The archaic burden on the global movement

by Andrej Grubacic      <>

February 25, 2005

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      The global movement of movements is in a serious crisis. This crisis has been revealed by Tariq Ali, who recently criticized the “virtual thesis”, apparently popular inside the movement, that the “world could be changed without taking power.”

Tariq Ali being interviewed by Claudia Jardim and Jonah Gindinin
in Caracas, Venezuela, July 22, 2004. Photo by Claudia Jardim.
Caption in original: "You cannot change the world without taking power",
says Tariq Ali, who asks the Global Justice movement to come and see
Venezuela's reality before making judgments based on stereotypes.

      According to Ali, this naive idea is nothing more than “a moral slogan” which “doesn't threaten anyone.” Sure, he admires the Zapatistas – the slogan is attributed to them – but only as “a moral symbol.” This was, Ali thinks, a phase
“that was understandable in Latin American politics, people were very burnt by recent experiences... But I think, from that point of view, the Venezuelan example is the most interesting one. It says: ‘in order to change the world you have to take power, and you have to begin to implement change – in small doses if necessary – but you have to do it. Without it nothing will change.’ So, it’s an interesting situation and I think at Porto Alegre next year all these things will be debated and discussed – I hope.”
( Interview with Tariq Ali, July 22, 2004: “Venezuela, Changing the World by Taking Power”, at )

      You can admire and respect people you disagree with. I certainly admire and respect Tariq Ali and I certainly disagree with him. His hopes, as with the hopes of many other leftists, proved to be correct: The 2004 World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre – the official one I mean – apparently celebrated the return of “realism” inside the movement. The next WSF in Latin American is going to be held in Venezuela. The “naive idea” of social struggles that are about not taking state power has been repudiated.

      Realism won. Idealistic activists (“fundis”) – barbwired inside the place appropriately named the “Youth Camp” – had organized an autonomous space by the name of “caracol intergalactica”. The result was a further contribution to the “politics of automomous spaces.” The Youth Camp at the WSF in Porto Alegre is mentioned by Rodrigo Nunes in his paper ‘Territory and Deterritory: Inside and Outside the European Social Forum (ESF) 2004, New Movement Subjectivities’, November 23, 2004, which he wrote following the London meeting of the ESF, available at

      Yeah. I know what some of you are going to say after reading Nunes’ paper. The idealistic activists – the “fundis” – are not going to “seriously threaten” the system. So think people in the “realos” part of the movement. A few distinguished people, “realos”, in order to “implement change in small doses”, wrote another manifesto which espoused a possible program for the movement of the movements. Their paper is available at

      The discrepancy between these two documents reflects a deeper conflict, between two visions of the movement.

      And yes, Tariq Ali is right, this conflict is indeed about “taking power”. But what does that curious, poetic slogan of “changing the world without taking power” really mean? My feeling is that it is mostly about the refusal to accept the notion that the world can be changed by conquering state power. It is about the refusal to accept the disastrous idea, which, somehow, still refuses to die, of the separation of ends and means, which always leads to a divorce between the “vanguard” and “another world”. It is both a scream at archaic movement practices and a demand for a participatory society based on mutual aid, direct democracy and dignity. It is an attempt to move from movement to society through a language and a political practice that dissolve the distinctions between the inside and outside of the movement. But can this work?

      Why, in the name of God, Allah, Marx and the Latter Day Prophets, not?

      Samir Amin, another thinker for whom I have considerable respect, doesn’t seem to agree. Samir Amin has been, for 30-40 years, the prophet of Third-World State-Capitalist development. In his latest book on “The Liberal Virus” he writes that anti-statist ideas are popular among the youth. Furthermore, they “unify perfectly with capitalist strategy.” [Amin, Samir, The Liberal Virus – Permanent war and the Americanization of the World, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2004]

      Hmm...But didn't we try to take state power before?

      I mean, there was the Union of Soviet Realistic Gulag Republics. Chinese Communist Capitalism is the realistic success booked by Third World Statist developmentalism. Eurocommunism is a better-forgotten effort at realistic thinking and mature politics. Lula is doing a terrific realistic job in Brazil – at least according to the World Bank.

      It's not that the statist formula of the past lost it's effectiveness under the new conditions. It is more like it was never effective, at least in terms of advancing democracy. Do we really need more examples of "The Great Man Strategy for Leftist Politics"? How many of them are we going to have exactly? Two, Three, Many New Lulas? Is the autonomous space of Porto Alegre to become a metaphorical Kronstadt of the movement of movements? I don't know. This remains to be seen. My feeling, however, is that the very future of the global movement of movements depends on the answer. It is time for this debate to begin.

      We should grasp the magnitude of the challenge. My belief is that the best features of this movement, features which, paradoxically, have inspired the WSF itself, are anti-statism, anti-capitalism, prefigurative politics (building a new world in the shell of the old) and its network form. The archaic vision would have us believe that there is no alternative (TINA?) to the take-control-of-state-power project of social change. I beg to disagree.

