BARCELONA: 500,000 demand global justice



BARCELONA — The organisers said 500,000, the press said 350,000 and the police said 250,000. The organisers expected around 50,000 people to turn up at the protest; up to 8% of the population of Catalonia came. Not even the most rabid right-wing defender of capitalism could deny that the March 16 demonstration, held to counter the European Union summit meeting, was a massive expression of anger against the injustices of neo-liberal globalisation.

The demonstration was a triumph against the provocations and ideological terrorism of the central Spanish and Catalan regional governments. The agreement which allows free movement among European Union states was suspended, with 1000-1500 anti-globalisation activists being turned back at the Spanish-French border. A massive police presence was backed by warship patrols off the port of Barcelona and overflights by F-16 fighter jets.

In the fortnight before, the Spanish government, led by the conservative Popular Party, and the Catalan regional administration, controlled by the Convergence and Union party, issued the direst warnings: the Basque nationalists were coming to town; the anarchists would unleash violence on the scale of Genoa's "black bloc"; the local okupa (squatter) movement would ransack every ATM in Barcelona.

In the end, those hoping for large-scale violence were disappointed. All they could point to was about 100 people in balaclavas who attacked a handful of banks, with 60 people arrested. This tiny random provocation set off police overkill that prevented the last third of the march from leaving its starting point.

Who were all these hundreds of thousands of people? Formally, they were divided into three contingents. The biggest by far was mobilised by the Campaign Against the Europe of Capital — an umbrella network of the local anti-globalisation groups and the far left. The second was led by Catalan and Basque nationalist forces. The third was organised by the Barcelona Social Forum (BSF).

The BSF is dominated mainly by the Catalan parliamentary opposition parties and the two main trade union federations, the General Union of Workers and the Workers Commissions, but also includes non-government organisations and anti-globalisation campaigns.

The demonstration was overwhelmingly local. The contingents from other European countries and even other parts of the Spanish state were small. Certainly, there were flags and banners from France, Italy, from Latin American exile communities and from solidarity groups, but the red and yellow colours of Catalonia predominated, followed by the Basque red, green and white, and the blue and white of Galicia.

The local anti-globalisation groups had big contingents. This was evidence of the vitality of a movement that mobilised 20,000 people in Barcelona last June to celebrate its success in forcing the cancellation of a World Bank meeting.

The concerns of the movement, with its stress on decision by mass meetings of activists and rejection of "personality politics", also set the tone for the whole event. The lead banner, which in any normal Spanish demonstration would have been held by well-known figures, was carried by "anonymous" representatives of the various organising collectives.

The demonstration was so vast that Barcelona's small revolutionary groups could, with vigorous spruiking and colourful banners, attract into their contingents many times their membership. Members and sympathisers of the Catalan parliamentary opposition parties — the Socialist Party of Catalonia, the Republican Left and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens — accounted for tens of thousands more. Thousands of others marched beneath the black and red flags of the General Workers Confederation, the half union-half party that embodies the anarchist and "libertarian" tradition of the Catalan left.

But these organised forces were a small minority. The vast mass of participants were unorganised and unaffiliated people taking the welcome opportunity to say no to privatisation, deregulation, dismantling of welfare, social injustice, racism, sexism and environmental havoc. Here the march showed that the spirit and slogan of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, (Another World Is Possible) is touching a profound chord with masses of people.

If any one theme predominated, it was rejection of Washington's bogus "war on terrorism" and the revival of Dr Strangelove militarism and McCarthyite witch-hunting.

In Spain, this has been dutifully and gleefully taken up by Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who poses as an expert on fighting terrorism on the basis of his government's attempts to crush the armed Basque organisation ETA. One placard summed up the sentiment: "Senor Aznar, we are not terrorists. We are just people affirming our right to a decent life".

The March 16 demonstration was the climax of a week of protest against the EU summit and its agenda, which was dominated by plans to establish Europe-wide free markets in electricity and telecommunications, and to further dismantle the continent's supposedly "highly regulated" labour markets.

It was preceded by a 250,000-strong demonstration against the Spanish government's National Hydrological Plan (which would place an impossible stress on the country's main river system, the Ebro) and a 100,000-strong protest of trade unionists from all over Europe. The arrogant response of Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi to these marches ("Trade unionists will always take a holiday", Berlusconi sniffed) only encouraged more people to get out onto the street on March 16.

Young people were the majority. University students, who have been fighting against the Aznar government's plans to make education more "relevant", were joined by high school students from all over Catalonia. Taking part in the Basque and Catalan nationalist contingent — the most "subversive" component of the march — was the most dramatic way for tens of thousands of young people to express their rebellion.

Their parents too were there in large numbers. One striking aspect of the March 16 demonstration was that it attracted many who have probably not been to a demonstration since the 1970s, when Catalonia played a vital role in the overthrow of the dictatorship of General Franco. The presence of such "ordinary citizens" confounded the local capitalist media so used to painting the movement against corporate globalisation as a collection of weirdos, subversives and naive do-gooders.

What did Barcelona show about the state of the movement against neo-liberal globalisation?

First, that it is now so big and deeply rooted in Europe that no political force can afford to dismiss it. The leader of the pro-capitalist Socialist Party of Catalonia, Pascual Maragall, not only "allowed" his party's members to attend March 16, but also took out a full-page four-colour newspaper advertisement affirming the Socialist Party's commitment to the principle of globalisation with "solidarity".

Even more telling has been the response of French president Jacques Chirac. In the middle of the French presidential election campaign he has been telling TV audiences that the "people who demonstrated in Barcelona" have serious concerns which have to be listened to.

Second, it is helping to push mass politics to the left and conferring respectability to the demands of the movement, even as they remain way off the agenda of standard capitalist party politics. In Barcelona, for example, the police union took advantage of the general atmosphere of protest to stage their own demonstration for better wages and working conditions!

In France, two signs of the times are the recent gains in national delegate elections for the militantly anti-privatisation union confederation SUD, and far-left presidential candidate Arlette Laguiller's 9% rating in opinion polls.

Third, it is clear that, in Mediterranean Europe at least, the gap between the anti-corporate globalisation movement and the working class and its traditional organisations is beginning to shrink. This is most advanced in France, where the pro-Tobin tax ATTAC movement has supported striking workers and opposed privatisation.

However, Barcelona also reconfirmed that, despite the massive size of the demonstration and the depth of the sentiment it expressed against neo-liberal capitalism and the US war drive, the movement still remains well short of gaining any of its demands. Advance will require even higher levels of organisation and mobilisation than the impressive levels achieved at Barcelona, most immediately for the next European summit, to be held in Seville in July.

The movement urgently needs the development of mass political organisations that can represent and fight for the movement's demands at the level of national and European politics. The development of united far-left organisations — such as the Scottish Socialist Party and the English Socialist Alliance, as well as a Europe-wide network of such organisations — are steps forward, but it still falls short of what is needed.

This critical issue will be at the centre of the April 4-7 congress of Italy's Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC). The PRC has played a vital role, beginning in Genoa, in both building the movement against neo-liberal globalisation and giving it political expression.

[Dick Nichols is national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance and a member of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Party. He is presently in Europe.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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