Anti-capitalism - Lessons of Gothenburg

Socialist View Summer 2001

The demonstrations in Gothenburg in June were the biggest protests in Sweden for over a decade. Tens of thousands of people came on the streets of Gothenburg to peacefully protest against the neo-liberal agenda of the EU, against the right-wing policies of Bush, and against capitalism as a whole.

By Katia Hancke

Yet the media all over Europe gave no attention whatsoever to the message of organised resistance that was sent out at these mass protests. Instead, everything was focused on the few hundred or so protesters who reacted violently to police provocations.

This propaganda barrage of mis-representation and outright lies hurled against the anti-capitalist movement, is a conscious move on the part of the European ruling classes. The Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), the international socialist organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated, was actively involved in organising the Gothenburg protest. A statement by the CWI declares that: ŇA concerted attempt is being made to link anti-capitalism with destruction and vandalism in an effort to criminalise the opposition to capitalist globalisation. Already many protesters were detained for no reason or refused entry into Sweden. Threats are now being made to impose travel restrictions on anti-capitalists and socialists. While defending the 'right' of capital to move freely around the whole, the EU is preparing to stop the free movement of its opponents'.

It is clear that the European ruling classes are realising the potential threat of this international movement. In the face of what is to develop over the next few years, with economic recession waiting around the corner, they want to kill this movement now rather than tomorrow. The EU and all that it stands for - privatisation, casualisation, job losses and cuts - will become more and more a focal point for the anger of the general population of Europe.

The EU summit in Gothenburg showed just how removed these EU leaders are from the real world. German chancellor Schroder's response to the rejection of the Nice Treaty by the Irish people, namely that the Irish will have vote again in order to push the Treaty through, is characteristic of their arrogance. Apart from that one comment, the Irish vote was conveniently ignored. Most of the EU leaders know that if they were forced to organise similar referendums in their own countries, they would face a big No vote as well, so the last thing they want to go for is any form of consultation with the general population of Europe. The Nice Treaty, and indeed the EU as a whole, is dictated by big business in the interest of big business. The European Round Table of Industrialists is by end far the most influential group in the EU and they set the agenda of this Europe of the bosses.

Fight back will grow

The problem that the ruling classes in Europe are now facing is how to deal with coming recession, of which the first signs are already visible. One of the results of globalisation is that the economies in Europe will be more rapidly and severely affected by a recession in the US. The mounting problems in the German economy and the jump in European inflation prove this. Europe and the world stand on the eve of a serious capitalist crisis, the burden of which will be borne by working class people in the form of mass layoffs and drastic cuts in living standard.

Over the past period we have already seen the start of a fight back in countries all over the world. The hundreds of thousands on the streets in Turkey to oppose cuts, the massive strikes in Nigeria against the hike in oil prices, the mass uprising in Ecuador, the general strike in Greece in May are but a few examples of events where the working class is rediscovering its own strength. They are expressions of a growing anger against the effects of neo-liberalism and capitalist globalisation. There is no doubt that the working class, under the hammer blows of a recession, will be compelled to move into action on a much larger scale in the period ahead.

The 'anti-capitalist' movement is another expression of the development of an anti-capitalist mood, at the moment mainly expressed in a very sharp criticism of the role of capitalist flagships as the IMF and the World Bank. When this movement came on the scene through the events in Seattle in 1999, it brought together various one-issue campaigns with a vague anti-corporate, anti-globalisation agenda representing a mood of resistance amongst a layer of mostly middle class youth. Since then it has developed into a more organised movement with a more worked-out criticism of capitalism as a system.

It is a sharp expression of the broader redevelopment of consciousness amongst workers and youth. The collapse of Stalinism and the neo-liberal offensive of the ruling class meant that in the 90s there was a lull in the struggle of working class people and a retreat into local issues and single-issue campaigns. The growth of the anti-capitalist movement marks the start of a period in which generalised struggle is back on the agenda.

At this stage anti-capitalism as a movement hasn't really had as big an impact in 'Celtic Tiger' Ireland as in other countries, but we have seen other expressions of this mood: the big No vote in the Nice referendum and the way that was perceived by ordinary people as an 'up yours' to the establishment, the growing anti-establishment mood that is looking for a political expression, especially amongst youth where groups like Socialist Youth find a willing audience for their ideas and activities.

Globalise the struggle

One of the big merits of the anti-capitalist protests is that they put the need for a global fight back firmly on the agenda. This can work as a lever for working class movements to place their struggles in an international context and to get organised on that level. On the other hand, a coming together of the day-to-day struggles of working class people with the anti-capitalist protests could have a profound impact on this movement.

