G8-Summit protests in Germany: Against globalisation and its non-emancipatory responses - Rob Augman

Rob Augman takes a look at some of the more problematic aspects of the G8 mobilisation in Heiligendamm. Article originally published in the summer of 2007.

“Make Capitalism History: Shut Down the G8!”

The grassroots mobilizations against the G8 summit, held in the northern German town of Heiligendamm in early June of this year, were organized by broad networks of direct actionists, anti-racist groups, anti-border groups, anti-fascist militants, queer activists, squatters, debt-relief groups, trade unions, environmental organizations and many others. Despite the very restrictive policy of the German state that forbid any demonstrations in a large perimeter around the ‘security fence’ protecting the G8 summit, activists successfully disrupted the G8 meeting.

The tiny enclave of Heiligendamm was for two days only reachable by helicopters or with boats from the seaside, as demonstrators blocked roads and train tracks leading to the site of the summit. Impressive were the pictures of thousands of people crossing fields and forests, in their effort to out-manoeuvre the huge police force, and make their way to the fence.

Heiligendamm will mark another memorable moment in the alter-globalization movement, a movement whose strength is often attributed to its diversity of actors. But this multitude, however, should not be mixed up with arbitrariness, as the movement itself also struggles with the challenges in developing a critique of global capitalism that provides emancipatory possibilities.

Contemporary social conflicts, a widespread sense of alienation, deep feelings of powerlessness, and the increasing intensity of violent conflict sets off a whole host of resentments and oppositions to the global situation that are not emancipatory. Many people who are deeply dissatisfied with the global political and economic order do not gravitate towards progressive or social justice organizations. The rise of racist, nationalist, fundamentalist and other forms of reactionary politics emerge as responses to the global situation as well, and they compete for power and influence on the same social terrain of those on the Left. These are present in the discourses, policies and politics in struggles around globalization/anti-globalization as well, and were therefore present in the mobilization against the G8 this year.

In Germany, with its history of National Socialism as well as uprisings of neo-Nazism and nationalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the left must struggle with and position itself against critiques of “the new world order,” of “globalization,” and even of “capitalism,” from non-emancipatory positions, including those from the (far) Right. Such non-emancipatory critiques range widely, from proponents of economic protectionism and political isolationism (which can be seen in Right-wing anti-war positions), to the cultural field of “preserving cultural uniqueness from commercialism,” all the way to the far Right and its attempts to solve social questions in hyper-nationalist ways.

The scale of right-wing involvement in anti-globalization politics, or broader sentiments of reactionary anti-capitalism, present facts that have not gone ignored by some on the German Left and can be seen present in the anti-G8 mobilization, whether against the far-Right, the state, or as self-criticism of our own social movements. These groups are employing various approaches, and seeking various goals in their emancipatory aims. In their confrontation with “globalization” on the one hand, and reactionary anti-globalization on the other, transformations can be observed in the analyses and the practices of the Left itself. The international mobilization against the G8 summit in Germany provides a unique look into these struggles in order to consider how left and social justice groups can better confront the complicated and varied challenges we face.

The infrastructure and mobilization for Heiligendamm had been built over the course of two years, connecting activists across Europe and beyond. A week of protests, a counter-summit with international guests discussing major problems of globalization, from climate change and health politics, to gender justice and the right of free movement for all, and plans for physically blocking the G8 summit were some of the major events. People organized three camps to house thousands of activists, which included kitchens, security, showers, and other provisions. Indymedia groups provided infrastructure for a continuous reporting of the news. Information was circulated in leaflets and on the web informing people about police tactics, border restrictions, surveillance and much else regarding what they could expect and how they can get support in case of such a need. Legal aid was provided by a left-wing lawyer’s organization. Mobile groups organized medic services. Additionally, activists organized a hotline in case of sexist or sexual abuse. Groups such as the Hedonist International energized demonstrations with their techno truck and their “Rave Against the Machine.”

Self-organization was the backbone of the demonstrations and infrastructure of the mobilization against the G8 summit. The means are also the ends, and this included an appreciation for joy, leisure and aesthetic desire. The mobilization displays a pre-figurative politics, a vision in practice of the “other world that is possible.”

