Sunday, December 12, 2004

The world is made up of stories, not atoms

Author: Uri Gordon
Originally published on 'Institute for Anarchist Studies'


A review of:

  • We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-Capitalism edited by Notes from Nowhere (London/New York: Verso, 2003).

  • One No, Many Yesses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement by Paul Kingsnorth (London: Free Press, 2003).

Since the best-seller success of No Logo , the non-fiction market has seen a veritable torrent of books about "The Movement." Fascinated with the first wave of grassroots resistance to present a truly global face in real-time rather than in retrospect, scores of journalists, academics, commentators, and self-appointed "leaders" have taken a stab at publishing their own accounts and analyses. Thus, faced with the present publications, one might naturally want to ask: "Do we really need another two books about global anti-capitalism?" In these instances, the answer is perfectly clear: given the combination of inspiring text, poster-perfect photography, and inclusive anti-authoritarianism, it would be hard to get enough of them.

The key to what makes both We Are Everywhere and One No, Many Yesses so attractive is their shared point of departure, captured in the title of this review borrowed from poet Muriel Rukeyser. It is the understanding that what makes the global movement tick-more prosaically, what enables the global sense of solidarity that connects diverse struggles around the world-is not shared structures, agendas, or even enemies, but stories . At protest camps and social centers, in zines, and online, the first thing rebels do when they meet is tell each other their stories-where they're coming from, why they struggle, what they have done, and how they imagine the future. Instead of standing back from the stories or trying to read them selectively in the service of one agenda or another, both of these books do what nobody has really tried before: they honestly attempt to immerse themselves in the movement's polyphony, making the stories their primary subject-matter. Paul Kingsnorth invites us to join him on his own journey "into the heart" of the movement, a journey that takes him around the world from one site of resistance to another; his own experiences and descriptions are bound together by the narratives he gathers from interviewees. We Are Everywhere is even more centrally about telling good stories: the voices are entirely those of the movement itself. Far more than an anthology, it is an attempt to allow as many of these voices as will fit between two covers to do their own talking, directly out of the struggles of the past ten years.

Some points worthy of criticism do remain, but overall these books represent two of the most encouraging contributions to the project of charting the diversity of global resistance, and anti-authoritarians are bound to enjoy and learn from them.


We Are Everywhere

In the foreword, the members of the aptly named Notes from Nowhere editorial collective describe their effort as falling "somewhere between an activist anthology and a grassroots history, agitational collage and direct action manual," bringing together accounts of a global movement told by those who are actually part of it:

We wanted a way to document, broadcast and amplify these unheard stories coming from the grassroots movements that have woven a global fabric of struggle during the last decade.... These are moments both intimate and public, charged with inspiration, fear, humour, the everyday, and the historic.


Like this movement, we relish intimacy, subjectivity, and diversity, and we think that personal stories have as much (if not more) to teach us than any manifesto. In this we differ from many past traditions of struggle. We are part of a new, radical, transformative politics based on direct democracy; one that values our individual voices, our hopes, our joys, out doubts, our disasters, and requires no sacrifice from us except that we sacrifice out fear. 1

From the start, We are Everywhere was an inside job. The editorial collective is composed of Katharine Ainger, Graeme Chesters, Tony Credland, John Jordan, Andrew Stern, and Jennifer Whitney-all seasoned activists from Europe and North America, variously involved with Reclaim the Streets, Indymedia, Peoples' Global Action, and similar anti-authoritarian formations. The materials are truly global in scope, containing everything from the declaration of the Thai "Assembly of the Poor" to interviews with Argentinean workers and piqueteros to post-summit dispatches, and analyses culled from websites and activist e-lists. The richness of stories and documents is staggering.
Such a load of raw material takes a lot of intelligence to put in semblance of order, but to their credit the editors have managed to do so coherently and attractively. 2 Instead of deliberating between a chronological and a thematic approach, they have seamlessly combined the two by arranging the material in five interweaving threads. The bedrock of the book is a time-line of events, "The Restless Margins", which runs from cover to cover at the bottom of the page. It chronicles every major protest, occupation, and strike that has taken place around the world over the past decade, beginning on New Years day 1994, with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. 3 The bulk of the book, fifty-odd stories and documents from around the world, roughly corresponds to this time-line, but at the same time they are sorted in six thematic sections entitled "Emergence," "Networks," "Autonomy," "Carnival," "Clandestinity," and "Power." Each section opens with an introductory essay by the editors, who also provide background material at the opening of some of the stories as well. Finally, interspersed among the stories in each section are two further types of material: thirteen one-page "shorts" on different aspects of direct action (among them affinity groups, guerrilla gardening, culture jamming, and jail solidarity); and summaries of the major "Global days of action," beginning on May 16 th 1998 (the first Global Street Party) and concluding with October 12 th 2002 (solidarity with Argentina).

