The Mirror Cracks from Side to Side – Of Global Uprisings and Movement in an Age of Austerity - Emma Dowling, Begüm Özden Firat

The authors take a look at the politics of inter-national organisation. Originally published in September 2011.

Events that happen in one place – especially with the instantaneous relay through communication technologies – make ripples in others. In Egypt, protesters occupied Tahrir Square and the Egyptian flag found its way to Wisconsin; protesters in Puerta del Sol declared ‘they want to be like Iceland when they grow up’, and hushed so as not to wake the Greeks. In 1999, after protesters descended upon the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, images of the ‘Battle of Seattle’ circulated the globe: soon after, wherever global elites met, protesters were there to challenge them. A ferocious force composed of a multiplicity of social subjects from a myriad of existing political movements had suddenly become visible under one ‘no’ to the neoliberal project. This ‘movement of movements’ put global elites under significant pressure and made opposition to global capitalism speakable within a broader public. It also generated its own forms of organisation, building on and challenging previous models of internationalism, by-passing the nation-state as the necessary primary political community.

Global Events, Global Spaces

Global – or at least globally interpellated – events, chains in an ongoing political process defined this movement, the global was constituted both as a terrain of struggle and as the very site of organisation. These kinds of events involved moments of open antagonism against global governance institutions in the form of summit protests in which the network People’s Global Action (PGA) played a key role, and also included World (regional and local) Social Forums as spaces where a transnational social movement was forged in face to face meetings. The ‘global’ was claimed as context, emphasising global connections and making the links between what happens in one place and what happens in another. Collective experience created transnational networks grounded in the materiality of common exchange and engagement, strengthening the power to act across national boundaries.

Yet these processes had their own problems, not least the reification of the global as a distinct sphere. Protests against the G8/G20, the IMF or World Bank, created a picture of global governance as centralised at summit meetings, when actually the political economy of governance is multi-faceted and multi-level. Many emphasised that it did not matter so much what global elites did, it mattered more that movements could come together to recognise one another, feel collective power, articulate their resistance to a public and use the opportunity to build movement through being together. Nonetheless, the symbolic positing of a form of coherent political actor vis-a-vis a global sovereign power, misconstrued the nature of the state and global decision-making that understandings of a networked, decentralised and capillary form of governance and the state reveal.

Moreover, the evocation of the movement as singular political actor coalescing at these points of protest, overstated the coherence of a movement that was actually more fragmented, often with different ‘wings’ of the movement occupying the same space around a summit but having little to do with one another organisationally. Even where successful cross-spectrum mobilisations occurred, the alliances could not always hold beyond the event and more energy went into organising these events than did into ongoing everyday social struggles.

Social forums were both events and processes. Since 2001, the annual World Social Forum has attracted hundreds of thousands of activists from across the world to sit together in assemblies and workshops figuring out the best way to organise collectively beyond the confines of a particular issue or tendency, in and of itself a political process producing new subjectivities, new alliances and new ideas. Many were emphatic that the forum should not be mistaken for the movement itself and that it should be used as an open space based upon a set of principles for the convergence of diversity and difference in a common strive for global justice (whatever that might mean in the particular). Thus, the outcomes would not necessarily be linear or even tangible, but complex, invisible, dispersed, and rightly so. Others lamented the lack of coherence and political programme as the forum’s impasse.

Shifting grounds, recomposed antagonisms

It would be an oversimplification to say that the movement reified the global and forgot about the local. Indeed, it is not easy to say anything too definite about ‘the’ movement given how many differences were deliberately encompassed. The imperative to ‘think global, act local’ was part of a ‘globalisation from below’, from the grassroots. However, the attention to global events and spaces and the development of a network of activists with the time and money to travel to all of these places and stay plugged in to the process, meant that there were many disconnections that led to an inability to really globalise. It remained difficult to think through the material particularities of our ‘local’ existences, subject positions and relationship with multiple ‘others’ in a way that could inform global action. For sure, we must continue to value diversity and multiplicity highly, but we must be more discerning of what that means for our political practices. The state and capital thrive upon pitting us against one another where we live, in our workplaces and across the globe. It is painful and it is hard to confront the material reality of that beyond ethico-political rules of how to behave in a meeting or the negotiation of a diversity of tactics within the context of a particular mobilisation. It did not take people very long after the recent unrest in the UK to notice how alienated we are from one another within our supposed ‘communities’. But there is more to this than simply getting along with those you happen to live in close proximity with. What we have seen playing itself out in the media and on the streets in recent weeks are the multiple lines of conflict that weave their way through society, pitting white against black, black against brown, the less poor against the more poor, the unemployed against the workers, the looting youth against the small business owners. To be relevant – to build a successful anti-capitalist movement – means confronting these material realities of class (de)composition in a global context, a context that is not out there, but right here.

Yet, this is not to suggest a retreat to a sphere of the local in response to a perceived overemphasis on the global. Nor are we suggesting that the eruptions of social conflict in various parts of the world are sufficient in their inspirational effects. The significant achievement of counterglobalisation movements was not only to draw attention to the nodes of power in the global management of neoliberal globalisation, but to solidify the feeling of being part of a global movement with the aspiration of intensifying these ‘connections from below’ through face to face and virtual exchanges. For a generation of political activists this was a clear manifestation of internationalism one more time, but one prefiguring horizontal radical democratic processes that sought to challenge and transcend the vertical stratification, local – national – international, and the forms of representative and institutionalised politics encompassed in them.

The Seattle moment ushered in internationalism with new understandings of global solidarity, new forms of organisation and a novel sense of being a global movement. Yet, nowadays we tell ourselves that social forums and summit protests are not as politically effective as they used to be. Everyone who has ever been to a social forum or a summit protest recognises that the success of these events lay partly in the strength and energy of the local social movements where the event was hosted. Also, they empowered local movements by making explicit how their everyday struggles formed part of a larger global movement, enabling unforeseen local as well as global political alliances. These are reasons why we should not simply abandon them.

The current protests and insurrections erupting in the wake of the crisis are – unlike the previous cycle of counterglobalisation struggles – much more explicitly directed to the politics of the local and everyday whilst recognising the connections across local and national boundaries. The great difficulty we face lies in addressing the opposition between the local and the global as spheres of organising. We often find ourselves working in a self-understanding of a local or a global space, even though in principle we are aware of how the local and the global cannot – and should not – be so easily separated. We know the two spheres are expressed in one another, nonetheless, we still need to ask, what it means to think this organisationally in ways that neither reproduces a global clique of transnational activists that easily creates its own vacuum, nor by rendering connectivity and networking ends in and of themselves. Of concern is how to connect the different struggles against austerity measures and cuts, debt, climate change, gentrification and housing, the crisis of care and social reproduction. The present so-called ‘Tahrir generation’ is no mere ‘youthful’ expression of temperament, nor is it going to disappear any time soon. It has clear demands, from real democracy to a decent future that the global political and economic system cannot adequately deal with. The debate is not whether they are political enough, but how we can learn from the experiences of previous rounds of internationalism to which the global movement of movements belonged, inventing forms of organisation and collective action that respond to the conditions of contemporary struggles.

Begüm Özden Firat is a political activist and associate professor in the Department of Sociology in Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul.

Emma Dowling is a writer, researcher, political activist and lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.