Simon Barrow

Marching to a different drum

By Simon Barrow
March 31, 2009

With the G20 ‘save the world’ meeting about to get under way in London, a huge amount of attention has been focused on actions surrounding the summit – notably the extent of President Barack Obama’s entourage (correspondents who find economics a bit baffling seem to enjoy ‘boys and their toys’ security stories and have been thoroughly tooled up for this by the White House). And then there is the perennial question “will all these demonstrations do any good?”

There is a prior question, of course. “Will they be violent?” Undoubtedly, frustration and anger on the part of the public and some activists may spill over into something more ugly. But there is an unhealthy media obsession with seeking out - with the possible consequence of encouraging - people who might just throw a stone or ignite a riot. Such actions may then be conflated with non-violent forms of protest against corporate greed or corruption that may nevertheless involve blockades or direct action. As if the two were somehow the same. Whatever your view on the tactics of public protest, they are not.

In fact, the vast majority of those demonstrating in London this week for a different kind of world, for action on climate change and for a just economy, will remain peaceful. Unlike the actions of many of the states represented at the G20, whose commissioning of war and violence is regarded as normative in the media discourse that surrounds them.

But all this is likely to be overlooked if trouble does start somewhere and some correspondents almost seem to be willing this to happen. Which is one reason, apart from a principled belief in the moral and political efficacy of non-violence, for praying that it does not. Such a distraction would be a great shame, because the issues facing the G20 and the world are momentous and the need for a serious debate about alternatives is vital.

It is, of course, understandable that some feel a general scepticism about demonstrations. As Hannah Kowszun points out elsewhere (Whitewashed placard wavers?), there can be something disconnected and aloof about a whole bunch of people crying "foul" or shouting for change when the means available to ‘make a difference’ seem so constrained, the persons involved are so fallible, and it is so difficult to get a handle on the mechanisms needed to effect change.

Protest is no substitute for building towards different ways of living, producing, financing and sustaining our lives. It may be compromised in all kinds of ways. But to say that it achieves nothing is plain wrong, because it ignores the fact that mobilisation and manifestation are part of a much larger process of agenda-shifting and political re-engineering.

First: aside from the more exotic or commodified elements of an event like the recent Put People First
( march in London ahead of the G20, bringing together people who would not normally meet and concerns that do not easily rub shoulders together, creates an opportunity for mutuality of the kind mostly bypassed by [the blinking lights of] a world where many are online but fewer are actually engaging. People perceive links and make connections and out of that, more enduring action is born or sustained.

Second: it becomes possible to re-vitalise the concept of a ‘larger vision’ (the one we are always being told is not possible) and to point out ways in which ‘business as usual’ actually involves precisely such a vision – just one not acknowledged as such. The critique that the Put People First coalition members are making to the G20 governments, for example, is that they are “greenwashing” and that there is a need to move past green rhetoric and to invest in green jobs and alternative industries in ways that are on or near the table, but are in danger of being pushed off again.

That may not be immediately obvious from street protests, but if you read the detailed policy proposals of many of the partners for change (from Christian Aid and Friends of the Earth, to Oxfam and beyond) it becomes evident that there is a lot of homework being done. However, this will only find support and produce engagement if people are connected to it at a popular level, as well as through more technical kinds of lobbying, investing, think-tankery and so on.

Third: it is worth remembering that while some of the high profile change agents of the past century (like Gandhi and Martin Luther King) did indeed move “beyond marching and banners” to costly direct action and courageous engagement with political and economic processes, both small and large mobilisation was very much part of the groundswell that gave such initiatives voice and wider significance.

Fourth: the point of marches like Put People First is to demonstrate to governments and public institutions that they can act with popular support and that there is a mandate for change to be responded to. This worked well with Make Poverty History and the Jubilee 2000 debt campaigns. Though their agendas remain largely unfinished, the opportunities of the present moment would not exist without the endeavours of all those who have been willing to nail their colours to the mast in the recent past.

Public protest also played a significant role in helping people to realise that a ‘war on terror’ (the lexicon of which has now been consciously abandoned by the Obama administration) is ultimately a dangerous contradiction in terms that ends up feeding what it claims to oppose.

Indeed, the public energy in the USA which led to the election of Barack Obama was significantly fuelled by large and small rallies as well as internet lobbying and local activity. Likewise, if the promises and hopes that energised people as part of that process are to be realised, it will take many more acts of mobilisation to help keep them on the agenda, in the public eye and afforded the presentational, policy and political space they need to have a chance of succeeding.

Fifth: public protest is about giving elected world leaders ‘permission’, as they meet, to go just that little bit further than they might otherwise dare. Politics is not just the art of the possible; it is also the possibility of the artful. We are apt to forget the latter.

As Archbishop Rowan Williams pointed out recently, there is all the difference in the world between healthy scepticism – which disciplines our imagination with reality (including the uncomfortable reality of ourselves) – and corrosive cynicism that starts and ends by assuming everything will go pear-shaped and nothing can change. Such cynicism is as much part of the “climate of unreality” that pervades our media world at the moment as any degree of unfocused idealism of which protesters may be accused.

The key point, therefore, is to go on seeing things in a joined-up way. There are inter-personal lifestyle choices, there are gestures toward a different future, there are mobilisations of opinion and spiritual resourcing for change. There is detailed policy work on how to get from A to B and beyond, there is political process and the generation of alternative mechanisms. There is direct action, hard work and investment in green and other futures. And so on.

The challenge is to put these things together in different situations and amid changing circumstances to generate change. And for Christians and others, there is the crucial question about what kind of people we need to be and to become in order to live the change we seek. That is the issue and necessity of metanoia, ongoing conversion.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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