Revving It Up!

People outside supporting a large globe above their heads.

International systems of power are bursting out of the single-issue framework. Confronted by the exponential expansion and integration of new markets, technologies, regulatory bodies, and ecological crises, activists are turning to “globalization” as a way to talk about the increasingly totalizing dimensions of capitalist and state power.

Globalization-talk reflects a nascent and potentially growing popular awareness of the complex and transnational character of social and political systems, signaling a shift in the way people have been talking about societal transformation for the past twenty-five years.

The new social movements that began in the sixties were followed by an era of the particular: an era in which the causes of and solutions to social and political problems were largely framed in single-issue terms. The sixties widened the revolutionary lens, broadening the political agenda beyond questions of economics and labor to include a wide range of transclass social and cultural issues, including ecology, feminism, and identity-based movements in general. Yet, while rightly illustrating the subjective and social dimensions of oppression, these movements rarely generalized beyond the particular, failing to offer a panoramic vision of a new world that would be free of state and capitalist domination.

The emergence of globalization-talk signals a crucial historical opening. The idea of globalization, as a way to point to international systems of power and their accompanying cultural disruptions, carries within it the seed of a more universal analysis and critique. The growing concern with global systemic problems, rather than just particular nation-bound episodal problems, reflects a move toward a more comprehensive and integrated analysis of the sociopolitical order. For instance, popular outrage against the global implications of international institutions such as the WTO, or transnational corporations such as Monsanto, reflects a concern with increasingly universal systems of capitalist and state power.

A vital question, however, confronts us: Will the movement against globalization remain embedded within the social movement tradition of single-issue protest, alternatives, and reform—or will it offer a coherent and holistic analysis of global systems of power that will open the way for a revolutionary vision and movement?

There is an undeniable tendency toward the former. Rightfully disenchanted with a revolutionary tradition associated with authoritarianism and centralization, activists have largely abandoned the revolutionary question, turning instead to a particularistic focus on social protest, reform, and socioeconomic alternatives. The cold war and the failure of the communist revolutions, as well as the demonstrated irrationality of the supposedly “modern civilization” that created the Holocaust and other horrors, have all contributed to a collective sense of revolutionary despair. In turn, the postmodernist mood that pervades academia trivializes any theoretical coherence as “totalizing.” All of these factors leave activists trapped within a paralyzing paradox: confronted by an identifiable and integrated global system of power that must be transcended, activists today are unable to create a theory or movement coherent and comprehensive enough to analyze and remake the current global system.

Skirting the revolution question, anti-globalization activists rarely assert the need to abolish and transcend systems of state and capitalist power—the very systems they describe as “globalizing” themselves. Instead, activists tend to focus on particular issues such as the WTO, international labor, and environmental laws, or on regulating or banning new technologies such as agricultural biotechnology.

The movement against globalization will only fulfill its revolutionary potential when it challenges root causes: the universal logic of domination, hierarchy, and class exploitation that guides statist and capitalist institutions that continue to elaborate themselves on a global scale. But more than merely challenging such institutions, this movement must propose a vision and means of achieving a good society; one that is universal enough to be coherent and principled, yet diverse and open-ended enough to be truly organic and democratic. Such a vision must inform and inspire, making the world comprehensible and remakable. A truly humane movement against globalization gives hope for the future as well as the knowledge and means to build a future worth fighting for.

Anti-Globalization Traps

As activists contemplate the current globalization problem, they often fall into a few analytical traps. In the reformist trap, activists often confuse radical critique with a radical reconstructive vision and program. In this trap, spokespeople for the new movement—ranging from leaders of environmental and citizen-oriented NGOs to consumer advocates—couple a crucial radical critique of capitalism and state power with a reformist approach to social and political change. While advancing an important radical critique of corporations and the WTO, for instance, these individuals often offer nothing more than reform as a reconstructive vision. As we saw in Seattle, pragmatic anti-globalization “realists” took up considerable space in a potentially critical and revolutionary movement.

Second, in the state sovereignty trap, activists call for a kinder, more citizen-friendly “socialist” state to act as a buffer between transnational capital and civil society. For instance, when critiquing international trade apparatuses such as the WTO, many anti-globalizationists merely propose that we reform, democratize, or abolish the power of the WTO, while maintaining and even reinforcing state power. Holding a liberal or radical—rather than a revolutionary position—they never question the legitimacy of the state itself as a political institution, missing the vital opportunity to transcend the state’s authoritarian and hierarchical logic and structure.

In the anticorporate trap, activists adopt an anti-corporate rather than an explicitly anticapitalist stance. Citing multinational corporations, instead of the capitalist system itself, as the cause of social and ecological injustice, they seek to turn the “capitalist clock” backward to return to a kinder and gentler form of capitalism. Their critique also fails to recognize the need to move beyond a market economy that was born out of a logic of unlimited growth, accumulation, profit, and domination.

