|The world Social Forum, the most important institution of transnational activism to date|
To this day, this is the main way in which responsibility beyond national boundaries are interpreted. Along with the aforementioned boycott of Israel, intended to force Israel in line with international norms of a non-discriminatory state, one hears of calls for solidarity with activists in Mexico after the murder of 43 students, or solidarity with the new Syriza government of Greece and its struggle against austerity. Important journals like Jacobin and New Left Review encourage a certain cosmopolitanism among their readership, epitomized by reports on the political economy of states around the world. To be on the left is to have familiarity with, or at least curiosity about the politics of states around the world.
But what of the larger environment in which these states exist? How does one get from solidarity with some movement within a particular state to Marx and Engels original injunction for the workers of the entire world to unite? Not so long ago, there was a popular image of that environment on the left, an image of a powerful core of wealthy states exploiting poorer nations, sometimes through colonial rule, sometimes a little more indirectly, through "neocolonialism." This image valorized anticolonial, sometimes socialist revolutions that attempt to stake out independence or autarky for a state to be better able to mobilize capital and labor and develop.
This process dead-ended in the eighties, and in the nineties, a new image emerged, globalization. In the left version, although there were still wealthy and poor countries, the emphasis in descriptions of power shifted to international institutions such as the IMF, WTO and the World Bank, all dominated by the US and Western Europe, and multinational corporations, mostly based in the wealthier countries although seemingly operating everywhere. There was a powerful image of capital bursting the bonds of the nation-state and floating all over the world. In the most important formulation, Empire (the world just described, with international institutions, multinational corporations, and capital covering the entire globe, creating a "smooth" space) would be contested by multitude, a singular, non-homogeneous concatenation of people and movements. At the various "global justice" mobilizations between 1999 and 2001, the multitude seemed to be a reality, as anarchists, union members, environmentalists, and other groups all mobilized together and employed nascent internet technology to network themselves, even as they used a diversity of tactics during the protests themselves. The World Social Forum, which began meeting in 2001, institutionalized this practice.
The movement had perhaps already peaked when the attacks of 9-11 dramatically shifted the subject. Now the focus would be on national governments claiming to protect their populations by any means necessary. But then in 2003, international protests against the imminent invasion of Iraq by the US were hailed as the arrival of "the second superpower," global opinion, by the New York Times. People around the world stood together against the arbitrary projection of military force by the most powerful state in the world. However, global opinion, in this sense, did not become a recurrent a feature of world politics.
In the next ten years, a new image replaced globalization. This was the image of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), a loose alliance (actually invented by a Goldman Sachs analyst) of rising non-western states. Not especially radical, BRICS, which also can stand for a more general assertiveness of non-western countries that are not included in the acronym, nevertheless collectively posed something like an alternative to the neoliberal order reigned over by the US. BRICS typically opposed military interventions by NATO and the US, and were less dogmatic (more honest?) about state intervention in the economy. South-South economic connections between countries traditionally a part of the colonial world was also a hallmark of BRICS. The neoliberal world claimed to be advancing values of human rights, sustainability, poverty reduction, etc even while mostly getting serious about "structural reforms" that enhanced the power of local and foreign oligarchs and corporations. BRICS, epitomized by China's trade diplomacy, tended to avoid both the rhetoric and the practice in favor of deals between sovereign states to advance their economies. By 2014, BRICS had begun to set up their own institutions, like development banks. Some on the left continued to assert that the bulk of global power remained firmly in the hands of US based institutions, and that geopolitical conflict between BRICS and the US and its allies was overstated. At this writing, it is unclear who is correct.
Beginning around 2009, shortly after the world economy tanked, a new phase of social struggle emerged. This phase included riots in Greece and accelerated with the Arab Spring and movement of the squares, indignados, and Occupy Wall Street in 2011, This phase often used the hashtag #globalrevolution, suggesting links between all these struggles. While the global justice phase had typically targeted multinational institutions, all the struggles in this phase were basically confrontations within specific nation-states perceived as dominated by oligarchs. The struggling force was very different from the multitude. Rather than a movement of movements, the defining image was of citizens coming together to try to democratically decide how to move forward and struggle through general assemblies. There was a certain amount of movement to movement solidarity, as when Egyptians ordered pizzas for those occupying the state capital in Wisconsin. There is a great deal of awareness among activists that these sorts of rebellions and practices are occurring all over the world. Nevertheless, this is very much a country-by-country wave.
