WERE THE DC AND SEATTLE PROTESTS UNFOCUSED, OR ARE CRITICS MISSING THE POINT?

July 10, 2000    

The Vision Thing

    
by NAOMI KLEIN

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     "This conference is not like other conferences."

That's what all the speakers at "Re-Imagining Politics and
Society" were told before we arrived at New York's Riverside
Church. When we addressed the delegates (there were about
1,000, over three days in May), we were to try to solve a
very specific problem: the lack of "unity of vision and
strategy" guiding the movement against global corporatism.

This was a very serious problem, we were advised. The young
activists who went to Seattle to shut down the World Trade
Organization and to Washington, DC, to protest the World
Bank and the IMF had been getting hammered in the press as
tree-wearing, lamb-costumed, drumbeating bubble brains. Our
mission, according to the conference organizers at the
Foundation for Ethics and Meaning, was to whip that chaos on
the streets into some kind of structured, media-friendly
shape. This wasn't just another talk shop. We were going to
"give birth to a unified movement for holistic social,
economic and political change."

As I slipped in and out of lecture rooms, soaking up vision
galore from Arianna Huffington, Michael Lerner, David Korten
and Cornel West, I was struck by the futility of this entire
well-meaning exercise. Even if we did manage to come up with
a ten-point plan--brilliant in its clarity, elegant in its
coherence, unified in its outlook--to whom, exactly, would
we hand down these commandments? The anticorporate protest
movement that came to world attention on the streets of
Seattle last November is not united by a political party or
a national network with a head office, annual elections and
subordinate cells and locals. It is shaped by the ideas of
individual organizers and intellectuals, but doesn't defer
to any of them as leaders. In this amorphous context, the
ideas and plans being hatched at the Riverside Church
weren't irrelevant exactly, they just weren't important in
the way they clearly hoped to be. Rather than changing the
world, they were destined to be swept up and tossed around
in the tidal wave of information--web diaries, NGO
manifestoes, academic papers, homemade videos, cris de
coeur--that the global anticorporate network produces and
consumes each and every day.

* * *

This is the flip side of the persistent criticism that the
kids on the street lack clear leadership--they lack clear
followers too. To those searching for replicas of the
sixties, this absence makes the anticorporate movement
appear infuriatingly impassive: Evidently, these people are
so disorganized they can't even get it together to respond
to perfectly well-organized efforts to organize them. These
are MTV-weaned activists, you can practically hear the old
guard saying: scattered, nonlinear, no focus.

It's easy to be persuaded by these critiques. If there is
one thing on which the left and right agree, it is the value
of a clear, well-structured ideological argument. But maybe
it's not quite so simple. Maybe the protests in Seattle and
Washington look unfocused because they were not
demonstrations of one movement at all but rather
convergences of many smaller ones, each with its sights
trained on a specific multinational corporation (like Nike),
a particular industry (like agribusiness) or a new trade
initiative (like the Free Trade Area of the Americas). These
smaller, targeted movements are clearly part of a common
cause: They share a belief that the disparate problems with
which they are wrestling all derive from global
deregulation, an agenda that is concentrating power and
wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Of course, there are
disagreements--about the role of the nation-state, about
whether capitalism is redeemable, about the speed with which
change should occur. But within most of these miniature
movements, there is an emerging consensus that building
community-based decision-making power--whether through
unions, neighborhoods, farms, villages, anarchist
collectives or aboriginal self-government--is essential to
countering the might of multinational corporations.

Despite this common ground, these campaigns have not
coalesced into a single movement. Rather, they are
intricately and tightly linked to one another, much as
"hotlinks" connect their websites on the Internet. This
analogy is more than coincidental and is in fact key to
understanding the changing nature of political organizing.
Although many have observed that the recent mass protests
would have been impossible without the Internet, what has
been overlooked is how the communication technology that
facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its
own image. Thanks to the Net, mobilizations are able to
unfold with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy; forced
consensus and labored manifestoes are fading into the
background, replaced instead by a culture of constant,
loosely structured and sometimes compulsive
information-swapping.

