From Attac to Occupy Wall Street

Creating political movements in the age of globalization

18 November 2013
Read in:
It's never been more difficult to form new political movements that do justice to the connection between the local and the global, as well as the abstract and the concrete. Olav Fumarola Unsgaard on the rise and fall of the social forum movements of the past two decades.

On the Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, international Attac delegates have gathered for lunch. They have come for the 2013 World Social Forum. The average age is high, as is the number of French participants. The feeling of being on a Club Med pensioner’s excursion is only tempered by a few young Norwegians, one or two Spanish people and the Tunisians. Compared to the rest of the forum Attac feels old and tired. More like a social gathering than a political meeting.

Still, the last obstacle to implementing a European Tobin tax was removed on Tuesday 22 January 2013. Not exactly in the form or construction the Attac movement once called for, but still. The question of public welfare and privatizations are at the top of the political agenda in 2013. The issue of tax evasion by moving assets to tax havens has resurfaced in the debate. In short, things are going well.

Occupy Wall Street demo at Foley Square, New York. Photo: Monster Pete. Source: Flickr

And the rest of the World Social Forum is vibrating. Tunisia, March 2013, barely a year after the revolution. The country stands between emerging as a democracy and returning to the darkness of dictatorship. Global movements want to influence events. Make the pendulum swing over towards freedom of speech, the right to protest and all the other things that mark a civil society. Sometimes the discussions get heated and in the big demonstration fighting takes place between Assad supporters and Syrian revolutionaries. But there is also progress, such as one of the first debates between the secular parties in the country and the ruling, religious Ennahda party. One day euphoria over the progress of an emerging democracy, and the next disappointment over the massive difficulties. This is how Muhammed, Aladin and the other barely twenty-year-old activists in the Tunisian Attac describe the political climate. Because, despite everything, there are still young and active branches of Attac. A few years ago they were part of the movement for the Tunisian revolution. Now, Attac is a permitted organization in Tunisia and it receives its guests with joy. I have come to Tunis to try and answer the question: what happened to the first wave of global movements? My political background is in the Swedish Attac and that is where my story begins.

First, some facts. Today, the flagship of the Swedish Internet left has 118 likes on its Facebook page and fewer than 500 members. Attac France is down to 9,500 members from about 30,000 during the record years. Attac Germany has good finances, but lacks activists. The implementation of a financial transaction tax is a political success that in part can be ascribed to Attac. But everywhere in Europe the Attac movement is dwindling. Some have tried to answer why this is the case, but for those of us who were part of starting up the movement these answers are not enough. There has been, for a long time, a gnawing feeling within me that important things that have to do with politics and movement building will be lost unless someone tells the story of why things turned out the way they did and what it was that happened.

Everything started with an op-ed article in the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique written by Ignacio Ramonet. That was in 1997. This is only 16 years ago, and yet the distance, in media terms, is enormous. At that time, social Internet was still in its childhood. Since Attac consisted mainly of people who were used to computers (and an organization with no money), the Internet was the given place to act. In many ways this contributed to the hype. Attac was new, cool, fast and defied boundaries. At the same time, these were the early years of morning shows, free newspapers and professional pundits. The representatives of Attac were mostly young and well spoken. They fitted perfectly into this new logic of snappy opinions and fast reactions. Thinkers like Manuel Castells and activists like Subcomandante Marcos had understood early on the Internet’s potential as a political tool. And all of a sudden, there was Attac. They had a web page. They communicated via e-mail lists. And with people from other countries. This greatly contributed to the media boom. Attac went from nothing to enormous media breakthrough in record speed. In retrospect it must be said that the movement was partly created in, and through, the media. In this regard I think Attac foreshadowed the times to come. But we were not interested in getting likes, but in changing politics and building a new movement.

From the winter of 2000 to the end of June 2001, the Swedish Attac experienced political activity on a scale seldom experienced. Meetings, lectures, study circles, street theatres and demonstrations. Many with me have wonderful memories. We got a sense of what politics could be, when it is at its best. Working together, a sense of community and collective action. The pressure was enormous. Invitations to lecture, new local groups and media requests. A few of us knew each other from before, but most were new acquaintances. Love was in the air. The Right hated us. Which of course only strengthened our bond. Few things can knit a group tighter together than the feeling that it’s us against the world. A slacker punk mentality joined with a hippie’s firm belief that you can change the world. The end station of history was not free trade and privatization. Attac put the question of globalization on the political agenda and showed how the global is linked to the local.

