Beginners Guides: Anti-Capitalism

By Simon Tormey
Published by Oneworld, 2013, price £2.99 at Bookbuster

Review By Tim Barton

Merry Christmas! To all the parents out there. In theory, we are celebrating the putative birth of a ‘Messiah’ 2020 years ago. For those paying attention, this proto-socialist chucked the moneylenders out of the temple. Just as a ‘dog is not just for Christmas’, neither is chucking money-lenders out just for temples. Ask Iceland, one of the possible homes to one Saint Klaus, another socialist magician your kids will love!

However, along with the nice caring parents who are part of XR, teachers using ‘anti-capitalist’ materials in schools are now, apparently, on the anti-terror extremist Prevent watchlist! Lacking a clear definition of ‘capitalist’ and of ‘anti-capitalist’, as is typical of this government ineptitude, a moment’s thought puts the teachers of most disciplines under suspicion – politics, obviously, but history, sociology, economics, geography, philosophy, English lit… even maths, as it gives you the tools to see thought lies like ‘we have left the economy in a better state than the last lot’!


The Anti-Capitalism book to hand, by Simon Tormey, is no doubt now also politically suspect. It gives a brief introduction to ‘the hows and whys of capitalism’, and then spends the bulk of the book on a detailed history of anti-cap movements and their differ-ing goals and perspectives.
His starting-point is 1998, post-Fukayama’s hysterically blinkered announcement that ‘liberal democracy’ under free-market fundamentalist capitalism had somehow ‘ended’ ‘history’ – no, he didn’t mean the ecocidal collapse it will soon cause, instead cleaving to the idea that somehow the giant casino economy promoted by Reaganomics and Thatcherism had created a ‘utopia’. Well, it is famously known that ‘utopia’ derives from the Greek for ‘no-place’. 

By 1998 a global resistance was building, in part aided by the then fairly embryonic and ‘under’-controlled World Wide Web, and the advent of cheaper and smaller mobile phones. Cooperation between historically separate (either by ideology or geography) groups became easier to organise. The same held true for the anti-roads and animal rights movements, many of whose members were core to the ‘contemporary’ anti-capitalist movement (Tormey in ways denies previous groupings). Thus he skips the steps that led to the mobilisation, and begins with the actions themselves, in Geneva and Paris. His next stop is Seattle 1999, the first (in mass media terms) big ‘anti-globalisation’ protest. This one was pitched against the World Trade Organisation annual ministerial meeting and was very heavy-handedly policed, probably thereby recruiting more new members than it may have cowed. Thus Tormey concentrates on the activist networks that grew through the 90s and Noughties (which is fruitful, but also limiting).

I have long disputed the usefulness of the then popular term ‘anti-globalisation’, as it acted against the promotion of an alternative globalised movement, which was central to organising successful dissent. As an
activist-by-the-pen, on the margins of numerous (and often incompatible) groups, I saw the need for, and indeed the actual creation of, a global network for cooperation against an entrenched, politico-economic, quasi-global power structure defined by hierarchy and domination. 


So, in many ways, the adoption of ‘anti-capitalism’ seemed more to the point. Seattle was a big event at the time, and kicked a lot of us in other parts of the world up a gear – it was then that Robert Allen and I set up, which tried to bring a global perspective to left-green-anarchist ideas, and, despite the next big side-swipe – 9/11 – did so more or less effectively for the best part of a decade. In fact, the anti-WTO movement went global in 2000, seeing widely reported actions (and excessive state reactions) in, for example, Barcelona, Genoa and Qatar. It was also at this point that the media and authorities chose to focus on a small clique amongst the wide and growing movement, the so-called ‘black bloc’. I was and remain dubious about their role, but see the anonymity of the hooded rebels as also a root of the later ‘anonymous’ movement.

‘Anonymous’ and the next big action-network (in European and North American terms – Tormey also covers the period 2002-2010, including significant actions in for example Cancun, and the G20 London demo of 2010 that resulted in the death of Ian Tomlinson) of which it was a part – Occupy. The ‘occupy Wall Street’ intervention in 2011 was the first public mobilisation for what became a global movement, consisting of a ‘rainbow alliance’ (a term I pinch from our anti-Criminal Justice group at Cooltan in Brixton, active mainly in 1994) of otherwise in many ways at-loggerheads groups. This cooperative network had great initial success, and, like Seattle, in the UK reinvigorated the ‘anarchist movement’. Here, its importance dwindled fairly swiftly, as the ‘anti-’ nature of the movement could only succeed in plastering over our differences for a moment or two. It needed something to be ‘for’ as well, a shared ‘result’ to direct the attempt to alter capital relations should we succeed. In America, a few cities achieved just this. So, for example, in Oakland a small group of anarchists sympathetic to social ecology created a focus around direct democracy through citizens assemblies (here, too, this was one strand of debate) – ‘libertarian municipalism’. They are still going!

However, as this second edition was published seven years ago (the first was out in 2004), none of that more recent history is here. Nonetheless, as an approachable introduction to anti-capitalist ideas, it is an important and useful text. Parents everywhere – as your children’s schools have been banned from any formal teachings around the criticism of the world-destroying capitalist machine – this Christmas help your children survive and prosper by buying them a book on ecological collapse, such as the XR manifestos, This is Not a Drill and Challenge Everything, and this primer on anti-capitalism. It is a moral imperative.

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