The recent wave of protests that have swept across the world under the banner of “anti-globalization” have recaptured the left’s imagination, shattering the illusions of inevitability cast by neo-liberal magicians. The images and slogans from Seattle, Québec City, Prague, and Genoa have become an important legacy, a fresh inspiration to replace the fading images of Weathermen in football helmets. The “new activism,” as exemplified in the anti-globalization movement, appears as a paradigm shift away from the politics of stale social democratic parties and small Marxist-Leninist sects awaiting their turn to play vanguard. In contrast to the homogenizing impulse of global capitalism, resistance appears irreducibly plural.
While the anti-globalization movement is often celebrated for its apparent diversity, it often remains unclear how this diversity manifests itself in practice. The ambiguous boundaries of the movement serve to obscure its specific social relationships. Insofar as “diversity” is treated as a thing residing beyond specific social relationships, it is fetishized. In the fragmented and episodic movement of “anti-globalization,” diversity is often treated as universal, serving to supplant the organization of specific social practices. I will explore how a “diversity of tactics” emerged as a viable tactical orientation within this new anti-capitalist movement and eventually turned against itself, when the conditions for such diversity no longer existed.
The expression of this “diversity” in the anti-globalization movement has been fundamentally tied to its strategic and tactical orientation. Between the years of 1998 and 2001, hundreds of thousands of people converged on high profile meetings of the ruling elite to protest their neo-liberal program of “free trade” and structural adjustment. Large militant actions exploded from city to city, acronym to acronym, the G8 in Birmingham, the WTO in Seattle, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington DC, the FTAA in Québec City. Through these actions activists have been able to tie these acronyms together to expose an ideological program benefiting a small minority. For a time this minority was left defensive, exasperated, confused and, backpedaling. This was no small feat and the impression that these protests left on the world is undeniable.
While the “summit hopping” strategy was later criticized for its undue focus on transient, large scale action at the expense of grassroots local organizing, it was precisely for these reasons that the anti-globalization protests were able to garner the attention that they did. These protests brought together diffuse global networks of non-governmental organizations, trade unions, religious groups and the extra-parliamentary left. Through the compression of these networks into the shared time and space of the event, the movement was able to achieve a presence that no single group was able to achieve on its own. Further, these events did much to invigorate an autonomous anti-capitalist movement. With the convergence of significant numbers of radical activists, large scale direct action could be organized and coordinated. Connections were made and networks were formed that still exist today.
The convergence of networks in these events has demanded a great deal of coordination, organization and resources. It has required the organization of a temporary infrastructure that is capable of coordinating legal and medical support, food, housing, media, and other aspects of mobilization. With organizing taking place on such a large scale and encompassing so many transient groups and organizations, no single group has been able to claim a monopoly in organizing. As a February 2000 bulletin of People’s Global Action put it, “There is no centre anywhere that could hope to organize and oversee all this mutual thickening of ties. It would be like trying to instruct a forest how to grow.”1 In this context, the expression of a “diversity of tactics” did not just make sense, it was unavoidable.
In the midst of such diversity, the strategic organization and coordination of action became a daunting task. How could the integrity of action be maintained? The authority of any decision making body could not be taken for granted. In fact, there was the problem of the elusive outside. There were those who were not included in the decision making process and, those who were participating in different forms of protest.
Activists sought to ensure the coexistence of multiple strategic and tactical standpoints through the segmentation of the space-time of the event, For example, different “blocs” were exhibited in Prague, different zones or territories of protest in Québec City and different days of action in Genoa. And yet this segmentation has often not been upheld. The segmentation of space is contingent upon the power of groups to maintain boundaries. The struggle to occupy and transform space has been an antagonistic process.
In fact, the debate around a diversity of tactics erupted in Seattle due to the collapse of boundaries and guidelines for action. The Direct Action Network brought together a number of West Coast activists groups including Earth First!, the Rainforest Action Network, and Art & Revolution, in an attempt to shut down the World Trade Organization meeting through nonviolent direct action. In organizing this action they adopted a standard set of nonviolent guidelines including ‘no property destruction.’ Some activists did not adhere to these guidelines. The Black Bloc, a tactic enabling self-defense and anonymity in militant action, was organized, and it targeted a series of retail outlets, breaking windows and defacing corporate facades.
