the g20 protests: the devil against the detail

(at The Bank of England, April 1st 2009)

by Nathan Coombs

First was the March 28th ‘Jobs, justice, climate’ rally: a quickly forgotten TUC organised trot through central London. Second was the April 1st protest at the Bank of England, where the four horsemen of the apocalypse descended on the Bank, against a fever pitch expectation set by the police and the media about the eruption of a ‘summer of rage.’ Something like 5,000 to 10,000 joined the protest at Bank, and conferring to a well recognised pattern the protest was not so much a unified event, as a conglomeration of events – in a similar vein to the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement of the 1990s and beyond.

In the sense of history repeating itself, Chris Knight, the ‘martyr’ of the G20 Meltdown movement, declared an impending “Velvet Revolution”[i] in the week running up the protest, and the media were quick to invoke parallels with the May Day riots and to label the assorted anarchists groups and hodgepodge of protestors as ‘anti-globalisation activists;’[ii] even in the absence of any anti-globalisation banners, chants or slogans. Needless to say, neither the revolution, nor the anti-globalisation protest materialised. Or in other words, the form of the protests might have stayed the same, but the content had not. Yet surveying the post-mortem commentary about the protest on the left, the blinkers still seem to be on those that only saw what they expected to see, nevermind what was simmering in a inarticulate bubble beneath the surface.

If it was a matter of seeing the protests through the eyes of absolute cynicism, we need look no further than a commentary by Frank Furedi: founder and ideologue of the disbanded Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain.  According to Furedi, “What was really striking about the G20-related demonstrations against ‘capitalism and climate chaos’ – which took place outside the Bank of England and elsewhere in London – was the extent to which the opportunistic coalition of protesting moral crusaders represented a going-through-the-motions activism; they weren’t so much representing a cause as searching for one.”[iii] But since Furedi has staked out his position since the start of the economic crisis to persuade people that “In these confused times, we should attempt to defend capitalism[iv] we should probably take his assessment with dose of cynicism ourselves.

Then again, that also does not mean we should swing to the other extreme of opportunistically propping up our rose tinted glasses. Predictably, for the Socialist Workers Party “the day of rage rocks system” even though “the mood of the protests was for the most part defiant and carnivalesque.”[v] Going further, for London Class War, the most militant contingent at the protest, “While the G20 leaders were slapping each others backs and congratulating each other on their next cunning plan to make more money off the backs of working people and pretending it’s somehow for our benefit, their thugs were out attacking those who haven’t fallen for their lies…Capitalism is on the rocks, they know it and we know it… But we’re more than a match for them as we proved outside the Bank of England. We will fight back.”[vi]

Capitalism on the rocks? We will fight back? How does this measure up the reality of the April 1st events around the Bank of England?

Although there were little-reported cat and mouse street battles from about 7-8PM that spilled over from the Square Mile to London Bridge, the day after there was little evidence of a concerted militant campaign against the capitalist institutions or police force. Still, we can concede one point: against all the portrayals of the protestors being bullied, ‘kettled’ and assaulted by the police (all of which were true); the one thing not reported was that the ‘kettling’ tactic of the Metropolitan Police ended so violently because their lines were repeatedly pushed back, officers surrounded and they were forced into tactical retreats. In spite of the rhetoric of victimization associated with the death of Ian Tomlinson – and the glimmer of a cover-up and police disingenuousness until the release of a video showing him being assaulted[vii] – this is the most encouraging consequence of the confrontation: a realization on the part of many fresh faced protestors of the police as the armed wing of the state, and the fact that they can be beaten through strength of numbers.

As fun as all this ruckus was, however, it still does not get to the heart of the matter, namely: why, like all anti-establishment protests nowadays, does the heat of the moment not translate into a lasting political movement? And what, if anything, has changed from similarly momentumless ‘anti-globalisation’ clashes in Seattle, Genoa etc.?

It is tempting to answer the question by turning inside out that old chestnut, ‘the devil is in the detail,’ and re-phrasing it ‘the devil against the detail.’ For what most distinguishes the current global economic crisis is the lack of ideas for capitalism being pushed from the elite quarters of society; a precise mirror of the crisis in ideas on the left too, sometimes to the point where it is almost impossible to tell them apart (what, for instance, at a fundamental level separates the ‘Put People First’ agenda from the programme of the Labour party exactly?[viii])

From elite quarters, capitalism’s legitimation has increasingly become limited to complementing libertarian parliamentary-democracy and the ‘least worse alternative’ to the state planned economy. Politicians and capitalists present themselves as apologists of this untameable free-market capitalism, procrastinating over a lost time in which all legitimate alternatives have retreated forever. The historic mission of capitalism – the one that compelled historical materialism too – was the promised utopia, always just around the next corner. The Third Way of ‘social democracy,’ pre and post Blairite, was no more than an attempt to diffuse that utopia in the here and now: bringing the ‘trickle down gains’ of capital accumulation to the masses in advance of what capitalism could deliver, and a little bit of socialism in advance of any portended communist society. What we are witnessing today is the forestalling of that project, without either a corresponding reversion to the spirit of ‘triumphant capitalism’ or mass communist militancy.

