Seeds of the new in the Prague Autumn

Essays Published November 1, 2000 in Published in the Ecologist, November 2000

Didn’t 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 way.

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 undefined.

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.

Comments are closed here.