Due to circumstances beyond our control . . .
by Alex Burns (alex@disinfo.com) - September 17, 2001

In the wake of the catastrophic events of 11 September 2001, anti-globalist activists face a momentous task: to reposition themselves within rapidly changing geopolitical and psychological landscapes. How successful the activists are in achieving this goal, and by what ends they choose to implement their political insights, will have consequences for activist protests and domestic US politics.


Media scribes like The New Republic's Peter Beinart called for the cancellation of Washington DC protests that were scheduled for late September 2001 to respect America's tragedy and the thousands of victims. Yet Beinart also went further. In his column (September 13, 2001) he noted that anti-globalists were united by global economic inequities and also a hatred of the United States. "Now, after what has happened this week, it must choose."

End of Empire?

Beinart's column contains several valid points about the anti-globalist movement, and also some serious misunderstandings.

Beinart defends American geoeconomic power by critiquing the movement's shifting values, evinced in cases like French farmer Jose Bove's protests against McDonalds and the description of Islamic fundamentalism by Empire authors Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri as "postmodernist." He counter-argues that the sustained attacks on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as "Washington-based institutions" as being more about geographic hegemony than the North/South geoeconomic divide. These critiques highlight that the anti-globalist movement exists on an ever-shifting continuum (not a bipolarity) and that its emergence can be shaped by unfolding flashpoints and hot-spots.

Yet when he cites Hardt and Negri's book Empire as "the movement's bible" (a claim that instead belongs to Naomi Klein's No Logo) or prints Urban 75 forum postings as examples of the movement's level of debate, Beinart makes several misrepresentations. His motivation for doing so is revealed in his closing lines: "This nation is now at war. And in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides."

Political pundits like Peter Beinart and David Horowitz intuitively understand that key trends like the collapse of a multipolar geopolitical environment into a bipolar "Us versus Them" world and the targeting of ethno-political minorities as Others will coemerge within a target population during a domestic political crisis.

Two Filters: Social Judgment and the Construction of Consensus Reality

The social judgment psychologist Muzafer Sherif aptly summed this up as the "assimilation/contrast" effect that occurs in response to "stimulus events." Imagine a line numbered 1 to 10, mirroring the left/right "wings" of politics. You might be a moderate at "5" between extremists at "2" and "8". Or you might be at "3", displacing the "5" views to a "7" and the "8" to a "10", and so on. Your degree of ego-involvement in an issue or key trend will shape your perceptual filters about them.

These trends are rarely sanctioned explicitly by society's power structures but can be decoded in the language patterns and semiotics of press coverage and forum discussions. As narrative tools they frame debates and shape our subsequent choices. When Beinart says that the United States is at war, he discusses no alternatives. Narratives about key trends can be used to impose a moral worldview upon people and groups that you disagree with. Here, Beinart is on a 'slippery slope' to Ellulian sociological propaganda.

On the Fringes of American Politics

The anti-globalist movement has existed at the fringes of American politics for several reasons. Understanding these reasons reveals the hidden complexity and undercurrents of the American political landscape. A more in-depth understanding can also serve as a buffer against the perils of groupthink.

Firstly, as Amory Starr shows in her book Naming the Enemy, the movement is really three: a movement to regenerate corporations from the inside with more open and accountable structures; a movement to reshape North/South global trade flows and shift the center of gravity to self-sustainable communities; and lastly, a resurgence of smouldering inter-tribal, nationalist and religiopolitical hatreds in the Internet era. While they may use the same slogans and imagery, each strand has different values and worldviews, existing within different psychological spaces. There's a difference between anti-globalist activists concerned about centralized and unaccountable geoeconomic institutions (world governance) in the post-Watergate post-Balkans era and Islamic fundamentalists who want to destroy the Great Satan (world government).

