A tale of two victories? Or, why winning becomes precarious in times of absent antagonisms

Tadzio Mueller & Kriss Sol

It is nice to have our victories once in a while. Sitting at the campfire in Reddelich with thousands of people after a week of protest we were not quite sure whether the collective euphoria permeating the camps was simply the result of one too many sleepless night (and day), or whether it was true that we had won once again: won as we had in Seattle, won as we had in Prague, even in Genoa.

To some extent, it is possible to argue that Heiligendamm was indeed a victory. First of all, some 10.000 of us forced over 16.000 police and over 1000 soldiers to retreat to the sea- and airways, we partially disrupted the logistics of the summit (journalists, crucial to the event, reported being stuck on boats for several hours, delegations were delayed, etc.), and people all around the country and the world were made aware of our actions and blockades, in other words, of the presence and significance of our movement. These are significant successes. First: to push the state, according to one (conceptually insufficient) definition the institution that holds the legitimate monopoly of violence in a given territory, away from that territory, into a small enclave, onto boats and helicopters, is in itself highly significant. For what could 'revolution' look like if not the constant pushing back from our everyday lives of the power of capital and the state? How far will they have to flee? It is only six years ago that the G8 stopped meeting in major cities and moved to the supposedly quiet countryside. In Europe at least, this obviously does not prevent the emergence of massive resistance. What will be their next step? Giving up the principle of rotation and establish a fixed G8 meeting place in the Sahara? Wherever they will go, our will to intervene and make their meetings if not impossible, then at least very difficult, will remain.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly: we achieved what many of us had been hoping for in the years and months leading to Heiligendamm, namely a ‘reconstitutive moment’ of the conflictive potential of global movements. What the summit protests at the end of the last and the beginning of this century had done was to create a ‘common place’, a social discursive space in which diverse struggles, movements and individuals could understand themselves as part of a global movement, through which diverse movements could confront collectively various crystallisation points of global capitalist rule. But in the last few years, many of us felt that, as much as we kept invoking a ‘global movement’, there in fact wasn't one anymore, for the integrative quality of summit protests had been draining away since Genoa, as a result of repression, cooptation, and the instrumentalisation of movement agendas by state and capital: from ‘corporate social responsibility’ to the ignominious splitting off and cooptation of the moderate wing of our movement in Gleneagles at the hands of the Blair/Brown government. Gleneagles was merely the high point of a process that was as much a sign of our successes (issues ‘we’ talked about had to be recognised as problematic) as our weaknesses: the slow draining away of the antagonism that had existed between our agenda(s) and that/those of the G8/WTO/etc…

But the feeling during that last evening at the campfire was different. We felt powerful, back in the game, people felt encouraged and empowered, positive about coordinated action in solidarity. That however was simply the initial sentiment around the campfire. Whether we really are ‘back’ depends on what happens from now on. Seattle would not have been the myth it today is if Washington, Prague, Quebec, Gothenburg, Genoa, etc. had not happened afterwards, if thousands of people had not taken this event as a positive and empowering reference point for future interventions based on this unfulfilled promise of the past.

After euphoria: the comedown. Opening the newspapers the next day, we did not only realize that the old world still existed, but we had to learn that the G8 was able to re-constitute its discursive legitimacy through the mainstream media. At least the Merkel government was widely cheered for forcing the US to agree to agree to binding agreements at some point in the future (a great exercise in metapolitics). Germany's biggest tabloid crowned Merkel “Miss World”, she was said to have triumphed over the American dinosaur, she was the one who got the G8 to commit to do something about climate change. Legitimation for her, but also for the summit and the G8 as such. Suddenly, there were two winners, the G8 and the global movements against it. How was this possible?

If we look at the four principles of the Interventionist Left (IL), one of the radical left networks participating in the mobilization against the G8 (and a key mover behind the BlockG8 network which in turn was crucial in organising two mass blockades), we might get an explanation for the clear limitations of our success. This network was based on (a) a clear delegitimation of the G8 as such; (b) a will to materially intervene in the infrastructure of the G8 through mass blockades; (c) a construction of broad alliances and trustful cooperation; and (d) a clear rejection of and demarcation vis-à-vis right-wing critiques of neoliberal globalization. Presumably, these principles were not shared by all (radical left) activists. But we do think that the first two points are crucial for ‘winning’, both discursively and materially, and that they were fairly dominant on the radical left. Starting from the end: we think a clear demarcation from right-wing critiques has been successfully practised; the evaluation of alliance politics we leave to the IL. But what about points (a) and (b), what about discursive delegitimation and material intervention?

