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Another World Is Possible... But What Kind, and Shaped By Whom?

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    by Cindy Milstein During the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting and related demonstrations in New York from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, the Village Voice put its finger
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 8, 2002
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      by Cindy Milstein

      During the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting and related demonstrations in
      New York from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, the Village Voice put its finger to the
      shifting political winds. That week's cover headline read, "Passing the
      Torch: Anarchists Pick Up Where Progressives Left Off," and the
      corresponding image depicted a middle-aged white male running in a business
      suit while handing off a Molotov cocktail to the young white male in
      "anarchistic" attire sprinting along behind him. While this front page could
      be critiqued for its damaging stereotype -- that all anarchists are
      youthful, violent Caucasian guys -- the article inside sympathetically
      acknowledged that "the anarchist fringe is fast becoming the movement's
      center." Anarchists are indeed outstripping progressives because they offer
      a form of contestation and transformation that speaks to the times -- a form
      in explicit opposition to the world's powerful elites, but one that also
      acts as a thorn in the side of many social justice activists.

      This is especially apparent when comparing the WEF to its critics: the
      simultaneous gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil of the World Social Forum
      (WSF) and the anti-capitalist convergence on NYC's streets.

      The WSF maintains in its slogan that "another world is possible." It is in
      fact not only possible but certainly probable, given that the process known
      as globalization, among numerous other remappings, is fundamentally
      reconfiguring power relations. And far from settled, the ability to
      (re)shape the world is being both openly and surreptitiously fought over by
      nation-states as well as transnational corporations, nonprofit organizations
      as well as the millions ravaged by the globalizing process, and many others.
      Some potential worlds could, of course, be more dystopian than today's --
      say, those asserted to be the divine word of a god or prophet by
      fundamentalists of all creeds. Yet even the more humane visions, like that
      of the WSF's, beg the questions, Whose world will it ultimately be? Who will
      make social, economic, political, and cultural decisions, and how? While
      there are multiple answers, they all emanate from one of two distinct poles
      of governance: centralist vs. decentralist, or to put it more starkly,
      authoritarian vs. anti-authoritarian.

      Of all the new authoritarian models, the WEF's can be said to be the most
      avant-garde. The WEF is ahead of its day in forging an organizational
      culture and structure capable of stylish world dominance in the age of
      globalization. It is certainly not alone in its quest to "further economic
      growth and social progress" for a limited few -- social progress being
      measured by economic growth. Institutions from the World Bank to the
      European Union to the U.S. government share the same pursuit. What sets the
      WEF apart is its innovative means, potentially making it all the more
      dangerous. To borrow its own language, the WEF's membership meets in "a
      unique club atmosphere," always luxurious, "to shape the global agenda," "to
      mold solutions," with the aim of controlling sociopolitico-economic
      processes to its own advantage.

      Such maneuverings have been militantly challenged at the WEF's past couple
      annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland. Part of the alleged reason the WEF
      ventured from its secluded retreat for the first time was to avoid this
      mounting resistance. The social costs, especially for the Swiss authorities,
      had gotten too high. WEF leaders also likely hoped to discredit such
      opposition altogether by meeting in New York City so soon after Sept. 11.
      They could claim to be both mourning the dead and doing their bit to rebuild
      NYC by convening at the opulent Waldorf-Astoria hotel. In contrast, so the
      WEF probably assumed, the protesters would be seen as funeral crashers,
      dishonoring the dead by running wildly through the streets of a
      still-grieving city without regard for property or propriety. Resistance
      would be irrevocably tainted, thereby allowing institutions like the WEF to
      go about the lofty mission of governing capitalist society without any pesky
      interference from "anti-globalist marginals," to cite one WEF member.

      To extend these speculations further, though, the best reason for trooping
      to Manhattan was to highlight the growing global influence of this
      relatively small, young organization. As 9-11 and the subsequent anthrax
      scare revealed, fixed and visible centers of power can be targeted and
      attacked. The physical homes of those institutions that have played such a
      large role in determining the postwar world economy (like the New York Stock
      Exchange) and geopolitics (like D.C.'s Capitol building) are at risk of
      being shutdown. The U.S. government, complacent with overconfidence in its
      own preeminence, still has the might to lash out violently at home and
      abroad, yet like all bloated empires, it tries to preserve its authority in
      the same tired ways, even as its leaner adversaries dream up new strategies
      to assume the mantle of global power broker. It could thus be argued that
      the WEF came to NYC precisely because Sept. 11 exposed
      America-the-superpower's vulnerability, thereby allowing the WEF to flaunt
      itself as heir to institutions like Wall Street and nation-states. Or at
      least hold itself up as a potentially more resilient form of domination --
      flexible, savvy, and placeless.

