Are We Winning? Anti-G8 Protests in Germany
by 12.12.2007 20:42-
It is nice to have our victories once in a while. Sitting at the campfire in Reddelich with thousands of people after a week of protest we were not quite sure whether the collective euphoria permeating the camps was simply the result of one too many sleepless night (and day), or whether it was true that we had won once again: won as we had in Seattle, won as we had in Prague, even in Genoa.
To some extent, it is possible to argue that Heiligendamm was indeed a victory. First of all, some 10.000 of us forced over 16.000 police and over 1000 soldiers to retreat to the sea- and airways, we partially disrupted the logistics of the summit (journalists, crucial to the event, reported being stuck on boats for several hours, delegations were delayed, etc.), and people all around the country and the world were made aware of our actions and blockades, in other words, of the presence and significance of our movement. These are significant successes. First: to push the state, according to one (conceptually insufficient) definition the institution that holds the legitimate monopoly of violence in a given territory, away from that territory, into a small enclave, onto boats and helicopters, is in itself highly significant. For what could 'revolution' look like if not the constant pushing back from our everyday lives of the power of capital and the state? How far will they have to flee? It is only six years ago that the G8 stopped meeting in major cities and moved to the supposedly quiet countryside. In Europe at least, this obviously does not prevent the emergence of massive resistance. What will be their next step? Giving up the principle of rotation and establish a fixed G8 meeting place in the Sahara? Wherever they will go, our will to intervene and make their meetings if not impossible, then at least very difficult, will remain.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly: we achieved what many of us had been hoping for in the years and months leading to Heiligendamm, namely a ‘reconstitutive moment’ of the conflictive potential of global movements. What the summit protests at the end of the last and the beginning of this century had done was to create a ‘common place’, a social discursive space in which diverse struggles, movements and individuals could understand themselves as part of a global movement, through which diverse movements could confront collectively various crystallisation points of global capitalist rule. But in the last few years, many of us felt that, as much as we kept invoking a ‘global movement’, there in fact wasn't one anymore, for the integrative quality of summit protests had been draining away since Genoa, as a result of repression, cooptation, and the instrumentalisation of movement agendas by state and capital: from ‘corporate social responsibility’ to the ignominious splitting off and cooptation of the moderate wing of our movement in Gleneagles at the hands of the Blair/Brown government. Gleneagles was merely the high point of a process that was as much a sign of our successes (issues ‘we’ talked about had to be recognised as problematic) as our weaknesses: the slow draining away of the antagonism that had existed between our agenda(s) and that/those of the G8/WTO/etc…
But the feeling during that last evening at the campfire was different. We felt powerful, back in the game, people felt encouraged and empowered, positive about coordinated action in solidarity. That however was simply the initial sentiment around the campfire. Whether we really are ‘back’ depends on what happens from now on. Seattle would not have been the myth it today is if Washington, Prague, Quebec, Gothenburg, Genoa, etc. had not happened afterwards, if thousands of people had not taken this event as a positive and empowering reference point for future interventions based on this unfulfilled promise of the past.
After euphoria: the comedown. Opening the newspapers the next day, we did not only realize that the old world still existed, but we had to learn that the G8 was able to re-constitute its discursive legitimacy through the mainstream media. At least the Merkel government was widely cheered for forcing the US to agree to binding agreements at some point in the future (a great exercise in metapolitics). Merkel was said to have triumphed over the American dinosaur, she was the one who got the G8 to commit to do something about climate change. Legitimation for her, but also for the summit and the G8 as such. Suddenly, there were two winners, the G8 and the global movements against it. How was this possible?
If we look at the four principles of the Interventionist Left (IL), one of the radical left networks participating in the mobilization against the G8 (and a key mover behind the BlockG8 network which in turn was crucial in organising two mass blockades), we might get an explanation for the clear limitations of our success. This network was based on (a) a clear delegitimation of the G8 as such; (b) a will to materially intervene in the infrastructure of the G8 through mass blockades; (c) a construction of broad alliances and trustful cooperation; and (d) a clear rejection of and demarcation vis-à-vis right-wing critiques of neoliberal globalization. Presumably, these principles were not shared by all (radical left) activists. But we do think that the first two points are crucial for ‘winning’, both discursively and materially, and that they were fairly dominant on the radical left. Starting from the end: we think a clear demarcation from right-wing critiques has been successfully practised; the evaluation of alliance politics we leave to the IL. But what about points (a) and (b), what about discursive delegitimation and material intervention?