When faced with property destruction, many activists were quick to dissociate themselves, with some going so far as to form a human chain protecting Nike Town. On several occasions “nonviolent” activists physically confronted activists engaging in property destruction. They publicly condemned these actions and called for the arrest of those involved. Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange was notoriously quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Here we are protecting Nike, McDonald’s, the Gap and all the while I’m thinking, ‘Where are the police? These anarchists should have been arrested.”2 The organizational form adopted by the Direct Action Network was unable to deal with groups that did not adhere to their guidelines. There was no mechanism in place to deal with difference.
The Direct Action Network had largely adapted its organizational form from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s.3 During those decades, large protests were organized in rural areas against the construction of nuclear power plants. Broad regional coalitions were formed such as the Clamshell Alliance in New England and the Abalone Alliance in California to coordinate these actions. Decisions were made in large assemblies or “spokescouncils” through a consensus process. These assemblies were made up of delegates from various affinity groups bringing together small groups of less than 20 people who shared some kind of familiarity or association with each other.
In a relatively isolated rural context, this organizational model achieved a degree of force and cohesion. A nonviolent position was established and maintained through a variety of mechanisms. Grounded in a specific region, these organizations were composed of a relatively stable core community of activists. Discipline was largely maintained through networks of affinity groups which formalized communication between all those involved in action because “everyone knows if no one knows you.” Activists were required to participate in nonviolent training and in some cases to sign agreements promising to refrain from violence and property destruction. Activists who did not adhere to nonviolent guidelines were socially ostracized and excluded. In this context, a nonviolent purism developed. By 1986, Ward Churchill wrote, “pacifism, the ideology of nonviolent political action, has become axiomatic and all but universal among more progressive elements of contemporary mainstream North America.”4
Of course, this organizational model did not always work, even then. Significant divisions developed as these organizations expanded. In some cases, formal consensus could not be achieved and decision making moved to a voting model based on a 2/3 or 3/4 majority. The organization of action outside the consensus process became problematic. For instance, the Clamshell Alliance crumbled under criticisms of an informal leadership who were unilaterally making decisions outside of the consensus process. Further, the maintenance of a nonviolent orthodoxy did not curtail the divergence of strategic and tactical orientations. While some activists sought to halt the construction of nuclear power plants through direct action, others feared that this would alienate the rural communities and instead tried to organize demonstrations.
The translation of this model by the Direct Action Network to the organization of direct action in Seattle proved to be quite successful. It enabled the coordination of decentralized groups functioning relatively autonomously to effectively shut down the WTO’s first day of meetings. Groups were organized and networked together on a series of levels, building from affinity groups to affiliated clusters which were then distributed as wedges of a pie encircling the conference centre. Decisions were made in a direct, decentralized and timely fashion and were effectively communicated to other groups enabling the adaptation of action to changing circumstances. With the success of Seattle, this model was reinvigorated and widely applied to actions all over the world.
However, the translation of this organizational model to large scale urban protests was not without its problems. The lack of a clear correspondence between organizations and the space of action made the maintenance of broad parameters of action untenable. There was no way to ensure that these parameters could be maintained. The Seattle actions brought together a number of disparate groups in a temporary convergence which could no longer be defined organizationally, but led to the coexistence of multiple forms of organization in a shared space and time. With the coexistence of multiple communities in this extensive space, a nonviolent discipline could not be maintained. The Seattle actions reflected the collapse of nonviolent dogma and opened a space for the future declarations of “respect for a diversity of tactics.”
