It was hard for our ears to get accustomed again to normal noises of a European city again. Back from the “four days of Hamburg”, it feels strange not to hear the never-ending roar of the helicopters in the sky, the earsplitting sirens of police and special forces vans, the screech of tires.
A range of sounds usually not included into the daily life of a metropolis, but rather typical of a state of war and siege. “War” is the most suitable word to describe the events occurred during the G20 summit, with its meaning referring not only to the military field, but also to the wider, and metaphoric, sense of constant tension, distrust and struggle.
Both inside and outside of the palaces of power the air took, in different ways, a warlike taste.
It does not really matter that the press was focused on Ivanka Trump sitting at the leaders’ table, as well as on the argument about the fake news started by Putin, Trump and Duda: behind the media’s obsession for details there is the political and social failure of the G20 contents and of its model.
As militants who took an active part in contesting the summit, we would like to give a possible interpretation of this defeat focusing on both the inner and the external side of this G20.
Inside the G20. The new global “disorder”
As it is known, the most liberal and progressive press rotated its report on summit debate around Trump, considered as a “loose cannon”: the new President of the United States, with his populist and nationalist alternative, would be the one undermining the agreement among the twenty leaders.
On the one hand, the tycoon certainly hindered the mediation about free market and climate. Yet, on the other hand, it is necessary to acknowledge that Trump’s “transgressions” were not the only responsible for the failure of the summit, since it went off the whole role that the European Union, and particularly Germany, wanted to play.
The decision to arrange the G20 in Hamburg responded to a strategy aiming at strengthening the European leadership, in the attempt to legitimate again the project-Europe as a world leading authority able to fill the void that the US has supposedly left behind because of Trump.
The order of the new world was supposed to be presented at the end of the two-day discussion and presumed the synthesis among different interests, balances and counterbalances embodied by the old neoliberal élites (Merkel, Macron, Rajoy, Gentiloni/Renzi etc.), the new ones - disguised by an intentional populist restyling - inspired by nationalism, protectionism and, in general, close identities (US, V4, Russia), and by the Asian countries.
Due also to the recent electoral triumphs against reactionary populisms, Europe’s purpose was to achieve a synthesis with regard to Middle-East conflicts, the Ukraine issue and an agreement on free trade, the fight against terrorism and climate change.
What was missing in the European planning was that, within the historical fragmentation of the so-called superpowers, the struggle for hegemony was never just their prerogative; least of all, the US and Russia have not settled on a strategy voted to national interests or domestic policies.
That’s globalization, baby, wherein countries cannot refuse to act their international moves in order to guarantee the enhancement of the capital whereof they represent the interests.
Consequently, Trump never intended to pull back, he rather saw in the G20 the possibility to broaden in different ways and conditions the American hegemony.
The unanimous stance against North Korea, the bipartisan agreement with Putin about a ceasefire in Syria without consulting the other G20 countries, the addition of a clause about fossil fuels in contradiction with the Paris Agreement and the chance to gain access to “measures of national security” in the context of free trade are features that show this trend.
The tension has been extremely strong, the disagreements were as many as the issues left without an efficient mediation, starting from mass migrations. Ultimately, no arrangement between sovereigntist populisms and neoliberalism.
The only wish to accomplish all of that was a visionary ambition of those who thought to go back to the top and earn a renewed approval from European citizenship by showing that only moderate liberal forces are able to negotiate different interests and reach a reasonable mediation. The backward steps and the impasse come to light during the summit entirely break the future our old élites were looking at. The G20 shows a picture of the actual world, marked out by a “global disorder” that cannot neither find balance nor a plausible axis of mediation and composition of prevalent interests.
The only topic that seemed to lead to a common statement was security. In a world where this topic has become a paradigm including every single problem, the fight against terrorism concerned not only prevention from terroristic attacks, but also boundaries, cybercrime and new military high techs.
All this considered, if personal and collective liberties are sacrificed through this security paradigm, it does not surprise the management of public order against protesters. But we will come back on this later.
Inside the G20. What is Merkel’s future?
Within the frame of the situation described above, it is necessary to linger over Angela Merkel's role.
Germany, under whose influence and for whose benefit the pilasters of the EU were erected, is leading the campaign for the refoundation of the Old World based on the centralization of the decision making process and the increasing of ordoliberal policies.
Merkel embodies this German-led mission thanks to her providential (and very Christian) ability to unite each position beneath the “wide center”.
We can seek this function even in the choice of Hamburg as a location for the G20: Angela Merkel attempted to demonstrate her skills in mediating both with leaders and with a city that historically expresses the most a conflictual attitude towards governments, its soul being publicly leftist.
