Anti-globalisation, anti-war, anti-everything
Demonstrators at the Labour Party conference in Brighton seemed more paranoid than political.
Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the UK anti-privatisation/anti-globalisation rally on the opening day of the Labour Party conference in Brighton on 30 September shifted to become anti-war. Likewise, the anti-globalisation rally planned for 29 September in Washington turned into a weekend of anti-war vigils.
All over the world, anti-globalists are shifting their focus to become anti-war. But what’s any of it about?
Marshalled by hundreds of police officers through the pouring rain, some of the Brighton demonstrators tried to explain their position. ‘Capitalism was the cause of the war. The US government is money-driven – they don’t give a monkey’s about people’, said one student. ‘The USA is an evil force, the heart of capitalism’, said another – adding that America is ‘raping the entire world’. Many protesters pointed to ‘corporate America’ and ‘corporate interests’ as being at the heart of the West’s war-in-planning.
According to this worldview, globalisation, privatisation and war are one and the same: the rich and powerful pursuing more power and more resources. Addressing the crowds, one woman linked Blair’s public-private finance initiative to the anticipated raids on Afghanistan, arguing that both represent a ‘coordinated attack on ordinary people’. And the war, she argued, is merely the ‘armed wing of globalisation’.
But these perceptions jar with reality. The world has not gone to war – President Bush has seemed indecisive more than anything (1). And it is difficult to see any profit motive behind Bush and Blair’s planned action: it might boost the arms trade, but it would be a significant drain on national finances.
‘Wars are only fought to suit capitalist interests’, said one demonstrator. Others talked about oil, and the USA trying to ‘dominate Saudi Arabia’. The theory of oil interests was a long shot in the Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s – today it so implausible it sounds almost mad.
There is more than a touch of conspiracy theory here. Many demonstrators seemed to view the West’s moves towards war as part of a sinister plot for world domination. War/privatisation/capitalist expansion all fall under the vague gamut of evil forces trying to control people.
It is difficult to build a positive political movement on this basis. After all, if the world is controlled by an all-powerful force, and everything that governments do is in the interests of this all-powerful force, what chance is there of changing things for the better?
The demonstrators I spoke to were not positively defending a political cause – more than anything, they seemed to express a sense of powerlessness, that things are out of control, that people’s voices are being ignored. Western governments, one demonstrator told me, are under the thumb of ‘vested interests’ and ‘wealthy elites’: ‘They don’t care about people.’
In the face of these insuperable, dark forces, the very act of demonstrating has become more important than any political cause. It seems that, to many, just being there, raising their voices, simply being counted is what really counts. ‘Are you involved?’, I asked one young man. ‘I go on demos’, he smiled. According to a coordinator of Globalise Resistance, 1000 people travelled to Genoa, but fewer were persuaded to pay £4 a month to support the organisation.
When groups become little more than demonstration organisers, it is fairly easy for them to shift their focus. As the Globalise Resistance coordinator pointed out, they didn’t need a general meeting to decide to turn their attentions to being anti-war – instead, he just called a few dozen people to check it was okay.
The banners at the demonstration, which sometimes give a certain sense of political organisation, were deceptive. You might think that a banner represents the political position of those marching behind it – but time and time again I approached somebody carrying a banner for the Green Party from Nottingham or the Socialist Party from Lambeth or some other kind of party, to find that they ‘just met somebody on the bus’, and actually came from somewhere else and stood for something else.
The anti-globalisation movement has always been an agglomeration of disparate causes. In her book The Silent Takeover, anti-globalisation activist Noreena Hertz describes the demonstrators at Prague and Seattle as ‘a babel of different languages and objectives gathered under the one “anti” banner’. At the Brighton demo, anti-dioxin protesters chanting ‘no more incinerators!’ marched merrily alongside teenagers in rubber Tony Blair masks shouting ‘stop the war!’.
The anti-war cause has slipped easily into a generalised movement based around a mixture of ‘antis’. War, along with pollution, hospital closures, the International Monetary Fund, welfare cuts, has become just another symbol of the bad guys trying to control the rest of us.
It’s almost as if Bush and Blair’s stereotype of ‘evil people’ has been seized by the antis and thrown back at them. But less as political criticism than as the paranoid imaginings of a disempowered generation.
Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
More to it than anti-war, by Brendan O’Neill
The piece movement, by Brendan O’Neill
No politics please, we’re peace campaigners, by Brendan O’Neill
What’s anti-war?, by Josie Appleton
Judging the war, by Sandy Starr
spiked-issue: After 11 September
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