The Measure of a Multitude

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Review of ’A Movement of Movements‘, editor Tom Mertes, Verso £13

This anthology of interviews and essays has its origins in the pages of the journal New Left Review, not perhaps an odds-on favourite to provide an insight into the state of the ’anti-globalisation‘ movement today. However, while editor Tom Mertes states that though in sympathy with the cause his aim is to ’take the measure‘ of the movements, he has produced a much more interesting and less bloodless book than this might suggest, explicitly setting a context of the continuing strength of the movement post-9/11, and the challenge of building opposition to ’neo-imperialist ambitions‘ as well as ’neoliberal goals‘.

Contributions range from South African Trevor Ngwane, a former anti-apartheid and now leading anti-privatisation activist, through Immanuel Wallerstein, a doyen of an earlier Third Worldism, to the Zapatistas‘ Subcomandante Marcos. One of the collection‘s strengths is that an element of biography, rather than trivialising the issues at stake, actually succeeds in bringing out both the differing backgrounds of the contributors and a number of common concerns.

Familiar issues emerge throughout, including the structure or otherwise of the ’movements‘, their relationship to existing states and institutions, and to the legacy of the left internationally. The collection successfully goes beyond merely celebrating ’diversity‘ to addressing some of the problems the movements face.

Michael Hardt, for instance, repeats his conception of diverse movements as a ’multitude‘, underpinned by what he sees as the irrelevance of old categories of nation-state versus internationalism. Tom Mertes, in his own contribution defending the value of the World Social Forums (around which this collection is loosely based), meanwhile points out the inadequacy of Hardt‘s response in the face of a real movement, which without structure and organisation can approach neither democratic accountability nor a strategic approach to the huge issues which face it.

One striking thread emerging from both theory and biography is the degree to which a sense prevails that the demise of the Stalinist regimes of the east, and the embrace of neoliberalism by social democratic parties in government (what Wallerstein refers to as ’the classical anti-systemic movements in power‘), are part of a crisis of the left‘s assumptions, particularly in the developing world. This is articulated by Emir Sader and by Walden Bello‘s explicit rejection of ’Leninism‘, while the inadequacy of other tendencies, particularly Maoism, is referenced by both Joao Pedro Stedile of the Brazilian MST (the landless labourers‘ movement) and Chittaroopa Palit, a participant in the campaign against the Narmada dam in India.

The crisis of the project of development based on the nation-state, in its Stalinist or social democratic forms, and the wholesale acceptance of neoliberalism has overwhelmed many on the left. In this collection are voices of those who challenge or attempt to reject that new orthodoxy, on however problematic a basis. This book is subtitled Is Another World Really Possible? Socialists will wish to answer yes, but reading these contributions should confirm for us that it is only by an active and critical engagement with the movements that an audience for the genuine ideas of socialism from below can be won.

The speed with which global events unfold in the current period is such that any collection like this is bound to be dating by the time it is published. Thus the ’war on terror‘ is not always central and the experience of Lula‘s Workers‘ Party in power in Brazil is not explored, despite the importance of the prospect for many contributors. Nonetheless, this is a valuable introduction to some of the experiences and methods of the ’movements‘, and helps throw light on the ideas and debates thrown up by struggles around the world.