From International Socialism 2:92, Autumn 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The battle in Genoa was not only the key event in the summer of 2001, but also marked a watershed for the anti-corporate movement. From the outset the Big Eight summit in Genoa was doomed to become nothing more than a pretext for widespread protests. It was also clear in advance that the protests would be of unprecedented size. With only a little exaggeration, it could be said that for around a year all of Europe’s youth had been preparing for this summit. The powerful of the world prepare for such summits in order once again to remind the rest of us of who the boss is on the planet. The protesters set out to transform the celebrations of the rich and powerful into a carnival of the disobedient.
Of all the protests that have taken place so far, the one in Genoa was the most international. Despite the massive participation by Italians, European radical leftists succeeded in attracting to the events tens of thousands of people from all corners of the continent. For the first time the demonstrators included a contingent from Russia. These were not isolated activists of the kind who have taken part in all the protests since the one in Prague, but an organised group of 40 people assembled by the Movement for a Workers Party. The Russian public still has trouble getting used to reports of mass protest actions occurring in the ‘prosperous’ West. Consequently, the appearance of this detachment within the ranks of the demonstrators was one of the main news items in the Russian media. A press conference held by young radicals who had returned from Genoa was attended by journalists for all the leading liberal publications, which usually ignore such occasions. The ideas of the new anti-capitalist movement are gradually penetrating Eastern Europe. Meanwhile the movement itself is faced with a fundamental choice.
The death of 23 year old Carlo Giuliani was a watershed that marked the beginning of a quite new stage in the conflict. The carnival is over. From now on everything is deadly serious. The ruling elites have come to recognise that the movement can neither be divided nor tamed, that the acts of protest will not cease of their own accord, and that they cannot simply be put up with or ignored.
Consequently, the entire force of the repressive apparatus of the state has been mobilised to attack those who are dissatisfied. Sean Healy wrote in Green Left Weekly that the system is using ‘a classical counter-insurgency strategy’ against the movement.  This strategy will not work all the time, but in any case the situation has become qualitatively different. The time for discussions has ended.
The conflict has grown more acute, and the movement has shown that its participants can neither be intimidated nor fooled with promises. The tactics employed by the ruling groups have not yielded the results expected. The Big Eight did not get what they hoped to obtain from going to the summit. All the attention was fastened not on the heads of state, but on the street battles. For Bush, there was some consolation in his joint declaration with Putin on the US plans for anti-missile defence. This declaration was issued after the conclusion of the official summit, and seemed like a desperate attempt on the part of the ‘leading state figures’ to come up with something newsworthy.
It should be said that in doing their work the representatives of the press, or at least the Italians among them, were conscientious to a fault. Since Prague, whenever demonstrators have complained that the press was exaggerating the scale of the violence, the Russian media have intoned confidently that ‘only losers blame the press’. This formula has served as a marvellous alibi for the press, providing a cover for all sorts of irresponsibility, lying and, ultimately, corruption. Unfortunately there is an element of truth in it. Whatever the press might be, it feeds on real events. This time world leaders were complaining about the press. Tony Blair argued that the journalists had been so preoccupied with the street battles that they had shown no interest in the plans put forward at the Big Eight summit for struggling against poverty. But how can anyone be interested in plans if they come down to the simple formula, leave everything as in the past, and sooner or later the situation will improve? The World Bank, for example, simply renamed its programmes of neo-liberal ‘structural reforms’ so that they became programmes of ‘struggle against poverty’, even though statistics show that these very programmes are one of the reasons for the spread of impoverishment.
All the same, the events in Genoa also showed the limited nature of the protest. The point is not that in technical terms the protesters failed to stop the summit from going ahead, unlike the situation in Prague or Seattle. What is really important is something else – the battle in Genoa showed what can and cannot be achieved through street protest.
In Seattle and Prague the demonstrators were accused of not knowing what they wanted. This is untrue. They wanted a socially responsible economy with its basis not in a search for profits at any price, but in concern for the wellbeing of people and the planet. They were seeking to place under democratic control decisions whose consequences we feel every day. They wanted to restrict the power of the corporations. But while knowing perfectly well what they wanted, they were far from always knowing how to go about getting it. At the base of their protest there almost always lay the hope that the authorities would come to their senses, or at least take fright, and would themselves change their methods and policies. Alas, with the appearance of Bush in Washington, Berlusconi in Rome and Putin in Moscow, it is becoming clear how naive this approach is. Perhaps they can be frightened, but not by street marches and not by smashing the windows of McDonald’s restaurants. In any case, they will never come to their senses. The larger the movement, the more powerful the police ranks that will be mobilised, and the greater the escalation of the violence. Radical youth can take over the streets, but they cannot shake the power of the authorities in this way. One of the most popular ideologues of the movement, Walden Bello, has written that the events in Seattle and Prague have provoked a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ of the institutions of the world ruling class. This is true, but the rule of the financial oligarchy and the transnational corporations remains, and it will not be shaken by demonstrations. The participants in the protest actions talk of replacing rule by a centralised corporate elite with an economy of democratic participation. But this is impossible unless people involve themselves in full-scale political struggle.
