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Making the space for creative dissent

About the author
Paul Hilder is co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of the Labour party.
Almost six years ago, I was at the Newbury road protests, talking in the camp of the pioneering protest organisation Reclaim the Streets. Even then, RTS were better organised than most. I had gone there with a friend of mine, who used to share a squat with one of the RTS founders when their focus was still quite personal (the M11 was going to demolish their homes on Claremont Road in East London). A few of us talked until dawn, about all sorts of things – from the rare snails that lived in the doomed woods outside Newbury, to music, to what had brought these ordinary people together to protest against roads, climb trees, radicalise.

In the following years, I went to many RTS street parties. Apparently spontaneous, they were “temporary autonomous zones”, micro-theatres of human exuberance with a carefully planned core of location, music, people. Cyclists, children swinging from banners, a Sinclair C5 electric car with record decks pumping out music, flyers, face paint, dancing, sheer joy… They were part of a vital current of resistance to the tired trammels along which our society seemed to be running, bereft of its outlets for dissent.

In the UK at least, the genesis of this movement was rooted in the state assault on the right to dissent in public space: with the underground rave scene as a scapegoat, many of our rights of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest were curtailed. Young people in particular didn’t like this. In late 1996, the closest I saw to mob behaviour was the near-overturning of a police van trapped in a crush of people. They were trying to stop it from impounding a sound system. Afraid and excited, they felt the adrenalin of collective expression and individual dissent.

The use of anti-terrorism legislation and police photographers against people whose methods were almost entirely peaceful and never life-endangering (the only reason being that those people were just as mobile, just as capable of disappearing and reappearing): this state tactic added to the sense of paranoia, of persecution. But we just want to enjoy ourselves, came the cry. Or to exercise our legitimate right to protest. Yet you’re taking all these photographs. Something’s going on here…

There was a sense of gathering momentum: street theatre and action came together when marvellously, aristocratically coiffed figures atop 30-foot crinolines rolled along the M41 by Shepherds Bush in London, with police helicopters overhead, while invisible figures beneath the skirts drilled big holes in the tarmac. That party on a dual carriageway made us look at public spaces differently – and wonder, yes, actually, why do we cut our landscape apart with rivers of lethally fast and polluting metal? (Forget the answers for the moment, even though there are plenty – just concentrate on the question.) It frustrated some motorists, involved others. But it made people think. Dissent has the power to shine light anew in the dark places of our stale, everyday assumptions – like throbbing petrol engines flowing endlessly past playgrounds – and to encourage us to revisit the stale way we plan our world.

Skip forward four, five years, and the scene looks very different. From what I know, RTS are still committed to a creative theatre of inventing public space. But they are doing so in an atmosphere of warfare that was only dimly foreshadowed in the term “eco-warrior”. It’s hard to turn a street into a public space when it’s simultaneously being turned into a battlefield, by terrified policemen who don’t understand what they’re up against, drunken thugs, agents provocateurs or masked crusaders. People are now more likely to leave their children, or themselves, at home. Some of my friends from those times are now capitalists; others still abroad. Some are pretty much underground.

Creative destruction?

In my teens, I styled myself an anarcho-syndicalist (though “ist” names never appeal much to anarchists, and I was no exception). I was so pessimistic about “The System” that I saw no way out but a scorched-earth new beginning. A primitivist ideal all of its own.

The current of thought arguing for the demolition of globalisation and/or capitalism has grown and strengthened over the last few years – partly as globalisation itself has opened up our knowledge of global misery. Globalisation has become a moderate-friendly proxy for capitalism – no-one could see a feasible alternative to capitalism, its demolition seemed impossible; but globalisation is of recent human invention, surely we can roll that back?

So goes the thinking. And with this image floating before them, small groups of polarised individuals, who have been photographed and baton-charged and teargassed and imprisoned repeatedly, people I have talked and partied with among them, believe that violent actions – against property, even against state agents in self-defence or provocation – are a necessary strategy. Forget tactic – strategy. And the tactics include initiating such violence with a majority of “fluffier” protestors around, who add credibility, might even be radicalised, introduce productive confusion – what Michele Salvati calls a “grey area”. Having read their recent manifestos, I’m sure the Black Block aim at a vision I once shared: scorch the earth of capitalism, and from it vines shall grow to twine around the Empire State Building. And I believe they’re wrong.

