Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Shifting Geographies of The Global Multitude, 2001-2011

As we enter a new decade, it is time to assess the global geographies of the multitude emerging in the early 21st century. And this requires rereading the major political events of the past ten years through a spatial and eminently transnational lens, which asks not only "when?" but also "where?"

A decade after Hardt and Negri’s pivotal Empire, it is also important to examine the multitude not as an abstract, disembodied entity but as the massive coming together of bodies in actual spaces, communicating through political resonances that move rapidly across national boundaries and continents. My aim here is to sketch for the past decade the broad spatial layout and direction of these rhizomic global flows, which Deleuze and Guattari would see as escaping coding by corporate power.

The media tells us that Al Qaeda’s attacks on US soil on September 11 2001 defined the decade. But what the media silences is that the global importance of 9/11 lies in the fact that it took place amid a wave of extraordinary political ferment in many parts of the world, and that it created a decisive spatial shift that has shaped the geographical pulse and contours of the global multitude since.

This is why the most decisive moment of the decade was not just September 2001 but the period that goes from July 2001 to April 2002: when the political momentum of the global multitude shifted globally from the north to the south, from North America and Europe to South America. And this is a shift that can be followed by the changing location of the major confrontations between the multitude and the state for the control of local spaces.

The battle of Genoa, Italy, in July 2001, when 200,000 people clashed for several days with the police around the walled fortress of the G8 meeting, marked the peak of the anti-capitalist riots that were spreading in North America and Europe like wildfire since Seattle in 1999 and had also engulfed Quebec City, Prague, Davos, and Washington DC. A transcontinental unrest of this magnitude, oscillating back and forth between North America and Europe, had not been seen in this part of the world since 1968.

Six weeks after Genoa, the live TV coverage of the collapse of the World Trade Center in NY was to dramatically change the political climate in North America and Europe. An empowered imperial machinery was to restrict dissent at home and launch new waves of military operations across the globe. The multitude of the global north created extraordinarily massive street protests to try to prevent the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but 9/11 clearly dissipated the anti-corporate momentum that had turned Genoa into an urban battle zone comparable to Paris in May 1968.

On the one hand, the imperial military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq created a radicalized, effective armed insurgency among the multitude of many parts of the Middle-East that rages on and erodes imperial power to this day. Yet this anti-imperial insurgency has little in common with the inclusive agenda of global emancipation that had coalesced on the streets of Seattle or Genoa, and is rather defined by exclusions (of women, sexual and ethnic minorities, non-Muslims) that are profoundly reactionary and nativist in nature.

But the protests with a global agenda of emancipation that 9/11 stopped on its tracks in North America and Europe were not restricted to those spaces. In fact, they were part of a much broader wave of global protests born in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1st 1994, when a ragtag indigenous army surprised a world brainwashed into believing that the left was dead for good by denouncing the destructive effects of NAFTA and celebrating justice, equality, and global solidarity.

At the dawn of the 21st century, this wave had spatially expanded and was sweeping much of Latin America, the outcome of the social devastation created in the region by unregulated capitalism in the 1990s. In 2000, this growing rebellion reached explosive expressions in the Andes in the uprising against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and in the massive indigenous protests that toppled the government of Ecuador.

While in late 2001 the US was invading Afghanistan and imposing an Orwellian obedience at home, the anti-neoliberal protests in Latin America not only continued but also became more radical and spatially widespread. The contrast between what was happening during those months in the streets of the global north and the streets of much of Latin America could not have been more apparent.

The Argentinean uprising of December 2001 was the first major landmark in this continental shift emerging right after 9/11, partly because in the previous decade Argentina had been the poster child of the IMF for its obedience to the dictates of global capitalism. By the end of 2001, with the economy devastated and a 25% unemployment rate, the government’s freezing of bank accounts led to a major urban insurrection in downtown Buenos Aires. After two days of clashes in which 38 were people shot dead by the police, the multitude forced the president’s resignation, profoundly changing the Argentinean political landscape and sending a potent message across the continent.

The most massive and decisive unarmed uprising of the multitude the world has seen in the 21st century, nonetheless, was yet to come, and took place a few months later in Caracas, Venezuela. Not surprisingly, the corporate media has systematically invisibilized this pivotal moment in global political history.

On April 11, 2002, the Venezuelan elite and its military cronies in conjunction with the Bush administration toppled the government of Hugo Chávez. Elected in a landside victory in 1998, his government was the first in the region to openly challenge the dictates of Washington and the interests of the local elites. It became therefore imperative to crush it to prevent this experiment from spreading. The Venezuelan elite and the US had spun their talking points so many times that they were convinced they were true: that Chávez was an unpopular dictator and that few people would lift a finger in his defense.

