Twenty years ago, on Friday 20 July 2001, 23 year old anarchist Carlo Giuliani joined 50,000 others on the streets of Genoa to protest against the G8 summit taking place in the Italian city. The brilliant blue of the summer sky was obscured by thick clouds of tear gas as the Carabinieri (a branch of the Italian police) tried—with increasing violence—to contain the massed crowds of anarchists, socialists, environmental activists, trade unionists and campaigners for refugee rights. By the end of the day Giuliani would be dead—shot in the head by police—and, as news of the killing spread through the city, activists would be surrounding police stations chanting “assassini!” at the officers in the buildings and in the helicopters circling overhead.
The mobilisation against the G8 summit in Genoa—which I travelled to from Britain with a contingent of revolutionary socialists among 1,000 people organised by the activist group Globalise Resistance (GR)—was the high-water mark of the anti-capitalist movement that began less than two years earlier with the “Battle of Seattle” in November 1999.
Seattle was a major turning point. Ten years previously the Berlin Wall fell, and supporters of capitalism proclaimed “the end of history”—the supposedly permanent triumph of capitalist liberal democracy in its neoliberal form. Ruling classes everywhere abandoned state-led economic development and embraced the market. This was often done by social democratic parties and so-called “progressive” governments. Among neoliberalism’s main henchmen were Australia’s Labor Party prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, the US’s Democratic Party president Bill Clinton, and Britain’s “New Labour” prime minister Tony Blair.
It was a demoralising period for many socialists in Western countries like Britain. The class struggle of the 1970s and early 80s was a distant memory and social movements were on the defensive. There were pockets of resistance around the world. Important moments included the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, at the beginning of 1994, the French public sector strikes of 1995, and the 1998 mass movement in Indonesia that brought down the 31 year long Suharto dictatorship. People had been fighting neoliberalism in their own way for years, but it was only with Seattle that this resistance really emerged from beneath the tide of capitalist triumphalism.
Seattle—a protest and blockade targeting a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO)—was a shot in the arm to all those who held on to the possibility of a different kind of world. The WTO and similar institutions such as the World Bank, the International Momentary Fund (IMF), and the World Economic Forum (WEF), had for many people become symbols of everything wrong with neoliberalism. The policies they were attempting to force on the world encouraged the destruction of the environment, the indebting of underdeveloped countries, and the undermining of wages and conditions for workers.
Seattle was the moment of “Ya Basta!” (“Enough!”), a popular slogan of the time—the moment when the slow build-up of discontent with the status-quo broke out into open rebellion in one of global capitalism’s heartlands. The world’s rich and powerful, led by the US, wanted to use the WTO meeting to plan the next steps in their quest to dominate the globe. The tens of thousands of protesters who besieged the summit had other ideas. They massed at the entrances, linked arms, and stood strong against a violent assault by police. Many WTO delegates couldn’t find a way in, and, ultimately, the summit had to be called off early.
The message was clear: if enough people are prepared to stand up and stand together against the agenda of the global elite, they can be stopped. Activists everywhere heeded the call. Over the next year and a half there was a series of major anti-capitalist mobilisations: targeting the IMF and the World Bank in Washington DC in April 2000, targeting the WEF in Melbourne and the IMF and World Bank (again) in Prague in September 2000, and targeting the European Council in Gothenberg, Sweden, in June 2001. Seattle was the spark that lit a new flame of resistance around the world. It was in Genoa that the flames reached highest.
I arrived in the city via train on the day Carlo Giuliani was killed. As my comrades and I tried to join up with the GR contingent that was attempting to break through the fence surrounding the summit, we kept getting detoured as we faced clouds of tear gas in every street we turned down. In the end we had to give up on joining the demonstration and made for our accommodation instead. We walked past a police station with a massive crowd outside shouting “assassini!” but were unaware of what had happened.
We couldn’t find where we were staying and ended up sleeping in a park with dozens of other activists and woke the next day to find Italian comrades reading the papers and explaining what happened. The Carabinieri had deliberately driven into crowds of protesters. Some, like Carlo Giuliani, fought back, and it was then that he was shot by an officer pointing his gun through the back window of a jeep. Moments later, as Giuliani lay flat on the street—a pool of blood spreading out from around his head—the jeep reversed directly over his body. It was a cold-blooded murder.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the other heads of state in town for the G8 summit backed the police. They hoped, no doubt, that the threat of further deadly state violence against activists would deter those planning to mobilise for the main protest the next day. It had the opposite effect. Despite understanding that the march would very likely be violently attacked and that, given what had happened to Giuliani, they were taking their lives in their hands, 300,000 people turned out. The hatred of the corrupt Berlusconi government, and of the leaders of the world’s major powers who had gathered in Genoa, ran deep and wide.