In our mind, both aims are strategically interconnected. The first goal is rather simple and has been stated many times: the G8 is not part of the solution, but part of the problem. They not only fail to find solutions, they are part of creating the very inequalities we are struggling against. Such an analysis should lead necessarily to the second goal: we should try to prevent the G8 from meeting.
On the first point: how powerful summit meetings (in particular G8 summits) actually are, that is, to what extent they are in fact ‘part of the problem’, or merely an ephemeral spectacle, has long been a point of contention in our movements. We contend that over the last roughly 8 years, since the Cologne summit in 1999, and very much in tandem with the emergence of ‘our’ movements, the primary role of the G8 has changed: from adjudicator of competing interests to imperial institution negotiating the difficulties of emerging forms of global authority. In other words: global summits, G8 summits in particular, are to a large extent about the symbolic production and legitimation of benevolent global authority, or rather, of global authority as benevolent. How does this legitimation occur? In short, if people perceive a problem (say: global climate change), a threat, and existing power structures cannot convincingly show to be dealing with the problem, then people might just move from merely whinging about the issue to doing something about it – something that, because the existing structures don’t provide solutions, could potentially lie outside, go beyond, or even threaten those structures.
This is what we call the problematic of global authority, which the G8 (amongst others) has been seeking to handle for the last few years: ‘Debt’ (Cologne); ‘Poverty/Africa’ (Gleneagles); ‘Climate Change’ (Heiligendamm) – all issues which are perceived as ‘global problems’, to which the G8 tried to respond: don’t worry, we’re the right people, sitting in the right institution, trying to solve this problem in the right ways, through the right channels. By all means, please don’t start thinking critically, acting critically, changing the world. The existing one is just fine, with some adjustment judiciously made by our humble selves! Thus the process of legitimation, thus (increasingly so) the role of the G8.
The Gleneagles summit in 2005 is a perfect example of this, where the fact that issues of ‘poverty’ and ‘Africa’ were taken up at the summit was a clear attempt to relegitimate structures of global governance that had been haemorrhaging legitimacy for years. The British government portrayed itself as the prolonged arm of the legitimate concerns of social movements. This year the problem that the G8 had to be seen as engaging with was climate change. For months, Merkel's government had been busy massaging expectations of what would come out of Heiligendamm downward, so that even a small fart of agreement from the American corner could be sold as a success. And sold as a success it was: Germany's biggest tabloid crowned Merkel “Miss World”, legitimation for her, but also for the summit and the G8 as such. If they can agree to do something about an issue as important as climate change at one of these summits, surely the summits and the institution cannot be such bad things? When they went home from Heiligendamm, Merkel and her gang surely felt something akin to what we felt: “we are winning!”
And what about the “material intervention” into the progress of the summit? Let’s spoil the party a bit, and suggest that our blockades failed in terms of being a successful tactical operation. Over and over again we heard (and indeed said ourselves!) that all land-based access to the summit had been effectively shut down, we were wondering how it happened that inside of the fence they hardly took notice of that. Also, the media seemed to treat the blockades not as what they were meant to be, a material disruption, but rather as cheerful theatre for the articulation of tamed dissent (tamed because it was kept within clearly regulated borders). There are reasons for this. First of all, very practical ones: while accepting the peaceful mass blockades of the BlockG8 alliance at the East Gate, one of the two entrances in the fence, the police forces could focus on keeping the road to the West Gate free of disturbances. De-escalation was not necessary here anymore for the police since they left the mass blockades at the East Gate in peace. Having announced that they would blockade the summit, BlockG8 quickly realised (when we didn’t get our heads kicked in ten minutes after sitting down on the road) that the police had decided to abandon the East Gate. Later we heard that they had abandoned the roads altogether. For Thursday, the day of the real G8 meetings, they announced Plan B: helicopters and the waterways. Our response? BlockG8 stayed in the action consensus, and held the blockade. But where is the antagonism, if we do something and the state pulls back, saying: ‘sure, take this, we'll go somewhere else - you win, we win!’ Shouldn’t the response then have been to go to the fence? Physically try to go beyond the space given to our blockades by the summit? Certainly, that would have projected a far more uncompromising rejection of the summit.
To clarify again: we do take seriously the collective affect of winning felt in the camps, the sense of encouragement that so many people took away from the protests. But we do want to intervene into a discussion that, especially in Germany, is being a little too self-congratulatory, self-referential, and surprisingly ‘un-radical’. Left radical politics are, must be, antagonistic politics – it is that (if anything) that distinguishes them from the liberal ameliorism of the liberal NGOs – in their relation to state, capital, and other relations of domination. So we take the affect seriously and agree: we won, somehow. But we have to be realistic and admit that ‘they’ did too. So both sides won – which raises the question: how is that possible? Okay, the question is rhetorical in light of what we just said, the answer obviously is this: because there was in fact no clear antagonism between ‘us’ and ‘the G8’.
