A good day out in London?
- some reflections on May Day 2000
This was written as a contribution to a collection of articles called 'Reflections on May Day'. Unfortunately it didn't make it into the magazine as I missed the publication deadline. This was not just due to me slacking - I was hesitant about the content because the conclusion of 'well it wasn't so bad' didn't seem to be saying very much. However some people who have read it have suggested publishing it, if only as an antidote to some of the theoretical hand wringing that has characterised some other perspectives. As always, comments are welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
Despite media hysteria and a massive police operation, May Day 2000 was celebrated, not around the back streets, but in the heart of the capital. Independently of political parties and trade unions, free of charge with permission from no-one, thousands of people assembled next to the centre of political power with banners proclaiming 'the earth is a common treasury for all' and the Maypole raised next to Big Ben. A sterile patch of lawn used for MPs to spout off to the media was temporarily transformed into a chaotic wild garden and 'untouchable' militarist monuments were subject to the practical critique of the spray can. Nothing like this has happened on May Day in London for years.
No the world wasn't changed, capitalism wasn't threatened, things sometimes felt a bit muddled. It is important to be (self) critical and reflect on the lessons of activity. But one of the problems for me is that people tend to put too much weight on Reclaim the Streets actions and make them the focus of impossible expectations. This is the case not just for people around RTS, but for those outside who criticise it for having failed to conjure up a mass working class movement against capitalism.
Overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a world community based on our needs and desires will require the self-organisation on a global scale of millions of people. RTS, the 'direct action movement' and their wider constituencies probably only number tens of thousands in this country (with a wider body of largely passive sympathy). To get things in perspective, more people go and watch football every Saturday than have participated in every RTS action there has ever been.
More difficult still, outside of this movement there is a very low level of struggle within the UK and indeed in the whole of Europe. This doesn't mean that it will always be this way - there have been similar periods in the past, and the pressure cooker of unmet needs and frustrated dreams always explodes at some point, even if the form this explosion takes is unpredictable.
But for the time being RTS sometimes seems to be pretty much the only show in town, a fact that leads many within and without it to expect it to be able to change this situation or to criticise it when it fails to do so. In reality RTS has relatively little room for manoeuvre. No conceivable change of tactics, organisation or political position by RTS or its allies is in itself going to create the kind of movement necessary to seriously challenge capitalism.
RTS is a means for groups of mainly young(ish), mainly white people with particular sub-cultural histories to concretely express their opposition to the capitalist way of life. Nothing wrong with that, as long as people don't fall into the trap of imagining themselves to be the anti-capitalist movement, something which would have to much broader in terms of the range of people involved. Aside from becoming a media simulation of a revolutionary movement this would involve a kind of soft vanguardism whereby the existing body of self-defined activists imagine that they have some role in leading other people, or that the expansion of the movement involves everybody becoming more like them and joining their scenes.
One thing that RTS can do is to be open to other struggles when they emerge (as they have in the past with Liverpool dockers and London tube workers) and to guard against becoming a barrier to the emergence of a wider social movement. The policing role of the trade unions and traditional left and their role in mediating and diffusing struggles is less important than in the past due to the decline of these institutions, but there is a danger of a new layer of media-friendly professional radicals developing from within the movement to explain it and to denounce those who threaten their cosy position (hello George Monbiot).
None of this means that we should sit passively waiting for things to change. At the May Day conference I helped with a workshop called 'Our Social History - this time it's personal' in which people pooled their collective experiences. One striking observation that several people made was that instead of a continually expanding series of struggles and movements their experience had been of relatively brief periods when normal life was suspended and anything seemed possible - an experience some people compared to drugs or mystical experiences - interspersed with long periods when as one put it, 'your head is pushed back under the water'.
RTS have succeeded in the past in creating situations where people have raised their heads out of the water, if only for a moment, where a different way of life seemed tangible. In a limited and (very) temporary way, RTS events have embodied communism - the collective reappropriation of parts of the world around us to meet our needs and desires without the mediation of money or the state. At the most basic level this has involved transforming physical space - a street, a square. What tends to be invisible to people not involved in organising events is the range of other spaces, goods, services and skills wrenched from the economy and put to a different use. Buildings squatted for meetings, office photocopiers and computers, vehicles, play equipment, sound systems, food, and so on.
Extending this is not just a matter of mobilising more people or of having bigger and bigger punch ups with the police. For the most part things are only being re-appropriated on a small scale or are marginal areas such as abandoned buildings. A sign that things were really moving forward would be the occupation, for instance, of a functioning workplace, perhaps holding a party with the involvement of people working there. A fantasy? Maybe not, there have been workplace occupations in the past. Or what about using public transport for our own ends - say, collectively boarding a train and refusing to pay. In this way we would be moving beyond direct action as protest to the direct satisfaction of our needs.
Another sign of development would be the emergence of broader communities of resistance, with organic links between a diverse range of people, at the most basic level supporting and looking out for each other. RTS events attract a lot of groups and individuals but it takes more than one or two days a year for these to coalesce into something more than an assembly of different parts. This is most obvious at present in relation to anti-social behaviour. On May Day I got hassled by a couple of people in balaclavas just because I was playing with my kids - presumably this automatically made me a middle class liberal! I heard of other examples of people being abused, including the odd racist incident. We should be able to reach a position where people take collective responsibility for the safety and security of those around them, where necessary intervening against people who threaten this rather than just moaning that the 'organisers' haven't provided stewards to sort it all out.
Again this isn't just a question of will or better organisation but is dependent on the wider 'balance of class forces', and the extent to which links are made with other people in struggle. For instance if there was an upsurge in health workers militancy it would make it a lot easier to get together autonomous health teams to provide first aid on actions.
Ultimately capitalism can only be destroyed by communism, that is when enough people organise their life activity in a way which makes the state and economy unnecessary and impossible in the context of an ongoing global revolutionary process. Actions by small groups of people can express this in the present, perhaps inspire others by opening up new possibilities or temporarily suspending the 'normal' functioning of capitalist daily like, but they can't in themselves make a mass revolutionary movement a reality. Keep moving, keep criticising, keep developing but maybe chill out just a little bit.
Practical History, October 2000, version 1.0
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