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The Next Clash of Civilisations?

The real battle is not between the West and Islam, but between the world's elite and the growing movement against it

OpenDemocracy, January 2002

'Hey mister!' the voice has good-natured mockery in it. I am the only white man in the market, probably the first for months, and a natural target. 'Hey mister! You wanna buy t-shirt?' The young Indonesian is grinning at his own wit, and holding up a black top with a huge print of the world's most famous terrorist on it. 'Osama', it reads, 'is my hero'.

Two weeks before, and thousands of miles away from that Indonesian street market, demonstrators gather in Johannesburg for a march against the Afghan war. Maybe a dozen of the few hundred present are Muslims, but they are not the ones holding the posters and wearing the t-shirts that say 'Osama: innocent until proven guilty', 'America: world's number one terrorist' and, again, and disturbingly, 'Bin Laden is my hero'.

A town square in central Bolivia; not a noted stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism. Dozens are gathered around two head-high sandwich boards which have been planted on the pavement. They are covered in pictures of the carnage left by the World Trade Center attacks. 'America', reads the script at the top, 'you reap what you sow.'

In the few months before and since the September 11th attacks, I have travelled through six countries, on four continents, all classified to some degree or another as 'developing', only one (Indonesia) strongly Islamic, and in all I have seen similar scenes played out. In all, I have seen and heard intelligent people driven by some hatred of the West and of America, symbol of its power, lauding, defending or justifying the actions of a mass murdering Saudi millionaire who they had probably never heard of last August, and still know next to nothing about.

Perhaps you think you know this already. Perhaps those pictures of people across the Islamic world apparently celebrating on September 11th have made it clear to you that the anger at America and its allies runs deeper than imagined. Or perhaps the notion of the citizens of poor, ex-colonies - still suffering while the West wallows in affluence - turning to someone, anyone, who defies the New World Order doesn't surprise you. Perhaps we all like to stick two fingers up at the school bully when we think he's not looking. Perhaps it's no big deal.

Or perhaps, like the US president, the director-general of the WTO, the British prime minister and many others, you think this is primarily an economic problem. Perhaps it represents an understandable, if not justifiable, reaction to the hogging of economic hegemony by the West. Perhaps you think that what these people, these misled supporters of a fundamentalist killer, need now is more market access, more exports, more jobs in maquiladoras, more credit, more televisions. Perhaps you believe in what the US trade representative Robert Zoellick calls 'countering terror with trade'; an extension of the American journalist Thomas Friedman's famous 'golden arches theory of conflict prevention' (no two countries with a McDonalds restaurant have ever gone to war: ergo, globalisation is a force for peace. Apparently, he was serious.)

And perhaps you're right. Perhaps too, though, this undercurrent of resentment and hatred which people all over the world continue to feel for the West and all that it represents is something more than that. Something deeper. Something that neither showers of money nor showers of bombs can solve. If so, what?

Generalising about half the world is clearly a mug's game, but it may be, still, that this has something to do with an aspect of globalisation, and the opposition to it, which is rarely mentioned, but which may even be the key to the whole puzzle: something called culture. Something which is mostly unseen, taken for granted, ill-defined, until it is threatened, and which then has the power to create more discord, rebellion and opposition than mere economics ever could.

Samuel Huntingdon must be rubbing his hands. His 'clash of civilisations' thesis has been given a new lease of life since September 11th. 'Is it true?' asks the breathless voice of the global chattering classes. 'Is western capitalism, and its faithful retainer, liberal democracy, destined to plunge into conflict with an implacable foe which cannot be won over by new trade rounds, representative democracy, broad band internet connections and 24-7 cash machines? Was it not, after all, the End Of History?'

Some of us, in what is unsatisfyingly termed the 'anti-globalisation' movement, have been talking about a clash of civilisations for years. Not in those terms, though, and not of a clash between Islam and the West (this movement has never had a footing in the Islamic world; which in itself raises questions about how truly 'global' it is). Instead, we have talked about a clash of worldviews - of cultures - that has been sparked by the new wave of corporate capitalism unleashed over the last two decades. This clash is between two distinct forces.

One is a fundamentally materialistic worldview, driven by multinational companies, politicians and their handmaidens in multinational agencies like the World Bank, WTO and IMF. It sees people as consumers, nations as markets, the natural environment as a bundle of resources ripe for profitable extraction and unique, ancient cultures as demographics. The other is a vast, massing, often confused but potentially hugely powerful collection of opponents, numbering tens of millions around the world, who see life in quite different terms.

This may represent a real clash of civilisations; a clash between the destructive, homogenising force of the West's capitalist economic model, and the diverse, varied, hectic alternatives that every day are destroyed by it. And this clash is what leads many people across the world - people with no connection to Islam or support for the ultimate objectives of Bin Laden - to jump for joy at the horrific humbling of the USA. It doesn't make them right. But it does mean that the West and its increasingly smug politicians had better start realising what they are up against, before their whole edifice comes tumbling down.

Do I exaggerate? Again, perhaps, but there is reason to think not. Since July last year I have been visiting centres of resistance to the global economy all over the world. Ostensibly there is no obvious connection between black South Africans in Soweto, tribal people in West Papua, indigenous rebels in Mexico, urban trades unionists in Bolivia, anti-dam campaigners from India and landless farmers in Brazil. What ties them all together, though, is that idea of culture. Partly a defence of their traditional cultural values which are so alien to the West; close communities, shared land, utterly different conceptions of nature, work, family, which the global economy destroys in order to thrive. But also, more broadly than this, a collection of values which might be called a global culture of resistance - values which link these people to the protesters on the streets of Seattle, Prague, Genoa, and Brussels. Values which underpin the anti-globalisation movement, and make it stronger than most in the West imagine it to be.

What might these values - this alternative culture - be? There is no roadmap, but some themes are clear. Opponents of the neoliberal machine believe in diversity - cultural, individual, ecological, economic - over homogeneity. They believe that one global model can never fit all, and talk, in the words of Mexico's Zapatista rebels, of 'a world in which many worlds can fit'; the precise opposite of the McWorld that globalisation is imposing. They believe in certain common aspects of life which cannot and should not ever be commodified or privatised by global economic interests; water, agriculture, the airwaves, the atmosphere, traditional knowledge, biological diversity, gene lines and more; a concept some call the 'global commons'. They believe in communities exercising their own form of democracy and gaining genuine control over their land and resources. They reject centralisation and tend to be suspicious of both big government and big corporations, and of traditional ideologies, left or right. All this they sum up in their most well-worn slogan: 'our world is not for sale.'

This, everywhere I have been, is the rallying cry of the many diverse people and movements that represent the growing opposition to an economic model which is eating them alive. It represents a frustration felt by millions, and may provide an alternative to celebrating mass murder as the only outlet for kicking back at the West. This is a new culture in the making; a global culture, formed of many, many older ones, which is heading straight towards the culture of neoliberalism at breathtaking speed.

It looks, to me, like the beginning of a real clash of civilisations. How, where and with what effect that clash will happen will be determined by the actions of both sides. But it will.