There is a worldwide revolution going
on, right now. You just might not know it.
New Statesman, 28 April 2003
Mayday started early this year. In
London, the Evening Standard began to celebrate the
approach of the ancient festival of spring on 9th April.
'Anarchists' call to arms for Mayday!' it squealed,
warning of a 'hard core' of 'extremists' threatening
corporate targets all over the capital with 'violent
clashes'. A week later, the Standard was following up
this exclusive investigation (obtained by exclusively
looking at a couple of websites) with an even bigger
scoop - 'Mayday anarchists recruit children'! This time,
another 'hard core of anarchists' (or possibly the same
one) was planning to 'infiltrate pupils meetings' to
recruit the young and innocent for their bloodthirsty
For the British press, the first anarchist
riot of spring is as sought-after as the first swallow.
Who could forget the Daily Mail's story before Mayday
2000 about how yet another 'hardcore of anarchists'
would be using garden forks and spades as weapons to
attack the police? Or the Mirror's brilliant exclusive
that same year - 'anarchists have threatened to blow
the roof off the Millennium Dome'? Whatever actually
happens this year, we already know how the press will
handle it. What we may not know is quite how much the
media's Mayday ritual will serve to distract us from
a real - and much bigger - story.
For out in the real world, beyond the
radar screens of the media and political classes, something
is massing. Something bigger than most have yet realised;
something that is beginning to look like a genuine,
global revolution. Perhaps not a revolution in the sense
that recent history has taught us to understand it:
not a series of power grabs by red-starred guerrillas
or 'Peoples' Parties'. But a revolution nonetheless;
one which aims to turn existing power structures upside
down; which is tens of millions strong; which began
life in the poor world, and which only later arrived
on the streets of the West.
You may think you know this story already;
but you may need to think again. What is happening out
there is wider, deeper and more significant than most
people yet understand. It could turn out to be the biggest
political movement of this century; possibly the biggest
ever. And it's still growing.
Just over a year ago, I was sitting
in Pimville library in Soweto, amongst a sea of people.
Most of them were wearing t-shirts in one of two colours:
red, inscribed with the words 'Soweto Electricity Crisis
Committee'; or yellow, reading 'Johannesburg anti-privatisation
forum'. All of them were angry. For the last few years,
Soweto has been in rebellion again; not against apartheid
this time, but, perhaps surprisingly, against the policies
of the ANC government that overthrew it. That government,
which promised its people a national project of state-led
reconstruction, has instead embraced 'globalisation'
with all the zeal of the newly-converted. The results
are becoming painfully clear.
One of those in the library was Dudu
Mphenyeke, one of the founders of the Soweto Electricity
Crisis Committee. The SECC began life in 2000, set up
by a group of people whose electricity was cut off by
the state electricity company, Eskom, for non-payment
of their bills. Unemployment in Soweto runs at around
70%, and most could not afford to pay. Before the last
election, the government promised free electricity and
water for the very poor. They didn't deliver. They can't
afford to. Eskom, along with many other state industries
in South Africa, is being prepared for privatisation,
and the government, on the advice of the World Bank,
will not subsidise prices for the poor. It wouldn't
make economic sense in an 'emerging market' like South
Africa. Investors would run a mile.
It's not just Soweto that is suffering
as a result, and it's not just electricity that is the
problem. All over the new South Africa, water and electricity
cut-offs, rent hikes and evictions have become commonplace
since the ANC began to embrace globalisation. The gap
between rich and poor has grown and the poor - 95% of
whom are black - have got poorer. What happened to the
hopes and dreams of the new South Africa is summed up
best by, of all people, George Soros. 'South Africa
is in the hands of global capital,' he said, frankly,
in 2001. 'That's why it can't meet the legitimate aspirations
of its people.'
The realisation that Soros is right
has, in the last few years, has been spreading all across
South Africa. Failed by those they expected to save
them, the people have begun to take things into their
own hands. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee has
done so by illegally reconnecting the power of those
who have been cut off. It's dirty, dangerous and illegal
work. It's also, said Dudu, their last option.
