Trevor Manuel, the South African Minister for finance, famously commented on the rise of global protest movements, &ldquoI know what they're against but I have no sense of what they're for”. It's an accusation levelled frequently, primarily by representatives of the established order, ranging from members of the IMF, WTO and World Bank, through to conservative media outlets like The Financial Times. Paul Kingsnorth, one time editor of The Ecologist and free-lance journalist, has written an elegant response to critics like Manuel, in his book One No, Many Yeses.
Starting in Chiapas with the Zapatistas, Kingsnorth travelled globally meeting up with representatives of different movements and organisations, that collectively have been labelled the ‘no-global’ movement (amongst other things). From the Church of Stop Shopping, through to the Freedom for West Papua movement, from the MST landless workers' movement in Brazil through to anti-corporate activists in the United States, Kingsnorth found that there are certain key demands shared by millions of activists worldwide.
The demands fall into broad categories: Democracy, Diversity, Decentralisation, Sovereignty and Access. Broad concepts certainly. But then again the flawed system of globalised capitalism is propounded on broad concepts: free trade, the opening up of markets, etc.
Paul Kingsnorth kindly accepted an invitation from Three Monkeys Online to discuss a number of topics directly or indirectly related to his book:
Fausto Bertinotti, Secretary of the Rifondazione Comunista party in Italy, spoke of the recent rejection of the European Constitution as a victory in the struggle against neo-liberalism. Do you think that’s a fair assesment? Are there alternatives to this model (the rejected Constitution), or is the idea of a structurally integrated Europe in itself part of the problem?
Everyone seems to be drawing their own favoured conclusions from the rejection. Chirac sees it as a defence of the traditional 'social model', Blair as a rejection of it, and so on. I don't think it's as simple as a 'rejection of neoliberalism'. Europe offers a very specific type of regulated capitalism: certainly a preferable model to that of the US, for example. Some like it, some don't. But the real issue is wider. I think what this rejection shows is a revolt of the masses against their elites. It is not a traditional left-/right split. Both fascists and communists rejected it. Whatever your politics, or even if you have none, the real story of the European project is of an elite project distant from its people, imposing unwelcome burdens and changes on them. In that sense it could be viewed as part of a wider global struggle against increasingly concentrated, remote and unaccountable elites, from traditional political parties to the WTO to the EU. In my view, the EU is too big, too bureaucratic and too unaccountable ever to be responsive to its people.
Last year was the tenth anniversary of the Zapatista revolt, and yet in the mainstream media little was written or broadcast. What is the situation with the Zapatistas and why do you think they’ve lost the slight media coverage they once had. Has September 11th had any bearing on it? Is it possible to present balaclava-ed revolutionaries in the media, while the UK and the US fight the ‘war on terror’?
The Zapatistas were exciting for a while, to both journalists and young radicals. They had balaclavas, revolutionary ideals, indigenous roots, poetry and a kind of radical chic: irresistible stuff. It was inevitable that such interest would fade fairly quickly. A wider reason perhaps for the continued lack of interest, in the media anyway, is that the Zapatista revolution was complex: it wasn't the usual attempt to overthrow the State; it was an experiment in revolutionary indigenous democracy at local level. As such, it was always going to take a long time, and involve real, hard, grinding work, rather than quick revolutionary fireworks for which the people would end up paying later. The other problem is that the Zapatistas have come to something of a standstill: they are still there, but not really advancing in their demands for further and wider indigenous autonomy. They are at stalemate with the government, and stalemate is never sexy. As for September 11th – I'm not sure this has too much to do with it, as even the US has never called the EZLN 'terrorists.' Yet.
You paint an enthusiastic and optimistic picture of activism on a global level, one that’s contagious (I found myself in an uncommonly good mood after reading it), but in the wake of the Iraq invasion and occupation, despite massive protests, and with the re-election of both Bush and Blair, one could argue that democratic activism has never been at a lower point. Is the glass half full or half empty?
It depends on your mood! I can think both in the course of a day. I suppose it depends on what you want to achieve. We're not going to get a global revolution: I don't think we should aspire to one either. What we need is real democracy, in the most ancient sense of that word – people in communities deciding their fate, rather than having it decided for them by governments, bureaucracies, supra-national bodies or corporations. As a matter of fact, I believe that the globalisation project is failing, and that it is doomed to fail. It is moving too far too fast, and people everywhere are rebelling against it. You could see the rejection of the EU constitution, the Seattle and Genoa protests, the revolution in Bolivia, Islamic extremism and the rise of the far right in Europe as part of the same worldwide rebellion against the Western globalisation project. Not all elements of any resistance to global capital are going to be savoury, and this is the dangerous part. People everywhere are rebelling against the elite politico-corporate project we call 'globalisation'. I don't think it will last much longer; the signs of stress are everywhere. But we need to be very careful about what replaces it. If we're lucky it could be a better, more democratic, more open world. Or it could be something much darker and more inward-looking.
You’ve highlighted new movements around the world, who all have in common some form of resistance to imposed neo-liberal (for want of a better term) economic models. How democratic are these movements though? We’ve seen in Bolivia and Ecuador massive protest movements that have chased governments out of office – is that democratic?
Depends what you mean by 'democracy'. This is an ongoing discussion. Democracy has come to mean the act of voting for government: this is a bastardisation. Democracy is really the will of the people – or the majority of them, at least. A revolution can be democratic – those in Bolivia and Venezuela for example do seem to represent the will of an oppressed indigenous majority. But they can also be undemocratic – a radical and unrepresentative minority seizing power, as has happened many times. It could be said that street protests are not 'democratic' either – they're certainly not representative of majority opinion. The answer is that some of these movements are more democratic than others – the Zapatistas and the MST, for example, are very or fairly democratic, while the European Black Bloc are nothing of the sort. Again, we need to be careful what we come up with. Every step of the way we need to be truly representative, or we could cause bigger problems than we solve.