In the Shadow of the Iron Curtain

Central and Eastern European Alterglobalists

by Grzegorz Piotrowski (Author)
©2017 Monographs 210 Pages


This book examines the alterglobalist activists in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Based on lengthy ethnographic fieldwork and numerous in-depth interviews with key figures of the movement, it covers mobilizations and actions between 1998 and 2011 and analyzes the process of adapting the alterglobalist way of thinking, claims and organizational modes in post-socialist countries. By pointing out the main challenges the movement faced, the author discusses the ways it tried to overcome these. The main argument is that the post-communist legacy (expressed in low levels of mobilization, in rejection of leftist ideals and discourse and in deep mistrust towards political life) had a tremendous impact on the formation and the shape of the alterglobalist movement in the region.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Abstract
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Studying social movements in Central and Eastern Europe
  • Qualitative studies of social movements
  • Arena of struggles
  • Gatekeepers
  • Key Informants
  • Sampling
  • The Interviews
  • Other Data Sources
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 2: Alterglobalism
  • Where does the term alterglobalism come from?
  • History of the movement
  • Key alterglobalist events in Central and Eastern Europe
  • Composition of the movement
  • Different levels of activism
  • Changes within the movement
  • Problems with Anti-Americanism
  • Organization
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 3: Western activism meets Eastern reality: alterglobalism in Central and Eastern Europe
  • Explaining cross-national similarities
  • East - west cooperation
  • The diffusion of ideas and practices in Central and Eastern Europe
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: Postsocialism
  • What is the area of study and why?
  • Central and Eastern Europe – history, politics and contentious protests
  • Social and economic transformations
  • Social apathy
  • The rejection of ‘the left’ and the dominance of the conservative discourse
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5: Civil Society, Uncivil Society and Grassroots Activism
  • What is civil society?
  • Civil society in Central and Eastern Europe
  • The ‘third cycle’ – youth between the communist party and the dissidents
  • After the transformation
  • The concept of ‘uncivil’ society
  • Civil society and social movements
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 6: The scene – the cultural background of the movement
  • The Scene – the background for the movement
  • Culture or subculture? Various models of subculture
  • Purity of the scene
  • Green issues
  • Conclusion
  • Conclusions
  • Local and national biases of the movement: to what extent can one speak about a truly global movement and which of its features are globalized?
  • What is characteristic for the alterglobalist movement in CEE?
  • Local specifics of the movement. Similarities and differences
  • Self-image of the movement and its reputation
  • A lack of variety within the movement
  • The goals of the movements
  • The effect of postsocialism on the development of the movement
  • The problem of the left
  • Differences between language and reality
  • Continuity or not: are the movements anti-capitalist or anti-systemic?
  • The development of the civil society in the region and its consequences for the movement
  • Infra and sub politics: how the movements define politics?
  • The concept of the scene and its significance for the movement
  • Bibliography
  • Table of figures

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The emergence of the alterglobalist movement shook public opinion around the world. Images of street riots the ‘Battle of Seattle’ in November 1999 began to circulate and soon became icons of the new wave of anti-capitalist protests. It was not only the fact the riots took place, but also the event that triggered them (the meeting of the IMF – International Monetary Fund and WTO – World Trade Organization) that raised eyebrows. Contestation of the world order based on the neoliberal Washington Consensus was usually the domain of social movements in the so-called third world that had been most affected by these policies. Changes in the world economy and the ‘shrinking of the distances’ between ‘us’ and ‘them’ re-ignited the discussion about globalization. Suddenly many issues around the world were linked together, both by activists and academics. Environmental destruction, the new economy based on the free flow of finances and its effects on societies affected by cut-backs in social security programs were linked to the effects of neoliberal policies. At the level of international politics, globalization (as interpreted by the activists) was also seen to be at work in military operations, with the war in Iraq being the main example. Political elites were criticized, especially the ‘neoconservatives’, who married the liberalization of the economy with a right-wing moralistic discourse. The Washington Consensus, according to many scholars and activists, is nowadays considered as responsible for: privatization, deregulation and outsourcing, weakening of the nation state and expanding multinational corporations. In fact, many of these corporations became the symbol of this process, where decisions taken by a handful of people have a huge impact on the lives of many others. To some extent, due to this, in the early stages (especially in the US) the movement was known as anti-corporate (Klein 1999). Multinational corporations were accused of introducing the logic of the accumulation of wealth into all spheres of life. Privatization and the intensive use of natural resources, exploitation of workers all have the same end goal according to activists: they re a result of corporate greed. As one of the Polish activists said in a documentary movie Władza Precz: “I’m getting sick and tired, when someone tells me they have to shut down the local library, because it doesn’t generate revenue. It’s not a fucking factory! It is supposed to provide books for people who want to read them, not to make money!1”. In this sense ← 13 | 14 → the alterglobalist movement might be regarded as revolutionary since it tries to change the dominant way of thinking about the surrounding world.

