Champagne anarchists

May Day was once for the workers; now it's a protest festival for the wealthy and privileged

Forget dumbing down - the social phenomenon you'll be witnessing at the May Day protests is slumming down. In numbers unseen since 1968, wealthy students in the west are rising to fight the capitalism that accords them privilege.

Most of the speakers and ringleaders at Seattle, Genoa and Prague - indeed, most of the anti-globalisation protesters in the west today - are glossy, well-spoken, rich kids with the kind of perfect white teeth that come only from years of expensive dental work. Why?

Perhaps the answer lies at Cambridge University, which is now witnessing the birth of what we might dub Britain's very own "champagne anarchism". Three first-year undergraduates at King's College decided last year that Cambridge needed a direct-action, anti-capitalist movement, and within two terms they acquired over 250 members - more than either the Labour or the Conservative party at the university.

One of the founding members of Anti-Capitalist Action (ACA) is Matthew MacDonald, who achieved notoriety as the Eton student expelled from school after he was caught on camera at the 2000 May Day riots kicking in the window of a McDonald's. The group's actions have had a less aggressive flavour so far. For a week, its members manned a stall opposite the town's branch of Starbucks, where they handed out Fair Trade coffee and information about the worrying corporate behaviour of the coffee chain.

The group has also stormed a talk by Stella Rimington, and invaded and wrecked a university recruitment fair for the International Monetary Fund. But the group made its biggest splash by breaking into an empty shop and squatting it as a "social centre".

ACA was inspired by groups like the Italian Ya Basta!, which has established a series of public squats across southern Italy. Dan Meyer, another founding member, explains: "We held a weekend social event in the squat, and a party on the Friday night. We had talks on squatters' rights, on Chiapas [the southern Mexican state where an indigenous rising has been under way for years], and a video on Genoa [the site of anti-G8 protests last summer]."

The group explains that squats are a way of taking the anti-globalisation movement beyond being purely negative, and towards articulating "a positive vision of how a different world is possible". Another member of ACA, Heather McRobie, argues: "Squats pose, even in microcosm, an alternative to capitalism. It's more positive than just protesting - it moves us on from just being defensive and reactive." Squats, she says, create a public space where people can hang out and enjoy themselves, in contrast to the increasing privatisation of communal spaces: "If you don't want to go to McDonald's or Starbucks in the centre of town . . . you've got nowhere to go."

Even this, however, doesn't seem to explain fully why comfortable, middle-class students are reacting in this way. But McRobie adds: "We've seen the dream - we've seen what everyone else is aiming for - and it's not that good. We've seen our parents with 'good' nine-to-five jobs, and what have they got at the end of it?"

Another member, Craig McDowell, adds: "We're a generation of people who don't want jobs. We've seen what it's done to our families." ACA argues that we are all victims of capitalism, albeit "obviously on a sliding scale. We're much better off than the developing world - but we're still screwed over."

Some middle-class British student movements have been criticised for misrepresenting the views of the poor. Will Straw, the recent past president of Oxford University's student union (and the son of the Foreign Secretary), led a crusade against the government's policy of charging tuition fees to the children of wealthy parents. He branded the fees "immoral" and - falsely - claimed that they discriminated against the poor. What Straw disregarded is that nearly 50 per cent of students don't have to pay tuition fees because their parents don't have the cash; he has to pay only because his parents earn a fortune.

It's easy to sneer at toffs trying to slum it with the poor, and tempting to gibe that the workers must have been jolly grateful that MacDonald lounged around in his Eton straw boater and lamented their plight. But as one student sympathetic to ACA snapped when I indulged in this inverted class snobbery: "What would you rather? That they all stayed true to their class roots and became a bunch of fucking Tories?"