Even before any of the protests we were promised have actually taken place in London today, we can make a wild guess about what will happen. The protesters will cause some mayhem, and then, once order is restored, they will be mocked. Whether the protests are large or small, with or without bands, featuring women in pink fairy costumes or masked youths in white overalls, involving scuffles or entirely peaceful, they will be seen as, at best, naive, and, at worst, a dangerous waste of police resources.
Certainly, it would be absurd to believe that any kind of political movement could work merely through scheduled annual outbreaks of costumed confrontation. But the movement for global equality isn't just about these days of brief, ineffective chaos. People who see themselves as part of this movement go on chugging along in other ways, on other days of the year, in campaigns against, say, privatizing public services or Third World debt although we certainly don't get to hear about their work and their ideas as much as we once did.
Because, although this anti-capitalist or anti-globalization movement hasn't gone away, its star in the media has waned. It was fashionable for a time after the size of the protests against global inequality in Seattle took people by surprise, but the price of being fashionable is that you then, inevitably, become unfashionable.
It isn't just boredom that has set in; it's also hostility. The softer cushions of sympathy that the movement for global equality used to land on after such protests have been removed. People are less easy about the idea that many young people are being alienated from mainstream politics. That's partly because of 11 September, which drove forward a paranoid feeling that dissent was disloyal. But it's also because of the effects of the French elections. Now that people have seen the dangers of the collapse of the center in politics, they are deeply uneasy about the idea that progressives should voice their feelings in any way other than the ballot box.
It's all very well, people have been saying furiously to me, to talk about losing faith in parliamentary democracy. But what if all the nice people lose faith in voting, but the nasty people go on voting and their side gets in? The proximity of this year's May Day protests to the local elections here at home, with their probable low turnouts and possible gains for the BNP, have helped to spur on this argument that the kids who prefer protest to voting should shut up, grow up and turn out.
For sure, a lot of people who were feeling alienated from party politics will now feel they must turn out to vote now in a wholly pragmatic response to the rise of the right. But that doesn't mean that they will all have suddenly refound their faith in traditional political structures. And despite this new culture of hostility, the movement for global equality won't suddenly disappear. Nor should it. Because, for all the scorn poured on it right now, this movement represents a serious enough response to a serious enough problem. "You call this serious?" I think I can hear some of you laughing, and certainly, when I was watching the crowds milling pointlessly around Oxford Street last year, I couldn't help but wonder. But that's not where the strength of the movement lies. When people in the anti-capitalist movement talk about the disenfranchisement and degradation of the losers in a capitalist society, they are talking about real problems. And when they talk about the need to deal with this inequality not just by redistributing a few pounds here and there, but by redistributing power, they are voicing a potentially forceful analysis.
It's all very well for journalists to sniff that these kids in this movement don't have any alternative to put forward, but when I spent some time this week talking to some of the people who are helping to organize events around May Day, I heard them talk perfectly intelligibly about alternatives. Interestingly, they seemed more interested in local than in global solutions. They talked about how people could take power back from the state and corporations, they talked about the desirability of co-operative workplaces and neighborhood assemblies, of people organizing their own working lives and their welfare services all dreams, yes, but all resting on valid criticisms of current failures in our society.
This kind of analysis has a long tradition. I have just finished editing a new edition of a polemic that my father, Nicolas Walter, wrote years back on the uses of anarchism (About Anarchism, Freedom Press) and it reminded me that anarchists are not always kids in silly costumes out for a day's fun in Mayfair. As even police commander Brian Paddick could see, there is something immensely attractive in the idea that anarchists have always held on to, that people can be trusted to make their own decisions about their own lives, their own neighborhoods, their own work.
This idea that power should be devolved downwards and outwards is now being heard frequently, and not only from these protesters. Because the motor that drives these protests is the fact that so many people feel so little power over even what happens in their own neighborhoods or workplaces, let alone over the decisions taken by central government or large corporations. If politicians really wanted to respond to the growth of apathy and alienation, then they would need to engage with this sense of powerlessness.
As it is, politicians and journalists throw up their hands in horror at the idea that more people want to vote on Pop Idol than want to vote in their local elections. But at least when you vote on Pop Idol you can see that your vote has a real, tangible effect. If you vote in the Hackney by-election, you can't be sure that whoever gets in will, say, keep open the adventure playground where your child plays, or reconnect the electricity to the squat where he was going to DJ workshops in the absence of any other community center
There has been much talk about whether apathy in local elections can be challenged by devolving more power away from national to local government. As we have heard from many commentators, local councils have much less power than they used to have. Some would like to see this change, so that local councils could take more decisions about how taxes are raised and spent and how schools and social care are organized. But those in favor of giving more power to local government do not explain why people should feel so much better about local councils taking decisions that they cannot affect than they do about national government doing the same.
The only truly effective answer to this growing sense of powerlessness would be the devolvement of power not just into different layers of government, but towards the people who are actually affected by the decisions. That sounds as though it could be inefficient, unwieldy and problematic, and maybe it could but there is another, altogether more hopeful view of what society could be like if power moved away from the center Whatever happens this May Day, that view won't disappear just yet.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd