Brian Holmes on Fri, 21 Dec 2001 00:19:37 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Over the Top in Brussels?

Over the Top in Brussels?

Someone held up a hand-painted red sign over the heads of the crowd at
Bockstael square in Brussels. An arrow pointed straight ahead: "Top," it
said  the Dutch word for "summit." Another curved off to the right: "Legal
Route," it read. It was the direct-action way to ask all the demonstrators
to think about what we were actually doing, there on Bockstael square. But
when the huge, rolling Oxfam globe with its costumed dancers gesticulating
out of the continents finally turned right, everyone just followed without
asking too many questions. And from then on, the whole demonstration seemed
scripted in advance. The words "No Red Zone," also written on the sign,
were in vain. Nobody bothered the leaders in their castle.

The protests around the EU summit in the palace of Laeken, Belgium, got
huge popular support despite the freezing wind. At least 80 thousand people
came out for the union march on December 13, plus another 25 thousand for
the "alternative" demo the next day  and on Saturday, the anarchists and
the Bruxxel street party met to find their own way through the city. But
the union march, which set off on a short and boring straight-line route to
finish under huge hanging video screens and a sound system worthy of a
football match, was overflowing with painfully reformist slogans like
"Europe  that's us." Yeah, that's us, dumped like dead leaves whenever
there's a dip in the profit rate. As for the alternative demonstration
organized by a coalition of NGOs and far-left political groups, not only
did it take the legal road and veer off towards an uninhabited industrial
zone, it also ended up inside a fenced complex reached by a relatively
narrow gate, which of course the protestors had to close when the police
began provoking them with a water canon. Result: a few thousand people were
forced to submit to the humiliation of "selective searches" just to leave
the place where they'd gathered to talk politics, and about 25 were
arrested. Only the street party refused to have its path preordained  but
even it had to stand still and nervous for an hour, surrounded by legions
of state police while local burgermeisters negotiated. The entire series of
demonstrations amounted to an object lesson in control and neutralization.

"What do you want?" people kept asking me. "More violence, like in Genoa?"
Not at all. We had to avoid a sterile confrontation that could only be used
against us, and we did. That's totally positive. There are no terrorists in
the movement for egalitarian, democratic exchanges, and the whole challenge
of the Laeken protests was to get beyond the double specter of useless
street violence and September 11. But in a time of increasing popular
support in Europe, that doesn't mean we should just give up all our
strength. In Brussels, the different strands of the movement conspired
among each other to separate, the better to be identified and controlled by
the coercive powers of Belgian/European state. Unions one day, NGOs and
splinter parties the next, freaks and pinks and anarchists on the weekend.
What we didn't have was political solidarity across the whole social
spectrum, like in Genoa. 

Do you ever get the feeling someone's watching every move you make? The
Rand corporation represents a typically American way of gaining the high
ground, by concentrating huge intellectual resources and then openly
publishing the results. They've just released a new book on "social
netwar," with a chapter specifically on Seattle, which you can download for
nothing ( The author of chapter 7
claims that no leftist organization has analyzed why N30 was such a great
success, but that many law-enforcement and government agencies have done
so. So why were the actions against the WTO in Seattle so powerful? In the
broadest terms, because they achieved a kind of contamination between the
"normally" separate movements of trade unionists, NGOs and think tanks, and
anarchists looking to make direct democracy happen on the street. That
convergence was no accident: it was made possible by the members of the
Direct Action Network, who figured out how to non-violently immobilize the
Seattle police at a moment when anything could happen, when union marchers
could join ecologists to go see where the smoke was coming from (and maybe
run into the Black Bloc on the way). The DAN used precise lock-down and
civil disobedience techniques, carried out by trained activists, to produce
a strategically designed chaos that was stronger than any order the
National Guard could try to "reestablish." And on the ground, everyone was
sharp enough to see a great chance to actually make a difference, rather
than just watching the human and other ecologies get stamped underfoot. In
other words, the real activists in Seattle set up the conditions for
spontaneous self-organization.

