No Big Ideas Need Apply

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Review of 'One No, Many Yeses', Paul Kingsnorth, The Free Press £10

This is an exploration and a celebration of the anti-capitalist movement or, as Kingsnorth prefers to call it, simply 'the movement'. It is based on a tour through some of the iconic locations and events, from the Chiapas heartland of the Zapatistas to the smoke-filled streets of Genoa in July 2001.

Kingsnorth is a good, chatty writer and he conveys a keen sense of place. The people he meets - landless peasant activists in Brazil, the freedom fighters of Papua New Guinea - are inspirational and often thought provoking. Overall the book evokes a sense that in every corner of the world there are networks of people who can't and won't continue to live in the same old way. However, as an assessment of today's global movement 'One No, Many Yeses' is seriously deficient.

The most obvious problem is that although the book was published this year, and although it covers recent events, it feels like it ends with the Genoa protests in 2001, or more precisely on 20 July 2001, the day Carlo Guiliani was murdered by the police. This is a bit odd. The next day some 300,000 people poured onto the streets of Genoa, the day the trade unions joined the movement in Italy - it was a day that sparked the revival of the Italian left. Incredibly, despite clearly being in Genoa, Kingsnorth never mentions this demonstration, and he doesn't mention the series of mass actions that followed in its wake - the general strike in Italy, the monster anti-capitalist demonstration in Barcelona in 2002 and the anti-EU strikes and demonstrations that followed all over Spain.

Even more startling, Kingsnorth barely considers the way the movement has responded to the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. He ignores the crucial contribution that anti-capitalists have made to the global anti-war, anti-imperialist movement, and he doesn't consider the implications for the future.

Maybe this is an accident, but unfortunately I guess not. Kingsnorth's take on the movement is that its strength comes from its spontaneity, its lack of 'big ideas and big schemes', its localism and its refusal to openly challenge the centres of capitalist power. On this basis Kingsnorth devotes two pages of his book to a vitriolic attack on the British left (including the SWP) which completely contrast with his generally inclusive and uncritical approach to the movement.

Of course the diversity of the movement is its necessary strength, and its successes have depended on a series of innovations, like the summit protests, the World Social Forum, creative use of the internet and so on. It is vital that the movement continues to open itself to new initiatives, new ideas, and new activists. At the same time, after the police repression in Genoa, after the US state has shown it will use overwhelming force to back up its interests anywhere round the globe, it is plain irresponsible to ignore the big 'ideological' questions.

All over the world people are discussing how we can challenge imperialism, what kind of organisations we need to best work together and extend our coalitions, how we can use elections to build the movement, and what we do about state power. Even many of the activists Kingsnorth talks to are grappling with these issues, if only he would listen. Early in the book a Zapatista activist complains about state repression: 'What we want is for the government to let us speak, and to let us live... They promised us an indigenous law, but the law they have passed treats us like objects, not subjects ... How long do they expect us to wait?' Later MST activists from Brazil discuss the need to move beyond localised action and draw up a national programme for a progressive government.

The idea of a movement today which doesn't have these strategic, political discussions is a daydream.