Put Politics First
Saturday’s pre-G20 demonstration featured a mish-mash of often contradictory ideas that was more confusing than inspiring.
After weeks of hype, last Saturday’s ‘Put People First’ demonstration in London failed to turn into the popular backlash against the G20 summit and the recession many had predicted. Organised by a broad coalition of trade unions, development charities, greens and others demanding action on ‘jobs, justice and climate’, the march highlighted the absence of direction for political opposition today.
Arriving at the Victoria Embankment at 11am, I expected a swell of people tightly wedged into the road between Temple tube station and the river Thames. Yet instead of a lively, tense or angry atmosphere, the mood was akin to that when caterers are setting up before a wake. The workaday yet morose attitude could be seen in groups of protesters who milled about, rarely venturing beyond those who shared their own cause. Trade unions stood at the front, greens somewhere in the middle, and various other groups at the back. In the hour before the march began, the only activity was from a group of 60 or so members of Stop the War Coalition who chanted, in call-and-response mode, something indistinct about Palestine.
Standing in the drizzle, a twentysomething communications firm employee explained that he had decided to attend the march because he ‘is a socialist, so I think there’s a real problem with capitalism’. Yes, I nodded, thinking there are probably few in the country today who would disagree. But what did he think this demo would achieve? ‘Maybe the leaders will see our numbers and that will spur them into action.’ This proved to be a sort of refrain over the day, often accompanied by the claim that protesters were ‘raising awareness’.
As the sun came out and the cortège of separate groups started advancing in the direction of Westminster, I joined the main flow of people, increasingly troubled by the lack of world leader-impressing numbers. The thousand or so who began to assemble from 11am had now grown to about 10,000 (others claimed 35,000) as we passed the Ministry of Defence about two hours later. This was not only less than the groundswell anticipated by the organisers – and the police – it actually felt even smaller than it was. Away from the unions’ brass band, the march was remarkably quiet. Only scattered, intermittent chanting by smallish groups disturbed the scene, as when 60-odd French CGT unionists chanted ‘Tous ensembles! Tous ensembles! oueh! oueh!’, or a group of 15 Trots proclaimed ‘One solution: Revolution!’.
Every banner and flyer seemed to suggest that the recession is the biggest crisis the world has ever faced. There were differing opinions about what the nature of the crisis was: climate change, unemployment or malnutrition were among the disasters on offer. Many talked about the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of the recession, while at the same time the majority of those unaffiliated to one of the hundreds of groups present expressed a desire for stability, without any sense of how it might be achieved.
Ambitious oppositional programmes or visions were largely absent. Regulation was a solution, many felt, but would ultimately be circumvented through the legal chicanery of the big corporates. The need for more jobs and growth sat alongside the sustainability agenda, and while finance was depicted as parasitic and greedy, many thought blaming former RBS banking chief Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin for the recession was a distraction.
While the lack of political alternatives was hardly a surprise, more remarkable was the lack of energy at the demo, even allowing for the fact that this was designed to be the ‘acceptable face of protesting’ in contrast to the anticipated riots around the summit itself. Any potentially enlivening hubbub and flash of colour in the distance would turn out to be, for example, a bunch of middle-aged women dressed as fairtrade bananas, limply exclaiming ‘Free trade – boo! Fair trade – yay!’. Combined with the bleakness of the now clouded-over sky and sporadic drops of rain, the sudden physical sparseness of the march only seemed to drive home the vagueness and confusion of the bulk of the demo itself.
The rally in Hyde Park looked like the day after the last day at Glastonbury: there was a stage and PA, a burger and coffee stand, big ethical slogans in trendy lettering, young people sitting around drinking. While a trickle of protesters continued to join the barely 10,000 already there, the actor and former Labour Party executive committee member Tony Robinson delivered the first speech. He began by declaring that ‘we’re all facing a struggle, but it is one we can win!’. What this struggle might be, and what winning might consist of, was not discussed any further. The speeches that followed were equally vague.
There are some vague demands listed on the Put People First website: reform of international financial institutions; the creation of alternatives to ‘free’ and unregulated markets; and an emphasis on sustainability. Also detailed on the site is the vast number of organisations in the coalition, many with contradictory agendas, which was reflected on the day through the incoherent, tame and fragmented demonstration.
Put People First, if it is a collective expression of anything, is merely a cheerleader, not an opponent, of the G20 and the world system the summit is meant to try to uphold. Caught between a desire to kickstart growth, and an green-inspired distaste for consumption, the logical outcome is a call for stability.
This walking picnic for the activist community and its total absence of leadership, ideas, drive or passion meant that what was billed as ‘the biggest mass demonstration since the beginning of the recession’ turned out to be a damp squib, even by contemporary standards. Before we can change the world, we first need to be clear about what kind of world we want – and have higher aspirations for it than were demonstrated on Saturday.
Alex Hochuli is co-founder of Modern Movement.