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London calls the street rebels

The 'anti-globalisation' movement is back in town

New Statesman, 26 March 2009

This Saturday, as the heads of government of the G20 nations prepare to convene for a crisis summit in London ’s Docklands, something will be reborn. A political movement which ten years ago seemed to be sweeping all before it, yet a few years later seemed to have hit a brick wall, may once again make the political running. The global justice movement is back in town.

‘This isn’t going to be another Stop the War moment, where a huge march is held, the government ignores it and everyone goes home depressed’, says Nick Dearden of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, one of those responsible for what organisers hope will be the biggest public rally since the anti-war march of 2003, planned for this Saturday. ‘And it’s not going to be another Make Poverty History, where the rock stars meet the world leaders and everyone makes promises and nothing happens. This is a serious coalition with a serious agenda, and we’re in it for the long term.’

The coalition Dearden refers to is a new and fired-up alliance of NGOs, unions, religious groups and campaigning organisations, armed with a manifesto which aims to rewrite the rules of the global economy. Put People First has already created a significant alliance – over 100 organisations, ranging from Greenpeace to the Dalit Solidarity Network via the NUJ and the Muslim Council of Britain have so far signed up.

‘Put People First only began life back in November’, Dearden explains. ‘A group of NGOs involved in what you might call the economic justice movement – groups like Jubilee Debt, the Bretton Woods Project and the Trade Justice Movement – saw a real opportunity to be seized as the financial crisis unfolded. For decades we’ve been campaigning to make the global financial architecture fair and sustainable. Now that it’s collapsed that message is more relevant that ever – but there’s a real danger that the G20 governments will not make real changes. We wanted to bring a coalition together to make clear what needed to be done. Interest has been quite amazing. What’s really significant about this is the marrying up of unions, environmental groups, trade justice groups, religious groups – all of them uniting for the first time around a common manifesto which we are demanding the G20 adopts.’ It is this impressive size and breadth which makes the coalition’s organisers hopeful of a serious turnout on Saturday.

Put People First is already making an impact. Its manifesto and accompanying policy paper calls for a ‘historic break with the policies of the past’, and includes demands for an end to tax havens, radical reform of the World Bank and IMF, new rules demanding transparency for multinational corporations and financial institutions, a ‘green new deal’ recovery package based on massive investment in renewable technologies, and the control of cross-border capital flows. Already the British government seems to be listening.

‘We have held a series of meetings with the government at various levels,’ says Julian Oram, head of policy at the World Development Movement and another key player in the coalition. ‘To be fair, they have been good at meeting us and listening to what we have to say. And we agree on some things, like ending tax havens. My overall impression is that they want to be seen to be in agreement with us – to adopt our language and look like they are working with us – but on most of our demands, they either don’t get it or they blame China or India for their inability to change things. We need to be very clear with them and the public what we want. We are not going to be co-opted.’

Put People First, as Nick Dearden says, is not going away. After the G20 meeting it will turn its attention to the UN’s forthcoming crisis summit on the global economy, planned for June, and then the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December. But whatever the coalition’s long-term impact, it is not the only voice that will be heard next week. As the summit begins, more radical and potentially confrontational movements will be in evidence too.

One of the most prominent will be the fourth Camp for Climate Action. After making a splash, and creating a movement, with previous camps at Drax and Kingsnorth power stations and Heathrow airport, this year’s Climate Camp will be taking place in the belly of the best – the City. Twenty four hours of direct action, workshops and debates will climax in the attempted occupation of the European Climate Exchange, the pan-European centre for the trading of carbon emissions permits. Carbon trading is part of the British government’s – and most world governments’ – favoured, market-based, approach to tackling climate change. The Climate Campers, though, have had enough of market-based approaches.

‘Carbon markets don’t work’, says Mel Evans of the Climate Camp. ‘On the contrary – this is the government handing power over the climate to the corporations and the traders who got us into this mess. We want to block that. These people are pushing us in completely the wrong direction. Carbon trading will be the next sub-prime. What we really want people to understand is that the climate crisis and the economic crisis are intimately connected. It’s the same unsustainable growth economy which causes both’

As ever, what will happen on the day is a closely-guarded secret. But the Camp is likely to be a big affair; perhaps the biggest yet, and the G20 will find it hard to ignore.

