I missed the great anti-war demonstration in London the Sunday before last. But I don’t feel too bad about this because, along with 500 other people, I was participating in a conference on globalisation and resistance in New York.
It was planned by a coalition of academics and activists long before 11 September. The original idea was to assess the progress the movement against capitalist globalisation had achieved, and plot the steps it needed to make next. The attacks on New York and Washington radically changed the context in which the conference took place.
But they also provided an opportunity for the US left to assess where it stood in relation to the great issues of imperialism and war. As a city New York is beginning to recover from the effects of 11 September, even though the ruins at Ground Zero are still smouldering.
But there is one very obvious difference that strikes a visitor straight away. American flags have always been prominent all over the US. In the past New York was an exception to that picture. Not any more. You see the Stars and Stripes everywhere-on people’s lapels and cars, in shop windows, the foyers of apartment blocks, the front of yellow cabs. Particularly in New York, then, the US left has been confronted with a massive wave of patriotism.
Undoubtedly this is encouraged by the authorities and by corporations, but it also reflects the anger of US workers at the slaughter of thousands of their counterparts on 11 September. Some on the left have buckled to the resulting pressure. The most ridiculous paper given at the conference was by feminist academic Ellen Willis, who supports US ground troops going to Afghanistan to fight ‘patriarchal culture’.
As if the US Marines are likely agents of women’s liberation! Others were confused. Susan George said that she had been against the bombing, but now she wasn’t sure any longer because of the scenes of people celebrating the Taliban’s fall in Kabul. She also used some very dubious arguments to support the claim that the Taliban were fascist.
George’s position reflects the disarray that the French anti-globalisation campaign ATTAC has been in since the violent confrontations at Gothenburg and Genoa last summer. The ATTAC leadership is caught between the mass movement it helped to initiate and Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party government. But the pro-war voices were very much in the minority at the conference. Tariq Ali set the tone in taking a very firm anti-war line and challenging the demonisation of Islam.
The African-American Marxist scholar Manning Marable had previously taken a somewhat equivocal position towards the war. But, perhaps because he sensed the mood, his speech to the conference was robustly anti-war, linking the attack on Afghanistan to class inequality and oppression in the US itself.
The second day of the conference was dominated more by activists than by academics. I attended an excellent workshop called ‘From anti-capitalism to anti-war’. A range of views was expressed here.
One Italian activist argued that the anti-capitalist movement in the US was in too weak a position to mount street demonstrations any longer.
This was strongly challenged by others. A group of anti-war activists had come to the conference from the University of California at Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
They represented an anti-war coalition that had been much more successful than elsewhere. Having first crystallised out of a protest against a racist cartoon in the student newspaper, the group had succeeded in uniting a large number of students against the bombing.
The final plenary session, at which I spoke along with the writer Jeremy Brecher and the anti-apartheid and anti-globalisation activist Dennis Brutus, was very clear in linking the struggle against corporate globalisation to that against imperialism and war.
There was great enthusiasm for mounting protests next February against the Davos World Economic Forum, which has been moved to New York. In a rather sour report on the conference in the liberal American weekly the Nation, the left wing economist Doug Henwood writes:
‘War, fear and repression have thrown sand in the gears [of the anti-globalisation movement]. Linking the themes of peace and justice can be done, but it requires hard thinking, and there’s not enough of that going on right now.’
It’s certainly true that building a mass movement in the US against the ‘war on terrorism’ will be tougher than elsewhere. But the example of Berkeley shows how the basis of such a movement can be laid.
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