Raising the Temperature

It’s time we started pulling down corporate headquarters

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 24th July 2001

Asking the G8 leaders to decide what to do about third world debt is like asking the inmates of Wormwood Scrubs to decide what to do about crime. Debt is the direct result of the banking structure which has enriched the G8 nations. Our leaders are the last people on earth who should be charged with tackling it.

The same goes for poverty in Africa. For 150 years, a few rich nations have decided how Africa should be “helped”. The G8’s new “Marshall Plan” for the continent is no more enlightened than the schemes some of its members were devising in 1860. The problem is not the decisions the G8 makes. The problem is that it’s the G8 making the decisions.

I had imagined that this was so obvious it scarcely needed stating, but some of the big development charities criticising the G8’s new plans are now arguing not that these constitute a new form of colonialism, but that this colonialism is insufficiently funded. Reading the responses of some of the organisations I have long admired, I can’t help wondering whose side they are on.

My bewilderment has been compounded by a recognition, painful and reluctant as it is, that the G8 leaders, the press and the millions of people for whom these issues were meaningless just a year or two ago are now discussing them only because of the fighting in the streets. Having campaigned against violence towards people for years, I find this perception terrifying. It is simply not true to say that Carlo Giuliani died in vain. By contrast to the hundreds of thousands of people who, like me, have spent their working lives making polite representations, he was acknowledged by the eight men closeted in the ducal palace. They were forced, as never before, to defend themselves against the charge of illegitimacy.

This discovery is hardly new. I have simply stumbled once more upon the fundamental political reality which all those of us who lead moderately comfortable lives tend occasionally to forget: that confrontation is an essential prerequisite for change.

The problem with the fighting at Genoa is not only that the confrontation was of the kind which hurts people, but also that it was not always clear what they were being hurt for. The great Islamic activist Hamza Yusuf Hanson distinguishes between two forms of political action. He defines the Arabic word “hamas” as enthusiastic but intelligent anger and “hamoq” as uncontrolled, stupid anger. The Malays could not pronounce the Arabic ‘h’, and the British acquired the word from them. On Friday and Saturday, while the white overalls movement practised hamas, seeking to rip down the fences around Genoa’s Red Zone but refusing to return the blows of the police, the black block ran amok.

The important thing about hamas is that, whether or not it is popular, it is comprehensible. People can see immediately what you are doing and why you are doing it. Hamoq, by contrast, leaves its spectators dumbfounded. Hamas may have demolished the McDonald’s in Whitehall on May Day 2000, but it would have left the Portuguese restaurant and the souvenir shop beside it intact. Hamas explains itself. It is a demonstration in both senses of the word: a protest and an exposition of the reasons for that protest. Hamoq, by contrast, seeks no public dialogue. Hamas is radical. Hamoq is reactionary.

If, like some of the black block warriors I have spoken to, you cannot accept this distinction, then look at how the police responded to these two very different species of anger. On Friday, though they were armed to the teeth and greatly outnumbered the looters, the police stood by and watched as the black block rampaged around Brignole station, smashing every shopfront and overturning the residents’ cars.

Then on Saturday night, on the pretext of looking for the people who had caused the violence, the police raided the schools in which members of the non-violent Genoa Social Forum were sleeping, and started beating them to a pulp before they could get out of their sleeping bags. The police, like almost everyone else in Genoa, knew perfectly well that the black block were, at the time, camped in a car park miles away.

It is not hard to see which faction Italy’s borderline-fascist state feels threatened by, and which faction it can accept and even encourage. If Carlo Giuliani did not die in vain, it was because the Genoa Social Forum had so clearly articulated the case he may have been seeking to make. His hamoq forced a response because other people were practising hamas.

Hamas instructs us to choose our enemies carefully. And if there is one thing upon which all the diverse factions whose members gathered at Genoa can agree, it is the identity of some of our enemies. There are some corporations, for example, which activists and non-activists everywhere regard as a menace to society.

Almost everyone agrees that the world would be a better place without the companies which are lobbying against action on climate change, building Bush’s missile defence system, producing fragmentation grenades, demanding control over health and education services, privatising water in third world cities then selling it back to their people at inflated prices, ripping up virgin forests, designing plants with sterile seeds. The state was once empowered to destroy such menaces: in the 18th century, for example, the British government could dismantle any commercial enterprise “tending to the common grievance, prejudice and inconvenience of His Majesty’s subjects”. Now the state has renounced this power and refuses, whatever its people may say, to demolish the dens from which the thieves of the public realm raid our lives. Hamas insists that we pull them down ourselves.

Those who will be most horrified by this suggestion were doubtless also delighted to see the public demolition of the Berlin Wall. It is surely obvious that the excesses of corporate power are no more likely to be reversed voluntarily by the states which it has captured than that the Berlin Wall would have been pulled down by the governments which built it. And I suspect that, in private, most British people would be as happy to see the headquarters of, say, Balfour Beatty or Monsanto dismantled by non-violent direct action as they were to see Lord Archer go to prison.

These things can be done, as peaceful protesters have demonstrated in fields of GM maize, nuclear laboratories and military aircraft hangars all over the country, without hurting anyone. Indeed, when actions are clearly focussed, then violence towards human beings is far less likely to take place, as it’s harder to forget what we are seeking to achieve. While it would cause some of our liberal supporters to shudder, it would also generate the massive public debate without which no political change can take place.

Ours is, in numerical terms, the biggest protest movement in the history of the world. We have, perhaps, a better opportunity for generating progressive, democratic change than at any time in the past 50 years. But, though I am scared to say it, it’s now clear to me that we cannot win without raising the temperature. The disorienting, profoundly disturbing lesson from Genoa is also the oldest lesson in politics: words alone are not enough.