Formalization and Fetishism
In the wake of Seattle, debates around tactics often took on an abstract tone. The question of what constitutes “violence” was posed, and while dogmatic pacifists moralistically condemned property destruction, others imbued it with a veneer of liberatory significance of its own. As the ACME Collective argued in their communiqué on the Seattle Black Bloc. “When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights. At the same time, we exercise that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us.”5
Insofar as these debates proceeded on a terrain of absolutes, the discussions skirted the question of context. Those arguing for the enforcement of nonviolent guidelines were faced with a context in which nonviolent discipline could no longer be enforced and reacted with condemnation and differentiation. “The revolution we are trying to create didn’t and doesn’t need these parasites,” argued one activist in a Seattle Weekly article.6 On the other hand, property destruction was often conflated with revolutionary anti-capitalism. It provided a way to seemingly distinguish “reformist” from “revolutionary” tactics. The strategic question of when and where property destruction could be effectively utilized was often left unanswered.
In the emerging context, a rigid nonviolent position prohibiting property destruction was widely recognized to be untenable. There was a demand for more flexible ways of organizing and evaluating action. Recognizing that their original hallmark calling for “nonviolent civil disobedience” did not sufficiently take into account the distinct connotations that this term would take in different parts of the world. The PGA network clarified its position at Cochabamba in September 2001: “there was always an understanding in PGA,” it was argued, “that nonviolence has to be understood as a guiding principle or ideal which must always be understood relative to the particular political and cultural situation.” There was a concern that advocating a strictly “nonviolent” perspective could potentially marginalize and criminalize a whole segment of activists and deny the history of people’s struggles in many parts of the world. As a result, the language shifted from “nonviolent civil disobedience” to a call for “forms of resistance which maximize respect for life and oppressed peoples’ rights.”7
With the coexistence of multiple groups pursuing their own actions in a shared space, there was a demand to regulate action in a more flexible way. No single group could set such guidelines for action. Thus, a limit was placed on the organizational form. If a group could not enforce parameters for action, then how did groups handle disagreements over tactics? In reflecting on the Seattle protests Michael Albert argued:
I think that what modestly (as compared to “seriously”) impaired the movement’s ability to get on with growing and struggling was a very real division over tactics and that that division in this case was handled poorly largely due to a lack of mechanisms for dealing with disagreement. I think a priority task ought to be to develop and agree on such mechanisms, so that we don’t suffer such problems again in the future, or even see them get worse.
The call to respect a “diversity of tactics” reflected the inauguration of a more flexible regimentation of action, allowing for disagreements over tactics without falling into public condemnation or criminalization. Such condemnation was seen by many as divisive, contributing to the distinctions drawn in the corporate media between “good” and “bad” protesters. The call to “respect a diversity of tactics” was first and foremost a call for solidarity, respectfully disagreeing with other activists rather than demanding their arrest.
The events in Seattle presented a model for action that was widely adopted by activists in North America and Europe. Everywhere activists tried to organize the “next Seattle.” For radicals this meant disrupting the meetings of world leaders wherever they went. Black Blocs became a more common sight in protests. Trade union leaders continued to steer their marches away from any sign of confrontation and into empty parking lots, while non-governmental organizations organized counter-summits parallel to the meetings of the ruling class, eventually culminating in the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre in September 2001. The drive to maintain momentum demanded that everyone put aside their differences and just keep on doing what they were doing. At times this culminated in the uncritical valorization of differences, the liberal misconception that our actions will be most effective if everyone does their own thing.
With the diffusion of this model across North America, a “respect for a diversity of tactics” was widely adopted by activists. The call for a “diversity of tactics” reverberated in a series of local militant actions. And yet the translation of this model to other contexts was often ill suited, but nevertheless taken for granted. While the shutdown in Seattle was accomplished through a well coordinated strategy with a little help from unsuspecting authorities, the implementation of this model in other contexts was anticipated by both activists and authorities. While this contributed to widespread participation in militant direct action, it also contributed to its containment.
Anti-Capitalism in Diversity
The next major action following Seattle was organized for April 16, 2000 (A16) against the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington DC. Largely emulating the organizational form of the Direct Action Network, a broad coalition of activists came together under the name Mobilization for Global Justice (Mob4glob) to organize for this event. The group continued to utilize a consensus model in which decisions would be made by affinity groups coordinated through spokescouncil assemblies. Mob4glob also attempted to set guidelines for action reinforcing a commitment to nonviolence and specifically ‘no property destruction.’ In response to such guidelines, a number of anarchist and libertarian socialist groups issued a call for a Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc.