What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an
activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized,
interlinked pathways of the Internet--the Internet come to
life.

* * *

The Washington-based research center TeleGeography has taken
it upon itself to map out the architecture of the Internet
as if it were the solar system. Recently, TeleGeography
pronounced that the Internet is not one giant web but a
network of "hubs and spokes." The hubs are the centers of
activity, the spokes the links to other centers, which are
autonomous but interconnected.

It seems like a perfect description of the protests in
Seattle and Washington, DC. These mass convergences were
activist hubs, made up of hundreds, possibly thousands, of
autonomous spokes. During the demonstrations, the spokes
took the form of "affinity groups" of between five and
twenty protesters, each of which elected a spokesperson to
represent them at regular "spokescouncil" meetings. Although
the affinity groups agreed to abide by a set of nonviolence
principles, they also functioned as discrete units, with the
power to make their own strategic decisions. At some
rallies, activists carry actual cloth webs to symbolize
their movement. When it's time for a meeting, they lay the
web on the ground, call out "all spokes on the web" and the
structure becomes a street-level boardroom.

In the four years before the Seattle and Washington
protests, similar hub events had converged outside WTO, G-7
and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summits in Auckland,
Vancouver, Manila, Birmingham, London, Geneva, Kuala Lumpur
and Cologne. Each of these mass protests was organized
according to principles of coordinated decentralization.
Rather than present a coherent front, small units of
activists surrounded their target from all directions. And
rather than build elaborate national or international
bureaucracies, temporary structures were thrown up instead:
Empty buildings were turned into "convergence centers," and
independent media producers assembled impromptu activist
news centers. The ad hoc coalitions behind these
demonstrations frequently named themselves after the date of
the planned event: J18, N30, A16 and now, for the IMF
meeting in Prague on September 26, S26. When these events
are over, they leave virtually no trace behind, save for an
archived website.

Of course, all this talk of radical decentralization
conceals a very real hierarchy based on who owns,
understands and controls the computer networks linking the
activists to one another--this is what Jesse Hirsh, one of
the founders of the anarchist computer network Tao
Communications, calls "a geek adhocracy."

The hubs and spokes model is more than a tactic used at
protests; the protests are themselves made up of "coalitions
of coalitions," to borrow a phrase from Kevin Danaher of
Global Exchange. Each anticorporate campaign is made up of
many groups, mostly NGOs, labor unions, students and
anarchists. They use the Internet, as well as more
traditional organizing tools, to do everything from
cataloguing the latest transgressions of the World Bank to
bombarding Shell Oil with faxes and e-mails to distributing
ready-to-download antisweatshop leaflets for protests at
Nike Town. The groups remain autonomous, but their
international coordination is deft and, to their targets,
frequently devastating.

The charge that the anticorporate movement lacks "vision"
falls apart when looked at in the context of these
campaigns. It's true that the mass protests in Seattle and
DC were a hodgepodge of slogans and causes, that to a casual
observer, it was hard to decode the connections between
Mumia's incarceration and the fate of the sea turtles. But
in trying to find coherence in these large-scale shows of
strength, the critics are confusing the outward
demonstrations of the movement with the thing
itself--missing the forest for the people dressed as trees.
This movement is its spokes, and in the spokes there is no
shortage of vision.

The student antisweatshop movement, for instance, has
rapidly moved from simply criticizing companies and campus
administrators to drafting alternate codes of conduct and
building its own quasi-regulatory body, the Worker Rights
Consortium. The movement against genetically engineered and
modified foods has leapt from one policy victory to the
next, first getting many GM foods removed from the shelves
of British supermarkets, then getting labeling laws passed
in Europe, then making enormous strides with the Montreal
Protocol on Biosafety. Meanwhile, opponents of the World
Bank's and IMF's export-led development models have produced
bookshelves' worth of resources on community-based
development models, debt relief and self-government
principles. Critics of the oil and mining industries are
similarly overflowing with ideas for sustainable energy and
responsible resource extraction--though they rarely get the
chance to put their visions into practice.

