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Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 19:54 GMT 20:54 UK
In defence of direct action

As politicians attack support for "direct action" as giving encouragement to rioters, Labour MP for Nottingham South Alan Simpson says it has long, honourable history in Britain.

By Alan Simpson MP

It is understandable that people will want to condemn the random violence into which the weekend's so-called "anti-capitalism" demonstrations descended.

Many of today's MPs actually have their own histories rooted in direct action

But politicians need to be wary about complaining that direct action is outside the spectrum of legitimate social protest, that direct action necessarily leads to violence, or even that violence per se is the problem.

Direct action has a long, honourable history in Britain. It stretches back across struggles over the electoral franchise, to women's right to vote, to the Chartists, Levellers and Diggers and to more than a century of food riots from 1700 onwards.

This weekend's events simply give rioting a bad name and deny direct action its proper place in the history of social change.

Politics in search of a voice

Many of today's MPs actually have their own histories rooted in direct action - from trade union disputes to the anti-apartheid struggle; from confrontations with neo-Nazis to the uprooting of genetically-modified (GM) crops or protests against animal cruelty.

The nature of such direct actions is invariably that it is a politics in search of a voice; where the political order of the day has turned its back on conditions which society demands should be challenged and changed.

Winston Churchill may look better with a hammer and sickle painted on his buttocks, but it doesn't alter the politics he stood for

Historically, the more the formal political system of the day comes to resemble a monoculture of establishment interests, indifferent to inequalities and exploitation in the society at large, the more certain it is that direct action movements will emerge to put the politics back into politics.

While the direct action which so effectively dismantled last year's World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle grasped this, London's looting simply lost the plot.

Winston Churchill may look better with a hammer and sickle painted on his buttocks, but it doesn't alter the politics he stood for. And the trashing of McDonalds altered even less.

Minute impact

Monday's Mayday protest was against capitalism
If the weekend's action was supposed to send ripples of fear through the capitalist system, compare its minute impact with that of the GM food boycotts.

These left supermarket cash tills ringing empty, rather than ripped out as empty gestures. That was when capital started to panic.

When French farmers bring the streets of Paris to a halt with their sheep or cows it is to remind the country that government risks its mandate to govern if it will not do so to protect the perceived interests of French farming.

When Indian farmers and consumers in their "Cremate Monsanto" campaign burn down fields of GM crops, it is to resist, in ways that government will not, the destruction of their environment by agri-business, or its colonisation (by patents) in the interests of corporate capital.

When these groups link internationally in campaigns for safe food and sustainable farming, consumer and farmers movements are the direct confrontation with forces of globalised capitalism which governments shy away from.

Spark that re-founds society

Ironically, this is where the Third Way takes you. It has only ever been espoused when politicians decided it was too difficult to manage their economy, so they would manage the people instead.

Repressive laws, favouring the owners of wealth rather than the creators of it, and rewarding private fiefdoms at the expense of public rights, have always produced civic movements which will confront both exploitation and inequality.

Far from being beyond the bounds of legitimate social protest, direct action movements have often been the spark through which society re-founds its own genuine political democracy.

Wherever leaders lose the will to challenge the most divisive and repressive social forces of their day, it is the public which begins to do so for themselves.

The real challenge to London's demonstrations was not that they took place or that they lacked parliamentary endorsement.

More critically, it is that they lacked a political clarity either about how the current capitalist system actually works and how it can be challenged in the interests of the public good.

Its tragedy was that the public rather than the system ended up as the focus for legitimate social anger and discontent.

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See also:

02 May 00 | London Mayor
Livingstone attacked on 'direct action'
02 May 00 | UK Politics
MPs condemn 'shameful' violence
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