We believe that the most effective protest is each group autonomously taking action and using tactics that they feel work best for their situation. We do not advocate one particular tactic but believe that the greatest diversity of tactics is the most effective use of tactics. We are critical of ideologically motivated arguments that oppose this. This is why we do not believe that it is organizationally principled for any one group to set the guidelines for the protests or claim ownership of the movement.9
This call for a “diversity of tactics” was part of a broader push for the autonomous organization of revolutionary anti-capitalists in North America. It put to rest the pretension that any single group could set parameters for action, while at the same time declaring the presence of a distinctly “anti-capitalist” formation that would exist outside these parameters. On the one hand the “bloc” appeared as a hub for militant direct action, on the other hand it espoused the idea that the “greatest diversity of tactics is the most effective use of tactics.” On this basis, the presence of diversity was considered effective in itself. The strategic focus of the revolutionary anti-capitalists remained unclear.
It should not be presumed that the push for an autonomous anti-capitalist bloc entailed a split from Mob4glob and other progressive groups. Throughout these protests there had been considerable cooperation and crossover between revolutionary anti-capitalists and left liberals in the institutional left. In Seattle, the contribution of financial and administrative resources by non-governmental organizations, not to mention the breakaway by thousands of trade unionists from the official labour march contributed to the successful shutdown of the meetings. In organizing for the A16 actions in Washington DC many activists participated in both the Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc and Mob4glob. While Mob4glob did not openly condone property destruction, there was a degree of solidarity and tacit support for the pursuit of more militant actions through autonomous anti-capitalist organization. At a press conference leading up to the action Mob4glob organizer Nadine Bloch asserted:
We want to focus on the issues of structural violence against people by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, rather than get mired down in discussions about tactics, because we know that everybody who’s going to be out on the street is going to be there because they’re motivated by the same great feeling of anger and frustration about the ability to set their future direction in this world and stand up for environmental rights and human dignity.10
This reflected a relatively common position. There was a desire not to get bogged down in divisive arguments over tactics in order to keep up the momentum of the movement.
A16 showed that Seattle was not just a glitch. Nearly 40,000 people from a wide range of backgrounds came together in protest. Government offices were closed and bureaucrats were told not to go to work. Within this action a visible and widely supported anti-capitalist movement solidified. Anti-capitalists played an important role in organizing militant action, self-defense and jail solidarity. Yet the effectiveness of more militant tactics in DC remained limited. Anticipating the attempted shutdown of the meeting, delegates to the IMF and World Bank meetings were brought in early. When the activists’ plans to block intersections were thwarted, it became unclear how to proceed. Some activists decided to join the large mass demonstration while others attempted to maintain a lockdown on various intersections. With a lack of a strategic focus or coordinated plan of action, activists marched aimlessly around the city, occasionally knocking over newspaper boxes.
Anti-Capitalists Lead the Way
Building to the Québec City protests against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), the anti-capitalist movement gained widespread support and acceptance amongst activists. In many circles, “anti capitalism” even supplanted that ugly term “anti-globalization” in describing the movement. Yet the fortunes of the anti-capitalist movement remained closely tied to the successful translation of “diversity of tactics” within a regime for action derived at a specific moment, in a specific context. Since Seattle, the debate around a “diversity of tactics” had emerged in many different contexts and was translated into many different actions.
In Montreal, the rift manifested itself most clearly in “Operation SalAMI,” a coalition of activists who came together in opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).11 SalAMI was organized as a nonhierarchical collective based on the principles of training, transparency, and nonviolent action. This group would surface in May 1998 in its blockade of an MAI meeting in Montreal. However, many activists would leave the group frustrated with SalAMI’s informal and unaccountable leadership and its dogmatic nonviolent position.12
Many of these activists would come together again in the Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitaliste (CLAC) to organize actions against the FTAA meeting in Québec City in April 2001. CLAC brought together a broad network of activists committed to anti-capitalism and organized through assemblies bringing together a network of affinity groups. They adopted a basis for unity that included a “respect for a diversity of tactics” ranging from “popular education to direct action.”
