Getting ahead of ourselves: interview with an anti-TTIP activist

"What I am doing is fighting enclosure. This way of objectifying reality, of not being ‘with’ things, not being with nature, not being with the earth, not being with the ‘other’…" From the Squares and Beyond partnership.

Tim Flitcroft
29 July 2015

openDemocracy: What do you think the prospects are for us. Will TTIP happen or will it be prevented? What can we do to stop it?

Tim Flitcroft (Tim): Firstly, write to your MEPs. This aspect of democracy does still work. They had a debate in the House of Commons and they had more letters about TTIP than any other issue. It is suppressed by the media, but you can circumvent that by really sending a lot of letters to MPs and MEPs.

Next, become very aware of where TTIP negotiations are. Get educated. Go onto some of the websites like Stop TTIP in Europe and NoTTIP. Make people aware there is no compromise on the ISDS mechanism, if you want to have control over your democracy. The positive thing is that we stopped them voting a few weeks ago, because obviously they knew they couldn’t swing it. The danger, I think, is that it’s going to cause a break up of the EU to be honest.

But to be optimistic about it, as John Hilary from War on Want said, we got rid of GATTS, we have stopped a lot of attempts at free trade agreements. There’s a good chance we can do it again. So there’s everything to be fought for. Get people to join in, become involved. Just tell people about it!! If it goes through I think that’s a really serious step for European civilisation. It’s so severe - an invisible form of fascism.

It’s such an intangible and elusive issue to talk about, that people don’t understand the severity of it. We have to use imagery so that people on the street can readily understand, in terms of chlorinated chicken and the NHS being taken away. So far, we have managed to flatten the argument that it will bring jobs and prosperity; they don’t even try to use that so much any more. But the thing that NGOs can do that we can’t, is that they have the money to create really big campaigns.

oD: You were talking to us today, Tim, about the challenges for the UK’s anti-TTIP movement in working with NGO’s..

Tim: What I was talking about was the meeting of NGOs from across Europe in Brussels in February, where we agreed to have a global day of protest, not just about TTIP, but about free trade agreements overall.

Everyone signed up to it so I came away thinking ‘this is wonderful, we’ll have a big global day of protest’. It was actually to be the day after the peasant movement protest, the Campesino, which was about loss of land rights for peasants on April 18. Lots of very practical arguments went on at that meeting like, should we have it on Friday or Saturday or Sunday? There was also the usual European thing, “Yes well, some people want to do that, so let’s everyone do their own thing”. And there were lots of emails about how we were going to organise and can we get a similar message out? So this was a serious protest day and as we came nearer to it, around March, I hadn’t heard anything from our partners in the UK.

I thought I would have been contacted by one of the agencies to say - this is what we are thinking - so we could at least work in conjunction or in support, but we heard absolutely nothing. And then at the end of March activists started meeting and saying, what are we going to do? We need to do something that’s going to capture the imagination, with a strong social media message, even better than the banner drop image over the walls of Westminster Bridge, No TTIP-Hands off Our Democracy, which had become quite a key signature image last October. The BBC even used it on their news, so we would really have liked to have done something bigger. After all, the city of London is the centre of many international businesses, so we are actually the ones causing a lot of the problems people are facing in terms of free trade agreements. I felt personally responsible for making a statement from London saying, ‘we support you Campesinos, we support people who are against TTP and other trade agreements’ not just those against TTIP.

One of the NGOs finally responded to say, well there’s nobody in Parliament Square on a Saturday, the House of Commons is coming to an end of its session and there’s nobody there. There’s an election going on and they could attack our funding if we campaign on anything.

That, I think, was a real red herring. I did bring it up with them. So far in the elections, I said, no one has even mentioned TTIP, so how could it possibly affect the election outcome if we do a campaign on No TTIP? The March 7 Climate Justice protest had 7-10 thousand people and no one said it had broken a law about campaigning on election issues. These laws are really designed to muzzle charities, NGOs and unions, and to stop people from speaking about important issues like poverty during the election campaign. Their argument seemed to be the trade unions felt they would get attacked so they would not get union support for the day of action, but there was no real evidence for this. Later (but before April 18) some other spokespersons in the NGOs agreed there was no reason not to do an action because of the anti-gagging law so they did not even have a coherent point of view.

