The birth of the anti-globalisation movement

published 08 Jan 2016
Photo: 
London, June 18, 1999

On the first of January 1994, an army marched out of the Lacedon jungle in the state of Chiapas in Southern Mexico and seized control of four towns including the regional capital of St. Christobal de las Casas. This uprising was seen as particularly significant by anarchists due to the nature of the rebel army, the EZLN (the Zapatista army of national revolution). Its spokesperson was an enigmatic, masked, pipe-smoking guerrilla called sub-commandante Marcos who had started out as an academic Marxist intellectual. However, it differed significantly from the Marxist insurgent groups which had been a feature of Latin America since the 1960s.

image: Sub-comandante Marcos addresses the crowd in Mexico City

The Zapatistas, as they came to be known, were overwhelmingly made up of the indigenous people of the area. They declared themselves to be a democratic, leaderless organisation, based on traditional village democracy. Rather than aiming to take state power, they described their mission as removing impediments to decentralised democracy. The Zapatista uprising took place just 3 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, an event which had dealt a serious blow to the very idea that revolutionary change was possible. It took place in Mexico, a relatively developed country, right on the border of the American global superpower. Such things were not supposed to happen in this post cold-war era, famously described as the ‘end of history’ by Francis Fukuyama in 1992. The Zapatistas provided a rare beacon of hope for all those who dreamed of revolutionary change. Due to the democratic, leaderless nature of the movement, they were particularly inspiring for anarchists.

Banner at 1st Zapatista Encuentro image: Andrew N. Flood

Within Mexico, the EZLN was confined to the mountainous and forested indigenous areas of the South, where it remains mostly contained today. However, the reverberations of the uprising spread beyond the borders of Mexico. In July 1996, the Zapatistas hosted an international gathering or ‘encuentro’, called “the first Intercontinental gathering for humanity and against neo-liberalism”. This gathering brought together activists from all over the world who were sympathetic to the democratic nature of the EZLN. The encuentro, and the various follow-ups that it spawned were effectively the first assemblies of the anti-globalisation movement which rose to prominence in the early 2000s. The essential character of the movement was in place from the start – a ‘movement of movements’ bringing together the leaders of mass third world indigenous and peasant movements - seeking land, economic redistribution and basic human rights, with first world NGOs, environmentalist groups, third world solidarity groups, various small anarchist-inclined political groups and a broad milieu of social justice activists.

image: Magazine of the Irish Mexico Group

In Ireland, the anti-globalisation movement took root very slowly. A handful of sympathetic activists formed an “Irish Mexico Group” to provide solidarity with the EZLN uprising – they sponsored a Zapatista settlement called Diez de Abril and sent volunteers and raised funds to help sustain it. My party, the Workers Solidarity Movement, had traditionally operated within the confines of the far-left and had been relatively wary and even somewhat contemptuous of the political protest movements that had sprouted up since the 1960s (identity-politics, environmentalism, NGOs, etc), seeing them as lacking the class politics necessary to really understand the world.

This position was particularly embodied in Alan MacSimoin, who was the oldest, most experienced and most influential member during the organisation’s early years – his politics were formed in the 1970s as a member of the Workers Party – the party in Ireland that was most closely aligned with the Soviet Union. However, few of the other members shared the strength of his convictions and Andrew Flood, in particular, was much more enthusiastic about working alongside and within such movements. He attended the Zapatista encuentro in 1996 and attended meetings of the Irish Mexico group. I, and a few other WSM members, occasionally helped out by handing out leaflets about the Zapatistas to a largely bemused Dublin public. These leafleting sessions were, at this stage, no different than any other small political leafleting sessions. However, beyond Ireland’s shores, the anti-globalisation movement was starting to take shape.

J18

On Friday the 18th of June 1999, I spent the evening at a political meeting and retired to the pub afterwards before returning home. Upon arriving home, I turned on the television. To my great surprise, the lead story on Sky News was about an “anarchist riot” in central London. They showed footage of clashes with police, groups attacking corporate premises and large crowds bearing anarchist banners, flags and symbols. This was, to the best of my recollection, the first time that I had ever seen anarchists even mentioned on the mainstream news – and the footage showed so many of them – where had they all come from?

