"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.
© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.