There’s nothing quite like a protest through London’s iconic streets to create a sense of collective power – particularly when you’re joined by thousands to confirm the weight of shared grievance.
I remember joining a student demo that filled Westminster’s streets in the early 1980s, bringing central London to a standstill, as my generation sought to establish their rebellious credentials.
But those demonstrations did little to influence the then Thatcher government’s education policy. And the whole traditional demonstration thing has gradually lost its power and relevance.
One of the primary factors that has devalued public protest over the last three decades is that it has achieved disappointingly little. Last summer’s anti-austerity march, which followed Theresa May’s succession as prime minister, is a classic case in point.
Despite a widespread sense of injustice over a whole range of issues, from post-crash frustration and inequality, to an almost manic obsession with Europe and immigration, it miserably failed to focus hearts and minds – and, hence, attract the numbers.
The anti-Iraq war marches – all three of them – are, perhaps, the most powerful illustration of the futility of protest, at least here in the UK. Although, it must be noted that the Iraq war protests were as ineffective across the world as they were in London.
Nearly 2m people turned up for the third anti-war protest – (the Met police, predictably, estimated the turnout at nearer 1m). And it appeared to reflect widespread public concern.
But it still didn’t prevent prime minister Tony Blair from committing British servicemen and women to support George W Bush’s action to sweep Saddam Hussein from power.
Protest and democracy
A citizens’ right to protest remains a function of a healthy democracy, at least in theory, because traditional electoral politics has its shortcomings.
A vote in an election is not a full and final representation of the common will. While free and fair elections are the core of a healthy democracy, divining their voters’ messages is not always straightforward.
By contrast, protest might not be as respectable as a well-oiled election, the messages are at least a lot clearer. Even if the messages are more numerous and less acceptable. When rulers are remote from the ruled, mass protest poses a threat that goes well beyond the risk of public disorder.
Take the 1990 poll tax riot in central London as an example. This single event was probably the high water mark in Britain’s recent history of mass protest. It unleashed a fury that hastened the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. But it also left the Conservatives under siege long after she was deposed by her own MPs.
A quarter of a century later and that siege is nowhere to be seen. That’s thanks, in part, to Tony Blair’s New Labour, whose exercise of power rendered public protest futile. If the party that had harnessed the poll tax rebellion could support one of the most reactionary US governments in history, then what, really, was the point?
Since the days of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the scope popular protest has declined. Sure, there are plenty of noble causes. Reclaim the Streets, support for Palestinian self-determination, and protests about climate change and trade union actions. But most progressive demonstrations have made little overall difference.
‘We are legion’
And so, with that thought in mind, I joined the throng at the Million Mask March in London on 5 November – Guy Fawkes Night – to get a flavour of protest in today’s Britain.
Organised by the hacktivst collective, Anonymous, it gave an opportunity for the hordes to protest at the litany of issues the West’s elites are ignoring. These include catastrophic climate change, immigration, the chasm of inequality, the democratic deficit, surveillance and corporate control.
‘We are legion’ is one of the Anonymous group’s rallying cries. But that assertion was difficult to support on that mild November evening, even though the marchers were articulate, witty and entertainingly unpredictable.
The marchers, whose numbers were uncharitably estimated at around the 10,000 mark, reflected the topics of common agitation. And the protagonists were fairly predictable, too.
There were very English anarchists, with their well-made and amusing observations about living in a police state. The jokes about uniforms and authority in the bedroom made by one man with a megaphone provided some welcome light relief. Beautifully articulate and challenging, this was the mainly-white, middle-aged section of the protest.
Others, largely younger and drawn from across ethnic groups, were concerned with economic injustice – bankers and debt – immigration, policing, as well as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. All their points were well made. Ultimately, though, the protesters were too nice to cause anything other than symbolic confrontations with the forces of law and order.
There were those who did want to taunt the police – especially around Buckingham Palace, the Royal parks and, as the night progressed, the entrance to The Strand from Trafalgar Square. They depicted the police as the agents of religious and ethnic oppression, especially of anyone who seemed vaguely muslim.