In our mind, both aims are strategically interconnected. The first goal is rather simple and has been stated many times: the G8 is not part of the solution, but part of the problem. They not only fail to find solutions, they are part of creating the very inequalities we are struggling against. Such an analysis should lead necessarily to the second goal: we should try to prevent the G8 from meeting.

On the first point: how powerful summit meetings (in particular G8 summits) actually are, that is, to what extent they are in fact ‘part of the problem’, or merely an ephemeral spectacle, has long been a point of contention in our movements. We contend that over the last roughly 8 years, since the Cologne summit in 1999, and very much in tandem with the emergence of ‘our’ movements, the primary role of the G8 has changed: from adjudicator of competing interests to imperial institution negotiating the difficulties of emerging forms of global authority. In other words: global summits, G8 summits in particular, are to a large extent about the symbolic production and legitimation of benevolent global authority, or rather, of global authority as benevolent. How does this legitimation occur? In short, if people perceive a problem (say: global climate change), a threat, and existing power structures cannot convincingly show to be dealing with the problem, then people might just move from merely whinging about the issue to doing something about it – something that, because the existing structures don’t provide solutions, could potentially lie outside, go beyond, or even threaten those structures.

This is what we call the problematic of global authority, which the G8 (amongst others) has been seeking to handle for the last few years: ‘Debt’ (Cologne); ‘Poverty/Africa’ (Gleneagles); ‘Climate Change’ (Heiligendamm) – all issues which are perceived as ‘global problems’, to which the G8 tried to respond: don’t worry, we’re the right people, sitting in the right institution, trying to solve this problem in the right ways, through the right channels. By all means, please don’t start thinking critically, acting critically, changing the world. The existing one is just fine, with some adjustment judiciously made by our humble selves! Thus the process of legitimation, thus (increasingly so) the role of the G8.

The Gleneagles summit in 2005 is a perfect example of this, where the fact that issues of ‘poverty’ and ‘Africa’ were taken up at the summit was a clear attempt to relegitimate structures of global governance that had been haemorrhaging legitimacy for years. The British government portrayed itself as the prolonged arm of the legitimate concerns of social movements. This year the problem that the G8 had to be seen as engaging with was climate change. For months, Merkel's government had been busy massaging expectations of what would come out of Heiligendamm downward, so that even a small fart of agreement from the American corner could be sold as a success. And sold as a success it was: Germany's biggest tabloid crowned Merkel “Miss World”, legitimation for her, but also for the summit and the G8 as such. If they can agree to do something about an issue as important as climate change at one of these summits, surely the summits and the institution cannot be such bad things? When they went home from Heiligendamm, Merkel and her gang surely felt something akin to what we felt: “we are winning!”

And what about the “material intervention” into the progress of the summit? Let’s spoil the party a bit, and suggest that our blockades failed in terms of being a successful tactical operation. Over and over again we heard (and indeed said ourselves!) that all land-based access to the summit had been effectively shut down, we were wondering how it happened that inside of the fence they hardly took notice of that. Also, the media seemed to treat the blockades not as what they were meant to be, a material disruption, but rather as cheerful theatre for the articulation of tamed dissent (tamed because it was kept within clearly regulated borders). There are reasons for this. First of all, very practical ones: while accepting the peaceful mass blockades of the BlockG8 alliance at the East Gate, one of the two entrances in the fence, the police forces could focus on keeping the road to the West Gate free of disturbances. De-escalation was not necessary here anymore for the police since they left the mass blockades at the East Gate in peace. Having announced that they would blockade the summit, BlockG8 quickly realised (when we didn’t get our heads kicked in ten minutes after sitting down on the road) that the police had decided to abandon the East Gate. Later we heard that they had abandoned the roads altogether. For Thursday, the day of the real G8 meetings, they announced Plan B: helicopters and the waterways. Our response? BlockG8 stayed in the action consensus, and held the blockade. But where is the antagonism, if we do something and the state pulls back, saying: ‘sure, take this, we'll go somewhere else - you win, we win!’ Shouldn’t the response then have been to go to the fence? Physically try to go beyond the space given to our blockades by the summit? Certainly, that would have projected a far more uncompromising rejection of the summit.