Creative destruction is, curiously enough, a good capitalist tenet, as the work of Joseph Schumpeter showed. But it relies on that which is created being better than that which is destroyed. Those who attack globalisation almost never offer credible alternatives for sustaining and increasing quality of life around the world. Martin Shaw is right to say that “autarchy has failed as an economic model”, and politically it offers horrific precedents. Global interconnection brings with it potential as well as risk. It does not come into a vacuum, it disrupts prior systems whose preferability is suspect.

I would even agree with John Jackson that “globalisation has the capacity to accelerate rapidly the creation of additional wealth, and the distribution of that wealth.” (Some anti-capitalist I turn out to be.) But he is wrong to say that “everyone can understand” this potential. Evidently, they do not – we have banners and Molotov cocktails to prove it.

This doesn’t make the unbelievers fools. Because just as evidently, the capacity of globalising capitalism for distribution of wealth to address widening inequalities, or for innovation to reengineer industrial capitalism into more sustainable forms, has not even begun to be realised. And this follows from a terrible short-termism and parochialism which inheres in many of our contemporary systems and institutions, as Ed Mayo points out. These are systems in which millions of people around the world suffer violence every day.

The system grows…

System was a concern for many of the contributors to the openQuestion on the protests, the violence and what may follow. Charles Secrett thinks the ratification of Kyoto at Bonn has enshrined a new principle of systemic thinking in our contemporary worldview. This is hyperbolic, but there’s truth in it. If you want to bend a curve in the opposite direction to its current trend, you need to start by straightening it. Francesco Grillo worries about our obsession with “Her Majesty Complexity” and with a perfectionism of details, but he too seems to be concerned that we need to search for knowledge about the system in the round – and find ways to make that available for people to act in more informed ways.

While I would agree with Josh On that it is good that Genoa raised questions – that a vital, questioning energy is developing within the protest movement – I fear the internal questioning is too narrow, not fundamental enough. He says, “This system kills people every day… this movement could be the beginning of the system’s end”. But to end a system, you must begin a new one. What, and how? Systems are everywhere, from our central nervous system to pre-capitalist potlatch exchange processes. A reality of existence, we can’t get to their end. When society gets big and complex, the system gets unimaginably complex, as with the vast open system of human existence on earth which currently prevails. Who can understand it in the round? No-one. Is this a reason to run from it in fear, or rather to look for things that we can experiment with and start to understand? We must be careful to avoid personifying these systems, even as we seek to change them. Otherwise we may think we can kill them.

Clear thinking, creative acts

Yes, the world today is in many ways a terrible, savage, Hobbesian place. And it was terrible earlier this century, and it was horrific in the centuries before that. Today we know the details of our contemporary horrors, and we know them because of globalisation. If simple causality can ever be ascribed to something so diffuse and all-encompassing, it is here.

One of the biggest problems we face is that of geographical, mediatised, emotional distance. As Zygmunt Bauman has explained in his work on the Holocaust, we are far more likely to inflict misery and violence at a distance. One of the ethical challenges we face is to bring the far near. Can the compassion and outrage of the rich consumers of a product reach and improve the lives of its poor producers without depriving the latters of their livelihood, as John Kay asks?

But tinkering at the margin will never fix what’s broken with this system – and nor will precautions alone. Not that we should think of it as a machine we can fix – it’s a wild herd of animals stampeding, not a placid plant waiting to return to a simple equilibrium, and our understanding of it is far too slim. So we need experimentation as well as caution. New and creative thinking, as well as dissent and critique.

And there is a lot of energy. “I have a great fury in my soul – the kind of fury that wants action, direction and with great focus, that fury that will shine and find action, direction and focus even more together with other similar furies”, cries Betti Marenko. In what I feel is the most lyrical contribution we’ve seen to openDemocracy, one which brought tears to eyes, Lisa Westberg, sister of Hannes who was shot in Goteborg, provides what I will take as a answer to Betti (but to extract from Lisa’s piece is to do an injustice which I hope she will forgive me): “Every cobblestone was a cobblestone thrown in my face. The “black ones” covering their faces visiting from other countries helped me look myself in the mirror… Let’s take it cool”.