'Life in Soweto has got worse', she told me, matter-of
factly. 'It was better under apartheid
alarming. People are being retrenched, unemployment
is going up, companies are being privatised
She sighed, and looked me in the eye.
'We don't have freedom yet in South Africa,' she said,
'and we feel deceived.'
A few days later I visited the ANC's
head office in Johannesburg to ask the party why such
discontent was spreading across the country. Michael
Sachs, the party's head of policy and research, sat
me down and tried to explain.
'If you place what we are doing in the context of our
national democratic revolution', he said, slowly, '
a situation which is really very difficult - basically
no other revolutionary movement has had to contend with
a unipolar world
such an unbridled victory for
finance capitalism. We achieved democracy in 1994 and
immediately had to confront the issue of globalisation.'
The problem, he said, was that in a world where distant
investors can pull the rug out from entire economies
in a matter of hours, governments are seeing their options
shut down. Sachs knew very well what was happening in
places like Soweto. He also knew that the ANC had to
be careful whose toes it trod on. That was the party's
excuse for unleashing what he called the 'horrible,
stinging winds' of neoliberalism onto its people.
'I mean, you can't just go and redistribute things in
this era', he sighed. 'You've got to ensure that you
don't go on some adventure
you know, you will
be defeated. They were defeated in Chile, they were
defeated in Nicaragua
you can't do it now.' He
'You've got to play the game, ' he said.
A few months later, I was in a wooden
house in the tropical lowlands of New Guinea with three
tribal guerrillas, wanted by the state for leading a
separatist revolt against Indonesia, which invaded their
nation - West Papua - in 1962, and had ruled it brutally
ever since. The guerrillas were armed with axes, knives
and a revolver, just in case. Now they were talking
about their struggle to rid their country not just of
Indonesian occupation, but of the multinational corporations
who were extracting their oil, gas, gold, copper and
timber, at great human and environmental cost, and taking
the proceeds elsewhere. Ostensibly, their plight was
a million miles away from that of the people of Soweto.
But there was a link.
'These companies', said the guerrillas' leader, Goliar
Tabuni, who has spent decades living in the rainforest,
barefoot, doing most of his fighting with bows and arrows.
'These companies - who are they? Why should they be
allowed to come here and take our land and our resources?
When we get free, we must get free from them too. Freedom
is not just about Indonesia.
there are many people
in the world now fighting these corporations. We will
fight with them. Freedom for us from these people of
money who destroy our land.'
Goliar Tabuni, though he had no way
of knowing it, had hit on the same point as Michael
Sachs, albeit with a more direct delivery. As I travelled
through other epicentres of resistance across the world,
I heard this same point again and again. I heard it
from Thai women and American men. I heard it in Bolivia,
in Brazil, in Mexico, in Italy. It was a simple notion,
but a crucial one: political freedom without economic
freedom is meaningless.
This shared understanding is one of
the rallying points for this new, and very international,
gathering force of dissidents, conjured into existence
by a capitalism more powerful and unchecked than anything
we have seen for a century. The people involved know
- have often discovered through painful experience -
that 'freedom' is about much more than the right to
vote, once every few years, for one of a few increasingly
identical groups of politicians. Freedom - sovereignty
- is about the right to decide your economic, as well
as your political, destiny; and this is precisely what
globalisation - in other words, the spread of neoliberal
capitalism to all corners of the Earth - is removing
from people all over the world. Wherever they are, and
however different their circumstances, the same forces
assail them all.
As the World Bank and the IMF remake
the economies of the poor world in the image of the
Washington consensus, the deregulated financial markets
and increasingly free-floating multinational corporations
remake the economies of the rich as well. The World
Trade Organisation, due to extend its remit at its next
meeting in September, regulates the activities of governments
to prevent them regulating the activities of corporations.
Governments are not powerless and corporations are not
indestructible, as some of the more hysterical commentators
have suggested. But the balance of power has shifted
so much that none of the old answers fit the new questions.
A new politics is needed, for a new century. And this
is where this movement comes in.
