Organising the fragments

Naomi Klein, 'Fences and windows', Flamingo, 2002, pp278, £8.99

In her introduction to this collection of articles, reports and speeches covering 2000-02, Klein describes how she derived the title of this book from the images that kept cropping up during the editing process. She writes: "... the first was the fence ... barriers separating people from previously public resources, locking them away from much needed land and water, restricting their ability to move across borders, to express political dissent, to demonstrate on public streets, even keeping politicians from enacting policies that make sense for the people who elected them" (pxviii). Following the pattern set out in her No logo (2000), she makes these fences the target of her polemical ire and consequently they make up the majority of the book. From the streets of Washington and Prague, the USA-Mexico border and the mad cow disease debacle in Britain to George Bush's 'war on terror', Klein exposes the hypocrisy and empty rhetoric of free trade, vividly illustrating the disastrous environmental effects and human costs of the neoliberal offensive. This is where she is particularly strong, showing how the many struggles for local democracy and the basic necessities of existence cannot be accommodated by a global system geared toward the maximisation of profit at the expense of human needs. Klein also puts up a robust defence of "the movement". In her reply to Guy Verhofstadt (Belgian prime minister and author of an open letter to the 'anti-globalisation' movement) Klein makes it clear that it is internationalist, united by the necessity to link up its local fights against capitalism and its rejection of neoliberalism. As she puts it, "I am part of a network of movements that is fighting not against globalisation, but for deeper and more responsive democracies - locally, nationally, and internationally" (p77). In other words a movement that seeks to build on and extend the progressive potentials of globalisation, while not looking back to a mythical 'golden age' of Keynesian welfare capitalism (still beloved by some on the left). However it is Klein's (relatively pinched) discussion of 'windows' that will be of most interest to communists and revolutionary socialists. In an anecdote about her first counter-summit, she likens this experience to the peering through a crack in history, an open window allowing for "a sense of possibility, a blast of fresh air, oxygen rushing to the brain" (pxxv). These windows are sporadically reflected upon throughout the book, receiving the most considered treatment in the final chapter, where Klein discussed the problems facing the movement. Chief among these is the report on the 2001 World Social Forum, meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Here Klein notes some glimpses through the window, such as organised tours around land reappropriated and worked by peasants dedicated to sustainable agriculture, and the participatory democracy of Porto Alegre itself, where the residents have won the right to democratically determine the allocation of social provision. Klein also speaks highly of a wealth of ideas and experiences shared in the WSF workshops. But, unlike many on the left, she is not afraid to point at the yawning democratic deficit at its heart. She argues that the WSF initiative does itself no favours by organising in such a way that leaves activists on the ground completely oblivious to its decisions. Who makes them, how they are made and how they are accountable are questions that need to be urgently addressed. Unfortunately, Klein provides very little in the way of answers beyond advocating the need for decision-making processes, and calling for more democracy in the grassroots movements of coalitions and non-governmental organisations. The following article in the collection, on the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas province of Mexico, would perhaps best be viewed in this light. Here in this potted history of the uprising and role of the enigmatic subcomandante Marcos, Klein teases out the essentials of Zapatismo, a left politics summed up by "a movement of one, no and many yeses" (p216). In practice this turns on two interrelated political processes. An emphasis on non-hierarchical decision-making is combined with a commitment to 'deep community democracy', an approach proceeding from a community basis. This in turn could generate a social movement capable of building a 'free space', which by virtue of being an alternative way of organising can inspire further movements. Klein recounts how Chiapas itself has become such a space, serving as an inspiration and a convergence centre for activists internationally. For communists, this latter aspect of Zapatismo should be uncontroversial, considering that the drawing of inspiration from the 'alternative spaces' thrown up in the course of revolutions and struggles (such as the early Soviet republic, or the 1984-85 miners' Great Strike) is part of our everyday politics. However, it is the first element, the overemphasis on decentralisation, which runs like a thread through her work, that is the Achilles heel. In her discussion of the Canadian political scene, her concern with decentralisation correctly leads her to call on the left to champion local democracy as a means to combat regionalist populism. Left politics should be more concerned with 'empowering the grassroots' than calling for increased funding, an approach which tackles head-on the way we are ruled (and yet still dismissed by the majority of the left in Britain). But for Klein this does not require a new party, but a rather fuzzy coalition of forces, the composition of which is unclear. This is what makes Fences and windows an engaging yet tantalising work. Klein's polemics hit the mark and she is clearly aware of the key problems facing the movement, but it is frustrating that she does not draw the obvious conclusions. For example, she notes the confusion at a World Bank protest where the activists had to make a decision whether to block the exits or not. Because of the decentralised and fragmented nature of the protest, half decided to stay and the other half wandered off to do their own thing. Hence, when the time came, WB delegates had no problem negotiating their half-formed blockade. Whereas it would be logical to argue for democratic and accountable centralisation, all Klein offers is "better links between affinity groups ... [and] further radical decentralisation" (p26). Ie, the situation we currently have, where the anti-capitalist movement is generally apart from, as opposed to constituting a part of, the working class. In sum, Klein's Fences and windows has provided some excellent ammunition against capitalism. But as communists we must carefully examine the bullets before use, as some are liable to backfire. Phil Hamilton