The protest in Heiligendamm was a typical product of postmodern politics where the political disappears because dichotomies (previously seen as mutually exclusive) are reconciled. The result: for sure climate change can go along with capitalist expansion and more free trade. We want to propose two answers here to the question why we failed to construct such an antagonistic relationship to the G8 and global governance in general. Again, these answers are interconnected with the necessity of discursive interventions and material disruptions.
The first answer is that we failed to construct a clear antagonism because we were playing on different grounds. While having worked more than a year on producing our own thematic focal points (migration, agriculture and antimilitarism), the German radical left almost completely lacks a challenging political story about climate change. The arguments heard within the German left (if the question isn’t dismissed out of hand as woolly environmentalism) hardly go beyond individualist and liberal appeals to fly less, and rarely raise the question of property and capitalist accumulation as mechanisms inherently intertwined with the problem of environmental devastation. This is odd for a country with a rather long tradition of environmental activism. It is not that odd, however, for an environmental movement that has been increasingly institutionalized and coopted during the past two decades and does not offer a radical perspective on reorganizing our societies based on a sustainable (and thus anticapitalist) paradigm. The top priority of climate change during the G8 summit would have offered quite some possibilities to radicalize an old movement and broaden an anticapitalist critique through an environmental lens.
Only some years ago, when summits' headline issues were still very much about trade, privatisation, and ‘the neoliberal agenda’, we had an excellent counter-story. Our militant actions were embedded in this counter-story, allowing them to rise beyond being mere policing matters, to being explicitly political, because they directly interfered with the discursive field that was being built to legitimate global authority. Today, we have no story to counter theirs, so this production can go on undisturbed, no matter how effective our blockades are. It may be responded at this point that direct engagement with the summit's headline issues would add to the legitimation of an institution we are trying to delegitimate, but this is not necessarily the case. It only leads to legitimation if such an issue-engagement ends up making demands to the G8. Issue-engagement could be used as well to portray the G8 as part of the entire problem. It is fairly obvious that this year's refusal to construct a counter-story did not lead to a greater delegitimation of the G8. More generally, for summit protests, we need to work in advance to develop a punchy story that relates to the summit's headline issues, within which we can embed our actions. Otherwise the latter remain mere public order problems, and cannot interfere with the production of global authority as legitimate.
The second explanation for the lack of antagonism has to do with our capacity for material disruption on the streets, without which any good counter story remains just so much self-serving radical propaganda, without any social relevance. For sure, there has been a certain antagonism in the relation between some protestors and the police, as all of us who were beaten, arrested, tear-gassed, water-cannoned can surely attest to. And there has been a clear attempt to build a broad alliance for mass blockades through the BlockG8 initiative (which included the IL, several local attac groups, but also radical antifascist groups). Finally, we even witnessed the cumulative effects of mass blockades and decentralized blockades following the PAULA call. However, no one can deny that we did not hit them where it hurts. The blockades, although much more effective then ever before in Europe during a summit, have become a kind of mediated and contained spectacle. Such a spectacle was not able to challenge global power structures materialized on the streets by reintroducing an antagonist relationship through confrontational street tactics. A clearer presence of confrontational tactics would have projected a far more uncompromising rejection of the summit than the mass blockades with their occasional fun fair character. But would it have allowed so many people to be there? Would it have led to an escalation that would have left many of us traumatised, beaten, in jail, rather than celebrating at home now? We cannot say, but insist that every time the state retreats, we need to push it further, rather than simply be happy in the space now vacated.
Notes on Why it Matters that Heiligendamm Felt like Winning
“Weapons are affects and affects weapons”
– Deleuze and Guattari
‘We Are Winning’ - the slogan famously sprayed on a wall in Seattle as thousands shut down the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial in 1999; last seen on the side of a burning police van on the streets of Genoa in 2001 – when the G8 leaders last dared to meet in a European city –; and the feeling that thousands of us felt as we flowed through fields, around police lines and onto the roads leading to Kempinski Hotel, the location of this year’s G8 Summit in Heiligendamm. Obviously, the world around us does not look particularly different, despite the purported success of the blockades, and the mobilisation in general. So does it really matter that ‘we’ – the ‘movement of movements’, very broadly conceived – feel like we are winning again?
The beginning of the cycle of struggles characterised as ‘global’ tends to be identified with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico on January 1 1994; or else with the protests against the WTO in Seattle 1999. Either, analytically, is as useful as the other.
