Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement, Part II

This review first appeared in the June 2002 issue of The New Formulation:
An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books
(Vol. 1, Issue 2)

Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement, Part II

~ by Chuck Morse

On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-capitalist Movement
By various authors
London: One-Off Press, 2001

The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization
Edited by Eddie Yuen, George Katsiaficas, and Daniel Burton Rose
New York: Soft Skull Press, 2002


What was remarkable about the movement that erupted in Seattle 1999 was not so much that previously adversarial sides of the progressive opposition—the “teamsters and turtles”—had started working together or that old revolutionary flags were flying once again. These things had happened at various times in recent history to no great effect. What was extraordinary was the dialogue that emerged between members of the revolutionary, ideological Left (anarchists and communists) and activists whose primary interest lay in pragmatic, bread-and-butter reforms. These two tendencies have long been divided and often regarded one another suspiciously, but somehow the anti-globalization movement created a political space in which they could come together and jointly imagine a movement that is Utopian and yet faithful to the demands of day-to-day activism.

The challenge was to figure out how to hold these dimensions together in one more or less unified movement—how to be realistic and demand the impossible—and activists across the world confronted this challenge with a vigorous campaign of education from below. They held teach-ins, Internet discussions, and sponsored countless other activities designed to flesh out the contours of this compelling new movement. Although their work helped raise the level of discourse among activists immeasurably, the movement’s common principles remained embodied in a sensibility and shared activist experience rather than in clear political statements.

Thus the significance of On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-capitalist Movement and The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization. These anthologies attempt to constitute the anti-globalization movement as a coherent project. They draw upon its history and culture to elaborate its internal cohesiveness, identify its continuities and discontinuities with other political tendencies, and clarify its problems. They reveal a movement that is exciting and dynamic but also struggling with difficult theoretical and political questions. In fact, the future of the anti-globalization movement will be determined to a great extent by our response to many of the issues raised by these books. Continue reading

Is the “Fight of the Century” Really About Class Warfare?

This was first published on the Anarres site on May 3, 2015

* * *

I didn’t watch last night’s fight (although I did talk about it with a bunch of my neighbors on the street while walking my dogs). I could have watched it for $25 at the soul food place at the end of my block (with some food included), but the thought of giving these billionaires even more money turned me off completely.

Are Mayweather and Paquiao great boxers but bad men? That’s one question to ask, but I think it’s more interesting to consider the relationship between this billion-dollar super spectacle and the fate of athleticism and health generally.

The picture sours immediately if you view it in that light. The “fight of the century” becomes a means for the upward distribution of wealth and promoting a passive relationship to physical activity. Most of the people in my neighborhood had detailed views on who was going to win and why (so did I), but most are growing poorer by the day and couldn’t run around the block, are overweight, and probably have diabetes and other ailments. There’s a relationship between these things.

~ Chuck Morse

The Development Without Displacement Report: Some Strengths and Shortcomings

This first appeared on the Project Oakland blog on April 25, 2014.

* * *

1Social discord tends to get people writing. Books and essays become especially vital tools when the world seems out of order and doesn’t work in the way that you think it should.

Indeed, the housing crisis in the Bay Area has unleashed a torrent of writing on housing costs, displacement, and changes in local culture. It seems like new articles on these issues appear daily, if not more frequently. A lot of the work is forgettable, some of it is pretty great, and all of it enriches the massive discussion that we are having throughout the region about how our lives, homes, and the economy interact.

The recent publication of Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area is a landmark in the maturation of this dialogue. Produced by Causa Justa / Just Cause with help from the Alameda County Public Health Department, it sets a new standard for reflection on gentrification. Attractively packaged in a glossy, four-color binder, it is well-written, thoroughly documented, and full of instructive, compelling graphics. It sets out to explain what gentrification is, how it operates locally, and what can be done to stop it. It is the most comprehensive, insightful treatment of gentrification in the Bay Area to date and will likely serve as a key reference for people grappling with the issue in the years to come.

Like any text, it has strengths and weaknesses. In the interest of encouraging dialogue about it, I will note three of each below.

