Turbulences: Are we winning?

At the end of the 20th century many involved in various movements around the world had the sense that we were winning. In 2007 things appear much more complicated. What would it actually mean to win? The Turbulence collective asked 14 groups, collectives and individuals to confront this essential question…

‘We Are Winning’. This slogan, spray-painted on a wall, was one of the most iconic images of the protests against the Third Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle in 1999. It captured the sentiment of the moment on that crazy rainy winter morning perfectly. Seemingly out of nowhere, a decade after the supposed ‘end of history’, a coalition of anarchists and communists, environmentalists and trade unionists, nuns and queers, and thousands of others had taken to the streets, and actually shut down the WTO conference in Microsoft’s and Starbucks’ home town. How did that happen?


Many describe Seattle as our movement’s ‘coming-out party’. For we didn’t emerge out of nowhere; a multitude of struggles had been slowly growing in the shadows… Against World Bank mega-projects, like the Narmada dam in India. Against the privatisation of public utilities, such as water struggles in South Africa. Against the enclosure of land with movements in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Mexico. Against employment reforms, like the ship-building and automobile strikes in South Korea. And against the meeting of the G7 heads of state, like the global day of action on June 18th 1999, the last time they met in Germany. The movement didn’t begin in Seattle, but its importance lay in its resonance both in the city’s streets and well beyond. It was a moment of intensity – none of us were alone anymore – even if we’d never been to Seattle or seen a WTO representative.

In the years which followed, lines of resistance and creation – the production of other worlds – could be traced around the world. These were lines which connected the counter-summit mobilisations in Washington DC, Chiang Mai, Prague, Quebec and Genoa. They linked European social centres with farmers’ struggles in India; the Argentinian piqueteros with free software movements; struggles for free access to education and knowledge with those against biotechnology. Spaces – both real and virtual – were created to build, strengthen and develop networks of resistance and creation: Peoples’ Global Action, the Indymedia news network, the World Social Forum and hundreds of local versions. We were caught up in a new cycle of struggles; there was a real affect of winning. This wasn’t just a feeling, experienced by us as individuals or in groups. It was an increase in our power of acting, which allowed us as a movement to engage in new modes of behaviour.


Some say that the last time they saw the ‘We Are Winning’ slogan, it was sprayed on the side of a burning police van in Genoa, as the G8 met in the summer of 2001. Has it seemed appropriate since? Today winning seems a long way off.

Some see Genoa as a turning point. It marked the end of a cycle of struggles and the beginning of a new one – an attempt to instigate a global, open-ended police-war. This war was declared with a series of violent attacks upon both the flesh and bones of those considered somehow ‘militant’, but also much more indiscriminately, against the whole of the social body seen as constituting this other possible world. This war was of course not new, in history or in the present; but it would become generalised and intensified following the events of September 11th, a few months later. More than a matter of localised moments of repression, war has again clearly become one of the ways in which the world is run: not ‘the continuation of politics through other means’, but a means by which life is managed. The affects of winning – bound up with the joyful experience of desire creating another world – are replaced by those of fear, and the apparent omnipresence of a power turned against us. And what next?


Movements become apparent as ‘movements’ at times of acceleration and expansion. In these heady moments they have fuzzy boundaries, no membership lists – everybody is too engaged in what’s coming next, in creating the new, looking to the horizon. But movements get blocked, they slow down, they cease to move, or continue to move without considering their actual effects. When this happens, they can stifle new developments, suppress the emergence of new forms of politics; or fail to see other possible directions. Many movements just stop functioning as movements. They become those strange political groups of yesteryear, arguing about 1917 or 1936, or whatever as worlds pass by.

Sometimes all it takes to get moving again is a nudge in a new direction. Take the example of the Movimento Sem Terra, Brazil’s landless peasants movement: in the 1980s they were successfully getting land, more and more, but they ceased to actually move. They merely repeated a cycle. Many got land, but almost all lost it too: the landless-to-farmer transition was too much too fast. They got eaten and spat out by land speculators and banks. Then the movement changed direction. They put their energy into keeping people on the land, not getting more, and later used those secure bases to intensify their struggle for more land. Result: one million families have settled themselves on what was once big ranchers’ land.

We also want more movement, new directions. Who doesn’t? So we think now is a good time to ask the question: What would – or could – it mean to ‘win’?

