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Uncle Sam's bastard children

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The world is not for sale.

– attac website, 2003

Free trade is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is free trade.

– Sir John Bowring, 19th-century British industrialist, social reformer and free-trader

 

ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2003, 56-year-old Lee Kyung-Hae, a farmer from Korea, clambered onto the fence surrounding the convention centre in which trade delegates from all over the world were meeting
at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit in Cancun, Mexico. When he reached the top
of the fence, he took out a Swiss Army knife and plunged it into his heart. He died three hours
later in hospital.

Witnesses at the scene said they had no idea Lee was planning to kill himself. Shortly before he climbed the fence, however, he declared that the WTO was "killing farmers all over the world". Earlier in the year, he had gone on a hunger strike outside WTO headquarters in Geneva. After the news of his death was announced, the Korean People's Action Against Investment Treaties and the WTO, a coalition of 40 Korean social movements protesting in Cancun, issued a terse statement: "Lee Kyung-Hae didn't kill himself. The WTO killed him."

Lee was part of a network of protesters who have been converging on WTO meetings since the mid-1990s. If free trade is a religion, as Bowring suggested, its present-day sacred rituals are the summits and conferences of the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. It's at these get-togethers of the international financial and policy elites that the pure doctrine of globalisation is propagated. Until a few years ago, no one but invited insiders bothered to turn up; the agendas of WTO meetings resemble some of the more arcane, impenetrable branches of medieval scholastic theology. But groups like the Korean Farmers League, of which Lee was a member, have turned them into global theatre – massive performances at which tear gas often replaces incense. Also present at Cancun were the Infernal Noise Brigade, indigenous groups from Mexico and many other countries, representatives of the French Peasants' Party and counter-globalisation activists from Canada, the United States and Europe.

Lee's death went largely unreported in the international mainstream media. But events inside the convention centre caused a sensation. The G21, an alliance of developing countries including India, China, Indonesia and a number of the world's poorest countries, pulled the plug on world-trade negotiations potentially worth billions of dollars to the US and the European Union. Trade bureaucrats climbed back onto their planes weary and empty-handed; the world's financial press gnashed its teeth and declared the failure of the talks a disastrous setback for global prosperity. The G21, many other countries in the developing world and non-government organisations (NGOs) from the developing world celebrated a victory – one tinged with mourning at the death of Lee.

 

CANCUN MARKED THE culmination of a process that began in the late 1990s: the emergence of network politics as the most potent new challenge to global capital. The network is emerging as the primary form of political organisation and action in the 21st century. Network politics poses a direct threat to the top-down, bureaucratic, and often authoritarian, structures that have dominated politics in the 20th century: the state, trade unions, corporations, the multilateral international organisations. In network politics, form is content: instead of agendas, meetings, the smooth running of the political machine, there's emergence and convergence – ideas, dissent and debate wink into existence in chatrooms, online journals and newsgroups and traverse a dispersed, fragmented, leaderless network, occasionally coalescing into action.

Just as market triumphalism was reaching its height in the heady days of the tech boom, a new adversary was in the process of being born, aided by the processes of globalisation itself. What's become known as the anti-globalisation movement formed, apparently out of thin air. In fact, the new possibilities of networks, both technological and cultural, gave it life.

The sociologist Manuel Castells, author of The Rise of the Network Society (Blackwell, 2000), compares the anti-globalisation movement, "in all its extraordinary and even contradictory diversity", to the workers' movements that emerged in the 19th century and ultimately formed themselves into the labor movement. Network politics not only challenges the top-down, bureaucratic structures of the modern nation-state and transnational institutions but also creates new forms of organisation that are changing the rules of political engagement. The counter-globalisation movement, as its members prefer to call it, is, like the internet, a distributed system, dispersed around the globe; it has no headquarters, no central committee, no executive leadership.

Network politics existed before the internet but it was the net that brought it to life on a global scale. The British political scientist Andrew Gamble has described the counter-globalisation protests at Seattle, Washington, Melbourne and elsewhere as the "stirrings of a global civil society". At its most basic, the internet is a place for that global civil society to meet, the 21st-century equivalent of the coffee houses, salons and societies where the bourgeois intellectuals of the European Enlightenment congregated and debated. Not only does the net offer cheap, almost instantaneous communication across the globe; more importantly, it creates a global public space, a vast theatre of ideas and action accessible to anyone, anytime – provided, of course, he or she has access to the internet. The internet embodies what the philosopher and social theorist Juergen Habermas calls a "counter-public sphere": an alternative to that other global public space, television. But where global television is rigidly controlled and formatted, the net is unmediated, chaotic. The birth of the counter-globalisation movement in the 1990s is inconceivable without it.