In contrast to A16, where the revolutionary anti-capitalist bloc was tied together in militant direct action and protest, the basis for unity adopted by CLAC provided a space where anti-capitalists could meet beyond such actions. It was an anti-capitalist stance rather than any specific mode of action that tied CLAC together. This gave CLAC more staying power as compared with the temporary “bloc” organizations at A16. In fact, CLAC continues to participate in anti-capitalist organizing in Montreal today.
Nevertheless, the centrality of anti-capitalism in Québec City remained tied to specific circumstances of action. Here, the regime for action that had been developing since Seattle would work well. In order to ensure that people could decide on their own level of involvement in protests, there were attempts to segment space into different protest zones. However, these zones quickly broke down as confrontations intensified. A shared hatred of the fence encircling the conference centre and a large portion of the city drove thousands of activists to wade into the tear gas saturated streets in attempts to disrupt the meetings. Activists were united in facing this looming target.
These militant actions gained widespread support from the more liberal elements of the movement, not to mention the local population. Notably, Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians, who had previously condemned the use of more militant tactics,13 acknowledged a space for these tactics in her speech in Québec City. Rather than calling for the arrest of more militant demonstrators as she did in Seattle, Barlow acknowledged that it was not for her to try to control or regulate protesters. “There was some vandalism yesterday, yes,” she argued, “but where was the first vandalism? The first vandalism was in that scar of a wall they put up in our beautiful city. That wall was the first vandalism.”14
By the time of the G8 meeting in Kananaskis took place, the context for organizing had changed significantly. Even prior to 9/11, activists in the global North faced intensifying repression. In June 2001, protests against the European Union summit in Gothenburg, Sweden were met with live ammunition and in July, Carlos Guiliani was murdered while protesting the G8 in Genoa. Police directly targeted the more liberal elements with police violence while at the same time infiltrating more militant groups using agents-provocateurs in attempts to fragment the movement. However, policing protests became less of a concern as the ruling class began meeting in remote locations such as Qatar and Kananaskis.
The events of 9/11 took the wind out of the sails of the anti-globalization movement. Prior to 9/11, the call to respect for a “diversity of tactics” had tied together a wide range of activists in a broad movement against capitalism. But in an emerging context of police repression and patriotism, the call to respect a “diversity of tactics” rang hollow. With the looming threat of terrorism, legislation was passed in the Canadian state and the United States granting the police and security agencies extensive powers. The line between direct action and terrorism became increasingly and intentionally blurred, and many groups backed away from mass mobilizations altogether. The next large scale mobilizations, scheduled to take place in Washington DC at the end of September against the IMF and World Bank, were canceled.
The mountain fortress of Kananaskis, surrounded by an interminable series of security checkpoints, provided a daunting task for those seeking to disrupt the meeting. The surrounding area was sparsely populated and extremely conservative. In Alberta, activists could expect little support from the locals. In fact, the city of Calgary, where action would be organized, denied even requests for space in the city parks. Moreover, civil liberties were being rampantly curtailed under the pretense of a looming terrorist threat. Snipers were given orders to shoot to kill.
In this context, the model for action derived from Seattle no longer proved to be effective. As Starhawk argued:
The recent protests in Alberta against the G8, the heads of the eight most industrialized countries, are an example of what happens when we apply organizing models that don’t actually fit the situation we’re in. When we cook for a hotter fire than we actually have, we end up with porridge that is colder than it needs to be.15
In organizing for this action, Alberta activists came together in an “Anti-Capitalist Caucus” calling for a “respect for a diversity of tactics.” Yet what “anti-capitalism” or “diversity of tactics” meant in this context remained unclear. Unable to effectively disrupt the G8 meetings, activists instead attempted to organize a snake march aiming at economic disruption in downtown Calgary.
