Once beaten for stating the obvious, our time has come
March 26, 2009 / The Guardian
It was 1999 and the summer of corporate love. Many pundits – now talking of “bad apples” and applauding bailouts – were predicting the stockmarket would go up forever. Not coincidentally, it was also a decade ago that the anticapitalist movement emerged with a rambunctious “carnival against capital” in London’s Square Mile; the contagion spread to the streets of Seattle where the World Trade Organisation meeting was shut down by protesters later that year.
The movement, which was essentially demanding democratic control over the global economy, wreathed summit after summit of the G8, the WTO and the World Bank with protest and teargas. It was wild, infuriating, diverse and sometimes incoherent, as only a network that encompasses indigenous peoples, radical environmentalists, workers and kids in hoodies could be. The movement was like the child in the crowd as the emperor of global neoliberalism wheeled by, pointing out that his cloaks were woven from financial fictions and economic voodoo.
They must now be credited for their prescience. Today, everybody can see the emperor has no clothes; but as the G20 meets in London next week to ensure financial “stability” for a return to business as usual, it appears rather as though the emperor has rushed back to the very same discredited tailors to bail them out and commission several new outfits.
And what of the movement that predicted the crash? Post 9/11 it lost momentum as it was forced to rechannel energy into fighting rearguard actions against state repression and the war on terror. Yet the less visible but vital processes of developing workable alternatives, building grassroots movements, and popular education continued. The movement also effected a palpable cultural shift of alternative economic ideas and environmental concerns towards the mainstream; in Latin America social movements helped elect governments that were prepared to challenge neoliberal doctrine. Movement demands also foreshadowed a rebalancing of power towards the global south, and helped to delegitimise the institutions of the global economy.
These ideas have never been more relevant or necessary. Clearly we need a vision, and it doesn’t look as if the G20, still so in thrall to financial capital, will deliver one. So could this be the hour for a movement that was beaten, teargassed and imprisoned for pointing out the now blindingly obvious?
NGOs, churches and trade unions are mobilising thousands to turn out on 28 March with the demand to “Put people first”; 1 April is “Financial Fools Day”, when direct action activists and environmentalists will be setting up a climate camp outside the European Climate Exchange in London – because the same financial system now in crisis is being entrusted to cut emissions through the artificial creation of a market in carbon credits. Meanwhile another group called G20 Meltdown is promising a carnival at the Bank of England. The climate camp has an open process and has worked hard to establish its social base of legitimacy; the carnival is more of a hotchpotch, and it’s unclear who will turn up. Perhaps some windows will be broken – and frankly, it would be astonishing if no one was angry enough to do so.
Whatever they decide, the G20 and other leaders are going to be faced with increasing unrest from those paying with their jobs, their social security and their taxes for a crisis not of their making and a bailout not of their choosing. From Haiti to India, people are rioting over food. We are entering a singular moment of climate chaos and food shortages, a social and energy crisis as well as financial meltdown. The solutions the “alter-global” networks have developed offer a way out that is based on whole systems thinking. Fundamental to this vision is an economy that meets the needs of everyone on a planet of finite resources.
Which is why the climate camp in the city, with its slogan “Because nature doesn’t do bailouts”, is one of the most interesting of all the movements coalescing in London next week. It’s a potent mix of seasoned anti-globalisation activists who are skilled in creative direct action and a new generation that is energised and refreshingly undogmatic. The camp has taken a key component of the globalisation movement – the temporary autonomous zones of street parties and convergence centres liberated in cities during summit protests – to a new level, creating a transformational space which prefigures the world they want, featuring everything from wind turbines and composted waste to decentralised decision-making and creative play.
At the end of this year, almost exactly 10 years to the day since Seattle, this new incarnation of the movement will be on the streets during the Copenhagen climate summit demanding real climate justice that does not rely on the current “business as usual” proposals. Perhaps anticapitalism had the right idea at the wrong moment in history. Perhaps its moment has come.