A handbook for activism

Issue: 115

Katherine Connelly

David McNally, Another World is Possible (Merlin, 2007), £12.95

There is a war being waged over corporate globalisation. The leaders of the G8 countries tell us we must trust capitalism to solve the problems of war, poverty and climate change, while the gap between rich and poor reaches historically unprecedented proportions across the globe. As David McNally points out in this newly updated edition of his book, three billionaires now have assets worth more than the gross national product of countries with a combined population of 600 million.

McNally’s book is a kaleidoscopic reflection of resistance from below. He attempts nothing less than an understanding of capitalism, what it has done to the world and the revolts against it. He traces the emergence of capitalist ideology back to the Putney Debates of the English Revolution, where Henry Ireton, a general in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, declared his “eye for property”; McNally, by contrast, has an eye for humanity. Neoliberalism in rural India is condemned for having impoverished farmers, and then McNally reveals the heartache: up to 3,000 farmers have committed suicide over six years in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

He expresses the distortion of humanity using Karl Marx’s writings on alienation, which he effectively sums up through “the familiar expression, ‘Thank God It’s Friday’…a depressing acknowledgment that work is, for the majority, oppressive, alienating, boring and dehumanising”. Marx’s view is vindicated through frightening examples of how much of ourselves capitalism has managed to sell—20 percent of the human genome “is now privately owned”.

However, for all the book’s dynamism and scope, the reader is left with the feeling that McNally is energetically depressed about half of the world. He sees the “Global North” as a graveyard of activism. The demise of resistance in the North can, according to McNally, be traced back to 9/11, which “came as a godsend for the ruling classes”. The global anti-war movement, which brought about the world’s largest international demonstration, is almost entirely ignored throughout the book because it “has been unable to stop the US war machine”.

There is no discussion of the US -neo‑conservatives’ project and how much its sinister idea that “American leadership is good both for America and for the world” has been challenged and stalled by resistance in the heart of the empire and in the Middle East. Nor is there a sharp analysis of the rise of Islamophobia. In fact, McNally concludes that the current wave of prejudice merely “taps into powerful racist associations of Muslims with evil” because “fear of Muslims has been central to the Euro-American identity since the Middle Ages”. It would be difficult to prove that any American in the Middle Ages even knew about Islam.

However much George Bush might see himself as a “crusader”, what we see today in the Middle East is an attack driven by capitalism to wrench open markets and assert US dominance. The resistance to this “project” forced Western ruling classes to demonise Muslims as international conspirators, in a pattern not dissimilar to attacks on Jews and Communists in the 20th century.

To renew the movement McNally calls for “Marxists” and “anarchists” to unite around “common goals”; he calls for “revolutionary pluralism, an ethos that, rather than trying to force adherence to a single revolutionary outlook, welcomes a plurality of radical perspectives, each of which brings different strengths and weaknesses to the common anti-capitalist project”. However, this fails to explain at what point activists should reject pluralism and insist on principle.

McNally tends to avoid any discussion about the relationship between movement activists and the working class. He sees the division in today’s movements as existing between “the cautious approaches of NGOs and labour leaders in the North and the more confrontational tactics of generally younger ‘direct action’ militants and activists from the South, who organise street protests at trade meetings”. While there is often more dynamism in the labour movements in the South, McNally’s analysis is based purely on geography, rather than a discussion about the legacy of social democracy and reformism.

Despite these criticisms, the detailed research in this book makes it a useful handbook for activists who want to counter the lies we are told.