My first experience of police kettling was aged 16. It was May Day 2001, and the anti-globalisation movement was at its peak. The turn-of-the-century anti-capitalist movement feels largely forgotten today, but it was a big deal at the time. To a left-wing teenager growing up in an age of unchallenged neo-liberal triumphalism, just to have "anti-capitalism" flash up in the headlines was thrilling. Thousands of apparently unstoppable protesters chased the world's rulers from IMF to World Bank summits – from Seattle to Prague to Genoa – and the authorities were rattled.
Today, as protesters in nearly a thousand cities across the world follow the example set by the Occupy Wall Street protests, it's worth pondering what happened to the anti-globalisation movement. Its activists did not lack passion or determination. But they did lack a coherent alternative to the neo-liberal project. With no clear political direction, the movement was easily swept away by the jingoism and turmoil that followed 9/11, just two months after Genoa.
Don't get me wrong: the Occupy movement is a glimmer of sanity amid today's economic madness. By descending on the West's financial epicentres, it reminds us of how a crisis caused by the banks (a sentence that needs to be repeated until it becomes a cliché) has been cynically transformed into a crisis of public spending. The founding statement of Occupy London puts it succinctly: "We refuse to pay for the banks' crisis." The Occupiers direct their fire at the top 1 per cent, and rightly so – as US billionaire Warren Buffett confessed: "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."
The Occupy movement has provoked fury from senior US Republicans such as Presidential contender Herman Cain who – predictably – labelled it "anti-American". They're right to be worried: those camping outside banks threaten to refocus attention on the real villains, and to act as a catalyst for wider dissent. But a coherent alternative to the tottering global economic order remains, it seems, as distant as ever. Neo-liberalism crashes around, half-dead, with no-one to administer the killer blow.
There's always a presumption that a crisis of capitalism is good news for the left. Yet in the Great Depression, fascism consumed much of Europe. The economic crisis of the 1970s did lead to a resurgence of radicalism on both left and right. But, spearheaded by Thatcherism and Reaganism, the New Right definitively crushed its opposition in the 1980s.This time round, there doesn't even seem to be an alternative for the right to defeat. That's not the fault of the protesters. In truth, the left has never recovered from being virtually smothered out of existence. It was the victim of a perfect storm: the rise of the New Right; neo-liberal globalisation; and the repeated defeats suffered by the trade union movement.
But, above all, it was the aftermath of the collapse of Communism that did for the left. As US neo-conservative Midge Decter triumphantly put it: "It's time to say: We've won. Goodbye." From the British Labour Party to the African National Congress, left-wing movements across the world hurtled to the right in an almost synchronised fashion. It was as though the left wing of the global political spectrum had been sliced off. That's why, although we live in an age of revolt, there remains no left to give it direction and purpose.
Much of the Occupy movement's rank-and-file understandably wish to bypass a political process that seems either irrelevant or part of the problem. But the stakes are far higher than they were during the heyday of the anti-globalisation movement. Capitalism is in a crisis without apparent end; Western governments are manically hacking chunks off the welfare state; and millions are being stripped of secure futures. In these circumstances, anger will inevitably grow; but unless it is given a political focus, it is set to erupt in ugly, directionless ways. We could be staring at a future of desperate youths rampaging through city centres; and masked riot police officers charging at crowds. But those with economic and political power would remain safely in place, possibly helped by an even greater backlash at rising disorder than that witnessed after the August riots.
Those swelling the ranks of dissent have to choose: are we making a point about the 1 per cent, or are we trying to dislodge them from power? We've certainly achieved the former. But – unless we develop a coherent alternative that resonates with the millions being made to pay for the banks' crisis – the people at the top aren't going anywhere.
Owen Jones is the author of 'Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class'