Fermanagh G8 Fail - From bog death of summit protests to the art of the possible


A younger comrade explained to me how he had travelled over 600 miles to be allowed into a field in Fermanagh to destroy a fence which had been specifically erected for that purpose. It was a sacrificial offering to the black block, complete with blunted razor wire so that they would not injure themselves in the thrashing.  Just when you thought this scene could not get any more surreal, hear this.  Beyond this field lay another barrier, and inside that fence there was a man from the security forces stating that if anyone attempted to get into this field there would be serious consequences.  As per normal in these situations, the violence was always going to come from those in uniform.  The stewards from the Socialist Party approached the black block and explained to them that the busses were leaving.

On a private island in the lake, far away from this absurd scene, the leaders of the G8 were meeting undisturbed.

The Capitalist system is a shape shifter.  It constantly morphs in front of our eyes so as to remain in a position of strength and control.  Summit protests are just one more thing that they’ve managed to surmount, along with the implosions of the financial markets.

We’ve all come a long way since the 30th November 1999 when thousands of protesters effectively mobilised against the World Trade Organisation’s convention in Seattle.  The scale and the organisational level of the Direct Action Network took the authorities by surprise and ended up with the Mayor of Seattle declaring a state of emergency whilst calling out two battalions of National Guardsmen to enforce a no protest zone.  Seattle was about the emergence of a movement which operated along anarchist organising principles, and close knit affinity groups partaking in direct action.  There were no leaders who could be called upon to put forth the demands of the movement, there were no people to be bought off or bribed, and the protests exposed the essentially undemocratic nature of organisations like the WTO and the World Bank who effectively imposed a neoliberal game plan for any country unfortunate enough to have to take their loans.  Seattle also showed a level of unity across the movement, where people were united in showing the negative effects of globalisation north and south of the equator.  The violence that ensued and erupted on the TV screens served to focus the media coverage where it enabled some of the messages of the movement to permeate out.  Globalisation and the nature of corporate operations, along with the major institutions were put under a spotlight for the first time.

Less than two years later we had the G8 protests in Genoa where Berlusconi entertained such ( Criminals ) dignitaries as Bush, Blair, and Putin.   Over 200,000 people protested at Genoa and again this was an extension of the movements against neoliberal capitalism. Genoa was turned into a fortress and a no-fly zone declared over the city.  There was an attempt by protesters to blockade those attending the summit in the red zone which lead to violent clashes.  Hundreds of protesters were injured and Carlo Giuliani was shot by police and run over twice by their land rover.  He died and was 23 years of age.

What followed was mass arrests and raids by the police on social centres, Trade Union buildings, media centre’s, and legal offices.  There was wide ranging brutality visited upon those arrested by the police.

It should not be forgotten that after the death of young Carlo the supreme powers needed to stage some kind of photoshoot to let the common people know how much they cared for social justice.  In stepped Bob Geldof and Bono to provide the authorities with a good photo opportunity and spouting out pat lines like ‘more can be achieved by talking than protesting, man’ sounding like the photographer in Apocalypse now.  It should not be forgotten that Bob and Bono, the flowerpot men of World Debt are all too happy to smile for the world media and shake hands with Putin and Blair whilst protesters were being brutalized and beaten by cops.  As Terry Eagleton so eloquently wrote about Bono recently “Widespread hunger is the result of predatory social systems, a fact that Bono's depoliticising language of humanitarianism serves to conceal.”

By 2001 and after Genoa the summits moved to inaccessible locations, such as Davos in Switzerland.  But more importantly the tactic of blockading and bringing about a revelation of the cosy links between world leaders, corporations and the financial institutions which support these structures had been exposed.  To continue with this tactic had lead us to the farcical scenes played out in Fermanagh.  Alas this is an all too familiar script which this pantomime plays.

Big scare stories about black hooded anarchists intent on wanton destruction of all in front of them in order to get to the democratically elected world leaders.

