A whistle-stop tour through the global justice movement

Issue 

REVIEW BY DANNY FAIRFAX

One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement
By Paul Kingsnorth
Earthlight 2003
$24.95 (Pb)

Former deputy editor of the British Ecologist magazine Paul Kingsnorth set himself an ambitious task for his first book, One No, Many Yeses: to "journey to the heart of the global resistance movement" and ask "What exactly is it? Who is involved, what do they want, and how do they aim to get it?"

Kingsnorth admirably attempts to combine "a manifesto, an investigation [and] a travel book" in one book. However, it is by no means a Lonely Planet-style definitive guide to the worldwide social justice movement. Instead, he takes the reader on a dizzying whirlwind tour of the movements across the continents.

Kingsnorth begins his voyage, appropriately enough, where many pinpoint as the birthplace of the current wave of struggle: the remote Mexican province of Chiapas, where the Zapatistas launched an uprising in 1994, guided by the enigmatic Subcomandante Marcos.

Going on a package tour of the autonomous zones, where the Zapatistas' ideals of self-determination, decentralisation and sustainability are slowly, and despite great obstacles, being put into practice, Kingsnorth observes the phenomenon of Zapaturism (Zapatista tourism), and its mountain of merchandise. However, "despite all the nice posters and cute dolls ... this is still a revolution".

From Mexico, he moves on to Italy, Bolivia, West Papua, Brazil, South Africa and the US. As he participates in protests against the G8 in Genoa in July 2001, which were marred by brutal police repression, marches against privatisation in Johannesburg, visits farms occupied by Brazilian peasants and accompanies New York's actor/performance artist "Reverend Billy" from the "Church of Stop Shopping", Kingsnorth gains a real appreciation of the multifaceted nature of the movement.

The weakest parts of the book are its lengthy sections on the US activists he chooses to feature. Indeed, it seems odd that so much space is devoted to them, as they are largely isolated individuals, doing work divorced from the mass movements.

To the reader in 2003, they seem like a throwback to five years ago or more, before the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation and its successors turned individual crusades into a cohesive worldwide movement of millions. When millions of people came out on the streets against war and globalisation in 2002-03, the strangely hermitic activity of the likes of the Reverend Billy seem far less relevant. Kingsnorth concedes there are huge flaws in their strategies.

One No, Many Yeses more than compensates for this with its powerful accounts of the successes of mass grassroots campaigns in South Africa and Latin America. To his great credit, Kingsnorth affirms that the movement goes far beyond the headline-grabbing actions of First World protesters.

Most striking are his accounts of the occupations of idle farmland in Brazil by farmers tied to the Movimiento sem Terra (MST, the Landless Workers' Movement). Since 1984, the MST has resettled more than 300,000 families on land which, for the first time, they control. It is still a drop in the ocean, but it demonstrates on a micro-scale what can be achieved if the world's oligarchs are confronted. And, perhaps most saliently, as one farmer tells Kingsnorth: "The most important thing the MST has given me is my dignity."

While in Brazil, Kingsnorth also takes in the plethora of conferences, seminars and workshops which made up the second World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre in 2002. Attended by 60,000, Kingsnorth found it as "exciting as it is overwhelming".

His account of Porto Alegre begins the second part of the book, "Many Yeses", which examines what it is that the movement is for. As his subtitle suggests, there were many visions for the movement on display at the WSF — so many, indeed, that the author begins "to think, treasonably, that far from not having any alternatives, this movement has too many of them".

However, Kingsnorth does not see the main point of the differences as that between reformists and revolutionaries — the old "fix it or nix it" dichotomy. "This debate — rarely useful, usually frustrating, often artificial, always systemic and never likely to be resolved — will run and run", he states.

Instead, Kingsnorth sees the fundamental differences as those between the "new politics of resistance and the old revolutionary left". He asserts that this "new" movement, which is "inspired by Zapatismo and radical democracy, that speaks a new language, promotes new ideas and wants no party or vanguard to lead it, can never make its peace with dogmatic statists from the Utopian left".

To support this contention, Kingsnorth produces a litany of charges against the British Socialist Workers Party in relation to its activities within the movement. Some of the criticisms may be valid, but they are used to unfairly smear the entire revolutionary left. But Kingsnorth ignores the constructive and often crucial role of Marxist organisations such as France's Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and Italy's Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC).

Kingsnorth ends the book with an attempt to synthesise the goals of the movement into a coherent political program. Maintaining that his biggest revelation is "that this is really all about one thing: Power", he presents a minimum and a maximum program, which he calls "Clearing the ground" and "Sowing the seeds".

The former involves measures such as the abolition of the global financial institutions, a reigning in of corporate power in favour of "the commons" and a democratisation of global decision-making. These would be a "minimum requirements for the kind of world this movement wants to see".

Kingsnorth eschews the term "socialism", or indeed any concept of "isms" or "big ideas". But the world he maps out — one of democracy not dictatorship, diversity not monoculturism, decentralisation not concentration, sovereignty not dependence and access not enclosure — is socialism in the truest sense of the word.

From Green Left Weekly, September 10, 2003.

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