Alan Johnson describes the protests against the G8 annual meeting on 1-3 June.
When I arrive in Geneva - for the protests against the leaders of the G8 - US, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, Italy and Russia - it is sun-lit but Geneva is all wrapped up and shivering. Geneva has boarded itself up. Almost no shop windows can be seen. This being Geneva, a very expensive blond wood with a nice finish has been used. Anyway, they have unwittingly created a vast urban canvass for political art and agitprop. Some of the slogans that begin to appear are great. "The rich play golf and the poor pick up the balls" reads one. But much is the usual rubbish. 'Bush and Blair - the REAL terrorists', as if al-Qaida are not.
An anarchist sprays the traditional anarchist logo every twenty metres or so across the most lovely old stone building. I feel old, and want to stop him and ask if he thinks capitalism will fall after the defacement of every beautiful balustrade and cornice. Later in the week, on the big Sunday march, I watch anarchists tagging walls and buildings in a working class area and feel a much darker emotion. I rejoice when some local residents come out and with two words - I think they were "Fuck Off!" - send two callow black clad youth packing with their spray can and hammer between their legs.
On Friday there is a march around the institutions of global governanance and control. It's an intelligent protest, targeting the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). The organisers aim for a moving picket of movement against the emerging global migration regime, for freedom of information, against the emerging intellectual property regime. This is exactly the sort of issue where the organised left has been slow on the uptake and slow to grasp the political salience of key institutions. It is an example of how this movement employs the Dracula strategy - simply exposing some institutions to the light does most of the damage.
The IOM was founded in 1951 and is a complex intergovernmental organization that is growing fast and is financed by 93 member states. It describes itself as the "leading international organisation of migration management". The aim of the march was to drag into the light the activities of the IOM and contest it.
But the march itself was poor. Few banners. Not enough effort to symbolise what we were doing. Small. Maybe 7,000 at its height, few local people and no local unions. As we passed the institutions and heard speeches outside each there was a kind of tussle to define the march. This was expressed as an aural clash.
The rhythmic drumming of the Samba band and the exuberant dancing of the "pink and silver" section of the march was pitched against the Gangsta Rap being pumped out a sound system by the black-clad rebel boys ("I'm gonna smoke you if you sweat me you motherfucka and so on). Tactical Frivolity meets inchoate nihilism.
To be honest I am silently yearning for "Joe Hill" or "Solidarity Forever", but here and now I am dancing with the man in the beard, pink skirt, silver belt, and Dr Martin boots. The tussle over meaning will split the march in two more than once.
Outside the WTO building the black-clad rebel boys will refuse to move on after the speeches have finished. Fireworks are fired. The gates are torn down. I watch one boy. He is about 15. I realise he is dressed like the man on his T-Shirt. In fact he is dressed exactly like the man on his T-Shirt (bar the pipe). He is checking with his mate how his red Neck chief looks and then he fades into the crowd. The WTO plaque is ripped from the wall to great cheers and mounted on the sound truck. With this trophy of the enemy captured we can all move on to the next institution. I am dumb struck when some toughs start towing stones at the International Meterological Office, that centre of capitalist exploitation. My head fills with the most disloyal thoughts. I am reminded of Marx saying "no experienced person could fail to see the figure of the buffoon who tries to appear terrifying both to himself and to others". The image of barbarians sacking Rome and carrying off broken bits of Roman architecture as trophies flashes across my mind.
There is a great reluctance to confront the black-clad rebel boys, which I do not really understand. I doubt the obvious "good" reasons are the only ones. I doubt anyone really believes a mix of pink and silver tactical frivolity married to black block trashing is a recipe for a social movement with a real long-term future, a movement that could win. If they do they are wrong.
The march moves on. Tear Gas is fired outside the IOM by the police in response to some more window smashing. The wind is drifting my way and my nose starts to burn up. But the police are not interested in beating us up today. They have reserved that for later in the week it seems. For now we move on without panic.
