The people take to the streets again

In Italy, France, Venezuela, Argentina, the Netherlands, the big issues are being fought through mar

The street is coming back into politics; it may represent a growing danger for democratic practice. It has been best expressed in the demonstrations of the more militant global movements, where the street attempts to drain authority away from the state, and the international institutions and corporations, through mockery, rhetoric and minor violence. Now, the right as well as the left is taking to the streets. In the week of 6 May, the murder of the Dutch far-right leader Pim Fortuyn was the occasion for his followers to throw stones, metal barriers and bottles at police outside the parliament in The Hague.

In one way or another, street politics nearly always expresses opposition to "the establishment". The time when the street could be used by the people - with whatever degree of spontaneity - to show support for the government or for the symbols of the state is largely gone in democratic societies. The street tends naturally to the extreme. Even the small "loyal demonstrations" in Britain for the Queen during her jubilee tours tend to express themselves as defiance of a fashionable consensus that is at least sceptical of monarchy; the vast street turnouts after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, were seemingly in protest against her supposed enemies - in the establishment, the media and above all the royal family.

A 200,000-strong rally of (mainly) Jews, demonstrating in favour of Israel in Washington on 15 April, appeared at times to be seeking a quarrel with a US administration that many people regard as thoroughly pro-Israel. When the hawkish (and Jewish) deputy secretary for defence, Paul Wolfowitz, reminded the crowds that innocent Palestinian civilians had died as well as Israelis, there were howls of protest. The street must feel pure in its quest for redress of wrongdoing.

Until this year, the global protesters, heirs to the popular tradition of rioting, seemed to have established themselves as the rulers of the modern street. They had stopped (they believed) a World Trade Organisation negotiation in Seattle and forced the World Economic Forum out of its exclusive luxury in Davos. They have consigned the G7/8 - whose meeting in Genoa in July 2001 led to riots in which one young man died - to gathering in the tiny hamlet of Kananaskis, in mid-Canada, where the leaders of the major economic powers are due next month. The protesters have forced the figureheads of supreme power off the streets: no more screaming motorcades or regal waves between meetings, far less the improvised bicycle race in which the heads of European Union governments took part in the summer of 1997.

The protesters took over the streets as their rightful place to be gay - in both the new and old senses of the word. Much street occupation is theatre of sorts, with jugglers and stilt walkers, and cyclists riding very slowly to disrupt the traffic. Even the taunting of the police and the rocks through windows are ritualistic. In a radio debate with me the other day, a young female May Day protester said: "We've come to use the spaces to make our protest and to have fun. It's a fun day! It's theatre!"

But it now goes further than that. The "anti-Davos" World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, constructs its iconography to be antithetical to everything that characterises the west: in a televised debate last year, it highlighted black or brown-skinned people, and often women, in contrast to the middle-aged men in smart clothes at Davos. The forum begins with a march through the streets against neoliberalism. This year, it founded an international people's tribunal, which pronounced "a sentence": the cancellation of all external debt owed by southern countries, the break-up of transnational institutions and corporations, the dismantling of "neoliberal policy regimes" and the trial at the Court of Justice in The Hague of those who violate social and human rights. This is the self-constituted justice of the street, with its own rules of evidence, based on a simple sense of wrong rather than on breaches of specific laws.

The more traditional street occupations have recently been revived with great effect - above all in Argentina, Venezuela and Italy. The collapse of the financial system in Argentina late last year brought all classes, save the very rich, on to the streets to protest against the government's inability to hold the value of the currency, and at its measures to tackle the crisis by limiting cash withdrawals and closing the banks. The protests demand an impossible stability and seek to stave off impoverishment or authoritarianism, while hastening both. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez was deposed by elements of the armed forces after street protests organised by a business-union coalition; he was quickly reinstalled when further, larger protests by his supporters convinced the generals that they could not follow through with their coup against an elected leader.

Italy has seen, this year, the fullest streets, swollen with protests against Silvio Berlusconi's proposals to change labour laws that are enshrined in law. At the culminating demonstration, organised by the unions early last month, an estimated three million people turned out in Rome. The occasions were peaceful - partly because they were a protest against the return of far-left terrorism which had claimed as a victim the law professor and government adviser Marco Biagi. And, in the modern manner, they were playful and family-oriented. They were, however, designed to stop the government in its tracks and to deter it from putting forward legislation that, it believes, will cut unemployment, especially in the south, where state-sector jobs are often seen as sinecures, and from which it is possible to dismiss staff only with huge difficulty.

The street has more power in Italy because the constitutional space is so damaged. The Berlusconi government is compromised by its control of 90 per cent of television output in Italy, and by allegations of corruption on which the prime minister expends large amounts of lawyers' and legislators' time trying to keep away from court. A compromised administration is in poor shape to insist on constitutional democracy as an antidote to the street.

It is this which gives popular protest its particular power - and not just in Latin America and Italy, but in France. The large vote for the far right and far left in the first round of the French presidential elections in April were votes for parties of the streets. These parties all propose class conflict; the parties of the centre know that democratic politics has become a complex matter of balancing interests and mediating between various levels of corporate and social power. The problem for the latter is that conventional politics thus moves further away from "ordinary people".

The French street found a mobilising villain in Le Pen, and sought, in the week before the presidential run-off, to redeem the apathy or frivolity of some of the voters' first-round choices. They succeeded insofar as the turnout was higher in the second round and Le Pen's vote lower than he and the other racist candidate, Bruno Megret, had received a fortnight earlier.

However, the choice was put by much of the left as one between "a fascist and a crook". Some Socialist Party supporters went to the polls with pegs on their noses, to show their distaste for voting for Jacques Chirac, whose re-election will shield him from investigations into allegations of financial impropriety when he was mayor of Paris for five more years. Like the Italians, French voters face the possibility that their highest elected official, who proposes and enforces laws on all of them, may have repeatedly flouted many of those laws while in office. It is a huge weakening of trust in the state, and of incentives to behave in a civic manner.

In the past, the street was a source of strength and inspiration for democratic values; it expressed popular opposition to authoritarianism, or corruption, or widely unpopular measures. It is still being used in this way - for example, in protests against the destruction or dilution of civil rights in Russia (where it is ignored) or China (where it is suppressed). But it can also inhibit, dilute and damage democratic power; and the street in contemporary society shows increasing instances of that, too. Ultimately, if the street continually breaks the bounds of accepted order, it becomes the domain of the extremist. The two greatest tyrannies of the 20th century, Bolshevism and Nazism, were brought to power through the street; the bond between the leaders of these movements and their followers was periodically renewed on the streets, through the repeated reassertion of command over them.

Even when extremists do not come to power, prolonged violence on the street leads to demands for its suppression and the establishment of order, public goods that the right is generally more adept at supplying. The left takes to the streets at its peril. Its best hopes lie in the debates and compromises of democratic society, which arouse the scorn or boredom of the street and, in malign symmetry, much of the modern-day media.