Possible death and mutilation of innocent civilian population in these protests.

Huge investment in massive state policing and security operation where the uniforms get to order new equipment in order to keep the black block at bay.

G8 leaders are flown in by helicopter to a secure location like a private island.

Protest happens.

No violence ensues

Security forces pocket a load of overtime costs and discuss how successful the operation has been only because they took such precautions.

Few people go on the protest due to being told of the Game of Thrones-like battle that will take place.

Helicopters fly out and we wait for the announcement of the next exotic inaccessible location for them to meet.

Return to first bullet point and repeat.

Egypt, Tunisia & the Arab Awakening

The chain of events sparked by Mohammed Bouaziz’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010, originally called the Arab Spring, have now become part of the history of our present. Many people have seen in the popular uprisings against the dictatorships of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and other Arab dictatorships, the origins of new wave of struggles which found its Western resonances in the May 15th square-occupation movement of Indignados in Spain and Occupy Wall Street and its hundreds of imitators, in the US and Europe. But in fact, despite the apparent similarities - the occupation of public squares in city centres - the target regimes and the nature of the struggles were different. The Arab Spring rose up against 30+ year old military dictatorships, the army surplus of the Cold War. The struggle was against old-school dictatorship, compared to which, even the limited so-called liberal democratic regimes of the west could appear as a better option.

In contrast, in Spain, Greece, the US then, and today in Turkey and Brazil, the struggle is no longer against formal dictatorship, but against the representational system that electoral democracy cum electoral dictatorship confronts to our needs. The spanish slogan of “They don’t represent us” would have made no sense in the Egyptian struggle against Mubarak. The struggles in the Arab awakening were against ageing neo-colonial dictatorships, for elected governments. The uprisings in Greece, Spain, and now Turkey and Brazil, are against elected governments, against the failure of representationalism itself. Today also in Egypt we are seeing a second round of the uprising - this time against the elected government of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

From being in the Wall Street occupation what you take away from that is that a civic space has been opened up, a crack has appeared in the monolithic system through which ideas, possibilities and challenges are being raised.   Representationalism, or the meaninglessness of democracy as it is experienced in the west is being seen as a sham and people are actively working on how this can be challenged.

In Gezi Park in Istanbul is it about the Trees?  Yes its all about the Trees and it has nothing to do with them.  It is about saying no. You do not do this in our name.  Many things you’ve done in our name and we disagreed with you about it.  This is not going to be another one.  And many people in Turkey see this as a chance to challenge the authorities and call them to account for what has gone before.  Communities are talking to each other and saying well they’ve been stopped about this, perhaps we can stop them on other things or have decisions reversed. 

Protests which directly challenge governments, leaders, dictators, politicians over their actions are what we are seeing.  Occupations appear to be a new tactic because we have all figured out that the state media will ignore most voices of dissent or shows of opposition. But if enough of you congregate it becomes a joke if you ignore 200,000 people battling in the streets for change.  Again we are seeing protests evolve which has a purpose to it.  We pull back the curtain to reveal the levers are only being pulled by a few people/corporations and nothing is working in our interests. But if you can defeat them on something, then a space is created where all the ideas for the way society should function is created, and it acts like a magnet pulling in various strands of the disaffected, the powerless, the minorities, and there is a visible manifestation of the numbers.  This is the moment when it cracks open for people.  The art of the possible is what emerges from these spaces and the dialogue opens up between various groups within the movement.

What we are seeing is not only revolts against the political parties of government and opposition, but also the mainstream trade unions and other bodies that historically, were supposed to represent the working class.

It may seem odd to say it, but the counter-summit protests of the past, for all their refusal to be lined up behind established political parties or unions, and the influence of libertarian or anarchist identities and practices within it, were themselves part of this representational model of struggle that the new wave of uprisings are in revolt against.