In this way, she would have accomplished two goals with a single move. On the one hand, she would have highlighted the virtues of a liberal State and of a democratic Constitution which provides for dissent (it is impossible to think that Merkel didn’t expect protests), as opposed to Erdogan’s, Putin’s and Trump’s authoritarianism. On the other hand, she would have showed her capability to contain this dissent by making it compatible with the rules of democratic pluralism. Moreover, the Hanseatic city displays the typical features of a North-European metropolis, rich and wealthy, animated together by strong values of liberal societies such as toleration and multiculturalism, a good work ethic, an economy based on tertiary sector and dock logistics.
Perhaps, this decision depended also on the possible positive effects towards German elections that will take place next fall. Clearly, the situation completely exploded in front of her because of the incredible attendance of activists to the protests. Also the project of a European-revival collapsed.
We will see what kind of effects the four days of Hamburg will produce on federal elections in October. However, the true core obtusely ignored and omitted by all the leaders is the incursion on the public scene of a third actor: social movements.
Outside the G20. The global and local multitude
Social movements were the uninvited guests who literally blew up the banquet prepared for the 20 Big Ones. Since the demonstration “Welcome to Hell” on Thursday night, it was evident that the management and the containment of radical dissent miscalculated, underestimating the long organisational process undertaken by political collectives in Germany and in Hamburg. Grass-rooted organisations developed a local connection with the civil society spectrum and a coordination with European-wide structures. The strength of the counter-summit’s organisation outsmarted the police devices aimed at hindering the most radical actions.
On Friday morning, the actions and blockades, planned to disrupt the productive fluxes of the metropolis, managed to exceed police tactics, resulting in the failure of kettles moves and attempts of detaining people. The confrontation between the demonstrators’ bodies and police agents occurred during the whole morning slowing down the daily traffic. As a matter of fact, the delay of the beginning of the G20 discussion and shutting down of the harbour were the evidence of the efficacy of the political initiatives, which were always adequate to the objective and subjective conditions of the situation.
The heterogeneity of practices and organisational features caught the attention especially on Friday afternoon, when thirty thousand people met up in a square to siege the place that was supposed to hold the gala dinner for the G20 leaders, the Elbphilarmonie. In this occasion, it was possible to notice a multitude of subjects, different between each other with regard to practice and discourses, united by a common task: to ruin the leaders’ party imposed on the city. The striking image of the composition of the demo was so remarkable that it was impossible to let it slip out: black-clothed demonstrators sharing the block with blue- and red-clothed ones; feminist and queer flags merging themselves with those belonging to environmental committees and other demonstrators' masked faces; Kurdish militants marching along with neighbourhood associations chanting St.Pauli football team’s slogans. It was a true cross section of a metropolitan society that could not be reduced to liberal values as wanted Merkel: on the contrary, it represented a constituent power and a free movement against the pacification of lives and customs.
Actually, the one-year long organisational process of the counter-summit gave the opportunity to converge various political identities and structures, partly thanks to the general themes the summit itself was supposed to discuss. The presence of all leaders of the world exposed the summit to each and every opposition on the basis of anti-racism, anti-sexism, struggles against austerity and authoritarian regimes, social and environmental rights. At the same time, the deep labour of building up a coalition between different subjects taken on by local collectives favoured the protests, making them root in material, daily and concrete struggles. Here the counter-summit in Hamburg has to be considered by a local point of view, with the city being an anomaly in the context of the European social movements. The social network of the city is in fact grounded upon activism, active participation to self-organized experiences on citizens’ part, mutuality between heterogeneous identities. This surface combined with the organizational tools deployed by movements was the recipe to have a successful mobilization spreading throughout the city and within all social layers.
The coalition against the G20 didn’t linger over the general call for actions against the summit on a general level. This is the reason why all forms of protest were compatible with each other, from the most peaceful to the most radical ones. The real effect was alike a picture composed of different colours well harmonized in the whole. The task to invade the red zone was not only an intention declared by movements, but also the will of many citizens who endured the G20 as an imposition on their urban life as for relations, economy and freedom of circulation.
Consequently, the consent for the conflictual actions stemmed from the local struggles, it was not an a priori political judgement concerning practices. It follows that the social context found a synchrony with the political labour of thousands of activists.
Whenever social bonds of local communities become political project, the link between process and contingent event is not forced or overdetermined. A prevailing part of the city didn’t want the G20 to be held in Hamburg and transformed this rage in a conflictual attitude. During the day no action undertaken by collectives was imposed on the other demonstrators’ heads inasmuch as protests gave birth to cooperation among activists and citizens, not to competition.
As further proof of the fact that Hamburg is anomalous, it suffices to think of St. Pauli and Schenzeviertel (where the social centre Rote Flora dwells). The neighbourhoods stood in solidarity with the demonstrators to the point that inhabitants opened their houses and their associations to internationals, exposed banners against the G20 and procured support to those escaping from police during the demonstrations. If the event was seen as an imposition by the inhabitants, it was for this reason that people from the neighbourhoods took to the streets against the nightly occupation of the squares practiced by police.
