The standard right-wing line, since at least the 1790s, had always been that revolutionary dreams were dangerous precisely because they were utopian: they ignored the real complexity of social
life, tradition, authority, and human nature, and dreamed of reshaping the world according to some abstract ideal. By the 1990s, the places had been completely reversed. The Left had largely abandoned utopianism (and the more it did so, the more it shriveled and collapsed), and even as they did so, the Right picked it up.
Free-market “reformers” overnight began declaring themselves revolutionaries— the problem was, they did so as the worst sorts of Stalinists, essentially telling the world’s poor that science had proved there was only one way to go forward in history, that this was understood by a scientifically trained elite, and that, therefore, they had to shut up and do as they were told because, even though their prescriptions might cause enormous suffering, death, and dislocation in the present, at some point in the future (they were not sure quite when) it would all lead to a paradise of peace and prosperity.
The above quote is from a new book by the leading ‘p2p’ anthropologist, David Graeber, which offers a anthropological/ethnographic acccount of the alterglobalization movement in the period 2000-2001. It’s very criply written, a joy, to read and very insightful. Important to us in the p2p community because this social movement was the first to exemplify p2p principles in its modalities of operation. After the publisher’s blurb, and the author’s motivation in writing it, see the excerpt where David recalls the historical moment at that time, the beginning of the end of neoliberalism, before it self-destructed (but did not loose power yet), in the meltdown of 2008.
Here’s the blurb from the publisher, AK Press:
“In the best tradition of participant-observation, anthropologist David Graeber undertakes the first detailed ethnographic study of the global justice movement. Starting from the assumption that, when dealing with possibilities of global transformation and emerging political forms, a disinterested, “objective” perspective is impossible, he writes as both scholar and activist. At the same time, his experiment in the application of ethnographic methods to important ongoing political events is a serious and unique contribution to the field of anthropology, as well as an inquiry into anthropology’s political implications.
The case study at the center of Direct Action is the organizing and events that led to the dramatic protest against the Summit of the Americas in Québec City in 2001. Written in a clear, accessible style (with a minimum of academic jargon), this study brings readers behind the scenes of a movement that has changed the terms of debate about world power relations. From informal conversations in coffee shops to large “spokescouncil” planning meetings and teargas-drenched street actions, Graeber paints a vivid and fascinating picture. Along the way, he addresses matters of deep interest to anthropologists: meeting structure and process, language, symbolism, representation, the specific rituals of activist culture, and much more.”
1. The Author’s Motivation
“I am making no pretense of objectivity here. I did not become involved in this movement in order to write an ethnography. I became involved as a participant. I come from an old leftist family, and for most of my life have considered myself an anarchist. If for most of my life, I also rarely got involved in anarchist politics, it was mainly because, in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the anarchist politics I was exposed to struck me as petty, atomized, and pointlessly contentious— full of would-be sectarians whose sects consisted only of themselves. To suddenly discover the existence of a movement with a radically different sensibility, which placed enormous emphasis on mutual respect, cooperation, and egalitarian decision- making, was profoundly exhilarating. It was as if the movement I’d always wanted to be part of had suddenly come into existence. Even when I’m critical of the movement, I’m critical as an insider, someone whose ultimate purpose is to further its goals. My eventual decision to write an ethnography emerged from the same impulse. To some degree, of course, as a trained ethnographer you can’t really help yourself. Almost as soon as I got involved, I found that the notes I was taking at meetings were growing more and more detailed. They started containing little observations about hair and shoe styles, posture, habits, parenthetical reflections on little activist rituals. Still, my decision to write all this up in ethnographic form came largely because, as a participant, it struck me as an important way of furthering one of the movement’s goals: the dissemination of a certain vision of democratic possibility. In my anthropological training, I had acquired a skill that seemed perfectly suited for conveying much of what was missing from existing accounts of the movement. Though it did also occur to me that doing so would also make an extremely interesting ethnography.”
2. Recalling Seattle
“It is sometimes hard to remember, nowadays, just what the days of the Washington Consensus were like. Perhaps it might be best to start then with a word of context, to help understand why it was that the Zapatista rebellion in 1994 served as such a catalyst for the global movement against neoliberalism that followed, and why that movement came to take the form it did.