      The WEF boasts of being a trendsetter, and indeed it is. Started as a
      nongovernmental organization (NGO) in 1971, it brings together the best and
      brightest of the global power elites: 1,000 business leaders, 250 political
      leaders, 250 academic leaders, 250 media leaders, along with a sprinkling of
      labor, social justice, and entertainment leaders. They are leaders not
      because an electorate or the public says so but by virtue of their wealth,
      influence, and power, and their farsightedness in being able to maintain all
      three. This ensures that those most adept at foreseeing where the
      globalizing world might go, and hence most able to engage in steering its
      course, will constitute the WEF's fluid and, if needed, easily rearranged
      membership (witness the summary disinvitation of Enron's Ken Lay). These
      privileged few are bound to neither space nor place, geography nor
      nation-state. They are accountable only to themselves, and when it serves
      their self-interests, each other. In the WEF's own words, this NGO "is tied
      to no political, partisan or national interests" -- although "beholden to"
      would be more descriptive. It is as transnational and elastic as the form of
      capitalism it promotes. And in its extremely exclusive, private global
      clubhouse, glamorous hobnobbing among WEF members legislates real-world
      economic and social policy.

      Take just one iconic participant: Bill Gates. Money can't be his only goal;
      for eight years, he's been the world's richest individual. More pointedly,
      having achieved the near-monopolistic power to determine how humanity
      communicates electronically, Gates has now taken a philanthropic turn. He is
      busily deciding health care policies for whole countries and even continents
      by funding his version of wellness. This grand gesture includes creating
      mass dependency on a healthy dose of his corporate buddies' designer
      pharmaceuticals, particularly after Bill's donations run out. Even if he had
      only benevolent motivations, can one person know what's best for billions of
      peoples' bodies? As radical feminists have long contended, control over
      one's body relates to self-determination and social freedom as well as

      The "representative" democracy of many nation-states almost begins to look
      good by comparison, at least as a way to keep the WEF in check. But these
      same allegedly democratic countries, along with a host of blatantly
      undemocratic ones, are partners in and frequently under the sway of the WEF
      itself. Even at the tender age of three, the WEF could already claim in 1973
      to have "grown from humble beginnings" to be "the leading interface for
      global business/government interaction." Now in its yuppie prime, this NGO
      has developed its muscle by integrating countries -- from those in Latin
      America, the Middle East, and Africa, to Eastern and Central Europe, Asia,
      and even North America -- into its institutional frame, often well ahead of
      the so-called international community. As the "premiere gathering of world
      leaders in business, government, and civil society," an autonomous
      supranational body such as the WEF looks to limit the power of
      nation-states, not vice versa, and increasingly has the clout to do so. This
      is the hazy yet ever-sharper organizational outline for a potential form of
      one-world, nongovernmental governance, where a handful of individuals judge
      right and wrong by the bottom line of buy-sell relationships, unimpeded by
      constituents, much less ethical considerations, cultural constraints, or
      even anti-capitalist convergences.

      In this context, the WSF is held up as a promising candidate to stand
      against the WEF and campaign for a better world. Pulled together by eight
      NGOs as the socially oriented counterweight to the WEF, the WSF first
      convened last year in Porto Alegre during the WEF's Davos session. This
      year, the Brazilian meeting again purposefully coincided with the WEF's. As
      a "forum for debate" for all who seek an "alternative to [the] neoliberal
      model," the WSF "brings together and interlinks . . . organizations and
      movements of civil society from all the countries of the world" along with
      "those in positions of political responsibility, mandated by their peoples,
      who decide to enter into the commitments resulting from those debates."
      Certainly, the WSF and those who participate in this alternate forum place
      "special value on all that society is building to centre economic activity
      and political action on meeting the needs of people and respecting nature,"
      to again cite the WSF. And much-needed social justice work has and will come
      out of the WSF's relatively (in comparison to other global gatherings) open

      But wittingly or not, in trying to parallel the WEF's meetings as its
      alternative, the WSF ends up mimicking its hierarchical structure: a
      supranational, nongovernmental body that seeks to shape the global agenda,
      with no accountability to and far removed from those whose daily lives are
      affected. Like the WEF, the WSF offers an informal, fluid, and centralized
      networking environment for the globally influential -- in this case, those
      in the "nonprofit" and "movement" sectors. Such influence on the world
      stage, as the WEF wells knows, can soon translate into a power that rivals
      or exceeds that of nation-states.