If the G8 meeting in Fermanagh is the charade of official representationalism, of a West that no longer rules independently from the emerging powers of the G20, so also is the feeble, “going through the motions” opposition. People mobilised against the G8 for the simple reason that that’s what the movement has always done for the last two decades. Lacking any strategy, the counter-summit mobilisation was reduced to an act of pure mimicry of what had gone before. A kind of “cargo cult” politics that somehow copying the forms and (black-clad) uniforms of past confrontations would magically conjure up their power to resonate. But the difference between the charades inside and outside the G8 is that official institutionalised power is willing and able to continue on meaningless rituals divorced from any real content, whereas the living movement of antagonism simply melts away when its past tactics no longer have power to make real change. If the G8 no longer has the power to really change things, then attacking it doesn’t either.

But understanding how counter-summit activism came to be dominated by the representational and substitutional elements it always contained, but was not originally restricted to, is key here. Key, that is, to understanding what needs to change in our political culture so that we can make our future interventions mean something, pushing with the direction of flow, rather than trying to swim against it, or end up in a side-eddy in a Fermanagh field.

The SP/SWP set up the protest with the task of actually stopping the G8 from taking place.  It was an impossible task and it was doomed to fail.  When it did, the effect is one of total disempowerment.  Instead what it turned into was nothing more than a demoralising ritualistic march.  Then both Leninist groups dared  to call it a success.  It is political action, as in a protest, disguised as direct action, which inevitably fails but does provide them with an opportunity to talk at people from the platform. This might be a success to them but has a very negative effect on young activists who showed on thinking they were seriously about to fight to prevent the G8 from taking place.

The posturing of Socialist parties  around the idea of direct action can be quickly compared to the many direct actions that has been taking place in Rossport around the construction of the pipeline.  There small groups of activists have intervened and had a long running struggle with the Shell around the final stages of the construction of the pipeline and refinery.  That battle has taken place in total isolation where a media blackout appears to be in operation and where Shell are backed up by their own private security firm and have the backing of a large Garda presence.     As Subcomandante Marcos wrote “In the cabaret of globalization, the state shows itself as a table dancer that strips off everything until it is left with only the minimum indispensable garments: the repressive force.”   That repressive force has been in full operation on the Erris peniusuala for years now.   But the actions of brave activists there remind us of another quote from the Marcos.  Be a Zapatista where you are!  Local battles, real direct actions which have concrete goals, where we line up with the marginalised and oppressed and take on the authorities are much more fruitful to our movement than a pantiomine played out in bog in Fermanagh. 

The anti-globalisation, counter-summit movement began in response to a lack - that is a lack of a movement for truly international solidarity across national borders. By the late 1980s, despite lip-service to internationalism by the traditional labour movement and its left-wing fringes, there was little to no real active movement at this level other than the occasional token “solidarity” march or picket.

In the context of that absence, the first counter-summit mobilisation against the World Bank conference in Berlin in 1988, inevitably was going to have a politically representational character, in its goals, if not its structures. The young black-clad Autonomen from across Germany, and their supporters from further afield, rioting all week against the cops and attacking the World Bank delegations, were not fighting on behalf of their own material needs, but on the basis of their political commitment to opposing the “Washington Consensus” despoliation of the Third World (as it was then known) and in an imagined solidarity with the peasants and dispossessed slum-dwellers and workers of the global South.

In many ways this politically representational or substitutionism character of the struggle was analogous to the utopian stage of the early socialist movement. The process of becoming, from nothing to reality, must necessarily pass through the stage of being first imagined, that imagination being manifested by the representational struggle of a voluntarist cohort, so that the possibility of its being made real can be spread to the wider - in this case world-wide - audience of potential actors.