Steve Crossan’s withering demolition of a Black Block piece from Crimethinc correctly identifies its description of policemen as “lower than worms”, “power-addict slaves”, as totalitarian in its dehumanisation. It reminds us of the dangerous channels down which unchannelled, irrational passions can be made to flow. “The violence directed from all the human beings present at the only ones there who still refused to be human didn’t contaminate us”: this is a modern-day protestor, not a Kristallnacht rioter. There’s a lot of passion there, though. It’s worth asking where the passion comes from, and what else it might do.

Brian Holmes, cultural critic and advocate of targeted violence against property, thinks the problem is a facile, seamless political consensus which leaves no space for dissent or the development of alternative arguments. He courageously acknowledges the way massed chaotic crowds in urban settings can easily shatter into a purposeless mob destroying small local shops, but calls for the movement to develop and change its form. I would agree with his diagnosis: our power structures don’t understand the creative power of dissent, the individuals who inhabit them seek to squash it out of self-interest and fear. I think I would disagree with the violence in his prescription – but I laughed when they drilled holes in the M40, didn’t I?

What we need, I would suggest, is practical reimaginings that stretch out of the present-day situation, clear analyses of what is actually happening and vigorous questioning of our assumptions – on all sides. And I’ve seen some of that on openDemocracy.

The global democrats in our debate are developing a strong and persuasive argument that globalised phenomena require global governance. Whether they require global government is a bigger question – particularly when our ossified forms of state government are part of the problem.

I think Susan George is right that if the violent methods of the few are not contained and creative circumvention of the battlefield does not return to the centre of protest tactics, there is a risk of shattering the greatest political hope in the last several decades. I’m particularly encouraged by Paul Evans’s call for the movement to begin defining itself more positively – as pro-democracy more than anti-capitalist – even though the problems we face of dangerous trends, inequality and instability will not be saved only by a movement or by democracy. Evans suggests that the credibility of a movement which not only challenged the actions of existing “democratic” states but also called for more democracy around the world (for instance in China) would be vastly enhanced. I think he’s right. And the idea of revealing a continuum between state censorship and the failure of western media to inform and empower is equally as exciting.

Vittorio Bertola shares the “pro-democracy” line, and believes that there is “space for a huge movement to come up and collect votes”. This is encouraging; as is his clear-eyed acknowledgement that the majority in his native Italy were condemning the protestors. And I am fascinated by John Jackson’s assertion that we must answer the question, “How does one deal with decisions by those who are accountable which are found by their judges to be unacceptable?” He sits on the boards of several huge multinational corporations (Josh On, take note for your They Rule website). I’d like to hear more from John on this.

A way out?

When I went to the road protests at Newbury, I took with me a copy of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, written at the end of the Second World War by a German philosopher in exile, caught between Nazi totalitarianism and dawning American imperium. In a series of fractured reflections, Adorno inveighs just as much against the wiles of the “culture industry” as against totalitarian regimes. In the modernity he sees, there is no way out of the deadening and all-encompassing System: it is diseased, closed.

I went to Newbury hoping to find a way out. I found straightforward, wonderful people on the horns of exactly the same dilemma. They saw no way out either. Without much hope, they proposed hopelessly romantic hunter-gatherer or pastoral idylls. The route map from here to there did not exist. Student grants or dole money were the flows of income that enabled them to take this creative space of dissent. But all they were managing to say in that space was “No” to what the world had given them, and “Yes” – quietly, in between the impassioned arguments – to each others’ will and inventiveness. And the trees, and the snails.

Yes, we are seeing the arrival of the global citizen – not just in street protestors, but in the readers of No Logo and even our own Worcester Women. Yes, this is something to celebrate. But the problem analysis is still confused, and the tactics are too reactive. We need new ideas, creativity, as well as what Pablo Neruda, in his Nobel prize acceptance speech, called ‘burning patience’. There are no easy ways out – but there are still, perhaps, ways to bend the future into better shape. We’re still at the beginning.


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