July 2002
volume 1, issue 1


My friends are the Universe: Globalization’s Protest Expand the Political.

"A Noah’s ark of flat earth advocates" penned Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (December, 1 1999) on those who blockaded the meeting of the WTO in Seattle the day before. Predictably Friedman’s characterizations were attacked by those advocates as smears belittling the real political concerns and solutions that activists came to Seattle to set upon the world stage. In this and all globalization protests since, street action has been accompanied by progressive forums highlighting alternatives to corporate free-trade. In Seattle’s Ben Arroyo Hall, the Forum for Globalization offered speakers on subjects of labor, environment and health. The World Social Forum, which had its second annual gathering this year in Porto Alegre, Brazil, is a virtual summit of real politique. Offering itself up as a laboratory to discuss, if not embody, a socially minded vision of global futures.

Despite this, the movement is dogged by Friedmanesque critics who declare that it lacks visions and represents the voices of dumb babies. Noam Chomsky writes famously of a media that cannot contain complexities of thought in a hyper speed news market, while alternative media tries its best to inject culture with policy alternatives. When radical political ideas are presented in mainstream venues they are quickly discredited. This can be seen in the New York Times coverage of the World Economic Forum. This past January, NYC anarchist activist Brooke Lehman was interviewed on the subject of bio-centric economies in Monday’s Times. The paper privileged itself spending the rest of the week calling such ideas goofy. When it comes to policy discussions, those who arbitrate what defines logical discourse will always up end the globalization movement. Language, like political policy ideas, must be granted legitimacy. Where media interests are aligned with corporate interests, voices like Friedman’s will win out. Politically the globalization movement will have to contend with the negative frame of an illegitimate horde.

Freidman’s rhetoric draws its strength from an investment in the enlightenment’s rational thinking. Belief in the bible and a flat earth indicates an affinity with a medieval world-view; a cosmology beset by superstition, fear, and ecumenical law. But what’s wrong with being an ark? The miracle of Noah is in architecture. Forty cubits by forty cubits containing the multitude. The universe lined up on the shore in naked desperation, mooing cooing barking hissing nipping purring chirping buzzing tweeting flapping. The world’s bounty waiting for berthage on the ship of life, entire histories of science will never qualify this plenty. If you observed the behavior, values, and actions of all those who participated in Seattle’s WTO events, you might begin to characterize some of the elements in this menagerie. Aesthetically the ultra-contemporary was contained in such places as the DotCommies (a semi ironic name for an affinity group of digital workers participating in the protest). But like our universe, prevalent in the crowd were participants who do not share the same histories of western rationalism as the free traders. The markets inability to acknowledge these people’s legitimacy stains the free traders as the flat earth advocates, literally removing features of the globe.

Seattle and the subsequent globalization’s street protest contain political alternatives to corporate globalization, but it could be contended that the real solutions offered within these events are in the over the top aesthetics taken on by protestors who manifest divergent opinions of what constitutes reality. In so doing these groups are revitalizing and expanding the notion of both political discourse and democracy. Further, these actions open up possibilities beyond the measured rationalism whose own end logic of economic deconstruction allows Thomas Friedman to discount the globalization movement’s concerns as backwards.

To begin, Seattle’s accomplishment wasn’t in immediate policy reform. Since Seattle the WTO have met in Dubai under circumstances much less democratic than the meeting in Seattle. What the protest did accomplish was a cultural rupture, marking for many a new beginning. Characterizing the times since the sixties as a period of wandering in the wilderness, author Todd Gitlin echoed what many wrote of as a new chance for the progressive and radical left in the country.

Metaphorically this rebirth was contained within the actions of the street protestors who maintained barricades and danced in the stateless freedom of a "reclaimed" temporary liberated zone of downtown Seattle. Highly controversial in their actions, the faceless saboteur elves of the infamous black bloc offered their actions of property destruction as a bit of transcendence. You can argue about whether smashing windows is politically wise, but it is hard to discount the poetry of the action. The Acme Communiqué issued by a black bloc faction, was a statement of purpose explaining the "vandalism." A portion of it reads:

When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights. At the same time we exorcize that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us. By "destroying" private property, we convert its limited exchange value into an expanded use value. A storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet … A newspaper box becomes a tool for creating such vents or a small blockade for the reclamation of public space or an object to improve ones vantage point by standing on it. A dumpster becomes an obstruction to a phalanx of rioting cops and a source of heat and light. A building face becomes a message board to record brainstorm ideas for a better world.

What’s remarkable about this action is that it holds out the possibility of transubstantiation within a culture that long ago civilized the topic. It’s a bit of practical magic for the revolutionary set! It is now generally agreed that the downtown city’s function is to facilitate the transparent operation of business, its architectural elements are meant to facilitate this. The Acme Collective’s declaration insists that the meaning of a building or a dumpster or a window is not fixed to this reading, but is subjective. The city can be alive and involved with the naturalistic elements of fire, heat, light, and air. The statement reclaims the right for a political individual to live in her own unique perspective. This statement is made within the context of a meeting of a global political body (the WTO) whose sole agreed upon term is the finite value of capital, as expressed through property, human beings, the environment, and wildlife as value- or as the Acme Collective maintain, "an exchange value".

