June '99 - A Critical Analysis

A contribution to the "Reflections on J18" collection, first printed in Undercurrent.

On June 18th, leading politicians of the eight biggest economies will gather in Cologne (Germany) to talk about the future of the world economy and as almost always, this will be the target of protests. A world-wide alliance is forming which is according to the bulletin of the British activists' driven by the "recognition that the global capitalist system is at the root of our social and ecological troubles." But what sounds like a point of departure for a critical analysis is unfortunately all the campaign has to say about its position. Instead of going beyond this kind of commonplace, it simply states that "a global movement of resistance is rising", and reading the few propaganda leaflets produced so far one soon realizes that it is all about quantities. We are thus told that there were lots of people on the streets at last year's economic summit ("...2oo,ooo people in India..."), lots of agit-prop material has been produced ("20,000 lovely little folding leaflets..."), lots of different groups are involved (incl. trade unions, peace groups, church against poverty, national union of students - to name but a few) and, last but not least, the campaign bursts of fantastic ideas for action: "giving out free food...lots more custard pies...laughing all the way to the bank...sound system in balloon floating above the City!".

Them and us

"We are more possible than they can powerfully imagine" the campaign trumpets - but this them-versus-us-logic is odd on several counts. Not only has global capitalism - the alleged target - nothing to do with a simple "them". What is more, the collective "us" that is being invoked is utterly vague - "a growing alliance of social and environmental movements". The only thing all the different groups have in common is that in one way or the other they are affected by global capitalism - but that, again, is merely a commonplace, insufficient as a basis for collective resistance beyond the symbolism of raving a couple of hours against the gathering of some character masks in Cologne. But far from being a minor mistake of the June 18th campaign, this indifference towards the social content of movements is its very essence. In their own words: "The longer the list, the more effective the action." Following the requirements of media representation, it seeks to bring together masses. The result is pure mystification. On the one side, we have the apocalyptic scenario - "economic crisis, the millennium bug, environmental crisis, war famine, poverty" - which then is countered by the celebrated diversity of countless movements all around the world. The assumption is that anyone suffering from the present social order is by his very nature for its overthrow. Yet the vast majority of the groups and movements listed is directed against specific consequences and aspects of capitalism. The secondary weaving together of all the single-issue-movements leads not to a rejection of the totality of society - quite the reverse, it is simply an incoherent patch-work of people who, at least for a day, come together and party - or throw some custard pies in somebody's face.

"Global Capitalism"...

Preoccupied with listing groups and original ideas for actions, the campaign has dispensed with critical analysis. This is an immediate consequence of the aim to be as broad as possible: Any clarification of the political objectives of the June 18th campaign would reveal the lack of a political consent between e.g. the Zapatistas and the NUS, the trade unions and autonomist groups. This kind of short-sighted campaigning is based on the very absence of a clear critique of "global capitalism" in order to suit virtually everybody. What remains of the proclaimed anti-capitalism is but a bunch of slogans. However, while radical critique of capital is obviously out even amongst those who pretend to practically oppose it, various resentments against certain aspects of the present-day situation are rather growing, with "globalization" being buzz-word number one. The talk of "global capitalism" the campaign displays without any clarification is perfectly well in harmony with the present media hype about globalization. This consists mainly of bemoaning the fact that, confronted with an apparently unlimited fluidity of global capital, the power of the nation state is vanishing . Virtually everyone has a dislike for "globalization": Left-wingers are concerned about the future of democracy - since the politicians who are now allegedly rendered powerless were at least democratically elected whereas citizens have no say in the decisions that the vicious executives of multinational corporations take. Subcommandante Marcos, spokesman of everybody's darling, the Zapatistas in Mexico, sees the organic cultures of peoples being threatened by the evil forces of globalized finance capital. The French fascists of the Front National reject it as an attack on the sovereignty of the nation state and a threat to national culture. The recent campaign against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments), in many regards similar to the present June 18th campaign, drew exactly upon this ideology: As the MAI sought to give foreign capital a better position against national legislation, the opposition against it displayed a sometimes extreme nationalism and was practically propaganda for the state. A common response to globalization is thus the call for a re-regulation of the economy by the state. Neo-liberalism, another buzz-word used basically synonymously, is often countered with the demand for a Keynesian policy, popular especially among traditional lefty social democrats and trade-unionists. Keynes acknowledged that in order to prevent crises, the state has to intervene actively into the market by directly creating jobs (which, according to Keynes, could practically mean to make people dig holes and fill them afterwards) and generally raising demand (to compensate capital's tendency to over-production). It is not at all surprising that in the present situation lefty intellectuals like Eric Hobsbawm proclaim "the end of neo-liberalism" and beg New Labour to adopt a more Keynesian strategy of taxation and redistribution. In general, there are hopes that the current hegemony of social democratic governments in Europe could clear the way for an alternative to "neo-liberalism". While the June 18th campaign does not rally for social democracy, the vague opposition to "global capitalism" it spreads is totally compatible with addressing the state as a supposed counter-pole to the market. And in fact, many of the movements the campaign is glad to have on board work along these lines.