As history has always shown, high noon will always, eventually, turn into midnight. There is a logic to a clock: its gears, springs, or silicon chips modulate its movements in particular ways. Like a clock, capitalism and the state are constituted to move in a particular direction: toward ever greater levels of centralization, domination, exploitation, and hierarchy. When we look historically at the modern nation-state, we see that it rose in tandem with, and out of the same logic of domination and exploitation as, capitalism.

Rather than simply attempt to turn the clock of domination and exploitation backward, we must develop a new sense of time and history. Ours will not be built out of the dustbin of capital- and state-driven events but out of the potential within the human spirit and the revolutionary impulse itself. We can think beyond what is immediately before us, drawing from the logic of a different “clock,” which has been beating in the heart of humanity since the beginning of time.

Redefining Power: Social vs. Political

This new logic is bubbling just below the surface of the movement against globalization. In the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, a critique of state and capitalist power was nascent as the question of revolution was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Amid the sea of signs that floated above the crowd were calls for democracy and an end to the abuses of the capitalist system.

Yet, still embedded in the logic of social movements, activists in Seattle could not translate the dream for democracy into a concrete political or institutional form. Marching still to the particularistic beat of social movements, they had not yet begun to reach for the most general expression of power. It is time to seize the general power to determine each and every feature of our social and everyday lives, ranging from the production and distribution of the common good, to education, health care, and housing.

In social movements, we have been fighting for decades for social power: for particular social freedoms such as sexual or cultural liberation, or for freedom from such social ills as poverty, prison, or ecological degradation. Today, we must begin to fight for political power: for the political preconditions of our own freedom in general. In order to be free in the most profound and general sense, we must be free as political beings. We must have the political decision-making power to govern ourselves in a way that is creative, meaningful, and responsible. Refusing to accommodate to a system we know to be foul, we must instead demand the power to create a society based on a new understanding of human creativity and potentiality.

It is the beginning of a new century. If we are going to commit ourselves to the long-term struggle for real freedom, why should we take a pragmatic or reformist approach? It is time to stop compromising and “negotiating” with those invested in maintaining the current system. It is time to go for all of what we really want.

Creating new forms of collective self-government, we may move beyond the logic of domination and exploitation on which the current “democracy” is built. Transcending a “representative democracy” with its political authorities and centralized state power, we may reach for a form of democracy defined as direct political power. The revolutionary potential of the anti-globalization movement emerges from a logic of human freedom. We must recapture the original meaning of politics developed by the Athenians centuries ago: the power to assemble as citizens to govern our own communities. According to social ecologist Murray Bookchin, the political life of free citizens cannot be reduced to “statecraft,” nor to the managerial and authoritarian practices of the state that are so often confused with authentic politics. For Bookchin, true political power is the power of citizens to make decisions in general about their lives. It is the power to gather as general members of communities to discuss, decide, and determine the public policies that will shape how we work, produce, and live together. Until we have this power, we will be left only to stand on the sidelines of society, fighting for rights, choices, alternatives, and improvements within a system we know to be tyrannizing most of humanity and destroying the natural world.

From Economic Power to Political Power

We are so identified with the capitalist system that we can only see ourselves in economic terms. We confuse general political power with particular economic power: the power to consume, produce, boycott, or create episodic economic alternatives. Yet as the last several decades have shown, we cannot create a new society simply by seizing and recasting economic power. Indeed, it has proved insufficient to simply fight corporations, waging individual campaigns against WalMart or Monsanto, trying to keep chain stores out of our communities or ban genetically engineered food from our supermarkets.

The real challenge to capitalism is to refuse its tendency to translate the world into its own terms. We must free ourselves of “internalized capitalism”: the belief that capitalism is “natural,” inevitable, unstoppable, or a system that can only be reformed or complemented with economic alternatives. Seized by internalized capitalism, we see ourselves primarily as workers or consumers—as producers of or resisters to economic practice. The dissolution of the idea of citizen into the idea of consumer, with the new notion of the “consumer-citizen,” signals the final collapse of humanity into homo economicus, or the economic animal.

But we are also, as Aristotle said, a zoon politikon, a political animal. We are beings with the potential to think, discuss, decide, and determine all aspects of our lives, including matters of economics. The fact is, we cannot fight capitalism with economic power alone. We cannot abolish capitalism by creating “economic” alternatives such as co-ops, just as we cannot boycott our way to a noncapitalist society. We can only bring the capitalist system to its knees when we can stand on our own feet, empowered politically. The enormous dislocation of peoples, capital, and goods throughout the world can only be countered by a global movement for a new kind of political locality based on principles of cooperation, direct democracy, and confederalism.

