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Youth activism at the crossroads: Where next for anti-capitalism?

These were the words of a young environmentalist who took part in the storied "Battle of Seattle." Her words are not unique: thousands upon thousands of youth across the globe are waking up to activism and taking their voices to the streets. As they challenge the world's injustices, they are beginning to learn what will be necessary to end these injustices for good.

Youth activism, of course, is nothing new. In the annals of recent history, from the heady days of 1968 to the present, young upstarts have figured prominently in struggles for a better world. Indeed, the exciting spirit of resistance in the past two years - particularly the anti-capitalist mood within the broader anti-globalization movement-has resonated loudest among the politically newborn. Here calls for reforms to trade deals have won less support than arguments surveying the ruins of capitalism itself. Amidst the tear gas and riot police in Seattle, Melbourne, Prague, Buenos Aires or Quebec City, there were few cries for "corporate responsibility." The most popular slogans are revolutionary claims: "This is what democracy looks like," "Our world is not for sale," "Human need not corporate greed," "A better world is possible."

But contrary to popular fiction, youth revolts do not arise spontaneously. Be it from high prices in Indonesia, vicious paramilitaries in Colombia, ruthless pharmaceutical companies in South Africa, or a barricaded trade meeting in Quebec City, there are material reasons why waves of student unrest rake place. The real question is how youth activism can be mobilized into an unstoppable force to change society. To do that, solidarity must be painstakingly forged between youth radicals and those who produce the world's wealth, the working class (who are, we must remember, not a uniform group, but segmented in numerous ways: young and old, low-/middle-/high-wage, full-part-time, of different genders, races, religions and sexualities). Many young activists have been heavily involved in various identity-based struggles that still divide workers. Through their involvement they can provide an agitational force to inspire millions to act for progressive change. The images of trade unionists and young radicals in rec ent mass protests led many to claim an importance alliance had begun between youth activists and organized labour. Often dubbed the "Teamster-Turtle alliance," fresh hope was held for future solidaristic work that could usher in an exciting renewal of left politics.

From Seattle to Seoul, from Belgrade to Jakarta, massive waves of protest have arisen where workers and youth activists (among others) have shown their collective strength. Of course, this solidarity remains uneven and will not last forever. The upsurge in radicalism thrust onto the world stage with the inspiring - and growing - presence of a "globalisation from below" was sideswiped with the terrible events of September 11, and the U.S.-led retaliation ongoing in Afghanistan. There is ample trepidation among many who had argued that youth radicalism was on the threshold of enormous possibilities. Examples covered here will testify to the fact that much more must be done to push youth activism in a direction that will yield lasting rewards.

One caveat is useful here at the outset: age does not determine one's propensity for left radicalism. The pubescent "whiz kids" behind today's right-wing political parties make this obvious. Some make the mistake of discussing "youth" in a broad, populist sense that cuts across important political distinctions. Youth, as the "whiz kids" have shown, is sometimes wasted on the young. There is nothing inherently radical about this time in our lives.

About youth activism, however, one thing is for certain: the anti-capitalist mood inside today's anti-globalization movement has provoked a shift away from the single-issue campaigning and parochialism that marked youth politics during much of the seventies, eighties and nineties. In the West, as the reach of today's insatiable markets has spread extensively on campus, an ideological war is being waged by a growing minority of youth who name capitalism as the source of their problems. Elsewhere, youth are gaining the confidence to take on dictatorial regimes that rightly fear the agitational role young radicals are playing. These are the battles we look at in derail here.

Both of these quotations come from student radicals who participated in recent popular revolutions that ousted hated dictators. The defiant spirit to resist leaps from the pages of those who wrote about the events of May, 1998, in Indonesia and October, 2000, in Serbia. In both instances, youth played a major role in urging forward oppositional movements. At the same time, both revolutions ultimately fell short of their aims, and hold important lessons for young radicals trying to build a mass movement today to change society.