The collective’s act hark back to Abbie Hoffman’s 1968 levitation of the pentagon and 1985’s Hands Across America; utopian inspired action demands the suspension of disbelief and an insistence that the impossible is possible. But unlike Hoffman’s action, the Acme Collective’s are more than metaphorical. They accomplished a real transformation. The acts of transgression against corporate property and the tangible growth of the anti-corporate movement since Seattle bear this out. In their words: "After N30, many people will never see a shop window or a hammer the same way again. The potential uses of an entire cityscape have increased a thousand-fold. The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number of broken spells."

That this slight of hand, a feat of symbolic transference, was successful is a political coup in itself. In a system set up to incorporate dissent, resistance to the global economy loomed nonsensical. Uniquely contemporary, "global free-trade" is crafted in a socially minded paradigm- facilitating the flow of wealth between nations in order to trickle down the benefits of economies to all. Neo-liberal policies are designed around the postmodern political framework of an end of ideologies, where all modern political positions are suspect because of their perceived inability to incorporate differing identities (rich-poor, gay-straight, black-white). In this vacuum, neo-liberal economic philosophy asserts a theme that it suggests can unify all. It reasons that identities can be equalized through their inclusion in the market (no matter whether it’s a communist or capitalist store). This mindset becomes a blanket occupation when it is maintained by an economic policy that blindly believes it has successfully incorporate all differences within its logic. The mastery is achieved through "progressive" sociology functionalized as political science. Difference (conflict) is a matter of economic disparity, thus it can be bought off. Racial strife, class struggle, ethnic conflict can be smoothed over by the application of the language of the market and capital. As a result, Africa becomes a huge economic opportunity zone for corporate plunder. A plurality of perspectives is manufactured through the wedding of conservative economic policies with Marxist "share the wealth" humanism. Mythically- scientific method of quantitative research and capitalisms’ manifest destiny have conspired to locate free trade anywhere.

In the past decades, anti-corporate theorists acknowledging the rise of the postmodern linguistic and economic aesthetics reacted cynically. The hip journal The Baffler told its readers that cultural resistance was naive since the markets had already commodified your dissent. Hipsters pinning for revolt should stop investing in the making and trading of signs and go join a labor union. Taking a different view, the Critical Art Ensemble in their book The Electronic Disturbance noticing the virus-like nature of late capitalism, pronounced that street politics were dead. Since global corporate power was not invested in actual sights, they reasoned, radical change could only be won by abdicating the real to fight virtual battles with corporate symbols. Philosopher John Zerzan looking at Eighties cultural aesthetics clearly linked its cut and paste collage tropes with the dizzying nature of demand economics.

An anarchist, Zerzan in his 1987 essay The Catastrophe of Postmodernism, squashes disparate bits of postmodernisms together. A work of cultural criticism, its perspective reads as an essentialist tome glossing over a more nuanced reading of French theory. However, the essay daringly offers the elemental tools of refusal that allow people to crawl out from under the haze of self congratulatory capitalism posing as sanctimonious theory. Zerzan decries a retreat from the political praxis that he sees aesthetic deconstruction facilitating through its centralization of political relativism. He states that postmodernism "leaves us hopeless in an unending shopping mall". He criticizes the fetishization of alienation which he notes as a central value in postmodern art and theory. He acknowledges deconstruction’s ability to lay bare human endeavors as text which allow more "intimate kind of knowing" but balks at Derrida’s totalizing of all reality into texts, endlessly negotiable with no foothold left for real questions of power. Where Derrida sees binary thinking as emblematic of linguistic trickery, Zerzan sees a disavowal of politics and history. Zerzan remarks that Derrida is "conceiving of difference with out opposition". Zerzans criticism of deconstruction is mirrored in the writing of Glenn Jordan and Chris Weedon’s Cultural Politics who write:

Where postmodern difference is seen as pluralism without attention to the social

location of difference, power and its effects become invisible. Here difference often appears as a form of radical chick indifferent to the often brutal power relations that structure difference. The postmodern move from history to histories can be productive and empowering, for groups usually absent from history. But here, too, not all histories are equal.

In Zerzans case it is the hunter-gatherer whose histories aren’t equal. His branch of anarchism is described as primitivist. In the case of the WTO, histories of environmentalists, workers, and the "undeveloped world" aren’t equal. Or to allude back to Friedman, the "ark" doesn’t count.

That the term deconstruction has a double meaning for those involved in issues of globalization is a curious affair. It might be that the job of market deconstruction -which works to usurp the authority of local economies- is to deconstruct culturally specific meanings and beliefs. An object, lets say a brick, in diverse cultures is made up of many values. A brick may have a sentimental value ("it was grandpas"). It may have a magical value (when placed on an alter the brick will bring its owner its weight in gold). It may have a cultural value (my people have always used pink bricks). It may have aesthetic value (the shape seduces me). It may have revolutionary value (without the lowly cobble stone where would the revolution be today?). It may even have values beyond its relationships with human beings (the exotic Brickus Russaus of the Eastern Steppe has rarely been seen by man). By stripping away barriers to free trade (some culturally established, some politically located) in effect neo-liberalism desecrates the complexities of human experiences. For the free marketer, when something has multiple values, it’s described as a luxury item -which in the capitalist system is reserved for the wealthy. You must earn the right to have this sort of variety in your life


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