But as always when falling in love the shortcomings are overlooked and you see only the good things. The political demands were clear, but the organization was fuzzy around the edges. Ideologically, Attac gathered everything from social liberals to syndicalists and Christian debt cancellation activists with roots in the Jubilee 2000 movement. And everyone saw what they wanted in Attac. If you came from a solidarity movement you saw a new solidarity movement. Others saw a new Internationale. If you came from party politics you saw an opportunity for a fresh start, without the demoralizing conflicts that marred your own organization. These earlier experiences created an organizational structure in which internal democracy was perhaps more important than anything else. Various techniques were picked up from the peace and solidarity movements on how to organize meetings and work together in a group. No chairman. The traditional groans, pleas and master suppression techniques of the people’s movement were few. The meetings were often long but that was experienced as something positive.

Media and the traditional arena of politics were not ready for this. We are, now as then, stuck in a “take me to your leader” culture. There was enormous media pressure on the main representatives. And there were hundreds of requests – but no press secretary and no chancery.

This is a recurring theme in the interviews I have made. For democratic reasons there was a wish to experiment with both the contents and the form of the politics simultaneously. Like the green parties in Europe, Attac wanted to show itself as alternative, not just in regard to what questions were pursued, but how they were pursued. The people’s movements, politics and their representatives were seen as “male, pale and stale”. Too much of politics was (and still is) formed by older men in closed rooms. As an organization, Attac levelled severe critique on how international trading negotiations were handled. The rich countries dictated the rules in a context without transparency or participation. In the name of consistency Attac therefore had to be the absolute opposite of this politics. Democracy had to be reinvented. Another, more down to earth answer, that emerged in my conversations with those involved at the time, is that there simply wasn’t time enough. You had to grab the ball on its way up and manage what ever fell over you. Influencing politics and changing the world was more important than building an organization. A window of opportunity had been opened. All of a sudden Attac was at the very heart of politics. Never before in the political history of Sweden has an organization gone from zero to being accepted into the highest echelons of politics in such a short time. We who were members remember vividly when Karen Austin, from the board looked into the TV cameras with a look of bitterness. She, along with a few others, had met the Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson a day in April 2001. The meeting in his chancery had been about our political demands. Both the demands on the contents of politics and demands on how the dialogue around the European Council’s summit in Gothenburg should be shaped. The political demands were met with a friendly pat on the head along with the assurance that “we”, indeed, were world leaders when it came to global solidarity. But when it came to the summit the tone was different. Sweden was to be the first in the world to arrange a summit in which dialogue, and not violence, would be in focus. The previous years had been full of television images of violence from demonstrations in Seattle, Prague and Nice. It was a risky game from the side of the Swedish government and Attac.

Then came the European Council summit in Gothenburg. The course of events was similar to that of the G8 meeting in Genoa a few months later. Loosely tied together networks focused on arranging an alternative meeting and carrying out demonstrations. Attac as an organization stood for principles of non-violence, but came to be in the centre of events since it played a prominent role in the dialogue projects between the police and protesters. Those June days became violent, culminating in the shots fired by the police against the protester Hannes Westberg. For the first time in over 70 years Swedish police had opened fire on a protester. We in the movement thought there would be a massive outcry of anger. Instead the police were given roses. Established media, along with almost all political parties denounced and condemned the shots of course, but the blame was put equally on us protesters.

From the police raids on Thursday against one of the spaces where the activists slept and held meetings, Hvitfeldtska high school, the dialogue fell apart and Attac was caught in the crossfire. The stories vary, but at least there is an embryo of common understanding. It is about an involuntary, but not forced, responsibility. It was simply being at a certain place at a certain time. Since Attac was so politically broad, you could talk to anyone. Police and activists, from social democrats to anarchists, and everyone in between. A profound trust in conversation and dialogue. Then the interpretations vary. Did we go into it with open eyes or were we naive? Were we realistic, but then fooled? Was there a choice?

In the media and in the eyes of “ordinary people” Attac came to be associated with the international movement that stretched from Chiapas to Prague and Nice via Seattle. In reality, this was not the case. Attac was only a small part of this but had to take on that role in Sweden. It was simply being at the right place at the right time. For a short time Attac was the link between the movement in Sweden and the emerging global peace and justice movement. Attac got credit for all the good things that were done, but also shit for all the bad things that took place in and around the movement. We were just as unworthy of all the love from Seattle, as we were of all the hatred from Gothenburg. What’s true or not doesn’t matter so much when the hype is on and the media engines are roaring.

