Brian Holmes on 29 Sep 2000 22:51:19 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] S26 and after

Well, finally I was among what the know-it-all Economist calls those
"exuberant irrationalists on the streets," and yes, Your Honor, I must
admit it was a blast to meet all my activist friends in Prague, to dream
about ways to outwit the police, to admire all the artistic creations at
the Convergence Center and lend a hand here or there, to wave posters and
stick stickers and sing Spanish anarchist chants on the Big Day. Yes, it
was really great fun to see the "tutti bianchi" of Ya Basta go forth
heroically in their hilarious padded white suits to face the armored
personnel carriers and the water cannons and the lines of cops behind their
shields, it was trepidating to pour the vinegar on the rag that's supposed
to protect you from the tear gas, it was heart-quaking to hear the
helicopter going throb throb throb and to see the smoke rising up out of
the valley where the blue group was fighting it out along the railroad
line; and honestly, I could feel no particular regret later that night when
those masked and black-clad youths began smashing up that poor lonely
McDonalds beneath the towering palace-turned-museum of downtown Prague.

But it was also intellectually challenging to sit there at the
counter-summit in the Domovina Culture House and listen to Walden Bello and
George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici and Boris Kagarlitsky and all the
rest (I think the Hungarian economist Lorant Karoly gave the best case
study of the East's endless "transition"). You had to keep your wits about
you to correlate all the statistics on the debt and the historical effect
of oil prices and the contemporary imposition of economies-for-export with
everything you already knew or already forgot since the IMF riots in the
mid-eighties, and sometimes it was tough to cut through the Bolshevik
rhetoric to see the political possibilities in the present for organizing
some effective resistance to neoliberalism. But it was fantastic after
twenty years to see them finally on the run, Wolfensohn falling all over
himself to admit that the protesters had something to say, Stiglitz in town
to keep the heat on his former employers at the IMF,  while tracts informed
you that the World Bank's civil-society consultancy programs were
backfiring and producing unpublishable critiques of structural adjustment,
or that the respectable Catholic Jubilee 2000 was gettin' down and gettin'
radical and calling for the outright cancellation of African debt. Even if
you've already read a lot and heard a lot of lectures and clicked through a
lot of websites, there's nothing like rubbing shoulders with a bunch of
organizers and researchers and NGO holy warriors to make you want to hit
the books again, maybe become an amateur expert on some obscure branch of
organized global expropriation.

At the same time, the counter-summit was a lot more about tactics and
strategy than about statistics. And personally it was music to my ears to
hear Boris Kagarlitsky say with inimitable humor what I figured out for
myself a while ago, which is that if you realistically want any reform at
all you better call for revolution, and in this case abolition of the IMF
and the World Bank. Which is another way of saying what *everyone* on the
opposition side believes in their secret heart, which is that the direct
action movement, whatever the black-and-white simplicity of some of its
adherents, has been tremendously effective in forcing change onto the
global agenda and hasn't by any means ceased to surprise us all.

So now that the dust has cleared and the windows have been boarded up and
the official meetings have been put to an early close, now while hundreds
of people are still being held in jail and apparently are getting abused
and even tortured by the cops, let's talk about everyone's favorite
subject, The Violence. Are you for it or against it? I want to say
something painfully obvious: in Europe, unlike in America, there is no way
you can organize a protest on this scale without the guys in the black
clothes and scarves showing up, and they're there to break windows and
throw flagstones, or better yet, Molotov cocktails. How many times have we
seen that happen in Paris after some innocent high-school kids demo? As for
the direct actionists themselves, they'll almost always say they're going
to be non-violent and civilly disobedient and artistic, but then in the
protests you find that the police are between you and what you're there to
do, and when the guys in the black masks start heaving stones, to sit down
and passively resist is suicide, so... As for the NGOs and the more
political critics short of the Trotskyists, of course they're going to say
they condemn the violence whether they really do or not, because how can
you legitimately dissent in a democratic society with a Molotov cocktail?
Especially if you're the handful of Czechs who risked their asses to
organize this explosive thing on their home ground? So everyone has to pick
their position, do their thing and trot out their line to explain it, and
maybe take time to see the big picture too. As for the by-standers who
either weep and moan about the nasty anarchists for busting up Ronald
McDonald or rail against the hypocritical NGOs for being reformist, OK, so
you prefer the time when there was no world-wide movement fighting
neoliberalism on all fronts? The truth, for anyone who knows a little
history, is that the exuberant and irrational capitalist passion for free
trade is so exploitative, so inegalitarian, that it's likely to get the
whole world embroiled in a war, of which the tiny flare of violence in
Prague on S26 is just the salutary warning sign, or the frightening
harbinger if it's ignored.

So there it is, been there, done that, and I guess after A26 there's always
a little free-trade bashing at the Summit of the Americas next April in
Quebec city, a tempting excuse to go find out when spring really starts in
Canada. In the meantime though, and despite a lot of excellent work from a
lot of committed people, I reckon there's still a tremendous amount to be
done in translating this extremely complicated and extremely impassioned
movement into political terms that have the resonance of, say, the recent
truckers' blockades in Europe. The depressing thing is, the populist right
can use direct action too, and though our cause is the good cause, a lot of
them seemed pretty confident about what they were doing too. The winning
strategy for the left is going to be international, against the national
petty bourgeoisies and little bosses whom the big money loves to
manipulate. And in terms of that international strategy, you have to say
that the one thing that didn't come to pass in Prague was massive
participation by the Czechs. Will A26 turn out to have been a moment of
consciousness-raising for tomorrow's Czech activists? I think it's an
interesting question, and I'm curious to learn the answer.

Brian Holmes

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