Yet on April 13, 2002, after the new regime abolished all democratic institutions and the US and the IMF rushed to recognize an actual dictatorship in the name of democracy, a generalized popular uprising shook the country. Millions took to the streets in all corners of the Venezuelan geography to demand the release of their legitimate president and oppose the new regime.

And while the multitude was occupying most public spaces in the country, clashing with the police, and eventually surrounding the presidential palace, the private media confirmed it was a major force behind the coup by imposing an eerie blackout that erased those masses from all Venezuelan TV screens. This Orwellian invisibilization of the multitude was captured by the title of the brilliant, arresting Irish documentary on the coup, The Revolution Will not the Televised (countless videos posted on YouTube also document the extraordinary collective effervescence that took over the streets of Venezuela that day).

Yet the popular insurrection quickly overran the attempts by the media to silence it, and the multitude surrounded the TV stations demanding that the cameras were turned on those streets flooded by Chávez supporters. The uprising also mobilized thousands of ordinary soldiers and low and mid ranking military officers who turned against the coup across the country, retook the presidential palace, and disobeyed the order to assassinate Chávez, who had been captured and sent to an undisclosed island.

In its control of the national space, the multitude evaporated the dictatorship into thin air. Late that night, Hugo Chávez was back in control, the presidential palace was surrounded by a cheering multitude, and the US and the New York Times editorial had to backpedal hard from their earlier and enthusiastic support of the ephemerous Carmona regime.

The popular revolt against the coup was a turning point in the Bolivarian revolution; it radicalized the Venezuelan multitude and moved the Chávez government further to the left, a shift that was subsequently supported by Venezuelans in a notably high number of landslide electoral victories. It also proved decisive in empowering the multitude elsewhere in Latin America.

In 2002, despite growing social unrest across the continent, Venezuela was virtually alone in a Latin America overwhelmingly governed by center-right and conservative governments. The shockwaves created in Caracas spread across the continent and resonated with local demands for change. The following year, Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina took office with a center-left agenda and in Bolivia a widespread popular uprising led to the resignation of its openly neo-liberal president. The empowered Bolivian multitude would overwhelmingly elect Evo Morales, an indigenous coca farmer and union leader, as president of the country in 2005. Also in 2005 a center-left coalition took power in Uruguay and by 2007 governments with a Bolivarian ideology were also in power in Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. In 2008, this wave of democratically elected left-leaning parties arrived in Paraguay and the following year in El Salvador.

The imperial machinery has been tireless in its efforts to undermine and demonize these dangerously independent experiments in grassroots democracy spreading throughout the continent, brilliantly portrayed by Oliver Stone in his must-see documentary South of the Border. Some have been successful. In 2005, a multinational imperial plot implemented by the US, Canada, and France removed President Aristide from office in Haiti, who had led the clearest expression of this continental progressive wave in the Caribbean. And in 2009, the military coup in Honduras managed to neutralize with US and EU support, and often through paramilitary terror, the massive unrest and resistance on the streets created by the toppling of president Manuel Zelaya.

Yet elsewhere the attempts to remove from office and destabilize these governments have failed, not only in Venezuela in 2002 but also in Bolivia and more recently Ecuador, a clear sign of the solidity of these governments’ popular support.

These governments are far from forming a homogenous bloc and some of them have a lukewarm commitment to true social change. Many of these governments are also torn by apparent contradictions with their progressive discourse, particularly in Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador, where peasant, indigenous, and rural workers’ organizations have firmly opposed their governments’ support for extractive industries (oil, mining) and agribusiness led by transnational corporations. In December 2010, similar tensions emerged in Bolivia, when the multitude on the streets forced Evo Morales to back down on his decision to stop subsidizing the national price of oil.

Yet with all their limits and imperfections, all of these governments have expanded the social rights of the poor and minorities, put limits to corporate power, encouraged new forms of democratic participation, and asserted a foreign policy of greater independence from US dictates. And contrary to the predictions of the media noise machines, most of these countries are experiencing rapid economic growth, reduced poverty rates, and weathered the 2008-2009 global recession relatively unscathed. This is why most of these governments have won new rounds of electoral victories despite the unrelenting hostility of the private media, which throughout the continent present them as “dictatorial” largely for failing to prioritize the interest of elites not used to not being in charge.

In short, as we enter the second decade of the century it is clear that the vanguard of the global forces pushing for progressive, non-violent social change is in Latin America.

