Previously published in Red and Black Revolution: a magazine of libertarian communism, number 5, 2001
Original PDF is online here
In the wake of the Seattle riots of 1999, Lucien van der Walt explains how he thinks anarchists should relate to the burgeoning anti-globalisation movement.
Riot police battling youth. Armed forces locking down a major American city. Tens of thousands under anti-capitalist banners. Western youth and workers physically battling the WTO and imperialism. These potent images of the ‘battle of Seattle’, November 30, 1999, were seared into the minds of militants the world over, inspiring millions upon millions fighting against the class war from above that some call ‘globalization’. Followed by further mass protests in Washington and Davos, and two massive international coordinated actions on May1, 2000 and September 26, 2000, Seattle marked, by any measure, an important turning point for the global working class and peasantry.
“The Idea That Refuses To Die”
And anarchists were in the thick of these protests and solidarity actions, whether in Rio, Johannesburg, Prague, Istanbul, New York or Dublin, demonstrating an impressive organizational ability, growing credibility, and rising popular appeal.
Orientating To The Movement
While the Platformist tradition of anarchism, and many anarcho-syndicalists have strongly identified with the new movement, many other comrades seem reluctant to become more involved in the new movement. Some are rightly concerned about the presence of reformist and middle-class elements such as NGOs in the movement; others point to the unexpected support of far right groups such as fascists and Islamic fundamentalists for “anti-globalization”; for others, there are suspicions about the role of right-wing trade union leaders in the movement.
Anti-Capitalist, Not Just “Anti-Globalization”
When we enter the “anti-globalization” movement, though, we must enter as conscious anti-capitalists. “Anti-globalization” is a vague term that opens the resistance to capitalism to all sorts of pitfalls.
We should not line up with those who, under the banner of “sovereignty” and “nationality” call for the enforcement of national culture, national foods, closing of the borders to “foreign” influences and so forth. This outlook – even if dressed up in “anti-imperialist” clothing – is xenophobic and directly implies support for local nation-states.
What anarchists oppose are the neo-liberal, capitalist, aspects of globalization. We oppose attacks on wages, working conditions and welfare, because these hurt the working class and because they are in the interests of capitalists.
Outside And Against The State
The capitalist nation state is not the victim of capitalist globalization, as some suggest – usually from a nationalist, state-capitalist, or reformist perspective – when they argue that the development of large companies and large multi-lateral institutions like the IMF and WTO leads to a loss of “sovereignty” by a supposedly innocent nation state, which is then “forced” to adapt to the “new reality” of “globalization.”
These sorts of argument have some serious political implications. They divert attention away from the role of the nation state in driving neo-liberal restructuring. They also tends to suggest that the nation state — “our” nation state — is an innocent victim that “we” must ally with and defend against a “foreign” globalization. On the contrary, anarchists recognise that the nation state is one of the main authors of globalization, and, in particular, the capitalist aspects of globalization.
The IMF, World Bank, and WTO are organizations made up of member nation states, as is the United Nations. It is the nation state that has implemented neo-liberal attacks on the working class the world over. It is the nation state that has allowed giant corporations to operate globally, by dismantling the closed national economies of the 1945-1973 period, which were characterised by the thinking that “what’s good for Ford is good for America.”
It is neo-liberal restructuring, implemented and enforced by the nation state, which has made it possible for international labor markets, international capital movements, and international production chains to emerge on the scale that has taken place (I include many Third World nation states here, including “my” own, South Africa: witness the fact that the South African capitalist class government is reducing tariffs faster than the WTO requires. When the WTO asked South Africa to open up its textile industry over 12 years, our rulers volunteered to do the job in just eight! So capitalist globalization is not something simply imposed on “us” by the global system, imperialism, etc., although these play a role).
The nation state is part of the problem. One is as bad as another in this respect.
Therefore anarchists do not agree with people like Ralph Nader who argued, roughly, “Vote me, so I can save our democracy from the big companies,” because anarchists know that the role of the State is to serve those companies: this is what the State does! This is where we part ways with those who think the state is an ally of labor and the poor in the fight against capitalist globalization.
