Back to the future

(Apologies for the recent decline in output here on Heresy Corner. I hope to get back to normal eventually.)

If you're Laurie Penny, the sight of a few people camped outside St Paul's Cathedral, to the evident delight of the smug left-wing Canon Giles Fraser (to whom they gave an irresistable opportunity to get himself on the telly AND be rude to the police) will represent the latest stage in a new and unstoppable revolution. But really it isn't.

Before 9/11 turned inaugurated a decade of displacement and paranoia, anti-globalisation protests were all the rage. Does Laurie even remember that far back? She's 25 so she might, just.

The Nineties seem to many people in retrospect like a land of lost content, Downton Abbey series one, one long party. It was indeed, for some, an era of rising living standards and rising expectations. The decade in which Things Could Only Get Better and the only event of real political significance appeared to concern Bill Clinton's sex life. But it was also the decade of globalisation, when the divide between rich and poor began to yawn like a chasm, but also when radicalised young people dared to dream that a bankrupt world system would soon give way to something nicer.

The works of Naomi Klein and (for the more discerning) Noreena Hertz were flying off bookshelves. Every time the G7 (as it then was) met up for one of their lavish beanfeasts there were riots on the streets. Kettles, too, although the word itself had not yet been invented. "Anti-capitalism" was, we were told, the coming thing.

Where did they go, those young engagés and enragés of yesteryear? Off into middle age, I suppose, most of them, as people do. But it was all once so happening, so visceral, so vital. Here's how Hertz began her book Silent Takeover, which came out just after September 11 2001 but describes a different world:

J-20. For those in the know the acronym is easily decipherable: July 20, 2001, the call for action transmitted to hundreds of thousands at the click of a mouse. J-20 - Genoa.... They flocked there in droves: pink fairies in drag, red devils anding out Boycott Bacardi leaflets, Italian anarchists in game-show padded body armour, environmentalists with mobile phones, suburbanites with cameras snapping as if they were on a day trip to the big city - a babel of different languages and different objectives gathered under the one "anti" banner.

No Twitter in those days. No malfunctioning Blackberries, either. But she might have been describing April 2009 or Occupy Wall Street this year.

In the concluding chapter, Hertz lays out the composition and aims of the "new political movement" that she can see emerging:

Their concerns, while disparate, share a common assumption: that the people's interes have been taken over by other interests viewed as more fundamental than their own - that the public interest has lost out to a corporate one.

The protestors include ordinary people with ordinary lives: housewives, teachers, students, business people, blue and white collar folk alike. Although their goals might be divergent... they share a scepticism about the promises and assurances given by those in authority and, thanks to the neo-liberal orthodoxy which has taught them that the state cannot solve their problems, considerable uncertainty about the role of government.

Hertz describes a "cycle of cynicism" in which politicians no longer have the trust of the people and "therefore have little to lose if they focus their attention of business rather than on voters"; there is "a widespread feeling that politics simply does not matter." Does any of this seem familiar? Then comes a roll-call of now forgotten mass protests at the start of this century. 80,000 took to the streets in Quebec in April 2001, followed by 30,000 in Gothebury, 150,000 in Genoa and "in December 2001 over one million Argentinians poured onto the streets of Buenos Aires in protest against the economic austerty measures that were pushing thousands below the poverty line every day." How very Greek of them.

"These are early days," wrote Hertz,

but if people continue to feel alienated from traditional politics and distrustful of the politicians' agendas, if they continue to feel abandoned by the state, and increasingly of the opinion that politics has been co-opted by business, if people continue to feel that the only real power is in the hands of unelected institutions, huge corporations and unaccountable supranational structures, the voice of protest will only grow louder and we will continue to see a shift from the politics of acceptance towards that of dissent.

Except that it didn't continue to grow. Protest movements, by their very nature, ebb and flow. They peter out when they fail to achieve their implicit aims of toppling governments and altering the economic structure of society. They are replaced by resignation and apathy - or by a credit binge. At least until the next time, when a new generation arises that has forgotten that it all happened before.

Nina Power, writing last week:

In the US and elsewhere, protests don't seem to be going away anytime soon. Despite mass arrests, incarceration, serious public order charges, jail, fines, deterrent sentences and police violence, despite authorities and the media who spend so much time, money and effort making protest seem pointless, unpleasant and dangerous, people are coming out onto the streets and, in many cases, staying there.

More and more people are becoming aware that protest works, that some protests will (eventually) make it onto the news, that solidarity and reclaiming public space away from security guards, cameras and police is a wonderful thing indeed.

Where will she be in ten years' time?


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