S11 World Economic Forum blockade: Reflections of a participant

Photo: Actively Radical TV

There is no doubt that the S11 blockade over September 11, 12 and 13, 2000, outside the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Melbourne’s Crown Casino was politically significant.

Some 20,000 anti-capitalist activists surrounded the three-day meeting where more than 960 of the wealthiest, most powerful transnational corporations on the planet were making plans to enrich themselves at our and the planet’s expense.

In terms of its scale, it was an epic disruptive protest: radical activists from all around the country actively blockaded a very large venue with multiple entrances for three days in some wet and windy weather. 

But most significant about S11 was its system-change politics: it was the first mass anti-capitalist protest to be organised in Australia for many years.

If you watch the video S11: This is what democracy looks like by Actively Radical TV you cannot miss the anti-capitalist politics of S11. This was not another “single-issue” protest, which had typified the mass demonstrations of the previous decades: this was a mass rejection of the capitalist system.

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Photo: Actively Radical TV

It was also a movement of non-violent mass civil disobedience, reflecting a growing awareness that radical system change was needed.

The S11 blockade was part of a global movement that included the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization and, later, the 2001 actions around the G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy.

This movement rejected the seemingly unstoppable reorganisation of the whole world into massive global supply and distribution chains for a small number of multinational corporations with wealth and power that exceeded most nation states. 

The rights of the people who worked directly or indirectly for these corporations were being trampled in the process and entire ecosystems destroyed. Capitalist globalisation also accelerated the climate emergency we are struggling with today.

A taste of popular power

One of the popular slogans at S11 was “This is what democracy looks like”. It spoke to people who knew that grass-roots and direct democracy was something completely different to the ruthless rule of multinational corporations intent on ignoring or destroying communities or buying off or deposing governments who failed to serve their interests.

The blockade was a symbolic assertion of popular power. Of course we understood that building real democracy would involve constructing new and lasting grassroots democratic structures. The broad response to the blockade — including from the thousands of militant trade unionists who joined the S11 blockade — and the mini-democracies that ran each blockade for three days gave people a sense of confidence that real democracy was possible to build.

Also, the many months-long democratic and inclusive process of organising the S11 blockade was in itself a democratic achievement. Socialists, anarchists, radical environmentalists and militant trade unionists managed to work in unity, even with differences in perspectives and tactics.

The fact that we successfully disrupted such a powerful corporate summit also was a boost to our confidence in building a really democratic alternative.

S11 was not a one-off expression of the anti-capitalist movement in Australia. All the activists who were involved in S11 were deeply inspired by the experience. What to do next was the question on our minds.

The ruling class was also shocked: I remember one of the leading corporate media commentators warning that this could mark the “return of a left” — something the capitalist class had thought unthinkable over the previous decade of triumphalism that emerged from the collapse of Soviet Union.

In the Democratic Socialist Party, of which I was a member, we had many collective discussions about what to do next, and came up with the audacious idea of a blockade of the stock exchange buildings in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth on May 1, 2001.

We called it “M1”. This built on an idea for a global strike on that day that had been floated by anti-capitalist activists in other countries.

One of the powerful aspects of the S11 blockade was the involvement of thousands of militant trade unionists, who had marched to blockades from the Victorian Trades Hall building. This was led by a layer of militant trade union leaderships from the construction and manufacturing divisions in Victoria who had made strong links with the anti-capitalist movement.

May Day is been a traditional day of working class mobilisation, but the trade union movement in Australia had, by and large, stopped mobilising on May 1, preferring to hold rather staid processions on the nearest Sunday.

The S11 activists around the country took up the call and formed “M1 organising coalitions” and urged trade unions to endorse the blockades.

In Victoria, M1 was endorsed by the Victorian Trades Hall Council, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. But union endorsement was harder to win in other states, although militant union leaders from some other unions (such as the National Tertiary Education Union and the Australian Services Union) joined the blockade in Sydney.

In the end, the blockades held for the whole day in Melbourne and Sydney, where they were the biggest, but were violently attacked in the other cities, particularly in Perth.

There were smaller M1 actions over the next couple of years, but the global capitalist ruling class was on the offensive and organising became more single-issue, particularly in the lead up to the imperialists’ invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Massive anti-war mobilisations were organised before the invasion of Iraq, but after the invasion in March that year, a wave of demoralisation swept through the movement. The “troops out” movement that persevered could only muster a fraction of the number. 

However a new wave of global anti-capitalist mobilisation rose again around the Occupy movement, a decade after S11. And the more recent School Strike 4 Climate Action strike movement (where “Change the system not the climate!” is a popular slogan), Extinction Rebellion and, earlier this year, the Black Lives Matter movement all express anti-capitalist sentiment and consciousness. The new generations of activists enthusiastically applaud anti-capitalist speeches and slogans at these mass actions.

Capitalism spurs anti-capitalism

The capitalist system itself is forcing an anti-capitalist movement into being.

Capitalism's proven inability to face up to the climate emergency is being shown up by the fact that the capitalists and their governments have already been contracted to extract and burn enough fossil fuels to warm our planet way above liveable levels of global warming. 

This alone is enough to make any serious climate activist an anti-capitalist.

The increasing use by capitalist states of naked and brutal racism and fascistic measures to protect profits is also radicalising millions of activists.

Capitalism’s relentless drive for corporate profits at any cost is also fleshing out what sort of society is needed to replace capitalism. 

The alternative system is essentially ecosocialist: a society based on respect for the life-sustaining metabolism of nature, collective ownership of essential resources and grass-roots democracy. There isn't enough time to allow capitalism the chance to gradually “green” itself before catastrophic climate change hits.

In this sense, anti-capitalism has probably advanced since S11.

The COVID-19 pandemic — itself a product of capitalist depredation of nature — gives us a taste of what is ahead. In more and more countries where crises are blowing up, it is becoming impossible for the majority of ordinary people to live the way they have been accustomed to. The same can be said of the horrific bushfire crisis we experienced in Australia just months ago. Now it’s hitting the US.

In these crises, the ruling class will also find it impossible to rule in the usual way.

This is what makes a revolutionary situation. However, history also has taught us that for revolutions to succeed, the oppressed and exploited also need to have built the unifying political organisations to help focus and sustain popular power.

In the Democratic Socialist Party’s collective reflections on S11, we agreed that taking the anti-capitalist movement forward would require not only the broad coalitions to build anti-capitalist mobilisations but also that a unified revolutionary organisation, strongly grounded in working-class and other oppressed communities, was needed. 

That was why we initiated the Socialist Alliance in 2001, and did so with the support and participation of some of the key militant trade union leaders who had mobilised thousands of workers for S11 and M1.

We saw the formation of Socialist Alliance as just one, early, step in a broader process. We did not think this would be easy or straight forward. We envisioned it as a process of learning through shared experience, trial and error and one that might require new alliances and mergers in the future.

That perspective holds true, today. The openings have to be taken up and pursued by a new generation of anti-capitalist activists who come to the understanding that we need both broad united front work as well as a non-sectarian revolutionary political organisation. We cannot win system change without both.

[Peter Boyle is a member of the national executive of the Socialist Alliance and was one of the activists in the Democratic Socialist Party who helped organise national solidarity for the S11 Blockade.]

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