Prague is over; the IMF/World Bank meeting has shut down early, thanks to pressure from activists who travelled from all over the world to protest against the bank's policies in developing countries. To most people it looked like yet another set-piece confrontation between a ragtag bunch of scruffy protesters and hard-headed cops in riot gear; after Seattle and Washington came S26, the Battle of Prague.
Yes, there was violence. "Black block" anarchists threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police; police charged and beat protesters, fired teargas and water cannon. But even the wildest of commentators estimate the number of violent activists as 1-2% of the 15,000 protesters. Almost all of the many hundreds of NGOs, trade unions and affinity groups attending were peaceful. Yesterday reports were coming out of Prague about police brutality and human-rights abuses against arrested protesters. Members of Ya Basta, a popular group of Italian activists who were extraordinarily well-disciplined and restrained in their direct action, have been labelled "terrorists" by the Czech authorities.
But much of the protest was a positive affair: there was a samba band, a pink cardboard tank, upbeat trade unionists from Mexico to Manchester; there were well-attended counter-summits, with intellectuals and philosophers theorising on the nuts and bolts of the movement. Many of the demonstrators could give, on demand, a sophisticated critique of the global economy.
Focusing on the violence makes it easy to demonise the demonstrators as something dangerous and "other". They are dismissed in a variety of contradictory ways: they're rioters, they're rich middle-class kids with nothing better to do, they're crusty undesirables, they're disorganised, they lack vision, they're Luddites. But by condemning them in such crude terms, we condemn ourselves to misunderstand the most significant political movement to emerge in a generation.
The Telegraph casts the activists as "highly educated, bourgeois offspring rejecting the ways and wealth of their parents' generation". Well, you do have to have the fare to get there. But when it comes to anti-globalisation, the developing world has led the way. The west is playing catch-up. Anti-IMF/World Bank protests have been held all over the global south for more than a decade, from Indonesia to Brazil, from the Philippines to Bolivia.
Critics of the movement can't bear the anarchy of it; they see its disparateness as cluelessness rather than a deliberate attempt to overcome traditional hierarchies. But if a movement can force such powerful institutions as the IMF and World Bank to come to a halt early, and if protesters can get inside the conference centre in spite of 11,000 riot police, 5,000 army back-up and a few tanks, their organising skills might be considered rather impressive.
In the run-up to Tuesday's demonstration I attended the convergence centre, where "spokes council" meetings took place, and found the sense of community and organisation there astonishing and moving. Every "affinity group" - NGO or group of friends - sent a spokesperson to meetings to make decisions and work out strategy. It sounds impossible to contain, and it was laborious, but it worked and consensus was found. It felt like proper democracy in a way that the ballot box does not.
I was aware, too, of something different about the experience of S26, but it wasn't until the journey home that I realised what it was. No one had tried to sell me anything. The night-time parties weren't sponsored by a beer company. Nothing was branded.
The movement's umbrella is a huge one, which can accommodate a vast array of opinions. Is that so terrible a thing? The Zapatistas - heroes to many protesters - say that anti-globalisation demonstrators are made up of "one no, many yeses". The no is to rampant capitalism, the yes is to different kinds of societies. It's web-like, it looks like the internet, and it couldn't exist without it.
The movement needs to ask itself where it goes from here. It must find a role that is not only, as Naomi Klein, chronicler of anti-corporatism, puts it, turning up at international meetings like Deadheads following the Grateful Dead. But this is a new movement, and it's in no hurry. Whether it burns out or turns into the next big thing will take time to see.
Clare Short says that the protesters are "today's Luddites ... their call to halt historical change and tear down our international institutions offers no solution" - as if neoliberal globalisation were an inevitability. It isn't. It's a particular form of economics, of human behaviour and development - as Nelson Mandela pointedly told Labour's conference in Brighton yesterday - and resisting it might just be more modern and radical than critics of the anti-globalisation movement dare to think.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000