U.S. President Richard Nixon once let the cat out of the bag when he referred to Indonesia in the following way: "With its 100 million people and 300 mile arc of islands containing the region's greatest hoard of natural resources, Indonesia is the greatest prize in South East Asia." For decades Indonesians -- not to mention the East Timorese and others in the periphery of Indonesia -- have suffered terribly as various imperial powers have backed one the world's most notorious regimes. Enormous transfers of money have poured into Indonesia for decades in hopes of maintaining ties to the prized natural resources in the region. Military supplies and training have been delivered to Indonesia from abroad in bountiful quantities. Many who studied the regime felt President Thojib Suharto, who ruthlessly attacked even the mildest forms of dissent, appeared as an almost unstoppable force.

But rumours of the death of Indonesian resistance were greatly exaggerated. Mass demonstrations broke out shortly after Suharto had rigged yet another parliamentary election in 1997. Rioting was rampant in the streets of Jakarta as upwards of one million people held the streets. Strikes figured in this wave of dissent, which led to a brutal crackdown on trade-union leaders. This crackdown did nor deter workers who in some instances went on to win major gains through mass strikes.

Early 1998 also saw major waves of protest in Indonesia as rising prices and high levels of unemployment battered the country. Suharto's cynical response was to blame ethnic Chinese in Indonesia for the downturn, and this racism was supported by many of the large Muslim organizations. Military provocateurs posing as rioters then waged a vicious campaign of brutality against ethnic Chinese that sadly spread among some sections of Indonesia's immiserated underclass. At the same time, the rioting also hit political targets where the organized working class was strong.

As the protest wave built, the Indonesian military warned students not to rake their demonstrations off campus. The advice was roundly ignored. The students gained more support as the military attacks on them increased. When Suharto announced in May that democratic reform would come only in 2003, the barometer of campus unrest shot through the roof. It intensified twofold as the government announced it was cancelling subsidies for fuel and electricity prices due to an IMF directive. Workers everywhere began to move into action.

The ten days in mid-May that followed contained the moments most will remember from the Indonesian revolution. As youth began to drift into the streets, rioting and looting were now concentrated much more on Suharto's elaborate network of crony capitalism. These were the moments when military officers at times showed open sympathy with the uprising, often urging looters "take turns" to ensure a fair distribution of given warehouse's supplies. Whole sections of Jakarta burned, costing many lives. At first most students, in the name of non-violence, refused to join the riotous events in the street. But on May 19, not long afterwards, over 30,000 began occupying the main parliament building in Jakarta. Workers, who moved into action much more slowly, sent representatives to support the initial occupation, and joined the youths' call for Suharto to step down.

Most are aware of the most obvious result of the Indonesian revolution: Suharto resigned on May 21, but was replaced by B. J. Habibie, a close supporter of the old regime. Less well known is the fact that a vigorous debate broke our inside the student occupation of the parliament building about whether workers or peasant supporters should be allowed in. Sadly, the leadership of the occupation fought bitterly against the unity position, ordering that pamphlets backing the idea be torn up and a cordon put in place to block anyone from entering. The failure for a united voice between students and workers meant that the largest demonstrations during the Indonesian revolution were co-opted by liberal opportunists desperate to restore order, even if that meant supporting Habibie.

The Serbian revolution in October, 2000, shares much in common the Indonesian example. Once again, youth were the initial force to challenge Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's rigging of the September 24 elections. Students had been a thorn in Milosevic's side for some time, but in an organized fashion for only two years. In 1998 a spirited wave of dissent was raised against the Serbian government's proposed 1998 University Act. The new legislation allowed the state the right to directly appoint Deans or Rectors, who then would oversee all faculty hirings. The Act also compelled professors to sign documents many recognized as declarations of support for the Milosevic regime. Over 150 professors were fired once the Act was introduced.

The Faculty of Philology in Belgrade (housing the literature and foreign language departments) was a particular target. The neofascist Serbian Radical Party -- among the three parties in Serbia's ruling coalition -- appointed an ultranationalist dean to the faculty, who quickly used his arbitrary powers to sack most of the world-literature department. Students responded with months of protests. Within these events emerged a small group of activists who referred to themselves as Orpor! ("Resistance!" in English). Orpor! and others managed to chase the appointed dean out of the faculty, and force the reinstatement of the fired professors.

