Where did Global Resistance
This year's G8 'protests' were nothing
of the sort
New Statesman, July 2005
It was known as the ring of steel. Eight feet high
and embedded in concrete, it ran for miles through Genoa,
encircling the "red zone" where the G8 leaders
were meeting. On both sides were lines of carabinieri
armed with live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas.
The top of the fence bent back at 45 degrees: if you
managed to get over, you wouldn't be climbing back out
The G8 summit of 2001 was a high water mark for what
was known as "the anti-globalisation movement".
After their successes at Seattle in 1999 and Prague
in 2000, 250,000 people from all over the world arrived
to harass the G8 leaders. Their message was clear: this
was an illegitimate institution with no right to make
world-affecting decisions about debt, poverty, the global
economy or the environment. The fence would be breached
and, as at the WTO in Seattle and the World Bank/IMF
conference in Prague, the masses would shut the meeting
Four years on, things are different. This time no one
openly plotted to breach the fences at Gleneagles: the
G8 Alternatives coalition fought for weeks for the right
simply to march past it. Now protest is scripted, celebrity-endorsed
and organised by mainstream NGOs. Instead of the radicalism
of Seattle, Prague and Genoa, we have stadiums full
of washed-up rockers, Richard Curtis dramas and Tony
Blair grinning with Bono. In place of a movement that
wanted to overthrow the G8 and all it stood for comes
a call to Make Global Capitalism A Bit Fairer.
So what, I hear you say. Who needs anarchist posturing
when you can have results instead? Who needs the people
Bob Geldof calls "hooligans" when you can
have Coldplay, Bill Nighy and Gordon Brown? And who
needs half-baked revolutionaries when you can have serious
reformers seeking to abolish the debts of the poor world?
You may have a point.
The global movement that grew up in the late 1990s in
response to the deepening iniquities of the global economy
was never big on focus. It had its posers and nasties.
It was often high on energy and low on strategy. But
it was exciting and potentially powerful, and for a
while it seemed to sweep all before it. Every May Day,
every summit, every gathering of the global top dogs
was besieged by thousands of people, from students in
Europe to slum-dwellers in Africa and from Asian factory
workers to Latin American in-digenous people. The elites
were openly disturbed. A movement of millions, from
every continent, seemed to have called time on neoliberalism.
To some of us, it felt almost like a revolution.
But we were getting carried away. And it seems pertinent
now to ask a question that may seem odd in the light
of Live 8 and Make Poverty History, but which is timely
none the less: whatever happened to the anti-globalisation
We need first to understand where it came from. It arose,
not from the streets of Seattle, but from a long coalescence
of grievances caused by neoliberalism. In the poor world,
three decades of "structural adjustment",
whereby countries received financial help in exchange
for handing their economies over to multinational corporations,
had failed to do what it said on the tin. Instead of
reducing poverty, it had worsened it, creating in every
country where it was tried a small, rich elite and a
large, poor multitude.
Meanwhile, in the rich world, labour insecurities, the
grinding down of the welfare state and the removal of
"barriers" to corporate profit all began to
seem like a form of structural adjustment. Anger grew.
At the local level, protests against neoliberalism became
common, but for more than a decade they were ignored.
Then in 1994 came the Mexican Zapatista movement. Emerging
from the forests of Chiapas and declaring "IYa
Basta!" - Enough! - the Zapatistas lit the flame
of a rebellion which sought to overturn an economic
ideology and replace it with grass-roots power, real
democracy, real control.
In Seattle, Prague, Genoa and the other mass protests,
the pains of the poor world finally became evident in
the streets of the rich, and there was a flowering of
decades of resentment, largely leaderless, largely democratic
and largely lacking in strategy. But at Genoa, a protester
was killed by a policeman's bullet and hundreds were
beaten and imprisoned: the protests were being hijacked
from both sides and turned into war zones.
Then 11 September 2001 changed everything. It was clear
within minutes that there would be no more appetite
for street showdowns, and that states the world over
would no longer tolerate even mild dissent. When we
came to war on Iraq, the energy that had gone into fighting
neoliberalism seemed to be needed elsewhere.
And so to Gleneagles. This time around, the leaders
have set their own agenda. Saving Africa and preventing
climate change were hot topics, not because protesters
decided so, but because Blair did. The NGOs, too, had
got organised. Media-friendly, politically savvy, well-funded
and fanatically mainstream, they left the radicals in
the shade. Make Poverty History and Live 8 declared
their intention of working with governments rather than
against them: a "polite-but-firm" version
of people power.
A few years ago, protests around the G8 were challenges
to power. Now they are nothing of the sort. What we
might call the Blair gambit seems to have worked. A
quarter of a million people trying to breach the Genoa
fence presented a genuine challenge to the system. Coldplay's
Chris Martin and Oxfam don't, and neither do they intend
Yet this is not the whole story, because although there
may be fewer summit radicals, the anger has not gone
away. In Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and
Zimbabwe, mass movements resist the privatisation schemes
that come attached to G8 "debt relief". In
Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela, anti-neoliberal programmes
have been taken to state level. People have experienced
enough conditional debt relief packages to know their
true impact. In Mexico, the Zapatistas are back.
From Pakistan to Martinique to Brazil, social forums
focus the energies of the intellectual wing of a movement
that, while nowhere near so prominent in the public
mind as it was, is nowhere near dead either. In Africa
and elsewhere, people are still committed to saving
We never got the global revolution some of us predicted,
but the forces that shaped the global resistance movement
have not gone away. As neoliberalism continues to spread,
so does resistance to it. Rebellion is still abroad,
and it is learning from its mistakes.