* * *

The fact that these campaigns are so decentralized is not a
source of incoherence and fragmentation. Rather, it is a
reasonable, even ingenious adaptation both to pre-existing
fragmentation within progressive networks and to changes in
the broader culture. It is a byproduct of the explosion of
NGOs, which, since the Rio Summit in 1992, have been gaining
power and prominence. There are so many NGOs involved in
anticorporate campaigns that nothing but the hubs and spokes
model could possibly accommodate all their different styles,
tactics and goals. Like the Internet itself, both the NGO
and the affinity group networks are infinitely expandable
systems. If somebody doesn't feel like they quite fit in to
one of the 30,000 or so NGOs or thousands of affinity groups
out there, they can just start their own and link up. Once
involved, no one has to give up their individuality to the
larger structure; as with all things online, we are free to
dip in and out, take what we want and delete what we don't.
It is a surfer's approach to activism reflecting the
Internet's paradoxical culture of extreme narcissism coupled
with an intense desire for external connection.

One of the great strengths of this model of laissez-faire
organizing is that it has proven extraordinarily difficult
to control, largely because it is so different from the
organizing principles of the institutions and corporations
it targets. It responds to corporate concentration with a
maze of fragmentation, to globalization with its own kind of
localization, to power consolidation with radical power
dispersal.

Joshua Karliner of the Transnational Resource and Action
Center calls this system "an unintentionally brilliant
response to globalization." And because it was
unintentional, we still lack even the vocabulary to describe
it, which may be why a rather amusing metaphor industry has
evolved to fill the gap. I'm throwing my lot in with hubs
and spokes, but Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians
says, "We are up against a boulder. We can't remove it so we
try to go underneath it, to go around it and over it."
Britain's John Jordan, one of the founders of Reclaim the
Streets, says transnationals "are like giant tankers, and we
are like a school of fish. We can respond quickly; they
can't." The US-based Free Burma Coalition talks of a network
of "spiders," spinning a web strong enough to tie down the
most powerful multinationals. A US military report about the
Zapatista uprising in Chiapas even got in on the game.
According to a study produced by RAND, the Zapatistas were
waging "a war of the flea" that, thanks to the Internet and
the global NGO network, turned into a "war of the swarm."
The military challenge of a war of the swarm, the
researchers noted, is that it has no "central leadership or
command structure; it is multiheaded, impossible to
decapitate."

* * *

Of course, this multiheaded system has its weaknesses too,
and they were on full display on the streets of Washington
during the anti-World Bank/IMF protests. At around noon on
April 16, the day of the largest protest, a spokescouncil
meeting was convened for the affinity groups that were in
the midst of blocking all the street intersections
surrounding the headquarters of the World Bank and the IMF.
The intersections had been blocked since 6 am, but the
meeting delegates, the protesters had just learned, had
slipped inside the police barricades before 5 am. Given this
new information, most of the spokespeople felt it was time
to give up the intersections and join the official march at
the Ellipse. The problem was that not everyone agreed: A
handful of affinity groups wanted to see if they could block
the delegates on their way out of their meetings.

The compromise the council came up with was telling. "OK,
everybody listen up," Kevin Danaher shouted into a
megaphone. "Each intersection has autonomy. If the
intersection wants to stay locked down, that's cool. If it
wants to come to the Ellipse, that's cool too. It's up to
you."

This was impeccably fair and democratic, but there was just
one problem--it made absolutely no sense. Sealing off the
access points had been a coordinated action. If some
intersections now opened up and other, rebel-camp
intersections stayed occupied, delegates on their way out of
the meeting could just hang a right instead of a left, and
they would be home free. Which, of course, is precisely what
happened.