Nevertheless, the truism that the ad-hoc protests at the Bank of England failed because they were not embedded in a wider revolutionary struggle can be explained in two ways. To put it in academese, there is firstly the ontological thesis. Into this category would fall the aforementioned Frank Furedi, but also Martin Jacques: former editor of the Communist Party’s Marxism Today magazine, and now don of the Demos think-tank and New Statesman contributor. That is, they argue that after the Cold War there has been a seismic and irreversible shift in the potential for collective subjectivity. Nowadays we act as atomized individuals and with this shift in subjectivity we can no longer hope to act collectively[ix]. There is no more priority accorded to the ‘universal class,’ and their party(s), than to a Jade Goody fan club of similar numbers. This irreversible shift means that there is no longer any agency to provide the immanence to capitalism’s demise, as was the case with the bourgeois revolutions and early communist revolutions.

Or, there is a second take on the matter, which is that certain trends related to globalization and the global division of labour have created the conditions that have ameliorated capitalist social antagonisms in the West. This argument – which I personally prefer, since I reject any ontological social theses as simply ideology – is that with the crisis in Western capitalism from the 1970s onwards[x], there was a coincidence between the financialisation of the economy and the reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era in China. With the declining rate of profit in the West[xi], under Chinese boom conditions, foreign direct investment from the United States, Europe and Japan flowed into China at an unprecedented rate. The vast programme of primitive accumulation and extraction of surplus value from exploited labour in China resulted in the effective out-sourcing of manufacturing and the tendency towards a global division of labour. Essentially, this China-centric process of globalization from the 1970s onwards was part and parcel of the collapse of the global revolutionary movement in all but the poorest countries, amongst other factors[xii].

What that means here is that the antagonisms between labour and capital, production and consumption, have been papered over by the cheap credit and low inflation derived from high savings in the East. This itself is enough to lower the stakes of class-based politics to the point where militancy seems more detrimental than the risk it involves; and it also involves a quantitative and qualitative degradation of the working class in the West, reducing their relative power.

This tendency has resulted in an abstract anti-capitalist movement, making arguments about the ills of the system without an agent to overthrow it, or even embody it in transitionary struggles. Without an actual, concrete agent, the most wild voluntaristic interpretations of communism and Marx are available: anything from advocating a return to mother Earth[xiii] to bigging up Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as the vanguard of global revolution, in the case of the Socialist Workers Party. Anti-capitalism is not only relieved of having to write ‘recipes for the cookshops of the future,’ but even of being embodied in a determinant agent that would provide it some focus and limit the numbers of credible interpretations – and thus parties and groups – who could represent it.

But this global division of labour – and the geographical separation of classes and stages of production and consumption it entails – is not a process that can continue indefinitely. The logic of globalization (at least in its neo-classical variants) entails the convergence hypothesis, whereby the class system will be leveled globally and transferred back to an intra-state distribution. If true, this will return to the localization of antagonistic class politics and re-release the political.

Is it then simply a matter of waiting? No. As already commented, this global process is only a tendency and nothing is remotely inevitable about it. The working class is neither inevitably defeated in the West, nor is it inevitably to be re-antagonized by global convergence. In this paradigm, it is worth being critical of the protest of the G20, but at the same time recognizing that even if the groups involved will not themselves lead us to a socialist or communist society, and may have totally the wrong idea about what that society may look like in any case, they at least maintain the conditions of the Idea of transcending capitalism: of resisting capitalism, the abstract system, rather than simply its expressions in ‘bad egg’ bankers, corrupt CEOs etc.

That said, what was most noteworthy about the G20 protest at the Bank of England was in fact the lack of widespread scapegoating of the bankers. In some of the angriest sections of the crowd I was in, some bankers even came to argue with the protestors and anarchists. From being strung up, or ruthlessly mobbed as the financial institutions warned their employees of, the worst they got was a bit of verbal abuse or jokes at their expense. And the RBS bank that was smashed up, seemed to only be done so because it was there, and bizarrely because it was not boarded up like all the other buildings in the vicinity.