The protests in London, which came to be known as J18 (the abbreviation of the date), were part of the “Global Carnival Against Capital”, an international day of protest timed to coincide with the 25th summit of the G8 - the 8 most economically powerful countries in the world - in Cologne, Germany. A coalition of NGOs, third world mass movements and a wide variety of activist groups had organised simultaneous protests around the world to oppose the G8’s trade policies. They hoped to use the media-attention generated by the summit to highlight their shared opposition to the unfair global economic system being imposed by the wealthy nations. The protests included attempts to disrupt the summit in Cologne and to shut-down the city of London which led to violent clashes with the police and attracted significant media coverage. Anarchist groups, and a variety of activist groups which espoused anarchist forms of organisation, were centrally and visibly involved.

image: J18 Standoff with police

Having spent almost 5 years now within the broad anarchist movement, I had grown accustomed to working on a very small scale and receiving very little attention. The scale of the J18 event - in terms of the levels of international coordination, the size of the individual protests, the presence of anarchists and the media coverage that it generated – was quite new to me. I was particularly surprised to see that such large numbers of anarchists had mobilised in London since I was somewhat familiar with British anarchism and I knew their organisations operated on the same tiny scales as the WSM did. However, unlike Ireland, where the WSM was always the dominant force in anarchism, the anarchist parties in the UK have always been a small minority among those who consider themselves to be anarchists. So-called ‘lifestylist’, individualist and counter-cultural anarchists are much more numerous. My only real contact with this broad British anarchist milieu had been at the annual London Anarchist Bookfair.

The Anarchist Bookfair

The anarchist bookfair is the one regular event which brings a broad cross-section of the UK’s anarchist family together. The WSM traditionally sent a small delegation across the Irish Sea and paid for a book-selling stall. It was considered the primary opportunity to circulate the organisation’s magazine, Red and Black Revolution, which was mainly focused on influencing anarchist thought, and its pamphlets and other literature. In both 1998 and 1999, I volunteered to drive the organisation’s delegation and boxes of literature to London – as at the time I was the only member who owned a car and this allowed us to bring much more literature with us than would have been possible by air or by public transport.

image: Conway Hall

My initial reaction was to be impressed by the scale and energy of the event. The venue, Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury, Central London, was a beautiful old Art-Deco building, with a large, old-fashioned meeting hall in which dozens of vendors had set up stalls to sell books, literature, memorabilia and even organic produce. Hundreds of people browsed, purchased and chatted with one another. Meetings on a wide variety of topics took place throughout the day, in rooms that were set off to the side of the main hall, often with large audiences.

However, this positive impression was offset by an overwhelming and all-encompassing sense of confusion. The literature on sale was extremely broad and much of it was purely counter-cultural with little or no political content: books on topics such as sexual fetishes and organic vegetables were as common as political material. The political groups present were themselves extremely broad, including environmentalist groups, paganists, esoteric Marxists as well as the anarchist political groups that I was familiar with. Although the attendees were generally fairly normal looking, amongst them one could find some of the most unusual looking people that one might hope to encounter: punks with precisely sculpted two-foot long bright-red spikes where their hair should have been; new age travellers wearing many layers of heavily soiled rags while leading dogs on strings; precisely groomed eccentrics in old-fashioned 3 piece suits, fetishists in black latex.

Furthermore, the fractiousness of the British anarchist movement was all too apparent – rumours that a physical confrontation was imminent between feuding individuals and groups constantly ran around the hall and I even saw a couple of brief scuffles breaking out. The Green Anarchists who produced a magazine that advocated distinctly misanthropic, anti-civilization positions, were considered to be politically beyond the pale, even ‘fascist’, by many of the other anarchists. It seemed to be a tradition that by mid-afternoon, when the more macho anarchists had imbued enough alcohol in the nearby pubs, a gang of burly men would descend on their stall, overturn it and chase them out of the hall as the air rang thick with the shrieks of their indignation.

