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London calls the street rebels

The global justice movement is back in town – and planning the biggest rally since the Iraq War marc

As the heads of government of the G20 nations prepare to convene for the crisis summit in London’s Docklands on Thursday 2 April, a political movement which ten years ago seemed to be sweeping all before it, yet hit a brick wall a few years later, may once again make the political running. The global justice movement is back in town.

“This isn’t going to be another Stop the War moment, where a huge march is held, the government ignores it and everyone goes home depressed,” says Nick Dearden of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, one of those responsible for what the organisers hope will be the biggest public rally since the anti-war march of 2003 (the event takes place on Saturday 28 March). “And it’s not going to be another Make Poverty History, where the rock stars meet the world leaders and everyone makes promises and nothing happens. This is a serious coalition with a serious agenda, and we’re in it for the long term.”

The coalition to which Dearden refers is a new alliance of unions, non-governmental organisations and religious groups, armed with a manifesto that aims to rewrite the rules of the global economy. Put People First has already created a significant alliance – more than a hundred groups, ranging from Greenpeace to the Dalit Solidarity Network via the NUJ and the Muslim Council of Britain, have so far signed up.

“Put People First only began life back in November,” Dearden says. “A group of NGOs involved in what you might call the ‘economic justice movement’ – groups like Jubilee Debt, the Bretton Woods Project and the Trade Justice Movement – saw a real opportunity to be seized as the financial crisis unfolded. For decades, we’ve been campaigning to make the global financial architecture fair and sustainable. Now that it’s collapsed, that message is more relevant than ever – but there’s a danger that the G20 governments will not make real changes. We wanted to bring a coalition together to make clear what needed to be done.

“The interest has been quite amazing. What’s really significant about this is the marrying up of unions, environmental groups, trade justice groups, religious groups – all of them uniting for the first time around a common manifesto which we are demanding the G20 adopts.”

It is this impressive size and breadth that makes the coalition’s organisers hopeful of a large turnout. And Put People First is already making an impact. Its manifesto and accompanying policy paper call for a “historic break with the policies of the past”, and include demands for an end to tax havens, radical reform of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, new rules stipulating transparency for multinational corporations and financial institutions, a “Green New Deal” recovery package based on huge investment in renewable techno­logies, and the control of cross-border capital flows. It seems the British government is listening – but only up to a point.

“We have held a series of meetings with the government at various levels,” says Julian Oram, head of policy at the World Development Movement and another key player in the coalition. “To be fair, they have been good at meeting us and listening to what we have to say. And we agree on some things, like ending tax havens. My impression is that they want to be seen to be in agreement with us – to adopt our language and look like they’re working with us – but on most of our demands, they either don’t get it or blame China or India for their inability to change things. We need to be very clear with them and the public what we want. We are not going to be co-opted.”

After the G20, Put People First will turn its attention to the UN’s crisis summit on the global economy, planned for June, and then the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December. But whatever the coalition’s long-term impact, it is not the only voice that will be raised in the week ahead.

One of the loudest will be the fourth gathering of Camp for Climate Action on 1 April. After the movement’s previous protests at the Drax and Kingsnorth power stations and Heathrow Airport, the intention is for this year’s camp to take place in the belly of the beast: the City. Twenty-four hours of direct action, workshops and debates will climax in the attempted occupation of the European Climate Exchange, the pan-

European centre for the trading of carbon emissions permits. “Carbon markets don’t work,” says Mel Evans of the Camp for Climate Action. “On the contrary – this is the government handing power over the climate to the corporations and the traders who got us into this mess. We want to block that. Carbon trading will be the next sub-prime. What we want people to understand is that the climate crisis and the economic crisis are intimately connected. It’s the same unsustainable growth economy that causes both.” Exactly what will happen on the day is a closely guarded secret, but the camp is likely to be a big affair, and the G20 will find it hard to ignore.

A wave of street protests, direct action and other activities is also planned by a loose alliance of political groups, activists, anarchists, artists, students and others for 1 April, or “Financial Fools Day”. The Daily Mail is already sounding gleeful about the potential confron­tation (“Anarchists plan City riot!” ran a recent headline). At mid-morning on 1 April, marchers representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will begin moving from four London railway stations, heading for the Bank of England. Each group will be commanding its forces against 1) climate chaos, 2) war, 3) job, pension and savings losses and 4) home repossessions.

So, London might be a bad place to try to move around in the coming week. But all the colour and the chaos, marches and manifestos should not obscure the bigger picture, which puts the week’s events in proper historical context. Ten years ago, in the US city of Seattle, governments gathered for a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation. They had come to set the rules by which the global economy would operate. In retrospect, it was probably the high-water mark of globalisation: after the fall of communism and before 11 September 2001.

As the meeting began, the delegates were unexpectedly confronted by a mass of people who saw things very differently. More than 50,000 people took to the streets to rebel against the WTO’s version of history. Environmentalists highlighted the global economy’s disastrous impact on the natural world; campaigners for justice railed against the exploitation of the poor; unions, religious groups, anarchists and thousands of unaligned individuals took to the streets to shut down the WTO. The police responded violently with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. A movement was born, and during the next three years it stormed every global summit. The inequality and unsustainability of the global economy were exposed to public view. But the 11 September 2001 attacks and Iraq War caused the movement to dissipate, and its surface energy disappeared.

Yet, a decade on, the wheel has come full circle. Many of the claims that the protesters made back in Seattle have been proved right, and what is happening now can be seen as the next phase of the same movement. But this time those who claimed that markets should not be left to their own devices, that global inequality was something to be ashamed of, find their arguments echoed, however insincerely, by prime ministers, presidents and CEOs.

The movement seems to have learned from its mistakes. It knows it can never repeat the vast street protests that culminated in widespread police brutality, most shamefully the death of an activist in Genoa in 2001: a newly empowered and determined state apparatus would not allow it, for one thing. But it knows also that getting too close to power, as the Make Poverty History coalition did, can be fatal. The trick is to create a space in which everyone from artists and anarchists to NGO policy wonks can play a part, while making hard, detailed demands of power. And not stopping until those demands are met.

It remains to be seen where this movement goes next, or the scale and the effectiveness of the week’s events. But the world leaders inside the summit venue would be well advised to listen to what it has to say. After all, it’s not as if they have any better ideas of their own.

Paul Kingsnorth’s latest book is “Real England” (Portobello Books, £14.99). For details log on to: www.paulkingsnorth.net

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times