Twelve years ago this month the “Battle of Seattle” - a public protest in a city hosting World Trade Organisation talks - introduced the concept of anti-globalisation activity to the world.
Undeterred by media derision, savage policing and the November cold, protesters occupied the hotel lobbies of WTO delegates and premises of banks and multi-national chains to make their point. A new culture of action and discourse against globalised capitalism was born, travelling to most Western cities including London.
Occupy Wall Street has created similar impetus for thousands across Europe; again crossing the Atlantic, with our native Occupy movement setting up camp outside St Paul’s and generating PR hell for the saints and Caesars of the square mile. It looks to be the most potent political lighting rod since the dark March of 2003 and Iraq.
Before St Paul’s, and much to the gratification of many coalition politicians, mass protest had dissolved in the year since the student battles. Yet the public mood remains highly receptive to collectively saying “enough” to the visible anarchy of turbo-capitalism or the bite of coalition austerity cuts.
Could a renewed activism translate into serious pressure on the Government to consider a “Robin Hood” tax; re-visit and improve “Project Merlin” on reform of banking, or invoke a Plan B, C or D? Smaller, related actions against bank branches and high street tax-avoiders by the grass-roots UK Uncut movement extract similar, broad based public support and even stronger emotions. So the answer could be yes, but only if a new political culture replaces the current orthodoxy: "clicktivism" and online dissension.
In the past fortnight, several Lib Dems and indeed one Tory MP have told me privately in the context of “Occupy”, that sections of the Coalition remain in a state of high anxiety that the social fabric of the UK may not survive the severity of cuts, and that it is impossible to predict the scale and form of potential unrest. But what is clear to them is that “clicktivism” and the “38 degrees” model of rolling petitions, based on all kinds of topical grievances, provide an extremely convenient holding centre for disgruntled or livid voters. Most are unable or just too busy/ exhausted/lazy to attend a demonstration or occupation, but click here, “like” this and you have resisted: you (and the forces you oppose) can sleep at night.
Mindful of this, Government strategists used the interim period – before austerity cuts as an “unavoidable” concept transformed into the grim reality of library/children’s centre closures, thousands losing jobs and the insecurity of austerity hitting home – to create an additional holding process for anger; the e-petitions device.
If 100,000 others click with you, a debate in parliament of almost no consequence can be secured. In this way, anger and potential offline actions are neutralised by a trick of engagement, which can never give ownership of the campaign to the individual nor meaningfully engage the media for more than 20 minutes, and so cannot amplify dissenting voices into a sufficiently loud warning.
Market research-style online clicktivism options are very easy to take and just as easy for those they are directed at to ignore, and so compounded by the depth charge of summer rioting and draconian reactions of the judiciary, street actions have been given a forbidding tone. But this will not last. Mixed identity activities of the emergent, localised, occupy-your-library variety are infectious for the opposite reason that clicktivism is automatic, sometimes even thoughtless: they offer politically disempowered people an opportunity to satisfy latent cravings for both community and genuine empowerment.
I recently asked Noam Chomsky what he thought the outcome would have been if the nearly 500,000 who have signed a yet-to-be presented petition against the privatisation of the NHS had joined the other 3,000 in occupying Westminster Bridge in late October. “You would have no bill” he responded, identifying the fact that at least to the Lib Dem side of the Coalition – ever mindful of the singular electoral bitterness of the Blair arrogance/indifference to the Iraq march - this would be untenable. Thus empowering Lib Dem politicians to apply the brakes or even use a nuclear option. Now that sounds like a strategy, one that David Cameron and perhaps even Nick Clegg too, who predicted "Greek style unrest" if the Conservatives gained power and imposed cuts, are now hoping we all overlook.
Mark Donne is a political campaigner and film-maker