Not just a summer of rage

As the global movements for peace and social justice head back onto the streets, Ben Lear looks ahead to a year of protest

March 29, 2009
4 min read

This year, global summit counter-mobilisations are coming back into vogue for the left. They were an ever-present feature of the alter-globalisation movement, but it seemed their time had passed as activists began to favour more localised, decentralised tactics, policing became more effective

and the media lost interest.

However, in the face of a series of summits of critical importance to the future direction of global politics, this year activist networks across the world are coming together once again. And the old debates surrounding the efficacy of summit mobilisation are back too.

‘Summit season’ begins on 2 April, when Barack Obama will make his first presidential trip to Europe to attend the G20 summit in London. Delegates from the most powerful nations in the world are coming to discuss how to give capitalism the kiss of life.

While those inside focus on financial reform, the protesters on the streets outside the summit will march under the banner of ‘Put People First: Jobs, Justice and Climate’. Others are seeking to intervene more directly. The Camp for Climate Action plans to pitch tents in London’s financial district on 1 April to highlight the role of the ‘fossil and financial fools’ in causing both climate change and the economic crisis.

Many of the G20 delegates will jet off to mainland Europe the day the summit ends – and the protests will follow them. This time leaders will be meeting for a Nato conference held jointly in Strasbourg and Baden-Baden. As well as discussing escalating the war in Afghanistan, delegates will also be celebrating Nato’s 60th birthday. A large demonstration is being organised by unions, NGOs and the anti-war movement (including the Stop the War Coalition and CND), and decentralised direct action will be staged to impede the summit.

The momentum will continue into the summer. The G8, the focus of dramatic past counter-mobilisations, will be hosted in Italy, on the remote island of Lampedusa. Although Italian activists are principally organising around education and anti-racism issues at present, a coming together of southern Europe’s radical left networks is to be expected. Meanwhile, a series of climate camps modelled on the UK’s will take place across northern Europe.

Finally, in December, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Copenhagen for the ‘COP-15’, to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto treaty, which is set to expire in 2012. Environmentalists across the globe are already discussing how to intervene. The debate is split between those wishing to pressure delegates into making the ‘right choices’ and those seeking to shut down the summit entirely. Klimax, the Copenhagen-based organising group, proposes a ‘mass action concept’ to bridge the divide. Arguing that ‘a good deal is better than no deal – but no deal is way better than a bad one’, Klimax has called a counter-summit to run in parallel and inform actions.

Similar debates are being played out across the different counter-mobilisations, usually involving a split between the coalitions of NGOs and unions organising large demonstrations and radical groups planning civil disobedience and more militant interference.

Even if this year’s counter-summit mobilisations successfully encompass a broad political spectrum, many question the efficacy of this form of protest. ‘Summit-hopping’, as critics call it, can sap energy from long-term local campaigns and focus it on mega-spectacles that produce questionable concrete results. Proponents, though, see counter-summits as inspiring symbolic manifestations of resistance, and opportunities to reach out to other social groups.

However we on the left intervene, we must ensure that our message is relevant. Now more than ever, society needs a coherent and viable alternative to ‘business as usual’. If done well, this year’s mobilisations might just provide the necessary ‘jump start’ for serious oppositional responses to the ecological and economic crises.

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