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All over red rover? Global justice activists are increasingly taking on local issues.

The groundswell that occurred at the 'Battle of Seattle' in December 1999 caught the world off guard. Protestors flexed their collective muscle to effectively shut down a major World Trade Organisation (WTO) forum. Following from this, a new social movement known by a range of names--and called everything from the misnomer 'anti-globalisation' movement, to 'alter-globalisation', to the nondescript 'network of networks'--captured public and media imagination. A series of large-scale demonstrations targeting the WTO and other major international forums became part of a new style of grassroots organising. A new movement was building in resistance to globalised, neoliberal arrangements of power and wealth.

Just as the 'Battle of Seattle' signaled the arrival of this new movement in the United States, 'S-11'--three days of protest against, and blockade of, the World Economic Forum's Asia-Pacific Economic Summit in Melbourne from Sep 11 to 13, 2000--was Australia's 'coming out'.

In terms of Australian political history, S-11 was hugely significant. However, the estimated 10,000 protestors who assembled outside (or in the words of The Australian, 'laid violent siege to') the Crown Casino failed to cause the same level of disruption, nor attract the same level of international support as the protests in Seattle. Six years after S-11, alternative globalisation protestors have a much lower, or even non-existent, public profile in Australia.

After several quiet years, the recent G20 Meeting in Melbourne returned global justice to the front page of Australian newspapers. In terms of numbers, the G20 protests were much smaller than S-11, though by Australian standards the 3000 people reported to be a the G20 protests is still a significant mobilisation.

The G20 protestors mirrored many of the dynamics of the G8 protests held in Scotland in December 2005. Like Scotland, the protests were marked by a very clear distinction between the more formalised 'Make Poverty History' campaign and the variety of 'anti' protestors--autonomists, anarchists and environmentalists who had also organised an alternative conference called 'A Space Outside', which linked political debate with guerilla art. In the days preceding the summit, Make Poverty History was the most prominent public voice of global justice movement, campaigning for foreign debt relief, increased foreign aid and reforming the IMF and World Bank. In contrast, 'Stop G20', 'A Space Outside' and the infamous 'Arterial bloc' were far more hostile to the G20's agenda, arguing that they presented an extension of an unjust economic order.

Looking back to S-11

The key to understanding why S-11 was so successful lies in the fact that the protestors, despite loose ties to each other, all recognised a common enemy. This enemy goes by many names, but almost always entails the global spread, and perceived mounting failures, of neoliberal policies and institutions and/or global capitalism in general. The more specific list of culprits includes: 'structural adjustment', the IMF, the World Bank, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, WTO, NAFTA, FTAA, multinational or transnational corporations, neoliberalism and capitalism. While, within the movement, there were wide differences in opinion, political emphasis, tactics and organisational composition, there was also a great deal of overlap and cooperation among them. This allowed for the creation of shared spaces, issues, campaigns and vision. This confluence was so remarkable that many participants began referring to S-11 as one single movement or network, naming it differently depending on one's vantage point: anti-corporate globalisation, global justice and solidarity, global social justice or simply a 'movement of movements' or a 'network of networks'. However, like previous 'anti-globalisation' protests, the potentially contradictory tendencies within the S-11 movement meant it was a fragile coalition.

Exactly a year after S-11, activists gathered at Trades Hall in Melbourne to watch 'SKA TV' footage of the S-11 protests. Ironically this was the exact time the World Trade Centre was being attacked in New York. It would be an under statement to say that the events of 9-11 altered the landscape for global justice activists. In the days following, a demonisation of American global justice activists occurred. The same pundits who had previously dismissed the anti-globalisation movement were quick to proclaim it as dead, in tatters, or 'just so yesterday'. Many opponents used the symbolism of the terrorist attacks to argue that young activists playing at guerilla war now have a real war on their hands and don't know what to do.

So did 9-11 fundamentally change the status of global justice activism?