Shake, rattle and run
Meanwhile, there was a significant contingent who saw the event as just a big party. Fuelled by alcohol and other recreational drugs, this largely well-natured section of the assembled masses just wanted a good time. Many were keen to discuss their views on policing with receptive officers. Others were happy to become embroiled in skirmishes – against the middle-class anarchists’ megaphone appeals to keep things peaceful.
To keep things bubbling along nicely, the Met’s finest ran provocative and dramatic mini-operations. Snatch teams surged through the crowds to isolate, pin down and remove their selected targets.
By the night’s end, the Met had made 47 arrests. The majority were for drug offences and obstructing officers, which didn’t tally with the dramatic, surgical-strike strategy. I’m sure the Met had its reasons, but it had the appearances of a symbolic show of strength.
Still, from 10pm, police lines cut the protesters off from their escape routes via The Strand, Charing Cross and Leicester Square. Thus, the crowd gradually drifted away westward along Whitehall – a victory for the Met after being caught off-guard the previous year by a considerably smaller turnout.
Ultimately, however, the concerns that linked this loose grouping of marchers appeared to be too tenuous to create a united and coherent coalition. Overall, the protest felt smaller than the sum of its parts. The point was obvious from the start. The marchers split off into sections and wandered their different ways before returning to Nelson’s Column for a bit of chanting. It was all a bit chaotic – but they’re anarchists, so what should we expect?
Lack of leverage
I reflected on the state of protest in modern Britain as I made my circuitous route back to Embankment tube station. Most of the night’s banners and chants stated more-than-legitimate points. But this doesn’t add up to a row of beans when there’s no economic muscle to back up the slogans.
The most basic ingredient of a powerful protest movement was missing: an understanding of and willingness to leverage change.
This is what blights the political Left today; it too easily resorts to its narratives, forms of resistance and glories of the past. It not only fails to engage a new, wider constituency but, more importantly, fails to make a difference.
Neither the Westminster-dominated political system nor its symbiotically-connected media circus care what a group of anarchists armed with drums and banners think about the banking system.
It’s contemptuous of what the respectable Left or, indeed, anyone else thinks if it doesn’t chime with its perceived interests. And this was obvious from most of the post-event coverage.
Distracted by the migration crisis and the real threat of terrorism, ‘the system’ has become complacent about social and economic justice. Instead, the state delivers cruelty and indifference to large swathes of its least privileged population – and, bereft of arguments and leverage, the Left’s resistance is toothless.
In fact, the lack of imagination around power and leverage is probably the Left’s single most critical weakness now the trade union movement has been boxed into a corner. This was the inevitable result of the Left’s modernisers: Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK and the Democratic Party in the US, which sought to out-neoliberal the Right.
As Blair told the 2005 Labour Party conference:
“I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.
“The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”
Too many of his generation of managerial politicians put distance between themselves and their own support base. They were too prepared to take the ‘tough decisions’ that disproportionately affected the poor. And they helped spawn a political class that used a managerial narrative that deadened the momentum for reform.
And now they’re reaping the reward. The majority of the West’s Left-leaning parties, especially in Europe, have lost their core support’s hearts and minds. At least for now.
Here in the UK, the Blairite’s self-satisfaction was horribly exposed by the 2008 financial crash. This finally brought home how traditional working-class communities had been betrayed and forgotten.
Undercut by foreign workers and the distant exodus of manufacturing jobs, these communities are angry over the loss of cohesion, identity and opportunity. Unsurprisingly, they have jumped ship.
As these communities tend to be socially conservative, their allegiances have naturally shifted rightwards in the absence of an engaging Left alternative. The ‘ordinary working-classes’ have little in common with the Left’s ideological types.
Yet the Left’s answers stare them in the face – and, indeed, both were referred to in some of the banners on show at the Million Mask March.
One of them is immigration, a source of cultural and economic uncertainty for Labour’s core support. The other is debt. Both play a major role in expanding the precariat’s ranks.
Immigration and debt
The Left’s association with uncontrolled immigration, whether fair or unfair, has destroyed the coalition of ideological Left and working-class base. The Left’s wilful failure to develop a convincing narrative, plus its contempt for those fearful of the pace of immigration, was an open goal.
