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Global Backlash

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 riots.

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 … it's really 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, '…it's 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 looked glum.
'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 is building.

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 them.

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 communities.

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 tickets.

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.