The point is that those people at the head of campaigns like that are professionals who would have known at the meeting in February that there would be this problem because of this gagging law. So that would have been a reasonably straightforward thing - to have mentioned this and at least we could have understood their position and had a discussion about it. But what I'm particularly pointing out to you is that they didn’t communicate their decision not to do anything about the April 18 action day. So then, when I started phoning them, they finally got a volunteer to come up with a little idea to hand out leaflets around Tottenham Court Road and they would have workshops about how activists could convey the importance of TTIP to non-activists.

I mean, it was completely inward-looking. It wasn’t challenging. It was down a side alley, adding nothing useful to a global day of protest. Then there was a second meeting in which somehow, we weren’t invited. NoTTIP, the activists they had originally created actions with, were now seen as not useful any more. And my feeling about that is that they use up one lot of activists and when those activists start to have a sense of where the real politics lie in this relationship, then they move on and they choose another. Hopefully from their point of view, a more malleable activist group. Younger ones maybe. So the bright young things came in, and we weren’t invited.

Two of us went anyway, and it was all very uncomfortable. But luckily the bright young things said, We want to do something which actually might cause a bit of friction. We boiled it down to going into a BP garage to make a point about energy, to Westfield Shopping centre, which we knew would be heavily policed, to a Virgin shop about NHS privatisation, and to a KFC to protest about chlorinated chicken. So we protested about food standards, the practice of meat washing at the end of the process rather than the 'farm to fork' approach favoured in Europe, we protested against the increase in pollution and environmental  damage and the import of tar sands oil etc at the BP garage and we protested about Virgin buying up the NHS’s public services, which people weren’t aware of.

These were very nice actions but we only mustered 400 people. And this contrasts miserably with the fact that as a population we Brits had the highest level of response of any country to the European Citizens Initiative against TTIP. In Spain and Germany they had tens of thousands of people out on the streets.

oD: What happened with that ECI, wasn’t it refused by the European Commission?

Tim: There were a number of ECI’s. The formal one was refused, but the one I am talking about was one anti TTIP groups decided to do anyway, namely an informal ECI which concludes on Oct 6. The European Commission wouldn’t allow us to do the formal one “because the decision hadn’t yet been made.” So we couldn’t have an ECI unless the decision had already been made. So how could we participate in the process of deciding about TTIP if you’re only allowed to make the equivalent of an initial review after the event? Incidentally, by the way, TTIP kicks in before it gets signed off. The way it’s done is that it comes into action 18 months before the final signing.

oD: How is that possible?

Tim: It’s retrospective, it retrospectively starts to act as a gag on legislatures. If for example a company starts operating from the US in Europe and finds its profits are declining because of government action, in the period before TTIP is finally signed off, in the 18 months before, they can then sue under those auspices. The reason they do that is to get what they call “a smooth transition”. But it is entirely and utterly undemocratic.


Tim Flitcroft with Jean Lambert MEP. Demotix/Peter Marshall. All rights reserved.

oD: Well you know there is a rumour going round about Syriza in Greece? That the reasons the European Union are so desperate to get rid of them is because they are the only government that has come out explicitly against TTIP?

Tim: I think they want Greece out. It’s quite obvious they do. They want to give an example of how they use the whip. I hope it’s a tactic that will severely backfire. But I think that there are plenty of other reasons for it, rather than Syriza being anti-TTIP. There is after all lots of anti-TTIP sentiment in Germany, as I’m sure you’re aware.

oD: What else interested you in today’s debate?

Tim: I am very interested in what’s going on in Scotland and I have been for quite a while. It’s the third time I’ve been to events with Scottish speakers. I heard Andy Whiteman talk about land ownership in Scotland. The awareness of land ownership and democracy go hand in hand. I think that when people realise who owns what, that’s really when people start to think ‘that’s not right’. In Scotland it’s something ridiculous like 416 people own the whole of the land mass. And in England 0.6 % own 60% and 30% of the land is unregistered. The point is, this sort of thing removes people’s ability to be rational. You can’t say ‘this is my space’. It cuts off the imagination, the creation of structures, and of being able to live in the future now.

oD: Prefiguration?