In the wake of the Friday’s brutal repression, the very same multitude multiplied itself and decided to occupy the streets of Hamburg gathering about 100.000 people defeating the fear, the securitarian paranoia, the leaders’ arrogance. The metropolitan social composition delivered a message of power to those that wanted them to be silent; it proved wrong those who hoped they would be divided. This multitude forced its presence whereas it was undesired. It shouted that the opposition between neoliberals and populists is false, the real alternative and solution to global crises relying on self-organized experiences and inclusive social struggles from below. Before the war against movements directed by public authorities and global leaders, social movements answered back by taking the challenge and winning it, as the interferences with the summit proved. After all, it’s not of secondary importance that the Minister of Internal Affairs stated that Germany would not host further global summits.
Outside the G20. War against dissent and police State
Indeed German movements came back from Hamburg with a victory. Yet, the repressive devices of the State and police actions cannot be underestimated. When we talked about Hamburg as being sieged we were referring to the 19.000 agents deployed to contain and to repress the various meetings organized by movements. The choice to put Harmut Dudde in charge to coordinate police operations was the sign of the firm hand authorities wanted to show. Dudde commanded preventive eviction operations against activists’ camps (nevertheless the legal authorization), arrests, convictions, charges on foot and using water cannons, irruption in private houses adopting a half Italian-half Northern European police technique. The whole tactics was sclerotic in the attempt to follow critics coming from public opinion, which firstly heavily judged the preventive repression on the Sunday before the summit, then directed ruthless words for the incapacity to contain dissent on the mobilization days. Nevertheless, police scheme to disrupt and split up demonstrations did not work thanks to the organization of the coalition we talked about. Besides, the mad chase for public order brought agents to act in an overaggressive way. At the end of the two days a lot of people got injured by batons, one person was run over by a police van, many journalists were attacked, some others were brought to the critical condition ward. Police vindicated its operations by applying the “exceptional legality” pattern, that is, the judicial space in which public security and its agents bypass formal procedures to be followed during street activities.
Repression put on the mask of the true authoritarian regime in the aftermath of the unsuccessful attempts to stop social movements, for example the use of automatic weapons on the part of antiterrorism special forces and the sweep against activists. On Saturday night a spasmodic witch hunt for foreign activists was put in place: policemen could be seen as they were running after, encircling, arresting and searching Italians, French, Spanish with hopes to blame someone coming from abroad for the disorder occurred. In doing so, police omitted to express formal charges and justifications for the arrests, implying the whole activity was legitimate on the basis of the preventive precaution to avoid political disorder. The transformation from the rule of law to the authoritarian regime is complete when intentions are took to the judge a priori. Freedom of demonstration, the right to publicly assemble and to circulate are questioned because they could represent a possible menace to public order; after all, the Schengen Agreement was derogated during the whole week and its derogation was procrastinated by the Internal Affairs Minister for another week. The liberal party FDL invoked the persecution of leftist activists. German government stated that the devices to control leftist movements would be enhanced by financing the all more police budget.
A real war against movement is led by German government, following the European tendency of repression, as in Italy Minniti’s laws show. War against movements accomplish the degeneration from the rule of law to police State. It implies that dissent is treated like something destabilizing political balance and public security. The discourse created by the power switches the logical cause-effect relation by asserting that the problem within constitutional State is the wide range of freedoms, not its limitation. A thin strategy to establish a permanent emergency state in order to legitimate the war from above whose task is the preservation of power privileges.
Exporting Hamburg in Europe?
The “four days of Hamburg” can give some hints about interesting political options in the immediate future. Firstly, the mobilizations let social movements to regain a European public scene and a primary role in the chessboard of politics. A need much more felt in a phase in which the debate of the left-wing spectrum seems to be only occupied by electoral alternatives to the current governance, lastly the French case with Melenchon and the British one with Corbyn. Secondly, the unexpected reaction to the repression devices delivers a strong sense of possibility within the post-democratic transition in Europe. It is too early to assert whether the weight this fact will determine over the European space of movements, also because the internationals’ participation to the demonstrations in Hamburg was limited. The identic reproduction of the days of Hamburg in other territories is unrealistic, yet we can learn from it that effective mobilizations being able to challenge power relations have to be rooted in local processes. The thorough question in the future will concern the expansion of local processes and social bonds by means of a confederation between all of them struggling against the capitalistic production and reproduction. It will not be easy, but it will be necessary: it is one of the chances we have to determine contradictions and to deepen the fractions within the enemy’s position. Maybe in this way movements can find an agency and restore the materialistic perspective of a radical transformation of present times.
Agire Nella Crisi (Globalproject)
*translation by: Anna Clara Basilicò; Fabio Mengali