In Kananaskis, the call for a “diversity of tactics” was detached from a context where it could serve as a coherent strategy. While in Québec City, the callout for a “diversity of tactics” entailed a clear strategic target for militant direct action, in Calgary there was no clear connection between direct action and an articulated strategic aim. The push to direct action imploded in a series of spectacles aimed to shock. “Disruption” was fetishized, serving as a means of personal catharsis that was deemed effective in and for itself. Some activists chose to strip naked in front of The Gap. Others organized a game of “anarchist soccer” in the streets. While the expression of militant direct action in other contexts was able to draw support from other activists, the local population, and the general public, in this case the fetishization of “disruption” served to marginalize activists from the communities that they were trying to reach.
The call for a “diversity of tactics” was interjected at a vital moment, breaking a liberal hegemony and helping to build a nascent revolutionary anti-capitalist movement in North America. It provided a means of contesting nonviolent dogma and entrenched a new repertoire for action that included more confrontational tactics. It enabled the establishment of a extensive solidarity between groups rather than an intensive solidarity within groups predicated on the fetishization of nonviolence. Yet this way of organizing action was fundamentally tied to the particular context of its emergence. The call for a diversity of tactics emerged through the organization of militant direct action in large urban centers seeking to disrupt the meetings of the ruling class. In the absence of such a context the call for a diversity of tactics often becomes fetishized.
While there has been a great deal of emphasis on the presence of “diversity” in the recent wave of protests, the manner in which this “diversity” has concretely coalesced in action is often forgotten. In fact, the presence of an autonomous “anti-capitalist movement” in North America has largely been restricted to spectacular mass actions. As the summit hopping strategy has become less tenable, activists have focused on organizing in their own cities. Yet the presence of anti-capitalism as a strong autonomous movement in many local communities remains limited. While anti-capitalists are certainly active in a whole host of other activities, we remain fragmented precisely insofar as we are organized in decentralized networks without any points of convergence and insofar as we have not drawn continuities beyond these large scale mass actions. We remain fragmented insofar as we are unified by militant direct action rather than coherent theory and analysis. As such, our actions are often subordinated under a liberal “progressive” hegemony. The task for revolutionary anti-capitalists today is to develop new forms of convergence that move beyond ephemeral actions and the rhetoric of “diversity.”
Chris Hurl is a student and activist living in Victoria. He is currently completing a Masters degree in Sociology and Social Theory focusing on the anti-globalization movement.
1. “PGA Bulletin #5” (UK Edition). (February 2000). http://www.ainfos.ca/00/jul/ainfos00236.html.
2. “Talks and Turmoil: The Violence; Black Masks lead to pointed fingers in Seattle,” In New York Times, (A,1; December 2, 1999).
3. Epstein, B. (1991). Political Protest and Cultural Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Midnight Notes Collective. (1979). “Strange Victories,” http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/vict.html.
4. Churchill, W. (1998). Pacifism as Pathology. Winnipeg: Artbeiter Ring, 29.
5. Acme Collective. (December 4, 1999). “N30 Black Bloc Communique.” http://www.geocities.com/kk_abacus/ACME.html.
6. Parrish, G. (Dec. 9-15, 1999). “Anarchists, go home!” In Seattle Weekly http://www.seattleweekly.com/features/9949/features-parrish.shtml.
7. Hallmarks of Peoples’ Global Action, changed at the 3rd PGA Conference in Cochabamba http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/free/pga/hallm.htm.
8. Albert, M. (1999). “Response to Katsiaficas.” http://www.zmag.org/replytokats.htm.
9. “A16 Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc Statement.” (2000).http://www.infoshop.org/news5/a16_call.html.
11. “SalAMI” is a play on words meaning “dirty friend” or “dirty MAI” in French.
12. Conway, J. (2003). “Civil Resistance and the ‘Diversity of Tactics’ in Anti-Globalization Movement: Problems of Violence, Silence, and Solidarity in Activist Politics,” In Osgoode Hall Law Journal (2/3), 519. http://www.yorku.ca/ohlj/english/volume/vol41.html.
13. Reflecting on the Seattle protests, Barlow and Clarke argued, “To the distress of local residents and peaceful demonstrators, the police did not arrest these people, but they used the media’s property-damage images to justify their brutal crackdown against the peaceful majority” (Barlow & Clarke, 2001, 13).
14. Reprinted in The Nation, May 28, 2001, http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20010521&s=barlow20010508.