      The global movement has a future only if it “deglobalizes” and “delinks” itself from the archaic vision. Why do I refer to it as archaic? Because it celebrates a strategy and outlook which was a trademark of the movements of the past. There are certainly many useful ideas from the past that it is important to incorporate – though with new insights and perspectives – into our contemporary struggles.

      It is important to recognise how the old and the new might operate within the old and the new, and how to recuperate for new purposes, incorporate within new understandings, valued elements of the old. But taking state power, as an end in itself, machtpolitik and institutional alliances, cannot contribute to the global emancipatory struggle. Is there something that I would suggest instead? Yes, and it is about the re-thinking of the concept of networks. The Network model, however informal and loose, has produced some of the most important political shifts of the last decades.

      The story of Peoples Global Action (PGA) suggests one possible way of moving forward. PGA is an experiment in new politics. It is an example of how to counterpose centralization with networking – for the sake of connecting these many concrete other-worlds-in-the-making. Despite preceding and foreshadowing the WSFs, it is not well-known amongst those attending the Forums.

      PGA was officially born in the North, in Geneva 1998, but, like the whole movement of movements, it's a curious meeting of Northern activists with peasants struggling in the Global South. It was born out of an exceptional meeting. Among the participants who endorsed its “manifesto” were the Canadian Postal Workers, Earth First!, European and Korean activists, Maori, U'wa and Ogoni people, and even a few people from “the forgotten empire of Ruritania” (East and Central Europe). The idea was simple, itself inspired by the Zapatista reinvention of anarcho/autonomous/libertarian tradition: defining a political space outside and against parliamentary, vanguardist and representational politics, based on horizontalism and direct action. No one is empowered to act as a PGA spokesperson. No one can represent PGA. This network has no spokepeople, no “experts”, no professional theoreticians.

      It is not well known, at least as far as I am aware, that the very idea of de-centralized Global Days of Action (“counter-summits”) was an invention of direct-action activists around Peoples Global Action. These PGA-inspired demonstrations, from Seattle onwards, provided a context within which were developed creative forms of direct action, like street parties, blockages, occupations, anti-capitalist carnivals and so on. The idea of decentralization led to the establishment of other networks such as Indymedia.

      In July 2002, the international “no-border” camp in Strasbourg, France, was a celebration of the PGA's various organizational modes and approaches to anti-capitalism, as well as different direct actions around the subject of migration, confrontational border-camping practices, and other issues particular to yet another offspring of the PGA – the No Border Network.( The Strasbourg experience provided an important impetus for other camps and “autonomous villages” that proliferated during the Anti-G8 demonstrations in May and June 2003, in France and Switzerland.

      It is important to mention experiences like the “Hub” in Florence, the Wombles space on the periphery of the London ESF, or the “Caracol Intergalactica” on the periphery of WSF 2004 in Porto Alegre.

      One of the places readers should visit is the website of the PGA (, or the global archive project (, a thematically-structured global archive project and forum. But what is the immediate purpose of such a loosely-structured network, which rejects the notion of “organization” and insists that it is “a tool for coordination”? As I see it, it is about simply connecting local groups that agree with the PGA “hallmarks”:

* A very clear rejection of capitalism, imperialism and feudalism; all trade agreements, institutions and governments that promote destructive globalization.

* We reject all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds.

* We embrace the full dignity of all human beings.

* A confrontational attitude, since we do not think that lobbying can have a major impact in such biased and undemocratic organizations, in which transnational capital is the only real policy-maker.

*A call to direct action and civil disobedience, support for social movements’ struggles, advocating forms of resistance which maximize respect for life and oppressed peoples’ rights, as well as the construction of local alternatives to global capitalism.

* An organizational philosophy – well a principle of articulation – based on decentralization and autonomy.

      The appeal of these simple hallmarks has brought thousands of people to PGA's regional conference (the last one in Asia, in Dhaka, was a particular success in terms of topics and participation) but also to global conferences. PGA’s Second Global Conference took place in Bangalore, India in August 1999; PGA’s Third Global Conference took place in Cochabamba in Bolivia; the next global conference is going to be held next summer in Nepal).

      Why, again, is this story significant? Because, despite the predictable number of problems, PGA continues to be one of the most imaginative forms of co-ordination among “the new anti-capitalist” part of the movement (anarchos/autonomistas/libertarians). The point that I would like to make is that there are many (strategic and organizational) alternatives.There are many networks. These new political developments, however informal and loose, are inspiring a whole new generation of activists and social movements, and are producing some of the most important political transformations in recent history. The movement can keep on moving only if it escapes any kind of static centralization and statist fixation. Only if it finds a right balance between the old and the new, putting archaic ideas of social transformation to rest. Indeed, the very reconstruction of the global movement demands that resistance, protest, and struggles are freed from the bonds of archaic leftism.

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Last update of this page: February 28, 2005