At the recent Communism conference at the University of London’s Institute of Education, addressing a young crowd of twenty-something students, intellectuals and activists Slavoj Zizek claimed the secret of realising communism today is that we are the ones who have to realise it[xiv]. By ‘we’ he meant the academics, students and activists of left-groups present in the audience; and implicitly he argued against sitting around waiting for it to arise from the working class. Against this dangerous idea, which can only lead to the kind of frustrations which gave birth to the Baader-Meinhof group, we should retain the insistence that communist transformation can only come from workers’ struggles and the labour movement. At the same time, though, sustaining the Idea of Communism and the conditions where it can be thought, is a more widespread responsibility; as is supporting, and being critical towards, of any expressions which contribute to this.

In this spirit, the best that can be said of the recent G20 protests at the Bank of England is that unlike the anti-globalisation movement, the devil is no longer thought to be in the details of capitalism (lack of fair trade, the IMF etc.); but rather, more are now willing to think that capitalism itself is the devil. What is lacking is the detail of the alternative. After a century of Stalinist Communism, this will take a certain ‘leap of faith’ and a lot of imagination. Work to do.

Nathan Coombs is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research topic is ‘Evental Hermeneutics: Russia, China, Iran.’ He is co-editor of the open-access, academic ‘Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies’, inaugural issue forthcoming September 2009.

[i] David Cohen, “Meet Mister Mayhem: Chris Knight,” London Evening Standard (24th March 2009)

[ii] Watching the coverage of the protest on BBC News 24, April 1st this was the term used until it was later changed to just ‘protestors’ or ‘anarchist groups.’

[iii] Frank Furedi, “A Caricature of a Riot,” Spiked Online (Tuesday, 2nd April 2009)

[iv] Frank Furedi, “Capitalism after the ‘credit crunch’: what is it good for?” Spiked Online (30th October 2008)

[v] Socialist Worker, “G20: day of rage rocks system,” Socialist Worker Online (April 11th, 2009)

[vi] London Class War, ” Violent Out of Control Mob Runs Amok Through the City of London,” London Class War Newswire (3rd April, 2009)

[vii] Paul Lewis and Peter Walker, “New G20 video compounds doubts over police account of Ian Tomlinson’s death,” Guardian Online (Thursday, 8th April, 2009)

[viii] For a discussion of the TUC’s recent pamphlet on ‘coping with the economic downturn,’ see  “trade unions congress takes decisive actions against redundancies,” The Commune (22nd March 2009)

[ix] With the folding of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1997, Frank Furedi offered the following justification for giving up the political ghost: “In today’s circumstances class politics cannot be reinvented, rebuilt, reinvigorated or rescued. Why? Because any dynamic political outlook needs to exist in an interaction with existing individual consciousness. And contemporary forms of consciousness in our atomised societies cannot be used as the foundation for a more developed politics of solidarity.” In LM magazine 1997, quoted by Dave Walker, “Libertarian Humanism or Critical Utopianism? The Demise of the Revolutionary Communist Party.” New Interventions (Vol.8 No.3, 1998) (accessed 4th April, 2009). On Jacques’ altercation see his editorial of the last issue of Marxism Today: Martin Jacques, “The Last Word,” Marxism Today (December 1991), 29.

[x] On the thesis of the forty-year crisis since the 1970s see the work of Robert Brenner and Giovanni Arrighi. These running arguments over the financial crisis and potential alternatives can be found in the New Left Review, issues 53 – 56, Aug 2008-April 2009.

[xi] The declining rate of profit thesis is contentious; particularly so between convention neo-classical analysis and Marxist analysis, which present differing figures and conclusions.

[xii] Another hypothesis for the collapse is advanced by Dayan Jayatilleka: that the atrocities of factional fighting in a number of key Third World theatres in the 1970s let to a collapse of the overall global revolutionary movement. In sum, the loss of ‘moral advantage’ through the extreme use of violence by revolutionary groups against one another. Dayan Jayatilleka, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence (London: Pluto Press, 2007). For my critique of Jayatilleka’s hypothesis see: Nathan Coombs, “Divine Violence, Fatal Splitting,” Radical Philosophy 155 (forthcoming May 2009).  In my PhD thesis I advance another hypothesis that the belief systems of Marxism – how to get from a Marxist analysis to a Marxist response – became over-burdened in the 20th century by competing interpretations (Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist, Castroist etc.), resulting finally in a splitting of the terms Marxism and revolution from each other. In this frame the Islamic revolution in Iran represented a tipping point when the institution of revolution no longer held the emancipatory promise of Marxism.

[xiii] Chris Knight, quoted in David Cohen, “Meet Mister Mayhem: Chris Knight”

[xiv] For reviews of the conference see: Patrick Hayes, “Time to Think,” Culture Wars (Friday, 10th April 2009); David Broder, “report of conference, ‘on the idea of communism,” The Commune (15th March 2009)