What the Protesters in Genoa Want


Genoa, that Renaissance city known for both openness and shrewd political sophistication, is in crisis this weekend. It should have thrown its gates wide for the celebration of this summit of the world’s most powerful leaders. But instead Genoa has been transformed into a medieval fortress of barricades with high-tech controls. The ruling ideology about the present form of globalization is that there is no alternative. And strangely, this restricts both the rulers and the ruled.

Leaders of the Group of Eight have no choice but to attempt a show of political sophistication. They try to appear charitable and transparent in their goals. They promise to aid the world’s poor and they genuflect to Pope John Paul II and his interests. But the real agenda is to renegotiate relations among the powerful, on issues such as the construction of missile defense systems.

The leaders, however, seem detached somehow from the transformations around them, as though they are following the stage directions from a dated play. We can see the photo already, though it has not yet been taken: President George W. Bush as an unlikely king, bolstered by lesser monarchs. This is not quite an image of the future. It resembles more an archival photo, pre-1914, of superannuated royal potentates.

Those demonstrating against the summit in Genoa, however, are not distracted by these old-fashioned symbols of power. They know that a fundamentally new global system is being formed. It can no longer be understood in terms of British, French, Russian or even American imperialism. The many protests that have led up to Genoa were based on the recognition that no national power is in control of the present global order. Consequently protests must be directed at international and supranational organizations, such as the G-8, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The movements are not anti-American, as they often appear, but aimed at a different, larger power structure.

If it is not national but supranational powers that rule today’s globalization, however, we must recognize that this new order has no democratic institutional mechanisms for representation, as nation-states do: no elections, no public forum for debate.

The rulers are effectively blind and deaf to the ruled. The protesters take to the streets because this is the form of expression available to them. The lack of other venues and social mechanisms is not their creation.

Antiglobalization is not an adequate characterization of the protesters in Genoa (or Göteborg, Quebec, Prague, or Seattle). The globalization debate will remain hopelessly confused, in fact, unless we insist on qualifying the term globalization. The protesters are indeed united against the present form of capitalist globalization, but the vast majority of them are not against globalizing currents and forces as such; they are not isolationist, separatist or even nationalist.

The protests themselves have become global movements and one of their clearest objectives is for the democratization of globalizing processes. It should not be called an antiglobalization movement. It is pro-globalization, or rather an alternative globalization movement ? one that seeks to eliminate inequalities between rich and poor and between the powerful and the powerless, and to expand the possibilities of self-determination.

If we understand one thing from the multitude of voices in Genoa this weekend, it should be that a different and better future is possible. When one recognizes the tremendous power of the international and supranational forces that support our present form of globalization, one could conclude that resistance is futile.

But those in the streets today are foolish enough to believe that alternatives are possible ? that “inevitability” should not be the last word in politics. A new species of political activist has been born with a spirit that is reminiscent of the paradoxical idealism of the 1960’s ? the realistic course of action today is to demand what is seemingly impossible, that is, something new.

Protest movements are an integral part of a democratic society and, for this reason alone, we should all thank those in the streets in Genoa, whether we agree with them or not. Protest movements, however, do not provide a practical blueprint for how to solve problems, and we should not expect that of them. They seek rather to transform the public agenda by creating political desires for a better future.

We see seeds of that future already in the sea of faces that stretches from the streets of Seattle to those of Genoa. One of the most remarkable characteristics of these movements is their diversity: trade unionists together with ecologists together with priests and communists. We are beginning to see emerge a multitude that is not defined by any single identity, but can discover commonality in its multiplicity.

These movements are what link Genoa this weekend most clearly to the openness ? toward new kinds of exchange and new ideas ? of its Renaissance past.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are the authors of “Empire.’