Fw [GLW]: Some movement-building lessons from S11
alanb at SPAMelf.brisnet.org.au
Sun Oct 8 08:31:01 MDT 2000
This was from _last week's_ issue of GLW.
Some movement-building lessons from S11
COMMENT BY SEAN HEALY
Now that the initial surge of euphoria and adrenaline is slowly dissipating
into afterglow, it's time to dissect the S11 protests against the World
Economic Forum's Melbourne summit. What made them a success? Here's an
attempt at some answers.
1. The tactic was right
S11's chosen tactic a mass, non-violent blockade proved to be a
masterstroke; not a magic tactic for all time and circumstances, certainly,
but the one most suited to this occasion.
The decision to blockade the casino was in tune with the protesters' desire
to do more than just go through the normal channels, while also allowing
the opportunity for participation by tens of thousands. <Picture: Picture>
The size of the mobilisation established our legitimacy as a bona fide
people's movement and flung WEF director Claude Smadja's accusation that we
were oppressive minorities right back in his face.
Numbers also provided strength cowards as they are, police attacked only
when they considerably outnumbered us. A smaller blockade would have
resulted in the bloodbath police threatened.
And the adherence to non-violence, in spite of all the debate about it
beforehand, worked like a charm. By refusing to be provoked into street
fighting, the peaceful blockaders threw responsibility for the violence
back at police, again confirming that it's always best to put the enemy in
the role of aggressor.
2. It takes all sorts to make a revolution
The source of S11's strength was its breadth and diversity: unionists,
students, old-time lefties, the newly radical, men, women, black, white,
anarchists, socialists, feminists, environmentalists, almost everyone.
This diversity allowed it to appeal to an enormous cross-section of the
Australian people, to present itself truthfully as a genuine response to
the evils of corporate domination of life.
Its appeal was far, far greater than if it had come across merely as a
student action or a union action or a greenie action.
This diversity was also crucial to building S11. While the S11 Alliance was
the main practical organiser of the blockade itself, the incredible
momentum for that blockade primarily came from outside that group, from all
the many different, self-starting people who wanted to see it work.
3. Diversity can be unified
Of even greater significance is that S11 proved that diversity becomes
powerful when it's unified. When they stand together, all the different
pieces coalesce into something far greater than the sum of the parts.
It certainly helped that that unity only needed to last for one event and
for three days and it required considerable patient, tireless work from
many people to manage even that.
Nevertheless, that such a movement could hold together was no small feat in
itself and should greatly expand the left's possibilities for future
This success should also lay to rest one idea, a remnant from a discredited
postmodernism, which has throttled the left's potential for some years: the
idea that movements can only be unified by oppressing and silencing the
separate, often conflicting, identities within them that collectivity
requires the sacrifice of individuality. S11 showed that's not true, or at
least need not be true.
4. Organisation counts
Now this gets more controversial: the blockade worked because some people
dared to organise and coordinate it, and not leave it to autonomous groups
all doing their own thing.
Certainly, autonomous groups did do their own thing; many made an enormous
contribution, some less so. But if it had been left at that, the blockade
would have been nowhere near as successful, and could well have imploded
into total chaos.
By providing marshalling at most blockade points, spotters to monitor
police movements, a stage and platforms of speakers and an overall
coordination between the marshals, the S11 Alliance provided the blockade
what it needed: a central nervous system.
This allowed quick communication, troubleshooting, reinforcement of weak
blockade points, experience-swapping, political content and motivation,
liaison with other groups like Trades Hall and medical and legal teams,
media coordination and unifying projects (like the victory march on
This was not the Seattle model. The blockading of the World Trade
Organisation meeting last November relied far more on spontaneity and
autonomous affinity groups doing whatever, without a coherent, overall
S11, in contrast, was far more organised and coordinated. As one
disgruntled journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald remarked to a marshal,
I was in Seattle, you guys have it all over them, I could get in and out
at will there.
5. Organisations count
This level of coordination did not arise out of nowhere; it was rather the
result of the deliberate decisions and the carefully laid plans of
Some have compared the global movement against capital to a swarm of bees,
powerful because headless, and have revelled in its spontaneity. This
captures a certain truth: the movement's surge of the past year has been
largely spontaneous and it is a unity of many different bees.
