Rhythms of a Movement: 20 years since the battle of Genoa.

(In memory of a fallen comrade – Carlo Vive!)

(An uncomprehensive look back on the era of the counter summit, anti-capitalist movement inspired by the recent 20th anniversary of the G8 protests in Genoa. Not going into detail about specific events or the content of debates, just a general reflection on lessons learned and some of the tactics, ideas and cultural markers that circulated during that time.)

The size, force and fury of the protests that confronted the G8 when it met in Genoa marked the peak of what was being called the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement. This naming never sat right with many of us who were around at the time for numerous reasons including that, to whatever extent it was a coherent ‘movement’, it tied together a series of disparate rebellious moments and ongoing struggles that occurred across the globe. The common affect of that time could most precisely be described as a sense of connection that we were part of the same thing happening in so many parts of the world. So instead of ‘anti-globalisation’, I’m going to refer to this as the ‘anti-capitalist’ movement, even though that isn’t perfect too.

Building anti-capitalist knowledges from disparate sources

One of the defining aspects of an upsurge in social struggle are the forms of knowledge that are generated and how these circulate, seeping into a broader societal consciousness. At the level of analysis, of creating a generalised understanding of the systemic conditions which shape our lives and the world we inhabit, the era of the summit protests made popular a wide-ranging discourse around its core idea: anti-capitalism. This wasn’t one central theory but a series of divergent, and sometimes conflicting, ideas and experiences.

Included in the discourse that was generated was a long-running tension between those who sought to rescue capitalism from its own excesses – to somehow make it more benevolent – and those who understood it as irredeemable. The first group tended to coalesce around social-democratic institutions and think tanks, the NGO sector and middling celebrity self-promoters such as Bono and claimed their space at counter convergences like the World Social Forum. These snake-oil merchants – too invested in their own place within current economic and social relations to seek to overturn them – and the debates induced by their position, did still play a role in the development of a knowledge of capitalist economics and critiques of it. There was the naming of neoliberalism as the stage of capitalism that we were living through, with varying degrees of requisite understanding about its global reach and inter-connectedness, and how it had developed from previous stages. ‘Free trade agreement’ and ‘special economic zone’ became terms that were in common usage.

Beyond the beige reformists, a whole world of people and communities in struggle contributed to the vibrant resonance of anti-capitalism at this time. Whether explicitly revolutionary or simply defending ways of life that were being destroyed by rapacious neoliberalism, these conjoined under a broad umbrella including: Indigenous struggles for land in Latin America; factory workers in south and east Asia; farmers in western Europe; alienated youth and precarious workers in the cities of Turtle Island; migrants resisting border restrictions; and many, many more. All of these had their own input into developing theories of anti-capitalism. The corporate media would deride this multiplicity of struggles as not having a coherent set of demands, but it was of course, a strength. One outcome of this diversity of struggle was to make solid a sense that the composition of the rebellious masses could never again be reduced to typical blue-collar (white, male) workers and unions – although this had already been gaining traction for a few decades prior.

Despite the diversity of struggle it included, it is important to recognise that the anti-capitalist movement had not really developed some of the crucial points of reference and analysis that have been brought into sharp focus by more recent uprisings. Where a radical discourse around race, colonisation, white supremacy and anti-blackness is prominent today, at the time these were mostly missing or at least considered secondary issues instead of being pillars of capitalist domination. Emphasising capitalism over all else risks homogenising the multitude of rebellious sentiments that make a movement. That said, while respecting and learning much from many of the shifts in discourse and knowledge that have developed more recently, I find myself feeling that capitalism has in some ways dodged a bullet as focus turns more to naming other systems of oppression. While a critique of capitalism is generally part of anti-oppression tendencies, naming it directly is now less common and consequently some of the generalised understanding of how it shapes all parts of our lives seems to have slipped. This has at times allowed the functions of capital to even be seen as having a potentially positive role against reactionary or right-wing positions instead of being recognised as the recuperative, stultifying and homogenising force that it is.

