Is Copenhagen about to get violent?

Scare stories about violent "Black Bloc" activists are emerging in Copenhagen. Are they true?

"German activists to take Bella Centre", blares the headline in the Danish papers. An old man in a bar tells me nervously -- when he hears that I'm with the conference -- that "the hooligans are coming, we're very worried". The fate of the world's environment may hang in the balance down the road at the Bella Centre, but broken windows and burnt-out cars are what prey on the mind of many Copenhagen residents.

It's driving most activists mad. Here they are, working their bums off to create striking, powerful, but non-violent uprisings that will stimulate debate or even political change, and all the journalists want to ask about or write about is: "When does the ruck start?" The piece in the Danish paper Politiken is typical: the "taking" of the Bella Centre turns out to refer to the well-publicised plan to try to hold a People's Summit in or near the conference next week, not a master plan for holding delegates hostage.

Why is this? Why this obsession with a small number of people throwing bricks? There are, I think, two reasons. First, thanks to the media and the police, the threat is often blown up far larger than the reality. Headlines such as the one above are unhelpful, but the police are also well aware that a few good scare stories do a great job of keeping people away from legitimate demonstrations, and make their job easier as a result.

We saw a classic example of this in the UK last year when the Observer published a story about the "growing threat from eco-terrorists", which the paper was later forced to withdraw: the piece was based almost entirely on information from the police force and little or no evidence from among activists had been gathered to back it up. Scare 'em off, think the police. Frighten them away and we'll have a nice, quiet afternoon.

But there is another reason for these stories. And that is that the threat from small groups of militant protesters is not just a police and media fiction. We may be guilty of hyping it up, but it is more than just a fairy tale; the Black Bloc does exist.

British activists tend to insist that it's all rubbish (to be fair, in the UK the Black Bloc really is a bit of a myth). But over here in Denmark, most Danish activists nod and say, "Oh yes, they're here already", or "They're coming from Germany". Every single local and police source I've spoken to since getting here has confirmed this. It's not just a little media fantasy. The next week and a half could get very nasty indeed.

So. If Vandal hoards really are pouring in for a ruck outside the conference centre, don't we deserve to know in advance? Don't I have a journalistic duty to report on them? Violence, rioting, these are profound disturbances of our social contract. Non-violent activists may want to tell us all about climate change, but the old man in the bar is just worried about a brick through his window. He deserves to know what's going on, too.

 

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The Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).