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The Global Justice Movement: A New Left?
A Conversation With Barbara Epstein

Barbara Epstein—Professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California in Santa Cruz—studies social movements and their history. In late August 2003, she spoke with Gloves Off editors Claudio Puty and Sara Burke about the potential for meaningful convergence between the global justice movement, the antiwar movement, and traditional labor organizations in the US.


GLOVES OFF—PUTY:
We'd like to talk a little bit about the set of organizations that drew our attention since the first Seattle convergence in 1999. Basically, what we want to talk about is: what is this new Left and what do they stand for? And we understand that we're talking about quite a plural set of organizations, which can sometimes hardly be classified as parts of the same branch of the Left.

We conceptualize two sets of problems in classifying it as a new Left. (1) Is it an issue of the continuity of the American Left—do we have this new left filling a generational gap in the American Left? Or (2) do we have an issue of new methods of organization or decisionmaking?

For example, related to the first issue of the continuity of the Left, most of the icons of this new American Left are deeply rooted in the tradition of struggles in Latin America, where it seems that there is no generational gap in this sense, where there are quite traditional forces on the Left. There are guerilla movements—for instance, we have the MST (Movimento Sem Terra)—who use quite traditional forms to push for their agenda.

EPSTEIN:
Tell me which organizations you have in mind. One of the problems of discussing this whole arena is that the movements that came out of Seattle can be defined in many ways. On the one hand, there were all the environmental organizations there, and then there was the core of the radical young activists. Now, is that who you're talking about, the young radical activists? When people talk about the antiglobalization movement, sometimes they mean something extremely broad, and sometimes they mean something narrow.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
If I can interject here, I think that we're trying to look at this as broadly as possible. We understand that there are a variety of groups which have been drawn into the movement which for a long time they self-identified as the "antiglobalization" movement. Now, I think, people within the movement typically call it the "global justice movement." And this all began—at least in North America—with a set of environmentalists and also people interested in third world development issues, and so forth, recognizing that they had a common enemy in US-dominated trade policies. And the movement has grown, one wave upon the next. So, we're trying to look at the movement based upon what is common to all of these waves, but also to try to draw distinctions between what is happening only in the US, or in North America and Europe—

EPSTEIN:
... and what's happining elsewhere.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Particularly in Latin America, where as was mentioned earlier, there is a more unbroken tradition.

EPSTEIN:
Right. It has always been the case in the United States that organizations don't last. Instead of having a continuous tradition of the Left, what we seem to have is a tradition in which there are continual breaks. That just seems to be one of the ways in which the American Left is distinguished—not only from the Latin American Left—but also from the European Left. We don't have the kind of continuity of tradition, and therefore the continuity of connection between generations.

And I think from what I know of the global justice movement in Europe right now, it continues to be the case in Europe that there's much more connection between generations and also to traditions such as social democracy than there is in the United States.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
What are some of the reasons for this?

EPSTEIN:
Do you mean for the discontinuity right now? Or do you mean for the longer history of discontinuity on the American Left?

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Primarily for the longer history of discontinuity on the American Left but also particularly for what's going on right now.

EPSTEIN:
In terms of the longer history, I think it's partly because of waves of repression in the United States. McCarthyism for example, created a major discontinuity between the generation of the 1930s and the generation of the 1960s, to the point where the young people who became involved in the movements of the 60s, often barely know that there had ever been a Left before they appeared on the scene. Things like that just don't happen in countries other than the United States.

So, I think that's part of it, and I also think that the historical marginality of the American Left, or at least its frequent marginality—(I don't know if this is a circular answer to your question)—but in Europe, for example you have a long history of socialist and communist parties with strong ties to labor. In the United States we don't have that.

Therefore there is a way in which the Left is continually reinventing itself and often wishing that it had a history other than the one it has.

GLOVES OFF—PUTY:
Would you identify this as a crucial element? Basically, the Left graduates and goes to work?