Hard to ignore also, it seems, will be the other activities planned for the 1 st April – or ‘Financial Fools’ Day’. A wave of street protest, direct action and other activities are planned by a loose movement of political groups, activists, anarchists, artists, students and many others. If past summits are anything to go by, those who reject both the G20 agenda and the mainstream dissent characterised by coalitions like Put People First will be having their say, loudly.

The Daily Mail is already rubbing its hands in glee at the potential confrontation (‘anarchists plan city riot!’ ran its typically reliable headline last week) but while the media will doubtless swoop with glee on any resulting broken windows, the action itself promises to be more interesting, and colourful, than the most lurid Fleet Street headline.

In mid-morning on the 1 st, four groups of marchers will begin moving from four London railway stations, heading for the Bank of England. Each group will represent one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, newly redubbed ‘Climate Chaos’, ‘War’, ‘Home repossession’ and ‘job/savings/pensions losses.’ While the renamed horsemen may not ctach the public imagination, the marches, in which attendees are promised the chance to eat (metaphorical) bankers’ brains, invade the urban jungle in company with a group of gorillas and hang bankers from (presumably also metaphorical) lamp-posts, may have more success in doing so

London , then, might be a bad place to try and move around in next week. But all the colour and the chaos, the marches and the manifestoes, should not obscure the bigger picture; a picture which helps put this week’s events in their proper historical context.

Ten years ago, in the city of Seattle in the northwestern USA , governments from all over the world gathered for a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation. They had come to set the rules by which the global economy would operate. It was, in retrospect, probably the high-watermark of globalisation: after the fall of communism and before 9-11, it was time when the global elite believed firmly in the End of History and the inevitable triumph of Western consumer capitalism.

But as the meeting began the delegates were confronted, unexpectedly, by a mass of people who saw things very differently. Over fifty thousand people took to the streets to rebel against the WTO’s version of history. Environmentalists highlighted the global economy’s disastrous impact on the natural world; campaigners for justice railed against the exploitation of the poor; unions, religious groups, anarchists and thousands upon thousands of unaligned individuals took to the streets to shut down the WTO. The police responded violently with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. A movement was born.

Over the next three years that movement grew, and took every global summit by storm. The media was full of what it called this ‘anti-globalisation’ uprising. The inequality and unsustainability of the global economy was highlighted for all to see. Then came 9/11; then came Iraq . The movement dissipated and much of its surface energy disappeared.

A decade on, though, the wheel has come full circle. Many of the claims the protesters made back in Seattle have proven to be right. The global justice movement was always, at its heart, about democracy. It was about opposing a global economic and political system which was stitched up by the world’s most powerful nations and corporations, in their own interests. It was about the sham of a ‘free’ market which was actually rigged by those same players, and about the lack of a voice for poor nations and poor people within them.

The movement that coalesced on the streets in the late 1990s did not come from nowhere. It was built on the back of decades of work by radical economists, writers, grassroots activists and thinkers, who had systematically taken apart the case for the unfettered market economy. What is happening now can be seen as the next phase of the same movement. What is different this time is that those who claimed that markets should not be left to their own devices, that global inequality was something to be ashamed of, that the economy was ravaging the planet and that the poor needed to be heard now find their claims proven on the streets and in the fields, and echoed, however insincerely, in the words of prime ministers and CEOs.

But this movement seems to have learned from its mistakes. It knows it can never repeat the vast street protests that culminated, in Genoa in 2001, in widespread police brutality and the death of an activist: a newly-empowered and determined state apparatus would not allow it, for one thing. But it knows also that getting too close to power, as the Make Poverty History coalition did, can be fatal. The trick is to create a space in which everyone from artists and anarchists to NGO policy wonks can play their part, whilst at the same time making hard, detailed demands of power. And not stopping until those demands are met.

Where this movement goes next remains to be seen, as does the size and effectiveness of this week’s events. But the world leaders inside next week’s summit venue would be well advised to listen to what it has to say. It’s not as if, after all, they have any better ideas of their own.