Three Strengths

  • It portrays gentrification as a social process and, by doing so, breaks with the highly individualistic approach to the subject that is so common among Bay Area leftists. That is, a lot of the discourse about gentrification looks like this: first you identify the “gentrifiers,” then you counterpose them to the authentic “community,” and then you agonize over how these two groups relate to one another. Are the “gentrifiers” being arrogant or insensitive? Should the “community” actually welcome them? And how exactly do you distinguish a real “gentrifier” from a real “community” member anyway? Who gets to decide? Questions such as these drive much of the dialogue about the topic locally. Focused on existential matters of identity, they trigger lots of posturing and handwringing but have little relevance to housing justice. Fortunately, Development Without Displacement dispenses with this approach altogether by zeroing in on the economic forces and government policies that make gentrification possible.

Continue reading

SPUR comes to Oakland: expect three things

Originally posted on the Project Oakland blog on November 17, 2015

* * *

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association—or SPUR—will open its Oakland branch at 1544 Broadway this December. SPUR has had a huge influence on San Francisco’s politics over the years and will probably have a big effect in Oakland too.

What can we expect?

Dr. Robert Ogilvie, director of Oakland SPUR

SPUR’s mission is to promote “good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area.” To them, this means championing government policies focused on ensuring a dynamic and stable capitalist economy in the region. They pursue apparently “progressive” goals like “transit oriented development” (think: bike lanes) and resist things like strong unions or other assertions of working class power. Made up mainly of planners, architects, academics, lawyers, and real estate people, SPUR advances its agenda through research, education, and advocacy— reports, ballot recommendations, and public forums on development issues. They have already released a study on downtown Oakland and have begun holding regular talks.

I suspect that they will impact Oakland in the following three ways:

First, SPUR will shake up the dominant political class. SPUR’s people are professionals who specialize in being professional—their fancy reports and declarations are usually coherent, well-argued, and fact-based (even when wrong politically). As such, they will put pressure on Oakland’s politicians, who have gotten away with loads of buffoonery for decades. Thanks to SPUR, we will be less likely to see things like Jean Quan’s totally invented “100 block” crime plan, Rebecca Kaplan’s vapid cheerleading for the Raiders stadium, or Mayor Schaaf’s ridiculous ban on nighttime protests. Continue reading

The Life – or Death – of the Anti-Globalization Movement

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 2004)

The anti-globalization movement that erupted onto the scene in Seattle 1999 frightened elites and inspired activists around the world to fight the system in a utopian, anti-authoritarian way. However, this movement has occupied a much less significant place on the public stage since the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001. Is it over?

We asked Marina Sitrin (IAS grant recipient) and Chuck Morse (IAS board member) for their thoughts on this question.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Chuck Morse’s Response: Revolutionary movements come and go. The classical anarchist movement, the black liberation movement, the ecology movement, and others pushed against the boundaries of the social order and then—when faced with challenges they could not confront—collapsed into history.

The anti-globalization movement has also come and gone. It leapt to world attention during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization and died with the February 2002 mobilizations against the World Economic Forum in New York City. Although struggles against capitalist globalization are ongoing, this particular movement is in need of an obituary.

Signs of its demise are everywhere. The movement is no longer capable of stirring fear among the ruling class or even generating significant media attention (despite the fact that the protests continue). Activist efforts to shape the movement have also diminished dramatically: books and documentaries on the movement now appear much less frequently than before, strategy summits are far less common, strategic innovations (like Indymedia) have ceased to emerge, and once vibrant internal debates have largely dried up.

These things indicate more than a temporary lull in activity: the anti-globalization movement is dead.

It died because it faltered when faced with a key opportunity to deepen its attack on the capitalist system. It bungled a historical moment and, as a result, lost its momentum as well as its significance for the public at large. Although activists may take up some of the movement’s motifs in the future, these activists as well as the political context will be entirely different.

