G8: the myth of ‘them and us’
Sabine Beppler-Spahl visits the protest camps at the G8 summit and finds the grungy protesters have a lot in common with the suited and booted world leaders.
KUHLUNGSBORN, GERMANY — A fog is rising from the nearby sea. It must have been a cold and uncomfortable night for the 700 people who have gathered outside the press centre for the G8 summit in Kühlungsborn in north-east Germany. They are campers from Wichmannsdorf, one of the three campsites allocated to the protesters who have come to demonstrate against the G8 summit this week, and they are here to protest against ‘restrictions’ on what the press can say about this latest G8 meeting.
‘We’re a bit late because we were held up by the police’, a young woman explains. She calls herself Sylvia Wichmann-Camper – all of them, it turns out, have named themselves after the allocated protest camp they are staying at. ‘They are doing everything to stop us’, she continues. Another protester is angry about the ‘crude attempts to spread disinformation by dictating what the journalists inside the press centre are allowed to see and hear’. Other protesters call themselves ‘Rosa Camper’, ‘Carlos Camper’, and so on. Their real names? ‘It doesn’t matter’, says one. Where do they come from? ‘That’s nobody’s business’, says another.
They see themselves as members of a ‘big family’ united against the representatives of the all-powerful nations who control the world – that is, the Group of Eight nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The leaders of the G8 nations are meeting in this part of north-east Germany to discuss Africa, poverty and climate change, amongst other things. They have been greeted by loud and colourful protests, which have been described as ‘wreaking chaos’. The group I’m speaking to seem far too chilled out to cause chaos. Do they have a press spokesman? ‘No, a press companion, maybe – but everyone here can speak for himself’, says one.
They’re a mixed bunch. They might describe themselves as members of a big family, but ask them about their political beliefs or roots or their long-term goals and it turns out that they have little in common. Some call themselves ecologists; others anti-fascists or autonomists. One is a trade unionist and another a ‘Bible-believing Christian’. ‘We want to show them that we don’t agree with what is happening in the world’, a young woman with a strong southern German accent says. ‘Them’ is the ‘World Government’, the G8 nations meeting in Heiligendamm, a Baltic Sea resort which is a few miles away from the site of the protest camps.
The summit of the G8 nations started yesterday. It is taking place behind a security fence that is seven-and-a-half miles long and 2.5 metres high. It is made of metal and concrete, and topped off with barbed wire. For the protesters, the fence has become a symbol of the division between the G8 and everyone else, between evil (the leaders inside) and good (the protesters outside who are demanding a fairer and more just world). Many protesters view it as a David vs Goliath moment, a case of ‘them’ and ‘us’. ‘Those people in there do not represent the world. They have no right to speak for me or for the rest of the Earth’s population whom they exclude’, one protester explains.
The fence has become the focus of criticism in Germany and elsewhere in recent weeks. It is not hard to see why: it is an authoritarian imposition that really does curtail the right to protest and which elevates security above open debate. Presented to the German public as an absolute necessity to ensure the safety of the conference participants, the fence can indeed be seen as a symbol of division – of political elites strangely separated from the rest of the world. Long gone are the days when politicians felt safe enough to mingle with ordinary people, as in 1999, at an earlier G8 summit held in Germany, when then US President Bill Clinton was spotted drinking beer in a downtown pub in Cologne. The fence captures our political rulers’ sense of estrangement from the masses, from those they presume to represent.
Alongside the fence, there are 16,000 police officers and 1,100 soldiers protecting the conference site. ‘The government representatives themselves are constantly upgrading the symbolic character of their meetings’, says Peter Wahl, a leading member of the German campaign group Attac, which demands a tax on foreign exchange transactions in order to provide funds for the developing world. Wahl and others accuse the G8 nations of ratcheting up tensions with their fences, soldiers, guns and watch-towers.
In many ways, the fence is just as important to the radical activists as it is to the politicians seated firmly behind it. For the G8 leaders, the fence offers protection against attack (whether from terrorists or protesters), though how likely such an attack might be is up for question; it could be the politics of fear getting the better of the G8 organisers and participants. For the protesters, on the other hand, the fence has become a convenient symbol – of their own exclusion, of the G8 leaders’ failure to listen, of the divide between rich and poor generally. You get the feeling that if the fence didn’t exist, the protesters might have to invent it: instead of putting forth convincing and solid political arguments for change and development, they simply fetishise the fence as a symbol of how ‘unfair!’ the world is.