Secondly, the movement was drawn together in response to pressing existential problems such as food shortages, global warming and nuclear waste disposal that do not respect national boundaries. The movement has a wealth of past campaigns and differing philosophies to draw upon. Yet there is no centralized bible, leader or organization that controls the movement's agenda, direction, or philosophy. The anti-globalist movement is closer to a chaotic network (IndyMedia) than to a managerial pyramid ([insert media conglomerate here]), embracing Anarchism over Maxism (although this depends upon the individual activist and the geographic area they work in).

Although they share common problems and an elusive goal (dismantling global capitalism), anti-global activists disagree on the contents of their goal (what kind of capitalism?) and how victory may be achieved (violent or non-violent protests?). Their understanding of political history and philosophy differs, as does their individual psychological maturity. What they do share is an abhorrence of an unchecked free-market and a desire to create a genuine alternative to the views of Thomas Friedman, Samuel P. Huntington and Robert Kaplan. There must be more to geopolitics than Jihad vs. McWorld . But there is no single "cause" that we can uncover and remove in McCarthyist fashion: rather a multiplicity of "causes" and new alliances.

Thirdly, the movement has remained at the fringes, creating its own communication and media networks, because the mainstream media fails to open itself up to real debate and self-interrogation. Ralph Nader was excluded from 2000 presidential debates. Johann Galtung has not won the Nobel Peace Prize, in fact, few Americans will have heard of the peace activist and scholar. Have you seen Riane Eisler on Nightline recently? Didn't think so. Radiohead and U2's Bono are the exceptions, but that's because they sell millions of records and get free press: their politics may inspire future activists by their example, but in the meantime, let's sell some more Rolling Stone magazines.

The economic and organizational culture reasons for this perceptual self-blindness are well known to media theorists and social psychologists. Yet many of the movement's issues, from campaign finance reform to awareness of global debt inequities, have seeped into the political mainstream. Their impact and the movement's legacy--like the anti-nuclear, feminist, and peace movements before it, will also become clearer in retrospect. Just as the past activist mind-sets will not be truly effectual in the new environment, past stereotypes by critics will not convey the new motivations and campaigns. True debate cannot occur in a witch-hunt environment.


Witch Hunts and the Specter of Pretend Patriotism

The terrorist attacks on Washington DC, Pittsburgh and New York City's World Trade Center were tragic and must be condemned. Our world will never be the same again. But this means that we cannot solve this geopolitical crisis with old solutions and old thinking. When Peter Beinaart calls on the anti-globalist movement to cancel its Washington DC protests, he is railing against a nebulous group that would find it difficult to implement an easy 'top-down' solution. When he dubiously calls on the citizen's memory, he neglects to mention that the general public forgot about post-World War II labor protests and the invisible rank-and-file of the Civil Rights movement. And when he embraces an intolerance of ambiguity and war fever, his words become poisonous to discussion of any alternatives. Beinart would do well to recall George Washington's words during his Farewell Address: "Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism."

The Search for New Solutions and Visions

In the wake of the catastrophic events of 11 September 2001, we will witness many regressive searches into the past for simplistic solutions, such as bombing Kabul, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban from the face of the Earth. These simplistic solutions won't give the victims the support and closure they need, won't resolve long-standing ethno-political enmities, won't give us shelter from the swirling geopolitical maelstrom. While we are justifiably proud of America's many cultural and sociopolitical achievements, let us temper this with an honest assessment of its current problems, from the growing private prison industry to the War on Some Drugs. These problems are part of the larger picture: the 'values gap' between our social rhetoric and our political realities.

In the months and years ahead, we will need to debate, uncover and implement new solutions and visions. The anti-globalist movement, whatever its future shape or form, will be part of this process, despite limits on debate and the current calls for national solidarity during a crisis period. What it now needs is a map of the evolution of human and organizational psychology, and to embrace some serious self-introspection and positioning.

Whether we draw upon these critical strands and assimilate their positives or simply reframe them as negatives and wipe-out the Enemy Within, the existential and systemic problems they call attention to will still remain. Only time will tell if we have the self-honesty to confront this new environment with the 21st century thinking that it deserves, or if we regress backward into a cyclical closure of the American Mind.