The week-long chaos of rioting in Berlin 1988 was not followed up by any significant counter-summit engagements in the immediately following years. The fall of the wall the very next year plunged the German Autonomen movement, and the semi-Maoist, RAF-supporting Anti-Imperialist (Antiimp) ideology that had dominated its Northern sections, into a period of disorientation, new splits (e.g. the Antideutsche) and urgent needs to respond to a new rising neo-Nazi tide. Nonetheless, the 1994 Zapatista uprising soon breathed new life into the idea of an international anti-capitalist movement against neoliberal globalisation.

By 1998, ten years on from Berlin, following numerous international Encuentros - first in Mexico, then in Europe - the European supporters of the Encuentro process (People’s Global Action - PGA) chose the 28th G8 Summit in Birmingham, England as their target. Being in the UK, the PGA organising brought in activists from the UK Anti-Roads protest who were looking to connect their environmental activism with a more internationalist and anti-capitalist direction - the prestige of the Zapatistas and the impeccably third world and environmental credentials of their indigenous roots, made them the perfect fit. The resulting Global Street Party, taking a form adopted from Reclaim the Streets, went under the radar of the global media, but the following year’s Carnival Against Capitalism in the City of London on June 18 made a real splash. Frenetic TV news footage of protesters brawling with trading floor city boys at the London Metals Exchange was accompanied by reporters’ breathless voice overs of an attack on the City by anarchists and “Anti-capitalist protesters”. This was the first time the term “anti-capitalist” had appeared in the global media discourse in the neoliberal era, and was itself a key stage in the birthing of the movement and its own conception of itself. However J18’s shocking “newness”, at least to the general audience, was soon eclipsed later that same year by Seattle - and the rest, as they say, is history.

But history, in the post-Berlin wall and Cold War period, was also moving along in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Zapatistas may have been one of the first indications of that change, but they were far from being the last. The states of Central and South American continent, so long imprisoned under US-backed “free world” military dictatorships, were one by one transforming into the representational electoralist states of today. One by one, also, the Guevaraist-inspired guerrilla groups that the Antiimps had supported in their struggle against Western-backed dictatorship, were laying down their weapons and re-engaging with civilian politics. The possibility for representatives of capitalist interests other than the old landowning hacendado elites who had supported the military dictatorships had opened. Many of the ex-guerrillas went on to lead or participate in more “social-democratic” governments of national (capitalist) development. This of course reflected the changing face of the global economy that had transformed some (but not all!) of these countries from part of the “Third World” into the “emerging economies” of the BRICS and other high-growth areas (e.g. Turkey).

Since the 2008 crash in the West (but, NB, not in the “emergents”) this transformation has meant the possibility for the mass protests we see in Brazil or Turkey and Egypt, today. Protests that would previously have been wiped off the streets by machine gun fire under the old military regimes (as indeed Assad is still trying to do in Syria). There is no longer even the illusion of any role for Western European or North American young idealists to physically manifest a utopian internationalism “on behalf of” workers in the post-colonial world. The era of a purely political representation of international solidarity by the voluntary actions of ideologically motivated activists in the global core is over. And its passing reflects the fact that the global core is not so “core” anymore - as evidenced in the height of the post-2008 crisis when in taking emergency measures to rescue global capitalism, the G8 had to give way to the G20 - an event as epochal as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But if the G8 is now an irrelevant farce (it was only 1 month ago - how many people can today remember what it supposedly “decided”?) and the counter-summit movement has served out its useful purpose, that doesn’t mean that the time for international solidarity has passed. Today we are faced with the possibility of finally building real global movements against capitalism and for international solidarity amongst all those the representational system has failed. We must do so by recognising that the anti-government protests in Turkey, Egypt and Brazil are not merely political phenomena, but are driven by the failure of the system to provide for people’s everyday material and economic needs. At last we have the potential to build an international solidarity movement based on common needs, rather than a narrowly shared ideology. We must adapt and evolve our political outlook and practice accordingly.  A global movement based on peoples needs is the art of the possible, it is time for that. Being a Zapatista where you are is simply being one of the artists within it.

WORDS: Dermot Freeman