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Tales of Hope and Despair, Part 2: Despair

May 25, 2007

The naming of the dead

For the other side of the story, read Part 1: Hope.

I became politically active in 1992, when I joined the ANC, and I was full of hope and enthusiasm for the new country we were building.

By 1995, I was despondent. I had left the ANC, and joined a small revolutionary socialist organisation. I was 21 at the time, and to be fair I was probably most upset that dope hadn’t been legalised by the new government, but even then I felt despairingly that the struggle was unwinable.

That was the time of capitalist triumphalism, of the end of history. It looked like McFutures for all of us. I was politically active because I wanted to go down fighting, not because I expected to win.

And then something happened to change all of that.

In 1999, the Global Justice Movement exploded onto the world stage in Seattle. Kurt Cobain’s generation were fighting back, fittingly, in his home state. Alternative kids were taking over the world.

I’d been tracking this for some time: it started with the Zapatistas rejecting NAFTA in 1994, but Seattle was the first time it broke into my consciousness as a new mass movement.

Suddenly there was hope, and way out of the historical quagmire the Left had manoeuvred itself into. Instead of sectarian squabbles and icepicks to the brain, we agreed to respect differences. This was the world of one ‘No’ – to neoliberal capitalism – and many ‘Yesses’.

We wanted to show that another world is possible, a world that respected plurality. We – all of us except the SWP – accepted that none of us had a monopoly on the truth, none of us had all the answers, but by working with each other we could find our way through to the other side.

Our ways of organising were democratic and horizontal – anarchist – rather than hierarchical. We had spokes councils to ensure that all voices were heard. Instead of going for majority vote, we tried to go for consensus, and when that didn’t work, we accepted that we each had different perspectives, and different roles to play, but that we were all a valid part of the process of changing the world.

Punks. Farmers. Trade unionists. Grannies. Church groups. Women’s sewing circles. Intellectuals. Ordinary punters.

We had black, pink and white blocks at demonstrations, fluffies and spikies, to reflect this difference.

But then it got nasty. The carbonieri shot Carlo Giuliano, and Mike and Steve’s mates shot Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie – and Marcel King was killed in the streets of Durban for trying to protect his mother from council cops.

Then 9/11 happened, and hope turned to despair. The war on terror – the war without end – was started, and all our energy was channelled into resisting the war effort. The greatest gathering in human history was the anti-war marches of 15 February 2003 – in stark contrast to the thousands that hailed the beginning of World War One.

But the war went ahead, and despite having millions of individuals, we didn’t have the collective power to stop it. No unions went on anti-war strikes. No dockers refused to load weapons.

And since then, we’ve been on the back foot, trying to stay positive as Bush and Blair have pushed the world even deeper into conflagration.

There was a brief outpouring of hope in 2005 when a quarter of a million people, all dressed in white, made a circle around the city of Edinburgh to declare their desire to Make Poverty History. I was one of them.

But by Wednesday morning, on Princess Street, it was very clear that Empire was still in charge, and wasn’t going to tolerate any change.

Then the 7/7 bombs on London’s transport system happened, and once again, hope gave way to despair.

The War without End has made all but the most dedicated members of the Global Justice Movement to fade away – and those who are left have got hard, and cynical.

We wanted love, truth and beauty – and Empire responsed with terror and death.

Palestine is too painful to comment on.

Bush’s “for us or against us” has tarred us all with the terror brush, and anti-terror laws have been used against countless peaceful protesters. The increased surveillance – which the public now believe is for their protection against terror – has become the norm.

It was enough for some of us to start asking whether Al-Qaida and Empire were the same thing, and the Reichstag fire was mentioned.

Certainly, they’re two sides of the same coin.

So where are we now?

There is no Left. There is a confused and divided anti-war movement. The Left have shown us, once again – in the Scottish elections, in the Labour party leadership contest, and in the South African civil society movements that squabble with each other rather than the enemy – that they are incapable of organising, incapable of solidarity.

Democracy is over. Guantanamo Bay has shown us that for the enemies of Empire, there is no justice.

That’s meant that those of us who are still active are fighting a losing battle to protect past freedoms – first won in the French Revolution – rather than winning new ones.

I don’t see much hope: as far as I can see, our only chance is that environmental imperatives, or a collapse in the Dollar, will force us to start looking for alternatives again.

Or maybe the destruction of the Left, with all its false promises, is something we have to go through. Maybe post-modernism means that the ‘struggle’ has morphed into forms that are more difficult to recognised. Maybe we just need to breathe and go with it.

But it doesn’t look good.

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