Of the two, however, debt’s silent effect is possibly more significant because of its role in fuelling corporate globalisation. Capital can cross national boundaries in a flash to take advantage of lower production costs. Working people, meanwhile, are tied down by jobs, family, mortgages and national boundaries.
Debt – or, more precisely, the fractional-reserve banking system that creates it – is both the cause of a sense of powerlessness and the key to addressing it.
At face value, debt is a source of weakness. But look at how the money supply is an opaque system of wealth confiscation subcontracted to a secretive, unaccountable and predatory banking sector. Suddenly, one gains a whole new perspective on debt. Debt saturation is no longer seen as the collective failings of individuals. Instead, it’s the unavoidable result of remaining economically active.
Debt is a structural issue, not just a question about individual responsibility.
In 1945, notes and coins made up around 40% of the total money supply. Today, that figure stands at just 2.6%.
The rest – 97.4% – is created as debt by commercial banks when they make loans. So, even where bank customers are in credit, someone somewhere is paying interest on their deposits.
This is deception enough, but the financial elite’s real genius has been to make debt aspirational.
Loans might be called ‘credit’ or ‘mortgages’ and marketed as gifts from the Great Providers – the banks. But it’s still debt, which entails paying interest on ‘accounting units’ created out of nothing.
Positive Money estimates that Britons pay their banks interest of between £90bn and £140bn each year. Interest payments are a major driver of wealth inequality, facilitated as it is by money that doesn’t exist.
The real point, however, is that debt dependancy has consequences far beyond the mundanities of a double-entry accounting system. The ability to create money out of nothing gives the banking sector the power to play god with our lives.
But debt has wider political effects. Accepting debt creates a sense of obligation in the debtor to the creditor, making them more pliant and socially conservative. This goes some way to explaining the absence of protest at the lack of post-crash accountability.
Tomorrow’s labour consumed today
Also, in economic terms, debt effectively involves spending tomorrow’s supply of labour and natural resources today. In this way, debt has inflated consumption to levels which are socially, economically and environmentally unsustainable.
And the debt dynamo is self-fuelling because the more indebted we become, the more debt we need to keep the show on the road. Hence, the debt-money supply and the consumption it drives grows at an exponential rate.
Given that we inhabit a finite world, the debt dynamo is driving us towards inevitable collapse, yet the Left – the natural home of dissent – is largely silent on the subject. Which is strange, given debt is central to any questions of social, economic or environmental justice.
Even stranger is the fact that debt never surfaces as a means of exercising leverage. Unconstrained by piss-poor or non-existent regulation or supervision, the global financial system is saddled with debts that can simply never be paid.
In the absence of a solution from the formal political system, any social movement that challenges the legitimacy of debt, or even implies the possibility of debt strikes, will pose an existential threat to large parts of the banking system. Yet debt strikes are never considered part of the reformer’s armoury.
Capitalism or socialism?
Instead, the Left’s tendency is to get trapped in a binary choice over whether capitalism should or shouldn’t exist.
What it hasn’t done is define a form of capitalism that’s distinct from the central injustice of the neoliberal revolution. It has not addressed today’s exclusive focus on growing financial capital, to the detriment of human and natural capital.
Capitalism needs to account for the costs and benefits of deploying all three forms of capital to function.
Advocating an economy that prices in the real costs of using human and natural capital, as well as finance, would not only be an irresistible counterweight to the tyranny of money men. It would redefine what capitalism is, how it functions and who it benefits.
Such a system would, by definition, redistribute wealth more widely and fairly. By abandoning the incredible socialist dream to advocate real capitalism, the Left could finally park its tanks on the corporatist, neoliberal agenda. It could challenge the economic narrative of despair on its own terms. Yet there is next to no sign of this happening.
In the absence of effective thought leadership from the Left, public protest is an exercise in futility. Protests might provide a short-term sense of solidarity and satisfaction. But, no matter how worthy the cause, this surely gives way to alienation if inaction is the result. Such was my feeling as I made my way home from the Million Mask March.
However, change will now surely come. Donald Trump won the US presidential election just three days later. Within just a week of his time in office, it’s clear he is a creature of corporate and fossil fuel interests.
Now, the case for rediscovering our leverage is clearer than ever. Even if he achieves nothing else, Trump might actually have done us all a favour.