In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas,
amongst butterflies, banana palms, mist-shrouded mountains
and military bases, lie the rebel villages of the Zapatistas,
a quarter of a million-strong popular movement of Mayan
Indians who, on 1st January 1994, the day that the North
American Free Trade Agreement came into operation, staged
an armed uprising against the Mexican government. The
Zapatistas said that NAFTA, which created one great
borderless free market between Canada, the USA and Mexico,
would be a 'death sentence' for their communities, mostly
made up of traditional, and poor, maize farmers.
They were right; NAFTA phased out much
of the Mexican government's support for its poorest
farmers, in line with free trade ideology. Within a
year, Mexico's corn production fell by half, as artificially
cheap imports from prairie farms north of the border
flooded in. Some agribusinesses in the USA recorded
record profits as millions of small farmers in Mexico
lost the only livelihood that they and their families
had ever had - their land.
This was why the Zapatistas rose. But how they rose
is what made their rebellion so important. They had
no intention of seizing state power; they wanted to
dissolve it down to the level of their communities instead.
They talked not of a dictatorship of the proletariat,
but of a rebirth of democracy. They demanded the right
to determine how their resources were used, in accordance
with their customs, traditions, and needs. They demanded
the right - both political and economic - to determine
how their lives were run. 'Power is not taken', they
said, 'it is constructed.'
The Zapatista rebellion has been called
'the first post-modern revolution'. It has also been
seen as the birth of the international coalition which
has been labelled, inaccurately, the 'anti-globalisation'
movement; a movement whose principles the Zapatistas
inspired. Principles based on devolution of power, local
democracy, a rejuvenation of the commons - common public
goods, common land, common social goals - a reining
in of corporate and financial power. A movement which
seeks, in the words of the Zapatistas, 'a world with
many worlds in it' - a diversity of economic and political
systems within one global community, rather than the
soulless consumer monoculture which the global market
This is what makes this movement so
unique. It doesn't call for a workers' revolution; for
the replacement of one power elite with another. It
has no ideological baggage to weigh it down; no one
'Big Idea' which, when applied everywhere, will provide
solutions for all. It has learnt from the mistakes of
the 20th century; it knows that the world is complex,
that places are different, that systems must be tailored
to local needs. But it also believes in global solidarity.
With its email lists, social forums and summit gatherings
it is the most global political movement that has ever
existed. And, more than anything else, it is already
taking solutions into its own hands, and trying to apply
This, above all, is what I saw wherever
I went; a living mosaic of applied principles, being
laid out across five continents. In Brazil I accompanied
landless peasants as they occupied unused farmland,
claimed it for themselves, and set about building rural
communities to keep them out of the city slums and provide
a living for their families. In Bolivia I met people
who had taken to the streets of their town to drive
out a US corporation which had bought up their water
systems and jacked up their bills, in one of Latin America's
first reversals of a major privatisation.
At the annual World Social Forum I
saw 60,000 dissidents, rich and poor, from north and
south, come together for a week to thrash out workable
alternatives to a world gone wrong. On the streets of
Genoa I saw carnage like I have never seen before; but
as a quarter of a million people took to the streets
to question their leaders, and to do so in largely peaceful
solidarity, I also saw hope. In California and Colorado
I met people who were using local laws to place limits
on corporate activity, with the active support of their
At the same time, imperceptibly but
definitely, I saw the momentum, the zeitgeist, the agenda,
shifting towards these chaotically united dissidents
and away from the increasingly hoarse defenders of a
global ideology - neoliberalism - which, like every
other global ideology before it, is beginning to fail.
In the eight months I spent travelling
through this movement I saw the collapse of two of global
capitalism's favourite poster boys - Argentina and the
Enron corporation. I saw the US government exploit the
tragedy of September 11th to push its economic fundamentalism
even harder than before - they called it 'countering
terror with trade.' I saw three Latin American governments
fall to opposition candidates on specifically anti-neoliberal
Perhaps most tellingly, though, I saw
this movement grow so confident that, when the head
of the World Bank tried to invite himself to the World
Social Forum, he was turned away. So many times, police
and soldiers had turned people away from his meetings,
with tear gas and baton rounds; now he was on the outside.
It was a metaphor for how far this movement had come
in just a few years. A metaphor, too - or a promise
- of how it far it can still go. For this is not over
yet. It has only just begun.