The greatest conspiracies happen in plain sight. Today, across the Northern Hemisphere, activists from the grass-roots movement UK Uncut and its newly-formed sister group US Uncut are staging more than 90 protests in local branches of Natwest, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland, in locations from Hawaii to the English town of Ashby de la Zouch.
The blackboard-happy, shoutyporn shock jock Glenn Beck has denounced this growing movement as a “conspiracy”, telling Fox News that “this unrest could spread from Middle East to Europe and eventually America… this would be co-ordinated all around the world.”
Welcome as Beck’s condemnation is to left-wing protesters, the yammering wingnut happens to be right. This is indeed a global insurrection, albeit a gentle one, running on poster paint, caffeine and cross-continental co-ordination via horizontal networks and it does come with an overtone of threat. I have spent the past week with members of UK Uncut and affiliated movements as they made placards and managed their twitter feeds, responding to messages of solidarity from across the world, from Wisconsin to Tahrir Square.
This morning, preparing for the latest protest and slurping down a hasty mug of tea, I watched one activist adjust her leotard for a heros-and-villains-themed flashmob, accessorised with a cloak bought for a Harry Potter costume party. Her friend, dressed as a tweedy university professor, put on a sinister Death Eater mask. “Look!” he said, “I’m Milton Friedman!” Red Army faction, it ain’t; but right-wing pundits like Beck are still wetting themselves.
As I write, from one end of Oxford Street in London where 150 Uncutters are marching in the rain, activists are turning bank branches into temporary homeless shelters, libraries and classrooms. These are all vital public services due to be confiscated as world governments impose austerity programmes on their populations in order to bankroll the recklessness of global financiers. The protesters’ message is simple: “The government,” in the words of one 42-year-old UK Uncut protester, “should be making the banks pay, not ordinary people.”
They make their point with flashmobs, bail-ins, street parties for pensioners and pre-schoolers, reclaiming the private space of banks and tax-avoiding businesses, relentlessly restating the hypocrisy of the financial elites. Courageous, yes; Baader-Meinhof-style conspiracy, no. What is most amusing, having spent time with the principled young people who began it all, is how thoroughly the commentariat is failing to understand what the hell is going on here.
The Uncut movement could be kids playing — except that they have a scrupulous economic alternative and an informed network that stretches across the globe. They could be Glenn Beck’s bug-eyed domestic extremists, except that the protests involve toddlers, grannies and young parents with brightly painted placards. In the UK, the police have responded with the classic pose of state agents on the back foot: panicked, malicious bewilderment. A protester shows me photo evidence on her phone of a previous demonstration, when a young woman was dragged away by the police for putting leaflets under a door. “They used CS spray, and three people ended up in hospital,” she tells me.
Despite the cries of extremism, the Uncut movement is grounded on the same principles of fairness and accountability that politicians have mouthed for decades at the ballot box. Commentators and cabinet ministers nonetheless seem to be shocked by the notion that their electorates can, in fact, count.
Take the UK, for example, where the Royal Bank of Scotland was bailed out with £45bn of public money — over half the government’s £81bn austerity package — and yet continues to award itself astronomical bonuses. Ordinary people who dare to stand against this manifest injustice are now “extremists”. Students who post leaflets about tax avoidance through shop doors are “extremists”. What kind of world are we living in, where wanting local libraries and schools to stay open is now “extremism”, worthy of police crackdowns? What kind of society is this, if it is “extremist” for people to want to lead decent lives?
Conspiracy-touting like Beck’s often looks like plain old scaremongering. In fact, those who toss out conspiracy theories often do so to distract themselves from larger, scarier, less manipulable outrages happening in plain sight. It is easy to rant at anyone who will listen about how the Pentagon bombed the twin towers; it’s harder fully to conceptualise that Nato has bombed ten types of bloody hell out of the Gulf for a decade on the slightest of pretexts. Similarly, it is convenient for Beck and other wet-lipped neocon hate-peddlers to claim that the free world is under attack from a network of rabid communist conspirators; it is far less convenient for them to consider the notion that a real people’s movement might be on the rise.
The notion that ordinary workers, students, pensioners and parents might finally have found the tools and the impetus to call out the lies of the powerful and demand accountability is deeply uncomfortable for reactionaries everywhere. That notion, the notion of a networked, principled people’s resistance, is far more frightening to neoliberal governments than any terrorist cell.