Instead, I look to those examples that foreground how interwoven capital is in all systems of oppression. The prominence of the Zapatista influence within the anti-capitalist movement was significant in this regard as they explicitly sought to articulate how capitalism connected a range of struggles and experiences yet were also grounded in their own territorial resistance, engaged in fighting the effects of colonisation on their lives and land. In the Second Declaration of La Realidad for Humanity and against Neoliberalism from August 1996, they call for a global “network of communication among all our struggles and resistances, against neoliberalism, and for humanity. This network will attempt to create channels so that words may flow to all paths that resist”. (Also see this communique, which is specifically about resisting the war on Iraq, but is notable in that it was read out by Carlo Guiliani’s mother, Heidi Guiliani and includes a tribute to Carlo).

Further texts: Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ is in some ways a bit basic but should be recognised that, as far as non-fiction books go, the cultural reach it attained played a role in the broader confluence of anti-capitalist sentiment. I remember Hardt & Negri’s ‘Empire’ being referenced a lot in certain circles at the time – it comes from a more explicitly revolutionary trajectory and is heavily theoretical. Also, this library of writings by and about the Zapatistas (scroll straight to the bottom for the section that is a repository of texts written by the Zapatistas themselves).

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That July in 2001, I followed the news from Genoa closely. I felt what the masses felt, an excited brimming of possibility at the sheer numbers that arrived to lay siege to the G8 summit – how much further could we push this and where will it end? Is this, in fact, a new world being made right here? I felt the suspenseful fear that the carabinieri hoped to induce with their militarised occupation of the city. I felt the rage of the streets, fighting back with cobblestones and molotovs against those police or seeking to ‘make total destroy’ all the symbols of capital that lay in their path.

And I felt it like a gut-punch when the pigs murdered Carlo Giuliani. I can still feel emotional when thinking about it to this day – even with 20 years of perspective and an understanding that so many other people engaged in fighting against domination have been murdered by the State and fascists. Even while knowing that many of those people will never have their names remembered because they were lost in places, or as part of movements, that aren’t as high profile. Knowing all this doesn’t change the feeling of sadness and anger I retain about Carlo’s death, as well as the horror about the raid on the Diaz school, because of how it occurred within a movement I very much felt a part of.

Riotous behaviour

When it came to taking the streets in response to whichever acronym-ed, economic body (WTO, G8, WEF, IMF, etc) was meeting in a particular city (or later in not-cities as an attempt to avoid the full force of protests), demonstrations involved mass blockading, riotous property destruction and skirmishes with police as tactics to disrupt the summits and make their opposition manifest. The term ‘diversity of tactics’ gained prominence at the time, reflecting the nature of what it might look like when a movement made up of diverse forces took to the streets. In its ideal version, this meant that across the broad space of a protest, different groups could self-organise and carve space for their particular struggles and the forms of resistance that made most sense to them. In doing this there is no requirement that everyone enthusiastically support all forms of action that others engage in – you can accept that some folk might do prayer circles or vigils even while those things are antithetical to you.

There were also strategic benefits to the use of different tactics across the cityscape. The most apparent was that the resources of the police could be stretched and confused. Different forms of action occurring in the same space could also occasionally be directly supportive of each other. Mostly though, affinity groups with similar ideas for action would link up with each other creating zones where they could act, while leaving space elsewhere for others. Conflicts did occur where groups with different tactics crossed into each other’s space, often due to a tendency amongst some participants to think that it was their duty to police others. Righteous non-violence preachers were a significant problem in this regard, often snitching to authorities or actively trying to block the actions of groups they didn’t agree with.

Here in so-called Australia, the diversity of tactics credo also had traction, allowing for forms of anarchist and horizontal organising prior to large mobilisations such as the S11 protests against the WEF in 2000. It was more of a part of the political culture of the time for people to be prepared to organise in affinity groups when they attended protests, while attempting to act and communicate with others within a bloc. However, that acknowledgement of ‘diversity of tactics’ became less accepted over the years of the anti-capitalist movement here, ultimately being subsumed by the more reactionary urge towards centralised and controlled rallies.