The years just before the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas announced itself to the world were probably the most depressing time to be a revolutionary—or even, dedicated to the ideals of the Left—in living memory. It wasn’t the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe that was depressing; most radicals were glad to see them go. What was depressing was what happened afterwards. With Stalinism dead, most Marxists expected to see a renaissance of more humane forms of Marxism. Social democrats believed that they had finally won the argument with the revolutionary Left and expected to shepherd the former subjects of the Soviet bloc into their fold; a reasonable expectation, since when polled, most of the population of Central and Eastern Europe said they wanted to model their new economies on Sweden. Instead, they got shock therapy and the most savage form of unrestricted capitalism. In almost every way, the world seemed to be heading for a nightmare scenario. The romantic image of the guerilla insurrectionary, which captured so many imaginations in the 1960s, was cascading into a kind of obscene self-parody. Already in the 1980s, the Right, which had been arguing for years that guerilla insurgencies in places like Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, or El Salvador were not spontaneous but fiendish schemes created by foreign ideologues, began to put their own theories into practice, with the US and South African intelligence agencies creating guerilla armies like the contras or RENAMO to sic on leftist regimes. At the same time, existing Marxist guerilla movements from Columbia to Angola that had begun full of high-minded rhetoric were increasingly prone to become pure bandit kings, or nihilistic armies without any cause beyond their own rebellion (those which held to the old ideal of social transformation, like the Shining Path in Peru, seemed if anything even worse). Liberation movements everywhere were transforming into vicious ethnic wars. Then came the wave of genocide, of which Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were only the most dramatic and visible.
On a dozen interlocking registers simultaneously, the emerging pattern seemed catastrophic. It seemed like it would go something like this: On an international level, capitalism was transforming itself into a revolutionary force. Abandoning the welfare-state version of capitalism that had actually won the Cold War, the old Cold Warriors and their corporate sponsors were demanding a pure, no-holdsbarred, free-market version that had never actually existed, and were willing to wreak havoc on all existing institutional social arrangements in order to achieve it. All this involved a kind of weird inversion. The standard right-wing line, since at least the 1790s, had always been that revolutionary dreams were dangerous precisely because they were utopian: they ignored the real complexity of social life, tradition, authority, and human nature, and dreamed of reshaping the world according to some abstract ideal. By the 1990s, the places had been completely reversed. The Left had largely abandoned utopianism (and the more it did so, the more it shriveled and collapsed), and even as they did so, the Right picked it up. Free-market “reformers” overnight began declaring themselves revolutionaries— the problem was, they did so as the worst sorts of Stalinists, essentially telling the world’s poor that science had proved there was only one way to go forward in history, that this was understood by a scientifically trained elite, and that, therefore, they had to shut up and do as they were told because, even though their prescriptions might cause enormous suffering, death, and dislocation in the present, at some point in the future (they were not sure quite when) it would all lead to a paradise of peace and prosperity. The fact that the “science” itself had shifted from historical materialism to free-market economics was a fairly minor detail; anyway, it makes it easier to explain how former Stalinists from Romania to Vietnam found it so easy to simply switch hats and declare themselves neoliberals. Meanwhile, as structural adjustment policies stripped away what small social protections had existed for the poorest inhabitants of the planet, propaganda and statistical manipulation had become so effective that most mainstream Americans who paid attention to such matters were convinced that conditions for the world’s poorest were actually improving, and not just in areas like East Asia that had mostly refused to adopt neoliberal policies.
Every progressive victory seemed to have been threatened or reversed. In South Africa, generations of struggle had finally eliminated racial apartheid; a moment of happiness, certainly, but an almost identical system was being created on a global scale, based on increasingly militarized borders, and on a labor migration regime where, for those trapped in poor countries, residence in rich, largely white countries was dependent on possession of identity papers and willingness to work in jobs the residents themselves weren’t willing to do. Feminism was being retrenched. Former victories over sweatshop labor, child labor, even chattel slavery, were all being eroded or downright eradicated.
