Our s11

Ten years ago today, at 6 am in the morning, I was sheltering from rain at the Crown Casino in Melbourne. The Victorian government had built an enormous fence to stop protesters from disrupting the Asia Pacific Summit of the World Economic Forum, which had strolled into town to hold what Alexander Downer termed a ‘Business Olympics’. Drenched, I was (silently) contemplating if this was all an enormous mistake and whether the claim that Seattle could come to Melbourne was no more than fantasy. I should not have doubted. As the blockade that day stopped over 200 delegates from attending the WEF, and resulted in the dysfunction of the Summit, I felt simultaneously enormously powerful and fantastically tiny amongst the many thousands who were there.

Francis Fukuyama declared in the closing decade of last century that the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled ‘the end of history’ and the absence of metanarratives that could challenge liberal free market hegemony. Yet it was barely a decade later that Teamsters and turtles met on the streets of Seattle in a movement that challenged the paradigm he had outlined, and not much later that an extremist fragment of political Islam took such dramatic action that their message about American hegemony would become a defining point for a generation.

You can't eat money

For a brief moment between the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, a global social movement stood on the world stage to argue that ‘another world is possible’. Protests at various elite summits focused the political debate in the North on questions of equity and justice, issues that had long confronted the developing world and those who experienced the negative impacts of neoliberalism. The media talked of a new politics.

In Melbourne 11 September 2000 – s11 by activists – involved a blockade of the Crown Casino to stop delegates accessing the venue. It publicly displayed a large network of people concerned with the issues of globalisation, free trade, labour rights, the erosion of democracy and the power of multinational corporations. It was in that moment that the Global Justice Movement in Australia cohered and developed its collective identity. Some argued it was a new kind of activism and politics based as much around culture and self-expression as it was around issues and agendas. Others saw it as a newly reinvigorated and contextually specific return to ‘first principles’. At that time, it was near impossible to pick up a major newspaper without reading articles about the concerns of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement.

Nine years ago tonight I was back in my childhood bed. My life was a whirlwind of activity as I was preparing to move from Melbourne to Sydney for the second time in my life. I was slightly distracted, but the Global Justice Movement was gathering momentum in Australia and I was working hard organising a protest at the upcoming CHOGM meeting in Brisbane. Although my brother and I had left the family home some time ago, we were both staying there while our mother was away. Up late watching soccer, my brother was the first of us to see the collapsing twin towers on news broadcast. In a dazed state he came to wake me and for some time we sat together, stunned, watching incredible images beamed from New York City to a suburban Melbourne house. Very little was said. Then the phone calls began.

The GJM in Australia is not necessarily the longest surviving social movement of recent years, or even the most high profile, but its anti-systemic nature makes it of critical interest to activists and political wonks alike. s11, like Seattle before it, was in part possible because of the disappearance of the geopolitical binary represented in the politics of the Cold War era. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the global political space changed as the dominant frame of East/West lost its relevance. When 9/11 and the War on Terror occurred, global elites resurrected the notion of the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’: a binary of the civility of the west / incivility of terrorists and those who harbour them. This new binary was used both to demonise the ‘uncivilised’ and to attack the GJM as being against ‘progress’.

It was in the decade or so in between – between the Cold War and the Clash of Civilisations – that critiques developed revealing power relations intrinsic to global economic organisation in the epoch of neoliberalism. These were centred on criticism of the Washington Consensus, corporate-led globalisation, and commodification of everyday life. The alternative frames that emerged illuminated the more fundamental geopolitical relations inherent to capitalism.

If I can't danceHowever as our s11 and Osama’s 9/11 show, counter hegemonic movements do not develop in a simple, linear fashion. They are permeated by the ruling factions’ ideas and agendas and subject to the impact of world events. Internal differentiation is struggled with. With the disintegration of the War on Terror and the retreat of American Empire, and now the collapse of neoliberal hegemony in the bonfires of the Global Financial Crisis and ensuing Great Recession, a new space is again opening up for anti-systemic critiques and visions of alternative worlds. The stultifying consensus among our political and economic rulers has reached an impasse, expressed even in the relatively quiet economic waters of Australia with a hung parliament and elite frenzy that their project is under threat.

