When Capitalism Calls

Andy Beckett

  • The Protest Ethic: How the Anti-Globalisation Movement Challenges Social Democracy by John Lloyd
    Demos, 94 pp, £9.95, November 2001, ISBN 1 84180 009 0

About a year ago, during one of the peaks of exasperation at the Government in the left-leaning parts of the British press, I interviewed a member of a think tank close to New Labour. For an hour or so he kept up a fairly convincing defence of the Government. He cited the increases under Blair of certain social security benefits, the reductions in taxes for some of the poorest Britons, the reforming energy of the Administration in general. But then his mood darkened. The problem with New Labour’s busy modern brand of social democracy, he said, was that it was still too much about adjusting to the harsh modern world and not enough about challenging it. He looked suddenly frustrated, despite his open-necked shirt and confident insider’s manner. He offered an example. ‘You won’t find a single member of the Cabinet with anything intelligently critical to say about capitalism.’

A few weeks later, I went to a discussion in London about the anti-capitalist movements that were then swelling in many countries. There were a dozen journalists, a couple of activists from the more respectable, charity-centred end of the anti-globalisation spectrum, and a quiet, youngish man from Reclaim The Streets, the direct action group that had become prominent in Britain thanks to its theatrical protests against roads and traffic pollution and big business. The talk, at first, was amicable around the long table. It quickly became clear that almost all the journalists present wanted to be sympathetic to the activists. They were eager to hear first-hand reports of the riot police and the shameful international trade deals at Gothenburg and Seattle. More than that, these journalists – old left-wingers, liberal pundits, lapsed Blairites – seemed to want to understand the new culture of anti-capitalist protest so that they could make common cause with it.

The man from Reclaim The Streets, however, said very little. He sat at the centre of the table, looking down, as weather-beaten and differently dressed and slightly alien as a deep-sea fisherman. Eventually, the conversation turned towards what kinds of alternative to the modern free market the anti-capitalists might prefer. And the man from Reclaim The Streets grew unexpectedly angry. ‘It’s not our job to suggest alternatives,’ he said. He gestured dismissively at the roomful of potential allies. ‘If my colleagues knew I was here, I would be thrown out of our organisation, just like that!’

To many people of more traditional left-of-centre politics, modern anti-capitalism can seem slightly baffling, sometimes infuriating, even a little adolescent. It attracts great international attention, but its ideas add little to long-established left-wing thinking. Its activists wear brands even as they demonstrate against them. Its most famous manifesto of sorts, No Logo by Naomi Klein, was published by Rupert Murdoch. Yet in the era of Enron and Railtrack, of international recession and the Argentinian implosion, of uninspiring reformers, at best, in office in the rich countries, and questionable relations everywhere between governments and business, the anti-capitalists appear alone on the Left in their ability to raise the obvious questions about how the world works. As John Lloyd puts it in his opening chapter: ‘The global movements’ – his term for the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation milieu – ‘have found new ways of exercising political power . . . They can generate widespread public sympathy and a degree of mobilisation from diverse social and ideological groupings. They are able to use networks freely and inventively . . . They are able to generate interest on, sometimes to dominate, the network media in a way that makes conventional political communication look stale and tired.’

What follows is not a work of praise. Nor is this studious, carefully-written pamphlet a call for Blairites and anti-capitalists to form a coalition. In his acknowledgments Lloyd thanks Anthony Giddens and Charles Leadbeater, among other prominent associates of the New Labour project, for their ‘guidance’. There are no such mentions for the main thinkers of the anti-globalisation movement. As early as the third page, Lloyd declares where his sympathies lie: ‘Social democracy . . . requires a healthy capitalist system,’ he writes. ‘Capitalism is currently the only grand economic system available; the issue for social democrats now . . . is how to mould and shape it.’ The new protest culture, in Lloyd’s view, is a threat to this process of sensible compromise between left-leaning governments and the free market. His pamphlet is one of the first sustained attempts to challenge the anti-capitalists from a leftish perspective. It is also a warning to Lloyd’s fellow social democrats, and a comprehensive briefing – aimed, you suspect, at the more anxious and thoughtful sort of businessman – about the unruly things that have been happening in recent years outside international summits and branches of McDonald’s.