Historically, the international circulation of struggles has been described via various metaphors. Marx used that of the mole: Struggles, he meant to say, sometimes disappear completely from view, reappearing again at another place and time; but even when subterranean, they are always present – below the surface, undermining the foundations of the overt, dominant reality. Deleuze, writing well over a century later, argued the metaphor of the mole to be outdated. “We’ve gone from one animal to another,” he argued, “from moles to snakes…” Whilst the emergent workers’ movement of Marx’s time could be understood as restricted by structured tunnels, pathways and routes, snakes undulate across an open, smooth surface. A more appropriate metaphor for the control society, Deleuze proposed. Others still have used the metaphor of a virus: breaking out in one place, contaminating not only those in the immediate vicinity, but finding all sorts of often unlikely ways of travelling and infecting others.
Both the Zapatista uprising and the events of Seattle – neither of which, we already know, developed in a vacuum, and both had their own hidden and complex pre-histories – were important moments, not only in and of themselves, but far more because of their communicability and their resonance. In other words, because of the cycles they set in motion (with the start of a cycle obviously implying a certain break with that which came before.)
The response to the Zapatista uprising, then, was not only to send material aid, nor was it only to become international peace observers, and nor was it only to demonstrate solidarity publicly and around the world. More importantly, the response also involved a becoming-Zapatista of movements everywhere. The inspiration of the Zapatistas – as well, in fact, as the protests in Seattle – was the willingness to move beyond both ideology and identity; to ‘walk asking questions’ along an unknown path. For the first time in recent history, both events were an attempt to create a world of dignity and autonomy within a movement where difference was no longer privileged over commonality. This was the contribution of the rebels of Chiapas and Seattle. This is what, like a mole, burrowed its way from North America’s Pacific Northwest coast to Genoa and Quebec. This is what, like a snake, slithered across the globe from the jungles of southeast Mexico to Prague and Chiang Mai. And this is what contaminated movements and struggles around the world, from Europe to Africa, Asia and beyond.
The period which followed the Zapatista uprising, and the Seattle events in particular, was characterised by the affect of winning. Everyone recognised the serious cracks which had begun to emerge in the neoliberal project. Enormous demonstrations surrounded every meeting of the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the European Union. A series of electoral victories – particularly in Latin America – were won on an (at least superficially) anti-neoliberal ticket. The focus of movements in the global North had shifted from solidarity with those in the global South, to also include contestation on the level of life and work under neoliberalism in the states where the ideology and reality had been born.
Yet the movement’s affect of winning did not last indefinitely. Despite substantial victories – in terms of the size of the mobilisation; the continuation (in the spirit of Seattle and Zapatismo) of a process of experimentation with new forms of disobedience and the search for commonality, … – the declaration of war on the body of the movement in Genoa; followed by the onset of an open-ended global war in the wake of September 11 2001, presented the movement with new challenges. Foucault had already argued this to be the case over a quarter of a century earlier, but now nobody could deny that Clausewitz’s formula of war as the continuation of politics by other means had finally been turned on its head. And despite the original promise of the new movement against the new war – and the events of February 15 2003 in particular – the task of ‘waging war on war’ has fallen flat, still in search of the means of its own realisation.
To say that resistance – temporally and ontologically – precedes power; that anti-capitalist struggles drive forward capitalist development, is to say that capital is constantly obliged to respond to those movements for its abolition by both restructuring itself and imposing a decomposition on its enemy. Its response to the initial global cycle of struggles (roughly from 1994/9 – 2001) was no exception.
The means by which one tendency within capital attempted to go about both was through what George Caffentzis described as neoliberalism’s ‘Plan B’: a reluctant short term global Keynesianism. In short, this involved the continuation and intensification of processes of primitive accumulation: the incorporation of millions in Africa and elsewhere into the global market, through an investment in education, nutrition programmes, sanitation and health provisions geared to ‘lift’ those formally outside capitalist social relations into waged-labouring practices. On the one hand, the global labour market would be expanded (the key to economic growth and stability in Keynesian economic thought); whilst on the other, capital would appear to grant concessions to the counter-globalisation movement, enabling the incorporation of its ‘moderate wing’ and the further criminalisation of its ‘radical fringe’.