EPSTEIN:
That's part of it, but it's also partly that the Left in the United States has lacked the strong ties to labor in particular and to a popular base outside of circles of radicals that has been taken for granted in Latin America and in Europe. It's the age-old problem: How do you develop a Left in the United States where the prospects of socialism seem extremely slim? How do you develop a strong, ongoing popular base for the Left? Nobody's ever really solved that problem.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
But it is a question that's risen to the forefront of debates again, with the mass mobilizations against the war and also with the mobilizations since 1999 in Seattle, which, while they may have come to the world's attention—or at least the mass media's attention—for the first time in Seattle, they were built progressively in the years and even decades before, if you go back to Latin American resistence to neoliberalism.

I'm wondering about the differing views of what the global justice movement is from a North American, or European—which is slightly different—perspective versus a Latin American or other third world perspective.

EPSTEIN:
I'm not an expert on the shape of the movement in Latin America. But my impression is that a critique of neoliberalism is much more widely accepted in Latin America than it is in the United States. So, the positions that look marginal in the United States have much more currency in Latin America, such as the critique of neoliberalism. And one way of describing the global justice movement is that it is a movement against neoliberalism.

I guess what I'm saying is that in the United States we have a movement that is going up against very strong currents which are as yet not really questioned by American public opinion, and public opinion in Latin America is way ahead of us. And public opinion in Europe is considerably ahead of us.

So, it's sort of a reverse of the 1960s. In the 1960s the protest movement in the United States was in the lead. Now the protest movement in the United States is way behind what's going on elsewhere. And I would say that that is—not largely—due to its own fault, though there also may be mistakes, but largely because this is the belly of the beast.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Let's move on to another view of the movement, which—at least in North America—centers in many ways on a rejection of what is usually called "authoritarianism." You see debates constantly on the internet—and this may seem like kind of a frivolous example, but, as an example, there was a soccer match a week or two ago in the Bay Area, which was billed as the Anarchists vs. the Communists. It was very interesting that the players say they are exploring ways to work together and to create a non-sectarian political culture where they can learn about each other's work and even have fun together.

EPSTEIN:
I can imagine who the anarchists were, but its hard for me to imagine who the communists were.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
That's a good question, I'm not sure. But when the issue of authoritarianism comes up—as it often does in discussions on email lists and so forth—it is usually unclear what is meant by "authoritarianism," whether the whole tradition of Leninism, or whether it means "hierarchical decisionmaking," or having any sort of party structure. Could you talk about the perceptions of "authoritarianism" on the part of anarchists, or those elements of the global justice movement that emphasize concentual decisionmaking?

EPSTEIN:
I would say that there is a huge arena that is made up of small affinity groups, many of which come together at moments of crisis. So, some of them last in-between the crises, and some of them don't. But within these groups there is an ideology of small-scale decisionmaking, of concensus, and a rejection of any kind of imposition of decisions over activists. Maybe that would be the best way of putting it. And of course the struggle within that arena is: What do you do about leadership?

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Yes, you addressed this in the article that you had in the Monthly Review on "Anarchism and the Antiglobalization Movement." Particularly in suggesting that any attempt to build stronger ties with the labor movement are going to require some form of organization that is able to be accountable for its decisions.

EPSTEIN:
Right. And also probably some lasting bureaucracies. Part of the problem with having this form of movement is that it appears and disappears. It appears at moments of crisis, and then many people go back to their ordinary lives, and then they come together again when it seems necessary. The problem is, sometimes you need structures that last in-between.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Structures such as... ?

EPSTEIN:
Structures such as organizations, so that somebody can call up and say, "How do I plug myself in?" Part of the problem of this form of organization is that it works for people who are already part of that subculture. It's much harder for people outside that subculture to figure out how to become part of it or relate to it.

GLOVES OFF—PUTY:
Related to that, and of course related to the fact that there are no labor-based organizations within the movement, another characteristic of this cultural background of this so-called "new Left" is that it tends to have a very—as compared to the communist tradition in other countries—a very moral-based decisionmaking. Sometimes the means are more important than the ends, which is quite contrary to the Stalinist tradition, by the way, where you have the rule of strategy over tactics. That's the way it used to be put.

Don't you think that this is also a characteristic of the social structures of these movements? The very fact that they are alienated from the mainstream society gives them the opportunity to do—plainly speaking—whatever they want. Because when you have a mass movement, you have to be accountable to the society you're trying to change for what you do.