This is What Democracy Looks Like!

If we are to retrieve the notion of citizenship from the category of consumer and the category of the state as well, we have to ask ourselves what kind of citizens, what kind of political life, do we want to retrieve? Can we only resuscitate ourselves as citizens bound by national borders and identities, passively represented by politicians and dominated by the nation-state? Or may we reestablish ourselves as a new kind of free citizen empowered to directly participate in the management of our everyday lives? It is time that we begin to build a direct democracy: one in which citizens meet directly, face to face, to democratically determine their own lives. Unlike a representative democracy, which exists to serve the state, a direct democracy is a form of government that serves humanity as a whole.

In the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, the spirit of direct democracy was in the air. Direct confrontation with state military forces in the form of police and the National Guard led to a five-day period of radicalization among young activists, for many of whom this was their first encounter with militaristic repression. On the streets, the real yet more abstract fight against the WTO concretized itself into a struggle against the nondemocratic character of the state and capital. Activists found themselves beaten, injured by chemical weapons, jailed, tortured, and deprived of their civil rights in a “progressive” First World city—merely for engaging in peaceful protest and taking to the streets as citizens to express their freedom of speech.

There were countless marches that week as courageous activists risked their safety to take to the streets, rejecting the curfew and no-entry zones dictated by the city of Seattle in conjunction with the federal government. During one march, a chant arose, poetically and spontaneously, that captured the imagination and passion of the other activists who were undergoing a life-changing transformation. After days of collective, democratic decision making and peaceful, intelligent protest, after days of seizing the right to think, decide, and take public action, activists came to understand democracy in a new way. They began to see democracy as a direct act, as the movement of real people participating in determining their own lives in a spirit of cooperation.

This chant, “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” repeated passionately, over and over, summoned a new way of thinking about political reconstruction. When taken to its logical conclusion, this chant means not only that we must take to the streets but that we must take to our communities, where we may demand the power to rebuild a vital and passionate political life. This chant inspires us to develop a new understanding of citizenship defined not in relation to a state or nation but in opposition to nations and states. It is time to redefine citizenship in relation to local communities and regional, continental, and even global confederations.

As we think beyond the state, seeing ourselves as free citizens, we must begin to ask what would be the local and translocal political institutions that would empower citizens to establish a direct democracy? Indeed, as we challenge the nondemocratic character of global capitalism and interstate apparatuses such as the WTO, World Bank, or the IMF, we must propose new political institutions that embody the principles of cooperation and direct democracy.

Marked by “internalized statism,” we often find it hard to conceptualize nonstatist forms of local and translocal self-government. Wanting to move beyond the authoritarian logic of national borders, we summon the idea of the “global” as the humanist counterpart to the “local.” We appeal to the local-global dyad in attempting to name the complementary units of political organization that will constitute the new society. Yet, while the idea of “thinking globally and acting locally” rightly asserts the need to rebuild local communities within a humanist and internationalist context, the idea must be elaborated in distinctly political terms.

While the term “local” could be translated into the political institutions of the city council, town meeting, or neighborhood assembly, the idea of the “global” remains an abstraction until we translate it into a concrete political structure. In this spirit, we may translate the “global” into the confederation, the next valid and complementary level of political organization that lies beyond the local level. A more meaningful way to politically and institutionally counter globalization is to counter “the global” (global capitalism, transnational governmental structures) with municipal and confederal forms of direct democracy.

This approach to the question of political reconstruction is called libertarian municipalism. Developed by theorist Murray Bookchin, libertarian municipalism is a way of thinking about political transformation that proposes a way to counter globalization by establishing self-governing local towns, cities, and villages, linking them together to form confederations. Within libertarian municipalism, members of communities reclaim existing local political forums, such as city and neighborhood councils, gradually transforming them into citizens’ assemblies. Creating local electoral campaigns as a way to educate the public about direct democracy, libertarian municipalism proposes that citizens begin to popularize the demand for direct political power. Such campaigns initiate a long-term revolutionary process in which citizens gradually wrest decision-making power from states, corporations, and metastates such as the WTO, politically reempowering themselves in the process. As members of municipalities form local groups engaged in the process of political transformation, they may confederate with other free cities, towns, and villages to establish a situation of dual power: a united and coordinated counterpower to the state and capital.

