naming the “anti-“: interview in the Manitoban

naming the “anti-“

Amory Starr confronts globalization

by Michelle French Features Editor

The Manitoban, 26 September 2001.

Amory Starr is an activist and professor of sociology from Colorado State University. She is the author of Naming the Enemy: Anti-Corporate Movements Confront Globalization. Amory spoke at the Mondragon on Saturday, September 8.

Picture this: I’m “conducting an interview” with Amory Starr in the back of the Mondragon Bookstore and Coffee House. Besides being interrupted by a collective member in search of tortilla chips, and another looking for brownies, everything is going smoothly, except that I can’t get my minidisk recorder to work (Amory fixes it for me), and the batteries are dead – (we search out a wall plug). In the end Amory and I keep the freezer warm (it was the closest place to a plug). I’m standing up against it, Amory’s sitting on it, and the minidisk recorder is sometimes in proper operation between us. It’s not your standard interview, but then what do you expect with a non-standard activist?

I say this because when I think “professor of sociology,” I don’t automatically acquaint this with “mass protest hopper.” The closest merger I can accomplish is the “sociological advocate.” Don’t get me wrong, Amory has assisted in the development of community currency, permaculture and unionization – more than your average academic. But she’s still a “sociological advocate.” Put simply, she is activist first, academic second.

On the road to activism

How many students reading this right now can admit to being radicalized by post-secondary education? You take a few political science courses, learn about global inequity and take a “left turn” in the road. It’s the sort of thing that pisses off bureaucrats, parents, yes-sayers – now they need to cleanse your mind of the leftist disease spread by outdated and rhetorical professors still mulling over the failed social transformation of the 60s.

You might (justifiably) question this temporal construction. After all, Amory proves that radicalization/enlightenment isn’t about indoctrination – it can and does occur according to one’s own receptivity.

When at Amory’s talk, a friend and activist whispered excitedly in my ear, “she’s all over the place!” He was referring to her education – she studied public art, did a masters in city planning, and then tackled her doctoral work in sociology. (I see few aging hippies in this picture.)

Her politicization began with public art and the culture of resistance.

I was politicized by people within the resistance so I’ve always been interested in how that’s possible – for oppressed people who are struggling for survival to also be resisting and creating new culture. Hip-hop was created out of nothing. It’s an art form that musicologists and artists have acknowledged is an entirely new thing … Since I’ve been politicized I’ve been fascinated by that process of resistance.

As Amory continued in city planning, she adopted political economy to analyze the economic manifestations of inequality in inner cities. Her understanding of oppression and resistance led back to corporations.

In city planning I discovered that communities of colour in the United States are facing many of the same conditions that Third World communities and Fourth World indigenous communities are facing. I began to understand that corporations were in fact the current colonizers of both the inner cities in the U.S., indigeous peoples’ land, Third World peasants’ land and the lives of Third World urban peoples. I set as my mission to bring the concept of anti-corporate to the world in a book.

Amory’s doctoral work began in 1995 as she set out to find and document pockets of resistance to corporate influence. At the start, she only found two small anti-corporate movements, but by the time the book was released the concept had exploded both in media and activist circles.

actualizing resistance

I know that the physical is insignificant, but I can’t help but mention that Amory does not look like your average academic. I’m not sure what I was expecting – maybe someone with bifocals, wild and fluffy brown hair and a stripped, over-sized sweater? What I got was a fierce woman dressed in a silver tank top emblazoned with the slogan “f**k corporations.” (I’m told she has one in every colour). But this is just symbolic. Amory embodies her activism in thought and deed in a way that – consciously or otherwise – supersedes the academic white tower.

For one she doesn’t hold academia in high regard.

It’s very obvious to me when I read the work of other academics writing about this movement that they don’t have a clue what’s going on. Most of that work in my opinion is very bad for two reasons. One, it’s bad because they’re not there because they don’t think they need to be – which is arrogant. It’s also bad because of the unfortunate way our profession is constructed that damages people deeply. You make your living from critique and that becomes an identity. I think our jobs are to find out what’s wrong with what other people have done. And so to dismiss the movement, to already know what’s wrong with it is to be a good academic and often people are doing that with very little information or with not very good information. Those two things work together to produce pretty bad research.

Amory does not feel that her book is an act of resistance, and only marginally admits that she sows the seeds of dissent as a professor. Obviously she is uncomfortably positioned within academia. Instead, she actualizes her resistance through in-your-face activism – she has been to Seattle, Washington, London, Prague, and Quebec; she has traveled by bus for weeks; left creature comforts and regular showers; and protested with the best of them.

