Theories of conflict:

Tute Bianchi and the Socialist Workers Party

Socialist Review, Number 258 December 2001

Theories of conflict

How does the anti-capitalist movement face up to the challenges of war and state repression? Luca Casarini and Alex Callinicos discuss the issues

Alex Callinicos: It became clear in Prague, and in a very different way in Genoa, that the Tute Bianche and socialists in the IS Tendency have two things in common. First, a recognition that we are entering a new period of struggle and a new period of resistance, and secondly, a desire to organise in ways that are different from those of the traditional left. The war now makes things even more serious, although even before that Genoa was producing a discussion about strategy right throughout the world. I think we need to explore what we have in common, what we disagree about and what we can learn from each other.

Luca Casarini: Tute Bianche does not exist now as it did before. It is important not to confuse the objective that we have with the means. The means for us was to create a network that came from the autonomists, but went further than the autonomists because we came to the conclusion that the political experience of the 1970s and 1980s had come to an end.

The experience of Tute Bianche has been important in trying to change paradigms, trying to change language, and trying to change how you relate to other political forces as well as the method of struggle.

In Genoa Tute Bianche reached their objective but it was only a partial objective. The main objective for us was to bring into civil society the idea that there was conflict and there will always be conflict. It wasn't just raising the issue of conflict-it was also raising the issue of creating greater consensus amongst people. We have learnt a lot from the Zapatistas, the idea of spreading yourself out and increasing the range of consensus you obtain. So one of the things that we developed is the concept of civil disobedience-bringing together and raising the idea of conflict, but also trying to get a degree of consensus at the same time.

The important thing is the practice of this disobedience. It is not one in which we are the specialised army, or the vanguard in which people just follow us. It is a principle that can be reproduced and adopted by others. We have tried to do things differently from the old left by entering into these networks and trying to develop them from within, without the old fashioned way of trying to be hegemonic within the network and trying to become the vanguard force. The way we want to set about convincing people is through practice, by intervention and arguing with people.

Now after Genoa the Tute Bianche are in a new phase. In fact the Tute Bianche doesn't really exist anymore. For us Genoa was an important turning point to no longer put Tute Bianche (white overalls) on. Even without wearing the white overalls it was clear that everybody accepted the slogans, the vision and the ideas. Now within the umbrella groupings of the social forums in Italy we are trying to create a new area within it which we are calling 'disobedience'. We haven't called it civil disobedience, but social disobedience. One of the things that we are trying to bring to people's attention is the issue of illegality, which any mass movement has to face at certain points.

Alex Callinicos: We continue to believe that there are crucial elements of the Marxist tradition which are relevant to the situation today. There is a very sharp distinction between what we see as the corrupted Stalinist distortions of Marxism and for what for us is the heart of Marx's own politics which is the notion of working class self emancipation. For us when we are involved in any struggle the crucial element is self activity, encouraging people to fight for themselves. There I think we can see an obvious overlap between our approach and yours.

But there are certain classical questions that have not gone away. Let me mention two-one is the state and the other is leadership. Genoa showed very clearly the military face of the state, and the extent to which, however globalised and decentralised capital may have become, it still relies, ultimately, on centralised concentrations of power. I notice in your speeches and your literature you often refer to ideas that come from Antonio Negri's and Michael Hardt's recent work, Empire, about multitude, decentralisation and difference. But the decentralised network character of resistance can make us forget that one of the things that we are going to have to do is to take on that centralised power. There are solutions that are ruled out, like terrorism. The whole history of the Red Brigades just underlined how formidable the power of the state is-how if you try military solutions you get smashed. But the problem of how to take on the state is still there as it was for Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.

Secondly, let me say something about the question of leadership. When you say you want to avoid being a vanguard it depends what you mean. If by vanguardism you mean the Communist Party approach of using the working class movement as raw material usually for its electoral projects, or as different far left groups do who proclaim themselves the vanguard of the working class when the working class is completely unaware of their existence, of course these are models that have to be rejected. But there is a sense in which the Tute Bianche has functioned as a vanguard. You said people look towards you and follow the initiatives that you took.

In any movement there are going to be disagreements, and there are going to be forces which are more or less influenced by the mass media and the dominant class, and that means there is a struggle inside the movement. We in the SWP do not call ourselves a vanguardist movement because of the associations, but we do not reject the idea of political leadership. What we mean by leadership is advancing a political argument within the movement about the direction it has to take. This involves, not telling people what to do, but discussing with them and trying to take them with us. I think it is better to be open about these things because when you come to play the sort of role which, for example, Tute Bianche have within the movement, you have a responsibility, and people look to you and expect things from you.

Luca Casarini: Let's start with leadership and vanguard. One of things that we don't do which, according to the classical Marxist tradition you should, is make use of contradictions to destabilise things. The current phase has gone beyond that. We are inside these movements but the role that we have is to bring our own ideas to bear. Also we are very aware and conscious that there are things that we are going to learn from the movement.

But if we are going to talk about leadership what we face is a new situation. If we are going to talk about leadership in terms of a party leadership then we are talking about something very precise. But if we are talking about leadership in terms of a network, a new form of organisation that we are experimenting with, then this is a very different thing.