Talking about a New Revolution

What would it take to leave the “era of the particular,” to regain our revolutionary nerve? We would have to rethink the revolutionary project, creating a new kind of universal theory and movement. In reapproaching the revolutionary question, however, we must transcend the limits of the marxist and anarchist revolutionary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, drawing the best that these traditions have to offer. Indeed, we may move beyond deterministic, hierarchical, individualistic, and culturally biased approaches to questions of social and political transformation. A new revolutionary vision must grow out of a logic of open-ended potentiality rather than crude determinism; nonhierarchy rather than hierarchy; solidarity and organization rather than rigid individualism; and a complex appreciation of the principled yet diverse institutional and cultural forms out of which we may forge a new idea of freedom.

First, we have inherited the revolutionary model of marxists who saw the revolution as a determined, linear, inherently progressive process with one single end. In contrast, we may move toward an open-ended view of revolution that sees the good society as multiple, ever evolving, and a product of human potential and creativity. Indeed, we may see the revolution as an unfolding of human potential for cooperation, sociality, and creativity—rather than the unfolding of a deterministic law of history.

Second, we have inherited the nineteenth-century view that authoritarianism, centralization, and hierarchy are necessary and inevitable features of the revolutionary process. In contrast, the new revolution may draw from the left libertarian tradition that demands that the revolutionary process itself be based on the same ethical principles as the good society for which we fight. Within this tradition, the revolutionary process represents an educational, transformational process that forms the free citizen who will manage the new society.

Third, we must draw from the best of the left libertarian tradition. While the anarchist tradition offers a crucial critique of state power and capital, rightly calling for a more cooperative society, it also inherited an individualistic tendency from classical liberal theory. Notions of the autonomous individual, expressed through individual confrontations with authority, often end up reinforcing a sense of powerlessness and nihilism, rather than a sense of collective empowerment and a meaningful reconstructive vision. By contrast, we need to create a structured movement that empowers the individual within a greater collectivity. Such a revolutionary movement must have a sense of direction and political purpose with a respect for ideas as well as action.

Finally, the new revolution understands that we are not fighting to create one single universal model of the good society. Leaving the twentieth century, we see “the good society” as a unity in diversity: a confederation of diverse cultures and societies unified by a general, yet coherent set of ethical principles, such as nonhierarchy, decentralization, abolition of classes, and direct democracy. Such principles will always be general enough to permit a wide horizon of cultural interpretation and application, yet particular enough to allow for degrees of coherence and unity. “The good society” is the unified yet diverse expression of the human potential for freedom in all of its cultural forms.

It is vital to talk of humanity’s potentialities in an age in which a despotic minority of humanity dominates the majority. Yet we must work toward a new kind of humanism, one that is not based on an abstract universal understanding of national unity or a parochial ethnic understanding of “diversity.” Instead, we may recover a humanism grounded on the idea of the stateless citizen, a member of a free community that stands in confederation with other communities. This new expression of humanism binds individuals and communities together through a general, common constitution based on such principles as solidarity, self-determination, and direct democracy. The spirit of this new global humanism will find its concrete expression through a common, confederal constitution that can be particularized, culturally translated, and “applied” to a diverse variety of lifeways.

The New Left taught us the relevance of culture to the process of social transformation. Focused on the universal historical subject, the revolutionary tradition of the past two centuries failed to link particular forms of social oppression such as sexism and racism to wider systemic processes such as the state and capital. Today, we know that we cannot dissolve particular identities or cultures into general, universal theories or movements. We know that the elimination of class exploitation, for example, will not inherently entail the abolition of racism or sexism. The question we face, then, is how to generalize particular social struggles in such a way that general movements may reflect the particular cultures and identities of real people dealing with concrete local and cultural problems. Otherwise stated, we must learn how to particularize general struggles, or how to speak to and support the particular subject within the general movement—as well as vice versa.

Drawing from the New Left, we have learned that general human freedom may only be won by working through particular forms of oppression. Indeed, within an authoritarian society, we are dehumanized in particular ways: the often overlapping effects of homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism, for example, will shape the lives of people in ways that are both specific and multiple.

As a consequence, the struggle to regain our humanity will always be particular as well as general. The new revolution will include a process of consciousness-raising and education, raising awareness of particular forms and effects of hierarchy. It will open the way for social groups to pursue particular paths toward recovery of a human potential understood to be both general and diverse.

A movement that challenges globalization is a movement that fights for each human being to fulfill her or his potential, by challenging a world. It is a movement that strides out of the era of the particular to reclaim our collective, revolutionary imagination and intelligence. Such a movement provides a critique not only of particular social issues but of a global and integrated system that has been in place for centuries. In turn, a truly humane movement against globalization does not solely help people cope with, or accommodate to, a system that is inherently dehumanizing and anti-ecological. Rather, it is a movement for real political power that will finally allow us to create our own everyday life, collectively, in all of its fullness. This is what democracy looks like.

Editorial Comment

Published on the Institute for Social Ecology website (January 2005)