Seeds of the New in
the Prague Autumn
The recent Prague protests were the birth pangs of
a new politics.
The Ecologist, November 2000
Didnt Tony do well? The sweat-soaked
leader of New Labour, eyes flashing from behind his
conference podium, employed all the rhetorical flourishes
he knew to drag himself and his party back from the
electoral doldrums after various flash-in-the-pan 'disasters'
had knocked him behind the Conservatives in the opinion
polls for the first time. He told Britain he was 'listening'.
He told his country he believed; and they seem to have
believed him. Polls are once again showing a Labour
lead. The people's prime minister came back fighting
and, not for the first time, he spun things back his
The pundits loved it. Newspaper columnists
and political commentators on both right and left couldn't
contain their admiration for the master politician's
skills. This, they agreed, is what we want to hear.
This is what politics is all about.
Curiously, perhaps, one of the few
mainstream commentators in Britain who begged to differ
was Simon Jenkins, writing in the conservative broadsheet
The Times. 'If I were young, bushy-tailed and left-wing,'
he wrote, 'I know where I would be today. I would not
be in a stuffy Brighton conference hail, listening to
forty-somethings waffling about their "contract
with the people". I would be on the barricades
in Prague, calling down hellfire on the fat cats of
the IMF and the World Bank.' And there was more. 'The
longer I listened to Mr Blair,' Jenkins went on, 'the
more I yearned to pack my rucksack and head for Wenceslas
Square. There was the cockpit of the last modern revolution.
There now is the cauldron of global change.'
In fact, it was Peace Square, not Wenceslas
Square, where it all began. In late September, as New
Labour wheeled out its conference speeches, over 15,000
people from around the world gathered in Prague, the
capital of the Czech Republic, where the IMF and the
World Bank were holding their annual meetings. On Tuesday
26 September, those 15,000 people marched from Peace
Square towards the conference centre where the meetings
were being held, with the aim of shutting them down.
The police blocked their paths with armoured cars, tear
gas and water cannon. A few hundred (unrepresentative,
as usual) rioters got going with cobblestones, planks
and black masks. Bingo: the press had their story. Everyone
went home, and the world went on unchanged.
Or did it? Actually, I don't think
so. The images the world saw of Prague were of black-masked
rioters hurling rocks at police through clouds of tear
gas. This is de rigueur for media coverage of such mass
protests, and there's probably not much to be done about
it. But the real story of Prague was much more exciting
than the protest itself, or even the iniquities of the
Bank and the IME. The real story is that of a new movement,
a new politics, a new paradigm, fumbling its way into
the light. Comparing what happened there, on the streets
and in the squats, in the convergence centres and in
the bars, with Labour's empty slideshow in Brighton
only serves to show how the political energy of the
world has shifted; though most of the world has not
yet realised it. If the 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989
really was 'the last modern revolution', then Prague
2000, hot on the heels of Seattle, was the latest convulsion
in the drawn-out birth-pangs of the first revolution
of the 21st century: that of ordinary people again st
entrenched corporate power. Some rough beast, a placard
in its hand and a gas mask over its shoulder, slouched
towards Prague to be born. And, quietly, it was. It
just doesn't yet have a name or a birth certificate.
The old politics is dead. Ask the Americans,
who are currently undergoing the charade of having to
choose their next president from two men of virtually
identical beliefs who will run the country along the
same lines, only differing in degrees. Here in Britain,
we will be asked next year to make a similar choice.
Meanwhile, political parties everywhere agonise over
opinion polls which show, time and time again, that
citizens, especially the young, just aren't interested
in politics any more. They don't care enough to vote.
The reason for this seems pretty obvious: there's hardly
any point. Our reluctance to endorse either Suit A or
Suit B at a ballot box every five years is not because
we don't care about the future: it's because we know
damn well that, if we do, we're going to have to take
that future into our own hands. It's the only real choice
left to us. You can vote for George or Al, William or
Tony, and you know what you'll get: any colour you like,
as long as it's black. Any world order you fancy, as
long as it's market-based and neoliberal, and it doesn't
upset the corporate horses.
It is this consensus by stealth that
drew people to Prague, as it did to Seattle and Washington
before. The ragtag army of protesters on the streets
may not always have known exactly what they wanted,
but they knew what they didn't. 'Bollocks,' read one
placard, simply, 'to the New World Order.' You can't
argue with that.
Bollocks, of course, isn't exactly
a policy statement. So, if the energy has shifted, as
it always does at crucial moments in history, from the
placemen in Parliament to the ranters on the streets;
if the old politics really is dead; what is the new
one? Who were the people on the streets in Prague, and
what did they really want?
Asking the question that way makes
it almost impossible to answer, for the very power of
the Prague demonstrators was their diversity. This is
why politicians, journalists and secret-service personnel
find it so hard to pin them down, dissect them, define
them: they are not one. This is not a top-down movement,
it has no manifesto. Often it doesn't even have much
of a consensus. And if that can be a weakness, it is
also a great strength.