To win democratic changes, what is needed is not just a struggle with the authorities, but also a struggle for power. We reject the centralised bureaucratic order of the modern state and corporations, but smashing this order is impossible without a political struggle.
After the demonstrations in Gothenburg one of the Swedish newspapers wrote that in Europe a whole generation had grown up that did not believe in the possibility of parliamentarianism. This is absolutely correct. Against a background of triumphant cries about the victory over Communist totalitarianism, the degeneration of Western democracy during the 1990s was visible to the naked eye. Since all the leading parties were in practice not even factions of the ruling class, but simply competing teams vying for the right to implement the policies of the financial oligarchy, and since power was held by a transnational bureaucratic elite that was not answerable even to the bourgeois class as a whole, it was extremely hard to speak of democracy in the normal sense of the word. This, however, indicates precisely the need for a struggle to revive democratic institutions – not in order to reproduce the old culture of parliamentarism with all its defects, but in order to go beyond its limits, to take an indispensable step towards democratic participation. On this level, the Nader campaign in the US and the Socialist Alliance in Britain have been important steps for the movement, despite all the problems faced by these efforts and their limited character, especially in the case of Nader. In Russia the Movement for a Workers Party has the potential to play an analogous role.
I am not calling for the struggle to be transferred from the streets to the field of electoral rivalry. Such a move would be suicidal. What is needed is for the struggle that was born on the streets to expand both in breadth and in depth. Our main field of battle must not be in elections, but in the factories. After Quebec corporate chiefs openly acknowledged that, while they were not especially afraid of street protests, they were very concerned that the spirit of the streets might penetrate the workplaces. We need to bring about precisely such a development of events.
History has shown that workplace strikes are always more effective than street demonstrations, and that street actions are frequently more effective than motions moved in parliament – not to speak of the fact that it is impossible to buy off and corrupt thousands of activists, while with parliamentarians this happens quite often. A revolution begins, however, when the ‘streets’ start to resonate with the ‘factories’. In these circumstances leftists, even when acting in the parliamentary arena, become spokespeople for the broader movement, since the voice of the streets starts to ring out from the parliamentary rostrum.
Finally, another observation – since Genoa no one wants any longer to play host to an international summit. The next one is to be in Canada, but most of that country’s large cities have let it be known that they are not anxious to have the honour bestowed on them. From now on summits will take place in small towns surrounded by barbed wire. Meanwhile a wave of statements by Russian journalists and politicians has swept across the television screens and newspaper pages, urging that future gatherings of international elites should take place in Russia. Such ‘outrages’ as the one in Genoa would never happen in Russia, bosses and ‘intellectuals’ of all stripes proudly repeated on television. North Korea would be good for summits, even better in fact, but it was not respectable enough. Russia, though, would be just right. While it was something in the fashion of a democracy, if need be the authorities would open fire without hesitation. And, unlike in Italy, there would not be any investigations. If in Western Europe increasing use is being made of ‘Russian’methods, in Russia all this is even more acceptable. What is allowable for Jupiter is naturally permitted to an ox. In Russia the idea of organised protest is still considered exotic. No foreign agitators will be let in – the border is under lock and key. And not only is solidarity with Africa or Latin America out of the question for the Russian population, but recent years have shown that people in Russia are not even in a fit state to defend their own interests. Before a summit in Moscow a small purge will be all that is needed to provide a complete guarantee. After all, the Russian state has experience in this field. The high ranking guests will be delighted. Bush, after all, has already lauded Putin for progress in the field of human rights. This praise should be regarded as a sort of advance payment.
Elites are often punished for their self assurance, and who knows whether this will happen in the present case? The Russian leadership is now contrasting a stable, controlled Russia to the chaotic West. The country’s leaders were doing the same 100 years ago – not long before the first Russian Revolution.
1. Green Left Weekly, 1 August 2001.
Last updated on 11.6.2012