The confidence arising our of this experience was clearly infectious. Otpor! began to mobilize in a serious way, often using the weapons of satire and comic theatre to confuse their opponents. Sometimes youth would amass in large numbers to play the board games Monopoly or Risk in public venues, emphasizing how Milosevic was toying with their future. When Milosevic once declared himself a national hero, Otpor! printed stickers and badges in mass quantities that read: "I am a national hero."

Otpor!'s goal was to build a broad coalition that sought to mobilize the vast majority who detested Milosevic. As one activist put it: "Milosevic controls the media, and he has 20 per cent of the people in his pocket. The rest of the country hates his guts and knows he is an evil tyrant. It's our job to motivate those 80 per cent." But Optor! faced a problem: while most Serbians detested Milosevic, there was little enthusiasm for the opposition parties who were frequently just as corrupt, and often collaborated with the existing regime. Hence the reason the primary demands concentrated on ousting Milosevic, drawing less attention to support for any parliamentary opposition (though such support remained their official position). An Otpor! spokesperson is reported to have announced at one opposition rally: "If you betray us again, next time we will bring ten thousand our people."

When Milosevic tampered with the September 24 elections, Otpor! took the lead in many regions, filling the streets in protest. High-school youth were seen everywhere. The Kolubara miners and thousands of other workers joined the revolution, and thus began the tumultuous days of October 5. The parliament building was set ablaze and the national television station taken over, while police and security forces countered with little or no resistance. Milosevic's regime had been toppled, and many of his sympathizers were driven out of their posts. The revolution remained a problem once Vojislav Kostunica's liberal opposition took power, which quickly moved to condemn the worker-management experiments that had become commonplace during the revolutionary fervour. Youth activists and workers accomplished what NATO'S 78-day bombing campaign had failed to deliver -- ousting Milosevic from power. This was largely done in three days, and not one bridge, school, or hospital was damaged.

Otpor! has begun to steadily unravel from within since the revolution, due in large part to internal disagreements about the way forward. Moreover, news that Otpor! may have received outside support from U.S. government and non-government sources has tarnished its image as an independent voice for democracy and freedom of expression. Be that as it may, even if Otpor! was used -- willingly or not -- as an arm of U.S. interests, more telling is the fact that the masses of Serbians were deeply moved with their courageous campaign in the face of the Milosevic regime.

Using tactics quite similar to the creativity seen in recent anti-capitalist mobilizations, Otpor! struck a chord with a public fed up with the huckstering gambit of Serbia's political parties. The weakness for Otpor! -- much like it was with the Indonesian youth -- was their failure to orient towards building unity with workers and other allies. Youth proudly sought out workers in the heat of the battle, but little effort was made beforehand to extend the reach of Otpor! into the ranks of the working class. This unnecessary polarization, coupled with the reports of U.S. involvement, has left Otpor! isolated and incapable of being a serious threat to the Kostinica government.


In contrast to the experiences of Indonesia and Serbia, in Colombia student organizations are bravely attempting to build solidarity with workers, peasants, racialized groups and insurgents in what may be the world's most dangerous conditions. Currently, Colombia holds the dubious distinction of having the world's highest rate of assassinations of trade unionists and student activists. In 1999, half the union leaders assassinated in the world were Colombians. Since 1987, five presidential candidates have been assassinated, as have 3,500 opposition activists. In 2000 over 130 student leaders were killed. The latest reports indicate that 38 student activists have been killed since early January 2001.

As is the case for Indonesia, the greatest problem facing Colombians today is not only terrible poverty, but the wealth of resources in their homeland. Colombia's oil reserves, ideal position for canal construction, gold, platinum, silver, bauxite, manganese, radioactive cobalt, zinc, chrome, nickel, copper, exotic wood and large fishing resources are significant enough to gain attention from investors the world over. For some, given the global concern about the finite nature of currently tapped oil reserves, Colombia represents an oyster in need of imperialist pliers.