In a show of defiance that I love thinking back on, the people of Genoa hung out their laundry in the days during the summit to spite an explicit directive from Berlusconi not to do so. This was their subtle way of sticking two fingers up to one of the most hated politicians in Italy who had open fascists in his government. Some of those who didn’t join the demonstration stood on their balconies raising fists in solidarity, hung supportive banners from their windows, or threw buckets of cold water on protesters to cool us down in the intense summer heat.
The march was an act of mass resistance that that shook Europe and the world. On that day, in those hours, as hundreds of thousands of us marched through the streets, the usually more subtle and hidden power dynamics of capitalism were clear for all to see. On our side were workers, the poor and oppressed, standing for a better world. On the other side—behind the lines of heavily armed police and the four metre high steel barricades—was a gathering of the world’s most powerful people, intent on defending the neoliberal status quo and the immense wealth and privilege it had brought them and those they serve.
Our defiance wouldn’t go unpunished. The march was savagely attacked. Police launched themselves at demonstrators, truncheons flying. Some protesters, desperate to escape the violence, climbed trees. Those who fell to the ground were set upon by swarms of police. Many were hospitalised, but, fortunately, there were no more deaths.
The violence, however, wasn’t over. Later that night, the police escalated again, viciously attacking the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum (GSF), a coalition of activist groups that was using a local school as a convergence and media centre, and as accommodation for protesters. It was where my comrades and I were supposed to have stayed the night before. On Saturday night, while we were on the train back to London, a group of 200 Carabinieri stormed the school and bashed anyone they could get their hands on. Ninety-three people were arrested (including some of our comrades), with many having to be carried out of the building on stretchers.
It was a place of sheer terror. One witness—Markus, a 25 year old social worker from Germany—told the Guardian: “They [the police] burst into the room wearing black masks, [and] started throwing things at us ... Five of us rushed upstairs and climbed out of a window and then down a drainpipe. But the police were there. They told us to lie on the ground and then they started beating us with truncheons and kicking. Three of them beat me for two, perhaps three, minutes. I thought they were going to kill us. Two of my friends were very badly hurt in the head. There was blood everywhere.”
The violence, however, couldn’t quash the spirit of solidarity and resistance that emerged from Genoa. That spirit continued into the following weeks, months, and years: in the campaign to free the activists who had been arrested in the raid on the GSF, and in the anti-war movement that was built following the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington that provided the pretext for the US and its allies to launch the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The intervention of revolutionary socialists was crucial to all this. There were people in the anti-capitalist movement who—because of their politics—didn’t know what to do with themselves after 9/11.
Some thought it disrespectful to keep attacking capitalism when the US had been attacked—for them anti-capitalism became anti-Americanism. This was a reflection of a politics that didn’t understand that capitalism is a total system (in which, for example, the drive to war goes hand in hand with the kind of corporate globalisation the movement opposed) and not just an economic one.
Many, particularly those in the movement with various brands of autonomist politics, thought globalisation meant the nation state was no longer important, and that it was multinational corporations, rather than states, that were the main enemy. These currents were disoriented by the rapid shift to a situation in which the power and violence of nation states became the central question of the day.
For revolutionaries it was clear that opposing the so-called “war on terror” was essential to building on the spirit of anti-capitalist resistance shown in the period from the “Battle of Seattle” to the Genoa G8 summit a year and a half later. The first European Social Forum (ESF)—held in Florence in November 2002—provided an opportunity to wage the argument that you can’t separate capitalism from war. This intervention was successful. The ESF concluded with a million-strong anti-war march, and made a call for an international day of protest against the threatened invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003, which was to be the biggest global mobilisation against war in history.
So long as capitalism exists it will generate moments of inspiring resistance like we saw in Genoa. The question is: how can these moments be turned into something that can actually pose a challenge to the entire order of capitalism? How can we go from saying (as one of the main slogans of the anti-capitalist movement put it) “another world is possible”, to actually building one?
Then, as today, Marxism provided a framework for understanding the destructive dynamics of capitalism and the most effective means of opposing it. It was by grounding ourselves in this framework that we, as revolutionary socialists, could make the connection between opposing corporate globalisation and opposing war. And it also allowed us to see—in contrast to many anarchists and autonomists who were active in the anti-capitalist movement—the importance of centring the working class within those struggles, and of building revolutionary organisations that can play a role in leading them.
Faced with merely spontaneous, unorganised resistance, the ruling class may be put off balance for a moment, but—as we saw in Genoa—they have ample means for finding their feet again and forcefully restoring capitalist “law and order”. Faced with the organised resistance of revolutionary workers, it would be a very different story. The challenge for socialists today remains to involve ourselves in every manifestation of resistance to capitalism, however small, and to win as many people as possible to the project of building such a force. The fate of the world—threatened, since 2001, with multiplying and deepening crises whether economic, environmental, or social—depends on it.