Despite the intimidation, provocation, demonisation and the police’s physical attempts at disruption, the mobilization would not be derailed. Massive showings of dissent towards the G8 and the broader global situation was going to appear at the gates of the G8 summit.

“Nie Wieder Deutschland!”
(Never Again Germany!)

For international activists joining or observing the demonstrations against the G8 summit, the East German city of Rostock where the mass demonstrations and the main convergence centre were located, was no reference point at all. But for those old enough to remember, Rostock was the site of a violent 3-day attack on Roma and Vietnamese asylum seekers by neo-Nazis and ordinary German citizens. It was 15 years ago, in the summer of 1992, and it set off a wave of similar attacks across the country, on African, Turkish, Asian and other migrants, with houses burned down and people killed. “What 1968 was for the Left, 1992 was for the Right.” [ii]

This wave of racist violence was a deeply political issue. It came at the time of reunification of East and West Germany, the fall of the Soviet Union and the realignment of international relations after the Cold War. Just decades after the Holocaust, racist mobs and political groups of the New Right were strong in Germany and Europe more broadly.

The host of economic problems following “reunification” were projected onto migrants, as a specific social group causing these crises. This racial skapegoating was not limited to the far-Right, but rather transcended political boundaries, and was therefore expressed in the mainstream discourse as well. “Bonn [the capital of former West Germany], unable to provide the ex-GDR economy with the quick fix that it had promised, shifted responsibility for the country’s economic pains onto Germany’s liberal asylum law.” [iii]

Therefore, while the police brokered a deal with the Rostock mob, allowing them four hours of free reign to attack the asylum centre, state policy committed its own attack on migrants, with restrictions that effectively amounted to a revocation of the Asylum Law. It also instituted a hierarchical labour system for those who remained, and sent the message that migrants are the source of Germany’s economic problems.

The new economic and political situation was articulated through a nationalist framework by centrist politicians, by the far-Right and throughout civil society [iv]. But this nationalist explosion and the changing political situation also prompted responses by the radical Left. German nationalism, racism, fascism and the history of the Shoah became major concerns. Seeing them as deeply related, the post-‘89 German Left marched under the banner “Nie Wieder Deutschland!” (Never Again Germany!).

“We Are Here Because You Destroy Our Countries”
“We Are Here Because We Destroy Your Borders”

As part of the protest actions against the G8 summit, an action day was organized under the slogan “Global Freedom of Movement.” In the early morning about 2,000 people took siege to the “Foreigner’s Office” in Rostock, which is where decisions are made about whether or not individuals will receive residence permits or be deported. Informed of the activists’ plans ahead of time, the office was shut down under the pretense of “computer problems.” Activists climbed to the roof of the building and hung banners against deportation centres, reading “No Camp – Not Here and Not Anywhere!”

After this action the activists marched to the Sonnenblumenhaus, the site of the racist attacks 15 years earlier. “By holding this rally we want to remember the incidents of 1992 and show how much worse the conditions for refugees in Germany have become because of this pogrom.” [v] At the gathering police continued their repression against activists. A snatch squad moved into the demonstration and grabbed a few black-clad demonstrators, breaking the nose of a Cameroon refugee and injuring a cameraperson in the melee. Later in the day, as the gathering sought to march towards the harbour in the centre of the city, it was blocked by riot cops with water cannons and armed vehicles, but after two hours of negotiations, the march was able to continue.

These demonstrations were part of a week of G8 protests that were specifically highlighting struggles against the regime of global migration management. Activists from numerous countries joined the transnational network meeting, discussing the situations of migrant struggles, whether it be mass demonstrations and strikes by illegalized migrants in the U.S., legalization struggles in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain, or protests to shut down detention centres in Germany. [vi] The events and actions are aimed at explaining that migration is part of the processes of international relations of exploitation – whether due to privatization of resources in the global south that makes life more and more unbearable for people in these countries to support themselves, or due to the explicit demands for cheap (often service) labour in the global North. Hence, the slogan, “we are here because you destroy our countries.” But simultaneously, other activists find this portrayal too mechanical, implying that migrants are solely victims, simply set into motion by processes that are wholly out of their control. In response to this “Fortress Europe” position, activists from an “autonomy of migration” analysis, argue that despite the reality of migration management by states and inter-state systems, the barriers are continually defied and subverted by creative actors – therefore, migration could be seen as the “most successful social movement.” [vii]