Against National Protectionism
We fight outside and against the State, trying to organize internationally. True, cheap imported goods do threaten jobs “at home.” But the solution is not to call on the state to ban these goods: it is to organize workers in all the sweatshops around the world. We fight for international labor unity, an international minimum wage, international labor standards, and never national protectionism and trade bans.
Into The Anti-Globalization Movement
We must enter the new anti-globalization movement. True, it is full of reformists and middle class elements. But this is precisely why we must be involved! To stand back is to surrender the new movement, with its immense revolutionary potential, to the reformists and middle class. It is to abdicate our revolutionary duty to merge revolutionary anarchism with the struggles of the working class, to prevent the revolt of the slaves being used to hoist another elite into power.
1. To promote the self-management of struggle: at every point, anarchists must fight for organizational forms, protest forms, and decision-making forms that rest upon the active involvement of the working class and provide an opportunity for the class to self-manage the struggle, win confidence, and fight from below.
- Occupations, rather than elite sabotage
- Marches and protests and riots, rather than policy advocacy
- Action committees operating through mandates and accountability through assemblies and summits, rather than the delegation of all responsibility to a small coterie of leaders
- Decentralised coalitions which allow the maximum initiative from below
- Building the capacity of organizations through promoting horizontal linkages between groups, and by ensuring the widest dissemination of information to the “base” members of the structures
- Fights and demands that promote class polarization and expose the class basis of neo-liberalism.
We can raise “reformist” demands with a class war bite. (For example, take a company in a financial crisis. The bosses will say let’s save money by outsourcing workers and slashing jobs. Anarchist militants can instead raise the apparently “reformist” demand that the company can be saved by slashing management salaries by 80%. This will expose the unfair nature of the system, the class wage gap, and the refusal of bosses to really consider alternatives — because they sure won’t consider this one — all of which will deepen class polarisation!)
2. Fighting the government: anarchists must be there arguing against national protectionism, against arguments to “engage” the local state, against calls for the state to “stand up” to capital, against multi-class coalitions and calls for nationalization. Instead, our focus must be on promoting the self-emancipation of the working class through its own struggles, organizations, and efforts, on the need to mobilize outside and against the state, and on class struggle anti-capitalism).
- Fighting for practical international solidarity with workers in sweatshops and in subcontracting companies through campaigns, actions etc., informed by the overall perspective of winning international labor standards (a global minimum wage, global basic conditions of employment, etc.) and global trade unionism of the base. This is the real working class basis for opposing cheap imports: better wages for all, rather than a race to the bottom where we see who can earn the least, or chauvinist protectionism.
- Labor-based regulation of working conditions, through practical solidarity action, rather than appeals to the WTO etc. to enforce labour standards through a social clause in free trade agreements etc.
- Exposure of the class basis of neo-liberalism as an attempt to drive down wages and working conditions, and open up the economy for privatization and speculation, and hence, of the need for a class response that has no illusions in the capitalist state
- Opposing privatization because it harms the working class through job loss and worsening social services, and not because we think nationalization is some sort of step towards socialism and workers’ control. Instead of calling for more nationalization as an alternative to privatization — which won’t happen and in any event won’t empower the working class — anarchists should raise demands for worker and community self-management of social services and infrastructure, and stress the right of the working class to a decent life.
Aims and Objectives
The aim of these tactics and demands is simple. These points are put forward as means to develop a powerful, democratic, and internationalist working class coalition centred on unions, but also involving communities, tenants, students etc. Further, these points are also meant to help develop a libertarian and anti-capitalist consciousness of the international nature of the class struggle, the opposition between the working class, on the one hand, and the state and capital on the other, and a generalised confidence and belief in the desirability, necessity and possibility of self-managed stateless socialism (i.e. anarchy).
Many in the “anti-globalization” movement will not accept these aims. But this is precisely why our intervention in the anti-globalization movement as militants with clear ideas and tactics is so vital.