Alec Gregory writes about his experience of participant-(mostly)observation at Saturday’s direct action.
I am, I think, an anti-capitalist. I do approve, and take advantage, of many of the things capitalism has produced. But, given the horrific inequality and suffering it has also produced, I think it’s time to seriously consider a different way of running things. My problem is that no mainstream political party in the UK wants to consider this. So, logically, I must act outside mainstream politics. Having said that, I am more than a little embarrassed to say that Saturday was the first time I had attended any sort of direct action. And I was little more than an observer. Nevertheless, at the risk of running before I can crawl, I am going to write a bit about the nature of some of what I saw and direct action in general.
In the days leading up to the protests, I had asked friends and looked online to see what different groups had planned. By far the most appealing activities to me were the UK Uncut occupations on Oxford Street, as they involved actually interrupting day-to-day capitalism. I needed to do some shopping anyway, so I thought it would be a nice contradiction to both try and close shops and buy stuff at the same time. In the end I didn’t do any shopping, and not because UK uncut had already closed most of their targets before I arrived. Turning up at 2:10pm after a frustratingly slow tube ride, I was keen to get into Topshop and sit down. I assumed it would be a fairly low-key thing: handing out leaflets about Phillip Green’s tax-evasion to bemused hipsters and tourists until eventual ejection by security staff / police. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the ring of riot cops and the paint splattered shopfront. I couldn’t help thinking that it was just the sort of thing Topshop would use as a window display to entice ‘alternative’ young shoppers. Perhaps they’ll keep the paint…
As there was nothing much actually happening at Topshop, I wandered down Oxford Street, thinking I might end up buying some jeans in uni-qlo (who didn’t seem to be a target, despite their ludicrous claims that their denim can somehow be Japanese when it’s made in China). However, I was happy to see a friend sitting outside Dorothy Perkins, another member of the Phillip Green empire (Dorothy Perkins, not my friend), so I joined him and did some shouting until the riot police moved in and we ran off. That was the only bit of actual protesting I did. For the remainder of the day I hung around Oxford Circus waiting for the announcement of the secret occupation and when that seemed not to be happening, I went to the Cock Tavern on Great Portland Street and talked to activists, many of whom were from outside London and had been having a great time closing shops and taking photos (including one of a worryingly dishevelled John Power, from nazal Britpoppers Cast). Then Fortnum & Mason was announced on twitter as the location of the secret occupation so I rushed over there. It was exciting watching the first UK Uncut activists scaling the drainpipes and ornaments to get onto the shop’s awning, and fascinating to see how they reacted when the trepidation of tiptoeing over balconies to get to the roof had worn off. I had assumed they would be quickly removed by police, but more and more kept coming up and the police seemed to have no response. When officers did reach the first floor they seemed to be either incapable of opening the windows to get to the activists or merely checking that the windows were secure. The activists busied themselves with chalk, flags, ribon and other props whilst occasionally smoking, kissing and warning the gathered crowd of an imminent kettle (thanks guys, that saved my evening).
I see two approaches when it comes to protesting and activism, both of which are valid and which complement each other. The first, which is what I previously thought was the only approach, is that direct action is something that you may not particularly enjoy, but which signals your political position or your broad agreement with a particular cause. You join with a huge cause in actions like marches, the planning of which you have no hand in, and follow the lead of organisers. Because these large actions have to be accessible to all to have the biggest impact, there is a fair chance that they will end up being tedious to many of the participants. In participating nonetheless, you are saying that you care enough about an issue to take action that may be boring to you. And that’s quite something, given that we are increasingly encouraged to believe that nothing needs to be boring, that capitalism produces things to make absolutely everything fun.
The second approach sees protesting as an opportunity to exercise your creativity and / or do things you want to do and think are right but which make you feel uncomfortable. Action then becomes something you look forward to rather than see as a sense of duty to your cause. You can test your limits, watch others testing theirs and, if you wish, build activism into the fabric of your life. I saw this among the UK Uncut protesters and others and I am interested to explore it further. It has been discussed extensively in the works of John Holloway and Andy Merrifield, and studied by Marianne Maeckelbergh (see below). It was also invoked by Alex Pinkerman of UK Uncut to explain Saturday’s actions, but has yet to penetrate the mainstream, although they pay lip-service to it when it’s not actually happening.
It was not, therefore, surprising, that the majority of the UK press reacted negatively to any action that did not follow didn’t follow the TUC and Met Police approved march. It was, however, a bit disconcerting that journalists, some of whom must be fairly intelligent, didn’t realise that, just as some people prefer Midsomer Murders to The Wire, some people (remarkably few, given that this was a day for showing anger at the government’s brutal economics) would want to express their anger by smashing shit up, beating up police or climbing onto rooves instead of dutifully proceeding to Park Lane and passing go. Those out on Saturday were just people, ultimately of the same species as the capitalists who are perfectly willing to poison, endanger and humiliate others in order to enhance their own wealth. They were not all good, but in sum I believe they want, and can achieve, a system better than the current one.
Subversive Politics and the Imagination
Breathes new life into the Marxist tradition, applying previously unexplored approaches that reveal vital new modes of political activism and debate.
“Andy Merrifield is original, erudite, politically alive and readable. And above all, this book will be (in strictly the first sense of the term) thought-provoking!” – John Berger, novelist and critic
“Andy Merrifield brings us a Marxism that is ‘warmer’ than most recent forms, Marxism as it might have been imagined by DH Lawrence or one of the great Latin American novelists. He wants us to reimagine Marxism without bureaucracy and without commissars. If we can get deep into the ideas themselves, they can be a life force for us. Andy helps us see how Marxism can make us more authentic human beings.” – Marshall Berman, author of All that is Solid Melts into Air
How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy
Argues that the most promising new model for democracy is found in grassroots movements against capitalist globalisation.
“Maeckelbergh’s ethnographic research has enabled her to write an exciting book-length exploration of the prefigurative democratic political practices of alter-globalization activists. This study is essential reading for all who continue to insist that other worlds are possible.” – John Gledhill, Max Gluckman Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
“Fifty years from now, this book may well be looked back on as having opened an entire new chapter in the history of democratic thought. It certainly deserves to.” – Dr David Graeber, Reader in Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London