As happened elsewhere (depicted in some of these reports from Genoa), this urge from certain sections of the Left led to foot-stomping tantrums, denouncements of other protesters to the media and other forms of snitching. This especially occurred after the 2006 G20 protests in Narrm, where a more exuberant and militant section of the protest split from the main demo and had a real go at police lines (and famously, at least one police vehicle). Despite separating from the route of the formal march, this assertion of autonomous power was viewed as a threat to organisers’ desire for impeccable control, and they responded in the aftermath by feeding the state and media frenzy about ‘good protesters / bad protesters’, ‘outside agitators’ and even international black bloc contingents. This occurred at the same time as police were raiding houses and picking people off the street, leading to years of comrades being tied up in legal proceedings – and one person spending significant time in jail. 

As confrontational and violent as the street battles and state repression could be during the anti-capitalist movement – with Genoa being the height of conflict – the intensity of protests from that era have probably been superceded by more recent insurrectionary struggles from the Arab Spring to Hong Kong, to Chile and the George Floyd rebellions (and countless more). The ongoing securitisation of society and daily life as propelled by the ‘war on terror’ flowing into the endless cycles of systemic crisis that currently endure, has seen the State and police respond to mobilisations with ever more surveillance, militarised strategies and weaponry – resulting in social uprisings that look increasingly like low-scale armed conflict.

Here in so-called Australia, the police have had a similar trajectory, yet there remains a righteously dogmatic attachment to performative NVDA (non-violent direct action) despite the lessons to be learned from so many recent global uprisings that have put paid to the relevance of NVDA as a blanket ideology. Between NVDA and a desire for centralised and controlled rallies as a condition of ‘safety’, mobilisations here currently occur without much possibility of diverse tactics taking place alongside each other or openings for flexibility and spontaneous acts. 

Further texts: On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-capitalist Movement combines multiple accounts of being there into an excellent book (read pdf here or if you want the actual book). This recent article published at Crimethinc is similar, but shorter. There were also a couple of docos about S11 in Narrm you can probably find online. And here’s an account of the Narrm G20 protests, calling for solidarity with arrestees.

Additionally, like in other eras, the visuals of rebellion that most captured this period came to find their way into pop culture through movies and music. Many were the film clip – some by artists aligned with the politics of anti-capitalism and many by those who simply sought to co-opt the rebel ‘cool’ of protest – that drew from this, with black bloc-ers a favourite. Here’s an example of one I liked at the time (not totally sure what the final message really is though):

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If Genoa can be described as the peak, is it also necessary to find an endpoint for that era? Many would suggest that it ended just a couple of months later when on September 11th planes were flown with devastating real-life impact into symbols of American capitalist empire. I don’t think this is correct because significant protests against economic summits continued to occur, only now having to resist within a new global context of anti-terror rhetoric and more extreme, hyper-militarised policing. Of course, this movement would greatly cross-over with anti-war demonstrations, but it is not as simple as saying one stopped and was replaced by the other. I’m not sure there is much value trying to identify an exact ending – forms of struggle and resistance bleed into each other, the remnants of those times can still be found in current movements.

However, writing from so-called Australia and within the particulars of my own life trajectory, I will give a general timeframe for the sake of context. For me, it begins with the raucous coming-out party that was ‘the Battle of Seattle’ in November 1999. It included this country’s own ‘big’ moment when over 20,000 people disrupted the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in September 2000. It ran through and felt like it finally petered out in the aftermath of the November 2006 protests against the G20 in Melbourne where, what would ordinarily have been expected to be a typical Leftist demo, instead exploded into an uncontrollable anti-police riot. The state repression that followed and dominated the lead-up to the 2007 APEC summit in Sydney was about enough to blow out the last flickering flame (in this country) or at least force us into focusing our energies in different ways.   

Rhythms of a movement

Between summits, the ‘high’ of the moment of convergence was followed by the comedown of going home – the endless question of how to take those moments that seemed ripe with collective emergence and liberatory potential back to our daily lives. The Free Association referred to the eruptions at summit protests as ‘moments of obvious collective creation, where our ‘excess of life’ explodes. In these moments of excess, everything appears to be up for grabs and time and creativity accelerates”. There is the feeling of euphoric collective presence, of connection and resistance and other forms of life that suddenly appear to be possible at such moments. And although “once you’ve shifted perspective it’s impossible to revert completely to the view you had before”, it’s also true that “the come-down after these events – the ‘return to reality’ – can be really jarring”.