I spent the majority of my time at the bookfair working for the WSM – either tending the stall or hawking magazines at the hall’s entrance – and came away each time with the feeling that much of the event had passed me by. I did, however, manage to attend a couple of the meetings and these contributed to the sense of confusion that I came away with. Most memorably, in 1999, I attended a meeting about sex-workers’ rights organised by an alliance of London sex workers. The presenters were unambiguously on the pro-sex-work side of the long-running debate within feminism about the proper attitude to prostitution and sex-work. Presumably to emphasise this, the talk included a performance by one of the young women involved. She removed her clothes and gave an impressively athletic exhibition of naked acrobatics that took her on a series of backflips, cart-wheels and front-flips culminating in full-splits landings, interspersed with various audience interactions as she passed through the room. It was 9am, the room was cold, bare, furnished only with cheap plastic chairs and unkindly lit. It was not sexy. There were about 50 people present, mostly awkward, bookish and serious men who had always been taught that it is wrong to see women as sex objects and who were mostly attending to demonstrate that they took women’s rights seriously. It was, almost certainly, the most uncomfortable audience that I have ever witnessed. The performer's interactions with the audience, sitting on a knee here, thrusting her buttocks into a face there, were particularly excruciating. I struggled to suppress my mirth: the prospect of attracting attention for not taking the presentation seriously was thankfully more than sufficient incentive not to laugh.

This chaotic coming together of anarchistic tendencies was anathema to the disciplined, highly organised platformist tradition from which the WSM came. We felt that there was little in common between all of these varied political strands beyond the ‘anarchist’ label and opposition to capitalism in the abstract. How could such a diverse group, many of whom disagreed with each other on fundamental questions (such as the desirability of civilization!), ever hope to carry out a common project?

However, the protests against the summits of the major institutions of global capitalism turned out to be just the common project that could mobilise the entire broad anarchist family. These international institutions – the WTO, the G8, the World Bank, the IMF were so remote that, from the outside, they appeared to be purely embodied representatives of the capitalist world order, which all anarchists were unambiguously opposed to. Everybody was against them and the fact that they were for very different things could be temporarily put aside. Furthermore, some of the large NGOs were involved in organising the summit protests and this meant that a lot of infrastructure such as accommodation, transport and advertising, was already in place. But most importantly, the J18 protests in London had conclusively shown that it was possible to attract considerable media attention through such actions and that was what we all craved more than anything. We had ideas, critiques, alternatives and theories but nobody was listening. We had now discovered a way to make the world aware of our existence.


image: N30: the battle of Seattle

Five months after the J18 protests, I was back in London for another international summit protest. This time, the protests were in solidarity with protests against a meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle on November 30th. The events in Seattle, which came to be known as the battle of Seattle or N30 for short, and the mobilisation of activists that surrounded it, signalled another big step up in scale and attention for the anti-globalisation movement. For the next 5 years, this movement would organise a series of massive protests, often involving significant violence and disruption, at every summit of one of the global economic institutions. Both myself and the WSM became heavily absorbed in this new movement. This caused us to effectively step outside of the far-left world that we had operated in – within a few years we went from talking to a dozen people in the dingy backrooms of pubs, to addressing audiences in the millions via national and international television.

On November 30th 1999, the solidarity protest in London that I participated in devolved into a mini-riot, as was often the case in these protests. However, it was to be my last taste of such a protest for more than 2 years for I was on my way to Africa, to begin a tour of the global South, during which I acquainted myself with the third world organisations which formed the other side of the anti-globalisation movement. But before I tell that story, I will finish my account of the far left with a theoretical overview which seeks to explain why it's so weird.

Comments (6)

Chip Munk

I wonder what that sex-worker performance was meant to accomplish...
And can't wait to hear about the bi leagues!

Anonymous

That's "big leagues"

Anonymous

Certainly wasn't expecting to read about naked back-flips and thrusting buttocks in an article on the anti-globalisation
movement! ...but thank you, it made me laugh :-) and as usual, Mr F, ....a good read.

MarkH

What are Esoteric Marxists? I'm intrigued!

Anxiously waiting

The suspense is killing us! More please!

Anonymous

I second that!!