Lloyd starts by accepting that the anti-capitalists do have some good arguments. Globalisation, he admits, does mean ‘the importation of Western culture’ into poor countries. The institutions of global capitalism, such as the World Bank, the WTO and the IMF, have become more aggressively free-market in their ‘ideology and practice’ in recent decades. In a paragraph that threatens to carry the debate away from him almost before he has begun, he lists some of the anti-capitalists’ other causes:

global warming; the destruction of the ozone layer; the denial of modern and affordable medicines to the ailing of the Third World; the cruelty practised on animals in medical and other experiments; the cruelty imposed on animals raised for their meat; the exploitation of Third-World labour by Western-based multinationals; the homogenisation of food and drink by the spread of chains such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Starbucks; the pushing of small/peasant farmers into ruin by the industrialisation of farming imposed by these fast-food chains and the supermarkets . . . the vast sales and murderous potential of the (largely US or European) arms industries . . . neo-imperial invasions in the name of humanitarian intervention . . . diminishing workers’ rights . . . the pauperisation of the developing world.

The sheer reach and bleakness of the anti-capitalist worldview, Lloyd points out, makes it appealing to the media, with its love of apocalyptic predictions and scare stories. Likewise, the public in wealthy countries (Lloyd does not consider anti-capitalism to have much of a following in the Third World) has a masochistic appetite, he argues, for being told that the planet is collapsing and that all conventional politicians are uncaring and corrupt. Add in the anti-capitalists’ flair for dramatic protest, and you have a very attractive political creed.

It has become common in recent years to think about this protest culture in terms of its modernity: its use of the Internet, its flexible, freelance activists, its international mobility, its youthful participants with their backpacks and trainers. But Lloyd compares anti-capitalism to something much more old-fashioned. Communism, in its confident, expansionist phases, had a similar simple message; a similar ability to spur demonstrations in almost any country; a similar contempt for the inevitable compromises of social democracy; a similar conspiratorial worldview. ‘Only in the global movements,’ Lloyd writes, ‘does there survive, in some form, the sense of a popular current driving to transform the world by ridding it of a system that ruins and oppresses.’ And better than Communism, modern anti-capitalism has not made itself vulnerable by offering an alternative to the status quo that can be criticised or seen to fail. As someone who has written extensively about the failure of the Soviet experiment, Lloyd knows the political usefulness for radicals of not always committing yourself to concrete solutions – knows that the man from Reclaim The Streets may have been wise not to answer questions.

Ultimately, though, for Lloyd the anti-capitalists’ tactical strengths are also moral weaknesses. Their energy and theatricality and political nimbleness are all substitutes for the more patient, more democratic qualities of conventional parties. The protesters, he writes, ‘do not have the capacity or responsibility for ordering priorities, reconciling competing interests among their constituencies, maintaining public accountability or implementing practical solutions, which are essential characteristics of politics and governance. They cannot be an alternative to democratic government, in spite of claims to the contrary.’ As the pamphlet progresses, the language Lloyd uses to expand this argument becomes less scientific and polite. He summarises the anti-capitalists’ annual international get-together at Porto Alegre in Brazil as ‘a ragbag of declamation, hot air and vapidity’. Discussing the protesters’ use of loose networks and occasional violence, he concludes that the only other political grouping using such tactics is ‘bin Laden’s al-Qaida’.

Some of these charges are more convincing than others. Comparing a determinedly secular and diverse protest movement, which you have just criticised for its incoherence, to a collection of well-organised and possibly cultish religious cells is the sort of excitable finger-pointing that has been depressingly common since 11 September. Similarly, attacking the anti-capitalists for rhetorical vagueness and overkill when conventional politicians currently favour phrases such as ‘axis of evil’ feels like a case of double standards. Lloyd is on firmer ground, though, when he criticises anti-capitalism for a lack of internal democracy. Some of its more thoughtful veterans have been warning for several years about the tendency of direct action (civil disobedience, if you like) to create hierarchies among those taking part. People who are prepared to take risks, or who possess useful skills, can come to dominate, or even have contempt for, the more cautious and amateurish participants. At the protests against the building of the Newbury bypass during the mid-1990s, for example, there was a time when you would run into students who had just come to join in for the day. But as the months went by, and the protesters’ encampments in the woods along the bypass route became more fortified against the incursions of the road builders’ security guards and the police, these part-time activists vanished. If you couldn’t climb trees and live thirty feet up – or didn’t wish to – you were no longer made to feel terribly welcome. In the end, this toughening and narrowing of the anti-bypass coalition failed as a strategy. The roadbuilders hired tree-climbers of their own, and cleared the camps early one morning, when the remaining protesters, hard-bitten or not, were still half-asleep. What resistance there was appeared in the mainstream media as two sets of wiry men grappling in the treetops – not the kind of photogenic mass protest that might earlier have been possible. From this point on, the bypass was completed with relatively little fuss.

