On Nov. 30, 1999, the World Trade Organization (WTO) planned on beginning its third Ministerial Conference in downtown Seattle. On the agenda was how to facilitate free trade among the various partner countries. Meeting this objective would entail the further removal of jobs from countries with relatively strong economies to countries where sub-par wages could be paid to workers with little alternative to taking these jobs.
On Nov. 30, an estimated 60,000 protestors planned a meeting of another sort. Citing human rights and environmental abuses—the result of preference given to corporate interests—these women and men created a blockade and a demonstration that drew unprecedented attention to the actions of the WTO.
On Nov. 30, the members of the WTO, an unelected committee whose proceedings by organizational fiat are not disclosed, never met. Webs of Power, a chronicle of the anti-globalization movement from Seattle to 9-11, starts here. Written by Starhawk—a veteran of the anti-war, feminist, anti-nuclear power, and anti-globalization movements—the book attempts to weave together urgent dispatches from the trenches of direct action, incorporating the passion and urgency of the moment, and more studied, deeper examinations of the networks in which globalization proliferates and the impact and future of direct action movements.
Provoked by the atmosphere of fear and hate that emerged following the Sept. 11 attacks, Starhawk reacted by compiling a record of events that would address the loss of momentum suffered by the anti-globalization movement. “The movement,” she writes, “suddenly faced its greatest challenge: How to continue gaining momentum in a climate of public fear and increased repression…how to challenge global economic policies when ‘capitalism’ and ‘freedom’ were being identified with each other by the media and seen by the public as the innocent victims of terrorists.”
A self-proclaimed “Pagan, feminist, Witch, and anarchist,” Starhawk has over thirty years experience in direct action organizing. The descriptions, ideas and suggestions put forth in Webs of Power are premised on the notion of “power from within,” an infinite and self-generating force. Unlike “power-over,” Starhawk’s notion doesn’t rely on controlling the thoughts and actions of others; “power from within” strengthens movements by inspiring others to engage them. Webs of Power is organized into two main sections: “Actions” and “Visions.” “Actions” describes Starhawk’s personal experience in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Genoa, and Quebec City, among others.
She highlights the organization and training of protestors leading up to the action, as well as what happens when police and protestors meet on the streets. These impressions often appear in the form of journal entries or e-mails written within days or even moments of the action. The earnestness and passion on display in these missives provoke the greatest compassion.
Ultimately, though, the record of these intense moments lacks the integrity one hopes for in a work of political and social significance; the multi-sided dialogue she claims to seek is lost in her own ranting. Her bias, though self-proclaimed, also limits the conversation in unfortunate ways. Early on, she inserts an e-mail response of her own that’s both eloquent and compelling in its insistence that rational non-violence, rather than eye-for-an-eye tactics in which demonstrators can’t possibly compete with police weaponry, is the only way to buck the system. But when she condemns Molly Mayhem, the woman whose Web posting provoked the e-mail, without printing the original posting, she misses an opportunity for fruitful discussion.
In the second half of her book, “Visions,” Starhawk lays out the organizational, philosophical and legal modes of thinking that keep the anti-globalization movement trapped in a reactionary stance. Here Starhawk posits a vision of the future that looks like nothing you’ve seen before. The vision has a long and intricate history with which she grapples thoughtfully and creatively, aiming for a more effective future.
Drawing lines that connect societal modes of thinking to abuse of people and land, Starhawk exposes the blind spots in our collective thinking. Neither Martin Luther King, Jr. nor Gandhi remains untouched by her critical eye. As an example of faction dissonance, her analysis of the dilemmas of the feminist movement is especially informative and pertinent. Throughout her analysis of the anti-globalization movement, she recognizes that individuals have multiple allegiances to which they must be true, and that fostering an environment in which multiple allegiances are not only possible but also a powerful asset is vital to realizing the movement’s goals. In this vein, Starhawk also demands that the anti-globalization movement expand its base, and re-envision who might constitute its allies. In response to Molly Mayhem, she writes, “You’ve let them alienate you from those people working in McDonald’s and eating at McDonald’s. You can no longer imagine that they might come to be on our side, and you can no longer think clearly about how we might win them over.”
Creativity and a postmodern perspective that rejects dichotomy allow Starhawk to describe a movement that might avoid falling prey to the divisiveness that has debilitated countless justice movements.
She is unafraid of challenging well-established progressive doctrines in search of a more inclusive and flexible movement. “To get unstuck [from an astonishingly homogeneous anti-globalization movement],” she suggests, “We may need to ask some new questions, offer some heretical critiques, and look more clearly at the history of how we got stuck.” Webs of Power offers an important, though by no means final, step in that direction.