The ancient streets of Prague thronged
with people who would usually cross the road to avoid
each other. Trade unionists were there, unhappy at the
watering down of labour standards. Environmentalists
fumed about the World Bank's funding of destructive
infrastructure projects and the IMF's reborn version
of structural adjustment. Indigenous peoples from all
over the world wanted their rights and their land back.
A few unwelcome neo-Nazis mooched about in search of
a new fuhrer, their tattoos ugly in the autumn sun.
Anarchists shouted for the abolition of all government,
the most obvious being the sinister 'Black Block', with
their flags and dark masks. The ubiquitous Socialist
Workers, always adept at spotting a bandwagon, called
for whatever it is they were shouting about that week.
And many, many unaligned individuals shouted, sang and
danced their way through the cobbled alleys.
If you didn't delve any deeper, what
you might have thought you saw in Prague was the lumpen
dissatisfactions of those whose politics had failed.
Socialists and communists, living in the 1930s. Anarchists,
living in the 1890s. Tribal people, fighting the inevitable.
Earnest greenies, harking back to a vanished rural Utopia.
A threadbare basket of whingeing lefties, woolly-headed
liberals and frightened reactionaries, mounting a last-ditch
fight against the future.
But that's not it at all. For while
much of the language and symbolism is old, the movement
it is forming is new. Many on the streets of Prague
might not have known this themselves, but it's true
nonetheless. And because it is true, it is necessarily
This is what bothers the guardians
of the New World Order. They're worried, because they
don't really know what's going on. They can't get a
handle on this movement because it refuses, is unable
to be defined. South African finance minister and conference
chair Trevor Manuel said of the protesters: 'I know
what they're against but I have no sense of what they're
for'. A familiar accusation, this. All these problems
you're shouting about, he was saying, plaintively: but
where are the solutions?
Actually, there are plenty of potential
solutions out there if Mr Manuel would bother to look
for them. But he hasn't, because what bankers and politicos
like him mean when they say they haven't heard any solutions
is that they haven't had them presented to them in an
official policy document in some stuffy forum in an
expensive hotel. A document which they can then ignore
for the next five years until some blue-chip NGO politely
asks why they've done precisely nothing about poverty/exclusion/environmental
degradation/the commodification of human relationships/the
death of community (delete according to bugbear).
If Mr Manuel does want some ideas about
the sort of global solutions being kicked around in
Prague and elsewhere, he could try looking at the website
of Charter 99 (www.charter99.org) for some fairly uncontroversial,
practical proposals to strengthen democracy and accountability
at the international level, supported by people and
organisations from all over the world. He shouldn't
confuse this with Charter 2000 (www.zeg.org/raisonsdagir/indexcharta.htm)
which is making a start at organising a European movement
focused on solutions to the problems of globalisation.
He could listen to campaigners like the International
Forum on Globalisation, which has produced workable
proposals on regulating international trade, removing
the artificial subsidies to big corporations, and shifting
the focus to promoting the local economy. He could study
the many variants of ideas for re-regulating corporations;
removing their 'personhood' under the law, issuing them
a strict 'licence to trade' which could be revoked when
they transgress, and making their shareholders liable
for the actions of the corporations they own. He could
have a peek at Michael Rowbotham's book Goodbye America,
in which he discusses a neo-Keynesian alternative to
the unreformable World Bank and IMF: a global financial
organisation which would charge interest on credit as
well as debt, thus removing the imbalance which allows
the Bank to profit from poverty and Third World debt.
But most of all, perhaps, he should
try and understand that a genuinely new politics has
to operate in a new way. When supporters of globalisation
turn around to us, its critics, and sneer 'that's all
very well, but what's the alternative?' we should look
them in the eye and turn the question around. For it
is the globalisers who are changing the world beyond
all recognition. It is they who are tearing down sustainable
economies, delicate environments and age-old social
systems in the name of a one-size-fits-all corporate
beanfeast. They are the ones deliberately portraying
the creation and entrenchment of a very specific economic
system -- global corporate capitalism -- as an inevitable,
evolutionary process. They are the ones who should have
to justify their words and actions. The macho strutters
of the Black Block might disagree, but it is the corporations
and their allies who, in some ways, are the real radicals.
And us? Certainly, we want radical
change. We want to stop this monster in its tracks,
before it does any more damage. But our biggest mistake
would be to try and replace one vast, unaccountable
global system with another. Yes, we need international
rules, and international co-operation. But we don't
have one international solution, and we never will have;
because such blueprints are part of the problem.
For what this movement is about is
summed up in the phrase coined by Mexico's Zapatistas
to define their politics and their worldview: 'one no,
many yeses'. We all know what we don't want.
As for what we do: we can work together
on the big picture, but the rest has to come from the
ground up. True change, lasting change, springs from
the soil, it doesn't fall from the sky. It liberates
people, communities and localities, and allows them
to be themselves. It doesn't try to funnel them, it
tries to free them.
So yes, this really is new. It's not
the last gasp of the old left, or the resurgence of
the new right. It's not protectionism, or even anarchism.
It's something entirely different; something fresh being
pieced together from the shards of old ideas, and glued
with new solutions for a new age.
The world isn't listening yet, but
it will be. We're onto something big.