|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Protest! The new lifestyle choice
Rebel, Rebel: The Protestor’s Handbook
By Bibi van der Zee
Published by Guardian Books, 2008, £14.99
"ARE YOU worried about global warming? Furious about GM crops? Sick to death of human rights abuses, unaffordable housing… but don’t know where to start? Then this book is for you". This is the promise made by Bibi van der Zee, ‘ethical living and environmental campaigns’ columnist for The Guardian. This journalist, with a background in environmental groups and the 1990s anti-road protest movement, has written a step-by-step guide to political activism and starting a campaign.
In a lively, accessible and often witty manner each chapter deals with a form of protest, including demonstrations, boycotts, squatting, protest camps, direct action, letter writing, fundraising, petitioning, and organising public meetings.
At a time when protests are increasing – from fuel price hikes to attacks on abortion rights – it is significant that a book that "hopes to get people to start a revolution" has appeared. However, rather than seeking to fundamentally change the way society is run, the author believes the important thing is that people feel they are making a difference: "The idea of raising your voice on behalf of others, gives me profound pleasure somewhere in my middle".
The biggest shortcoming of this book is summed up in her analysis of the current political situation: "We seem to have surrendered our self-determination without thinking about it; a powerful group of multi-national corporations and financial and political institutions now control our lives. It can seem like we are now in the powerless position like medieval peasants".
However, the main reason why big business and capitalist institutions have had so much power is because of the relative weakness of working-class organisations: the trade unions and ex-workers’ parties that have moved to the right for a whole period. Most importantly, this situation is beginning to change.
This book’s main points of reference are the ideological conclusions drawn by many on the left and in the anti-globalisation movements in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. As a reaction to the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the ideological offensive of the capitalist class in favour of the unrestrained free market and against the ideas of socialism, many questioned and even rejected the need for political parties, trade unions and collective action to try and force change.
The slant in the interviews is with campaigners from NGOs, single-issue campaigns, environmental groups (of the Plane Stupid variety), animal rights and people taking action on an individual basis. Trade unions, the labour movement and political parties are covered but are portrayed as undemocratic and declining in influence and support.
Of course, if you look empirically at the overall decline in union membership and the hollowing out of the Labour Party in Britain there is some basis to these conclusions. But van der Zee overestimates the impact of NGOs – "4% of the world’s working population" – and is incorrect in saying that they are the most effective in "pushing reluctant politicians into action".
The most useful thing about this book is that every chapter ends with a concise summary of legal issues around a particular form of protest or campaigning. This includes explanations of legislation and how activists can use the law.
Rebel Rebel gives the ins and outs of draconian legislation used against protestors. It begins with the Highways Act (1980), and the aggravated trespass laws under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1990) – used violently against anti-road building protestors in the 1990s, and travellers in the notorious ‘battle of the bean-field’ – and goes up to the recent raft of legislation on terrorism, serious organised crime and anti-social behaviour being used against demonstrators. The recent Notts Stop the BNP protest on 16 August was subject to sections 14 and 14a of the Public Order Act, giving the police powers to shut down areas around the Derbyshire village of Codnor, such as footpaths and lanes, that fell outside an official protest area.
Van der Zee fails to point out that this is a deliberate step-up in the powers of the state to crack down on civil liberties and democratic rights. With increasing levels of discontent in society, the police will be given extra powers to protect the interests of the ruling class. The impression given in Rebel Rebel is that there is not much we can or even should do about these repressive laws.
On the question of the anti-trade union laws, the legal implications of taking industrial action, picketing and balloting are clearly explained. But there is no guide on how to combat this legislation. Even worse, van der Zee says that "20 or 30 years ago there might have been a need to prevent industrial action from spreading to other companies". This completely fails to understand that this legislation was introduced by Thatcher’s Tory government (and continued under New Labour) to defend the interests of the bosses in its class war on strong, organised sections of the working class, the miners and printers, etc.
Nonetheless, these laws are not worth the paper they are written on when workers act decisively. This was seen when prison officers broke the ban on strike action imposed on them by the government in August 2007.
Rebel Rebel points to historical examples of mass movements, such as the Chartists, the struggle for universal suffrage, and the abolition of slavery, although in a very sketchy way. The impression given is that these were slow struggles that eventually achieved reforms, but did not have revolutionary elements. Van der Zee points out the "journalistic" role of Engels in highlighting the horrific conditions of the industrial working class, in Conditions of the Working Class and Poor in England (1844). Van der Zee says this book horrified the middle and ruling class to the extent that they granted reforms such as the ten-hour day and the 1848 Public Health Act.
But Engels was an active revolutionary who took part in the struggles of working people that forced these concessions from the bosses. His marvellous book puts forward a strategy for the working class to organise in trade unions and political parties to fight the bosses and landlords and change society. This is also shown when van der Zee discusses Annie Besant’s account of the match-girls’ conditions. There is no mention that this led to a strike which had a dramatic effect on the political consciousness of the working class and helped begin the process of forming mass workers’ parties and trade unions.
More recent history is also misrepresented. The magnificent anti-poll tax struggle only merits a sentence, as "riots led to the withdrawal of an unjust law". Yet the anti-poll tax struggle was an example of a successful mass movement of which the backbone and leadership was a political force, the Militant (now the Socialist Party). The poll tax was defeated by a mass campaign involving demonstrations, public meetings, communities organising against bailiffs and the courts and, most importantly, by mass non-payment organised by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
Rebel Rebel highlights the two-million strong anti-war demonstration in February 2003 as an example of why many believe mass action is ultimately ineffective, as those in power carry on regardless. Van der Zee states that "a whole group of people who had never protested before will probably never bother again". But this fails to understand that the political pressure required to stop the onslaught of Bush and Blair’s war for oil in Iraq would have had to include industrial action by the working class and a political alternative to New Labour. Many young people and workers will draw just such lessons from the anti-war movement to apply in future struggles.
Rebel Rebel ends up starkly illustrating the limitations of individual action, giving the example of a family who set up a hyperactive children’s support group after their child’s behaviour is affected by food colourings. They are completely ignored by the food manufacturers and government. Van der Zee hints that we might be better off trying to gradually persuade politicians and big business to act in the interests of ordinary people by making a sound moral case.
At its worst, this book presents campaigning and activism as a trendy lifestyle choice, with van der Zee hoping we will wake from our apathy and join the cool people in the know. Perhaps protesting will catch on like a craze like DIY, Sudoku or Free-cycle, with this book as the official manual. But actually, the reason this book could be used as a – very basic – starting point for political activists, is that people will protest because they draw conclusions from their own experience of the brutality and failures of the capitalist system.