At 6 am today, on the anniversary of the s11 demonstration, I woke up to finish the final chapter of my thesis about the Global Justice Movement in Australia. But also to wonder why I did not finish this blog post earlier. To everyone who was at the s11 blockade and to each person inspired by the footage on the news that night: Until next time my friends, we still have a world to win.

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Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

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  1. Pingback: counter-hegemonic memories « jew on this

  2. thank you for a most refreshing, hope-filled read. There seem to me to be so few who are thinking (critically) in these terms today. Or at least outwardly, in public spaces. i would question, however, that while the neo-Liberal hegemony may have collapsed perhaps physically (as a solid), it still lives on (in more fluid form) as a dominant and dominating ideology, however unhealthy it might now be. An ideology so normalised that it is rarely questioned or contested, nor has it been. Particularly after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and as you say, for the reasons that Fukuyama has argued.
    As for neo-Liberalism, and the peak of its pyramid, globalisation, Jean Baudrillard argued – and was met with certain and much disdain – that with the twin towers being attacked and coming down, globalisation had committed suicide.

    Tony Windsor (one of the so-called three independents and queen/king-makers in the hung parliament) actually said (at least) two poignant things very recently: First, that the choice between the ‘two major parties’ was a choice between two neo-Liberal parties, implying no choice at all. Secondly and perhaps more importantly (when making his announcement to support Labor), he said that “philosophy [had] died a long time ago for both parties”. To me this seemed to say two things further: that yes – and I would argue more in the case of Labor – there had been a significant de-attachment from notions of what might have formerly been conceived of as the left. (The grand- or metanarratives once associated with socialism or dare i say Marxism, somewhat along the lines of Fukuyama perhaps.) And that neo-Liberalism had become so dominant an ideology, so normalized that it was no longer seen as a philosophy or ideology. That neo-Liberal hegemony just is. This to me says quite a lot about the potential spaces that are opened up or are made available for the possibilities of contesting neo-Liberal hegemony, and also about how those spaces could be used.

    All this to say that I think these ‘spaces’ for contesting globalised, neo-Liberal hegemony have always been there and that perhaps more have been opened since 9/11, but there are fewer who dare to exploit these spaces for counter-hegemony. I also think that our current context is providing less and less who are able to use these spaces and/or contest hegemony. (I know there are other reasons too but I have been long-winded enough.) But I think you are saying that we are offered new spaces, and I agree. Your posting has given me much food for thought on some thinking I have been doing around hegemony for some time, and this (lengthy) response is perhaps that thinking out loud. Maybe not the thing to do but…