"The heart of the economy"

The uncritical concept of capitalism the campaign seems to subscribe to is illustrated by the concentration on the financial sector of capital: the global actions will take place in the financial districts, understood as the "heart of the global economy". While production appears to be merely a technical process in which useful things are made, money and financial institutions are regarded as the essence of capitalism. Yet although capitalism cannot dispense with a developed banking system, it essentially depends on the production of surplus-value through the exploitation of wage-labour. The vast sums of value circulating in the banking districts represent the successful result of this process - and if they don't, the next crash is imminent. Therefore it would rather make sense to occupy some factories - if there is such a thing as "the heart of the economy" it lies there and not at Barclay's Bank. This may sound like an irrelevant footnote. But one has to keep in mind that especially the recent crises in the financial sector many have nurtured resentment against finance capital and prompted calls for a re-regulation of the world economy. The Times stated last summer that "the IMF's reputation has sunk to its lowest since the body was set up in 1944", and social reformists come up with proposals about taxation on "unproductive" speculative capital (so the state can redistribute money for the benefit of all and create jobs...). The campaign's concentration on the financial institutions fails to distinguish itself from these productivist and populist tendencies. This misleading fixation on finance capital seems to be corrected by the second target of the campaign, the multinational corporations. But why privilege multinationals? Are national corporations less capitalist? Are small enterprises any better than "big business"? Significant parts of the campaign seem to stick to these notions: community-based cornershop versus Somerfield's, small peasants versus agro-capital and so on. "Small is beautiful" was after all a fairly popular slogan among eco-activists. This perspective on capital gets professionalised by groups like Corporate Watch and the many initiatives busily cataloguing the many sins and crimes of individual corporations, which practically means most of the time to launch boycotts and thus spread the idea of "consumer's power". Thus, the opposition to Shell is based on their involvement in Nigeria, we are supposed not to eat certain chocolate bars because Nestle does this and that and so on. The critique of the fundamental logic of capital is replaced with a positivistic and moralistic approach. All this neglects the insight that capital in all its forms deserves abolition - and the family owned sweat-shop is by no means any less annoying as a workplace than AT&T.

Confusion and pseudo-practice

All this is not to say that the June 18th campaign would be in favour of sweat shops and state regulation, nationalism or social democracy. It is none of this, but at the same time shows no interest in analysing the dead-ends in which the articulation of social discontent runs today. Instead it employs a naive strategy of immediacy: the imaginative hippy-individual that "takes his desire for reality" is depicted as the ultimate response to global capitalism which essentially is comprised of banks and corporations, run by "them", the evil inhuman managers and yuppies. Everything is supposed to be so clear-cut and self-evident that any further reflection can be dispensed with - hence the ignorance of the many ideological and practical ways in which opposition gets neutralized (if it is not complicit with capital right from the beginning, as probably most of the groups on thecampaign's list are anyways). The call for mass action amounts to confusion about the social objectives of the alleged "global resistance" and ultimately leads to mere pseudo-practice, i.e. much ado about nothing that gives those involved the illusion to lay the ground "for huge social and political changes".