I don't think a network has a centre because it is made up of many centres. A network can have a temporary centre which can influence the rest of the network and can attract the best of the network towards it. Therefore any expression or act of leadership is only temporary. Above all, even if it is only temporary it must have the capacity to attract people towards it. As an organisation we cannot be self sufficient. We must build and maintain the network, and we have to show a kind of leadership which is able to work within the network but which doesn't destroy it.

We also have to express the complexity, such as the complexity of bringing together the multitudes rather than the masses with all the obviously clear and open problems that there are. So if we are saying we've overcome vanguardism and the masses it is like taking medicine. For example the Black Bloc in Genoa have expressed a kind of vanguardism and treated everyone else as the masses. We think if you behave like that you destroy the movement.

What is important about this is the concept of cultural hegemony. We have to behave in such a way within this network that we bring forward the whole issue of conflict with the state, or with power.

In recent years another view has arisen which is called weak thought-the separation from power, from the system, the end therefore of any hypothesis of conflict. This has been the reformist answer to the defeat of the 1970s. We think we have to find an answer to the defeats of the 1970s. This revolutionary response has to be that without conflict there is no hope of a different world. We think that the movement that began in Seattle has posed this question on a planetary scale, because it hasn't only displaced a whole series of issues, but it has placed the issue of democracy above all other issues.

This great planetary change that globalisation has brought about means we have had to deal with huge modifications within our own country-for example that between our own national state and the global system. What we saw in Genoa was not the action of the military state, or the Italian state, and its 17 national police forces-we didn't actually see them in action. In Genoa the Italian state was an appendage of a global system, just as in Gothenburg. The police don't normally shoot demonstrators in Sweden as a matter of course. We don't think that the police in Genoa would have done what they did without the permission of Blair and Bush. We believe that Blair and Bush showed the way, and dictated to Berlusconi what should be done. This is a symbol of what is happening throughout the world. There are some supranational structures that, even within the rich First World, impose certain policies on national states, and these policies are such that there are no longer any economic borders or trade borders.

There is a tendency to resist this mechanism of the global market, such as continental groupings, like the euro and so on. We talk about three continents-the American continent with Nafta, the European continent, and the Asian continent. This way of looking at things should be taken to its logical conclusion. We now need to view globalisation not purely as a phenomenon of the market and not either as the great return of the imperialist multinational states, but we have to view it as a new method of capitalist exploitation which is global. This creates a great problem for us.

We had the phase of Thatcherism, of the untamed free market and the end of all forms of Keynesianism. We then had the next phase where it was necessary for capital to provide a political government and political control because we have never witnessed a market without government. This began with Seattle in 1999. The big leaders became the possible actors of this global change. We said even before Genoa that this phase was going to end at Genoa, because obviously a big movement had been born on the wave of these big summits, and the summits could not take place because of this movement. The movement was not born in Calcutta or Kabul but was born in Seattle, and this led the system to think twice and to think quite deeply. It is worth thinking about Karl Marx at this point when he said the revolution is going to be born either in Britain or America. This phase has come to an end, because from about 1995-96 we have seen the end of liberalism.

But then you had the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. And this has thrown us into a completely new phase. It would never have occurred before this phase began that the US would be attacked. We think that in this third phase we can see quite clearly why the world's leaders needed to create a world political leadership. It is very clear in this phase that they no longer need to get political control over the world, and they no longer need a government that is strongest and richest but they also need control which is the most just. They now want to put themselves forward as the just civilisation-and this is an ethical concept. The big effort that they are making now is to create this new anti-terrorist club which would also include Palestine. This is a tremendously ethical construction. And so it is a real political attack and manoeuvre that is being done. This indicates more of an imperial rather than an imperialist approach.

Alex Callinicos: There is more continuity with the past than you suggest. It is absolutely true that the major capitalist powers politically coordinate their interventions much more than they did in the past. And it's absolutely true also that there have been a whole series of cases recently in which we see a specific national state acting on behalf of the kind of cartel of leading capitalist states. In Genoa the cabarinieri were shooting on behalf of global capitalism, not just the Italian wing.

It is further true that great power interventions are justified more and more in terms of appeals to notions of justice and human rights. But I think on this last point this started before the 11 September. It was Kosovo that was the first humanitarian war, and Blair is particularly clear in articulating the idea that economic globalisation requires a political globalisation where the leading states act in the name of what he calls universal values. So Kosovo was a war for values as he puts it. Many other sad countries are going to be destroyed in the name of universal values.

Where I have a problem with Hardt's and Negri's analysis in Empire is that it is important not to underestimate the extent of the national conflicts that still exist among the leading capitalist powers. So for example you talk about the three regional blocs. The interesting thing is the US regards itself as the leader of all three blocs-it's deeply involved in the process of European integration, and its also very involved in apec, the Asian-Pacific economic forum. That reflects the fact that the US sees these different international institutions critically as instruments for the assertion of the interests of US capital. The US hasn't disappeared into an impersonal decentred empire. It is still the greatest centre of capitalist power in the world. The present crisis is interesting from that point of view because of course our leaders appeal to universal values-'infinite justice' and 'enduring freedom'-but it is clear that one of the US's major preoccupations that, whatever military operations take place will be assertions of US national power. This is partly because they don't want to be confined by multilateral structures. Moreover, after the humiliation of Manhattan and the bombing of the Pentagon itself they have to assert US power as brutally and ruthlessly as possible.