Packed hall. 600 people, maybe. Hard to breathe. An Attac meeting begins with Chris Nineham of the SWP and Globalise Resistance. It's a stump speech holding little interest. (my friend with a Reclaim the Streets background notes the wild cheering from the SWP'ers as Nineham gets to his feet and says 'they are treating him like a fucking pop star'). Cassen, a leader of Attac France is more interesting if only because he pronounces the debate between reform and revolution over. As Cassen is plainly a reformist he must be under pressure inside Attac, I conclude. I buy a copy of Callinicos's Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (I have read Paul Hampton's review in Solidarity and cant believe it could really be that bad). I flick at it during the speech by the rank and file trade unionist from the Italian union, Cobas (the translation has broken down, the translator giving up on the grounds that 'he doesn't say anything in a coherent sentence!', which produces a ripple of laughs when it comes through the headsets). I read Callinicos's justified outrage at John Lloyd's argument that the 9/11 hijackers can be spoken of in the same breathe as the anti-capitalist movement (as two violent, incoherent anti-american global networks). Callinicos, angrily points out that al-Queda are 'a secret network that regards the mass killing of airline passengers and crew, office workers and fire-fighters as a legitimate tactic'. Quite. I am left wondering then, why Alex Callinicos and the SWP refused to condemn the atrocities of 9/11? Surely Callinicos's own refusal to condemn 9/11 gave succour to Lloyd's argument that parts of the Left could be connected, 'objectively', to the Jihadi Fundamentalist terrorism?
The Parc is hosting meetings of the Genevan Social Forum. It is a beautiful space and in its warm environs we catch a discussion led off by Olivier, a leading figure in both the PGA and the local Social Forum and who issued the initial call to protest the G8. Hugs all round as Olivier has been worked on this for months. He seems serene enough. He is speaking, making his case for a new look at the idea of 'the commons' as a way to think about what we are struggling against and for. I note the audience for this 'classic' political discussion, face to face and in a circle, is decidedly older than the Indymedia activists at the l'Ucine (factory) the self-organised alternative media and cultural centre beaming the protests worldwide. The argument Olivier is making is an important one but it worries me. In short Olivier thinks there is in the world, in our sociality and community, a kind of latent anarchism and our job is to bring it out. Herr are two extracts from his argument: 'Communities also play a vital role in the productive activity of private enterprises and public services, where communities of work and struggle constantly recreate commons despite - in the teeth of - hierarchical chains of command and the forms of work organisation that they impose. In France, the studies of Christophe Dejours and the 'psychodynamics of work' school of ergonomics demonstrates that these forms of organisation from below are actually vital even to capital, since it is in fact impossible to organise the essence of real work in a hierarchical manner, from above. Real work is always social and always implies more than just doing what you are told. In fact, only doing what you are told to do is the definition of a classic form of sabotage on the job : the slowdown.
Dejours details empirically what Marx meant about capital depending upon living labour to reproduce itself. It doesn't just depend on our obedient muscles, but on cooperation and social creativity resolving the problems of production and organisation day in and day out. People imagine that workers couldn't do without the bosses to organise them, whereas its the contrary which is the case ! In fact, Dejours shows that the essential aspects of work must remain hidden from the boss !
There is no God or historical necessity or scientific socialism or working class virtue that can guarantee us a happy end. Communities aren't automatically wise or democratic, but they are the basic bricks of society and close enough to control, to be responsible for and critical of. The Zapatista communities, for example, also criticise their communities: for example, they want equal rights for women - and washing machines. Communities aren't the new revolutionary panacea. They are just the basic, organic level of social organisation, which activism had tended to neglect.
Perhaps most importantly for activists, both perspectives should lead us not only to a renewed criticism of capitalist organisation, but first of all to a deep questioning of the dramatically similar way WE organise our own communities of struggle. Of the amazingly little 'common' space we manage to create for collective discussion of how we do our 'work' of political subversion, simply because our own communities remain hierarchical and repressive for most (people are afraid to 'say something silly'). Of the way personal fulfillment, subjectivity, suffering and the 'celebration of life' are constantly neglected for the sake of activist productivity. Of the astonishing ease with which we avoid serious engagement in our diverse professional work situations, in favor of abstract, militant activity 'outside'» practically everything.
The call to engage in the workplaces is welcome, and I think there probably is an anthropological substrate to any politics of self-emancipation but the anthropology cant substitute for that rounded politics and strategy. And I worry how the black-clad rebel boys are hearing Olivier's message about celebration, personal fulfilment and silliness.
The meeting organised in Anne Masse by the French Ligue Communiste Revoluttionnaire (LCR) on Saturday night was impressive. I travelled across the Swiss border to the small French town with Jean Batou of the Swiss USFI section, Solidarities (www.solidarites.ch), and with two comrades from the British section of the USFI, the ISG. Solidarities has a significant political presence in Geneva, its electoral list gaining ten per cent of the vote. With Jean I have been producing a French translation and a new introduction to The Two Souls of Socialism by Hal Draper and we were scurrying to the meeting with proof copy flying trying to recall where a particular Marx quote came from. We all squeezed into Jean's car discussing what the AWL and ISG were saying about George Galloway, the Socialist Alliance and the union's political fund.