The time after Gothenburg was like wading through syrup. We, as representatives, were repeatedly confronted with questions of violence and our “guilt” in what happened. What ended with the summit in Gothenburg was the period of crazy hype. Now the time of being an ordinary movement would begin for Attac. This didn’t happen. The story of “Another world is possible” came to be replaced with “Us against them”.

It is about the war on terror.

During the 2013 Gothenburg Film Festival four or five movies were shown dealing with this war. The common denominator for these films was that they all portrayed the war on terror as being a thing of the past. To be absolutely clear: The war on terror is not over, but the era is. It began with the fall of the twin towers. Shortly thereafter the new world order began. The superpower set out on its imperialistic crusade. The world was divided into good and evil, with us or against us. It became the all-encompassing idea we all lived under. Newspapers, books and the debate were full of the war. Researchers on terrorism from obscure universities in Scotland were heard daily in Swedish newspapers. Book publishing changed and there were more titles about the clash of fundamentalists than on how a another world is possible.

We within Attac and the global justice movement had two answers to George W. Bush’s question on how the war should be fought: 1) We are against unjustified war, and 2) The best way to eradicate terrorism is to eradicate poverty. Answer number one turned us into a reactive peace movement. Answer number two was rejected in the debate and we were painted as, if not terrorists, terrorist sympathizers. I, and many with me, began to actively push for questions of peace within Attac. We wanted to have a discussion on the connection between peace, justice and development. We got the cold shoulder. It wasn’t possible outside an academic setting or a social forum lecture. What was successful however, beyond all expectations, was coordinating an active moulding of opinion against the unjustified war. Demonstrations and actions. Soon, every small town had its own network opposing the war, or even several of them. During the European Social Forum in Florence 2002 we were over a million protesters, and on the 15 March 2003 we were over 15 million worldwide. The French government made a U-turn in its view on the war and at home, that year’s first May flower become a symbol of peace.

But it was a defensive struggle. The law of nations was under attack. Friends, companions in the movement and family members were looked on with suspicion because of their dark hair or because they came from the wrong place. Paranoia lay like a heavy mist over the political debate. Old ghosts of the right were brought back to life, setting the agenda along with the neoconservatives. Justice, international solidarity and the opposition to neoliberalism were replaced with a defensive struggle against straight out lies and attacks on human rights. The political window of opportunity was blown shut. The emerging global justice movement lost its initiative in the debate. Debt relief and regulating financial markets slipped far down the agenda. The war was not stopped (how naive was the hope that it would be?) and only on rare occasions did the peace movement manage to become a force outside of the demonstrations. Many of the peace networks became schoolbook examples of the worst elements of the Left: divisions, fractions and splits. Personal conflicts that had lain dormant since the 1970s came alive and were given free space. During the months after some of the biggest demonstrations in world history, no streams of activists were pouring into these networks. The poor ones that did show up often found themselves in conflicts difficult to understand for the uninitiated, like the Palestine conflict, theories of empire or imperialism or whether to cooperate with the Swedish branch of SWP) and/or other communistic fractions. At any rate, you did not become a member of an organization just because you joined a demonstration. This, however, did not mean that the political commitment was false or that the political core was soft. It was just expressed in a different way. For those schooled in traditional movement culture this became a paradox and a huge disappointment. In this culture there has always been a connection between feeling, commitment and membership. In this case the last link in the chain is broken. Demonstrate, yes, make coffee or vegetarian soup, maybe, attend a meeting, no. Now, ten years later, I think we are still stuck in this dilemma.

We know what an association or a movement is. But if you choose not to be one, then what are you? What this new thing should be is not clear, but neither has it remained unexamined. One way is to abandon the traditional movement structure for a more lobby-like operation, to become a think tank. From the beginning it was about political influence outside party politics. According to this way of thinking more effort should have been put into influencing those in power and less in building local organizations. This logic prescribes communicating via reports and op-ed sections. Mingling with politicians is more important than forming study circles. The strength of the organization does not depend on the number of members but on who says what. Preferably celebrities or scientific authorities.