      Once the WSF's annual meeting is seen as the premiere gathering of socially
      concerned leaders, which in two short years is already becoming apparent,
      its statements will carry extraordinary political weight and its "debates"
      will soon map out public policy. Big, bureaucratic NGOs will continue to
      flock to the WSF in ever-greater numbers; and unlike activists and
      community-based organizations operating on a shoestring, they will be able
      to attend meetings annually and serve as members of the organizing council
      in between. These NGOs, then, will largely set the themes and strategies
      discussed at the WSF, limiting from the start the concerns of grassroots
      groups and radical movements. Moreover, these NGOs have the financial and
      organizational resources to, at a minimum, lobby governments and
      corporations -- who are often involved with or monetarily supportive of
      these NGOs -- to implement their notions of social change, thereby assuring
      that any "change" accords nicely with the status quo. Or a la Gates, the
      NGOs can attempt to directly implement the ideas they themselves have
      developed at the WSF's annual gathering through global social service
      projects. Since these NGOs have their own agendas, such projects will always
      carry political, social, and/or cultural price tags. This might not be a
      problem were it not for the fact that as private, nongovernmental bodies,
      NGOs don't have to worry about participatory processes, accountability, or
      transparency. So much for representative democracy, much less community
      control or even public scrutiny.

      As the WSF gains in global influence it will even be courted, as it already
      was this year, by the very entity it set out to challenge, the WEF, which is
      perhaps able to recognize a kindred spirit well before the rest of us. This
      may have something to do with the WSF's mission itself, in that it neatly
      inverts that of the WEF's. Whereas the WEF views everything through an
      economic lens, and is thus concerned with social issues insofar as they
      hinder economic growth, the WSF views everything through a social lens, and
      is thus concerned with economic issues insofar as they hinder social
      justice. The WEF, for instance, troubles itself over a lack of water,
      education, or transport in countries because these basic necessities serve
      as vital infrastructure for economic expansion. (Besides, the utterly
      destitute don't make particularly robust markets and can even get unruly.)
      Conversely, the WSF strives to reduce economic exploitation because it
      limits peoples' access to essentials like jobs, food, or housing.
      Socioeconomics, or more precisely capitalism, can therefore be utilized for
      opposite ends: in the WEF's eyes, it is good for business; in the WSF's, it
      can instead help bring about social justice. The WSF displays the best of
      aims: to meet human needs in a just manner. But because it accepts only
      those possibilities obtainable within a capitalist society (say, higher
      wages) rather than those that may be generated by but also dismantle
      present-day social relations (like the end of the wage system altogether),
      the other world that is possible is already circumscribed, already damaged.

      Such thinking leads the WSF to attempt to ensure social equity by partnering
      with nation-states and international agencies. For example, the WSF was
      joined this year by the Forum of Local Authorities (including big-city
      mayors and administrators) and World Parliamentary Forum. These political
      leaders come from the same countries sending participants to the WEF; most
      political leaders have friendly if not intimate ties to the
      military-corporate complex via investment, consulting, or board of director
      seats; and they represent the same political entities that help perpetrate
      social injustice. True, the WSF hopes to heighten citizen participation in
      "democratic" (representative) nations and international bodies, and this
      would likely be an improvement for many people, but more input is
      nevertheless a far cry from actual power. "Participation" is the polite way
      of squashing popular movements by making people feel they finally have a
      place to be heard by those in positions of authority, who listen carefully
      in order to incorporate just enough of people's concerns to neutralize their
      discontent. But those at the top still get to have the final say. A glimpse
      of this strategy can be seen in the WSF's International Council, which
      resolved on Jan. 28-29, 2002, to continue to hold the "annual centralized
      WSF event," but as "the WSF takes on a worldwide character and acquires more
      support [that is, power], there must be more mobilization in the regions to
      encourage more participation from all the continents."

