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The Siege of Quebec City

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
Janauary 2002

Activists use the power of this medium to connect people to issues, create engagement, build community, provide opportunities for expression and give voice to a cause

In a relatively short period of time, anti-free trade activists have successfully inserted their messages into the public conscious and their demands onto the political agenda. Using effective organization and savvy messaging, they have showcased their campaigns through highly visible public demonstrations in Paris, April 98; Seattle, November 99; Washington, April 2000; Millau, June 2000; Windsor, June 2000; Republican and Democrat Conventions, Summer 2000; Prague, September 2000; Davos, January 2000 and 2001.

The next target of these activists is the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April, but festivities will start early with demonstrations at Foreign Affairs headquarters in Ottawa. You can visit some of their key organizational sites: A20 is the main coordinating site and Stop the FTAA, Trade Watch are actively in the mix.

As can be seen, they are already well advanced in their planning. There is good intelligence on RCMP security measures. Roles have been laid out for the marchers. Sophisticated media instruction is offered. There is even helpful travel advice; i.e., it can be cold that time of year in Quebec City; bring warm clothes and don’t forget your swimming goggles and a vinegar soaked rag in a Ziploc bag in case of pepper spray and tear gas.

The anti-free trade movement would not have succeeded to the extent it has without the Internet. The web has been used to forge an unlikely coalition of street radicals, leftist intellectuals, environmentalists, labour and church groups. Activists use the power of this medium to connect people to issues, create engagement, build community, provide opportunities for expression and give voice to a cause. In short, these activists have become experts at e-advocacy.

There are hundreds of easy to find, anti-free trade sites on the web. Virtually all promote the dangers and negative impacts of trade, and are characterized by:

  • Detailed and in depth information libraries on organizing and direct action;
  • Subscription and e-mail distribution lists to become engaged;
  • Extensive links to individuals and other sites that promote similar causes; and
  • Lively and engaging content, including first person accounts, streaming media (video and audio), action kits, action centers (enabling the visitor to fax or email a letter to an official or politician).

Pro-free trade web sites exist but most talk to the converted, only occasionally the media, and seldom to the public. They deliver little in the way of counter-messaging, and even less in the way of translating the benefits of free trade into language and symbols that are compelling.

Befitting a generation babysat by the tube, anti-free trade activists are media-savvy and advertising conscious. In the name of anti-corporatism and anti-consumerism, they use these trade meetings as elaborate ‘event marketing’ exercises designed to ‘brand’ trade liberalization as secretive, unequal, exploitive, environmentally destructive and undemocratic. Their goal is domination of the media coverage of the Summit with constant repetition of a small number of core messages. By caging in the event, they ensure the television image of the pro-trade liberaliztion side is of men in suits scurrying between buildings, hiding behind a wall of armed guards.

As a famous billionaire capitalist once said: “The Internet changes everything!” One of the things the Internet seems to be doing is reviving an old idea - anarchism – and making it viable again as a means of political agitation and action.

Most people’s image of anarchy is of confusion and lawlessness or a bearded bomb thrower. But the movement ran far deeper. Proudhon’s What is Property was written eight years before the Communist Manifesto and anarchism remained competitive with Communism for over 75 years. Anarchists were suspicion of all state and central authority and opposed compulsory taxation. Their emphasis was on local autonomy and local control and direct political acts – strikes, sit-downs, sabotage. In addition to Bakunin’s bomb throwers, it inspired the militant French union ‘syndicalist’ movement, U.S. Socialist Presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) and the early feminist and labour organizer, Emma Goldman. Because of its anti-state, anti-tax stance, it also had crossover appeal to right wing ‘libertarian’ movements.

But, the story of the last century was the emergence and ascendance of large, top-down, command and control organizations – whether corporations, trade unions, or political parties. Anarchism with its emphasis on local control and action didn’t stand a chance. In the East, anarchists went to the Gulags; in the West, a few were jailed and hung and the rest were relegated to the margins of academia.

But, now, the Internet provides a platform for ‘Open Source’ political activism. The result is a proto-type for a kind of ‘new age’ anarchism, retooled for the new century.

You can organize globally to act locally and organize locally to act globally. The web lowers the barriers to entry and places powerful information and communications tools in the hands of even small and cash-poor organizations. Groups find each other online and coordinate their actions without ever meeting. One e-mail alert eliminates mailings and does the works thousands of phone calls.

As we have seen and will see again in Quebec City, without a central leadership or command structure, hundreds of NGO’s can self-organize to “swarm” a trade meeting and push their issues on the public agenda.

These new age networked activists represent a serious challenge for governments, business groups and international organizations that are pro-trade liberalization and pro-FTAA.

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