How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World
Edited by David Solnit
City Lights, San Francisco, 2004
by Gavin Sewell and Vilosh Vinograd
The stated goal is very ambitious: “Globalize Liberation was created as a resource of hands-on tools, ideas and examples to aid in our efforts to gain control of our lives and our communities, and ultimately to change the world we live in. It is intended to help individuals, groups, and movements to deepen their understanding of what’s wrong and why, to create a vision of alternatives, and to develop strategies for creating change.”
Globalize Liberation indeed paints a useful picture of the anti-capitalist movement since the Zapatista uprising and Seattle, and several of the essays in the anthology are excellent. But it’s hard to tell for whom this book was intended. It’s not systematic or didactic enough to be effective as an introduction for people with no experience in activism; the essays do a good job of describing our situation but generally don’t argue as if expecting either disagreement or complete ignorance. On the other hand, few of the essays go into enough depth or detail to be revelatory to any veteran activist. Most of the book ambles along in a frustrating gray area.
More importantly, a conceptual flaw is revealed by how much larger Seattle and Chiapas loom in the book than 9-11. Editor David Solnit—leading light of the Bay Area-based group Art and Revolution, which creates many of the giant puppets and props seen at anti-globalization protests in recent years—has assembled contributors similarly seasoned by years of experience in this movement. But, like the movement as a whole, they generally do not address what has changed since September 2001: how the war for resources and labor represented by “globalization” has become an actual shooting war, while US unilateralism has punctured the facade of a seamlessly “globalized capitalism.” Solnit’s 14-page introduction doesn’t even mention 9-11, and only briefly touches on the Iraq war.
The anthology is divided into three sections, “What’s the Problem?,” “How to Change Things,” and, “Ideas in Action.” Not surprisingly, “What’s the Problem?” is by far the strongest section overall. Cindy Milstein of Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology contributes a clear, concise overview of basic anarchist theory and spirit that could serve as a good introduction to the subject. Citing the classical Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, she expounds on the nation-state and capital as twin pillars of an inherently centralizing and anti-democratic system. Invoking New England town meetings as a “fragment” survival of more human, decentralized models, she poses the movement toward direct democracy as part of a broader historical tendency.
George Caffentzis of the indispensable Midnight Notes Collective offers an original, astute analysis of the World Trade Center attacks. He notes how an economic “liberalization” scheme within Saudi Arabia instituted in 2000 allowed foreigners to buy parts of Islam’s holy land, making a strong case that the attacks were carried out the next year as a direct reaction to this policy. The “liberalization” only expanded after 9-11—prompting further attacks within Saudi Arabia, in a vicious cycle. Caffentzis says the “war on terrorism” is really the “struggle over control of the earth’s oil and gas.”
But even this section insufficiently grapples with how 9-11 has entrenched the imperial system—and diverted the momentum that had been building since the November 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South optimistically writes: “Since September 11, global capitalism has continued to lose legitimacy…” Perhaps, but the protest mobilizations against the WTO and World Bank have been smaller since then, and activist energies have been deflected into protesting the Iraq occupation.
Even Chris Hables Gray in his chapter on war and globalization (the last in the “What’s the Problem?” section) barely mentions 9-11. He also writes with optimism that “our current international system is based on nation-states and their decline opens up a real opportunity, actually a necessity, to demilitarize politics.” Again, could be—but the collapse of nation-states in (for instance) the Balkans and Somalia has only meant an increase in militarism and an occasion for US interventionism. The emergence of “non-state actors” on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq has provided a pretext for Washington to suspend the Geneva Conventions, the only minimal legal restraints on state militarism.
In what’s probably the most important chapter of this book for activists, Van Jones goes behind enemy lines and describes what he saw from the inside of the February 2002 World Economic Forum in New York City. (A veteran of the Seattle protests, he was mysteriously invited to the WEF summit as a “Global Leader for Tomorrow.”) One of his observations is worth quoting. Jones found that the ruling elite in the Waldorf-Astoria “loved the protesters. In fact, most attendees took the demonstration—and the huge police response—as an affirmation of their own self-impotence. It was almost as if a bunch of really nerdy kids were chanting and marching around the coolest frat-house on campus.” Jones provides serious food for thought for anyone doing conventional street protest.
