Understanding the Signs of the Times

What are the most important lessons of the 2001 Genoa protests, asks transform! europe’s Co-President Cornelia Hildebrandt.

I think the lessons from the Genoa protests suggest how we might understand and react to the signs of the times, that is:

1.      To understand the fundamental changes in capitalism and respond to them politically;

2.      To ensure the sustainability of protests and develop new forms of organising transnational protests;

3.      To organise in a way that preserves the innovational capacity of new transnational organisations.

The anti-globalisation movement at the end of the 1990s emerged in a new phase of capitalist development. New information and communication technologies led to fundamental changes in global production and reproduction. Globalised production chains were to be secured by new transnational financial, economic, and trade agreements with new institutions: such as North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995 and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) of 1995.

Protest formed against this development first the Mexican Zapatistas against NAFTA in 1994 and the ultimately successful worldwide movement against MAI in 1997/1998. These were some of the precursors of the 2001 Genoa protests; they did not appear out of the blue but were based on the protests against the WTO, against G8, and against the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

New organisations emerged for example Attac – and new forms of organising were created like the World and European Social Forums

But while the Social Forums and organisations like Attac no longer play a central role, the experiences of Seattle, Genoa, Florence, Paris, London, Athens, and Istanbul continue to inform present-day organising.

These experiences were processed in the protests against the austerity policies of the Troika. 

New forms of participation were also tried out in these anti-austerity-protests. New social movements and new political actors with new party projects emerged and led to the radical left-wing government in Greece 2015. And Syriza’s struggle against the policy of memoranda, against the institutions of the Troika, was of course a European struggle. The problem was that outside of Greece, left parties were unable to mobilise significant domestic support for Syriza’s struggle against the Troika – with the sole exception of other countries of the European South, where the crisis and austerity measures were associated with the harshest social and economic consequences. Thus, while this struggle showed the strength of Syriza at the national level it laid bare the weakness of the European left as a whole. At the European level, solidarity with Syriza remained essentially symbolic.

European opposition, like the general strike in Spain and Portugal and some activism in other countries, was an exception – which later, in 2016, also included the fight against TTIP.

All this pointed up the need for a new quality of European mobilisation and organising. The period of anti-austerity protests also saw the development of women’s movements. In Spain, for example, they called for a feminist general strike. Women’s protests against the tightening of abortion regulations were emphatic and on a much broader scale than those of the traditional and new left – and later this also spread to Poland. In 2018, ecological struggles took on a new meaning with Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future. In 2020, as a consequence of police violence against people of colour in the USA and many other countries, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged.

Today, 20 years after Genoa, are we not again at a point where something fundamental seems to be changing?

Are we not once again at a crossroads of capitalism in the face of the looming climate catastrophe, of war and destruction and pandemics, and of new upheavals in production and of lifestyles through digitalisation? 

Global challenges require global struggles for global social and democratic rights for every human being.

What does this mean for the left in Europe?

The European Social Forums – the great open space of reflection and alternative practices – find their continuation in single-issue forums. However, these no longer have the significance of the earlier forums as open spaces of diversity of alternative thinking and practices in which different movements, actors, and struggles come together.

We need a new start. The conditions are favourable – there is a new movement against climate change, against racism and neo-fascism, against social injustice, and for housing and the right to water, for democracy, self-determination and gender equality. And we have the experience from the alter-globalisation struggles. We also have the experiences of the social forums and for the formation of new organisations.

One step for the political left in Europe could be to open the European Forums of the Party of the European Left to social movements and actors of civil society. Why not to expand the forum to include a variety, an agora of civil society actors. This would make the forum more attractive for a broader social left.

New forms of international cooperation are needed, such as the cooperation developing within the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Above all, we need unifying European projects that reflect the diversity of protests and struggles against today’s capitalism.