|Recent Liverpool demos have been quite surreal (photo: Chris McCleary)|
Something has stayed with me from what Johnny Void wrote about the NUS demonstration in the week. As I quoted in my own report on the event, he stated that:
“A demonstration is exactly what it says. At best this means a demonstration of power as people organise together to take direct action, strike, riot or generally fuck shit up. At worst it can be a demonstration of passivity – a signal to the state that should they continue along the same path then actually no-one will bother to do much about it.”
Now I do not believe that a demonstration on its own could ever force a policy change from a government – let alone overthrow a government or a political system. Direct action and mass grassroots organisation have always been the tools which have got the goods. But demos can contribute positively to the building of a movement, by being a ‘show of strength’ to comrades and enemies, as well as reaching out to others who might want to get involved.
The midweek march NUS singularly failed to do these things. It presented to the government the supplicant face of a long disempowered, demobilised and dejected student movement. The NUS leadership bears a large measure of responsibility for this, especially for refusing to call any kind of demonstration in 2011, and for co-operating with the state to manage student anger at every turn.
But two Liverpool demonstrations a week or so ago were almost surreal in the epicness of their failure. They existed as if their entire purpose was to comfort the participants with a belief that they were doing ‘something’. I believe this says a lot about the current state of social movements, at a time of mass crisis but minimal UK fightback.
The first one took place on the 14th, and was billed as an expression of solidarity with the European general strike against austerity day, which was predominantly taking place in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Called by the local trades council, the Liverpool event was located in the city’s bustling Church Street, at 6 pm on a busy weekday. Shoppers were going home, while others were emerging from workplaces to look for pubs or transport.
The assembled group of around seventy-five gathered about a set of street furniture across from a bank, and maybe ten speakers gave speeches detailing both the pain coming from the coalition’s cuts, and the aching need to organise a general strike in this country, with the aim of bringing down the government. There was a lot of passion in these orations, and many of the opinions expressed were clearly very deeply held. The socialist singers sang revolutionary songs of past eras. But despite all this, there was an almost sombre atmosphere.
What was slightly embarrassing and almost tragic about the whole thing was that it existed in something like a bubble. Though many hundreds of people were passing, the participants seemed to be separated from them by a wall of their own inwardly-facing bodies. Little to no attempt was made to engage the general public in what was being discussed, and no proposal for action was voiced, beyond returning to various union branches and putting forward motions, something which many of the speakers had likely been doing to no avail for months if not years. So rather than reaching out to the potential allies for victory who were all around us, it was almost as if we were there to console each other in our ongoing defeat.
Although I believe I was one of maybe only a couple to attend both, the Gaza solidarity demo of the 18th was similar in key ways. With Israel a couple of days into its latest massacre, Liverpool Friends of Palestine had organised a rally outside the BBC Radio Merseyside building on Hanover Street, again in the early evening. Despite the fact we were on quite a narrow pavement, and Hanover Street being much quieter than Church Street in terms of pedestrian traffic, many people still walked past. There was only interaction with passers-by on two occasions. On the first, a woman had been answered after asking “What’s a Palestine?”, and on the second, a man drove past and shouted “pakis” out of his window, for which he was chased down and received a tongue-lashing from several of us.
At the start, BBC security staff locked the automatic doors which led into the reception area. But after maybe ten minutes, a man came out to accept a letter from those who appeared to be leading the demo from their position relative to the crowd of maybe one hundred. He thanked them, and commented that they get lots of feedback from both sides, so hopefully that helps them find the truth somewhere in the middle. I yelled “Apart from the fact that they lie”, but otherwise he – and the entire BBC – went unchallenged.
There was a succession of speeches – generally from white, middle-aged men – which preached to the choir about the history of Zionism, the inequality of arms, and the cruelty of Netanyahu, Obama and Cameron. Once this was over, absolutely no practical suggestions for further action were made whatsoever. The group drifted off, and the BBC unlocked their doors.
The government’s austerity measures are only going to intensify, and unfortunately, with Syrian and Iranian targets being lined up, so is Israeli militarism. Expressions of regret and pity will not be able to stop these attacks. Only a strong working class movement armed with an anti-imperialist perspective has this potential power. But right now, for a variety of reasons I have discussed in these pages many times, this seems very far off, and 2012 has been a demoralising year for what we laughingly call ‘the left’. This context is the only way that these strangely ritualistic demonstrations of caring but powerlessness can be accounted for.