What is it About Alter-Globalisation That can be Described as Anarchist?

Perhaps the most popular criticism of anarchism is the fact that it is deemed simply too unrealistic and idealistic to be applicable in any real world scenario. Marxists attach possibly most heavily to this, criticising the utopian nature of anarchist ideology. Proponents of the ideology would, on the other hand, argue that anarchist principles and ideals can be seen everywhere both in everyday life and in many protest movements and community initiatives across the globe. There is one specific protest that took place in 1999 in Seattle that arguably best encompasses the anarchist plight, this being the infamous World Trade Organisation (WTO) protest or the ‘Battle of Seattle’ (Britannica, n.d.). Whether named anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation or alter-globalisation, this movement inspired by the infamous Zapatistas five years prior is a fascinating example of anarchism in practice. The primary beliefs and aims of the movement are unusually broad and diverse for a protest movement, but are all centred predominantly around a rejection of the neo-liberal model of society. As Paul Kingsnorth would say, the movement is made up of ‘one no, many yeses’ (Kingsnorth, 2004). This essay will look to properly contextualise the anarchist elements of this movement, testing David Graeber’s claim that ‘anarchism is the heart of the movement, its soul; the source of most of what’s new and hopeful about it’ (Graeber, 2002). Working upon the three main themes of diversity and individual freedom, prefiguration and non-violence this essay argues that the true anarchist aspects of this movement are concerned less with their message and more with the methods of direct action used in conveying those messages. This is most significant as at the core of the movement the techniques of organisation employed are the most important aspects of their ideology and political objectives.

Writers on the subject of anarchism including David Graeber and Uri Gordon agree that anarchism since the very late twentieth century has experienced a revival in its connection with real world political action and activism. Some, including Tadzio Mueller categorise this modern incarnation of anarchist thought as ‘post-anarchism’, arguing that most ‘anarchist-inspired’ activists today ‘have not read Kropotkin, Bakunin, or even more contemporary anarchists such as Murray Bookchin, or did not read any of their works prior to thinking of themselves as anarchists’. As a result, they claim that ‘if anarchism is anything today, then it is not a set of principles and dogmas, but a set of practices and actions within which certain principles manifest themselves’ (Mueller, 2011). This supports Graebers belief that anarchism is the ‘heart of the movement’ while also demonstrating that it is the attitudes and techniques of direct action employed by the alter-globalisation movement that can be described as truly anarchist (Graeber, 2002).  Anarchism has been described by some including John Holloway and Tadzio Mueller as a ‘scream’, with Holloway explaining that ‘when we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream’ (Holloway, 2002). Mueller continues this line of belief, saying ‘anarchism is a scream, not of negation, but of affirmation’ continuing with the view that ‘it is about going beyond rejecting, about starting to create an alternative in the present to that which triggered the scream in the first place’ (Mueller, 2011). This form of anarchism is arguably what fuels the alter-globalisation movement, with the ‘scream’ in this particular case being the destructive effects of neo-liberalism.

Despite possibly not being familiar with it by name, this ‘process’ of direct action employed by the alter-globalisation movement can be seen as prefigurative (Maeckelbergh, 2011). Prefiguration is a key strand of the utopian and DIY culture aspect of anarchism that was arguably envisioned first by Peter Kropotkin but summed up best by Colin Ward’s famous quote: ‘an anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow’ (Ward, 1973). In the context of the alter-globalisation movement, this means that ‘rather than ends justifying means, the means of prefigurative politics reflect, or are somehow equivalent to, the ends’ (Yates, 2014). Supporting this, Martin Buber writes that the means must be ‘commensurate’ with the ends in order to be successful (Buber, 1958). It is this distinct departure from mainstream political modes that makes anarchism a better fit for such modern libertarian movements as opposed to Antonio Gramsci’s famous Marx-based theory of the ‘alternative civil society’ or ‘counter-hegemony’ (Mueller, 2011; el-Ojeili, 2014). The idea of anarchism as a ‘project’ is arguably more applicable to the alter-globalisation movement as through prefiguration it ‘sets out to begin creating the institutions of a new society within the shell of the old’, albeit completely separate from the current societies institutions (Graeber, 2004). As Marianne Maeckelbergh rightly says, ‘this movement does not seek to conquer the world; it seeks instead to build the world anew’; and it chooses to do this in large by taking ‘prefiguration as the most strategic means for bringing about the social change they desire’ (Maeckelbergh, 2011). As a result, this belief in prefiguration deeply rooted in anarchism effectively transcends the whole of the alter globalisation movement and acts as a base for their arguments and techniques. Graeber’s view that ‘It’s one thing to say, “Another world is possible”. It’s another to experience it, however momentarily’ typifies the effect prefiguration has on the alter-globalisation movement, stressing the importance of doing as opposed to simply saying (Graeber, 2002).