There were some 400 people present. As the big march was the following day, and the bridge blockades were due to start at 5.30am. the chair announced the meeting would be short. And it was. Each speaker explored the weaknesses of the movement seriously, which was refreshing. There was no easy triumphalism. The speaker from the JCR calmly, and with much self-deprecation, set out the failings of the youth and an agenda for putting things right. The practical discussion of LCR militants of their conduct on the march next day was short, to the point, and, it seemed to me, spot on. There would be a vibrant, militant manifestation, but discipline and no street fighting. Olivier Besansanot, the LCR Presidential candidate, struck me as intelligent, articulate, personable, modest, and pretty much the opposite of a preening careerist bourgeois politician. It was not hard to see why his vote leaped up with every TV appearance he made during the French presidential campaign, reaching one and a half million by polling day. Nor hard to see why the LCR were able to link electoral politics to the movements so well.
Besansanot used his short speech to stress the dangers of the movement developing as a mirror of the international summiteers, merely counterposing our "Big Men" to their "Big Men", our mass gatherings to their elite gatherings. He wanted the European Social Forum in November to break out of the tired meetings and marches format and think imaginatively about how to engage Parisians workers by bringing their struggles right into the heart of the organisation, format, content and "feel" of the ESF. I left the meeting convinced we should all "learn French" in more ways than one.
Up early. As a crowd were chanting "Smash Israel" the previous day in Geneva Town Centre I decide to wear my Gush Shalom "Two States One Future" t-shirt with its Israeli and Palestinian flags forming a circle. I make a point of walking through the entire march at the start to see the reaction. I get a lot of smiles, which I guess, as they come from the eyes more than the mouth, are saying, "thank you, thank you". I also get lots of shame faced looks and downcast eyes. Had I reminded people of what they believe in and made them ashamed of silly slogans they had been mouthing? One angry Iranian man tells me his government does not like the Star of David. The best I can come up with is "Tough. I don't like Mullahs". He says "nor do I" and we part smiling.
The march to the border is very hot, very long and very boring. The French unions are absent as the pensions protest is only days away. Still, where are the Swiss unions? The highlight is the jubilant singing - at last some songs that express the spirit of the movement! - and general bouncing up and down of the LCR contingent.
I pass George Galloway at the demo. He clocks the Israeli flag on my t-Shirt immediately and looks confused by its proximity to the Palestinian flag. I clock his smug tanned face and expensive clothes, recognising him from all those photographs with Tariq Aziz and Saddam Hussein. He is striding our confidently. He is, sadly, among friends today and has been all week, moving from platform to platform as the voice of the anti-war movement. I briefly consider a mock dramatic public salute of his "indefatigability" and to bid him "On to the High Court" but I lack the courage, the moment passes, and he is gone.
After the march there is street fighting. The police - near invisible throughout the week - have turned heavy. The Media Centre was raided by the police with violence and beatings, images being streamed until the moment the police crashed in. The story of police repression at Lausanne and Geneva has been ignored by the mainstream media.
Heading out on Monday morning we pick up the Herald Tribune. A 39 year old London man is seriously injured after a policeman cut the rope from which he was suspended, 60 feet up, while protesting against the G8. My friend and I have the same sickening thought. This could be a mutual friend, Martin Shaw. We take brief refuge in the thought that Martin was not planning to come to Geneva as far as we knew. Reality comes crashing in with a text message. It is Martin and he has a broken pelvis, vertebrae, legs and ankles and has already had emergency operations (see box).
A lovely man whom I met in Barcelona earlier this year, where he does political work, and a key organiser of the Prague protests, Martin recoiled, I guess, from the violence of that event and turned to the creation of a beautiful social centre/squat in Barcelona, filled with utopian ideas and projects. I spent time there as Martin's guest and saw the local workers come up the hill and mix easily with the young rebels, thankful to have been given space to stroll and to make allotments. I heard the story of the dramatic defence of the building against police eviction. The local people marched up the hill, women to the fore, and put themselves between the police and the squatters until victory.
Martin, an experienced mountaineer, and protestor, helped organise the physical defence of the building and had spent 36 hours suspended from it. And now these stupid bastards had broken his bones to get the traffic moving along the Lausanne road. All Solidarity readers should take the case into their trade unions and student unions and pass messages of support to Martin.
We sat in the departure lounge phoning contacts for information, wondering why the police had cut Martin down and made him fall 60 feet, wondering why they had taken one hour to get an ambulance to him, and wondering why our flight was held up. As we watched Air Force One take off, climb, and disappear over the horizon all was explained.