America Vera Zavala, who together with Aron Etzler is seen as the Swedish founder of Attac mentions Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. A party, an organization and a network all at once. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. You become a member by applying on a web page. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, among others, talk about the “multitude” that, given the right circumstances, can gather and become a political force. Their ideas are built on philosophical abstractions, but have gained renewed relevance because of the Arab spring. In his book Life As Politics Asef Bayat argues that the foundation for the protest movements is to be found in the trivial dealings of everyday politics.
Inspired by the Arab spring, American activists, too, began hatching plans. The target for their action was the world’s financial centre, the New York Stock Exchange.

The first days of Occupy Wall Street were preceded by the activist group, magazine and sneaker dealers Adbusters putting up ads on the streets and digital bill boards of New York together with a group of activists. In Zuccotti Park a motley crew of activists, intellectuals and upset New Yorkers gathered. A form of participatory democracy was soon developed that in form and content really tried to be leaderless and anti-hierarchical. In many ways it really was a successful example of how politics is done in the West in the beginning of the 2010s. The movement was characterized by clever slogans (People against power – We are the 99 percent), a clear political act (the occupation of a city square) and by being apparently leaderless (albeit with many celebrities among its ranks). The reality, however, was far more complex, as shown in the excellent book Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America. During a few months a creative lab, but then what? How do you go from protest to politics, if you wish to avoid parties, movement building and the hierarchies of the old order?

There are several reasons why the protesters left Zuccotti Park in the end. Yes, they were driven away, but at the end the group had already become quite small. Everyday life simply caught up. Participants returned to their studies or to work, they had essays to write and salaries to earn. To live anti-capitalistically demands, paradoxically, a certain amount of start-up capital. Or at least a backing organization that can support with money and other resources.

Here we get to yet another unsolved issue. The issue of passion and voluntary work. When activism and life in an association is at its best it devours everything. Holding meetings, doing interviews, answering emails. Meeting people, occupying a park, travel around the country and attend conferences. Nothing feels hard. But to work pro bono for between 60 and 80 hours per week has consequences. Essays remain unwritten. Work suffers. Relationships are strained. Eventually either your body or those around you say stop. Usually both, at the same time. In Attac Sweden this happened within the organization’s first generation. And the second. And the third. This can be devastating for the individual, but also for the organization. Knowledge is lost; as are networks, and personal relationships have to be rebuilt from scratch.

The question can be boiled down to this: Idealists working pro bono, or paid representatives? The former, as was the case with Attac Sweden, leads to loss of continuity, as those involved can only manage for two years. But two years full of passion and energy. Or is it better with paid representatives? Maybe not as full of passion and energy, but with a sustainable working environment, paid vacation and decent conditions. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. Attac Sweden did not manage to solve this dilemma. And at the same time, we were entirely focused on the social forum movement. Politically the right priority, but devastating for the organization and the Attac brand.

As in all success stories there is a creation myth. In the history of the World Social Forum it is the story of how people from the French Attac met with Brazilian activists from the union CUT. The World Social Forum was created as a public reaction to the World Economic Forum. The networks and predecessors can be found in the summit protests, anti-conferences and the various “Encounters” that took place in Chiapas during the mid 1990s. The first meeting took place in 2001 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Activists and people from various movements from the global north and south would meet, discuss politics and create networks. This because our political struggle is a shared struggle. A clear no to neoliberalism, but also many yeses. The Washington Consensus would be challenged by a rich diversity of political alternatives. Not a summit, but an arena for meeting and building networks. For those of us who attended the first World Social Forums it was a revelation. We loved the diversity, the teeming atmosphere and the mood.

Often the organization, logistics and translation broke down. There was too little money for the level of ambition. But, once again, the form and the political experiment were just as important as the content. Attac went into the forum movement full on. And, according to me, drowned in the diversity. We played a prominent role in the demonstrations and, during the first years, arranged many of the best seminars and activities. Attac’s questions dominated. But the movement did not get more members or more political influence. Here is yet another paradox. Political influence is no longer about the number of members in an organization. Membership numbers is just one factor among many. In the case of Attac, an arena bigger than the organization had been created through the great effort that was put into the forums. The networks of activists and movement members were strengthened. Actions and activities were coordinated and became truly global. This did not always take place in the media spotlight, it was just as much about practical, slow and everyday solidarity work.

