Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The spirit of activism

In 1997, a movement called the Zapatistas held an Encuentro - an 'encounter' - in Chiapas, Mexico. The Zapatistas opposed globalisation, neoliberalism, the relentless march of capitalism, and are a good example of proto-Occupy movements. 

This is their declaration issued after the Chiapas Encuentro, apt today for anyone fighting for what they believe in:

There are those who resign themselves to being one more number in the huge exchange of power... But there are those who do not resign themselves... In any place in the world, anytime, any man or woman rebels to the point of tearing off the clothes resignation has woven for them and cynicism has dyed grey. Any man or woman, of whatever colour, in whatever tongue, speaks and says to himself or to herself: Enough is enough! Ya basta!

A world made of many worlds found itself these days in the mountains of the Mexican southeast... Let it be an echo of our own smallness, of the local and the particular, which reverberates in an echo of our own greatness... an echo that recognises the existence of the other and does not overpower or attempt to silence it. An echo that takes its place and speaks its own voice, yet speaks the voice of the other... Let it be a network of voices that resist the war Power wages on them.

I discovered that quote in the book One no, many yeses: a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement by Paul Kingsnorth: a brilliant book charting the rise of anti-globalisation movements in the early Noughties. He also writes the following about People's Global Action (PGA). It's as good a description of organisations like Voices for the Library and the Speak Up For Libraries coalition as I have ever come across.

Like the rest of the movement it helped spawn, PGA has an almost fanatical devotion to the concept of 'horizontal organising' - working in networks, not hierarchies, with no appointed leaders. The whole conference, the whole network, is run along these lines - no one representing anyone else, or PGA as a whole. Decisions are taken by consensus, with majority votes, and no person or organisation is obliged to do, or agree to, anything they don't like. It was the same set of principles I saw in Genoa, and in Chiapas, and understanding them is crucial to understanding the global movement as a whole.

What characterises PGA, I am to discover, is what characterises the global movement: diversity. Diversity of aims, of tactics, of race, of language, of nationality, of ideas. There is no manifesto, no line to follow, no leader to rally behind. This diversity is what leads critics outside the movement to assume that it doesn't have any ideas. After all, if it did, surely it would write them down, publish them, form a party, get a charismatic leader and march forward to take power? That's how politics is supposed to work. This, on the other hand, is gloriously anarchic, in the best sense of the word. This is a politics in which means matters as much as ends.

Sometimes it's hard to come to terms with this, even for activists . You might be standing in the middle of some mass action or conference or spontaneous uprising, thinking, Who started this? Who organised it? Who's in charge here? Police officers and politicians, imbued instinctively with a 'take me to your leader' mentality, have never believed the movement when it answers 'Nobody and everybody.' How can events as stunning as Seattle and Genoa have no centralised organisation, no leader who decides and declaims, whom people follow, and who we can arrest to neuter everybody else?

But they don't, and this in itself is a revolutionary idea - not a new one, but one that's rarely been put into practice. So much so, that even as part of it, it's a leap to give that question - 'Who's in charge here?' - the answer it deserves: Everyone. No one. Oh yeah: Me!

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