      If unaccountable, free-floating supranational bodies like the WEF and WSF
      prove themselves better able to determine "public" policy than so-called
      public servants elected in democratic republics, participation becomes even
      more meaningless (leading some to the regressive demand to strengthen
      nation-states). An influential few will have set themselves up as
      untouchable "leaders" more capable of knowing what's good for humanity than
      the vast majority of the world's peoples, who will be completely shut out of
      shaping the societies they want to live in. Indeed, eerily similar to the
      WEF’s notion of a "corporate citizenship" voting on the allegedly better
      society, the WSF proposes a "planetary citizenship." Who, pray tell, would
      govern this global citizenry?

      Lost in the WSF’s mission to bring about social justice, no matter how
      noble, is the very notion of freedom itself, of self-determination and
      self-governance, without which there can be no social justice. Surely the
      possible world of the WSF would be far preferable to the WEF's. Yet in
      attempting to oppose the WEF, the WSF only succeeds in offering a kinder,
      gentler version of top-down decision making, and hence offers no real
      alternative at all.

      Which brings us back to the anti-authoritarian "keepers of the flame"
      explored in the Voice article mentioned above, where writer Esther Kaplan
      observes that anarchists don't oppose "the WEF just because their policies
      exploit the poor, but because their power is illegitimate. [Anarchists]
      envision an egalitarian society without nation states, where wealth and
      power have been redistributed, and they take great pains to model their
      institutions in this vein." David Graeber echoes this in his recent In These
      Times piece: the anti-capitalist convergence during the WEF meeting held out
      "new forms of radically decentralized direct democracy [as] its ideology. If
      nothing else, the 'bad' protesters have managed to prove that they can do
      anything the (hierarchical) NGOs or unions can, probably much better."

      As NGOs and social justice activists bailed out of the WEF demonstrations
      from fear in the post-Sept. 11 climate and/or the desire to be part of the
      more high-profile, safe WSF in Brazil, a variety of anti-authoritarians were
      handed the reigns of the U.S. direct action movement (re)birthed in Seattle.
      They became the main organizers and spokespeople for the pivotal NYC
      convergence. Thus, even the mainstream media were forced to cover anarchist
      beliefs and visions -- which, of course, have been there all along -- if
      they wanted to report on the convergence at all. So despite the usual
      demonizations in the corporate press (as in the case of another Voice
      article, titled "Law of the Fist," that basically labeled anarchists "Al
      Qaeda-like"), it became a fairly universal assertion that anarchism was
      openly opposed to capitalism and just as openly for direct democracy. This
      was especially so among the participants themselves. While for
      anti-authoritarians direct democracy can include everything from collectives
      and affinity groups to worker and/or neighborhood councils, acting in
      networks or confederations that keep power at the grass roots, most concur
      that self-governance must be part and parcel of present as well as future
      forms of social organization. Nowhere at the North American convergences of
      the past few years has this been more palpable, more public.

      Instead of signaling the death knell for resistance and reconstruction, New
      York's demonstration may just have "normalized" anti-authoritarians' notions
      of social and political contestation, whether one is an anarchist or not.
      The use of substantively participatory decision-making processes before and
      during the WEF convergence, while not perfect, were nonetheless able to
      settle on street tactics that were sensitive to the feelings generated by
      Sept. 11, especially in NYC, and hence thoughtfully somber and restrained.
      Though comparatively dull for the marchers, not to mention the media and
      police, this explicitly anti-capitalist event not only reasserted that
      resistance is permissible again after 9-11's tragedy but that it is
      increasingly necessary and courageous in light of new, rapidly consolidating
      forms of global authoritarianism. More important, it helped to vindicate and
      validate liberatory alternatives.

      Such alternatives have of late flickered momentarily though brightly at
      anti-capitalist convergences and in localized anarchist projects, but also
      in everything from the spontaneous gatherings of diverse New Yorkers in
      Union Square right after Sept. 11 to the banging of pots and pans during
      protests in Argentina by the middle class. Catalyzing the desire for
      self-organization, however, is not enough. As the WEF's and WSF's of the
      world duel it out to gain centralized power for themselves, anarchists must
      struggle for popular self-government as a dual form of power, and support
      those who are doing likewise.