The next major mobilisation is at the G8 summit in Genoa in July. The potential is there for this protest to become a catalyst for the growing anger against the right wing Berlusconi government. Berlusconi's election victory was a defeat for the working class, but one that will not just be taken lying down.

The millions on the streets in 1994 that forced the first Berlusconi government to resign, was only the most recent expression of the long and proud tradition of the Italian working class. It now looks like the protests in Genoa will stand in that tradition. The Social Forum in Genoa that is organising the July protests, has attracted international support from environmental, trade union, anti-racist and left-wing political organisations. It also has the backing of just about every left-wing group in Italy itself. Groups in this forum have called for strike action around the country on the Friday of the G8 top, in support of the protests and a demonstration has been called on the Saturday that could turn out to be the biggest anti-capitalist mobilisation so far with tens of thousands of participants.

Mounting repression

The reaction of the Italian bourgeois has so far been one of repression: there is talk of closing the entire city off, even of closing the border. Big parts of the city will be sealed off, a vast police force has been mobilised and the media reported that 200 body bags have been ordered. Gothenburg has shown us how far the European bourgeois are prepared to go: a European wide co-ordination was set up to organise a clamp-down on activists, 100 police provocateurs were sent in to create havoc, bullets were used to silence opponents. Democracy in the bosses' Europe has shown its limits and the limit is that you better agree with their agenda or they'll unleash any tool at their disposal to shut you up.

But this reaction of the ruling class can have the opposite effect of what they hoped for. With their huge financial interests in the main media cartels, they can instruct the mainstream media to portray the anti-capitalist movement as a group of lunatics on the fringes of society who go around Europe looting city centres, i.e. the political equivalent of football hooligans. But at the same time they expose themselves in front of the thousands of people who have been to Gothenburg or have heard from eyewitnesses what really happened. And as the protests grow bigger, it becomes harder to hide the real message of organised resistance that they send out.

The anti-capitalist movement should now discuss what steps to take. One of the things lacking at the moment is any kind of structure within which points of programme, strategy and tactics can be discussed out democratically. If there had been a structure in which all groups involved in the protests could discuss democratically how to deal with the unrelenting provocations of the Swedish police, a more thought out reaction could have been agreed. The way a small group of protesters reacted, by smashing shops and restaurants, ended up handing a propaganda weapon to the ruling class to attack activists and introduce new repressive measures.

Lessons for the future

Gothenburg has shown the need for more organisation and a clear strategy to deal with police provocations in a definite but non-violent way, it raises the need for proper stewarding, for as broad a mobilisation as possible and the need to link in with the workers' movement to truly generalise the struggle. Genoa has the potential to bring together the long tradition of the European working class with this radical movement, to mutual benefit.

So far the anti-capitalist movement has made clear what they are against: neo-liberalism, capitalist globalisation and capitalism as a system. However, it is much less clear what this movement is fighting for. In the last issue of Socialist View we dealt with the politics of influential figures like Naomi Klein. Groups like ATTAC, who centre their alternative around a tax on financial transactions to redistribute wealth from the super rich, are getting a response. But what is clear for an increasing number of people involved is that chasing WTO, World Bank and IMF bureaucrats around the globe (although proven to have an impact, as the cancellation of the WTO meeting in Barcelona showed) by itself isn't sustainable and doesn't suffice. A debate is opening up inside the anti-capitalist movement on the issue of what alternative to put forward. Socialists can make a very important contribution to this debate, on the programme that is needed and on the forces that will be crucial in fighting for that programme.

While we of course support a demand like a wealth tax, and for that matter any demand that is in the interest of the working class, we shouldn't be naive about the limited impact such a reform would have. Gothenburg has given us a taste of what the rich are prepared to do to defend their interests. Institutions like the IMF and the World Bank represent what capitalism as a system is about. There is no way these capitalist flagships will ever be reformed, abolition is the only way to get rid of their poisonous dictats. But even then, none of these measures by themselves will change the fact that capitalism is based on exploitation of the many by the few. A clear understanding of the limits to reforming this system and the need to fundamentally change it is essential.

The other key issue raised by socialists is the need to link the anti-capitalist movement to the social power of the working class. This is already beginning to happen through the involvement of groups of workers in protests like Genoa. We stress the central role of the working class in any movement to change society, for the simple reason that the working class has the knowledge and the potential to shut down all the key areas of the economy and to bring the system to a halt when it withdraws its labour.

An understanding of the need to replace capitalism with a system in which the mass of the population has democratic control over not just political decisions but also the key sectors in the economy, and that the working class is the driving force to establish this change, are the ideas that can take the movement forward.

Socialists involved in the movement, and in the debates about its future, can on that basis become a powerful pole of attraction for radicalising youth and workers and become a influential wing of the anti-capitalist movement that is bound to grow in the next period.

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