As I watched clusters of protesters get up and wander off
while others stayed seated, defiantly guarding, well,
nothing, it struck me as an apt metaphor for the strengths
and weaknesses of this nascent activist network. There is no
question that the communication culture that reigns on the
Net is better at speed and volume than at synthesis. It is
capable of getting tens of thousands of people to meet on
the same street corner, placards in hand, but is far less
adept at helping those same people to agree on what they are
really asking for before they get to the barricades--or
after they leave.

For this reason, an odd sort of anxiety has begun to set in
after each demonstration: Was that it? When's the next one?
Will it be as good, as big? To keep up the momentum, a
culture of serial protesting is rapidly taking hold. My
inbox is cluttered with entreaties to come to what promises
to be "the next Seattle." There was Windsor and Detroit on
June 4 for a "shutdown" of the Organization of American
States, and Calgary a week later for the World Petroleum
Congress; the Republican convention will be in Philadelphia
in July and the Democratic convention in LA in August; the
World Economic Forum's Asia Pacific Economic Summit is on
September 11 in Melbourne, followed shortly thereafter by
anti-IMF demos on September 26 in Prague and then on to
Quebec City for the Summit of the Americas in April 2001.
Someone posted a message on the organizing e-mail list for
the Washington demos: "Wherever they go, we shall be there!
After this, see you in Prague!" But is this really what we
want--a movement of meeting-stalkers, following the trade
bureaucrats as if they were the Grateful Dead?

* * *

The prospect is dangerous for several reasons. Far too much
expectation is being placed on these protests: The
organizers of the DC demo, for instance, announced they
would literally "shut down" two $30 billion transnational
institutions, at the same time as they attempted to convey
sophisticated ideas about the fallacies of neoliberal
economics to the stock-happy public. They simply couldn't do
it; no single demo could, and it's only going to get harder.
Seattle's direct-action tactics worked because they took the
police by surprise. That won't happen again. Police have now
subscribed to all the e-mail lists. LA has put in a request
for $4 million in new security gear and staffing costs to
protect the city from the activist swarm.

In an attempt to build a stable political structure to
advance the movement between protests, Danaher has begun to
fundraise for a "permanent convergence center" in
Washington. The International Forum on Globalization,
meanwhile, has been meeting since March in hopes of
producing a 200-page policy paper by the end of the year.
According to IFG director Jerry Mander, it won't be a
manifesto but a set of principles and priorities, an early
attempt, as he puts it, at "defining a new architecture" for
the global economy.

Like the conference organizers at the Riverside Church,
however, these initiatives will face an uphill battle. Most
activists agree that the time has come to sit down and start
discussing a positive agenda--but at whose table, and who
gets to decide?

These questions came to a head at the end of May when Czech
President Vaclav Havel offered to "mediate" talks between
World Bank president James Wolfensohn and the protesters
planning to disrupt the bank's September 26-28 meeting in
Prague. There was no consensus among protest organizers
about participating in the negotiations at Prague Castle,
and, more to the point, there was no process in place to
make the decision: no mechanism to select acceptable members
of an activist delegation (some suggested an Internet vote)
and no agreed-upon set of goals by which to measure the
benefits and pitfalls of taking part. If Havel had reached
out to the groups specifically dealing with debt and
structural adjustment, like Jubilee 2000 or 50 Years Is
Enough, the proposal would have been dealt with in a
straightforward manner. But because he approached the entire
movement as if it were a single unit, he sent those
organizing the demonstrations into weeks of internal strife
that is still unresolved.

Part of the problem is structural. Among most anarchists,
who are doing a great deal of the grassroots organizing (and
who got online way before the more established left), direct
democracy, transparency and community self-determination are
not lofty political goals, they are fundamental tenets
governing their own organizations. Yet many of the key NGOs,
though they may share the anarchists' ideas about democracy
in theory, are themselves organized as traditional
hierarchies. They are run by charismatic leaders and
executive boards, while their members send them money and
cheer from the sidelines.