Somewhat mitigating the deflating feeling of going back to normality was a series of social, cultural and infrastructural points of connection that maintained. New networks, collectives, relationships and loves formed. Certainly, many friendships I made at the time have endured. There were also other spaces to gather that weren’t protests but were nonetheless related to that momentum – radical social centres, conferences and gatherings where people came to strategise and analyse, fundraisers and parties.

Perhaps the most important autonomous infrastructure synonymous with the anti-capitalist era, and epitomising the feeling of connection, was Indymedia. An online forum for news and discussion – spawned in the pre-history of the movement and free of corporate control – there were hundreds of Indymedia around the world, in the bigger cities and smaller towns, reflecting the particularities of politics and resistance in those places (and definitely not entirely free of reactionary takes and shit-fights). It served to maintain a sense of commonality with struggles in other places. The unavoidable hegemony of the corporate-owned internet today, and the retreat to their platforms as places to organise, discuss and share news, renders the loss of Indymedia as one of the most felt absences from that era (Indymedia survives in some places, such as Athens where a large and militant anti-authoritarian milieu still rely on it).   

Away from summit protests, the force and influence of the anti-capitalist movement also flowed into other ‘big-issue’ struggles occurring at the time – the massive mobilisations against the war in Iraq being the obvious example. The global confluence of anti-capitalist sentiment also related directly to struggles around borders and in solidarity with asylum seekers. The most iconic moment in so-called Australia in that era was tied to this issue, when a protest and breakout occurred at the Woomera detention centre in the South Australian desert in 2002. In both cases – against war and against borders – radical, anti-capitalist perspectives interrupted what would often otherwise tend to be a liberal humanitarian, white saviour response to these issues. One result was an extension of action to target corporations that might otherwise be hidden in their profiting from war, borders and detention centres.

The anti-capitalist movement made systemic links in the global chain apparent, connecting forms of devastation wrought in one place to economic gain elsewhere. This wasn’t reducible to the privilege politics of today but an attempt to understand how almost all corners of the world had become ensnared by variations of neoliberalism and what these crossovers might mean for our struggles and potential solidarity. There was less of a ‘stay-in-your-lane’ compulsion that has come with attachment to identity positions. This did result in some over-stepping – I could definitely have chosen to write some more about racial politics in this piece – but there also seemed to be a more generous invitation to make these links between issues and forms of resistance. To not just be an ‘ally’ but to be a participant in your own resistance. As mentioned earlier, the articulation of this perspective was exemplified in the actions and words of the Zapatistas.

Further texts: Moments of Excess written by The Free Association is a series of essays written by one collective that brilliantly capture and reflect on the rhythms of that time. However, it was an era that produced so much writing and communication that there’s many other great articles/ communiques/ books to read – far too many for me to recall. Here’s the doco about the Woomera breakout put out by Ska TV. Around that time No-One Is Illegal Melbourne also put together a great publication called Desert Storm. I have a hard-copy, but can’t find a digital version. Mutiny zine from Sydney was a monthly anarchist publication that lasted for years and in the totality of its articles captured the tail-end of, fallout from, and transition to other things after the anti-capitalist movement.

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All these years later I write of ‘the anti-capitalist movement’, giving it the named presence of a noun. Right there, in that fact of solidifying into a ‘thing’, is paradoxically where the vibrancy of movements begin to stutter. Naming something, making it a point of reference, can be important in making the presence real, something that we can identify with and align ourselves too. It also allows for the work of creating longer-term infrastructures to begin. However, there also lies a risk here – the danger of creating an in and an out, a space that feels so important for those who participate in it that the posture becomes defensive all the time, creating ever more rules and processes that codify the limits of movement. Instead, we could seek to find the line where ‘movement’ retains the energy of a verb, while taking on the presence of a named thing. When it loses that energy it’s time to let go of it while still holding onto the relationships formed, the lessons learned and whatever forms of infrastructure are worth carrying forward as we await the next upsurge in social struggle.

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