Enter Plan Colombia. Touted as a high-financed "war on drugs," it is a thinly veiled war on the ordinary Colombians who stand in the way of profitable resources. Altogether, the plan amounts to a $7 billion (U.S.) arsenal for Colombian President Andres Pastrana's regime to displace peasant farmers from their land, paving the way to mega-profits for the world's ruling classes.

Seen in its true context, Plan Colombia is nothing more than an attempt to finish off the havoc that trade liberalization started. Today Colombia spends 700 per cent more on food imports than ten years ago -- even coffee beans native to the region are imported! The massive introduction of new imports has driven peasants out of farming and into the drug trade. The widespread spraying of coca and heroin poppies involved in the plan has only forced peasants with no other options to sell their property to large landowners or to find new areas to grow coca or heroin poppies.

Making matters even worse, well over 8,000 paramilitaries are active in Colombia engaging in sickeningly brutal attacks on anyone organizing resistance, while the government does nothing (indeed many insist, with convincing evidence, that the government is the puppeteer behind the paramilitaries). Understandably, in such conditions, guerrilla insurgency has been a feature in Colombia for many years, and popular militias have fought bitterly to stave off the aggression of imperialist forces.

The role youth are currently playing in this perilous environment is nothing short of astounding -- they are working to build solidarity between the local communities under attack and the guerrillas. ANDES (Andean High School Association), ACEU (Colombian Association of University Youth), JUCO (Young Communists of Colombia) and OCLAE (Continental Organization of Caribbean and Latin American Youth) are groups that have actively fought to bring together the very people in Colombia the state and paramilitaries are trying to tear apart. Three days of action have been called for the summer of 2001, all of which aim to bring together workers, youth, peasants and guerrillas desperate to beat back Plan Colombia.

In late November, 2001, the OCLAE general secretariat meeting is to be held in Colombia. The meeting will be followed by a field trip to a guerrilla zone, to live and hold dialogue with guerrillas for approximately a week. This activity is typical of the work already underway by ANDES, JUCO, OCLAE and to a lesser extent ACEU. There is a real push among student militants to organize national and international forums, "colluqs," to build solidarity with guerrilla groups, particularly the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). This is doubtless the reason they have been targeted by paramilitaries and death squads. In the bravest of circumstances, Colombian youth are providing a lead for their counterparts elsewhere.


The events of Seattle were an appropriate beginning to a new century where an exciting optimism is taking hold. After Seattle, North America and Europe were alive and well with the exuberant spirit of anti-capitalist politics on the campuses. The internationalism witnessed in student protest in Europe and North America are providing a means to break down old divisions. On September 26, 2000 in Prague, Macedonians marched with Greeks, Basques with Spaniards, Poles with Russians. On April 20 and 21, 2001, in Quebec City, French and English militants united to tear down security barricades.

There were important campaigns that set the stage for the onset of today's anti-capitalist mood. By the mid-nineties, U.S. student activism woke up over the issue of sweatshop labour. Youth were shocked to learn of the conditions in which their school's garments were being produced, they rejected the notion that their only recourse against the brutality of sweatshops was individual consumer power. They began to realize that, if they mobilized and united with workers' organizations both North and South, other tactics were possible. By July of 1998, activists from over 30 different schools came together in New York to establish an organization that would help co-ordinate anti-sweatshop campaigns from campus to campus: the United Students Against Sweatshops was born.

Of course, the USAS movement would not be the only campaign to move youth into action in the West. The international movement to save imprisoned Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal from state execution was an important pole of international solidarity. Ralph Nader's campaign during the recent U.S. presidential elections provided a voice for thousands of youth politicized in anticapitalist activity. In Canada and Quebec, youth figured in citywide strikes and mass protests against cuts to social programs. Over 100,000 participated in a national day of students in 1995, and Quebec was rocked with a tremendous student strike in 1996 (one of several in recent history). In Europe, the anti-nuclear movement has seen sizeable youth involvement, along with campaigns against genetically modified organisms and soaring tuition fees. May Day of 2001 was as raucous an affair as ever, with thousands of youth celebrating the traditional workers' holiday in diverse fashion in Europe and elsewhere.