Tom Nairn in his article 'Globalisation and the Unchosen' provides a compelling argument against the re-emergence of the nation state. Nairn claims that what 9-11 seems to have accomplished is 'heightened consciousness of globalisation'. Whilst he acknowledges that this is a difficult concept to pin down, he raises the important question of why almost everybody assumed that the world was changed, or would somehow be different, following the events of September 2001. Perhaps everything had already changed and it was only public consciousness that was lagging behind?

Initially it appeared that through activists' adaptability and willingness to synergise diverse struggles, the nascent 'networks of networks' had survived. Some argued that it had gained strength in response to the new 'anti-terrorism' laws introduced after 9-11 that threatened civil freedoms and democratic oversight. Moreover, by shifting emphasis and expanding their agenda to include issues of peace, war and military violence, the 'networks of networks' appeared able to launch a formidable collective comeback. In a mobilisation of unprecedented scale, an estimated 30 to 60 million people, across more than 100 countries, protested against the Iraq War on 15 February 2003. This included massive demonstrations in Australian capital cities.

Despite this considerable success, the coalition that formed around S-11 has today largely become inactive around issues of global justice. The fact that most of the groups which made up the S-11 coalition are autonomist and grassroots means that local and national issues remain their priority. Indeed, in recent years, activists from the S-11 protests have been involved in campaigns such as refugee action, support for East Timor, the anti-war movement and industrial relations campaigns.

While there is growing evidence that activism is in fact 'going global' it seems that activists have also shifted their focus in the opposite direction--from global to local.

From Global to Local

There is a tendency to assume that wherever global, neoliberal policies make an impact they trigger localised resistances that automatically produce transnational (and anti-global) collective action. However, there are several factors which suggest that the events of 9-11 have also stimulated greater concern with local issues.

In the climate of the 'war on terror' activists needed to reframe their goals and arguments in order to take part in campaigns around emerging local issues, such as support for refugees, anti-terror laws and, most significantly, the war on Iraq. The issues that facilitated mobilisation for S-11 had to be congruent with the interests, values and beliefs of a new wave of activists--those who had become active around issues that arose in the post 9-11 environment. Existing S-11 ties and networks tended to dissipate, with activists no longer forging new associations or reinvigorating links with former coalition partners.

Australian activists, at a considerable distance from the most devastating impact of global injustice, tend to mobilise around a sense of sympathy for those in poorer circumstances. But differences in proximity to the problem, experiences of suffering and the perception of threat can account for differing perspectives on both the problem itself and also possible solutions. These can also help explain variance in levels of involvement and commitment to a cause.

Few Australian activists, it seems, have played a significant part in the World Social Forum--an annual meeting of anti-globalisation activists born out of the Seattle protests--despite its importance as the major contemporary transnational network. The forum is significant for activists, their organisations and the networks they comprise. One cannot help but wonder if a stronger embrace of the social forum by Australian activists would have helped to maintain global issues as a priority.

The diversity encompassed in a contemporary transnational network can also lead to tensions, with accusations of paternalism on one side and of radicalism, intransigence or exclusionism on the other. All can strain, and eventually rupture, a network. The difficulties of maintaining working ties among activists who have vastly different political priorities are many. Whilst the 'greens' and the 'reds' came together for the purpose of S-11, and undoubtedly experienced some connection, it appears their differences meant little unity could be sustained, even over the medium term. The shared social critique that brings activists together around certain issues is often an unstable basis for long-term coalition building.

The G20 showed that there remains an autonomous movement in Australia--largely, although not exclusively, young, urban, green, technologically-connected, anarcho anti-capitalists wedded to their principles of autonomy, horizontality, and direct action--capable of mobilising around global justice issues. However, the bruising aftermath played out in discussions on Indymedia and within 'Stop G20' and organisers' email lists, illustrates the fragmented views and analysis within the movement itself. It will be interesting to see how and where this vibrant movement will manifest in the future.

Jen Couch and Damian Sullivan research Australian activism at Australian Catholic University.
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Title Annotation:against the current
Author:Couch, Jen; Sullivan, Damian
Publication:Arena Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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