So, you get elected. You have to convince people to join your party. So, what then?

EPSTEIN:
It seems to me another way of putting that is that there is an important role for small groups of people who are willing to take more risks than other people are willing to, to separate themselves more from the existing society. They can do things which can inspire other people. But the question is: What about that other sector of the movement?

In other words, the anarchist-wing of the movement is not likely to become and can't be the whole thing. Part of the problem we have now is that we have that but we don't really have anything else, at least not in a form that is sustained.

Actually I think there's another problem here which is that—just as in your example of the anarchists in the soccer match with the communists—that's the way things tend to divide up, and that's a big problem because the communist end of that spectrum also has severe problems.

I don't know who those communists were, but at least within the antiwar movement, the sects that call themselves communist, were in fact, highly authoritarian and sectarian. And if those are your choices, then you're in trouble.

And I would say that in the antiwar movement, in fact, that was the way it worked out. There were (unintelligible)-popular organizations that didn't show much liklihood of surviving past the war. And then there were a bunch of sects.

And I don't want to call the anarchists a sect, but really that was the choice. For people who wanted to be involved in an ongoing way it was either join the anarchist subculture or join one or another sects which called themselves Marxist or communist or whatever.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Or go to the giant march and then have that massive mobilization fall away after the urgency of the war itself dies down.

EPSTEIN:
Exactly. Those appeared to be the choices. And actually, within that context, although I have a lot of disagreements with the anarchists, I thought they played a more positive role than the sects did.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
By "the sects," one of the obvious ones you might be talking about is ANSWER, is that correct?

EPSTEIN:
That's right. Or the sect at the center of ANSWER, but what's amazing is how many of them there were around. You know it wasn't just ANSWER. It was also the Revolutionary Union, and here in the Bay Area there were four umbrella organizations participating in putting the marches together, and of those four, three were based in sects.

So, it's really odd. Even in the 60s, the late 60s, when there were a lot of sects around, it was possible to be a committed activist without belonging to a sect. And these days that seems very difficult.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Can you talk a little more about why you thought the influence of the groups you're calling the "sects" was a less positive one than the anarchists? To be devil's advocate, ANSWER obviously had an emphasis on bringing in a number of people of color into the movement, of working class people, and did mobilize a great number of people.

EPSTEIN:
It did. The ANSWER organizers were very very skilled in organizing demonstrations and in getting lots of people out to them. And they did a good job of getting people of color to speak at those demonstrations. I'm not convinced they did as good a job at getting people of color to attend them.

The problem was that we needed not only people who know how to put on demonstrations skillfully and at short notice, which they were very good at, but what we really needed was a mass movement, an organization in which huge numbers of people could participate on a democratic basis. And that was out of the question with ANSWER, because ANSWER revolved around a small sect and that really precluded the possibility of its playing such a role.

So, the problem was that while on the one hand most people appreciated the fact that ANSWER organizers leaped into the vaccuum, and began organizing demonstrations before other people could get themselves together to do that, the fact that they were in that role of leadership, was—I think—a major factor in the failure of an ongoing democratic mass organization to come out of the antiwar movement.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
There were a lot of what you might call "mainstream" opponents of the war who were easily red-baited and there was an unclear climate in January and February about who to support, as part of a broad coalition, and how to identify common goals in opposition to the big enemy, which was of course the war and more particularly American imperialism.

EPSTEIN:
Yes, but you know it was also a replay of the Gulf War, when ANSWER—in a different incarnation—had played the same role of on the one hand doing an excellent job organizing and on the other hand revolving around a small sect with positions that would not stand the light of day and lacking the possibility of organizing anything democratic and ongoing.

And the other issue, which may sound trivial, but I don't think was, was that ANSWER's idea of who to get to speak at a rally and what they should say was abysmal. So, that it got to the point where listening to their speakers was painful. The demonstrations had an extremely sectarian cast and it was really only the very dedicated who were willing to listen to those speeches.