It is clearly impossible to do justice to over five hundred pages of stories, but here is a brief selection to give you a taste. On page 122, the Brazilian Landless Worker's Movement (MST) squats a corporate plantation and spends the night resisting the owners' strongmen in their Toyota vans:

The next day was full of activity. The camp had survived the first crucial 24 hours and the news spread like wildfire in the region. People began pouring in from the neighbouring villages. A delegation arrived from Cruz de Reboucas, begging the MST to send another bus to the shanty town to pick them up, but Cicero was adamant: "The bus came for you on Sunday morning, and you weren't there. If you want to join our camp now, you'll have to find your own transport." Somehow, they managed and a dozen or so families arrived a few hours later. More commissions were set up ... to build more tents; to set up communal kitchens; to organize literacy classes for adults and children; to set up a women's collective.... Everyone was busy.” 4

One difficulty with the material representing movements in the global South, acknowledged by the editors, is that much of it was actually written by Northern activists working with those movements. To be sure, this is merely the inevitable if unfortunate result of language and distance, and of the fact that people struggling for their livelihoods and homes often have better things to do than write materials for a Northern publication that they can't afford to purchase. However, this also points to a broader issue, namely that the inspiration we garner from the global nature of present-day struggle is in most cases a mediated experience, passing through the filter of the written word and web-based communication. Where this experience is more immediately accessible-at global convergences like summits or social forums-it remains largely a privileged one. I do not mean to channel these considerations in the direction of a fruitless guilt trip, but rather to occasion some reflection on how to compensate for these limitations. One possibility is to read We Are Everywhere as a book which points the reader, Zapatista-style, to what it is not-prompting us to recall, and create, our own stories of resistance at home. Thus, in matters of inspiration just as in matters of action, we are called upon to remember that the global retains its value only inasmuch as it leads us back towards the local, towards the inspiration each of us can draw from our own everyday resistance.

It is quite hard to absorb the wealth of materials included in We Are Everywhere , and the editors probably intended to convey just such an impression-a swarm of events, pictures, and voices that tries to come as close as possible to representing an adequate picture of the diversity and spontaneity of global anti-capitalism. As a result of this ordered chaos, We Are Everywhere is best taken in small tastes, one story or section at a time. Or, as one member of the editorial collective recently told me, "Keep it in the toilet." This approach to the book betrays a little secret about We Are Everywhere : it isn't only a book about the movement, it is also written in large part for it. Somehow the book comes across as an activist extravaganza, a celebration of all the ruckus we've caused over the past few years and, as the title suggests, a call to pride and solidarity that becomes tangible through the perception of a common struggle.

Nonetheless, the book will also appeal to a general audience. Its opulent design and "high production values" make it an attractive candidate for any non-fiction section. At this point, I might add that precisely because of its lavish presentation and epic scale, We Are Everywhere would have greatly benefited from a larger format (it is only 5''x7'' in size) and from the printing of at least a few of its spectacular inner-page photographs in colour. Considering that the book is going for a sweet £10.99 / $16.99 on retail and that the editors are donating all royalties to the movement, the cocktail-party socialists at Verso could have been a little less stingy.