The anti-globalization movement was unique in three ways. First, its opposition to global capital was premised on a deeply moral critique of the reduction of people and nature to salable objects, and in this sense, it challenged the very premises of the market economy. Second, its emphasis on participatory direct action ensured that the movement was truly democratic and not divided between a cadre of professional organizers and a herd of passive followers. Finally, its focus on tactics but not politics allowed people with diverse and often contradictory convictions to work together and find some common ground.

The movement threw itself headlong into a conflict with the architects of the global economy, and the confrontation that ensued was enormously educational. The summit protests illustrated the deep contrast between the cruel, profit-driven world of the global capitalists and “another world” premised on the joyous affirmation of life. Everything—even the style with which each side presented its case—seemed to emphasize the divide. The violence that erupted at protest after protest was also very instructive: the police made our point about the barbarism of capital by savagely repressing dissidents, and the sight of city streets in flames punctuated the irreconcilable conflict between the two visions of the world in play.

The anti-globalization movement thus polarized the debate about the future of the world system and, by virtue of its success, confronted a question on which its fate would hang: if global capitalism must be abandoned, what is the alternative? What groups and institutions should structure economic activity? Nation-states? Associations of nation-states? Communities? Social movements?

The world waited for an answer, and unfortunately one was never produced. Although various proposals and schemes floated around activist circles, a reconstructive vision was neither seriously debated nor advanced. There were vigorous discussions of tactical issues (like the role of violence at protests) and moral issues (like the impact of privilege on activists), but the fundamental political questions remained unaddressed.

The movement not only failed to confront these questions but also developed a political culture that undermined attempts to do so. The constant affirmation of diversity, plurality, and openness—which are undoubtedly virtues, but vacuous outside a political context—discouraged people from seriously reflecting on the movement’s goals. Indeed, during its terminal stages, the movement seemed flooded with professors, grad students, and journalists who gravely warned us not to present an affirmative, coherent alternative.

Admittedly, the deferral of political questions had advantages. It allowed people to come together whose aims seemed deeply conflicted—lobbyists and anarchists, turtles and teamsters, Communists and Christians, etc.—and unexpectedly rich dialogues often resulted. Many discovered that they had more in common with one another than they previously supposed, and this helped the old boundaries of the Left relax a bit.
But political questions cannot be avoided for long, especially by a movement that has captured the world’s attention. Indeed, people became increasingly impatient with the movement’s inability to define what it was for, as evidenced by the countless journalists who wrote countless articles trying to penetrate the movement’s aims. But the movement did not procure an answer, and more often than not, rejected the very legitimacy of the question.

And then September 11th blew the movement off the stage. Although it reentered the debate in February 2002 in New York—valiantly asserting that opposition to globalization will not be silenced by terror—the movement lacked an anchor and thus could not regain its momentum amid the storms of war that began to sweep the world at the time.

It is tempting to argue that the anti-globalization movement lives on in the Zapatistas, the Argentine uprising of 2001, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, and other ongoing struggles in the “global south.” Although these movements and the one that emerged in Seattle should be understood as parts of a broader, worldwide opposition to global capital, they are not continuous. The Mexican, Brazilian, and Argentine movements do not define themselves as participants in the anti-globalization movement and, more substantively, they do not focus primarily on the institutions of the world economy but rather on domestic political authorities and their national polices. North American activists need to be attentive to these differences.

In a sense the movement—or at least the form in which we knew it—was destined to die. This is not because utopian aspirations are doomed to failure (they are not) or because struggles against capitalist globalization have ended (of course they haven’t). It is because revolutionary social movements aim to transform the circumstances from which they emerge and thus must always abandon old forms of struggle in order to adapt to new conditions (conditions that they have, in part, created). In a way, the most successful revolutionary movement will be one that renders the need for revolutionary struggle obsolete altogether.

What is more alarming than the death of the movement is the failure to reflect deeply on our inability to advance a coherent alternative when presented with the opportunity to do so. The anti-globalization movement did push beyond the boundaries of the present and helped us imagine “another world,” but its emancipatory aims were unrealized. We must embrace the chasm between our aspirations and our circumstances—between the “is” and the “ought”—and use it as an environment in which to forge an even more vigorous challenge to the world we have inherited.

From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory (spring, 2004)