One of the primary arguments against neo-liberalism employed by the ‘far’ left is the fact that, for one, ‘the social-economic regime in question is not new; nor is it liberal’, and secondly ’The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy’ (Chomsky, 2010). The tagline ‘It’s democracy, stupid’ used by think tank Demos’ ‘agenda for self-government’ demonstrates rather effectively the central plight of the active, independent left. The argument provided by this paper is that ‘The goal of democracy is self government’, a central theme in also anarchist theory. Noam Chomsky supports this view but also brings forward the argument around organisation, indicating that contrary to popular opinion ‘anarchists have typically believed in a highly organised society, just one that’s organised democratically from below’ (Chomsky, 2013). As mentioned, organisation is a fundamental aspect of the alter-globalisation movement, just as the Zapatista movement was before. It could be said that the main inspiration of the alter-globalisation movement is the leader of the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos. His philosophy for organisation is centred around ‘explicitly rejecting vanguardism, denying he is leader of the movement, rejecting power seizure, and emphasizing instead the participatory organisation of society’, making him not only the ideal inspiration for the alter-globalisation movement but also a very credible real-world anarchist figure (el-Ojeili, 2014). Richard Day sees the alter-globalisation movement as being unique as it does not abide by what he calls the ‘hegemony of hegemony’, essentially the tendency of activist groups to mirror or even use the very ‘universal hierarchical forms’ they are trying to revolutionise (Day, 2011). Graeber too identifies this complete aversion to hegemonic norms as a key aspect of the movement, saying ‘It is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology’ (Graeber, 2002). While the movement has been criticised for not having a clear strategy or vision, this demonstrates exactly the opposite is actually true (Pinsky, 2013). Conversely, it could also be said that the movement is fulfilling anarchism’s inherent need for anti-authoritarian action that is organised ‘horizontally and in a de-centralized manner’ in a way that ‘defies hierarchy and leadership’ (Newman, 2011). While prefiguration is the ‘process’ of creating ‘alternatives’, the horizontal forms of organisation employed are arguably the alternatives themselves, being performed for the world to see much like the Los Indignados and resulting occupy movement have post-2010.

One of, if not the most, important aspects of the alter-globalisation movement to appreciate when assessing its anarchistic qualities is the use of non-violence. David Graeber sees this as a distinct strength of the alter-globalisation movement, writing that ‘what really disturbs the powers-that-be is not the ‘violence’ of the movement but its relative lack of it; governments simply do not know how to deal with an overtly revolutionary movement that refuses to fall into familiar patterns of armed resistance.’ (Graeber, 2002). On the same topic, Tim Jordan writes that ‘in societies saturated by media coverage and in which the possibilities for media production by grass-roots organizations have increased, the ability of non-violent protest to unveil the face of power has increased correspondingly’, supporting the idea that anarchism has in the late 20th and 21st century been able to utilise new technologies better than any other ideology (Jordan, 2002). Mahatma Gandhi is often referenced when discussing non-violence as his notion of ‘ahimsa’ emphasised the fact that ‘fighting the aggressors, the British, with their own tactics, violence, was not as effective as approaching them nonviolently’ (Szerszynski & Tomalin, 2004). George Woodcock also refers to Gandhi but in relation to Leo Tolstoy, a thinker who never regarded himself as anarchist yet ‘his complete opposition to the state and other authoritarian forms brings his ideas clearly within the orbit of anarchistic thought’. Tolstoy and his followers, identified by Woodcock as focused ‘largely on the creation of libertarian communities…within present society, as a kind of peaceful version of the propaganda by deed’ appear to draw many parallels with the alter-globalists (Woodcock, 1962). It is a pertinent example of the ways in which anarchism can transcend generation without those exercising it even knowing or acknowledging its existence. This is possibly a triumph of the anarchism as, unlike Marxism, it is not heavily centered around a set of staunchly held ideals but instead allows for individualism and self-organisation. Graeber believes the mantra of the new anarchist should be ‘If you are willing to act like an anarchist now, your long-term vision is pretty much your own business’ (Graeber, 2002). Indeed, it is not known exactly what will come of the non-violent direct action and organisation displayed in the alter-globalisation movement but this in many ways is part of its allure. With the importance of ‘alternatives’ being so overtly stressed in many of the articles and books outlined in this essay (Maecklenberg, 2011; Graeber, 2002; Holloway, 2010), the unknown is precisely the goal. This again returns back to the importance of prefiguration and organisation as there is the integral need to ‘become the type of person we would like to live in our communities’, with the ideal person in this case being independent, nonviolent and open to diversity among many other factors (Szerszynski and Tomalin, 2004).

As Graeber highlights, we must ask ourselves, especially those of us who are willing to engage in forms of direct action, ‘why an anarchist sociology doesn’t exist, or an anarchist economics, anarchist literary theory, or anarchist political science’ (Graeber, 2004). Key anarchist principles outlined by Graeber as ‘autonomy, voluntary association, self-organisation, mutual aid, direct democracy’ are all aspects of society that can and should be in every aspect of life, be that in relation to economics, politics or leisure. Alter-globalisation represents a movement that also in many ways believes just this. As there is no predetermined end-goal of the alter-globalisation movement other than the rather vague and nuanced belief that ‘another world is needed, together it is possible’, the impact of anarchist prefigurative principles are not only there for all to see but are also arguably the most important aspect of the entire undertaking (WSF, n.d.). Anarchism lies deep in possibly the two most important aspects of the alter-globalisation movement, these being its actions of non-violence and Maecklebergh’s ‘process’ or practice of prefiguration inherent in the form of direct action employed by groups such as the World Social Forum (Maeckleberg, 2011). If Tadzio Mueller’s statement ‘Anarchism is not primarily about what is written, but about what is done’ is to be taken as truth, whether or not they knowingly engage in the ideology itself, those involved in the alter-globalisation movement may well be some of the most prevalent and significant anarchists on the planet (Mueller, 2011).


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