GLOVES OFF—PUTY:
To go back to the question, "what is this new Left which is a part of this plural set of groups," we see some kind of clear internationalist perspective in both the fair trade movement and in calling for the regulation of the world financial markets—either in ATTAC or the fair trade movement organized by NGOs in Italy. Do you think there is any possibility for a sound political economy analysis?

It's been very crucial for the traditional left, the traditional radical left, to present—especially since Marx against the utopian socialists—a sound analysis of capitalism, and then to draw conclusions out of that and be able to push forward a consistent agenda. What is this new Left's analysis of capitalism? We see some people calling for fair trade. Others calling for no trade, and it then you see groups like ATTAC that incorporate a blend of Left Keynesianism. Is there space for a radical critique of capitalism in the tradition of Marx or any other tradition of political economy?

EPSTEIN:
There is certainly an anti-capitalist rhetoric in this arena. Right? I think the question you're asking, though is if there's no conception of what we might favor as an alternative to capitalism, how can you have a critique of capitalism with any teeth to it?

GLOVES OFF—PUTY:
Or at least an analysis, we may not know what we want, but at least we know what we do not want and why we do not want it based on how it works. A sense of, "we don't have the medicine, but we have a diagnosis of the disease, how the body is working."

EPSTEIN:
I think that the two go together. It's difficult to have an incisive and clear critique of capitalism unless you have some idea of what you want to replace it with. And that—I would say—the movement lacks. That's certainly the case in the United States. I don't know if it's as much the case in Latin America and Europe.

GLOVES OFF—PUTY:
We have translated an article by Giovanni Mazzetti, in which he refers to your work. The article calls for a more acute analysis of the globalization process and somehow criticises part of the antiglobal groups for ignoring where their own ideas stand in the longer history of the left. I know that similar tensions were present in the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, where the appeal for more radical critique of capitalism created some tension among groups.

EPSTEIN:
I think the problem here is that there is a widespread identification of socialism with the Soviet Union. And with all of the problems that went along with that, ranging from authoritarianism to a centrally planned economy. And certainly in the anarchist-influenced wing of the movement, all of that is the opposite of what anybody would want.

So, that's problem number one. Nobody has developed a clear conception of socialism that addresses those problems.

The second problem: I think this is a moment in the United States when it is very difficult to imagine that socialism could be on the agenda. So, it makes the question of how you develop a critique of capitalism and what you do with it particularly difficult. I don't think that the answer to that is that we shouldn't criticize capitalism. But how you go about addressing that problem, at a moment when even the Left can't claim that replacing capitalism with socialism is an immediate objective is difficult.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
And yet, the pressures that society is under, the difficulties being wrought on individuals, have finally come home to the US in a way that they had not done for a very long time.

EPSTEIN:
I think that's right.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
This may also be a climate in which people are able to begin to draw connections between the needs of capital and their own hardships.

EPSTEIN:
I hope that that's the case. It does seem as if capitalism on the one hand is making the lives of the vast majority of people, including even the vast majority of Americans, more and more difficult. And yet on the other hand, it's hard to imagine organizing towards an alternative right now.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Some of the more recent calls being put out—for instance by United for Peace and Justice—seem to be moving beyond just an antiwar perspective and toward—

EPSTEIN:
... more of an anti-capitalist perspective?

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
Right, and gearing up for protests centered on the WTO meetings this fall in Cancun and a set of actions in the fall.

In your article in the latest Monthly Review you suggest that in order to build the movement, and in order to link up the antiglobalization movement with the antiwar movement that it's necessary to draw out the connections beween "the production and consumption under capitalism by way of the critique of commodity fetishism." Are the reorientation of large groups—like United for Peace and Justice toward anti-capitalist concerns—are these baby-steps toward kind of critique?

EPSTEIN:
I wish I knew. I think what's going on in United for Peace and Justice is that a lot of people in the leadership of United for Peace and Justice are socialists, but the question for them is: How do you put forward a perspective that is a basis for a mass movement in the United States and also that leads in a radical direction?

And that's the question that we've all been struggling with for so long, and I don't know the answer to it more than anybody else does. I think they're doing as good a job as anybody I know of in trying to deal with that problem.

It does seem to me that part of the answer for the movements in the United States is to try to be part of the discussions that are going on internationally without becoming detached from possibilities in the United States.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
What sort of possibilities do you mean?