Politically speaking, the book represents as much of a diversity as can be expected from the editors' inclusive approach to the basic anti-authoritarian spirit of the movement. While there are certainly some contributions from a self-defined anarchists, much of the inspiration for We Are Everywhere comes from the larger part of the movement, one that espouses a grassroots version of bottom-up social power without viewing itself in terms of the western anarchist tradition. This broad approach to the movement, as a network of affinities that transcends any strictly-defined political perspective, underlines the resistance to orthodoxy that has become a linchpin of the new anarchism. This makes way for cooperation and solidarity not on the basis of a capital-A banner, but rather on the basis of a recognition of shared values such as self-organization, spontaneity, creativity, decentralization, direct action, and the rejection of both reform and seizure of state power. Whatever we choose to call their sum-total (and for me "anarchism" is as good a label as any), the point we encounter again and again throughout this book is that it is these values rather than any vanguardist pipe-dreams that define social resistance today.

Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of affinity between We Are Everywhere and contemporary anarchist accounts relates to the dual nature of the revolutionary project-a double movement of resistance and creation, destruction and constitution of alternatives. In the final thematic essay, "Power", the editors write:

"'We renounce power,' says activist Raul Gatica, from the Mexican Indigenous People's Council of Oaxaca, 'and build in the immediate now a different way of being.' Keeping the balance between resistance and reconstruction, between saying no to 'power over' and building our collective 'power-to' at the same time, is key to the success of our movements. In other words, we say no by constructing our yeses.... When those resisting on the streets are also involved in the creative acts of building new ways of living, we reduce the danger that our radical political analysis might become disconnected from the everyday needs of ordinary people. When those working to develop alternatives participate in moments of confrontation and conflict, they are reminded of the system of oppression, they reaffirm their identity as different and they remember what it is they don't want to build." 6


One No, Many Yesses

If We Are Everywhere is ideal reading for the toilet, then Paul Kingsnorth's book is exactly what you'd want to give to your grandmother who wonders what this activism thing is all about. Unlike other books on the movement intended primarily for the "general reader," Kingsnorth decided not to employ any the usual formats of second-hand reportage, highly opinionated writing, or academic data-crunching. Instead, he has written a travelogue.

Starting in 2001 Kingsnorth trekked the world over, visiting all the famous anti-capitalist hot-spots (Chiapas, Durban, Cochabamba, Porto Alegre, New York, Genoa), playing "participating observer" and conducting interviews with activists. Backing this up with plenty of facts and a down-to-earth analysis of his topics, the result is a thorough, well-researched, and eminently readable presentation of the movement and its key agendas on a global scale.

After an introductory chapter set in Chiapas, the book is divided in two parts. The first, "One No," begins with Genoa and the third global conference of the PGA in Cochabamba, moving on to post-Apartheid South Africa, anti-consumerism and culture jamming in the US, and the West Papuan resistance movements. The latter was, for me, the most interesting chapter in the book. Still "off the map" for many activists in the North, West Papua is a region where some of the worst abuses of human rights and ecological balance are occurring today. Suffering under Indonesian occupation for over forty years, West Papua has more recently been opened up to almost limitless exploitation by multinationals. Kingsnorth does a very good job of presenting the reality of this very surreal place, meeting with members of resistance groups and clarifying the relationship between the colonial and neoliberal aspects of the situation. 8


The second part of the book, "Many Yesses," naturally begins at Porto Alegre, the supermarket of alternatives, and moves on to the exploits of the MST in Brazil and of U.S. citizens undermining large corporations and building community power. The manifold examples of such efforts, especially in the global South, remain an important source of insight-not necessarily because of the particulars of this or that form of action, but more fundamentally because such alternatives invariably remain grounded in the very tangible, pedestrian needs and desires of those who create them. Prognostic blueprints, as most of us are realizing, never match the flowering of the unexpected. When people decide to take matters into their own hands for a change, anything can happen.