Much of the problem stemmed precisely from the rout of the dream of social revolution, and those utopian fantasies that had always been necessary to inspire people to the passion and self-sacrifice required to actually work to transform the world in the direction of greater freedom and greater equality. I am referring here to genuine, living utopianism—the idea that radical alternatives are possible and that one can begin to create them in the present—as opposed to what might be called “scientific utopianism”: the idea that the revolutionary is the agent of the inevitable march of history, which was so easily, and catastrophically, appropriated by the Right. The murder of dreams could only lead to nightmares. It made it almost impossible to form a center from which to fight the incursions of the (now super-charged, revolutionary) Right. Social Democratic parties in Europe, for example, which were born from a reformist strain of Marxism, first seemed rather pleased with the collapse of their revolutionary cousins—they had finally won the argument—until they realized that their own appeal, and the willingness of capitalists to engage with them, was almost entirely based on their ability to position themselves as the less threatening alternative. Before long, the social democratic regimes had experienced such a moral and political collapse that the few still in power were reduced to becoming the agents for the dismantling of the welfare states they had originally created. The activist Left in industrialized countries was becoming increasingly reactionary, capable of mobilizing passions only to defend things that already existed—the ozone layer, affirmative action programs, trees—and increasingly ineffectively. Elsewhere, it seemed in neartotal collapse.
Then, finally, there was “globalization.”
As Anna Tsing (2002) has recently reminded us, there’s a curious history here. The notion really began as a progressive one. It was a stronger version of internationalism: the sense not only that all men are brothers but that we are the common custodians of a single, fragile planet—an idea encapsulated by photographs of the earth taken from outer space by astronauts in the 1960s. The 1990s rhetoric of globalization had none of this. Essentially, it had two legs: one was that telecommunications—and particularly the Internet—were annihilating distance and making instant contact possible between any part of the planet; the other was that the fall of the Iron Curtain and other barriers to trade were, at the same time, creating a single, unified global market, whose financial mechanisms could then operate through these same instantaneous electronic means. Mainly, it was just about the power of finance capital. But the rhetoric was usually accompanied by a series of very broad generalizations: that not only money but products, ideas, and people were “flowing” about as never before, national economies could no longer dream of being autonomous; old nationalist ideologies, indeed, national borders, were becoming increasingly irrelevant, and so on. All of this was presented as happening all of its own accord. Technologies advanced, people were increasingly in contact with one another: the only possible language for them to deal with one another was trade—since capitalism was, after all, rooted in human nature.
For anyone who was really paying attention, of course, the reality was very different. Borders were not being effaced, but reinforced. Poor populations were still penned into their countries of origin (in which existing social benefits were being rapidly withdrawn). “Globalization” merely referred to the ability of finance capital to skip around as it wished and take advantage of that fact. Most of all, however, the period of “globalization”—or neoliberalism, as it came to be known just about everywhere except America—saw the creation of the first genuinely planetary bureaucratic system in human history. In retrospect, I very much imagine that this is how the last years of the twendtieth century will be seen. The UN had of course existed since mid-century, but the UN had never had more than moral authority. What was being patched together now was a system with teeth. At the top were the financiers—bankers, currency traders, hedge-fund operators, and the like—all connected electronically.
There were the gigantic bureaucratically-organized transnationals that during this period were absorbing and consolidating literally millions of formerly independent enterprises. There were the global trade bureaucrats—International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), and so on, but also including institutions like the US Federal Reserve, treaty organizations like the European Union (EU) or North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—whose chief role seemed to be to protect the interests of the first two.
And, finally, there were the various tiers of NGOs, whose role, from providing farm credits to inoculating infants or providing food during famines, increasingly came to be to provide services that states had once been expected to supply, but had effectively now been forbidden from doing by the IMF. The remarkable thing was that this was achieved through an ideology of radical individualism: above all, a broad rejection of the claims of common community—and political community in particular. We were all to be rational individuals on the market, aiming to acquire goods. Insofar as we were different, it was to be a matter of personal self-realization through consumption, since consumption, in turn, was assumed to be largely about the creation and expression of identities. Then, of course, identity could be said to circle back: since all political and economic questions were assumed to be effectively settled (history, in this respect, was over) identity politics became about the only politics that could be considered legitimate.