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Confronting Capitalism

Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement,
edited by Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose and George Katsiaficas (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2004).

Confronting Capitalism, an updated version of The Battle of Seattle, takes stock of what has shifted in the movement in the four years since the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. In his astute introduction, Eddie Yuen (one of the volume’s editors) adeptly lays out not so much a linear history, but rather a constellation of concerns and tactics.

Arguing that “the potential of a deepening global network of workers, students, farmers, youth, indigenous people, immigrants, and ‘marginals,’ is the greatest source of hope today” (vii), Yuen shows the commonalities that draw together a global movement. Yet he also pinpoints how the battle in the north contrasts with that of the south.

As contributions by George Katsiaficas and others in Part I, “Roots of the Movement” point out, “the recent upsurge against capitalist globalization has its origins not in Seattle but amongst the peoples of the Global South.” For while many of the trade organization meetings took place in the north, the tempest struck the south ­ Asia, Africa and Latin America ­ hardest.

Areas affected by the IMF structural adjustment programs (SAPs) ­ the south — actively fought against them: in Mexico, UNAM students resisted the imposition of tuition; in Brazil, 15,000 campesinos protested personal debt from their failed farms; in Bolivia, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against Bechtel World Bank contract to privatize water; in Argentina, 80,000 people protested and 7.2 million went on strike for twenty-four hours, which, together with the collapse of the Argentinian economy led to the resignation of several ministers and two presidents. “By understanding these antecedents to Seattle,” Yuen argues, “the movement in the overdeveloped world may be less seduced by illusions of its own centrality and recognize that the global majorities are not merely passive victims of ‘free trade’ and structural adjustment.” These struggles from around the world and predominantly the south–Argentina, Peru, Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, India, and China — are considered in Part IV “Facts on the Ground.”

Even in Part II, “Crashing the Summits” — a survey of the summit disruptions from the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 to those of Cancun in 2003 ­ the “Writer’s Bloc” points out the vital role of those from the south at the WTO: “What stood out in Cancun was the leadership of the militant South ­ the rural farmers of Mexico and Brazil, the unionists of Korea, and the activists from the ghettos of the African continent. Not surprisingly, it was these compañeros who brought the vision and militancy to the demonstration’s small numbers and lack of focus [ . . . ]” “As a result of their efforts, as Immanuel Wallerstein points out in his article, the WTO “is now effectively dead. It will survive on paper, as do many other instate institutions, but it will longer matter.”

The Writer’s Bloc also underscores a point that comes up repeatedly in the volume’s various articles as well as the introduction: although Seattle was a crucial victory and the demonstrations at summit meetings send a vital message ­ mainly, that the inhabitants of the north are not in sympathy with the political and economic policies of their leaders — many of the protests against free trade organizations are led by those of the south. Furthermore, these participants underscore the urgency of the policy’s impacts. For example, when Lee Kyung Hae, a 56-year old Korean farmer, father of three daughters and a militant revolutionary, committed suicide at the front gates of the WTO, he — as one campesino woman put it — reminds us that for some “the policies of the WTO are a matter of life and death.”

Other articles in this section discuss the protests of the IMF and World Bank in Prague (2000); the G8 in Genoa (2001); the FTAA in Quebec City (2001) and in Quito (2002); and the World Economic Forum in Cancun (2001) and in New York City (2002). These discussions focus on nonviolent direct action, direct democracy and network organizing.

Numerous articles in this section focus on the “Battle of Seattle.” While many, for example ones by Jeffrey St. Clair and Barbara Ehrenreich, discuss the protests in more familiar terms, chronicling the days’ events and accomplishments, Andrew Hsiao’s article “Color Blind” sheds new light on questions of race within the Movement. As Yuen himself pointed out in the introduction, rather than ghettoize articles about racial diversity to one section, they have smartly been included throughout on the grounds that this question should be integral to the movement.

Part III, “We Are Everyone? NGOs, Social Forums, and Problems of Representation” presents articles on four issues that confront activists: 1. sectarianism; 2. nongovernmental organizations; 3. racial diversity; and 4. right wing anti-globalization groups. “Articulating Resistance.” One of this section’s most controversial articles, “This is What Bureaucracy Looks Like: NGOs and Anti-Capitalism”, Jim Davis points out that NGOs have a very tricky role in the growing movement against capital. Arguing that “in reality elite decision-makers evaluate the NGO world with a quick and pragmatic eye and see potential allies in the delicate work of diffusing this new opposition” Davis states that The Economist, for example, “took note of this in pointing out that when assaulted by unruly protestors, firms and governments are suddenly eager to do business with respectable face of dissent.” He takes an in-depth look at some of the limitations placed on NGOs, stemming their radicalism and also some key moments when they have betrayed their street activist counterparts.

Part V, “Articulating Resistance,” contains much discussion on how the movement should theorize itself. In “Activistism: Left Anti-Intellectualism and Its Discontents”, Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood and Christian Parenti argue that current leftist activists sorely lack an intellectual awareness, stating “this brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hypermediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth-century temperance crusade.” While I appreciate their challenge for activists and intellectuals to meet halfway, for their work to inform one another’s, I am not so sure that it’s such a clear-cut dichotomy. Furthermore, I believe their claim is a bit exaggerated as this volume well illustrates: its editors and contributors include a wide array of activist intellectuals or intellectual activists.

The volume also includes articles by Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, as well as a map and chronology of global resistance, artwork, photographs, and a glossary by Iain Boal. Although a number of volumes on the subject of the global movement have recently appeared, given the range of authors and of subjects in this new volume, it clearly should be one of the top ten books in the canon on the subject.

CHRISTINA GERHARDT teaches in the Department of German at UC-Berkeley. She is currently working on two books: a project entitled Critique of Ethical Violence: War, Violence and Terrorism, which examines representations of violence, state-sanctioned (ie war) vs. non state-sanctioned or nation-identified (ie terrorism); and Democracy in 20th-century Germany: Schmitt, Strauss, Adorno, Habermas and the EU.

 

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