There has been further evidence over the last year that when anti-capitalism acts tough it yields diminishing returns. The state, as grimly demonstrated by the killing of an activist by the Italian police during the protests in Genoa, will tend to win any arms race. The press, given the possibility of violence at an anti-capitalist event, will tend to focus on that to the exclusion of everything else. And the broad appeal of anti-capitalism that Lloyd identifies will tend to get lost amid all the smashed windows and tear gas. What this pamphlet does not properly acknowledge, however, is that the increasingly acrimonious stand-off between the protesters and governments is at least as much the fault of the governments themselves.

Well before the events of 11 September, and the heightened suspicion of dissidents that has followed in many countries, social democratic administrations of the sort Lloyd admires were choosing confrontation over negotiation in their dealings with anti-capitalists. It was under Clinton, not Bush, that policemen were sent onto the streets of Seattle dressed like science-fiction warriors. It was under New Labour, last May Day, that attending the anti-capitalist demonstrations in London, on a traditional date in the left-wing calendar, was made to feel close to illegal. In fact, there is a long history of social democrats acting intolerantly, and at times brutally, towards those further to the left. From the German Social Democratic Government after the First World War, which let the paramilitary Freikorps assault and murder the country’s revolutionaries, to the reforming regime of Eduardo Frei in Chile in the mid-1960s, which allowed troops to fire on striking copper miners, the politically competitive instincts of supposed moderates have often been as fierce as those of more obviously ruthless figures. Yet Lloyd still insists on describing modern social democratic administrations as well-intentioned and almost helpless in the face of the anti-capitalists:

The measures they take to save or increase jobs, to augment public provision, to spread the benefits of education more widely and improve its quality, to improve public health provision, to combat racism and other exclusions, to strengthen trade unions, to improve international co-operation, to inject an ethical dimension into foreign policies . . . are discounted and seen as meagre. When they seek directly to address the global movements’ agenda – for instance . . . when the UK Government played a leading part in cancelling a substantial proportion of Third World debt – it is ignored by many anti-globalisation groups, or dismissed as public relations.

This is truthful and quite eloquent as far as it goes. Lloyd gives a persuasive account of the constant difficulties and criticisms which face modern social democrats in office. But he fails to acknowledge the equally unreasonable scorn heaped on the anti-capitalists’ ideas by conventional politicians. And his argument is incomplete in another way, too. Social democrats have recently been removed from office in several major democracies, most notably Italy. Silvio Berlusconi’s new Administration there, what is more, is not simply a conservative mirror-image of its predecessor, but considerably more aggressive and dogmatic. So to some extent, the painstaking deliberations in this pamphlet are out of date: the frictions between social democracy and anti-capitalism have now been replaced by two political forces – you could simply call them capitalism and anti-capitalism – acting in completely opposing directions. In Genoa, besides firing at demonstrators with live ammunition, the Italian police were widely accused of committing assault and torture with official permission.

Lloyd finished writing this polemic last October, according to the acknowledgments, and he does briefly concede that the world has moved on from his initial premise. Yet the prescriptions he gives to governments in the final section about how to neutralise the anti-capitalists and their campaign issues sound excessively optimistic. The countries of the European Union ‘should use their influence to draw the US into creating the institutions of an interdependent world’. International corporations should be made to ‘shoulder increased responsibility for their overseas plants’. Governments should ‘ask for civility from protesters’, who ‘must rule out violence’ and promise not to ‘close the venue or blockade the town’ where trade summits and capitalism’s other important meetings take place. In other words, Lloyd hopes that the same system of government and business that caused the anti-capitalist revolt in the first place can, with some tactical adjustments and an increase in general goodwill, convince hundreds of thousands of activists, who have been protesting for a decade or more on every continent – large anti-capitalist movements exist among the poor, contrary to Lloyd’s emphasis, in countries such as India, Turkey and Brazil – that they should go home quietly.

Maybe this will happen; anti-capitalism, at the time of writing, seems to have lost some momentum. Turnout at major protests has been smaller in recent months, the media less interested, the riot police and authorities more in control. Some of this is attributable to the flaws in the ‘global movements’ Lloyd identifies here. But with their demonstrations shunted off the news by the war on terrorism, this pamphlet feels like it is aimed at the wrong target. The real ‘challenge to social democracy’, to the pursuit of small, benign, domestic reforms in Britain and elsewhere, was never Reclaim The Streets. It was that the modest energies of such a governing philosophy would inevitably be drawn off at some point by world events – or by the demands of an overbearing ally. The real challenge was the wrong kind of American Presidency.