Noddy is on page 248

Jay Griffiths

  • The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Protest edited by Brian MacArthur
    Penguin, 440 pp, £20.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 670 87052 8
  • DIY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain edited by George McKay
    Verso, 310 pp, £11.00, July 1998, ISBN 1 85984 260 7

‘People must not do things for fun,’ joked A.P. Herbert. ‘We are not here for fun. There is no reference to fun in any Act of Parliament.’ From its grey, drizzly cover to its century-long plod of standard-length excerpts, Brian MacArthur’s anthology leaves you in no doubt: there’s precious little fun to be had protesting. There’s no skittish comedy or wry subversion here: The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Protest takes a serious approach: heavy subjects, heavily protested.

MacArthur’s gravitas has advantages. The book is thorough on race equality, poverty and war, and the selection provides a sober roll-call: Ida B. Wells, Aneurin Bevan, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, Václav Havel, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Its portrayal of the first half of the century has solidity; you are in safe, if stubby hands. There are also some poignant contributions: the broken dreams of Communism reported by former believers; Rabbi Stephen Wise addressing an anti-Nazi rally; John Galsworthy’s protest about planes being used for war – ‘For the love of the sun, and stars and the blue sky, that have given us all our aspirations since the beginning of time, let us leave the air to innocence!’

‘The guiding principle,’ says MacArthur, ‘has been to select successful protests (whether for good or ill) about profound issues’: in fact, protests are included which were neither successful nor profound, but inconsistency is the least of this book’s flaws. This is establishment dissent, protest as written by the victors, which also means that MacArthur can absolve himself from the need to evaluate contemporary agitations. The bias is towards British and North American concerns and almost all the protests are articulated in elegant English. MacArthur cuts even, measured lengths of prose from oratorical cloth; he is only comfortable with well-spun protest. The speakers are the patricians of parliaments and press.

Peasants don’t stand a chance. Stumbling, simple protests – for example, indigenous people’s voices struggling with an alien language – don’t belong in this world. The badly behaved aren’t welcome, the ranters from the salon des refusés, the rag-bag quarrellers, the what-the-hell-Davids chucking their slingfuls regardless of whether Goliath falls. Tree-hugging women (of the Chipko movement in India) protest against deforestation with their bodies not their thesauruses. Protest theatre by Augusto Boal or London’s Cardboard Citizens cannot be included, nor can protest cartoons (arise Sir Steve Bell) or protest songs from Bob Dylan to today’s gifted lyricist, Theo Simon. ‘Subvertising’ against adverts and consumerism is excluded. Joseph Beuys doesn’t fit, nor do the contemporary artists who used melting ice sculptures to protest about global warming. The ‘laughing protest’, in which thousands of Indians protested against an environmentally damaging decision by surrounding a government building and laughing for hours, couldn’t get a chuckle in here.

To MacArthur, it seems, protest didn’t happen unless it happened in the Times. (He is an associate editor of the paper, and a former deputy editor of the Sunday Times.) The Times is ‘the Thunderer’ on page 113. On page 293, ‘the Times thundered.’ On page 270 he reprints ‘a thundering leading article’ from the Times. There are also reprints from, or mentions of, the Times on seven other pages. The Sunday Times features on six pages. The Times columnist Robert Harris gets two entries compared to Germaine Greer’s one, Gandhi’s one, or Mandela’s one. Noam Chomsky: nil. E.P Thompson: nil. The Times columnist Bernard Levin: two. Levin deserves a special mention. In the Times in May 1996, he implied that Jerry, a Newbury road-protester, planned a firebombing campaign. I know Jerry. He was the victim not the perpetrator of just such an attack: six months before the article was published, his bus was firebombed as he slept on board with his partner and child. Although the vigilantes responsible admitted knowing there were people on board, the courts let them off. (I have the transcripts of the vigilantes’ confessions to the police, should anyone wish to see them.)

