Friday, February 15, 2008


A few people have noticed that it's five years today since the main anti-Iraq war protests of 2003, and a struggle for the legacy is underway. You can go looking yourselves, but I'll summarise the arguments being deployed thusly...

Subsequent events have proven that the protests were a wonderful success/laughable failure, and that I was right all along.

Well, there were lots of lessons to be learned, for those prepared to look - Matt Taibbi has written extensively on the subject, although his conclusions didn't fit anyone's political agenda and he's taken nothing but abuse for them.

I never made the main event in London - never even visited the place 'til 2005, in fact. I was at the Glasgow march, a little-noticed sideshow which finished up right next to the Labour Party conference, where Tony Blair had rescheduled his speech to allow him to be in and out before the protesters arrived. If I recall, the crowd were addressed by a gaggle of tedious no-marks and cynical opportunists, as these things tend to be.

Let's just say, I have mixed feelings about it...

1. Large public demonstrations don't work, and are essentially pointless

Demonstrations are good for raising awareness of low profile issues, a sense of occasion for small, dispersed movements and nothing else. Richard Nixon spent his evenings casting nervous glances out of the White House window because the protests were unprecedented then, and looked like going on indefinitely. I'd be surprised if Tony Blair lost a wink of sleep.

Short of criminal actions, the state has adapted to and absorbed anything peaceful protest movements can throw at them. Governments know full well that protesters will show up, have their say then politely go home to sit on their backsides until election day. A glance at the last big May Day parade would show that the police can deal with crowds, and a whole raft of illiberal laws are in place to make sure that the foot of the state will connect with your arse with bone-jarring force if you step out of line.

That's why the Prime Minister's response was to stand up, announce that he was pleased that Tha Protesterz Was Free to Protess, Innit, Not Like Them Irakkys wiv Saddamz LOL... and that was it.

Of the main points of the marchers - that the war was a stupid idea argued for by proven liars and it was certain to get very large numbers of people killed - not a peep.

2. It's the 21st century - ditch the stilts, dipshit

In the 60's, Britain and America were such conformist, drab boxes of polite expectation that one person standing up and shouting Bullshit! was enough to shake the system. When nice middle class kids decided that they didn't fancy knuckling down to a life of painfully embarrassed professionalism, but wanted to grow their hair and play the bongos instead, it was treated like the apocalypse.

That's no longer true, and it's a disaster for a generation raised on Oliver Stone movies and street raves against the Tory government's anti-party legislation. Whatever your alternative lifestyle choices, idiosyncratic fashions or rebellious political opinions, it's already on offer on the High Street at very competitive prices. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is alarmed by any combination of stilts, dreadlocks, piercings, hair dye, puppets, tattoos, mohawks, facial hair, sexual orientation or capoeira dancing, because...

3. The press is the enemy of modern protest

Don't be deceived by the Indie and the Grauniad - they're preaching to the converted. The media have known how to deal with inconvenient political protests since the miners' strikes at least, and a massive one against a war that the entire apparatus of the state is dead-set on is about as inconvenient as it gets. That's why the images in the papers and on the TV that I remember now are the flamboyant hippies and the bare-chested drummers, not the huge crowds.

Trust me, to the great majority of Brits who stayed away, that's exactly how the whole day looked. A great, roiling mass of atomised freaks and student twats playing acoustic guitars and mugging up to the cameras. The press exists to give the public what it wants to see, after all.

You don't have to be a mind-reader to work out how this went down in the Times or the Torygraph, far less the response of the tabloids. The real story of the day should've been about the largest marches in British history, drawing support from all classes and all over the political spectrum... the story most people read was Large number of irrelevant, metrosexual tossers congregate in London.

But on the upside...

4. The marches were a fantastic shithead detector

No need to list the main offenders, but let's put Ian McEwan, say, forty third.

If this seems depressing and cynical, well, it is. Whatever George bloody Galloway has to say, the anti-war movement was disorganised, ineffectual and failed utterly to achieve its aim - to keep Britain out of a catastrophic war.

The point I'm trying to make is that protest is going to have to change to be useful in future. Our political and economic systems are massive, impersonal behemoths that give not one shit for our opinions on their behaviour, and will press on unabashed with any deranged schemes they have in mind.

And the people? They go home, arse around on the internet, watch football, go to work and go about their lives. Governments know that if they ignore protests, they will go away.

I'll let Taibbi say what has to be said...

"The people who run this country are not afraid of much when it comes to the population, but there are a few things that worry them. They are afraid we will stop working, afraid we will stop buying, and afraid we will break things. Interruption of commerce and any rattling of the cage of profit - that is where this system is vulnerable. That means boycotts and strikes at the very least, and these things require vision, discipline and organisation.

The 1960's were a historical anomaly. It was an era when political power could also be an acid party, a felicitous situation in which fun also happened to be a threat. We still listen to that old fun on the radio, we buy it in reconstituted clothing stores, we watch it in countless movies and documentaries. Society has kept the "fun" alive, or at least a dubious facsimile of it.

But no one anywhere is teaching us about how to be a threat. That is something we have to learn all over again for ourselves, from scratch, with new rules."

No shit.

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