When I go to a protest I am almost 100 per cent an activist, maybe 99 per cent activist and one per cent researcher. Otherwise I feel like a parasite. So I don’t take a notebook; I do what I feel like I need to do as an activist. I end up with a lot of data and I do write up field notes afterwards but I don’t participate in order to get good research – I participate because I’m first an activist, and second I have a job as a researcher.

“F**k corporations huh?” Now I’m starting to get it. The stereotype of the absent minded professor is wilting quicker than ever …

defining a movement

Amory is not without theorization – theory just happens to be wrapped up in acts of resistance and the labels those actions engender.

First there is the “anti-” in anti-corporate mobilizations. It isn’t easy to define a fragmented, decentralized, acephalous movement or series of movements, but in her opinion, saying “no” is a characterization worth highlighting.

We must defend the whole notion of anti-globalization because it defends the rights of some people, somewhere to say no to it entirely. I might not want to say no to everything, you might not want to say no to everything, but a core thing that this movement is about is the right of the U’Wa to say no: to say no to development as they see it, to say no to improving their lives as Occidental Petroleum sees it. And that is why we must defend the possibility of anti-globalization. To miss that, is to miss something very important.

Creating space for the anti- is also entwined in the act of naming the enemy – acknowledging and vocalizing one’s opposition to corporations. According to Amory this is not an anti-capitalist euphemism – it’s just more relevant and savvy to our times.

It’s changed a little bit in the last six months, but from 1995 to 2001 as I was looking at these movements, it was very clear – and I think that this is still the case – that a critique of capitalism doesn’t speak to many people. A critique of corporations does. When I wear my f**k corporations t-shirts and walk down the streets, all manners of people say ‘right on sister.’ Cops, street kids, small merchants, gay folks, all kinds of folks can relate to this and I think it’s the best organizing tool I’ve every had. That is where the political economy is touching people – through corporations in their culture, in their jobs, in their health care, in their food, safety, every aspect of life. Corporations are the manifestation of capitalism and it’s a language that makes a lot more sense right now than talking about capitalism. If we think about critical political processes, building a revolution – and I use that term loosely – is going to require a long conversation between you and me, between us and a roomful of other people, and within communities. It’s a long conversation but we will get to capitalism. If you read the analyses put out by organizations that call themselves anti-corporate, the critique of anti-capitalist is there – they just aren’t using that word.

Contrary to some beliefs, anti-corporate activists are not just against everything. In fact they are very clear about what they are for – we just never hear about it.

It isn’t hard at all to find what we’re for. Many manifestos have been issued with hundreds of signatories and NGOs. It’s very easy to find the Seattle Declaration of Indigenous Peoples on the internet – and it says what folks are for … They’re for autonomy over their land, control over their resources, autonomy over their own lives, the right to see to themselves, the right to say no to corporations, to globalization (which is called development) as it infringes on their land, their lives, their culture … Moreover, for anyone who has been to these actions, they know – and the media knows because they lie about it every day – that there are more educational events than there are actions [surrounding these protests] … It is a bald lie on the face of the media and distortion to say that we don’t know what we want.

Amory has spent a great deal of time documenting and creating broad categories into which she has loosely placed countless anti-corporate movements. There are movements trying to constrain corporate power through democratic institutions and direct action, movements trying to create international democratic and participatory structures – “globalization from below” – and movements attempting to delink their localities from the global economy. If you want the details read the book, but Amory has a lot to say about acknowledging without becoming immobilized by the apparent diversity.

In the stage of the movement we’re at now – where solidarity and momentum is the most important thing – we are not debating the differences in ways that will separate us. Right now we need to move, we need to stay together. We’re focusing on learning how to work together, learning how to see diversity in the process of this motion and when we have the power, we will then have a democratic process regarding how we want to rebuild the world.

How far does her vision extend? Far enough to avoid the pitfalls of egotistical declarations.

I don’t think I’m big enough or important enough to know [where the movement is going]. But I trust the people – we will figure it out. Once there is some freedom of movement and some freedom of political space we will do a very good job of figuring out where we are going. I believe that we’re going to win. I think that is not idealistic, I think that is necessary – we have to believe that or we will lose … I very firmly believe in our ability to shape a just, diverse, and beautiful world.

Amory and I chatted over the freezer for a good 45 minutes. Like I said, it was a non-standard interview. But then, Amory’s a non-standard person, with a non-stardard vision. It fits.