Kingsnorth takes on something of a literary approach in this book, at least as far as his own person is concerned. As someone who was involved in road protests in the early nineties, helped set up the Free West Papua Campaign, and worked for two years as deputy editor of The Ecologist (where he was a blessed thorn in the side of Monsanto), I seriously doubt whether he knew as little as he pretends to have known about capitalism, and the movements resisting it, when he set out to write this book. But Kingsnorth not only makes the entirely reasonable decision to assume no prior knowledge or involvement on the part of the reader, he also internalises this position in his own presentation. Thus his account reads as the discovery quest of a sympathetic outsider, an average British bloke who just wants to know what this is all really about. By sounding curious, he draws the reader's curiosity. This is, I think, largely a show-Kingsnorth masters his material, and can conjure up all the facts and figures he needs when he needs them. But the effect, in literary terms, is successful and actually quite pleasing:

As the dancing goes on, and the night draws in, and everyone gets progressively more drunk, including me, I look around me and I realise something. It's when everyone is up and moving, ripping and running around in mad circles to the Che Guevara song, under a waving, multicoloured, chequered flag; the symbol of the campesino farmers of Latin America. I'm being swung from South African to Colombian to ecologist to anarchist, from Brazilian to Bangladeshi, from cocalero to tribesman, all of them grinning madly, most of them dancing badly and me worst of all.

It's when I look around and see that everyone who surrounds me-all colours, from all corners, all together even as they are so far apart-all of them, all of these people, are determined and somehow together. I realise that they have between them something too powerful to wash away.... I can't see anything that will shut them up, shut them down, make them go home quietly and stop causing so much trouble. Apart from winning. 7

The book closes with a concluding, "what do we do?"-type of chapter, which is the only real disappointment. Kingsnorth is still wedded to the ideas that NGOs and lobbyists were trumpeting around the time of Seattle, namely that the problems all boil down to bad governance. Thus, the extent of systemic change he proposes is to replace present-day institutions with better ones-a global fair trade regime instead of the WTO and IMF, a reconstructed UN with real power for the Third World, no privatization for public goods. All of which is supposed to clear the ground for people building their own solutions from the ground up-solutions like a bias in favour of local businesses and trade, political parties that actually speak in different voices. You get the picture. It is curious that Kingsnorth so openly celebrates the anti-hierarchical sensibilities of the global movements, but gives them only lip service when it comes to appreciating the degree of change that they prefigure. As for the possibility of achieving these goals-it is sometimes hard to say who is more naïve, the "radical reformers" of global governance or those of us who believe that in a fight that often seems hopeless, we might as well put our energies into abolishing governance altogether.

But these proposals, for all their limitations, are hardly the point of the book. Overall, they don't cloud the book's main agenda, which is to present the movements in accessible, intelligent and interesting ways, faithful to their own realities. Kingsnorth lets neither figures nor polemic obscure the living voices of the people he encounters on his journey, and weaves together the stories of resistance from around the world with skill. His human touch makes One No, Many Yesses simply a good read for mainstream audiences, which is what is most missing from a lot of the literature. Ask your grandmother.

Endnotes

1. Notes from Nowhere, eds., "Opening Salvo," in We Are Everywhere (London: Verso, 2003), 14.

2. Fair disclosure: an excerpt from my own report after Genoa is also included somewhere in We Are Everywhere , and I'm friends with three of the editors. But neither circumstance is the cause for my very favourable response to this book.

3. More than a convenient starting point, it seems that the Zapatista trajectory-extending through the Encuentros , the beginnings of Peoples' Global Action and the first large-scale global protests-firmly grounds both these books' meta-narratives.

4. Sue Branford and Jan Rocha, "Cutting the Wires: the landless movement of Brazil," in We Are Everywhere , 131-2.

5. Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, "The Anticipated First," in We Are Everywhere , 210.

6. Notes from Nowhere, "Power," in We are Everywhere , 392-393.

7. Paul Kingsnorth, One No, Many Yesses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement (London: Free Press, 2003), 84-5.


8. A good online portal is http://www.westpapua.net/.

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