Commentary. The movement that began in Seattle and continued in Genoa went from protest to proposal. The World Social Forum proposed to create an alternative to neoliberalism from below, with the slogan ‘another world is possible.’

A brief history of the No Global transformation

The tens of thousands of activists who gathered on the streets of Genoa in those summer days of 2001 did not appear out of the blue. They had burst onto the global political scene two and a half years earlier in Seattle, when they blocked the opening ceremony of a World Trade Organization ministerial meeting.

They belonged to groups from very different political and cultural backgrounds—heterodox Marxists, anarchists and libertarians of various stripes, grassroots Catholics, feminists, farmers-unionists, environmentalists, volunteers from third-world NGOs and associations such as Attac that called for the taxation of financial transactions—all united by a radical critique of the power of multinationals and supranational government organizations committed to neoliberalism, which then appeared to be the only triumphant ideology after the collapse of real socialism.

During that half-decade, between the old and the new millennium, the “people of Seattle”—as they were soon called—came to challenge the power of global institutions wherever they met, from Prague to Davos. It was a movement as globalized as the globalization it challenged, and its innovative strength lay not only in having understood that the dynamics of post-Cold War capitalism transcended national borders, but in bringing that way of thinking back into the daily practices of individual groups.

It was fueled by books such as No Logo by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein and Empire by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, by newspapers such as Le monde diplomatique, by the analyses of Philippine economist Walden Bello and by those of Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, by the battles waged by the Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva and the music of Manu Chao, by the temporarily autonomous zones theorized by the anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey and by the liberation theology of the Dominican missionary Frei Betto.

They opposed treaties that liberalized trade and GMOs, they advocated for direct and participatory democracy against the excessive power of the global oligarchy, they advocated a change in lifestyles and consumption, they fought against the exploitation of the planet’s natural resources, and, ultimately, challenged the global order that had emerged after the end of the US-Soviet conflict.

It was a direct descendant of the libertarian utopias of the 20th century and heir to the great movements of the century that was dying, from ‘68 to the long period of the ‘70s. In Italy, it fed on the vacuum left by the collapse of the largest communist party in the West, the ideas brought by the movements of the so-called extra-parliamentary left, youth activism that coalesced in the occupied social centers and the widespread penetration of Catholic grassroots networks.

The movement seemed unstoppable, and spread to young activists and old militants in every corner of the globe, thanks to information and self-produced imagery that circulated on an Internet that was not yet dominated by the social networks. They all marched together: those in pink, supporters of radical and non-violent actions, those in white overalls who advocated civil disobedience, and the hardliners of the black bloc, who smashed shop windows and ATMs as a way of striking at the material symbols of capitalism.

Then the repression came. In Naples, on March 17, 2001, there was a dress rehearsal for what would happen four months later in Genoa. On the sidelines of a forgettable OECD Global Forum and with the press distracted by the upcoming political elections, in the central Piazza del Municipio, there were concentric charges by the carabinieri, police and finance police, mass arrests and gratuitous beatings. Those arrested were taken to a police barracks, Raniero, beaten with hands and batons, forced to remain with their faces against the wall for hours, stripped naked, insulted and searched. Back then, the movement was called “No global,” and no one imagined that this would be the dress rehearsal for what would happen on a grander scale in Genoa a few months later.

In those days, protesters risked losing their lives. In mid-June of the same year, in the quiet Gothenburg, as a European summit was taking place, the police fired rounds at eye level, seriously injuring a young demonstrator. This had not happened since the so-called “years of lead”: that weapons would once again be used in street protests, and, moreover, by one side alone: that of the police.

From those days until Genoa, almost no one spoke about the reasons of those who were preparing to protest, but the narrative was one of high alert and security. Silvio Berlusconi decorated the red zone with fake lemon trees, and all hell broke loose beyond the barriers installed to protect the G8 summit. The movement did not end after the beatings in the streets, the killing of Carlo Giuliani, the torture in the Bolzaneto barracks and the raid on the Diaz school. However, after Genoa, nothing was like it used to be. Then came the attacks of September 11, the war broke out in Afghanistan and the season of protests against the rulers slowly died down. There were still some impressive ones: in Barcelona and Seville, where protests targeted European Union summits, while at the G8 on Lake Geneva between Switzerland and France there was a risk of a second Genoa when a policeman cut a rope from which a British activist was suspended, who fell 45 feet off a bridge and miraculously survived.

The movement didn’t die down; it transformed. It went from protest to proposal. The World Social Forum proposed to create an alternative to neoliberalism from below, with the slogan “another world is possible.”

The first edition, held in January 2001 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, had little media coverage. The following ones, after the events of Genoa, attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators from all over the world. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva held his first speech as president of Brazil in front of 80,000 militants from all over the world. The movement went from being “no global” to “alter-globalization”: it did not say no to globalization altogether, but proposed a more solidarity-based and internationalist model for it.

In Florence, in 2002, half a million people attended, and in Athens in 2006 the European Social Forum set up the preconditions for the incipient rebellion against the Troika and the austerity measures that in a few years would reduce the country and an entire generation to poverty. The last anti-G8 protest was staged between Edinburgh and Glasgow, in 2005. While thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to challenge the rulers of the Earth, the invasion of Afghanistan and especially Tony Blair, who had started the war in Iraq, four suicide bombers inspired by Al-Qaeda ideology blew themselves up in three London subways.

In a single day, two narratives that had only fleetingly connected in Genoa became welded together. Shortly thereafter, a severe economic crisis would shine a spotlight on many of the themes that the “movement of movements,” as it had been called, had anticipated.

Its time in the limelight, which covered the years at the turn of the century, was now over, but the questions that had created and nourished it would remain open, and for the most part are still unresolved. All the global movements born afterwards, from Occupy to Fridays for Future, even if they’re made up of young people who were still in diapers or not even born in the days of Genoa, carry with them and draw upon substantial pieces of that legacy.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!