The deregulation of financial borders that leads to the relocation of places of work or to outsourcing production to other countries is also a development of the last few decades that for many is the essence of globalization. These changes in the location of production are being carried out without keeping the rights that were obtained through the 19th century workers movement: labor laws, trade unions, guaranteed minimum wages and control over working conditions and the impact of production on the environment. Stories of terrible conditions in sweatshops spread around the world, with (in extreme cases) small children working for 14–16 hours per day for few dollars producing expensive goods sold in the US and Europe. This was linked to the growing insecurity among workers from the ‘old world’ and a new economic reality. Precarious working conditions were now described under the more favored concept of ‘flexibility’, but it negatively affected many people (Ehrenreich 2001). Job insecurity, or ‘precarity’ became – along with globalization – one of the keywords of the 21st century.

Today many scholars claim (Williams 2008, McDonald 2006, Fernandez 2008, Juris 2008), that many events around the world signaled these upcoming events in the US and in Western Europe. The Zapatista uprising of 1994, one of the first events of its kind became incredibly symbolic. As the spokesperson for the uprising, Subcomandante Marcos said: “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, a black person in South Africa, Asian in Europe … a Palestinian in Israel, a Jew in Germany … an artist without a gallery or portfolio … a sexist in the feminist movement, a woman alone in the Metro station at 10 P.M. … a writer without a book or readers, and a Zapatista in the Mexican Southeast … He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak, their way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable – this is Marcos”2. Linking protests against the construction of river dams in India, campaigns against the devastation of the tropical rain forest and the crisis of the welfare state in Western Europe, all of which could be traced back to the same problem was one of the key novelties of the emerging movement. The other new feature was the wide coalitions of groups that organized the highly visible demonstrations, mostly counter-summits (organized to protest against big events). From anarchists to trade unions, from environmental groups to pacifists, and form ← 14 | 15 → socialists to members of the New Left, the critique of the processes of globalization was the common denominator for the new wave of activism (cf. della Porta and Diani 2006, della Porta and Tarrow 2005, Pleyers 2010).

What was different from the more narrowly oriented movements of the 1970s and 1980s, such as feminist, pacifist or ecological movements, was that their criticisms were all aimed at neoliberal policies and ways of thinking. “Profit before people” was the idea that a huge part of the younger generation around the world refused to accept (Pleyers and Juris 2009). It resulted not only in political action, but eventually also in the change of the rhetoric used by huge financial institutions (like the IMF, the World Bank) and, as a spin-off, the growth in popularity of fair trade products (grown and produced respecting labor laws and the environment). The impact of the movement that descended into the streets around the turn of the millennium was strengthened by the financial crisis that struck Southeast Asia in 1997 and later Russia in 1999 (and more recently the global crisis of 2008). The dream of Fukuyama’s (1992) ‘end of history’ began to fade away rapidly. Another morally driven claim of the movement was the uneven distribution of not only power (with too many things dependent on multinational corporations) but also of the profits. The stratification of the distribution of wealth around the world undermined the assumption that the growing fortunes of some groups, wealth will increase in society overall. Therefore in some countries the term Global Justice Movement was to be used3.

