A caricature of a riot
Yesterday’s protest of poseurs against bankers confirmed that anti-capitalism itself has become an empty brand, like KFC or FCUK.
Yesterday’s anti-capitalist protest in London was a half-hearted ritual of pretend-rage and pseudo-concern. ‘Concerned of Tunbridge Wells’ was elbowed aside by ‘Angry of Brighton’ in a shallow display of second-hand militancy.
What was really striking about the G20-related demonstrations against ‘capitalism and climate chaos’ – which took place outside the Bank of England and elsewhere in London – was the extent to which the opportunistic coalition of protesting moral crusaders represented a going-through-the-motions activism; they weren’t so much representing a cause as searching for one.
Predictably, the authorities faithfully played their part in this melodrama. Exuding a profound sense of insecurity, they responded to the challenge posed by a relatively small number of demonstrators as if the protests called into question the integrity of the British state. As for the media, they were committed to providing a photo opportunity for the gritty demonstrators, who were keen to pose for the cameras as a way of advertising their sense of injustice about all the unjust stuff going on the world.
This was the kind of event that gives protest a bad name; it was a testimony to the aimless sensibilities that dominate the so-called anti-capitalist movement. True radicalism still awaits some twenty-first century content.
I am continually surprised by how often I am asked about the impending rioting and unrest that is likely to sweep across Europe. Such questions are motivated by a powerful sense of unease about the potential for social disintegration and collapse in the post-recession world.
A noisy demonstration or riot in Athens or Paris is often interpreted as the precursor to more ominous dangers to come. Officials and their expert advisers have, it seems, become wedded to worst-case scenario thinking. And officialdom feels little inhibition in displaying its crisis of nerves in public, and thus inadvertently normalising the idea that violence is the natural response of people to uncertain times.
That is why the big news story in the run-up to the G20 summit in London, which starts properly today, was the palpable sense of official insecurity surrounding it. Police and politicians continually insisted that they would not ‘take any chances’; their press releases and off-the-record communications looked like a new species of top-down rumour-mongering about the threat of mass rioting on the streets of England.
As one might expect, elite anxieties were swiftly recycled into sensationalist newspaper headlines warning people about impending riots. ‘Anarchist fears over Put People First march’ screamed one broadsheet in relation to last Saturday’s protest in London. In the event, predictions of a monster demonstration of hardened protesters were misplaced: Saturday’s demo was quite modestly sized, with head-counts ranging from 10,000 to 35,000.
Yes, one man was arrested for being drunk and disorderly – but that get-together, a precursor to yesterday’s protests, was an otherwise unremarkable, low-energy, confused event.
Yet the scare stories continued to circulate, and bankers were advised yesterday to dress down and wear ordinary street clothes, or better still to work from home, lest they became victims of the predicted ‘anarchist mob’. No such thing occurred. Even officialdom’s obsessive talking-up of a likely siege of London could not motivate many recruits for a reality TV-style protest against capitalism – a ‘reality riot’, perhaps.
One day, what is effectively a top-down invitation to riot – the advertisement of officialdom’s fears and the treatment of violence as a normal reaction to recession – is likely to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, but not yet.
For the time being, anti-capitalist protest looks very much like a lifestyle affectation. It has an inherently unstable character, which can one day target a rich, high-profile banker and a week later take strong exception to the building of a power station. In many respects, this form of lifestyle protest represents the mirror image of the consumerism that it so despises. Anti-capitalism has become a brand with about as much content as KFC or FCUK. This is about playing at protest.
The demonstrators were not simply demonstrating; they were posing for the cameras, and often for their own cameras. Seeing all those activists taking pictures of themselves with their mobile phones indicated to me that the line between voyeurism and protest has become ambiguous. ‘Been there, done that, smashed a window and got the picture’ – that is the attitude of the voyeur-protester. After yesterday’s protests, you can understand why, these days, instead of offering assistance some people respond to a physical fight outside a bar by compulsively recording it on their mobile phones.
Of course, there is a great deal to protest about today. But before the honourable tradition of direct action can be rehabilitated, we need some clarity about the nature of the current global crisis. That requires reflection and debate, rather than the rituals of ignorance that go under the name of ‘protest’.
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