MacArthur selects protests arising from the Lady Chatterley trial and the cannabis laws, refreshing inclusions both, but he also includes criticism of the clothes women wear at the opera. The book’s strict chronology means that John Pilger’s ‘Year Zero’ is followed by a ‘protest’ by Thatcher. Yep, ‘by’. There are also protests against Thatcher, but they are by patricians rankled by her dictatorial style, not by the peasants who felt her fist in their faces. There are protests by Ronald Reagan, Enoch Powell and Adolf Hitler. There are two pieces about the Titanic, two about the Lusitania and two on the abdication of Edward VIII. Considering what MacArthur omits, repetitions are irritating. (There is also a repeated typo. You may wonder who Sylvia Pankhurt is. There are Pankhursts in my family and we tend to spell it with the ‘s’.) Obviously space is limited, and whether to include a protest against the Chinese invasion of Tibet, or one against Enid Blyton’s ‘Noddy’ books, must have been a difficult decision. Noddy is on page 248; Tibet is nowhere.

It is easy to tell the issues about which MacArthur felt keenly in his youth; Kenneth Tynan writing about Look back in Anger, for example, touches a memory of angry young manhood. MacArthur writes of his parents having to leave school at 14: his was ‘the first generation to go to redbrick universities, only to be dismissed as scum by Somerset Maugham’. Yet he includes no protest against student loans today. Would that there were several editors, each responsible for the decade of their angry youth. Instead, we have a self-satisfied older gent, whose portrait of contemporary protest is worryingly superficial. The anthology omits most protests of any significance over the past decade or so, both in the UK and elsewhere.

The world’s most important social movement, according to Noam Chomsky, is the Movimento San Terra, the campaign of Brazil’s landless peasants for land reform. MacArthur has included no land rights protests. The Zapatista rebellion in Mexico (a protest against the oil companies, cattle-ranchers and biotechnology companies seizing peasants’ resources) is also ignored. Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber-tapper murdered for fighting against deforestation, died hoping his protest would be recorded. Not here. ‘I don’t like Western solutions to the debt crisis,’ the Peruvian economist Javier Iguiniz says, ‘they kill too many people.’ There is no space in MacArthur’s book for Third World debt.

In this country, he has omitted the poll tax protest and protests against the Criminal Justice Act, the Act which criminalised protest itself. Also left out are the road protests which forced a U-turn in the Government’s road-building plans; Reclaim the Streets; The Land is Ours; the Critical Mass cyclists; and protests about live-animal exports, asylum law and homelessness. MacArthur ignores genetic engineering protests, particularly against Monsanto, which, while he was compiling his book, were beginning to unite an unprecedented number of people – community leaders, social justice groups, the environmental lobby, parents, consumer groups, teachers, churches and charities. He ignores the Ploughshares movement, the women who took hammers to British Aerospace and smashed the Hawk jets being used to bomb the East Timorese, and who pleaded successfully before the courts that they had committed one crime to stop another (genocide).

The longest case in English legal history was fought by two protesters accused of libelling McDonald’s. MacArthur refers to it as ‘the Greenpeace protest against McDonald’s’. Well, no. The protesters were from the anarchist group London Greenpeace, which has nothing to do with Greenpeace itself. MacArthur doesn’t include it ‘for fear of another libel action’, but Squall magazine covered it and a book, McLibel, was published in 1997. And why not include a protest against those very libel laws used by corporations to silence legitimate protest?

There are 23 pieces from 1990 to 1998. Some deserve inclusion: Aung San Suu Kyi, Tony Benn, Will Hutton and Graham Harvey. It’s right to have a protest against the Gulf War but why five of them? (Oh. MacArthur edited Gulf War Despatches.) Then there are two pieces about foxes and two about Princess Diana. Is the odd hunting of a fox more important than the systematic hunting of millions of peasants by Western moneylenders? Is Diana’s loss of title more important than all the poll tax, Criminal Justice Act and road protests, the land rights movement and the genetic engineering protests put together? Having left out these sorts of campaign, MacArthur then includes the Countryside March of 1997 – a march of landed property pretending to speak with the voice of the peasants.

He speaks of a ‘pendulum of protest’ swinging between left and right (thinking, presumably, that protest today must mean William Hague). But contemporary protesters have given up on the pendulum. Protest today is against neo-liberalism, global financial interests, international corporations and all politicians – right, left or centre – who support them. In Crystal Palace, before the recent evictions, protesters had set up a camp in opposition to a proposed entertainment complex on a rare green site. A policeman recently paused by the benders and firepits. ‘What’s your flag?’ he asked. ‘The Peasants’ Revolt flag,’ said a protester. ‘Where’s Wat Tyler, then?’ asked the genial constable. ‘We’re all Wat Tyler,’ came the instant response. This protest involves graduates and professionals, the un- and underemployed, ex-squaddies, sometimes the homeless. Elsewhere in Britain, protesters are ripping up genetically modified crops and simulating car crashes on a London motorway to stop the traffic and hold a party, deckchairs, sound-systems and all. They filled Claremont Road with sofas, snooker tables and giant chess games to fight the M11 extension; they are protesting against GATT and – so far successfully – against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment; they are campaigning against quarries; they fought for every inch of the nine-mile route of the Newbury bypass; did a Lady Godiva in Coventry Cathedral to draw attention to ‘the seventeen million people killed directly by the motor car’.

George McKay’s collection is a far more accurate portrait of contemporary British protest than MacArthur’s, in both subject matter and style. John Jordan of Reclaim the Streets, for example, offers a critique of ‘the street’ as public commons now enclosed for the private use of cars. (Peasants ancient and modern hate enclosures.) George Monbiot describes the founding of The Land Is Ours, Britain’s first land rights movement. TLIO held its first land occupation at the site near St George’s Hill in Surrey which the Diggers seized in 1649. It calls for reclamation of common-land and a right to roam. There are chapters on Squall, on the broad ambitions of Earth First! and on the ‘politics of pleasure’ – the Exodus collective, raves, warehouse parties.

McKay, squatter turned academic, warns against the potential for racism in New Ageism and offers his disrespects to one of the movement’s magazines, GreenAnarchist, which promotes violence. Even he barely mentions Corporate Watch, the organisation campaigning against the rise of multinationals, and omits protests against the economic world order – the arms trade, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, GATT and the MAI. Britain is no longer a wide-enough area of focus: according to the Financial Times, there is now a ‘de facto world government of transnational corporations and international banking institutions’. Of the world’s hundred largest economies, fifty are corporations. Shell controls a greater expanse of land – four hundred million acres – than 146 countries. Fewer than ten transnational corporations control virtually the whole world food chain. More than half the world’s grain is traded by one company, Cargill’s. This de facto world government works with the police, military and lawmakers, while seeking, through the MAI, for instance, to operate beyond the laws of national governments. To gain its ‘freedom’ – freedom of trade and the movement of capital, freedom from government regulation – it steals many other freedoms: of indigenous peoples to live on their native land; from pollution; from intimidation. The OED defines anarchy as ‘absence of government’ and anarchical as ‘unregulated’. Transnational companies are today’s purest anarchists.

The more powerful a company becomes, the more it is hated. Cargill’s attempt to secure a stranglehold on the Indian grain market led to fifty thousand peasant farmers taking apart a Cargill’s building brick by brick. Ten million farmers of the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association are supporting the torching of Monsanto’s test sites in India. There is opposition to mining and logging from Brazil to the Far East, opposition to oil drilling in Africa and South America, and to dams and quarries on indigenous peoples’ lands. Last month, the ‘Intercontinental Caravan’ arrived in Britain: 11 buses bringing hundreds of protesters including Indian peasant farmers, Zapatistas, Colombian and Nepali human rights activists fighting against debt, unfair trade, economic globalisation and GM foods. The caravan will come to a halt on 18 June in Cologne, where there will be a laughing protest against the globalising agenda of the G8 summit. Global power leads to global revolt.