass action, instigate more confrontational, provocative, or violent behavior in order to discredit or to provoke and legitimate repression by the police." I fear that the angry mob-like mentality of groups like the Black Bloc overshadows the intellectual battle against the ills of globalization; the group's thirst for violence and destruction only seems to mirror the thirst for greed of the corporate world they are seeking to demise. Allowing that violence to destroy the work of those in the anti-globalization movement would seem like a perfect strategy for those who benefit from global neo-liberalism.

One certainty is that the resistance movement, despite its discontents with globalization, nevertheless benefits from its advantages. The Internet has allowed the movement to flourish, as people can advertise events, educate the public about its cause, and organize logistics concerning protests. However, the Internet needs to be used more readily and in the development of a more coherent strategy. There is a lack of communication among groups in the resistance, especially those with different attitudes toward violence and the diversity of tactics. Only by working out how to effectively present itself as an impassioned and united front will the movement gain any real steam. Violent forms of protest will not work successfully toward the ultimate goal of gaining credibility and bringing about change. Those who care about the future of the anti-globalization movement and the future of social justice need to participate in the development of this strategy.

Sarah Burdacki is currently a senior English major at Wheaton College.

Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Burdacki. All rights reserved.