* * *

So how do you extract coherence from a movement filled with
anarchists, whose greatest tactical strength so far has been
its similarity to a swarm of mosquitoes? Maybe, as with the
Internet itself, you don't do it by imposing a preset
structure but rather by skillfully surfing the structures
that are already in place. Perhaps what is needed is not a
single political party but better links among the affinity
groups; perhaps rather than moving toward more
centralization, what is needed is further radical
decentralization.v

When critics say that the protesters lack vision, what they
are really saying is that they lack an overarching
revolutionary philosophy--like Marxism, democratic
socialism, deep ecology or social anarchy--on which they all
agree. That is absolutely true, and for this we should be
extraordinarily thankful. At the moment, the anticorporate
street activists are ringed by would-be leaders, anxious for
the opportunity to enlist them as foot soldiers for their
particular cause. At one end there is Michael Lerner and his
conference at the Riverside Church, waiting to welcome all
that inchoate energy in Seattle and Washington inside the
framework of his "Politics of Meaning." At the other, there
is John Zerzan in Eugene, Oregon, who isn't interested in
Lerner's call for "healing" but sees the rioting and
property destruction as the first step toward the collapse
of industrialization and a return to
"anarcho-primitivism"--a pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer
utopia. In between there are dozens of other visionaries,
from the disciples of Murray Bookchin and his theory of
social ecology, to certain sectarian Marxists who are
convinced the revolution starts tomorrow, to devotees of
Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters, and his watered-down
version of revolution through "culture-jamming." And then
there is the unimaginative pragmatism coming from some union
leaders who, before Seattle, were ready to tack social
clauses onto existing trade agreements and call it a day.

It is to this young movement's credit that it has as yet
fended off all of these agendas and has rejected everyone's
generously donated manifesto, holding out for an acceptably
democratic, representative process to take its resistance to
the next stage. Perhaps its true challenge is not finding a
vision but rather resisting the urge to settle on one too
quickly. If it succeeds in warding off the teams of
visionaries-in-waiting, there will be some short-term public
relations problems. Serial protesting will burn some people
out. Street intersections will declare autonomy. And yes,
young activists will offer themselves up like
lambs--dressed, frequently enough, in actual lamb
costumes--to the New York Times Op-Ed page for ridicule.

But so what? Already, this decentralized, multiheaded swarm
of a movement has succeeded in educating and radicalizing a
generation of activists around the world. Before it signs on
to anyone's ten-point plan, it deserves the chance to see
if, out of its chaotic network of hubs and spokes, something
new, something entirely its own, can emerge.


--
    "All truth goes through three stages: first it is ridiculed;
    then it is violently opposed; and finally it is accepted as
    self-evident."
     --Schopenhauer

============================================================================

rkm>

Naomi is a keen observer, and has a sensitive grasp of
evolving movement dynamics.  There are however some
additional observations to be made.

She approves that the movement is not rallying around some
pre-defined ideology, and that it is not characterized by
identified leaders, but she then chooses the word 'chaotic'
to describe the movement's process.  'Non-hierarchical' yes,
'chaotic', no.  It may seem chaotic, in the same way a busy
job site looks chaotic, or a teaming jungle, but from the
inside there is a coherent energy, a harmonious flow.

It's not a 'ten point plan' that will be the major outcome
of this movment -- rather the process of the movement itself
is the thing to watch.  Democracy is non-hierarchical, and
our lives are so dominated by hierarchy that we find this a
bit frightening.  "Who's in charge here?" comes to our lips
when we see energy bursting out all over.  When you learn to
say "We're in charge", you'll feel a power emerging you
didn't know you possessed.

Our 'vision thing' is rather well developed when it comes to
green economics, or approrpriate technology, or any number
of topics.  Where our 'vision thing' is most seriously
lacking, I suggest, is in our vision of democracy.  The idea
that groups of people can work things out for themselves is
foreign to us.  We look for leaders, or ten-point plans --
for something or someone to guide our way. We're like
children looking for a grown-up to take care of us.  Our
system breeds political infantilism, because kids are easier
to boss around than adults.

---

What the movement needs next is to figure out how to get to
the next step beyond demonstrations.

rkm


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