 

BEFORE WE BECOME too romantic about the liberating energies of networks, we should remind ourselves that the network is also the ghostly form of many of our most characteristically modern nightmares. The Matrix is the dark twin of the internet; an all-pervasive, all-seeing web of surveillance and control. Yet rudimentary forms of the Matrix already exist, in the shape of Echelon, the global-intelligence network that intercepts and monitors satellite transmissions. Even an inquiry into Echelon by the European Union Parliament, which interviewed dozens of intelligence experts, was unable to come to any firm conclusions about the extent of its powers. And as Howard Rheingold, one of the most perceptive commentators on the networked world, writes in his latest book, Smart Mobs (Perseus, 2002), we are on the threshold of "a world in which ... spying machinery is built into every object we encounter". In this reading, the network becomes a pathological, hypertrophied image of the state, its last grab for control just as its traditional sources of power and authority are failing it.

It's relatively well known now that the internet is the unintended progeny of the United States Defence Department. It began as a twinkle in the eyes of JCR Licklider and Robert Taylor, two research directors with the department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which was set up in a panic in 1957 after the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite. Suddenly, the US saw its assumptions about technological superiority slipping away and created ARPA with a mandate to look over the horizon and anticipate which technologies might be important in the future. As Rheingold relates in his earlier book, The Virtual Community (MIT Press, 2000), Licklider was hired by ARPA to oversee innovative and speculative research on computing. His own major interest was in the interaction between humans and computers; in 1960 he published a paper on "Man-Computer Symbiosis", predicting that "in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly". Together with his team and researchers around the US, Licklider pursued ways of enabling communities of users to work collaboratively and interactively with computers. Individual users were linked together on a single mainframe; and then, slowly, mainframes at geographic locations scattered around the US were connected to one another. The internet was in the throes of being born.

ARPA's work came together with another preoccupation of US defence strategists: how to prevent America's military command-and-control systems being decapitated by a nuclear strike. An analyst at the RAND Corporation, Paul Baran, argued that in order to keep US war-fighting capabilities alive, it would be necessary to decentralise both the structures of military authority and the communications network that enabled them to transmit orders. If one part of the network was wiped out, messages would need to travel by alternative routes.

Packet-switching technology emerged as the preferred way of solving this technical problem: information was split up into discrete "packets" and dispatched over the network by different routes, the backroads and byways of the network as well as its main hubs, to end up at a common destination. In 1969, ARPANET went online, the predecessor to today's internet.

The story of ARPANET's evolution has been told many times. What's not so often remarked upon, however, is the delicious irony of its conception. The net, and the network politics it has allowed to flourish, owe their existence to one of the most authoritarian, secretive and powerful state structures of all time: the US Defence Department. attac, the World Social Forum, the Zapatista and the countless other groups that congregate and collaborate on the internet to oppose corporate globalisation, are, at least in one sense, Uncle Sam's bastard children. In the "world without walls" of global capital, as former WTO head Mike Moore describes it, the net and network politics form a kind of mirror image, a shadow world with the power to erupt into the desert of the real.

The godparents of the net, Licklider and Taylor, themselves foresaw its enormous potential to create communities dispersed in space. In an essay published just before ARPANET flickered into life, they wrote: "In most fields ... [these communities] ...will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest."

It's not clear whether Licklider and Taylor also sensed the subversive potential of the internet. But ARPANET was launched in the same year as Altamont, the same year in which protests on American university campuses reached their peak: 1969. As Castells points out, the anti-authoritarian, often anarchic style of the '60s counter culture influenced the emerging business culture of the computer industry. Especially in what became known as Silicon Valley, says Castells, "the technological blossoming that took place in the early 1970s can be related to the culture of freedom, individual innovation and entrepreneurialism that grew out of the 1960s culture of American campuses". Perhaps the most important development to come out of Silicon Valley in the '70s was the prototype of the personal computer, without which the internet as a mass phenomenon could never have become possible. Pioneers of the personal computer, such as Steve Wozniak of Apple, Castells argues, "were intentionally trying to undo the centralising technologies of the corporate world". In this, they shared something with other, more shadowy contemporary pioneers of network politics.

What was different about the '60s? There were people trying to stop the show anyway they could ...
Then, you didn't know which end the trouble was coming from. And it could come at any time ...

– Bob Dylan, 1985

We will wreck this world.

