In recent years the western world has witnessed a new revival of left-wing and anarchist activism. This activism has been directed at the free trade organisations and specifically at their gatherings, such as those of the European Union, the G8, the WTO and the IMF and the World Bank. This seems logical, given that these meetings of world leaders are of great symbolic importance to both sides. At first sight, they look like the perfect opportunity to call the established order into account. Occasionally, the protests are impressive. The spectacular blockade of the WTO summit in Seattle has made a great impression on a lot of people. But is the euphoria completely grounded?
When the WTO 'millenium summit' in Seattle broke down, this was celebrated by activists as a victory. According to many, the summit's failure was partly due to the blockade, and it was seen as the crowning of years of campaigning against 'globalisation'. Other actions centered around summits, such as the Euro-summit in Cologne and the G8 summit failed altogether. 'Summit hopping' (campaigning from one summit to the other) may not be new, but it certainly seems to be starting to become more and more dominant in 'Action-land'. With the 'forth international day against capitalism' on September 26, coinciding with the opening day of the IMF and World bank conference in Prague, the summit-movement reaches a new hight. In the run up to Prague the independent media is dominated by hallelujah-stories of Seattle and Washington. Personally however, I have yet to find the first serious (and undoubtedly less spectacular) article with regards to content. Discussion about the current dynamic of the summit- movement, for example about what the goals are and to what extent these are being reached, is completely absent. Reaching the summit and being part of a mass protest seem to be the only things people are interested in, whilst there are plenty of reasons for taking a more critical look at summit hopping...
The Failure of a Summit Doesn't Make the World Any Better
The breakdown of a summit does not mean that the criticised institution is unmasked. Neither will it stop the world from becoming more commercialised. Aiming to cause a summit to fail appeals to the imagination and provides the media with some pretty pictures. But whilst a mass international protest may have great symbolic value, it does not mean very much more.
Summit-Hopping is Only Possible for Western Activists
In recent years we have seen great international mobilisation towards the 'free trade summits'. These almost always happened exclusively in the West, frequently the basic organising free trade organisation. It is difficult for activists from poorer countries to take part in this, and this is one of the reasons that the protests are predominantly white, even though westerners are hit the least by capitalism. Travelling across the globe from summit to summit is very exciting, but you do need enough money to be mobile. Also, the one-sided attention paid to summits, means that westerners have a dominant role in the direction in which this movement is developing.
Summit-Hopping is Sponsord by National States
Rich Non-Governmental Organistaions (NGO's), funded by national governments, assume that lobbying with national governments and international institutions will eventually lead to far-reaching reforms in the criticised free trade organisations. Often, these organisations themselves are strongly hierarchical, not exactly revolutionary in character. Because they focus their attention on summits and manage to reserve a relatively large amount of money for this, they create the impression that the main point of actions should be the summits. Further more, the rich NGO's almost always stick to vague terms, such as 'globalisation' and 'free trade', and that the alternatives they (wrongly) advocate leave the corners stones of capitalism intact. Poor, and often locally organised movements and initiatives which work and start from basis democratic principles, can do very little with unlimited drive towards the summits, even though they are the crystallised anti-authoritarian answer to capitalism.
Summits Are Paired With Repressive Police Meassures
During a summit, state repression is especially high. The collection of states do the utmost to chart the actions and action groups, long before the summits. The conferences themselves are often linked with mass-arrests. Amsterdam ('97) 700, Geneva ('98) 700, Cologne (spring '99) more than 1000, Seattle ('99) 600, Washington (2000) 1300, the number of arrests speaks for itself. Perhaps it would be cleverer to strike when it is not expected.
Summits Are Paired With Media Manipulation
The (mass) media - this much can be considered common knowledge - has a dominant role in shaping public opinion. Spectacular appearances, such as disguised anarchist, shooting police officers, and creatively-dressed demonstrators, dominate the media coverage, whilst real information and discussion is left exclusively to political commentators and the so-called experts in their three piece suits. The activists are continually reduced to frightened or concerned, but above all naive citizens, who should really leave politics to the experts of the social elite. If citizens want to be noticed by the media, they have to display themselves in ever more spectacular ways. This is why there is so much attention for summits from the side of the activists. Being noticed (by the media) is considered paramount by a good deal of activists and whether or not the picture painted by the media is consistent with reality is thought less important.
Hop Into the Canyon?
We are living in the long awaited year 2000 and many activists feel that Prague could well assume the same historic importance as Seattle. The question is, what significant outcome have the activist at previous summits achieved?! Those who have pinned their hope on enforcing radical reform and democratisation by means of action and lobby, have only received a verbal smoke screen from the guilty WTO, IMF and World Bank. Radical anti-capitalists have seen time and time again how their direct sabotage actions are used by the media to criminalise the movement. On the last international day of action, it became clear how quickly the state learns from its mistakes. The number of arrests was above the 1300 mark. What successful global mobilisations such as Seattle and Washington have managed to do in the first place, is to boost the confidence of western activists. In the last few years, a number of special and inspiring coalitions have been formed between organisations across the globe. By coordinating their actions, their efforts have clearly gained in value, compared to isolated or local activities. This does not mean, however, that we have now found the perfect or everlasting formula for success. It is important to look critically at what is moving us and what we are aiming to achieve. Clear goals need to be set and we need to assess to what extent these goals are being met. An English activist compared the movement to a snowball rolling down a hill and getting bigger and bigger. Too much discussion would, according to him, hinder the growth of the snowball. Let's just hope the snowball doesn't end up in a canyon.