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Issue 48, June 2000

Against Capitalism

THE MAY DAY anti-capitalist protest in London, organised by environmental activists, Reclaim the Streets, provoked a frenzy of condemnation from media and politicians.

Tony Blair and the tabloid editors bristled with fury over the spraying of graffiti on the Cenotaph war memorial and Winston Churchill's statue. The significance of 6,000 people participating in an explicitly anti-capitalist demonstration seemed to pass by most of the knee-jerk politicians and journalists, caught up in a self-induced hysteria.

The May 1 protest is symptomatic of significant shifts in the mood of a section of young people internationally, as expressed by last year's Carnival Against Capitalism in the City of London and the mobilisations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle and the IMF/World Bank in Washington DC.

These events mark a progression for environmental and direct action activists from organising on single issues to protesting against capitalism itself. More importantly, thousands of young people, not previously active in political, social or environmental protests, are identifying with explicitly anti-capitalist protest. James Matthews, a 25-year-old student and former soldier who served in Bosnia, is a case in point. Arrested for spray-painting Churchill, his defence was that "Churchill was an exponent of capitalism, imperialism and anti-Semitism. A Tory reactionary vehemently opposed to the emancipation of women and the independence of India". (Guardian, 8 May)


Many of those attracted to the protests have been from middle-class backgrounds, often students. Much media attention focussed on the arrest of Matthew MacDonald, a 17-year-old student at Eton, one of Britain's most prestigious 'public' (private) schools. His father, a university professor, reported that "although he loves the school and very much appreciates the teaching, his political views don't allow him in conscience to continue at such a privileged institution". (Guardian, 5 May) Even the London Evening Standard, amidst sensationalist and lurid reports, betrayed an inkling that something profound was taking place: "It now seems that at least one of the rioters who attacked the windows of McDonald's wasn't an alien after all. Far from being a benefit-claiming, drug-taking squatter, one of those arrested is an Etonian. I seem to remember something similar happening after the Reclaim the Streets demo in the City last year. One more year of this and it will become a tradition". (Lesley Garner, 4 May) It is often the more self-confident, middle-class sections of youth who take to the streets first. They will be followed by far wider layers, especially of young working-class people.

The arrival at anti-capitalist conclusions signifies a break from the consciousness of the 1990s. Then, the collapse of Stalinism gave capitalism a tremendous ideological boost. Capitalism appeared triumphant. The possibility of building an alternative was pie in the sky. Young people fought on single issues - anti-roads movements or against racism - rather than challenging the system. Within such campaigns, it was often difficult to raise socialist ideas directly. This has changed too. An openness, even an enthusiasm, towards alternatives to capitalism, including socialism, has been increasingly evident.


Most of the protesters have no clear conception of an alternative system, yet this awakening of anti-capitalist ideas is a big step forward and will provide the basis for a revival of socialist consciousness amongst wider layers in the near future. More serious commentators have picked-up on this. Hugo Young commented: "Like democracy, capitalism, for all its defects, is the best system anyone can think of. But it needs constant criticism... There's space for forceful attack, rooted in ideas not gestures. The political system does respond to force. Arguably it responds to nothing else... In the end, they [protesters] make their effect by argument and action - very old operating principles - not by a bogus romance with anti-politics". (Guardian, 2 May)

The majority of young people have yet to draw anti-capitalist conclusions. A MORI poll conducted for the neo-liberal Adam Smith Institute in February found that 40% of 18-24 year olds are not registered to vote, compared to 8% in the population as a whole. Over half 15-24 year olds said they were not interested in 'politics'. Yet those who take this as evidence that young people are apathetic or apolitical have a one-sided view. Concern over social and environmental questions, as well as low pay, racism and police harassment, do not necessarily register in surveys on 'conventional politics'. For most young working-class people, the machinations of politicians in Westminster appear to bear little relation to their own immediate concerns.

Yet tremendous anger and frustration has built up over the last decade. Young people are amongst those most affected by the brutal onslaught against working conditions and employment rights, by attacks on the education system by both the Tories and New Labour, and by the reactionary, restrictive moral-ideological climate fostered by bourgeois politicians and the media. The "rejection of 'official politics' stems not from apathy or ignorance", argues one commentator, "but from a sense of exclusion. Since they could not make any difference to what happened, why should they bother to find out about it?" (Observer, 7 May). This attitude has been reinforced by New Labour's open abandonment of any reforms that would benefit young people, and the failure of the trade unions to resist the attacks.


The May Day events reveal a transformation of the disillusionment and cynicism towards establishment politics into opposition to capitalism itself amongst a significant, if still relatively small, strata of young people. They have drawn the conclusion that the system is to blame for the various environmental, social and political problems that they are opposed to. Future events, such as a serious economic downturn, will lead thousands more to draw similar conclusions. The reservoirs of anger will burst into the open as young people take up struggles on issues such as low pay, trade union rights, racism and police harassment, the environment and world debt. As a new generation re-discovers the historic role of the working class and socialism, new class fighters will step forward ready to struggle for a socialist alternative to the destruction wrought by the big corporations and their world system.

Kieran Roberts

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