But the movement-as-swarm is an idealisation and misses another truth: the
backbone of all social movements is inevitably provided by organised groups
with established ideologies, conceptions and influence, whether unions or
activist organisations or radical political parties. This current movement
is no different.
In this case, without the coordinated activity of certain organisations
(the Democratic Socialist Party, for instance, or Friends of the Earth, or
the militant unions like the CFMEU and the AMWU), S11 would not have had
the impact that it did. The tactic of a mass, non-violent blockade might
never have been adopted, the broader union movement might never have backed
it even to the extent it did, the blockade itself might never have been
6. Democracy is the only effective unifier
The best-laid plans would have all come to nought if they hadn't enjoyed
overwhelming support. This blockade was organised and coordinated because
participants wanted it to be so, not because it was enforced; the power to
decide always rested with the blockaders themselves.
Each blockade site made their own decisions through democratic discussion
and voting on whether to sit or stand in the face of police, on when to
end each day.
Far from being an external and deadening imposition, as the advocates of
the Seattle model feared, the S11 Alliance's coordination melded with the
protesters' striving towards greater cohesion.
Routine marshalling, such as shoring up one blockade or another, was done
by request. More complex marshalling (such as the motion for the victory
march) was done by proposal and simultaneous vote at each blockade site.
This should lay to rest another hoary myth on the left: the
near-pathological fear that leadership, from anyone, is contrary to the
goal of self-emancipation. In this case, the organisations at the
movement's core led by persuasion and, by so doing, they enabled the
7. It's the message that matters
All this so far has been to do with the techniques of struggle, rather than
its political and ideological essence. But one of S11's most crucial
lessons is the importance of the political message.
After all, we failed in our stated, technical objective: to shut it down.
The summit went ahead. All we could do was disrupt it, not stop it.
But the real battle is never the technical one. It's the battle for
political legitimacy, for public opinion, for hearts and minds.
The reason we were victorious was because of the power of our
anti-corporate message and its multiplication by 20,000 voices. The summit
went ahead but, by its end, it was discredited, revealed to millions as a
gabfest of cosseted business leaders who could only meet with the
assistance of police batons.
Our self-identification as anti-capitalist also prompted millions to,
perhaps for the first time, consider the overall, the fundamental: what
sort of social system should we live in? That alone is a tremendous
8. Vague is charming but harmful
S11 was limited by its ideological and political vagueness. The movement
communicated the sources and depths of its anger but its solutions were
indistinct and unclear.
What does S11 say about the World Bank's debt relief plans, for example, or
about how international trade should work, or about what we should do with
This movement needs to outgrow its present, childlike fuzziness. It needs
to develop a greater ideological, as well as organisational, cohesion so
that it can communicate more than basic emotions.
Otherwise, the spokespeople for this movement will not be of the movement,
but outside it. It will be left to people like the ACTU's Sharan Burrow or
those in far-from-radical non-government organisations to articulate what
our solutions are.
Our movement can be as vibrant or even as organised as it likes. But if
these people are defining what is seen as the movement's political
standpoint, ours will not be a revolutionary movement, but rather its
opposite. We'll serve quite different agendas from what we intended.
9. There is an alternative
This growing, international movement's anger at corporate greed and
tyranny, its targeting of transnational corporations and their political
lackeys, its self-description as anti-capitalist puts it on the road to
the ideology it needs to embrace: revolutionary socialism.
United around such an ideology, it could find the ideas to guide its
storming of heaven.
Paradoxically, the S11 experience has also provided revolutionary socialism
with part of the thing it lacks: a practical and contemporary example of
the people's power which lies at the heart of the socialist idea.
It felt like it at the time but that feeling wasn't just euphoria. S11 did
show how possible, how easy, how wonderful it is to rise up. If we can
build a small town around Crown Casino based on solidarity and popular
democracy, why not the whole world?
[Sean Healy was one of Green Left Weekly's correspondents in Melbourne to
report on the S11 protests. He is also a member of the national executive
of the Democratic Socialist Party.]
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