One of the ideas with the World Social Forum movement was that no single country or organization would alone set the agenda. During the years, many have tried. The Brazilian PT, Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and the British Trotskyist party SWP. But the World Social Forum movement has resisted party lines. No group has been allowed to dominate, which has hurt some of the stars’ egos. Attac played an important role as catalyst. Early in the history of the social forums a choice was made to mix big meetings with smaller, regional gatherings. These meetings would focus on local issues and came to consist of seminars, book tables, manifestations and demonstrations. Arranging these forums was, to a great extent, the form our commitment took. But despite the sought after focus on local issues it often just felt like exotic lectures about poor people in some far away country. Creating a link between the global and the local was difficult.

So, what heritage did Attac leave behind? Already in 1997 the analysis was clear. MAI, GATS and the Washington Consensus were about opening markets and about privatization, whatever the cost. In the first hand it was ideology, even fundamentalist ideology. Like all fundamentalist ideology it could not survive in reality. It failed to deliver efficaciousness or more just distribution. Individual companies and actors benefitted, but very little trickled down. We tried to warn the world how these privatizations would benefit big conglomerates, increase tax evasion and worsen local work conditions. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, the voice of Attac would have been needed in the debate, but there was no energy and no members. Nor was there any strength to rally a protest movement against the crisis. But the time had come for a shift towards Attac politics. Not as national politics, but on a global level. The globalization analysis, Tobin tax and the issue of tax havens are now being debated in the European parliament and are on the way to becoming real politics. To our great joy, the Washington Consensus is now heavily criticized, if not broken.

And through the social forums, like the one in Porto Alleger, Attac created, among other things, a form for politics in the age of networks: a loosely held together, always self-critical amoeba consisting of organizations, movements and individuals that was global, broad and more flexible than an ordinary organization. From the Brazilian Belém’s focus on the rights of native people to Nairobi, Kenya, which became a microcosmos of Africa’s problems with corruption, land grabbing and lingering colonialism. In the spring of 2013, as mentioned, the forum took place in Tunisia. The discussions were about North Africa and the Arab Spring. The overarching question was about the transition from dictatorship to democracy and how the region will manage to unite change with human rights. This question was broader, bigger and, in some ways, more important than Attac. For me it doesn’t matter so much that Attac is fairly marginalized and old in the forum. Perhaps I am one of those who believe that political questions are more important than the love of any one organization. What we have seen over the years is that while the organizations come and go, the commitment remains. Many of those who were involved in Attac work in politics today, in one way or another. The network is still there. Our experiences during these years have in many ways influenced the movements and organizations in which the commitment lives on today.

So what happened to Attac? We chose to put our effort on building a movement and not on lobbying. But there was no movement. We failed. But if the criteria for success include the ability to widen the political debate, we did quite well. As a political organization we got a lot of media coverage and were loved in the beginning. At that time we really constituted a new movement. The pioneer phase consisted of educating the public and forming study circles. But after that initial phase there was nothing to hang the movement on. Herein lies one of the most important insights. Among the new movements that have emerged after Attac, the ones that have been successful have all been very concrete. You gather to perform an action. Occupy, plant or scrub rust off a ship to Gaza. The old cliché about finding the links between the local and the global is still true: with the caveat that the connection between the abstract and the concrete must be clear too.

Then followed the peace work and the social forums. The question of peace was not chosen by us, and took on the dynamic of a defensive action instead of the more hopeful “another world is possible” approach. In a time of bombs, invasions and macho war rhetoric there is no room for questions of solidarity, development and taxation. Instead, the political solutions came to be about increased surveillance and infiltrating the terror cells operating from “suburban cellar mosques”. Under these circumstances it was impossible to talk about poverty and debt relief. Attac, along with the peace and justice movement, ended up on the wrong side of the debate.

It has been said that “the main problem of the Left is not ideological, but organizational”. I think that’s correct. Creating a lasting political organization in our times is difficult. Or rather: it’s difficult to last beyond the “hype” phase. It’s easy to get likes and retweets. Or to refer to manifestations and launch demonstrations. What then? If we are not satisfied with the parties, unions and movements that we have today, what should we do? It seems difficult to start new ones.

Published 18 November 2013

Original in Swedish
Translation by Erik Niklasson
First published in Arena 3/2013 (Swedish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Arena
© Olav Fumarola Unsgaard / Arena / Eurozine

PDF / PRINT

recommended articles