On the organizational level, the alterglobalist movement also had some novel features. Firstly, activism developed in connection to new communication and information technologies that allowed movement activists to not only become independent from the mainstream media (i.e. by creating Independent Media Centers – the Indymedia) but also increased the speed of informational exchange among activists. The new ways of mobilizing activists were centered on global Call for Actions and the spontaneous response to them. For example, the biggest social mobilization in the history of the world, that took place on February 15th 2003, was a response to such a call for action against the forthcoming war in Iraq. It is estimated that around 15 million people went out into the streets to show their discontent at the politics of George W. Bush and his military plans (Eggert and Giugni 2012), but many other events were organized along such lines. What was unheard of was the fact that there was no central coordinating body, no one was synchronizing the protests, only a call for action was circulated ← 15 | 16 → on the Internet and the mobilization was a spontaneous response to it. The huge variety of groups taking part in the movement, ranging from trade unions and Christian organizations to radical left and anarchist groups, resulted not only in broad ideological backgrounds, but also demanded a new mode of organization: a-hierarchical, without creating stable structures or attempts for institutionalization. This way of organization, called after Deleuze and Guttari rhizomatic networks (Juris 2008), began to be adapted for many other events, not necessarily connected to International Monetary Fund or G8 meetings. The lack of organizational centers and hierarchical structures was, on the one hand, seen as a huge advantage of the movement as it allowed many groups to join in and express their claims. On the other hand, it was seen as a handicap, especially after the dynamics of the movement slowed down after the initial years of intensive action. This lack of structure was viewed critically when people ask about a positive project put forward the movement – or more simply, when asking for answers and solutions to the problems the movement raises. An interesting analogy might be found in the title of Paul Kingsnorth’s book One No, Many Yeses (2003), who shows that the movement seems to be integrated through a common criticism of the existing world order, but has a wide range of possible positive solutions to the problems it identified.

In the first years the movement was labeled as anti-globalization, since the common denominator for its actions was the rejection or criticism of the neoliberal model of globalization. However this soon became problematic, since far right wing groups also became critical about the globalization processes. This name had negative connotations so after the first World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, Brazil, 2001, the self-appointed name of alterglobalists was used, referring to the main slogan of the Forum: “Another World is Possible”. The change of the name to alterglobalist movement (which seems to be the most common name for the movement and, more importantly, that which was used by almost all of my informants) from antiglobalist also had a more pragmatic reason: the first one ‘was much more objectionable’ (Williams 2008: 130). Nevertheless, both labels seem to be applied from the outside by journalists and academics, mainly because the movement has not developed a proper alterglobalist identity, or – as Donatella della Porta (2005) points out – its members developed multiple identities.

In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) this movement hit the headlines after the large scale protests on the streets of Prague in September 2000 that were a huge surprise for the general public. It also seems to be an important moment in the mobilization for the movement in the region, seen as a sort of a generational experience for the new wave of activists, followed by many other more local ← 16 | 17 → events. Although the Prague mobilization gathered 30 000 people in an international protest, the follow up demonstrations became gradually smaller which corresponds to the general decline in the movement’s activities around the world (with the exception of protests in Germany in 2007). It took the forms of demonstrations, anti-border camps, informational campaigns, organized boycotts, blockades and other forms of direct action, often inspired by similar actions in other parts of the world.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
Social movements Civil society Eastern Europe Anticapitalism Globalization
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 210 pp., 7 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Grzegorz Piotrowski (Author)

Grzegorz Piotrowski works at the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, Poland and specializes in the study of radical social movements and civil society actors in Central and Eastern Europe. He is a graduate of the European University Institute, Fiesole, Italy.


Title: In the Shadow of the Iron Curtain