The question is important because it opens up so many others. It may nudge us in new directions. Take just three:

How do we understand contemporary capitalism, and what would it mean to break with it?

How do we deal with living on a finite planet, and its manifestations such as climate change?

How different is the global movement of movements from all that has passed before; and how can we learn from history?

Strangely these all lead to somewhat similar questions: politically, why do we do what we do, and why do we keep doing it? And of course: what (else) could be done?

We’re not offering a packaged and polished set of answers to these or any other questions. The 14 articles in Turbulence come from different contexts, different parts of the world; they have different tones, different paces and they certainly don’t all agree with each other; and some are harder than others to read outside their context. But we think this unevenness, what some might call roughness, is useful. It’s sometimes hard to engage with a collection of texts which is too polished. You’ve no sooner exclaimed, ‘that’s wrong, I don’t agree with that at all!’ or ‘but what about X?’, than the author’s anticipated your objection in a footnote, or else the editors have directed you to another article which plugs the gap. On the other hand, rough edges provide handholds, something to grab onto. They provide a way into arguments. Maybe you’ll pull at a loose end and everything will unravel. But perhaps you’ll be able to weave something else with those threads. What we want to do is put out articles that help us to think new thoughts. To think and act differently.

But there is a common thread running through the articles: it’s that we think the questions they tackle are essential if we are to have any chance of turning the world upside down. Are we alone in this? We don’t think so. Recently we’ve come across different initiatives where we’ve glimpsed the outlines of new re-groupings. We’re not proclaiming ‘the time is now’. Nor are we demanding ‘one more push, comrades’. It’s more subtle than that. More tentative. Will we be swept up again? Maybe. Will a high tide come from an unexpected direction? Probably. And what’s Turbulence got to do with it? Who knows? But you can’t say you haven’t been warned that people are experimenting. And some of those experiments will get out of control.

WHY TURBULENCE? Turbulence is the disruption caused by movement through a non-moving element or an element moving at a different speed, which seems somehow apt for this project.

Consider the flow of water over a simple smooth object, such as a sphere. At very low speeds the flow is laminar, ie the flow is smooth (though it may involve vortices on a large scale). As the speed increases, at some point the transition is made to turbulent (‘chaotic’) flow. You can see the same thing when you turn on a tap.

But although the complete description of turbulence remains one of the unsolved problems in physics, this chaotic flow is enormously productive. Insects fly in a sea of vortices, surrounded by tiny eddies and whirlwinds that are created when they move their wings. For years, scientists said that, theoretically, the bumblebee should not be able to fly, as its wings are so small relative to its body’s mass: an airplane built with the same proportions would never get off the ground. For conventional aerodynamics, turbulence is a problem to be controlled and eliminated. But once we take turbulence into account as a productive force, then it’s easy to see how bumblebee wings produce more lift than predicted by conventional aerodynamic analyses. The aerodynamics are incredibly unsteady and difficult to analyse, but it works!

WHY HERE? WHY NOW? We are publishing Turbulence to coincide with the counter-mobilisation against the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany in June 2007. There are three reasons for this. First, we see Turbulence as a political intervention. Summit mobilisations have played a significant part in this recent eruption of struggle, but many of us are asking how we can move beyond them. Second, we have found counter-summit mobilisations to be moments of extraordinary collective openness: different ideas of how to change the world often make more sense in these moments than they do in the rest of our lives. Third, while we hope to make Turbulence available around the world, in multiple formats (print, audio download, on-line translations), in Heiligendamm we hope to reach thousands of people who might not otherwise pick up a copy in the usual radical infoshops, or surf past our website.

UNCOMFORTABLE WITH WINNING? Some people are uncomfortable with the notion of winning. This is because winning implies that some will be losers. Of course in healthy relationships winning and losing can be seriously damaging. If conversations are approached with the aim of ‘winning’, then the conversation will, at best, not be productive. In most relationships winning and losing should have no place. The relationship, what you’re doing in the relationship, is more important. But does this extend to situations of domination, such as the daily conversation we have with capitalism? What if somebody is physically attacking you? Isn’t winning – whether through escape or defeat – in those situations more important than the relationship? Isn’t it in fact the relationship that ought to be destroyed or made irrelevant? Winning need not imply a zero sum game, but at times it might be a matter of life and death. In such situations it seems essential to do more than just pose the question of how to be effective. To think of winning. To try. Hard.