That just highlights what I think is still an endemic feature of contemporary capitalism-the conflicts internal to the capitalist class and the way in which the different segments of the capitalist class continue to rely on the power of their own nation state. This is reinforced if we look beyond just western capitalism, and look at the geopolitical rivalries between the US, Russia and China. It is clear that a big segment of the US establishment sees China as the big potential economic and strategic threat and is preparing all sorts of strategies to contain and control China. Now this is not the world of imperialism of 1914 or 1945, but a crucial element of the classic theory of imperialism which is the division of the world into rival centres of economic and political power. To the extent that Hardt and Negri say we have moved beyond that I think they can mislead us.

Just to come back to the other important question which is that of organisation and leadership, I am not sure how much we are using different words to say the same thing.

We have learnt enormously from the movement that has developed since Seattle. In lots of ways how we work today is radically different from how we did four or five years ago. The movement has changed us, and any political current that doesn't learn from the movement is dead. Of course it is true that you earn the right to lead and it is something that has to be continually won. Any organisation or current that simply asserts its right to lead, or bases its claims on its past performance, can't be part of the living movement. So these are points on which we are agreed.

Luca Casarini: I think it is important for me to be a leader, but not to say it. It's important that others say you lead and not to say it yourself. For us it is not important just to say it, but also to do it.

This discussion about empire and imperialism is very interesting. All the things you were saying are true, but this doesn't contradict the concept of empire, as empire contains imperialism within it. It is not necessarily a reality but it is a tendency. This helps to understand that nothing is obvious any more. For example it was impossible to predict that there would have been a Keynesian reaction after the World Trade Centre. And it wasn't obvious that they were going at first to form this international anti-terrorist club before bombing Afghanistan. This debate helps us to understand that the capitalist revolution is always driving forward, and we have to keep up with it.

To turn now to the issue of daily political activity-we found that it is very useful to talk about empire when we're talking about globalisation because those people who stand in the classic tradition of analysing American imperialism are those who believe in vanguards and the masses. They are also the same people who believe these movements, the anti-capitalist movements, are reformist movements, and so it's very useful to us to introduce new categorisations.

We also need to show there are great contradictions within all the processes we are talking about. We need to find not only a universal idea of the movement, but also a universal idea of the system. For example we need to go beyond the idea of the First, Second and Third World, and this conceptualisation will be very useful when we have to deal with the issue of permanent global war which is another important issue in terms of the whole discussion about globalisation. This movement up to now had not discussed war-in reality it talked about the market, the political government of the market, about finance and money. It lacked a very basic discussion about the army.

The other thing is this issue of permanent global war. Without war all of this process cannot be held together. On this subject it is important to go to the Zapatista leader Marcos when he was talking about the fourth war-that is, low intensity war as a permanent condition of war. This theorisation has been very useful to us in trying to understand this current move towards war and how to deal with the issue of peace-all this changes the very concept of peace. Because if we have permanent global war the very issue of peace needs to be completely rethought, because peace no longer means the absence of war. It will be very interesting to see what you think of this in terms of low intensity warfare.

Alex Callinicos: Whether or not we accept any more the distinction between the First, Second and Third Worlds, it is certainly true that the period of peace since 1989 has been one in which maybe there is peace in the rich countries but in large parts of the rest of the world there are terrible wars. Just one example-in the Democratic Republic of the Congo there has been a war essentially over resources, over the country's enormous wealth, in which two and half million people have died since 1998. No three-minute silence for them. Of course what happened in Manhattan is a great atrocity but there is a very real sense in which it was a moment in which the wars in the rest of the world suddenly spilled over into the very heart of the system. So of course the US ruling class have to drive it back to where it really belongs, so it doesn't threaten the core of the system.

So it is true that the idea that we live in a pacified world is an obscenity. This raises very important questions about the relationship between all these wars and the very structure of the system. It is a very important test of the movement against capitalist globalisation because Seattle came after the Kosovo war, and the movement as it began didn't have to take a position about war and imperial power. The real test now is, can the movement understand that to be an effective anti-capitalist movement it also has to be an anti-imperialist movement. I think the signs so far are very positive. If this thing had happened immediately after Seattle I don't know what would have happened. Because of the cumulative experience, and in particular the experience of Gothenburg and Genoa, people were already learning that capitalism isn't just about money but also comes with guns. So I think there is a good prospect that if we respond well to this crisis this movement can emerge stronger not just in terms of support but also have a deeper political understanding.

Luca Casarini is an Italian activist prominent in the Tute Bianchi (white overalls) movement. Alex Callinicos is a leading member of the SWP and professor of politics at York University.

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