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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK
The politics of anti-politics
Anti-capitalist demonstrators stand next to police lines in London, 1 May 2000
Protest is commonplace but what is the alternative?
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By Andy Tate
BBC News Online
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Most people know what the wide range of groups which come together on May Day are against - capitalism or globalisation - but do they have any alternative plan?
One of the most memorable banners from last year's May Day protest urged activists to "overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer".

But while the imprecision of the slogan amused many, it also highlighted an awkward dilemma for a movement that is often perceived to oppose everything and propose nothing.


Overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer

Banner, May Day 2001 protest
"What's the alternative?", spectators to the demonstrations might have asked, "what do you want instead?"

According to anarchists, the answers can be found through the process of self-empowerment, or 'DIY culture'.

Protesters are attempting to build "a genuine grassroots counter-culture" with which to oppose what they see as the commodification of everyday life.

Social centres

One practical manifestation of this culture is the emergence around the UK of what their proponents call "social centres".

The common name for this practice is squatting, although activists insist they have little in common with the traditional stereotype of "dirty squatters".

Riot police line up on the street
Anarchists say police are "cracking down" on them

Empty buildings are occupied and converted into "semi-autonomous communities," offering local residents public spaces and free or cheap services.

The Radical Dairy is one such example.

In January this year about 20 activists entered a disused building in Stoke Newington, north east London.

Having been empty for four years, it now boasts a cafe and provides English lessons for foreign speakers and DJ workshops for young people.

Jack, who helps run the centre, explains: "We provide services not being provided by councils, or which are too expensive for the working class and unemployed."

What sets the Radical Dairy apart from many social centres is that its owner permits the building to be used in this way.

Police 'crackdown'

Even so, activists claim they have been subjected to disproportionate police attention.

It is a charge often made by activists against the authorities.

Jack argues that the police "crack down on anything that is seen to be slightly radical and not under their control."

Another anarchist, who gives her name as June, agrees.


Anything that genuinely empowers people will be opposed by the state

June, anarchist
Although not explicitly political, social centres take on a political dimension by their refusal to operate within conventional social structures.

"Anything that genuinely empowers people will be opposed by the state," she says.

Anarchists, who instinctively distrust authority, reject the idea of working with local councils to achieve their aims of providing community services.

June says: "Local council help comes with clauses and paperwork. We don't actually need grants from them. It's much more empowering to do it completely independently".

She accuses councils of cutting vital social programmes and pushing through privatisation of provisions and services without the consent of the local people who use them.

"Local government is failing communities. All government is".

'Lost connection'

Rejecting political parties as bureaucratic and controlled by big business, June argues that social centres provide an effective way of influencing things directly.

"Parties have lost their connection with ordinary people and their communities," she says.

Only a genuinely grassroots movement can rebuild these ties.


We do not advocate people going into property and claiming it as their own

UK government spokesman
The government declined to comment on whether it believed social centres are capable of offering any positive social benefits, instead pointing out that trespass is a criminal offence.

"We do not advocate people going into property and claiming it as their own," a spokesman said

Although under British law it is illegal to occupy land without the owner's consent, anarchists argue they are converting a wasted resource into useful community spaces.

There are currently some 750,000 empty properties in the UK.

'New politics'

Rather than being a new phenomenon, June believes that the development of social centres as focal points for communities has been ignored or misunderstood by the mainstream media.

Naomi Klein, author of the bestselling activist's bible No Logo, has described them as windows - "not only into another way to live, disengaged from the state, but also into a new politics of engagement."

If so, it is an engagement which undermines many existing ideas of political authority and property ownership.

Perhaps attempts to resolve the two are destined to fail... and so, as a May Day website notes, the "struggle" will continue.

See also:

25 Sep 00 | World
Globalisation: For and against
01 May 01 | UK
What is anti-globalisation?
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