  3. Thanks for terrific post Elizabeth. Sadly, I’m not as hopeful as you about challenges to neo-liberal market hegemony, at least not in the short-term though I guess the recent capitulation of Gunns provides some hope.
    My pessimism is in part due to the crushing of the Melbourne September 11 protests and protestors (as symbolic of the crushing of anti-globalisation protests around the world). After a night when the Special Operations Group clambered over a fence with batons swinging belting in the head anyone within baton reach and police horses on every side prevented escape, then Premier of Victoria, Mr Bracks invited Victoria Police to a BBQ to say thankyou.
    The media were almost totally on side. The reporting of that night’s events the following day were either played down – as in the dreadful injuries inflicted on protestors – or protestors reported as rabble that had to be controlled. Government, media and most Victorians were furious that world economic leaders were being prevented access to the casino.
    I agree there are new spaces opening up for critque and alternative visions but in spite of the GFC and Australia’s election result, most people unfortunately, quite like things just the way they are.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts bscare and Trish. Hope is a nebulous brute isn’t it? I often wonder if any of us can really choose to be more ‘cup half full’ than ‘half empty’ as society moralises us to do. Thoughts of the police actions were in my mind when I wrote that blog post, as my joyful memories of s11 and my broken rib of s12 are forever entwined. s12 was an incredible reminder that social movements are only one half of a equation, the other half involving the agency of those who wish to protect the current structures and systems. The uniqueness and surprise exercised by activists at Seattle saw police and the American state bewildered about what to do. Nonetheless police were more organised at s11, and despite their error in erecting the fence and doing part of the job of the blockades for us, they consciously used organised and rehearsed violence to intimidate and subdue protesters. By Genoa in July 2001 the state forces in the equation were clearly learning and adapting in the face of a counter-hegemonic movement – providing beatings of the so-called ‘peaceful protesters’ in the Pink Bloc, strategic violence against the IndyMedia Centre, using agent provocateurs dressed as Black Bloc members, introducing live ammunition to the protest in order to intimidate, and ultimately killing a protester. Despite the level of organisation and ferocity at Genoa, it does not leave me despondent or without hope. I feel sure that the underlying tensions of hegemonic neo-liberalism can and will produce resistance, although the path, form and longevity of ‘next time’ are unknown. I often reflect on Gramsci’s words: ‘The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned’. Given I always smile at his insight, I guess I am in those moments very deeply filled with hope.

  5. Thanks for the hopeful conclusion of your piece Elizabeth, as well as you’re excellent analysis of S11 (our one) and yep it was bloody cold, but despite the police violence, the mainstream media’s complicity in encouraging and justifying the violence and the sometimes bewildering response and attitude from some unions or union members I found S11 exhilerating and hopeful. As someone who’d been involved in anarchist politics for years it seemed some of the organisational theories of anarchism were on the ascendency. The tragedy of the other S11 was that8 moment, that glimpse of a possible future, a possible new and powerful movement was crushed in the falling debry and suddenly dissent=terrorism. I hope you’re right, and that movement, that criteque is coming back. Thanks for reminding me what almost was and giving me food for thought.

  6. Great article. There is an extraordinary piece that the Herald published in 2001 that a.) reveals the neocon terror at the liveliness of the social justice movement at that time and b.) is great for a laugh. It’s Miranda Devine posturing that the WTC September 11 terrorists had picked the date due to resonances with the protests in Melbourne a year before. No, I am not joking. Actually the best piece of published mainstream right-wing nuttery since Gerard Henderson compared playwright Stephen Sewell to Pol Pot.

  7. i recall that when watching the televisual media coverage of the event, on that night in Australian time, that they were speculating that it had been carried out by anti-globalisation terrorists.

  8. Oh dear Miranda, I’d forgotten that article Van. I offer everyone else this opening section as a teaser…

    Protesters find any army will do as they embrace terror
    Sydney Morning Herald – Thursday, November 15, 200
    Miranda Devine

    ‘CONSIDER this. An American Airlines jet falls out of the sky and crashes into a New York suburb on November 12, in the middle of a five-day biennial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Qatar.

    The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York occurs on September 11, a symbolic date on the anti-globalisation movement’s calendar. September 11, 2000, or S11 as it became known, marked a successful protest against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne.

    The beginning of the war against globalisation was in 1999 when protesters managed to disrupt the last WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle, the home of Boeing and Microsoft, which embody the corporate power they despise and which WTO rules protect and expand.

    Coincidence? Probably. We don’t know if Monday’s crash was an accident or another terrorist attack. Authorities have said it was caused by mechanical failure but have not ruled out sabotage. Officials have told reporters they do not know what ripped the tail fin off the fuselage so cleanly, as if sliced by a knife. But we do know that there are disturbing similarities between the anti-globalisation/anti-capitalism forces and Osama bin Laden’s terrorists. They have a shared aim, similar diffuse, global structure, similar methods and a shared vocabulary of extreme violence and holy war.

    It is enough for some to wonder about the possibility of an alliance between the terrorists who brought down the WTC and anti-globalisationists’.

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