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Smile, And We Might Yet Defeat Global Capitalism


Mark Steel

"We

need a revolution," said the lad, no more than 19, in the packed meeting

organised by People and Planet at the University of Warwick. "And we, I

mean us here, can begin to make that revolution – right after this meeting

by…" He paused. What would he say? By mobilising the peasantry of the

Coventry area? By going on a Long March to Leicester? "By smiling," he

said. "When these capitalist bastards see everyone smiling, they won’t know

what to do."  There are obvious flaws to this strategy, not least that

such a movement would be bound to split, with a militant wing breaking away to

laugh, while the smilers denounced them as impatient hot-heads. But the most

notable side to his speech was that somehow it didn’t seem mad. In fact there

was an endearing freshness about him. He was enthusiastic, genuinely interested

in what everyone thought of his idea, and it was positive – his starting point

was "we can do something".

And

it came a few days after I’d been on holiday in Athens, during which I was

invited to a meeting about "anti-capitalist protest". The first shock

on arriving was the venue, a beautiful open-air theatre, bats fluttering through

the twilight above clicking crickets while lights from the Acropolis flickered

as a backdrop. I wanted to scream: "This is all wrong. Don’t you know

meetings like this are supposed to be in bare, freezing halls with a broken

heater, and start an hour late because no one can find the bloke with the key?

You people don’t know how to organise a meeting at all." Then instead of

the customary 10 people, 700 arrived, including the deputy leader of the Greek

equivalent to the TUC, and the writer of the year’s best-selling novel

throughout Greece.

These

incidents would tell us nothing about the year 2000, except that unofficial

global rumblings tend to back them up. The book No Logo, by Naomi Klein, a cry

against corporate greed, has sold over 100,000 copies. And it’s spawned a

library of books with titles like Globalize This!, Globalization and Resistance

and Resist Globalization. Soon all the permutations will be used up, so we’ll

get books called "Resisting national global corporate trans-corporate

globo-nationalness". Susan George, a veteran campaigner against third-world

debt, who has spent 25 years speaking largely to handfuls of academics, now

regularly fills theatres holding a thousand or more, so that long-term fans

probably feel like supporters of Fulham or Sunderland, muttering "Baaah, it

was cosier when we were shite."

One

"anti-capitalist conference", in Millau, France, attracted 80,000

people. Internationally newsworthy protests against Third-World debt and huge

corporations took place in Melbourne, Prague and Nice. Ralph Nader, the US

presidential candidate supporting this movement, won 2.5 million votes and

attracted between 10,000 and 16,000 at his rallies. If enough journalists had

been covering these events, one of them would have declared that anti-globalisation

was the new rock and roll.

None

of this was sufficient to threaten world leaders. But it was a sign of changing

values. In 1989, at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the consensus was that the free

market had triumphed, and was destined to enrich the planet. Now, while there is

little nostalgia for the grotesque regimes of Stalinist eastern Europe, the free

market staggers across the stage to a diminishing audience. In Russia, life

expectancy has decreased by 10 years, and in Africa the average income in almost

every country continues to decline. "Structural adjustment programmes",

in which economies are taken over by organisations such as the World Bank, who

enforce privatisation and cuts in public spending, have been imposed on 90

countries.

Gradually,

these measures are provoking opposition. One consequence of this trend is that

"globalisation" has become one of those words – like

"glasnost" in the Eighties – that everyone uses though few can

explain what it means. A common definition is that you can no longer do anything

about anything. For example John Monks, the leader of the TUC, when asked for

his opinion on job closures at Luton, blamed "globalisation". He

looked like a football manager interviewed after a game, wistfully remarking,

"I don’t agree with the decision but at the end of the day what

globalisation says is final and we’ve just got to accept it."

By

the end of 2001, if you take a dodgy car back to the dealer you bought it from,

you can expect them to squeal, "Well there’s nothing I can do about that,

it’s yer globalisation, see."

One

strange result of all this has been that the most enthusiastic backers of the

ethos that nothing can function unless someone will make a profit from it are

the old parties once considered to be on the left – and none more so than

Britain’s New Labour. They continued to embrace big business as a virtue, and

search for any last utilities to privatise, like someone with no money hunting

down the back of the settee. Eventually they could yell, "Aha, I’ve found

air traffic control, that’ll do."

So

disillusionment with the major parties continued, and when this was reflected in

historically low turn-outs at elections, the excuses were surreal. "The

reason people didn’t bother to vote for us," said New Labour spokesperson

Patricia Hewitt, was that "they are satisfied by us." Which must make

for some splendid debates during canvassing. "Will you vote for us?"

"No thank you, because I think you’re marvellous." "Well vote for

us then." "No, I don’t want to spoil your splendid record by voting

for you."

Across

western Europe and America a similar pattern has emerged, of traditional

left-of-centre parties becoming increasingly tied to the free market, as the

failures of that market become more apparent. So if you’re 19, and flushed with

a desire to redress the growing inequality stalking the planet, you’re hardly

likely to venture in that direction. And joining Labour to turn it into a

radical campaigning party would seem as ridiculous as joining the RAC to turn it

into a radical campaigning breakdown service.

So

the modern generation of activists looks outside the old organisations. They are

often described as anarchists, but only because "anarchist" has come

to mean anyone radical with a nose-stud. Some are members of groups such as

Jubilee 2000, including the Christian couple who told me that they had taken

their holiday in Prague because "we can go to a museum in the morning and a

protest in the afternoon." But most are not part of any organisation.

Instead, they are the thin end of a wedge that includes millions around the

world who have come to the conclusion that, when the richest 360 people on the

planet own the same amount of wealth as the poorest two billion, something has

gone wrong.

And,

when you think about it, if all the two billion got together and smiled at the

360, that would look pretty spooky.

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