– Manifesto of the Situationist International, 1958

 

IT COULD BE argued that network politics has deep roots in the European anarchist movements that emerged in the latter part of the 19th century; or the utopian socialist groups of the 1830s; or even further back, in the Freemasons' lodges and secret orders of the late 18th century. The new political forms that emerged in the late 20th century, like the internet, grow out of the 1960s. Riots in Paris and protests across American campuses drew their impetus from a shifting coalition of students, groups such as the Situationist International, the Provos in the Netherlands and the Yippies in the US – coming together with more explicitly political organisations such as the Black Panthers. A shifting network of alliances formed and dissolved around opposition to the Vietnam War, liberation struggles in the Third World and the civil rights movement in the US.

In many ways, the '60s also prefigure the cultural politics of protest at the turn of the 21st century. Groups such as the Situationist International strove to crack open the rigid categories of conventional class politics and open up new political spaces. With their emphasis on spontaneity and performance, and their iconoclastic deconstruction and disfigurement of mass culture, they shared similar impulses with the happenings that Andy Warhol conjured up at the Factory in New York.

Greil Marcus argues in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 1989) that there is a web of influences and connections leading from these disparate groups and tendencies in the '60s to punk rock in the '70s. The culture-jammers and cyberactivists of the late '90s draw on the same influences, as do many of the groups that converged on Seattle, Washington, Melbourne, Prague – and Cancun. Laugh-ins, bicycle brigades, guerilla gardening and pie-throwing confront the high priests of global capitalism. According to Agent Pecan of the Biotic Baking Brigade, which has landed cream pies on the heads of international luminaries, the counter-globalisation movement has created an "international visual Esperanto", a new language of protest. That new language is an integral part of network politics but it has evolved out of a dialect first developed by groups like the Situationists. Writing in 1975, cultural critic John Berger predicted that the "revolutionary hopes of the 1960s" would one day break out and be "lived again with different results" and that the program (or anti-program) of the Situationists would be seen in retrospect as "one of the most lucid and pure political formulations" of that era. Those revolutionary hopes have erupted again in the counter-globalisation struggle.

 

THE POLITICAL CULTURE of the late 1960s also spawned another, darker variant: the terrorist network. The Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and the Weather Underground Organisation in the US initiated campaigns of political violence, firstly against property and then against people. Each of these organisations was highly secretive; for some time, their members were able to operate undetected and, in the case of the RAF at least, to slip back and forth over the border between West and East Germany, where they received training and financial support. Members of the Weather Underground managed to elude the FBI for more than a decade, to carry out a series of bombings and even spring psychologist and drug-use advocate Timothy Leary from jail. The RAF and the Red Brigades formed loose links with other groups engaged in armed political struggle, such as the IRA and the Basque separatist movement ETA. But in contrast to the Weather Underground and the emergent networks of the counter-globalisation movement, both the RAF and the Red Brigades had an authoritarian leadership and a relatively hierarchical structure much more reminiscent of traditional political parties.

The vast majority of groups involved in the counter-globalisation movement today reject violence. It is misleading to suggest, as Jessica Stern, the author of Terror in the Name of God (HarperCollins, 2003), has done recently, that there are affinities between the protesters in Cancun and al-Qaeda. Uniting all the disparate groups that converged on Cancun is a commitment to justice and a certain visceral, sometimes romantic attitude to democracy: put simply, a belief that decisions that affect the livelihoods of tens of millions of people should not be made behind closed doors by technocrats and unelected officials, without any opportunity for those affected to participate. The leaders of al-Qaeda have no interest in such notions of democracy. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny that al-Qaeda represents one possibility of network politics. Like the European terrorist networks of the late '60s and '70s, it has an authoritarian ideological leadership – but its operational structure is highly decentralised and dispersed and it employs the same new technologies as the counter-globalisation movement, such as email and mobile phones, to communicate and carry out its activities.

 

SEPTEMBER 11 AND the Bali bombings have prompted many governments to draft laws giving their police and security forces much greater powers of surveillance. Not all have been approved by the parliaments of their countries but it's broadly true to say that the capacity for governments to spy legally on their citizens has been greatly enhanced. At the same time, the technologies of surveillance are multiplying at an unprecedented rate and extending their reach into the most banal and intimate areas of our lives.

As Rheingold argues in Smart Mobs: "We are living through the last years of the long era before sensors are built into the furniture." High-powered, low-cost microprocessors will soon be embedded in almost every appliance and object we use in everyday life. A recent newspaper report described how Japanese researchers were working on a toilet that would be able to instantly analyse bodily wastes and warn of any unusual or potentially dangerous indicators, such as excessive sugar levels in urine. It's well known that operatives of the former East German secret police, the Stasi, regularly recorded the number of times "suspicious" individuals under observation went to the toilet.