The fence is also useful for the protesters in that it gives the impression that they and the leaders inside are implacably opposed to one another, separated by steel and barbed wire, when the truth is that there is less difference between the protesters and the G8 leaders than you would think.
Ask the protest organisers what their main concerns are, and they will always point to three big issues: poverty in Africa, global warming and the potentially destructive impact of an uninhibited, out-of-control free market economy. These are exactly the same issues that the German government believes should be top of the agenda inside the summit itself. In the run-up to the G8 summit, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would add an extra €750million to Germany’s aid to Africa. ‘Debt relief would be better’, responded Sven Giegold, founding member of Attac, when Merkel made her announcement. Yet debt relief, too, is something that all G8 leaders see as a good thing; and as Steve Daley argues on spiked today, the G8’s ‘generosity’ in writing off the debts of Third World nations in reality means enforcing new mechanisms for telling poor countries how to run their economic and even their political affairs. Debt relief ties the poorest countries into new and humiliating relationships with Western governments and international institutions (see G8: who’s pulling Africa’s purse strings?, by Steve Daley). In demanding more debt relief, the protesters are only calling on the G8 leaders to do what they promised to do, and effectively conferring further legitimacy on the narrow and backward G8 agenda. Both inside and outside of the G8 fence, leaders and protesters share a low-horizons view of what is possible and desirable for Africa.
The protesters also demand action on global warming – yet this has already become a major policy plank of all the G8 nations. From Canada to Britain, America to Japan, the authorities are prioritising the war against climate change above all else. And often their policies on climate change have the effect of restricting people’s freedom of movement (consider the cheap flights issue in Europe) or justifying slothful economic development (consider how the European Union and others now lecture China for growing too speedily and ‘damaging the environment’ in the process). Chancellor Merkel tells the world that she has made the fight against climate change her main priority, yet anti-G8 protesters tell me that the industrialised nations ‘must finally realise that global warming is the real issue’.
In a vain attempt to demonstrate that they are a truly oppositional force, one of the protesters says the G8 representatives ‘cannot be serious about fighting global warming, because otherwise they would start by not having these meetings and flying people in from all over the world’. Unable to articulate any real differences between their own political outlook and that of the G8 leaders, the protesters resort to saying: ‘Well why don’t the G8 leaders just stay at home!?’ In reality, it would be a problem for the protesters if the G8 leaders did stay at home, for these annual summits have actually become the most important political focus of today’s mixed-up and directionless anti-globalist movement. Without these yearly gatherings, the 1,000 or so groups would have very little to talk about. They need the G8 summits; the summits provide the protesters with an illusory sense of focus and purpose.
So similar are the outlooks of the protesters and the G8 leaders that even government representatives inside the summit have expressed solidarity with the anti-globalisation activists. Thomas Steg, a German government spokesman, applauded the high moral aims of the protesters and their important contribution to pointing out the social risks posed by a world economy spinning out of control. Far from being a truly independent protest movement, the anti-G8 protesters are parasitical on both the existence of the G8 summit and on its agenda; they are defined by these yearly gatherings, and their outlook is influenced heavily by what is discussed and decided inside the summits. In many ways, the crowds outside can be seen as merely the protesting wing of G8 itself, an actual (if unofficial) part of the summit which plays the role of reminding leaders of their promises and ensuring that they live up to them.
The weather clears up a bit in Kühlungsborn. A group of protesters with painted faces arrives, as if to show that they are only performing, only pretending to be protesters.
Sabine Beppler-Spahl is an economist working in Berlin. She is also a journalist for the German magazine Novo.
Brendan O’Neill said anti-capitalist protests are like Glastonburies with petrol bombs. According to Neil Davenport, ‘street politics’ has lost its critical edge. Mick Hume argued that with the G8 summit and the Live 8 concerts in 2005, Africa became a stage for political poseurs. Daniel Ben-Ami argued that, contrary to the poverty-reduction goals of the G8, development should mean more than mere survival. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.