Sunday, May 31, 2009

Political Allsorts #4

Something I started writing a couple of months ago but didn't get round to finishing, re: the question, did I go to the G20 protests on 1st April?

To which the answer is, (shamefacedly), well ... er ... sort of .. um ... late.

In other words, we got up to London in the afternoon and wandered into the city as many of the workers were starting to leave. We eventually found our way to the Climate Camp and hung around there for a while. I had a lot of mixed feelings : that I should be more involved, should have been there earlier, should be doing something. And yet I felt a little bit fish-out-of-water, like being at a party where you don't know anyone else.

At the same time, I had a sense of futility. That the protest was too miscellaneous, too unfocused. What was our agenda? What would have satisfied our demands? Was this not protest for its own sake rather than with a specific objective? (And I know that there are people who will defend the value of that, but I am still very uneasy with it.) I felt little energy or excitement.

The atmosphere was festive with people dancing to bike-powered sound-system or chatting in front of their tents. The entire street was lined with police vans and police standing at the sides, impassively. And for a while, appearing quite inert. They seemed to allow a trio of girls to dance atop one of their vans (though I couldn't see what happened when the girls got off.)

Then, I realized we were getting "kettled"; a solid line of police, impassively blocking the end of the street and refusing to allow any of us to leave. Then, walking back along the pavement towards the other end of the street where we'd entered, suddenly people were all running past us.

We stood confused for a couple of seconds, before a girl shouted at us not to try to stay. And then the police were charging. Not fast but definitely jogging. A skirmish as one man stopped, maybe to try to resist, and was whacked hard. As another policeman came up to the alcove into which we'd stepped back he waved the baton threateningly and we scurried away to where the crowd was being concentrated. Everyone chanting "shame on you!" and people remonstrating "it's a peaceful protest" and, clearly in response to something the police had said, "we don't need your protection".

The crowd, squashed together, still shouting, raised their arms in a sign of surrender. Rather horrible; clearly the majority were not there to fight, and wanted to make that clear. I certainly had no intention of, both out of cowardice and lack of conviction. And yet the passivity of the gesture was disturbing to me. The hopelessness of the situation. The inability of the crowd to do anything about their plight. From the safety of the crowd, someone threw a beer-can into the police, and some kind of moderator or organizer within the camp immediately turned on and started screaming at him.

Soon after, we found a side-alley that the police had clearly left open for the purpose of allowing pressure out of the kettle. And we gratefully sidled out and left. I felt no inclination to stay and see what would happen.

Lenin's Tomb puts things well:

I'm still not clear on what the strategy is behind these mini-spectacles. ... it seems as if the idea at the moment is to have a carnivalesque parade, wind up in one spot and get penned in only to have the police mess with you if you try to have a drink or some weed. I don't want to be a negative nelly, but that's not reclaiming the streets, it's getting owned by the cops.

I've missed out the bit where "Lenin" still *is* supportive of mass demonstrations and strikes because I'm more sceptical than he is. But that's the size of it. There was no way that this protest was anything other than organized in co-operation and co-ordination with the police. And more-or-less under control at all times.

I'm even more in sympathy with K-Punk's line. I've long believed that the only thing you could hope from demonstrations is to produce a spectacle that appeals to the mass media. And now the media is largely immunized to them. The official line was always that British decency and common-sense - as represented by both the police AND the legitimate peaceful protesters (who "wanted to exercise their right to have their voice heard"), triumphed over violent extremists. The police by maintaining order, the peaceful protesters by not turning into a raving mob.

Within this narrative there was pretty much zero acknowledgment that the protesters had any kind of argument or proposal, or that anyone was listening to it. The entire exercise of the protests was characterized in purely emotional terms. Protesters were "angry". And given that we, in Britain, are a modern, touchy-feely, "emotionally intelligent" sort of a place since Tony Blair and Princess Di etc., everyone recognised that they had the right to express that anger. But there was no sense that there was a rational agenda to be considered at all.

It's politics as a kind of cathartic primal scream that helps you get through the day.

Now, there's a lot not to like about this picture. But first, we should note that, somewhat surprisingly, a similar absence of reason was being portrayed on the other side. As it became clear that politicians were not likely to come up with any grand actions, you started hearing stories along the lines that what was really important was the appearance of a deal, and a photo of smiling and confident politicians which would raise the "animal spirits" of the market and so pull the economy back from depression. The market, it seemed, had little need to see concrete plans, but could be won over by spin and charm as easily as the media supposes the public can be.

This strikes me as utterly depressing. If it's true, then we have put our world at the mercy of an institution (the market) which is mind-bogglingly and unendingly stupid. If it's false (as I suspect) then we've got a bunch of stupid politicians, media analysts and (likely) high-financiers who erroneously believe it to be true.

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