Published on Tuesday, July 24, 2001 in the Independent / UK
As an Old Peace Protester, I Have No Time for Anarchists
'It isn't good enough to say that, to a cynical media, violence is the only
way of making your presence felt'
by Donald Macintyre
There is something rather synthetic about the fuss over the remarks of
Peter Hain, the Minister for Europe, about the policing of the Genoa
demonstrations last weekend. First, he was unequivocal in condemning
"balaclava-clad demonstrators out there ... to bust a skull if they can."
Second, most detached observers appear to agree that, to put it mildly, the
carabinieri did not help a volatile situation by over-reaction.
Mr Hain was really trying to make a broader point, which was partly to do
with why there are summits in the first place. And this is precisely the
context in which to see the, as it turned out, tragic events in Genoa. It
is necessary to demolish a couple of myths. The first concerns the violent
element among the demonstrators themselves.
I've always had a problem feeling romantic about anarchists since they used
to try usually in vain to turn those marches and sit-down protests
organized by CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and the Committee of
100 in the early 1960s into large scale punch-ups, which rather militated
against the cause of world peace.
In a candid first-hand diary of Genoa, Noreena Hertz, current guru of the
doctrine that modern politics has failed to come up with the answers to the
power of transnational corporations, described a conclave of 80
demonstrators onboard the train to north Italy. Ms Hertz confessed to being
disturbed by talk of a "jihad" and that the objective appeared to be to
break through the security fence, as the most potent symbol of the barriers
between haves and have-nots. (My mind went a long way back to a student
meeting on the eve of the second big London anti-Vietnam demonstration of
1968 where those of who us who had been arrested at Grosvenor Square six
months earlier were equally uneasy to be told by some of our number that
the object the following day was to "smash the pigs".)
Writing on the Thursday before the summit, with macabre prescience, Ms
Hertz went on:
"This movement does not need martyrs but I am scared that with all this
frenzy we will get them." Ms Hertz was right about not needing martyrs. It
isn't good enough to say that to a cynical media the only way of making
your presence felt is through violence. If that was so, NGOs and lobbying
organizations would not now be looking for ways of detaching the large
peaceful majority of these demonstrators from the violent minority in some
cases by deciding not to turn up at all.
It's true, of course, that if you have the world's television crews showing
up to these events en masse sometimes in numbers which inversely relate to
the actual importance of the occasion violence may be a sure way of
getting on the front page. What it isn't at Genoa any more than at
Drumcree is a means of getting a coherent message over. Which of course
worries the anarchists not all. But it does worry those who actually have
one to relay. The huge and the entirely peaceful demonstration at the
Birmingham G8 summit in 1998 on debt relief became the story. And it did
have some influence on the deliberations of the national leaders present.
The second myth, and perhaps the more potentially enduring one, is that
summits are simply unnecessary in an age when national leaders could just
as well pick up the telephone or e-mail each other. The Putin-Bush meeting
could have been in Moscow or Washington.
There are, I think, criticisms to be leveled at the Genoa G8 agenda. The
disappointment of responsible NGOs that the health fund didn't involve more
or newer money, and that the new Africa partnership initiative isn't better
funded is real enough sharpened perhaps by a tendency among the
politicians to hype up rather modest engagements with big, chronic
problems, which they should be admitting more frankly they are unable or
unwilling to solve with greater speed.
But it's nonsense to suggest that you can do without summits altogether.
The last demos were at Gothenburg at an EU summit. And EU summits matter.
Deals are done that make a real difference in the world. When Tony Blair
goes to an EU summit he knows that he will take part in more raw politics
than in the previous six months of Cabinet meetings. And that's not
surprising. Some issues notably trade and the environment can't be
decided other than collectively. You can hardly first complain that Europe
is run too much by unelected faceless bureaucrats in the Commission and
then lament the fact that the most important decisions are increasingly
taken by national leaders accountable to their parliaments and their
And that's not only true of EU summits. Whatever its deficiencies, the
post-Kyoto deal reached yesterday by the world's environment ministers in
Bonn (minus the United States) is just such an example. So let's not run
away with the idea that the summits are per se an offense against democracy.
This doesn't, however, mean that the summiteers can do nothing to improve
the atmosphere in which they meet. The summits have become hugely bloated
events, wholly out of tune with the 21st-century zeitgeist, in which too
many host countries vie with each other to lay on the best five-course
banquets, and in which many of the delegations, not to mention the
limousines, are much too large.
There are too many show-off photo-events (like the cringeworthy Western
hootenanny at Denver) and much too little real transparency. The ghastly
jargon of summitry, and for that matter of the whole EU (as pointed out in
an impressively thoughtful speech last week, by, as it happens, Mr Hain),
militates woefully against comprehension and interest on the part of
electorates. And there is a powerful case for bringing the NGOs into direct
dialogue with the summiteers, as the UN General Assembly and its satellite
organizations in Geneva regularly manage to do.
Nor can the national leaders, the British Prime Minister included, wholly
ignore the constraints they themselves put on domestic discourse about the
issues that preoccupy peaceful demonstrators and summiteers. This is partly
a matter of falling turnout and conventional political engagement. It is
partly about the real problems of giving necessary institutions, which are
larger than the nation state, a real democratic legitimacy. But it's also
about the very limited extent to which say the environment or missile
defense or even Europe itself is allowed to be the stuff of domestic
electoral debate. To that extent, at least, there is a democratic deficit.
But that doesn't mean that we should jump to the seductive conclusion that
what happened in Genoa is somehow the new politics, about to topple the old
order. You can't castigate lorry drivers for holding a national government
to ransom over fuel prices and then condone the violent protests that took
place last weekend. To that extent Mr Blair is right about democracy being
"turned on its head".
But if that's one lesson of Genoa the other is this: to prevent itself
being turned so easily on its head democracy needs to plant its feet a
little more firmly on the ground.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon Aug 06 2001 - 19:24:23 EDT