The relationship and conceptualization of migration as a phenomenon in the age of globalization then, is transformed from a paternalistic relationship of charity and protection into a relationship of support and solidarity. “Globalization” then can also be seen not simply as a one-dimensional plot by the global elite, but rather as a regime born of conflict, resulting from a variety of sources, some of which are self-determining. Therefore, the focus on migration at the anti-G8 mobilization highlights a structural fact of social life despite restrictions – possibly an intrinsically anti-national movement. It therefore emphasizes this fact of migration as a right of mobility, and envisions the practical assertion of global social rights as part of emancipatory transformations.

“To point out the antifascist character of the anti-globalization movement” [viii]

In Rostock on June 2nd, while Left and progressive groups organized a huge international demonstration against the G8 summit under the banner “Another World is Possible,” over 40 busses of neo-Nazis converged on the nearby town of Schwerin for their own demonstration against the G8. In response to the neo-Nazis, civil society groups, trade unions and antifa groups organized 3 different counter-demonstrations, the antifa groups with the intention of physically preventing the neo-Nazis from demonstrating. But on the morning of the protest, the neo-Nazi’s and the antifa’s permits were revoked. The neo-Nazi busses left Schwerin for surrounding towns, holding spontaneous demonstrations, one of which marched through the Brandenburg Gate in the centre of Berlin. A group 150 antifa activists who arrived in Schwerin, on the other hand, were surrounded at the train station by heavily armed police and arrested.

Fifteen years after the wave of racist violence of 1992, the far-Right is still an undeniable player in political and social life. They continue to skapegoat migrants as the source of persistent social and economic problems. Additionally, they have increasingly articulated their atrocious politics in anti-globalization and anti-capitalist language. For them, the powerful international institutions – such as the G8 – are seen in personified terms. The complex social arrangements often simplified under the term “globalization,” are viewed as nothing other than a plot by a specific social group. Due to the historical association of international networks with Jewish communities, the far-Right personifies this international conspiracy as the “Jewish” rulers of the world. [ix] Against this perceived plot, they draw on an equally imaginary force to defend themselves, the so-called “national community.”

Therefore, the strength of the far-Right has to do with intervening in contemporary political discourses whether those raised in mainstream political discourse, or those raised by the Left. In responding to these issues, they regularly project social crises on specific social groups as the source for such social problems – these groups often being migrants, Jews, or leftists. Therefore, real grievances set off by social, political and economic problems are a source of their support. By combining the anxiety over high levels of unemployment in the East of the country, with a skapegoating of migrants and “global elites” for these problems, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany won over 7% of the vote in elections last year in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, enabling them entry into regional parliaments. It was in this context that the antifa demonstration was organized, “to point out the antifascist character of the anti-globalization movement.”

Militant anti-fascism became a major focus of radical Left politics after 1992, with the organizing of a countrywide antifa network which confronted far-Right groups in the streets. Additionally, concerned about the rise of a broader German nationalism, many took up research about the history of National Socialism. This enabled them to better understand the discursive framework of far-Right politics historically and its continuity (and divergences) in the present. These analyses can be seen in the call to action for the antifa demo in Schwerin. In their leaflet they explained the anti-Semitic ideology of the neo-Nazis’ as a deranged form of anti-capitalism. The Nazi analysis of society is constructed through a bi-polar opposition of false premises. They believe that a “real, natural, material labour” is threatened by an “abstract, parasitic, financial elite.” The antifa leaflet reads:

[i]“On the one hand, [the Nazi] view [of capitalism] contains the idea of a national economy and it’s “honest, German” labour - the so-called “constituting capital”; and the “money grubbing, Jewish” capital on the other hand. For the Nazis this allegedly “Jewish capital” is constituted in the sy[s]tem of interest and the financial world, for example in banks and stock exchanges in general, and in the “Wall Street” in particular.” [x]