The primary ideologist of Plan B is Jeffry Sachs, and its highest political expression to date was articulated through the Live8-Make Poverty History-British New Labour Party matrix around the 2005 G8 Summit at Gleneagles. Here, Plan B became almost hegemonic and the counter-globalisation movement was wrong-footed. On a discursive level, it failed to develop and articulate a critique of Plan B. At the same time, it failed to live up to its own self-description; namely to be or become a ‘movement of movements’ – more than simply the sum of its parts. At Gleneagles, the movement was fractured and divided into different camps. There was very little willingness for cooperation, or even coordination, between the three different mobilisations (Make Poverty History, G8 Alternatives, and Dissent!); and little in the way of political intervention on the behalf of radicals to either introduce anti-capitalist critique, or else to open up room for disobedience by those not already embedded within networks of resistance. By mid-July 2005 at the latest (and some would argue that this was already the case by the autumn of 2001), the affect of winning had been replaced by that of fear and the apparent omnipotence of a power turned against us.
Affects, of course, are not simply ‘feelings’; they are a material force. Feelings refer to that which is experienced by an individual – or at most, by a number of individuals in a similar way. Affects, on the other hand, are social. The movement’s affect of winning (or any other affect, for that matter), then, is produced by and from the body of the movement itself (which at the same time has no clearly identifiable borders) through its interaction with both itself and everything which is other. In the 1600s, Spinoza had already explained, “By affect (affectus) I understand the affections of the body by which the body’s power of activity is increased or diminished, assisted or checked…” To say, then, that by Gleneagles the affect of winning was gone, does not just mean that many of us did not ‘feel’ like we were winning (although this is also true); but that the conditions which allowed for the movement to affect and be affected in the way that it once did had themselves undergone a change. As such, new modes of behaviour needed to be sought out.
In many ways, Heiligendamm was Gleneagles’ opposite. Radicals took the initiative, learning from the mistakes of 2005 as well as the lessons taught by Seattle, Genoa and a thousand other events. Through an almost total openness towards coalition work – critical cooperation on the basis of identifying, uncovering and building new commons, which simultaneously sought to respect (and certainly not obscure) difference – across the left (the right, naturally, were nowhere welcome within the broad left’s mobilisation, despite their best attempts); the movement entered a period of recomposition. This occurred, primarily, on a territorially restricted level through the work of the Rostock Action Conferences, the Interventionist Left, the Block G8 campaign and a number of other initiatives. But resonance was also found on a more international level. The efforts towards recomposition – and the form that this took – appeared to make sense in realities beyond (and very different to) Germany and the German left.
It should go without saying, however, that the primary establishment of commons and the real movement of recomposition did not take place in the year and a half of preparation, through the thousands of emails exchanged over e-lists, or in the long and stressful coalition meetings – although they were its precondition. Far more, it was in those moments in which a concrete antagonism was articulated: in the demonstration on June 2; in the refusal of the 10000 participants in the demonstration for global freedom of movement to allow themselves to be provoked by a heavily armed police force on June 4; in the explicit rejection of imperial war and the global state of exception around Rostock Laage military airport on June 5 and 6; in the Block G8 mass blockades, and the dozens of smaller, spontaneous and surprise efforts to shut down the Summit; and most of all: in their interplay. Recomposition is a project of organisation; and the question of organisation is one which can only be worked out in practice. Heiligendamm took us a number of steps in the right direction.
The notion of the movement’s victory in Heiligendamm is of course not unconditional. The movement must now enter into a process of reflection, drawing out the lessons to be learned for the future. In particular, the question needs to be posed, why is it that despite the apparent success of the mobilisation – and the blockades in particular – the G8 and its German hosts were also able to claim the Summit as ‘their’ victory? Despite the production of a huge spectacle of resistance (as well as a resistance which was undoubtedly also real and material), why was the movement unable to effectively intervene or claim a victory on the discursive level? That is to say, on the level of the (il)legitimacy of global imperial command in particular relation to the issue of climate change? Why, for example, was there such a spectacular failure to pose the question of property and accumulation as central to the problematic?
The ‘feeling’ – or better, the ‘affect’ – that we are winning again, then, emerges from a material reality. Through the articulation of antagonism and the (only partially) successful attempt to challenge the legitimacy of the G8 as an instrument of imperial command, our movement has been able to undergo a productive recomposition, increasing its (counter-)power in relation to that of capital. The new ways of being and acting which emerged in Heiligendamm are a tribute to our movement’s collective intelligence. The question, then, is whether – or to what extent – the constituent forms which articulated themselves in the roads and fields around Heiligendamm and on the streets of Rostock (as well as those around the world with which they resonated), will be able to maintain and productively deploy this realised potentiality. Where do the possibilities lie for developing organisational forms which build on this victory, helping set in motion a new cycle of struggles? And how could a new cycle develop means of avoiding – or at least minimising – capture and a further decomposition in its efforts to bring about a more substantial rupture in capital’s as-yet-indeterminate global project?
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