The “How to Change Things” section of course provides a greater challenge than delineating what’s wrong—and runs into bigger problems. A good example is longtime nonviolence theorist George Lakey’s essay “Strategizing for a Living Revolution.” In a 25-page essay he gives only one page to consciousness-raising and the creation of a new non-capitalist culture. The rest of his essay explains what you do to build and be effective as a revolutionary organization once you’ve done this. This is an instructive discussion, with case studies including Argentina’s piqueteros and Serbia’s Otpor, providing some very useful material for any existing mass movement. For example, to combat police brutality the kids in Otpor would go to the homes of violent cops and show pictures of their beaten comrades to the neighbors, family, and children. After a few months of doing this they had (peacefully) intimidated most of the Serbian police force into retreating from violent repression. Otpor’s slogan was “It only hurts when you’re scared.” The stories of middle class people joining piqueteros to beat the walls of banks are also inspiring. But these were situations where extreme repression (Serbia) or extreme economic devastation (Argentina) had already galvanized a large people’s movement. Here in the US, we face the bizarre challenge of a downtrodden population which by and large doesn’t feel oppressed. Glossing over the stage of consciousness and culture-building seems like writing a how-to book on horse racing with 24 chapters on how to spend the money you’ll win at the Triple Crown and only one on how to train a horse.
Something of the same lack of pragmatism weakens the essays on the Argentine uprising, the Zapatistas, the U’wa indigenous resistance to Occidental Petroleum in Colombia, and most of the “Ideas in Action” section of the book. None of the essays explore the question of how we translate the concepts of these actions into the realities of the “first word.” Globalize Liberation was published in North America, and was presumably written mostly for North Americans. Could the propagation techniques of the Zapatistas work here? How about the tactics of the Argentine direct-democracy assemblies? How would they need to be modified? Where are these pragmatic questions addressed?
Manuel Callahan’s chapter “Zapatismo Beyond Chiapas” takes an admirable stab at it, but would need another hundred pages to make a serious dent in the problem. Marina Sitrin describes the Argentine struggle in enough detail to be useful and also writes some of the best prose in the book. What Sitrin and Callahan both see as critical are the imagination and flexibility of these movements, their spontaneity and non-traditional, non-hierarchical approaches to organizing. What neither of them have space to get into here are the psychological and social differences between Latin Americans and citizens of the US; what can we wards of a cold, technocratic society do to reverse the erosion of traditions of social solidarity still vibrant south of the border?
Keir Milburn’s essay on creative protest tactics in Italy could answer some of the problems raised by Van Jones. Milburn tells how Italian activists use foam padding and home-made body armor, blurring the lines between violent and non-violent protest. These padded anti-globalization protestors, or “turtles,” could stand their ground against club-wielding riot-cops without having to physically fight them. By blockading without hurting the police they managed to score both tactical and PR victories. This ties in with the kind of creative flexibility Sitrin and Callahan describe in their essays, and it makes for interesting reading on its own. In fact, most of the essays in the last section of the book are interesting; what’s doubtful is how many of them are useful at this stage or our struggle.
Finally, there’s the back cover. In the lower right is a pretend bar-code with stick people escaping from it, as if from behind prison bars, to mock the idea of bar-codes. Bar-codes certainly should be ridiculed, but over on the lower left-hand corner of the book is…a real bar-code. A bar code may be a necessity of getting the book out to a wide readership. But the self-parody may also betray the obvious contradictions that make it easy for most Americans to ignore us and our ideas.
In summary, Globalize Liberation is an imperfectly conceived anthology with some really great essays in it. It is also an attempt to write a kind of book that really needs to be written. It’s much easier to criticize than to create, and editor Solnit and his contributors deserve credit for stepping up to fill a void. We need to forge intellectual weapons against the capitalist establishment, and despite its problems, Globalize Liberation is a sign that we’re trying.
See also WW4 REPORT’s coverage of the February 2002 WEF protests in NYC
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Oct. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution