Goblin comments on El Viejo's letter, and reflects on the "future in the present", the question of "violence", and current strategies within the counter-globalization movement.
[24 June 2001]
Dear El Viejo
I am perfectly sober now, drinking coffee and am happy to confirm with no hesitation that your piece is b r i l l i a n t!
Let me explain what I mean. Your piece does not just recognise the enemy within. That is part of the story, but this time let me say: forget the enemy for a minute! Let us talk about us, and only us.
Who is the "us" making up this international movement "against globalisation"? All sorts of people — from urban unemployed youth, to middle aged civil servants, from French and Indian peasants, to Italian rail workers and migrated academics, from students to indigenous peoples. Now, El Viejo, surely you would not expect all these various people to like the same films or music, have the same tastes, have the same daily routines and preoccupations, needs and aspirations. No, in fact many of them cannot stand each other (I don't know you, but I particularly do not like those among us who go around at gigs with rats on their shoulders).
Yet, all these people are an "us", and they are all "against" the same thing. Why would anyone expect that such a mixture of people would act on their opposition in the same way? Or according to some pre-given plan? Those who think it, 1. must be out of this world and have no sense of how life is; 2. must nurture control freak attitudes and want everybody to conform to their ways to do things; 3. need scapegoats to explain why the movement has not achieved more. Blaming others (for 'violence' or for 'non-violence') serves to evade political responsibility for one's own actions or non-actions. Such attitudes also allow various activists to avoid discussing these issues with each other (apart from insults), thereby reinforcing their self-righteous identity.
Note that those who demand uniformity are on both sides of the equation: they are both "revolutionaries" and "reformists"; "violents" and "non-violents". Does this mean that anything goes? No, of course not, because this would imply not taking responsibility for actions. Taking responsibility means to see one’s own behavior in a broader context, which includes also other people involved in the same struggle, but with different methods. Taking responsibility, for example, means not throwing bottles at the police from behind the lines of a non-violent sitin right in front of the police. Too many times I have seen this kind of irresponsible action. Taking responsibility means also that if someone is in a position to attack trade liberalisation in a mainstream newspaper (e.g. The Guardian), they should not pour unconditional and unqualified scorn at actions such as breaking some MacDonald's windows. Whatever one think about breaking windows, one should just step back and learn the lessons of history. One should realise that anti-globalisation writers on national papers are there also because someone in the recent past has smashed windows and symbols of global capital, thus drawing attention on the problem.
You see, this is not an issue of right or wrong behaviour as an instrument for achieving a certain end. Rather, it is an issue of mutual responsibility . I don't think anybody would consider part of their community "community" those who use them as a shield to throw stones at the police. It is also difficult for many to consider part of their community those who simply "condemn" property destruction on general moral grounds because, from a historical point of view, they should be grateful because their actions helped to advance their same cause. So if we do not act as part of the same community when we are demonstrating against the same thing, it is very easy to divide us through external means (media propaganda, criminalisation, divide and rule, etc.). Moreover, we lose a sense of what we are fighting for: because I thought we wanted a world fit for humans.
We have a problem here but also a great opportunity. The question of responsibility, of seeing oneself as part of a larger whole, means defining what we are for. If we act responsibly vis-á-vis each other, we are for community, for different kinds of social relations than those we are pressurized to live in a capitalist society. The competition of the latter forces us to be indifferent to each other, forces us to see the "other" only as an object threatening us. Not taking responsibility is reproducing this relation of indifference towards each other that we want to overcome. Because if in this movement we nurture individual freedom, we also nurture respect and dignity for the other. Can we turn the goal of our struggle into an organisational means of struggle? Can we turn the goal of a dignified future into a means for engaging in battle? How do we coordinate modes of actions of such a heterogeneous group of people?
Hey, wait a minute. This latter question is the central problem of the project for a new world If you think of "communism", "anarchy", "socialism" — or whatever you want to call it — then the central issue that this society would deal with differently is precisely HOW to co-ordinate the action of free individuals, such that their mutual relations are dignified. Freedom here is freedom of individuals fully aware of their roles in relations to the others. Freedom and responsibility are at the basis of the constitutive force that continuously renegotiates rules of engagement with the other.
The capitalist solves the problems of social co-ordination of production through impersonal mechanisms such as demand and supplies and prices. Freedom here is limited to the act of buying and selling. It therefore does not pose the problem of dignity, and the problem of responsibility means only obeying the given law, not direct empowerment to change it. The planners solve the co-ordination problem as given plan from above and police repression. Freedom here, is limited to the "freedom" to elect your planner, if you are lucky.
How do we solve this problem of co-ordination of individual freedoms? How do we approach the problem of unity within difference? Posing THIS question is to make a gigantic leap, because it means talking and practicing the future in the present, a talk and practice of new social relations now!
I think our approach should be based on the recognition of the "other" as part of the same "us". And this is what your piece manages to do so brilliantly. You see, it is not just a matter of saying OK, we are fighting against the same thing, but you have to do it in our way. No, this is NOT recognising the "other" as part of the same "us", but instead seeing the other as a means to us. Marx talked about the communal beings as the ones who see the "other" as a need for them.
You do exactly the same thing (see how brilliant you are!!), but in much more concrete and intelligible terms. You say, hey, look, the "violent" needs the "non-violent" actions, and vice versa: let’s start from this recognition first, and move forward from here. Once we recognise each other, we can move one step further and take up our responsibilities: are we doing gratuitous violence? Are we doing useless non-violence? Instead of posing the preacher/politician question of good or evil, of right or wrong, your intervention is strategic rather than moral, opening possibilities rather than closing them off. Nobody has the right recipe on how to change the world, so it is better change our ways to practice and to exemplify to all the world in which we want to live.
By recognizing the "other as a need for us", we start from the "goal" of our struggles. We want a society in which the other becomes a need for us, a society therefore based on dignity, respect, acknowledgment of each other humanity and worth, regardless of our differences —, whether they go around with rats, or with ties, whether they are gays, or straight, whether they are clerks, nurses, teachers, peasants, train drivers or steelworkers. In other words, your organisational starting point for the now, is "communism", the communal being. Wow, isn't this something?!
all the best