It was 10 years ago today … actually tomorrow. It’s by now well known that September 11, 2001, has crowded out the memory of that other September 11, 1973, the US-backed coup against the Allende government in Chile.
But for Melburnians, there’s another September 11, that of 2000, when the self-styled World Economic Forum came to town and got its a-se handed to it, by tens of thousands of protesters over three days of festivities of the decompressed. The action came at the height of the global anti-capitalist movement (and was, hence, named S11, which was the fashion in those days), and Melburnians punched above their weight, shutting the conference down for most of the first day and into the night before premier Steve Bracks ordered in a police charge, literally kicking heads of young and old alike.
The World Economic Forum, an elite, self-selecting group of Eurocrats, OECD leaders and CEOs, subsequently abandoned its roadshows and retreated to its fortress redoubt in the Swiss resort of Davos, where national police can restrict access to the entire mountain. Ironically, while the global elite were inside talking about innovation and change from a top-down, state-market, cutting-edge-of-the-1970s model, the protest got the better of them so easily because of genuine innovation, multiple and distinct groups based around different modes of organisation, emphasis and identity, co-ordinating via internet and not getting dragged into intra-organisational conflict. Groups blockaded different entrances, medical and legal teams self-co-ordinated, and a bicycle courier service ran between all to ferry supplies and info.
If the movement lacked a core hierarchy, it also lacked a core concrete alternative, about what, beyond generalities, sort of world people wanted to see. But that wasn’t a crucial defect at the turn of the millennium, the objective was to assert a denial of consent to the rampant triumphalism of the corporate/capitalist model of globalisation (which was masquerading as the only possible course), buttressed by a global state apparatus (the WTO, World Bank) etc, and using intellectual property to law commodify and privatise every aspect of the world.
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Initiated by the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 (among other things), it was sparked into life by European Zapatista solidarity groups connected via the Zaps’ cutting edge use of the web (wow, a guerrilla group with a website! Man, it was a long time ago), and a bunch of other with the J18 demonstration in London and around the world on June 18, 1999. Many other activist traditions had flown into it the UK-based Reclaim The Streets, Italian social centres, the German squatting movement, etc, but 1998-1999 saw it transformed into something new.
If S11 has faded from memory somewhat, it is largely because of the chain of events set off by the S11 that followed it in 2001. Protests at the G7 meeting in Genoa had been attacked with a bit of old-style Italian police fascismo, but that of itself would not have derailed the movement. The “war on terror” and “clash of civilisations” engineered by the Bush administration and Blair governments after the WTC attack substituted a cruder model of global dominance than the ostensibly abstract and decentred process of global capital.
The results of that are obvious for anyone to see; the decline of American superpower dominance has been advanced by years if not decades, as failed wars undermined its projection of power, and its desperate deficit funding has helped provoke a systemic global financial crisis. It’s important to remember that none of this was inevitable.
Had Al Gore become President in 2000, not only might the response to the WTC attack have been more rational (in terms of US interests), but the attack might never have happened at all, as Gore wouldn’t have, as did Bush, disregard the substantial intelligence work done on al-Qaeda under the Clinton Administration.
Global development and struggle would have been framed in an entirely different way.
Those of us with an appetite for rupture and radical opportunity can see the advantages that such a chaotic segue has had, but you have to be pretty long-sighted about it. The combination of the global movement together with the rupture of the Bush-Blair disaster made certain things possible — the left turn of South America, for example, which benefited from a thoroughly discredited and overstretched US, to give the “movement” a measure of state power in places such as Bolivia.
But overall the period has led to the creation of two fundamentalisms, a Christian-Western one trumpeting its unquestionable superiority, and an Islamic one gaining support by the simplicity and cosmic nature of its core idea, and the strength of its resistance to a West determined to reach into every aspect of people’s lives and reconstruct them, often to their disadvantage.
Iranian-led Shiite politics and Sunni radical Islamism now dominates West Asia, because over the past half-century, from the restoration of the Shah in 1954 the Atlantic alliance destroyed and killed every secular alternative — nationalism, pan-Arabism, Marxism — with which it might have had dialogue and normalised relations. Al-Qaeda is building a base in north-west Africa in part because IMF-enforced policies have left people starving and destitute in the name of “free trade”, or stolen their oil leaving them no return over decades. They have had plenty of local accomplices in this task, but it’s the systemic destruction of alternative channels for political assertion that has turned a religious death cult into a mass political movement.
Though critics of the global anti-capitalist movement liked to dub the movement an “anti-globalisation” one, and then accuse it of Luddism, corporate globalisation has always been a slow-witted behemoth. Tony Blair, the holy fool of the decade, has recently been prating on about the need for “pre-emptive politics because the world is so interconnected” apparently not realising that it is that interconnectedness that would make a fringe-pastor’s Koran-burning in regional Florida (he’s had a change of mind) into an actual military event in that nation’s war.
In West Asia, in Europe, and just about everywhere, under the pressure of power and ideology beyond local control, people are fleeing back into identity, rather than belief in a collective future, as a source of meaning. Given the polyethnicity of all these places now, that is a recipe for trouble difficult and possibly violent times ahead. Left and progressive movements will have to contest the drive towards the most fundamentalist war (including social-civil war) of all a war for ”Western values” — while resisting the notion that any anti-systemic movement is a source of potential solidarity.
Still, it must be said that there have been enormous, if scrappy and messy, wins over the past decade. The triumphalism of the Washington-consensus was fought to a standstill, bringing the whole concept of capitalism back into debate as a specific historical set of arrangements. Finance capitalists did the rest later on, each credit default swap a tiny Communist Manifesto. Today, millions can see that the system offers only cheap consumption as a trade-off for instability, public squalor, inequality, and destruction of the very basis of life — and cheap consumption then only for the fully employed.
Intellectual property, in everything from human genes, to medicines, to overpriced IT and entertainment, is coming under mass transformative challenge, as are the structures of information and power that were undergirded by them and by consequence, the whole concept of a one-way, no-exit path of development. The possibility of radically transforming the way we live is becoming part of the general political imagination.
Though there have been huge losses, the organised working-class movement in the West, Third-World alternatives elsewhere and though to a degree, capital is not currently opposed by a progressive force that mirrors its (nihilistic) power, only the most pessimistic or nostalgic progressive would not see a situation fundamentally in play.
What did S11 Melbourne achieve? Aside from being part of that wave, it sparked a plethora of organisations, groups, publications and networks that pushed forward on a hundred different fronts. It committed many people to political life, in its most expanded sense, who might otherwise have drifted into a cynical post-postmodern apoliticism. Though it wildly overemphasised the mid-long-term possibilities of multifocal decentred meta-organisation, it got the left/progressive wave decisively beyond the obsessive identity politics that had sapped its energy in the 1990s.
It was above all, a liberating, exhilarating moment, the streets around Crown Casino and the Conference Centre, those deadened spangled concrete bunkers disorganised and flowing with energy, a hundred different types of people doing a thousand different things, from the Byron nu-hippie kids around the river (“that was rough!” “yeah want some rescue remedy?”) to the gnarled CFMEU contingent at the other, and all points in between.
It was non-violent, save for a small gang who had brought their horses and paddy wagons.
I remember looking down the broad expanse of City Road on the evening of the second day, the street’s directionality abolished, a free space whose breadth was suddenly more important than its length and remember thinking that this is how cities will feel when they become something more than tubes and silos of capital.
Thus does the future communicate with its past, which is the present. Thus do we, from time to time, break it open and reshape it with our bare hands. Ten years, a day, a lifetime, a day.