Moving against

When the G8 travelling circus rolls up to Rostock in Germany this month, it will again be met with mass protests. Ben Trott reports on the efforts of the German left to unite and draw lessons from the protests at the 2005 Gleneagles summit

June 1, 2007
9 min read


Ben Trott is an editor of the journal Turbulence.

The G8 last met in Germany in the summer of 1999, six months before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) protests in Seattle, and well into the so-called ‘cycle of struggles’ that began with the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. Yet for Germany’s ‘globalisation-critical movement’, as it came to be known, the mobilisation against the Cologne G8 Summit was a false start.

The mobilisation was split in numerous directions. Confusion had been created by the role that the German Greens – and in particular Joschka Fischer, who was foreign secretary and their most senior member of parliament – were playing in steering Nato towards a military intervention in Kosovo.

The radicals, meanwhile, were split into two different camps and unable to exert much influence within the broader coalition.The turnout on the streets was low, huge police repression was experienced and the protests were generally considered a disaster.The mobilisation around this year’s G8 summit, to be held in Heiligendamm near Rostock on 6-8 June 2007, has sought to learn from this experience.

How to do a summit protest

In the middle of April of this year, around 450 people met at the old Ehm-Welk school in Rostock for the third and final Rostock Action Conference – a series of events attended by trade unionists, NGOs, members of political parties (specifically, the new Linkspartei and the Green Party Youth), Attac, antifascists, church groups and groups belonging to the autonomous left, including those organised within the Dissent Network.

As well as Cologne in 1999, the 2005 G8 mobilisation to Gleneagles also provided a model for ‘how-not-to-do-a-summitprotest’, with its three separate, only very slightly overlapping mobilisations.These were Make Poverty History (composed of big NGOs, charities and ‘civil society’), G8 Alternatives (a Trotskyite-dominated coalition, with a number of smaller NGOs also involved), and Dissent! (anarchists, autonomists and the ‘direct action movement’).

Everyone pretty much remained within the comfort zones of their own traditional political practices, whether these were demonstrations, counter-conferences or small ‘affinity group’ based actions, further entrenching both their own ideological positions and cultural identities.

The Rostock Action Conferences – initially conceived by the Interventionist Left, a network of groups and individuals from the radical-left – have sought to use this year’s G8 mobilisation to do precisely the opposite.

First of all, the desire to create one broad-based coalition arose from the assessment that the various aspects of the German left – from the once-huge movement against nuclear transport to the plethora of anti-fascist groups scattered across the Federal Republic – are nowhere near as strong as they once were. So their ability to influence the direction of politics and society is extremely limited when they act alone.

Yet the political rationale for mobilising against the G8 remains as strong as ever. As an institution, it has a very obvious lack of democratic legitimacy. Even if one were to assume that the G8 heads of state represent the interests of their entire populations (which of course they do not), these amount to only 14 per cent of the world’s population. Despite this, these states control 48 per cent of votes within the IMF and 46 per cent in the World Bank, and hold four out of five veto-holding seats on the UN security council, enabling them to wield enormous influence over and throughout the global political economy.

The G8 also lacks a political legitimacy in the sense that it symbolises a globalised and militarised form of capitalism. Its raison d’être is the expansion and intensification of the neoliberal project, meaning privatisation, the curbing of trade union powers, an attack on any existing welfare state and the flexibilisation of labour.The extent to which it sets the agenda within other international institutions allows the G8 to function as one of global capitalism’s ‘crisis managers’, creating stability for sustained exploitation. Summit protests function as a symbol of resistance to neoliberalism. For this symbol to be powerful, considerable cooperation and coordination is required.

The G8 mobilisation is also motivated by the desire to transform the ‘globalisation-critical’ movement into a more genuine ‘movement of movements’, so that the whole becomes more than simply the sum of its parts. Central to this is developing a common political practice: engaging in social struggles together with others, learning from one another, being sensitive to our differences, and in the process all being prepared to become something else – together.

At the beginning of the mobilisation, almost two years ago, it was clear what this would have to mean in practical terms. First, the radical, explicitly anti-capitalist sections of the left would need to try to escape their largely self-imposed isolation.