EPSTEIN:
What I mean is, if we begin sounding like we spend all our time talking to Latin American radicals or European radicals and we can't talk to Americans, that wouldn't be a good thing. Somehow we have to have a movement that really is American and that speaks the language of Americans without descending into the sort of isolation from world currents that actually characterizes US public opinion.

That's the problem. We've got a country which has become a bubble. It's really cut off from any familiarity with or understanding of trends elsewhere in the world. Somehow or other we have to bring the discussions that are going on elsewhere to the United States, but we have to do it in such a way that we don't just become seen as representatives of foreign movements, and to be dismissed as such.

GLOVES OFF—BURKE:
That would also be an argument for the "moral" approach of the anarchists, as you discuss it in your article, because in America, at least, "moral"—in that sense—is synonymous with "individualistic." It's the language of America. What do you think the common language needs to be?

EPSTEIN:
It seems to me that if there's any one current that's driving American public opinion right now, it's fear of attack from the outside world. And it seems to me that the Left has to be able to answer that. Basically, we have to be able to say that until the United States begins acting like a member of the world community, we endanger ourselves as well as everybody else. That really seems to me to be the first step, to point out that the United States cannot act as if it is separate from the rest of the world and is free to disregard the concerns of the rest of the world.

You can also say that there is an enormous cost to the American people in doing that. What you have to look at is—as you were saying earlier—the way in which capitalism operates in the United States and the way in which it wrings everybody dry. So, we have reasons for criticizing the prevailing system that go beyond the fact that we need to listen to what other people have to say.

GLOVES OFF—PUTY:
It seems that we have a dialectics of referring to the outside but basically doing what other successful stories of the Left have done, which is to represent their own people.

Then we go back to the idea of becoming similar to the society that you want to change. This is a funny paradox on the Left: your success is marked by not only transforming society but society transforming you as well. This is the clue to what is meant by speaking the language of the Americans.

So, I think we can finalize our conversation by talking about the possibilities of lasting and effective alliances between this new Left and the workers movement, which seems to be the key element for a lasting Left.

Do you think that there is any concrete basis for a successful alliance between this new antiglobal Left and the labor movement? We have now a new round of debates in the WTO, we have the Free Trade of the Americas being pushed by the Bush administration, is there any concrete basis for a new Left—

EPSTEIN:
... allying with the existing labor movement? I have to say I doubt it.

It seems to me that what has happened since Seattle is likely to continue to happen, which is that there will be moments when particular trade unions or particular factions within the trade movement will ally themselves with particular critiques being made by the global justice movement. But a more lasting alliance seems to me extremely unlikely.

So, I don't know where that leaves us. I think the trade unions in the United States are not going to be the basis for a popular movement for radical change. Now there might be other popular organizations which might become that basis, but I see as little hope of transforming the trade unions as I do of transforming the Democratic Party.



Perspectives on the Global Justice Movement: Part One

Emir Sader: "A Brazilian Perspective" published for the first time in English. We interview Sader on the World Social Forum, neoliberalism, imperialism, NGOs and the Lula government. [Or read in Portuguese]

Giovanni Mazzetti: "Where Do Anti-Global Movements Come From?" published for the first time in English provides a snapshot in the polemics taking place in Italy between Marxists and anarchists. Mazzetti also talks to Gloves Off about his ongoing polemic with Italian anarchists.

Barbara Epstein: "The Global Justice Movement: A New Left?"
In late August 2003, we discussed the potential for meaningful convergence between the global justice movement, the antiwar movement, and traditional labor organizations in the US.

In two weeks we publish Perspectives on the Global Justice Movement: Part Two


Subscribe to Gloves Off for occasional updates.



Barbara Epstein teaches in the History of Consciousness Department at UC Santa Cruz and is the author of many articles and books on social movements, some of which are listed below.


Books and articles by Barbara Epstein include:

"Notes on the Antiwar Movement"
Monthly Review, July-August 2003

"Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement"
Monthly Review, September 2001

Political Protest & Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s
University of California Press, 1991

The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth Century America
Wesleyan University Press, 1981