Do we have to leave the Rand corporation on top today? For sure, it's
unlikely that another Seattle is going to fall ripe into our hands. Not
just the police but also the politicians have done their homework.
Everything will be done to keep the union marches as far from the
anarchists as possible, and special "negotiating tables" (with sleeping
pills in the champagne) will be laid for every NGO or union boss gullible
enough to think that you get reform without the threat of revolution.
Divide and co-opt when you can, channel and neutralize when you can't,
arrest whatever's left over: that's the Belgian solution (I guess Freud
would've called it "a progress in civilization"). But if we analyze what
their response has been, and make it public, then we can keep turning the
tables, again and again, until substantial change starts to appear in a
world-system whose dangerous and morbid nature is coming clearer all the
time, for instance right now in IMF-battered Argentina.

Ronfeldt and Arquilla (the Rand twins) talk a lot about "swarms." Means:
something a lot like the unpredictable but precisely motivated
self-organization of a mass-individual event, like a contemporary
demonstration. Why not be aware of precisely the point where people power
is the strongest, and play it to the hilt? First of all, a movement that's
been based from the word go on direct action ought to admire those 50 Dutch
and Belgians who occupied the CEFIC, that is, the European Chemical
Industry Council, on December 12. Brussels is full of lobbies like that:
the European Round Table of Industrialists, the Trans-Atlantic Business
Dialogue, UNICE (the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations of
Europe)  and the whole life of these organizations is a crime against
democracy, it's legitimate that they be closed down immediately. It's even
more legitimate if union members, ecologists, leftists and anarchists get a
flyer or an email explaining exactly what's going on, while it's happening,
with an address and an arrow on the map. We can't fall into the illusion
that just having everybody queue up separately on a different day to kiss
the shields of the friendly, public-service police is really going to stop
the engines of neoliberal globalization. But the people-swarms on the
indispensable days of global action can be doubled and tripled by idea- and
action-swarms that out-race and out-proliferate the co-optation of those
enlightened men who govern us. So Jospin talks about globalization with a
human face? Let's display the faces of all those French transnational
companies laying off people in Brazil while their partner companies cut the
work force in Paris and pollute the water in the Bouches-du-Rhone. So Blair
talks about education? Why don't signs on the street corners compare what
it now costs to get through college in Britain, compared to just five years
ago? So Aznar's flunkies mutter about the Moroccans taking away Spanish
jobs? Let's see how many Andalou tomatoes are produced by men and women
with on sub-minimum wages, under semi-legal conditions with new papers
authorizing exploitation - and let's talk about the Universal Embassy back
in Brussels at the same time. 

Traditional governing "strategy" meant looking down from the top on all the
fools below, who could be channeled into whatever path the powerful would
like to see them take. Networked strategy means the self-coordinated action
of intelligent people who refuse their supposed destiny, looking up past
the leaders, past the summits, toward a better future. The danger right now
is that the last two or ten years of tremendous effort (depending on who
you are)  might just vanish into the thin air of that cold night when your
little splinter-group finds itself all alone against the police force and
their giant tweezers. Now the powers-that-be think they know exactly how to
deal with "the new kids on the black block": you make some into partners,
some into criminals, and just let the others hold their carnivals under
surveillance. But the better future is that we just keep on taking the
lead, learning from our own inventions and continuing to risk every kind of
crossover, every promising and positive combination, between the religious
and ecologist NGOs, the revolutionary networks, the critical think tanks,
the leftist workers' parties, the anarchists and all the people who don't
even want one of those names, or neoliberal globalization either. We have
too much new knowledge at our finger- and tongue-tips to just give into
prescripted scenarios. If we develop that knowledge, and share it with our
neighbors  the way neighbors were talking to neighbors everywhere last
week in Brussels  then there isn't any reason why we can't continue
turning the tables on the top-down theory of capitalist globalization.

Brian Holmes

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