It would not (and should not) have to give up its desire for a complete break with capitalist social relations, but it would have to show a willingness to work together with those who have different goals. An anti-capitalist position would not have to be hidden, but a new language would need to be found if it is to be able to communicate with anyone other than just itself. It would be able to push (even break) the boundaries of legality, but it would need to find ways of bringing others along and avoiding political isolation.

Others, of course, would be presented with different challenges.While there would not be the need for complete ‘unity’ within the coalition, commonality would have to be sought. Furthermore, any attempts at adopting the role played by ‘the party’ in previous eras of struggle – in other words, of assuming the vanguard role, determining the official ‘consciousness’ and leading the direction of any movement – would have to be given up.This does not mean that there is not a role for political parties within the movement of movements (or the G8 mobilisation), but they will never again be able to assume the hegemonic role that they once did. And finally, there would need to be a mutual toleration of different forms of action – including those that would inevitably be condemned as ‘unreasonable’ by those in power.

Of course, it was also clear that there would need to be limits to the breadth of the coalition. In Germany, the far-right has a long history of deploying an anti-globalisation discourse rooted in anti-semitism, racism and the construction of fear on the basis of the ‘threat’ posed to national identity by processes of globalisation. Indeed, the Nationalist Party of Germany (NPD) will be demonstrating in the nearby town of Schwerin at the same time as the international demonstration in Rostock the weekend before the summit (see www.demo-schwerin.tk and www.heiligendamm2007.de).

There has also been a desire to learn from the experience of 2005 and the extent to which Live8 (and parts of Make Poverty History) succeeding in presenting the demonstrations as pro-G8. A clear rejection of the political and democratic legitimacy of the G8 has been a hallmark of the spectrum that has gathered around the Rostock conferences.

A pre-emptive evaluation

At the time of writing, around a month before the summit, there are many reasons for optimism about the potential for a successful mobilisation, measured in terms of numbers of participants, cross-pollination between different milieu, the visibility of anti-neoliberal (or even anti-capitalist) movements on the world stage during the summit, and the potential for involving people who have had no previous engagement with social movements.

Actions, demonstrations and events around the summit begin on 1 June, with a number of camps and convergence centres providing places to eat, sleep, plan and party (www.camping-07.org).The biggest and broadest event planned is the international demonstration through Rostock on Saturday 2 June. Under the banner of ‘Another World Is Possible’, in the region of 50-100,000 demonstrators are expected. An Alternative Summit, debating the official themes of this year’s G8 (energy and climate change, Africa, Aids and infectious disease, intellectual property) and more will take place from 5-7 June.

Other events include concerts in Rostock and beyond (www.move-against-g8.org), a day of action on the issue of migration on 4 June (http://g8-migration. net.tf) and on war and militarisation the following day (www.g8andwar.de), as well as blockades of the G8 summit itself on 6-7 June.

For the Interventionist Left, the group most responsible for setting in motion the Rostock Action Conferences, success will be judged by the visibility of an anti-capitalist politics in the international demonstration and the breadth of participation in the mass blockades – particularly those being organised by the Block G8 campaign.To achieve these goals will mean undoing – to a very large extent – the process by which Geldof, Bono and others created an unprecedented legitimacy for the G8 at Gleneagles.

It will require a sizeable number of radicals to give up on the idea that an ethics of autonomy means refusing productive engagement with non-autonomous others, and instead ‘getting their hands dirty’ by working to influence the direction of broad coalitions. It will mean more official ‘civil society’ organisations accepting the legitimacy of a far wider range of action forms as means of trying to create another world; and radicals accepting that they also need to make compromises – preparing actions that do not primarily cater to the needs of the supposedly most radical (read: militant) but instead constitute the greatest possibility of effecting change.

It will mean no longer giving precedence to our differences over our commonalities. And it will mean not only recognising these commonalities in theory, but having them played out in practice on the streets of Rostock and the roads and fields around Heiligendamm.

See you there!

Ben Trott is a PhD candiate at the Freie Universität, Berlin, an active participant in the Für eine linke Strömung (FelS) group, and co-editor of Shut Them Down! The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the Movement of Movements

See www.shutthemdown.org


Ben Trott is an editor of the journal Turbulence.


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