To clarify again: we do take seriously the collective affect of winning felt in the camps, the sense of encouragement that so many people took away from the protests. But we do want to intervene into a discussion that, especially in Germany, is being a little too self-congratulatory, self-referential, and surprisingly ‘un-radical’. Left radical politics are, must be, antagonistic politics – it is that (if anything) that distinguishes them from the liberal ameliorism of the liberal NGOs – in their relation to state, capital, and other relations of domination. So we take the affect seriously and agree: we won, somehow. But we have to be realistic and admit that ‘they’ did too. So both sides won – which raises the question: how is that possible? Okay, the question is rhetorical in light of what we just said, the answer obviously is this: because there was in fact no clear antagonism between ‘us’ and ‘the G8’.

The protest in Heiligendamm was a typical product of postmodern politics where the political disappears because dichotomies (previously seen as mutually exclusive) are reconciled. The result: for sure climate change can go along with capitalist expansion and more free trade. We want to propose two answers here to the question why we failed to construct such an antagonistic relationship to the G8 and global governance in general. Again, these answers are interconnected with the necessity of discursive interventions and material disruptions.

The first answer is that we failed to construct a clear antagonism because we were playing on different grounds. While having worked more than a year on producing our own thematic focal points (migration, agriculture and antimilitarism), the German radical left almost completely lacks a challenging political story about climate change. The arguments heard within the German left (if the question isn’t dismissed out of hand as woolly environmentalism) hardly go beyond individualist and liberal appeals to fly less, and rarely raise the question of property and capitalist accumulation as mechanisms inherently intertwined with the problem of environmental devastation. This is odd for a country with a rather long tradition of environmental activism. It is not that odd, however, for an environmental movement that has been increasingly institutionalized and coopted during the past two decades and does not offer a radical perspective on reorganizing our societies based on a sustainable (and thus anticapitalist) paradigm. The top priority of climate change during the G8 summit would have offered quite some possibilities to radicalize an old movement and broaden an anticapitalist critique through an environmental lens.

Only some years ago, when summits' headline issues were still very much about trade, privatisation, and ‘the neoliberal agenda’, we had an excellent counter-story. Our militant actions were embedded in this counter-story, allowing them to rise beyond being mere policing matters, to being explicitly political, because they directly interfered with the discursive field that was being built to legitimate global authority. Today, we have no story to counter theirs, so this production can go on undisturbed, no matter how effective our blockades are. It may be responded at this point that direct engagement with the summit's headline issues would add to the legitimation of an institution we are trying to delegitimate, but this is not necessarily the case. It only leads to legitimation if such an issue-engagement ends up making demands to the G8. Issue-engagement could be used as well to portray the G8 as part of the entire problem. It is fairly obvious that this year's refusal to construct a counter-story did not lead to a greater delegitimation of the G8. More generally, for summit protests, we need to work in advance to develop a punchy story that relates to the summit's headline issues, within which we can embed our actions. Otherwise the latter remain mere public order problems, and cannot interfere with the production of global authority as legitimate.

The second explanation for the lack of antagonism has to do with our capacity for material disruption on the streets, without which any good counter story remains just so much self-serving radical propaganda, without any social relevance. For sure, there has been a certain antagonism in the relation between some protestors and the police, as all of us who were beaten, arrested, tear-gassed, water-cannoned can surely attest to. And there has been a clear attempt to build a broad alliance for mass blockades through the BlockG8 initiative (which included the IL, several local attac groups, but also radical antifascist groups). Finally, we even witnessed the cumulative effects of mass blockades and decentralized blockades following the PAULA call. However, no one can deny that we did not hit them where it hurts. The blockades, although much more effective then ever before in Europe during a summit, have become a kind of mediated and contained spectacle. Such a spectacle was not able to challenge global power structures materialized on the streets by reintroducing an antagonist relationship through confrontational street tactics. A clearer presence of confrontational tactics would have projected a far more uncompromising rejection of the summit than the mass blockades with their occasional fun fair character. But would it have allowed so many people to be there? Would it have led to an escalation that would have left many of us traumatised, beaten, in jail, rather than celebrating at home now? We cannot say, but insist that every time the state retreats, we need to push it further, rather than simply be happy in the space now vacated.