One of Britain’s Most Effective Direct Action Movements Has Lost the Plot
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 10th May 2000
Non-violent direct action is a misnomer. It is not a direct attempt to change the world through physical action, but a graphic and symbolic means of drawing attention to neglected issues, capturing hearts and minds through political theatre.
It might slow down the building of a road or an airport, but it will succeed in preventing others from being built only when it is part of a wider democratic assault on the policies which gave rise to them. When physical force becomes the sole means of preventing something from taking place, then the ethics of political activism become indistinguishable from the ethics which encouraged Tony Martin to shoot the burglars in his house.
This is just one of the lessons which Reclaim the Streets has spectacularly unlearnt. The movement which once produced the best political theatre in Europe, winning public sympathy and galvanising debate about the environment and social justice, has lost the plot. It has turned into an association of incoherent vigilantes, simultaneously frivolous and menacing.
Reclaim the Streets has also managed to forget that activism is useless unless it is focussed. It might have been able to sustain an attack on global capitalism if it had identified a workable alternative. But without clear proposals for political change, the protests on both June 18th last year and May 1st this year were unmitigated disasters. Floundering in huge and sticky issues, apeing the language and actions of revolutionaries but without a revolutionary programme, the organisers left the press and the public dumbfounded as to their aims and intentions.
Reclaim the Streets has failed to draw boundaries not only around its political objectives, but also around the means by which they might be pursued. By refusing to condemn violent protest, the organisers issued an open invitation to every psycho in London to come for a ruck with the police.
While incapable of deciding what it wants to achieve, the movement has become all too adept at deciding who it will talk to. It has flatly refused to explain itself to the mainstream media or, indeed, to forge strong links with anyone outside the protest community. Criticism has come to be regarded as a capitalist conspiracy. Instead of trying to persuade the unconverted of the virtues of their arguments in terms they can easily grasp and appreciate, the organisers have pictured instead a miraculous transformation of society, whereby the public abandons its use of the mass media, logs onto the Reclaim the Streets website and immediately agrees that “it is in the streets that power must be dissolved”.
These problems are compounded by the myth of consensus. The direct action movement insists that it is non-hierarchical, but this has never been true. Some people, inevitably, work harder than others, making things happen whether or not everyone else in the movement agrees. Consensus, often unwittingly, is manipulated or overridden, as people with a burning vision, with time and energy, drive the rest of the movement forward.
But by convincing themselves that there is no hierarchy, that the protests they start are spontaneous uprisings of the people, the organisers shed responsibility for their actions. The harsh truth is that Reclaim the Streets is less accountable than many of the institutions it seeks to overthrow.
The violence on May Day was the direct and predictable result of both the absence of boundaries and the abdication of responsibility. Digging up Parliament Square in order to stop global capitalism is so futile, so utterly frustrating and disempowering that the more hotheaded protesters could almost be excused for wanting to do something more spectacular. As the nutters in the crowd smashed up shops and defaced the Cenotaph, they must have believed that they were precipitating the assault on the entire world order which Reclaim the Streets had promised but had wholly failed to deliver.
The result is that the protest, three days before the local elections, managed to jeopardise the best electoral chances radical politics has had in Britain for fifteen years. It achieved the otherwise impossible feat of making the government’s anti-terrorism bill appear sane. It made the police look like society’s guardian angels, and allowed every reactionary in Britain to feel that he or she had been justified in dismissing the direct action movement as an inarticulate threat to human life. If Tony Blair had organised this protest, he couldn’t have hoped for a better result.
Their failure to understand other people’s feelings, their refusal to learn how to deal with the media and to build support in the outside world led the organisers to compound the damage. The press statement they released on May 2nd was perhaps the most morally supine and intellectually bankrupt document I have ever read. It disclaimed all responsibility for unforeseen events and failed to condemn outright either the violence or the desecration of the Cenotaph. Both, it argued, were dwarfed – and, by implication, justified – by the violence of capitalism and imperialism. Had you read only this account of the demonstration, you might have imagined that it was a great success.
Its incapacity, even now, to learn from its mistakes suggests to me that Reclaim the Streets can never again be anything but a threat to the environment and social justice movements. Far from winning fresh support, it has managed to alienate even those people who would otherwise be sympathetic. It has closed off avenues for political dissent, as the police and government clamp down on mass action and peaceful people keep away. Reclaim the Streets, in other words, is no longer part of the solution. It is now part of the problem.