Violence as a Tool of Order and Change: The War on Terrorism and the Antiglobalization Movement

By Panitch, Leo | Monthly Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Violence as a Tool of Order and Change: The War on Terrorism and the Antiglobalization Movement


Panitch, Leo, Monthly Review


September 11, it is said, has changed everything. However true or not this may be--and I tend to think that it is not very true at all--one thing it certainly should have changed is the loose manner in which the adjective "violent" has been appended to recent antiglobalization protests. Especially for a conference such as this one--conceived in the wake of the Quebec City events of last year and designed to shed light on the nature of the challenge posed to capitalist democracies by the new antiglobalization movement--the horrific and deadly terrorist attack on New York and Washington, D.C., and the scale of state violence unleashed--literally from on high--by the war on terrorism, certainly put this loose usage in stark perspective. This should give us pause about the way the word "violent" has been invoked in the media, and the way in which massive police and even military forces of containment have been mobilized every time there has been a large-scale protest at gatherings of corporate and political elit es to further the globalization agenda. When the whole world is witness to passenger airplanes being deployed to destroy office towers in New York, and to military airplanes being deployed to rain bombs on villages in Afghanistan, the police designation and seizure as a violent weapon of a toy catapult designed to throw teddy bears over a security fence becomes even more surreal than the names of groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism or the Lanarkists that conceived this type of protest. Even those who engage in practices oriented to breaking through police lines and fences to make their objections heard and their presence felt in public spaces adjacent to where the rich and powerful are gathered, or who throw a rock at a McDonald's window along the route of a protest march, or who manage to get so far as to toss a paint bomb at a politician or CEO, are clearly engaged in a form of politics that is fundamentally of a different order in terms of intent, in terms of the material employed, and in term s of effects, than the practice of armed conflict by or against a state. Indeed, the very charge of disturbing the peace leveled against people sitting down together to block intersections is brought into question by September 11.

However, the bizarre effect of September 11, and the declaration of war in response to the terrorist attacks of that day, is that rather than making these distinctions clearer, they are in danger of becoming further obscured. The legitimacy of dissent, and especially dissent that takes the form of street protests, is often a domestic casualty of the ideological climate of war. In this case, the mass fears that watching the events of September 11 have induced in the population at large, rationally or otherwise (and it is clearly not very rational for Canadians to imagine that their office towers are about to be targeted), is aggravated by those unscrupulous right-wing politicians and journalists who never overlook an opportunity to smear the left.

To take just one example close to home, within a week after September 11 we could read the following in the National Post: "Like terrorists, the anti-globalization movement is disdainful of democratic institutions....Terrorism, if not so heinous as what we witnessed last week, has always been part of the protesters' game plan." (1) That this should be said about the antiglobalization movement that the current generation of left activists has spawned is so absurd as to suggest sheer ignorance, if not mendacity. For what precisely characterizes this generation and this movement in contrast with earlier ones on the European and North American left is the explicit eschewal, even among its most militant elements, of either armed revolutionary struggle or terrorism (along the lines of the Red Brigades or Weathermen just a generation ago) as a means of effecting change in the advanced capitalist countries. …

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