The contrast with the current political trends in North America and Europe could not be more dramatic. In this part of the world, the recent global recession and the clear role of unregulated financial markets in creating it did not lead to a Keynesian backlash (as many had hoped) but to a renewed, aggressive corporate offensive to dismantle the welfare state, erode social rights, and punish the poor, the unemployed, women, and immigrants -all in the name of "deficits" and "tax cuts."

Variations to this wave exist here and there, and the 2008 election of Obama briefly seemed to partly counter this move in the US. But by and large, the punitive capitalist restoration that began globally in the 1990s with the fall of the Berlin Wall continues unabated in North America and Europe, partly because the seismic political shifts triggered by 9/11 dissipated the collective forces that could have potentially halted it.

Yet the multitude in the global north, partly influenced by political developments in the south, is beginning to take massively to the streets in defense of old rights. In an anti-corporate riot of an intensity not seen in North America since Quebec City in 2001, in June 2010 a multitude in Toronto tried to shut down the G20 meeting and was heavily repressed by the police. The spatial dynamic of the protest was very similar to the 2001 street clashes in Genoa and Quebec City: with the multitude trying to breach physical walls erected to protect the world political and financial elites from public wrath. More importantly, since early 2010 a notable and often violent wave of social unrest led by the youth is sweeping Europe. Huge rallies, often repressed by the police, against the corporate confiscation of social rights have recently shaken the geographies of Greece, France, the UK, Italy, and Ireland, among other countries, and anticipate future unrest.

This wave is in fact the expression of global political turbulences I cannot do justice here, but that in 2010 included the international grassroots efforts to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza; the anti-elite uprisings that shook Bangkok for several months and that in Central Asia toppled the Kyrgyztan government; the wave of strikes by millions of Chinese workers, and the ongoing armed insurgencies in the Nigerian delta to oppose the social and environmental devastation created by Shell. These and countless other conflicts have clear local dimensions but are nonetheless part of much wider, interconnected, oscillating patterns of unrest.

The case of the US is quite peculiar in these global political landscapes, confirming that the disruptive affects that 9/11 had on anti-corporate activism in this country have been severe and long lasting. In fact, in the last two years the regular organization of rallies in public spaces has been led by the most reactionary wing of the Republican Party, The Tea Party. Eleven years after Seattle, the right seems to be more aware than the left that the concentration of passionate bodies in space is a fundamental, often decisive political force (especially when amplified, like in this case, by a militant media). A notable exception is the grassroots mobilizations that have taken to the streets all over the US, several times in the last few years, in defense of progressive immigration reform and inclusive forms of citizenship.

The geographies of the global multitude will continue shifting, more often than not in unpredictable ways. Yet it is clear by now that we are witnessing a growing global polarization between, on the one hand, a multitude that has been able to shape state power in Latin America and, on the other, the neoliberal, imperial onslaught that is gaining speed in North America and Europe and many other places. This polarization, I have tried to show, can be traced back to the turbulences of 2001-2002 and their subsequent geographical divergences.

As these global tensions unfold, we should keep in mind that the role played by the Venezuelan media in trying to hide the image of a powerful multitude taking over the national space in April 2002 was just the local expression of an Orwellian media blackout that has reached quasi-global proportions, and of which most people in the so-called liberal democracies of the north are not even aware of. And while the democratic pulsations of the multitude are hidden from the minds of metropolitan audiences, Big Brother repeats that the war on terror is peace and that the democracies forged by the multitude are dictatorial.

The democractic struggles of the multitude disseminate across the spaces of the globe through resonance, as the Invisible Committee reminded us, and the control over the tone and content of this moving resonance is therefore of fundamental political importance to pierce through hegemonic messages. This is why Wikileaks, the last weapon of the techno-nerd vanguard of the global multitude, has been so fiercely demonized by the state and corporate elites.

And the creation of a global smooth space that speeds up the travelling resonances created by rhizomes of localized struggles necessarily implies breaking down the striations and media barriers that keep vast sectors of the world population separated from each other. The New York Times, CNN, and FOX NEWS work tirelessly to prevent the pulsations coming from Latin America from breaching the borders of the US and resonating among ordinary people. And they have partly succeeded in making most Americans feel wary of the ascending power of the Latin American multitude, which they often see as exotic, distant expressions of irrational, threatening passions disconnected from US sensibilities.

But the growing rifts whitin Latin American societies are not that different from those taking place within US society. This is why those who in Latin America hate and despise Hugo Chávez, Cristina Kirchner, and Evo Morales and call them “dictators,” “communists”, “Nazis,” and “fascists” act and sound very much like the members of the American Tea Party. They share the same confused, angry, fearful language because they are part of the global backlash against the rise of the multitude.