Mad dogs and Englishmen
Photo: camera_obscura at flickr, CC Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic
‘We tried that back in the early eighties… It’ll never work… For this reason, this reason and this reason.’ Sometime in the middle of 1998, a few people starting broaching the idea of an action in the heart of London’s financial district. It was easy for us to dismiss the idea. We’d been there and done it. Old cynical heads, we remembered the Stop the City demonstrations of 1983 and ’84 and we pooh-poohed the enthusiasm, the naivety, of younger bodies.
Of course, the ‘Carnival Against Capital’ – ‘J18’ – turned out to be a significant event. In Britain, newspaper headlines screamed ‘anti-capitalist’ and the worldwide demonstrations that day built the momentum for the Seattle shutdown five months later.
Sometimes it’s hard to escape your own shadow. Analysis and past experience provide essential illumination, but they also cast a shadow that distorts or obscures optimism and openness. In particular, ‘sound judgement’ and healthy cynicism can blind you to the fact that situations change. Why was J18 a success, why did it resonate, when Stop the City did not? Because the context had changed: 1999 was not 1983. You can’t step in the same river twice.
The river has flowed some more. We don’t know what the important moments of 2010 or 2011 will be. Events will happen. And events will always exceed analysis. The question is: how will we recognise them? Whilst we’re focused on the potential and contradictions of struggles around climate change, will we appreciate the importance of a refinery workers’ strike – also messy, also full of contradictions? Sometimes you need to suspend your judgement, rein in cynicism. Our analysis always has to remain permeable to events.
In the 1990s members of The Free Association were active in the UK-based Class War Federation. They were part of a faction that tried to dissolve Class War in 1997. They then helped organise MayDay’98, a conference that sought to bring together an older generation of anti-capitalists with the burgeoning radical environmental and counter-globalisation movements in the UK. They write together at www.freelyassociating.org