      The Zapatistas, along with other revolutionaries before them, have already
      shown that declarations of "democracy, freedom, justice" resonate. But they
      have proved as well that municipalities can strive to become autonomous from
      statecraft and capital, to put human and ecological concerns first, while
      retaining regional and global links of solidarity and mutual aid. Such is
      one form of dual power emanating from an anti-authoritarian vision of social
      transformation. There are now hints of others, still in their infancy: the
      European Social Consulta (ESC) and the neighborhood assemblies in Argentina.
      While the ESC is being intentionally organized by those who already consider
      themselves radical and the assemblies have been organically established by
      many who have never seen themselves as political before, both imply that all
      are capable of self-legislating, self-managing, and self-adjudicating the
      good society.

      The ESC is doing this explicitly by attempting to create a common meeting
      space that connects local and regional groups and social movements in a
      "horizontal and decentralized fashion." As the ESC's proposed hallmarks
      insist, this requires "a call for critical reflection, debate, direct action
      and the development of alternatives to the current system as tools for
      social transformation." It entails the rejection of capitalism as well as
      "all forms and systems of domination and discrimination." Significantly,
      both in its internal structure and how it hopes to engage society at large,
      the ESC affirms "direct and participatory democracy and the capacity of all
      human beings to create the world in which they want to live and to actively
      participate in the decisions that most affect them." Still in the formative
      stage, the ESC may fail to live up to its own aspirations, much less reach
      out beyond a small circle of radicals. In the meantime, though, it is an
      inspiring example of a prefigurative effort aimed at forging another
      possible world. For instance, one ESC proposal is to bring issues raised at
      local assemblies together at a European-level social consulta during the
      European elections of 2004, thereby dramatically contrasting direct to
      quasi-representative democracy and perhaps unleashing dual power
      institutions in the process.

      Argentina's neighborhood assembly movement is already asserting itself as
      such. A spiraling sense of desperation and powerless have combined to force
      people not only out onto the streets to loudly demonstrate but into an
      empowering dialogue with their neighbors about what to do next -- on the
      local, national, and global levels. Since late Dec. 2001, some fifty
      neighborhoods have been holding weekly meetings and sending delegates every
      Sunday to an inter-neighborhood general coordinating gathering. The
      anarchist Argentine Libertarian Federation Local Council writes that the
      assemblies have been "formed by the unemployed, the underemployed, and
      people marginalized and excluded from capitalist society: including
      professionals, workers, small retailers, artists, craftspeople, all of them
      also neighbors." As the Libertarian Federation notes, "The meetings are open
      and anyone who wishes can participate," and common to all assemblies is the
      "non-delegation of power, self-management, [and a] horizontal structure." It
      is too early to say whether these assemblies will function as participatory
      stepping stones to a reformed version of the same old governmental
      structures or supply Argentineans with a glimpse of their own ability to
      make public policy together, all the time. But for the moment, the
      Libertarian Federation reports that "the fear in our society has turned into
      courage. . . . There is reason to hope that all Argentineans now know for
      certain who has been blocking our freedoms."

      At worst, such fragile experiments will serve as reminders to future
      generations that anti-authoritarian ways of making social, economic,
      political, and cultural decisions are a tangible alternative. At best, they
      will widen into dual powers that can contest and perhaps even replace not
      only old but also new forms of domination. Anarchists and like-minded others
      have been handed a torch that points beyond what is possible today, toward
      an impossibly wonderful tomorrow. How far can we now run with it?


      1. Esther Kaplan, "Keepers of the Flame," Village Voice, 5 Feb. 2002

      2. World Economic Forum (http://www.worldeconomicforum.com).

      3. World Social Forum (http://www.forumsocialmundial.org).

      4. David Graeber, "Reinventing Democracy," In These Times, 20 Feb. 2002

      5. Richard Esposito, "Law of the Fist," Village Voice, 22 Jan. 2002

      6. European Social Consulta (http://www.consultaeuropea.org).

      7. Argentine Libertarian Federation Local Council, "Argentina: Between
      Poverty and Protest," trans. Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan

      Thanks to Rob Augman for his helpful comments. Cindy is a faculty member at
      the Institute for Social Ecology (http://www.social-ecology.org), a board
      member for the Institute for Anarchist Studies
      (http://flag.blackened.net/ias), and a columnist for Arsenal: A Magazine of
      Anarchist Strategy and Culture (http://www.azone.org/arsenalmag/). She can
      be reached at cbmilstein@.... (March 2002)
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