After the events of September 11, we face an anxious question: what does the future hold for anti-capitalism? Young radicals who had proudly used tactics of confrontation were thrust into a frightening milieu of patriotic jingoism. A predictably sweeping definition of "terrorism" intensified an already stringent crackdown on left activism. For a moment, the confidence to resist seemed to dwindle.

But this understandable pause was short-lived. Many anti-capitalists (and others) moved quickly into anti-war campaigns. Almost immediately, small vigils of thousands were seen worldwide, from the Gaza Strip to New York City. Many of these vigils have turned into sizeable anti-war teach-ins, rallies and demonstrations. On September 29, over 20,000 rallied in Washington D.C. and 10,000 in San Francisco at events staged by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, a newly-formed national coalition. On October 13, over 50,000 rallied in Berlin and London. Over 200,000 marched in Italy days later. Thousands of anti-poverty protesters swarmed Toronto's financial district on October 16 as part of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty's campaign to unseat the Harris Tories. Over 20,000 demonstrated against the European Union's neoliberal trade policies in Ghent on October 19. A mass anti-capitalist teach-in was held from November 6 to 8 in Beirut (1) under the slogan "Our world is not for sale -- people's lives and well-b eing are not a material for trade." Mass protests occurred in major Canadian cities for the November 17 meeting of the IMF and World Bank in Ottawa. The terrible events of September 11 were certainly a shock to activists, but they have not stopped the need to mobilize for global justice.

Successive protests have also seen the reappearance of raging debates. The use of live ammunition by police in Gothenberg and Genoa emboldened some, but left others fearful; a spirited debate about tactics at mass demonstrations is well underway. Others have questioned how inclusive the movement currently is, and what steps must be taken to build solidarity among wider layers of marginalized and racialized groups. Despite the best arguments of anti-capitalists, the question of fixing or nixing international financial institutions remains on the table, Emerging left institutions -- either in the form of "structured movements," activist spokescouncils, the World Social Forum or mobilizing coalitions -- are attempting to introduce greater democracy in planning the activist calendar. The outcome of these debates at the moment is uncertain, 1 they hold great importance for the future of today's radicalization.

Some might argue that the new mood of solidarity created in the wake of Seattle was never practiced or welcomed by all. This is of course true, but hardly surprising. Some leaders of trade unions and NGO's -- particularly in the U.S. -- happily bucked this trend for the comfortable salons of jobs or credibility-for-political-support arrangements (Teamster president James Hoffa Jr.'s endorsement of George W. Bush's drilling project in the Alaskan wildlife reserve being the most bald example).

The recent revolutions in Serbia and Indonesia reveal the necessity for youth to be organized in a way that builds solidarity with workers. The Teamster-Turtle alliance struck in Seattle has created the potential to bring the fight against international capitalism to a level not seen in decades. Without question, this alliance is under attack from numerous directions. Right-wing NGO and trade-union leaders, frothy media pundits, neoliberal politicians and transnational business elites relish the thought of ending what has recently begun. Young radicals must fight to not let this happen, as the necessity for mass-based organizing strategies is needed now more than ever.

If today's activism is truly built on a mass basis, in the process most will recognize something else: That the fate of their efforts hinges on the need for a completely different economic and social system. As Rosa Luxemburg once claimed in her assessment of mass strikes, it is false to place any walls between acts of resistance and the bold assertion of alternatives. In the process of mass struggle, the artificial divide global capitalism places between questions of politics and economics begins to break down; the capacities activists require to transform society begin to develop. This is the political space where alternatives can and must be put forward, and it is here where young anti-capitalists can play a most important role. At present, no one holds a monopoly of insight on exactly what alternatives might be most compelling. Nevertheless, the exciting process of anti-capitalist (and for today's purposes, anti-imperialist) debate still offers the hope for transformative politics to be considered, if no t realized. Strong thanks are given here to Elizabeth Carlyle and Brandon Johnson, who provided invaluable research for the sections on Columbian and U.S. youth activism.

Joel Harden is a member of CD'S editorial collective. He coordinates bookmarks Canada and studies political science at York University.
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Author:Harden, Joel
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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