The Challenge of June 18

A contribution to the "Reflections on J18" collection.

It is only now, after the dust has settled and the smoke cleared away, that I think I am beginning to understand some of the wider implications of June 18. Initial euphoria, which turned to paranoia following the state and media backlash, has given way to a more sober reflection. What was it all about? Why did I get involved? What has it meant for the movement? I feel the need to write from a personal perspective rather than an intellectual analytical one, because there has already been enough rhetoric written about June 18 - some of it, I admit, by me. Now though, it's time for some honesty.

It's safe to say - whatever the opinion of the police and right-wing media - that the organisers of the day did not set out to plan and encourage a riot. Perhaps, given the targets selected (the LIFFE building by the Reclaim the Streets' Carnival Against Capital), and the societal polarisation that they represent, it is not surprising that widespread violence occurred. But that definitively was not the intention, stated or otherwise. A complication here is one's definition of the word 'violence'. In the narrowest eco-anarchist tradition, which seems widely accepted within the movement, violence means damage to living things. So while chopping down a tree is violence, burning a digger is not. However, there is a different meaning to the term - and one which is closer to how the word is understood within mainstream society. This 'violence' is any action which could endanger the security of human beings, and includes intimidation or threats - broadly speaking, it means the use of force.

By either definition, the Carnival Against Capital in the City of London on June 18 was violent. Objects were thrown at police which were clearly designed to cause injury (and in some cases did - to both sides). Fist-fights with LIFFE traders also more than adequately meet the first definition. Setting cars alight and causing damage to buildings meets the second definition, as does intimidating people stuck in cars or trapped in offices. Of course, the police were more violent than we were - but that's their job. And two wrongs don't make a right. So do we seek to justify this violence, or at least to explain why we condone it? Or should we ignore the fact that it occurred and seek instead to emphasise the exciting and diverse global movement which seemed to coalesce on June 18? It is easy to accuse the media of exaggerating the scale of the riot. Too easy in fact. Because it did happen, and the ethical issues it raised do need to be dealt with. I worry that one day people in the mainstream of society are going to wake up to the fact that the direct action movement is not in any way accountable to them. We often behave as if we have a direct line to moral superiority, when in fact we pretty much do exactly as we please. What's to stop the enemy from occupying our offices, and how would react if they did?

The anarchist purists who dominate the belief systems of the movement have helped us all construct a convenient ideology to get around this unsettling issue. As far as I can make out, we see ourselves as a vanguard, acting on behalf of the biosphere and wider human society including unborn generations) against exploitation and oppression. To quote some old RTS agit-prop: "It's about reclaiming the streets as public inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things that have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons." Stirring stuff - and protecting the commons has been an enduring theme of working class resistance to oppression throughout British history. The most obvious examples are the agrarian risings against the Enclosure Acts, and also the eighteenth century Luddite movement against the destruction of autonomous cottage industry and its replacement by wage slavery in factories. But unlike the Luddites, we are not a popular movement. Nor are we working class people seeking to protect our livelihoods from the encroachments of capitalism. We are a vanguard, acting on behalf of what we assume to be the wider interests of society and the planet, but not subject to any governance by them. This was a concept (minus the planet bit) taken to an extreme by Lenin's Bolsheviks, who claimed to be acting on behalf of an ignorant peasantry by setting up a dictatorship of the proletariat. This was of course total nonsense. The Bolsheviks represented no-one but themselves, and ended up setting up a system unparalleled anywhere except in the Third Reich for its savagery and genocidal brutality.

Don't worry - I'm not about to accuse the UK direct action movement of being on this track. But it does illustrate the dangers of acting on behalf of a group of people whilst at the same time not caring about what they think. There are times - such as in the campaign against genetics and in the later stages of the anti-roads movement - when by happy co-incidence we attract genuine popular support. This is bolstered by events which are both radical and genuinely inclusive - such as the rally at Watlington and the crop-trashing that followed it. It is then, and only then, that our battles are won. But the campaign against capitalism is not popular. There is some case for saying that in targeting financial institutions - those who oil the wheels of an increasingly destructive and globalised economy - we are acting on behalf of the billions of people in the Third World who are denied their basic rights. But who asked them? There is perhaps some small mechanism of accountability through the People's Global Action network - but it's very tenuous. The basic issue is one of who makes the decisions - and the targets in the City on June 18 were decided in London, not Lusaka. Perhaps it was worth stopping trading in LIFFE even for just one day - after all, it lost them millions. Millions which would otherwise have been poured straight into the system that we all oppose. More importantly still, the self-image of the City as an impregnable bastion was badly shaken. And any wider investigation of the word 'capitalism' can only be a good thing. However, all this will be for nothing unless it can engage with the sympathies and the interests of a wider social base in Britain and beyond. We're drunk with our own power, titillated and ego-tripped by all the notoriety and media attention. Everyone wants a repeat of June 18, where we can cost the capitalists millions and all feel empowered at the same time. But what about everyone else? What about all those who either out of dignity or necessity feel they must work for a living, and that they have some stake in the system that we're setting out to destroy? For me this is the crux of the issue. Take the perennial media debate. For anarchistic ideological reasons almost everyone involved refused to participate in any attempt to project a positive image of June 18 through the mainstream media. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to grumble when we're slagged off. (I'm trying not to be naive about the nature of the corporate media here. It's always going to be difficult to communicate a moral case for bricking in McDonalds' windows in a 20-second soundbite. I know because I've tried.

The reality though is that 99% of people will have heard about the day through the images constructed in the mainstream media - which we apparently should make no effort to influence.) Ultimately this kind of purism is surely counter-productive. Like a cult, it is alienating to all but the strongest of believers, and undermines diversity in its push for total obedience. It condemns us to the margins of political influence when we should be pushing at the mainstream. And when tried in countless collectives, squats and autonomous zones, it doesn't even work.

Our heroes the Zapatistas are way ahead of us. They have faced up to the responsibilities that their success has forced upon them. They have called meetings and referendums. They have spent days and weeks consulting with the widest possible sections of mainstream Mexican society. There is legitimacy in their claim to be fighting alongside all those who are marginalised by the naked violence of semi-feudal landlordism and free trade. Of this legitimacy, we have none. This, then, is surely the most critical meaning of June 18. And the key message is not to the capitalists, it is to us. It says this: 'If you have pretensions towards being a truly revolutionary movement, you must work with the people. You must listen, and not assume that you know best. Then, and only then, must you act.'

Anon. from Oxford