Failing to see capitalism as a social whole, a system from which labour itself is constituted, they view capitalism as a foreign imposition from the outside – especially from the U.S. Their response is then a naturalisation of something they perceive to be concrete, the imagined, “national community.” This foreshortened critique of capitalism helps explain their simultaneously racist and anti-Semitic politics, on the one hand as being against the perceived nations which are supposedly invading otherwise harmonious Germany, and on the other hand against the perceived anti-national leaders of this world order, the international Jewish elites which prosper from the disintegration of “real nations.”[x ]

But the electoral support the NPD gained at the polls is only the tip of the iceberg. Their views are influential even if they’re not expressed in such crude and violent terms. Additionally, their themes overlap with some taken up by Left associated anti-globalization groups. Popular support for an alter-globalization movement is common when it is expressed against “American” capital, in contrast to a supposedly more socially responsible European or German capitalism, and when international investors are depicted as parasites looting the “real” economy. Examples abound in Germany of left-wingers arguing in language reminiscent of the Nazi era. These problems have led sections of the Left to criticize the presence of foreshortened critiques of capitalism found even amongst some on the Left.

Indeed, one doesn’t have to search long at the anti-G8 demos to find examples of conspiratorial, dualistic or personifying social critiques: a 911-conspiracy theory banner, a “Bush is the #1 Terrorist” poster, or the omnipresent G8-octopus with its outstretched tentacles devouring the Earth. The lowest common denominator though, of anti-globalization critics, has often been an opposition to “finance capital.” This can be seen in seemingly opposite sections of the movement: whether it be anti-capitalists smashing banks or reform oriented groups pushing for taxation on international investment. The “common sense” for such broad social movements might be the idea that “money is the root of all evil.”

The analysis of capitalism as a social system, rather than a simple relationship of domination, or a binary struggle between “oppressors” and “oppressed,” leads groups like TOP Berlin (see their article on page xx) to find ways of expressing a different orientation. Joining other post-antifa groups, they marched under the banner reading “Ums Ganze” which loosely translates into “All of It!” Therefore, while demonstrating against the G8, they reject the idea of equating the G8 to global capitalism, and rather aim to situate the G8 as part of an international, and conflicted system of global capitalism. [x ]

Therefore, rather than positing a “real labour” against a “finance capital,” a “people’s struggle” against an “international elite,” or other such simplifications, such groups attempt to re-evaluate the forms of social life in contemporary capitalist society. This leads to different kinds of positioning. As demonstrations often demand simple symbolic representations, one attempt to intervene on this level was by using the imagery of leisure, and therefore a picture of a person relaxing on a hammock accompanied with calls for “luxury for all!” While anti-capitalism has been a mainstay in the alter-globalization movement, what it means to “smash capitalism,” and to “fight the G8” is an open and contested terrain. In this way, the mobilization against the G8 is a site of many conflicts on various levels – the analytical, the practical and the symbolic. In these ways this mobilization shows many attempts to push against capitalism, simultaneously grappling with the various forms of non-emancipatory responses that arise along the way.

In Conclusion…

Despite a total ban on public demonstrations on Thursday the protests continued, and did so with impressive success. Thousands of people from the nearby campgrounds marched towards the fence, dragging trees into the streets to create huge barricades, walking train tracks to prevent transportation to the summit, and hiking through fields and woods to outmanoeuvre police blockades. The G8 delegates had to reach the summit by air or sea, and even the sea was not completely secure as a Greenpeace boat breached the security zone. This is a tremendous achievement of determination and organization.

Even the mainstream media portrayed the blockades in a semi-positive light, showing video footage of thousands of protestors streaming through fields and hills to reach the fence. Their favourite image were those of the clowns, of course, and made the perfect contrast to the reporting of the heavy clashes between police and demonstrators the day before, in which various news reports described the protests as marred by “foreigners.”[x ]

While the mobilization was successful in disrupting the G8 summit, as was described above, opposition to the G8 and globalization does not imply emancipatory critiques nor alternatives. Reactionary resentments and ideologies work through oppositional politics, placing many challenges on the efforts to effect positive social changes. The desire to build mass social movements often involves appealing to the lowest common denominator, but the simple populist chant of “Bush Go Home!” brings together a wide variety of actors across the political spectrum, including reactionaries of various types. This reality provides challenges to building broad-based social movements with emancipatory possibilities.