Tim: Which was what the Occupy movement was about, very much so. I was in ‘Arts against the cuts’ and we went into the National Gallery and occupied one room, with millions of pounds of paintings in it. We could have done a lot of damage. We wouldn’t leave and we wrote a manifesto while in the building called The Hive. John Jordan said, “We are doing it now, this is future society now. We are taking power and this means deciding how to control our lives. This is the now. We don’t have to wait for the future.” I found that incredibly liberating. We’ve always had this socialist dream, this Utopia, where we think ‘how are we ever going to get there?’ But actually, we are building it now, and it’s not all of the future that we want, but elements of the future that we are putting into position now. At Occupy you could talk about anything, anyone could, everyone was listened to. You had all sorts of wild and strange ideas on all sorts of issues being discussed. All of it was part of that prefigurative process.

I’m very unimpressed by the criticisms we have heard from some of the participants here today of horizontality within these organisations. These  people are looking for results that you can’t really expect at this stage in building those kinds of processes. Take Elinor Ostrom, who showed that by working together, cooperatively, you can build long-term, sustainable communities. She showed that sharing works. It has a longer history than not sharing, actually. The cornerstones of her understanding of how community works are Ubuntu and consensus. Ubuntu is this idea that you are only you because you are part of the we, the I is in the we and the we is in the I. I wouldn’t be I if it weren’t for the we. We are only talking now because we have inherited tools from those whose shoulders we are walking on. You have to know that you are very dependent on the other, so that you abandon the competitive thing. “I’m going to survive because we are going to work together.”

The commons was mainly formed to deal with oppressive situations, which were originally difficult physical situations like deserts, extremes of temperature, rain etc. People learnt to manage them cooperatively. Consensus worked because they were working in a shared field of values generally, about being a society. When you transplant consensus into an urban commons situation like Occupy, where there are no boundaries, some of the other aspects that Elinor Ostrom singles out as make or break - the need for a commons to have a boundary and a sense of belonging to a group – become more difficult. But generally, the idea of this collaborative economy which is emerging, where people are both producing and consuming, that involves a whole new experience of horizontality, which affects production, peer to peer lending, groups where people share tools, producing and selling back to the grid, collective farming as in Norway. A new awareness of horizontality is gathering momentum.

oD: Those movements in 1968. I have heard that were very different to what they are today: very patriarchal and hierarchical and not at all horizontal or cooperative. Would you agree ?

Tim: Yes. I would say certainly from a feminist point of view it’s changed. In the 60’s women’s positions were viewed in a very traditional way by the so-called revolutionaries. Women were vocal but they were objectified and that objectification of women was still relatively unquestioned in the 60’s.

oD: Have organisations become more horizontal because society has become more horizontal?

Tim: I don’t know if we can say society has become more horizonatal: just that there is a definite trend towards horizontal structures in situations like open source software movement, sharing initiatives, P2P exchange . At Occupy, people from every background came and found their voices. Occupy was about speaking from the heart and giving people a space to say what their lives were about, what they needed and what ideas they had.

You didn’t need to be educated. So a space was created that was more open than in the 60s. In the 60’s, to get a hearing, you had to be much more articulate. But since then a new sort of space has been created, and I really think it came from the women’s movement. It was an incredibly important movement not least because people got used to sitting in circles and listening to each other.

oD: How did you decide what to be involved in?

Tim: I have dug my heels in on two types of action really. One is against TTIP and one is for the Commons, the idea of think-do tanks and people being organised in self-organised ways. I see a link between the two: TTIP is an extreme form of enclosure and the opposite to it is the commons.

The commons is about self-organising from the local to the global. People are quick to say, well how will you do this? But I have a unifying discourse for myself which I would like people to understand. What I am doing is fighting enclosure. This way of objectifying reality, of not being ‘with’ things, not being with nature, not being with the earth, not being with the  ‘other’, instead of seeing things as the other and making an objective description of it and analysing what you’re going to do. This comes from Ubuntu and the commons, this idea of local and global. For me there is no conflict. Tactics might be different, but my reasons for doing it are exactly the same. I’m trying to stop enclosure and build up the commons, to reclaim, create or protect it. There is an absolutely direct connection between the local and global via the concept of the enclosure of the commons.

Banner drop protest at EU-US trade deal off Westminster Bridge, Oct.2014.

Banner drop protest at EU-US trade deal off Westminster Bridge, Oct.2014.Demotix/Peter Marhall. All rights reserved.

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