frontline 7

Barcelona: 500, 000 against capitalism and war

Christophe Aguiton is a leader of SUD, a radical independent union and is responsible for international relations for ATTAC France.

It was the largest demonstration ever organized against corporate globalisation. Catalan police estimated the number of demonstrators at 250,000, while organizers placed the total at 500,000 and the media reported 300,000.

Whichever the figure, the demonstration at the European Union summit in Barcelona was at least as large as the July 2001 one at the G-7 meeting in Genoa. And the numbers are as impressive as they are unexpected. Organizers anticipated some 50,000, and the 100,000 strong demonstration two days earlier at the European Trade Union Confederation created concerns that dispersed energies might weaken the showing in Barcelona.

As in Genoa, police and media pressure was intense, making Barcelona's success all the more notable. Dozens of preventive arrests were conducted. Borders were blocked, preventing the entry of 1,500 - 2,000 French and Belgian demonstrators who wanted to participate, and obsessive anti-terrorist and anti-Basque fears were used to justify calling out warplanes.

The key importance of the event was that it was more locally based than any other mobilisation against neoliberal globalisation. Other than an especially visible and militant contingent of tens of thousands of Basques, nearly all the banners were in Catalan. Delegations from elsewhere in Spain remained discreet. Beyond the symbolic participation of a few countries, European representation numbered only a few hundred French participants, the rest of the troops having been stopped at Perthus by Spanish authorities.

The reasons for this success should be examined closely. The Barcelona European summit was, of course, important. The most visible agenda item was the liberalisation of energy markets, but other topics included the expansion of freight rail competition, labour market flexibility, and more technical issues like Galileo, the European equivalent of the U.S. satellite system, GPS. The agenda thus offered many good reasons to demonstrate against a Europe that is dismantling public services further weakening labour markets, and in support of a Europe which would respect social rights and the environment and would build different relationships with Southern countries.

But this summit was only the intermediate one under the Spanish presidency. In general, demonstrations concentrate on the final summit, at which the most important decisions are made. The classic argument holds that the WTO and the G-7 represent easier targets than the European Union, which provides, simultaneously, an opening to neoliberal globalisation and to a different social, economic and environmental model.

To understand Barcelona's remarkable success, it should be seen in the current wave of demonstrations against neoliberal globalisation. Since Quebec, Genoa and Porto Alegre, the movement has been in full expansion. Barcelona is one of its bastions. Thanks to contacts established after the June 2000 Geneva social summit and the Prague mobilisation later that year, the Global Resistance Movement (known by its Spanish initials, MRG) was formed and massive demonstrations were held. From that point on, Barcelona militants were seen everywhere - in Nice, Genoa and Brussels.

In Barcelona itself, when a major campaign was developed following the announcement of a June 2001 World Bank conference to be held there, the Bank chose to cancel the event. The campaign decided to continue organising and, rallying some 20,000 people, held a planned demonstration to celebrate the cancellation. For the Barcelona activists, the European Union summit represented the first "genuine" reason to finally undertake a mass mobilisation.The composition of the March 16 demonstration revealed the nature of the movement in Catalonia, dynamic and energetic young people, a wide range of all social movements, and decentralised, grassroots organisational structures.

Three blocs issued the call to demonstrate: the "Campaign Against a Europe of Capital," a direct heir of the campaign against the World Bank and most of whose organisers are very young and come from the MRG. The campaign brings together more than 100 organizations. Second, Catalan and Basque nationalists. And finally, the Barcelona Social Forum, with the parliamentary left (linked to the Spanish socialist party, PSOE, and United Left, IU) and the large trade unions (the Workers' Commissions, CCOO, and the General Union of Workers, UGT) under its banner.

The demonstration had all the features of truly massive mobilisations. In contrast with more institutionally-based demonstrations, in which delegations are staggered to maintain the illusion of large numbers, this crowd was compact. Delegations were massive, with more than 1,000 from the women's movement, 3,000 from ATTAC, and thousands defending the Palestinians and the environment or with radical unions like the French General Confederation of Labour (CGT), direct heir of the 1930s National Confederation of Labour (CNT). But all the groupings were mixed. The majority of participants were young, but the rest were of all ages and backgrounds. The badges of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), the Catalan arm of the Spanish Socialist Party, were visible in the independent groupings. Power relationships among the three blocs were clear. The 5,000-10,000 members of the colourful and lively nationalist grouping were primarily Catalan. Other than a few institutional representatives, Basques were drawn to the social movements, led by "Emen Eta Mundua", MRG's Basque counterpart. The Barcelona Social Forum was represented in similar numbers but discouraged by the lengthy wait, its participants decided to disperse even before the beginning of the demonstration. The overwhelming majority, affiliated with the "Campaign Against a Europe of Capital", remained at the head of the march.

Activist generations in Catalonia and throughout Spain, with the exception of the Basque country, experienced more dramatic divisions than did their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. The fall of Francoism shaped the radical left of the 1970s social movements. The Portuguese revolution sparked hope that the end of the dictatorship would be accompanied by a break with capitalism. But the democratic transition and the Moncloa accords shattered that hope and left a lasting mark, weakening the activists. As mobilisations developed in the second half of the 1990s, the terrain was free for a new generation of activists to experiment with new forms of action and build their movements. From across the Atlantic, the U.S. example inspired many, leaving its mark - in small and large ways - in Barcelona, from the raising of hands to show agreement, to the use of active non-violence, to the rapid growth of organisations. Thus the breakup now underway within the MRG resembles the Direct Action Network's dismantling after the April 2000 Washington protests.

But social ties are much closer here than in the U.S. And in a rare showing, the movement is now marked by new forms of militant action. For example, to avoid creating "celebrities" at the March 16 demonstration, the front lines included activists chosen for their anonymity. But the movement can also integrate all elements, ages and sectors of society.

A few concluding remarks, first, this demonstration will have an impact on the debate and how it is discussed. Madrid's daily newspaper, El País, offers an example in the following headline: "The Catalan capital was the site of the largest demonstration in support of a different kind of globalisation." For once, "anti-globalisation" was not the only description used.

Second, there was the secondary nature of the violence in Barcelona. There were several incidents, including garbage cans set on fire and stones thrown. Still, there was no major violence, neither in reality nor in media reports. After the rising violence in Gothenberg and Genoa, Barcelona, in the Brussels tradition, constitutes a sign of the movement's maturity.

On the other hand, the issue of unfettered travel in Europe is a significant problem. Government restrictions on citizen movements and participation in demonstrations in Europe cannot come to be seen as normal. Protests, especially ATTAC's, against these assaults on civil liberties have had some impact but the campaigns must be expanded.

Finally, the impact of this event on activist networks must be considered. It should prove very important in the Spanish context, the test coming in June with the Seville mobilisation around the European summit. More broadly, one of the key questions, in Spain as well as for the rest of Europe, is the movement's capacity to organise on the basis of limited structures. Without revisiting the question of the gains that the demonstrations' decentralised and democratic form represents, their structural weakness makes it difficult to share experiences and create a coming together of the Catalan and Spanish movements and their European and international counterparts.

That is the major challenge at the heart of next November's European Social Forum. How can movements pursuing the major objectives of Porto Alegre be developed globally, be based locally, nationally and by continent, and for all that, be able to formulate a body of demands and effective action strategies?

Paris, March 17, 2002 Christophe Aguiton