Now we seem to be entering a new phase, where these movements are to some degree morphing into struggles for state power. The key moment here is the election of Syriza in Greece, with Podemos in Spain waiting in the dock, and similar moments likely in many other countries (I suspect we may even have one in the US in the next decade, if a Democratic outside of the Wall Street network that has retained a stranglehold on the party for the last thirty years were to win the nomination. I know this is hopelessly reformist in the eyes of many of my friends, but if such a candidate were to win the presidency, it would put US politics into unknown terrain). Even Toni Negri, the guru of the nineties anarchists, says it is now time to talk about power. Yet such struggles can no longer plausibly assume a move to the old model of socialism in one country. As it is, Syriza has more modest goals--getting relief from its debt burden, and putting the Greek oligarchs in their place--and it is less than clear that they can achieve such limited goals in the current climate. Syriza must resist the power of the European Central Bank, the IMF, and Germany, but why exactly does this Troika continue to exist? Either Syriza must trigger some kind of generalized rebellion within the EU, leading to a reversal of policies by the Troika, or Greece must exit the Eurozone, a rocky process in the best circumstances, which would likely also leave Greece at the mercy of whoever it could find to offer some assistance--I have heard Russia offered up as one idea.
There is the obvious question of why states that might try to pursue sober and reasonable policies will quickly find themselves targeted by powerful institutions, and perhaps the target of international sanctions and boycotts. They can perhaps turn towards BRICS, but this grouping ultimately is an agglomeration of state interests, and none of the present day leaders can be said to embody the values of the left. Even if they did, would we want to leave international policies up to ad hoc alliances? This is where, I think it is necessary to rethink the concept of internationalism, and start to conceptualize a genuinely global left.
Here we should detour a little and note the familiar left critique of prefigurative, local struggles. The image being critiqued is of people who have given up on politics, which involves convincing more people to join your struggles, and instead try to build small scale utopias--community gardens, anarchist bookshops, etc. These efforts are seen by some as basically a distraction from the real work of building institutions of class struggle or electoral politics. I've never agreed with this critique. Many of these small scale institutions are not created as retreats from the world, but as sites to launch struggles, to experiment with new forms of social relations that can hopefully be replicated or scaled up, etc. Even if they don't succeed, they often make their immediate surroundings a little more pleasant, which probably shouldn't be downplayed too much. Mass movements cannot simply be conjured out of thin air as an alternative to small scale experimentation. What I would like to suggest here is that the left should begin to prefigure global society by developing projects that involve border crossing participation. I am not sure what such projects would look like, but I am thinking of something very different from the shared project of targeting one's relevant nation state and then reporting to international comrades about the state of the struggle that still constitutes the horizon of internationalism for the left much of the time. I could imagine research and activist projects, and even non-profit entrepreneurial ventures, all crossing national borders, being launched. Perhaps they already are. This would create a density of experience with acting transnationally that could become the launchpad for the transformation of the larger world environment, either through a march through the existing institutions (IMF, UN, EU, etc) or their subversion and replacement by others, or both.
One relevant model for what I am thinking of are the UN conferences on topics such as women, racism, poverty etc. There is a left critique of the UN as a tool of the US (a somewhat ahistorical critique, given that the US helped found the UN at the high water mark of left influence within the US, and since then at various intervals even the liberal internationalist wing of the US ruling class has viewed it with deep suspicion), but these conferences are in fact embraced by a broad spectrum of activists, including many on the far left and sometimes boycotted by the US. They provide a forum for activists to talk without necessarily thinking in terms of their national identities. Of course, so does the World Social Forum, also of importance here. For that matter, many conversations on Facebook are prefigurative of global society in this sense. That communicating across borders is now costless is crucial to the current situation. Not long ago, communicating within a nation-state was not particularly expensive, but costs were often prohibitive for communicating across borders except for the most endowed, i.e. the capitalist class. Under such conditions, it was possible to create a relatively cohesive "imagined community" of the nation-state. No longer.
The nation state is loosing its status as the focus of people's hopes for remaking the world into something better. Everyone intuits the limited capacities of states, even quite large ones. No amount of rhetoric about how states remain important to the neoliberal project will change this.Although I am very sympathetic to such electoral vehicles as the Chavistas in Venezuela and Syriza in Greece, I seriously doubt they will become vessels for launching a thorough remaking of their respective societies along anything remotely resembling the "socialism in one country" that was the defacto project of the twentieth century left. The nation state no longer has the cultural or economic cohesiveness to contain such hopes. In response, many people focus on local efforts where they think they can develop new sorts of social relations or otherwise improve things. The left puts a lot of energy into berating these, implicitly, or even explicitly, hoping people will renew their focus on the state. The left would do better to look for ways to create solidarities beyond the state and across national boundaries.