WeeklyWorker

24.06.1999
The ‘Carnival’ protesters were not lacking in courage, but a programme for liberation

Riot no answer

Anarchist protest struck a chord - with bourgeois liberals

Last Friday’s ‘Carnival against capitalism’ riot in the City of London received almost sympathetic coverage in sections of the bourgeois press.

The Observer, for example, introduced its feature recalling the events of two days earlier in the following way: “Recruited through an obscure website, organised in cells, the eco-warriors without a chief have redefined anarchy” (June 20). Quite a claim for what was, after all, an event involving no more than 3,000 disparate individuals.

The author of the piece went on in scarcely veiled admiration: “Baffled police were yesterday grappling with a new phenomenon - the stealth protest.” The “beauty of the operation”, according to our breathless friend, was the fact that the leaders could not be identified, and the unannounced tactics on the day caused the authorities to be “taken by surprise”. Through using the internet, the coordinators of the demonstration were able not only retain their anonymity, but also to avoid any hint of cooperation with the police - a refusal which home secretary Jack Straw condemned as “wholly irresponsible”.

The ‘J18’ (June 18 - the date of the event) website had published maps of the City, highlighting banks and other financial and legal institutions, which allowed protesters to “pick a site, picket and occupy”. It was, concluded The Observer, “a brilliant strategy”. Publicising the event anonymously using the latest information and communication technology was certainly innovative, but the handful of coordinators can hardly be said to have “redefined anarchy” in doing so.

The protest brought together campaigners against ‘third world’ debt, anti-arms pacifists, anti-GMO greens, the anti-car cyclists of Reclaim the Streets and anti-capitalist anarchists. Coinciding with the G7 summit in Cologne, the morning began good-naturedly with demonstrators in the City enjoying a ‘carnival’ atmosphere at this stage.

However, by mid-afternoon over 1,000 of the most single-minded participants were causing havoc in the City through partly coordinated, mostly spontaneous acts of vandalism directed against the symbols of capitalism, including banks, plush restaurants and expensive cars (although McDonalds and more humble vehicles were also damaged). A major confrontation occurred at the premises of the London International Finance, Futures and Options Exchange - a centre of global speculation - where protesters smashed down the doors before eventually being repelled by police and security guards.

Pitched battles ensued, at times causing the police to beat a rapid retreat as their vans were attacked. There was a mood of abandoned celebration combined with audacious aggression - some of it enhanced by alcohol. There were repeated charges by mounted and foot police, using batons and backed up with water canons, and more than 50 demonstrators were taken to hospital. They included a woman who was run over by a police van which, moments before, she had been attempting to halt with a well timed, sandalled kick. There was severe disruption to public transport.

While some City types hid behind barricades, others, from the safety of the upper floors, shouted insults and taunted the demonstrators, flaunting the vulgar accoutrements of rat race wealth - Rolex watches, gold jewellery and exclusive credit cards. One buffoon took great delight in tearing up five-pound notes and scattering the pieces amongst the rioters below.

Others combined arrogance with hatred: “I loathe these people,” one snob said, “but we must try to be cheerful. Yesterday I was at Royal Ascot and today I was at a riot. It’s all part of the fun of working in the City.”

Ironically, despite the rebellious violence and apparently irreconcilable opposition shown by the demonstrators towards capitalism, many of the causes they espouse are what passes for common sense amongst middle class liberals. Calls to cancel ‘third world’ debt, fear of unrestrained currency speculation, environmental catastrophe and Frankenstein foods even find an echo amongst conservative traditionalists. Apart from expressing grudging admiration at the protesters’ use of the internet, some leading figures also recognised this contradiction.

The lord mayor of London, Peter Levine, was not untypical. He summed up the official ambivalence when he said: “These people, many with sincere points to make, allied themselves to a mob. The whole point they were trying to make has been lost.” Well, not quite. Even The Daily Telegraph, which can always be relied upon for an open, straightforward defence of naked capitalism, commented: “The concerns of some of these groups are shared by many people who would not dream of subscribing to their terrorist tactics” (June 19).

However, the Telegraph editorial argued, “Those taking part in this demonstration, whether criminal or orderly, are the beneficiaries of capitalism. The bicycles of Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass which are used to obstruct ordinary traffic are its products; the education of, and welfare payments to, yesterday’s protesters are funded by it.” A banal truism. But what the Telegraph refuses to recognise is that Thatcherite capitalism disgusted millions and created a permanent or semi-permanent mass completely alienated from, and often existing outside, the normal workings of the system. The young unemployed, the under-25s denied housing, the street dwellers, those in receipt of ‘care in the community’, the travellers, those who reject the soulless nine-to-five world, those who have embraced ‘new age’ romanticism constitute an embittered social stratum.

The Telegraph editorial would have it that “Bankers, traders and stockbrokers are the real working class - the drop-outs and activists obstructing them are all too often drawn from the middle classes.”

That is of course a mixture of half-lie and blatant falsehood. Yes, banking institutions are necessary for capitalist production, but, as every Marxist knows, the Telegraph’s “real working class” in the City perform labour which is entirely unproductive. All profits made by banking capital have a parasitical element about them - not least their vampire-like bleeding white of the ‘third world’ through onerous debt repayments.

However, the leader-writer has a point about last week’s protesters. Drop-outs come from all classes, including the middle classes. Such a declassed social stratum can occasionally be pulled together in order to lash out in spontaneous frustration, but it can never overturn the state, let alone positively supersede the system. It is the product of decay under capitalism, not the bearer of a higher social order.

The Observer interviewed some of the rioters the following day. “I’m never going to forget yesterday,” said one, as he proudly displayed the half-burnt jacket of a policeman who had abandoned it after it was set alight. His partner claimed that, despite the fact that “no-one is in charge”, the methods of anarchism could succeed. She added: “There is no point in fighting little battles across the country. We have to be more ambitious, and attack the system itself.” Like their hatred of capitalism and willingness to fight, such sentiments are admirable. Indeed many on the left who, unlike them, claim to be Marxists would actually do well to note that statement - if they could drag themselves away from their localist and economistic concerns.

But of course last Friday’s rioters have no sustainable or rational answers when it comes to what can and must replace the system of capitalist production. Assaults on symbols represent not the slightest threat to the bourgeois order. Undisciplined and random destruction is an act of revenge against the alienation and inhumanity of capitalism, but it ignores the necessary and unavoidable task of making the working class into a ruling class - only this class can positively overthrow capitalism and liberate humanity.

In fact the problem with anarchist theory - although most anarchists are ignorant of it - is that it wants to destroy not just the capitalist state, but all attempts at a democratic working class alternative. As The Daily Telegraph pointed out, “Its supporters like to define anarchy as a harmonious condition of society, in which government is abolished as unnecessary.” In opposition to last week’s violent ‘carnival’, which the Telegraph claimed was an “exercise in oppression” - anarchy’s true face - the paper stated that “capitalism is the embodiment of ... freedom”.

Like the anarchists we know that such “freedom” is the freedom of a tiny minority. The vast majority are wage slaves. But, unlike the anarchists, we also know that all forms of “government” cannot instantly be “abolished”. The working class semi-state must continue until the exploiters - old or new - are permanently done away with and classes themselves have disappeared. Only then will the state wither away - the original meaning of anarchy.

Alan Fox