The surveillance methods employed by the Stasi well into the 1980s seem almost prehistoric, however, compared with the possibilities offered by the wired world. Mobile phones, SMS, wireless internet and their successors offer us a world of limitless connectivity, but one in which we will leave more and more "digital traces" behind us as we move through it. The new networking technologies that will profoundly transform our lives and social interactions over the coming decades will also weave a "panoptic web" around us. Rheingold says: "Detailed information about the minute-by-minute behaviours of entire populations will become cost-effective and increasingly accurate." As the European Parliament's inquiry into Echelon showed, a rudimentary form of this panoptic web already exists. Echelon, it concluded, was essentially a system for monitoring satellite communications and was concerned principally with commercial information. Its primary purpose, in other words, is industrial espionage, although its operations are closely connected to US and British intelligence services. Yet its capacity to capture and analyse enormous quantities of raw data flowing through a large number of "nodes" in locations all over the globe makes it a working prototype for the kinds of surveillance systems that Rheingold believes will exist in the not-too-distant future.

The masked stone throwers who call for more transparency, the anti-globalisation protesters who claim to speak for "the people" even as they attempt to sabotage international meetings, are not the new foot soldiers for democracy. They are its antithesis.

– Mike Moore, former secretary-general of the WTO

Without a doubt, a more fragmented world would also be a safer world.

– John Gray, al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern (Faber and Faber, 2003)

 

IN LESS THAN a decade, the counter-globalisation movement movement has achieved some extraordinary successes. Representatives of NGOs and developing countries have been invited inside global economic summits such as the World Economic Forum in Melbourne and the World Water Forum in Kyoto, and given space on agendas to put their point of view. At Cancun, despite intense pressure from US and European trade officials and WTO bureaucrats, a far-reaching new agreement on investment was effectively scuttled – an agreement that would have required developing countries to open up their public services to competition from the private sector and paved the way for widespread privatisations.

Critics such as Mike Moore and many others in the neo-liberal policy elites have been quick to dismiss the movement as an alliance of northern NGOs and comfortable middle-class do-gooders who don't have the true interests of the poor in developing countries at heart. Criticism of this nature ignores the close co-operation between NGOs, grassroots citizens groups, peasants and farmers movements, such as the one to which Lee Kyung-Hae belonged, and representatives of national governments. In the end, it was the governments of India, Brazil and China, with the support of these groups and other developing countries, that rejected the agreement on investment at Cancun – despite the warnings of commentators such as Rosemary Righter, associate editor of The Times, that this amounted to a "staggering misreading" of their own interests.

Yet the counter-globalisation movement also has its critics on the left. The British social theorist Paul Hirst, the author of an influential critique of the concept of globalisation, described the Seattle protesters as "an incoherent constellation of opposed interests". By contrast with the socialist movements of the 19th and 20th century, says Hirst, the proponents of network politics are united only by "anti-capitalist rhetoric"; they have no coherent program, no alternative vision to oppose to the ascendancy of global capital.

It's certainly true that the counter-globalisation movement lacks a common manifesto and that there are fundamental differences between its members in their attitudes to the process of globalisation itself. One grouping argues that while multilateral institutions are deeply flawed, they can be reformed and made more democratic; the opposing camp believes they should be abolished altogether and replaced either with new institutions or with none at all. The first grouping retains an essentially positive attitude to globalisation as a cultural process, one that enables greater communication and exchange between cultures and sub-cultures, while arguing that the destructive effects of financial globalisation – as exemplified by the Asian economic crisis of 1997 – need to be brought under control by new forms of international regulation. The more radical section of the movement prefers a strategy of "de-globalisation". Its principal advocate, Walden Bello, stresses the need for a "re-empowerment of the local and national", and the reorientation of national economies in the developing world towards domestic needs and domestic production: in other words, a reversal of the policies promoted so forcefully over the past two decades by the IMF, the World Bank and global capital itself.

Whether or not these two groupings, and the much larger web of activists, anarchists and more traditional political groupings brought together by network politics, eventually cohere into a single movement with a common manifesto may not become clear for decades. The sheer momentum of technological change and the rapid expansion of networking technologies that have, to paraphrase campaigner Naomi Klein, "shaped the movement in their own image", seem to be pushing in the direction of more globalisation, not less. For the time being at least, argues Klein, the counter-globalisation movement's lack of a single common vision may be a strength rather than a weakness. Its decentralised, distributed structure makes it more difficult to control; and its form, more reflective of "hotlinks" than hierarchy, may be more appropriate to the new public spaces of global civil society than the organized political parties that have dominated politics in the 20th century. The crucial political struggles of the coming decades will be struggles over the control of networks and the uses to which they are put.

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