Additionally, while it is imperative to exclude the most abhorrent actors from taking advantage of popular discontent – as the antifa demo sought to do – non-emancipatory views are not limited to the far Right, but rather transcend neat political boundaries. This transcendence is not simply the result of intentionally-disguised reactionary views – though that is sometimes the case – but often due to analyzes autonomously generating personifying analyzes of power relations, dualistic thinking and foreshortened critiques of capitalism. Therefore, this sets an imperative of self-criticism within our own oppositional political movements, in order to prevent unintended support of non-emancipatory views and currents.

DISCLAIMER: This text is a selection from an article written for the U.S. Left. We have omitted a conclusion in which the author offers suggestions about what might be learned from the G8 protests in order to help Leftists address similar challenges in the U.S. context. The article was originally published on ZNet at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13158.

The policing operation in the Heiligendamm area was the largest security operation in Germany since World War II. It included an enormous budget, a $17 million fence, 12km high, a wide no-protest zone, as well as air and sea defence. This operation was also more than defencive. A month before the summit, under the pretext of “threats by Leftist terrorists,” police raided 40 private homes and social centres across the country. The raids were heavily criticized in the mainstream press and the mobilization gained broader support as a result. In Berlin, a spontaneous demonstration brought thousands of people onto the streets for an energetic showing of support for the anti-G8 mobilization, and in Hamburg a huge demo erupted into physical clashes between protesters and the police.
[ii]Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe. Hockenos, Paul. P 30. Routledge. New York/London. 1994.
[iii]Ibid. P 33.
[iv]For a look into the relationships of these different social actors and the changing situation at the time, see “Rostock: or, How the New Germany is Being Governed.” Wildcat, No. 60, October 1992. http://www.wildcat-www.de/en/wildcat/60/w60e_ros.htm
[v]From the “Crossing the Borders of the G8” newspaper, at: www.noborder.org
[vi]Examples from the newspaper, “Crossing the Borders of the G8,” published for the G8 mobilization by No Border. www.noborder.org
[vii]For a background on this discussion, and in relation to the G8 mobilization, see the essay, “Autonomous rear Entrances to Fortress Europe: Antiracist Perspectives in regard to G-8 Summit 2007,” at: www.nolager.de/blog/node/452
[viii]“Stop the nazi demonstration - 2nd June 2007 Schwerin.” www.schwerin.blogsport.de
[ix]In part due to criminal codes in Germany against openly anti-Semitic speech, as well as the popularity of “anti-Zionism” as a public discourse, the far-Right often calls this supposed elite “Zionist,” “cosmopolitan,” or “American,” rather than “Jewish.”
[x]“Head Off to Schwerin - Distract The Nazi Demonstration!” www.schwerin.blogsport.de
[xi]There are a whole host of other issues involved in neo-Nazi politics in Germany, which can not be adequately explained in the framework of this article. Some resources: For an analysis of Nazi Antisemitism as a form of fetishized anti-capitalism, see Moishe Postone’s “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism” at: http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/postone1.html On anti-Zionism, see Thomas Haury’s “Anti-Semitism on the Left” at: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/6705
[xii]A recent interview by ums Ganze with Michael Heinrich, titled, “There Simply Aren’t Any Easy Solutions to Which One Can Adhere,” helps to explain their attempts to reevaluate the place of the G8 in the system of global capitalism. It was published in Monthly Review zine, here: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/heinrich220607.html
[xiii]A member of the anti-globalization group, ATTAC, also used nationalist skapegoating to blame foreigners, saying the clashes of the protestors was “atypical for German groups.” http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,486330,00.html

[i]Rob Augman currently lives in Berlin, Germany where he is researching the topic of Left politics and anti-Semitism. Many thanks go to Martina Benz for endless ideas and editorial support.