May Day mayhem
In place of violence
There's more than one way to try and free us from the prison of capitalism
Special report: May Day 2001
Jonathan Freedland Wednesday May 2, 2001 The Guardian
This was meant to be mission control, the throbbing, secret heart of the campaign to destroy global capital. The address had been circulated in internet whispers, naming this semi-derelict factory in Southwark in south London as the "convergence centre" - meeting point for the protestors who would wreak May Day havoc in the capital. Sure enough, there was an unmarked police car outside, an officer filming every arrival and departure with a hand-held video camera. But inside, the night before May Day, was a disappointment. Not several hundred activists gathering on the eve of revolution, but half a dozen post-teenage boys in woolly balaclavas mooching around in what looked like a crack house. There was plenty of spirited graffiti on the walls - "Dance on the ruins of capitalism" - but not much action. Not much talk either. "No journalists" was the line: "We're not interested in writing, we want to get to the heart of the matter."
For a movement with such disdain for communication, the "anti-capitalist resistance" has proved remarkably effective. What was once a wacky, fringe belief - that corporate power is out of control - is gradually entering the mainstream. These days, even big-league politicians admit their powerlessness in the face of major companies. The honest ones concede that the fate of the environment or workers' rights are now determined more in the boardroom than the parliamentary chamber. The argument is slowly being won: in an era when Motorola can ignore the pleas of a British prime minister, and close down a factory with barely a second thought, it is hard to oppose it.
The problem, as always, is what to do about it. Violence doesn't work; even peaceful protest brings diminishing returns. For anyone who opposes the onward march of capital - with its knack for ravaging the planet and ripping off its people - the question is clear. What should we do?
The last few days have provided a clue, not in yesterday's stand-off, but at a quieter, less heralded confrontation a week earlier. It took place not in a rundown squat nor in Oxford Street, but in the main auditorium of the Barbican - venue of the annual general meeting of CGNU, the insurance giant which grew from the old Norwich Union.
Lined up on stage, politburo-style, was the board of 16 directors. Facing them were CGNU's shareholders, representatives of big financial houses but also private individuals with just a share or two to their name. The chairman, Pehr Gyllenhammar, gave his annual report and then asked for questions from the floor.
The first came from a representative of the South African National Union of Mineworkers, who reported that 60 people from his community back home had died from illnesses linked to asbestos. He wanted to ask about Norwich Union's 2% share in Cape plc, which used to mine asbestos in South Africa during the apartheid era and which is involved in a legal battle over compensation for 3,000 workers who, campaigners say, were poisoned in the process. "I ask the chairman to give a one minute silence for those who died before ever receiving justice," said the man from the NUM.
The chairman, peering down from his lofty perch on the platform, said there were lots of causes he sympathised with but he couldn't give a minute's silence for all of them. Next question? A second representative of the South African miners. Gyllenhammar shifts in his seat and repeats his earlier statement. Next? The director of Action for South Africa steps forward to say he's heard enough words from CGNU and wants some real pressure on Cape. "We are getting on with our normal business," says the chairman stiffly. He wants another question and beckons a white man in a suit to come forward. Except he's an official of the GMB union and he, too, asks about asbestos. CGNU press officers are writhing in their seats with embarrassment: their day has been hijacked.
It may not look like the May Day Monopoly carnival, but this clash is also an assault on global capitalism. The union officials may not have green hair; the Action for South Africa campaigners did not abseil into the Barbican but walked through the front entrance. Yet their challenge poses an equal - perhaps even greater - threat.
F or they are playing capitalism at its own game. They were in the meeting, rather than demonstrating outside it, because they have bought shares in CGNU. Greenpeace played the same game at BP's get-together last month, tabling motions against the continued extraction of fossil fuels (apparently at odds with the company's promise to go "beyond petroleum") and its links with a Chinese firm now building a pipeline across Tibet. Company rules allow shareholder challenges - and these campaigners are playing the rules for all their worth.
The result is unexpected proof of the migration of politics from Westminster to big business. For the CGNU debate proved a far livelier event than the average session at Labour party conference. All the old favourites were there: challenges to the chair, points of order, accusations against the leadership. It was enough to make you nostalgic. What's more, it's made possible by a classic exercise in Militant-style entryism - with Greenpeace and co infiltrating BP rather than the Labour party. They're no fools; they've gone where the power is.
Could this be the next wave for the movement against capitalism, with activists trading their nose-studs for share portfolios? Noreena Hertz - whose incisive new book, The Silent Takeover, lays bare the coup big business has staged against democracy - cites "shareholder activism," along with consumer action, as an immediately available weapon in the new war. She lights upon Sister Pa tricia Marshall, an American nun who has teamed up with churches and synagogues to form the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. Their combined assets amount to $110bn, which the nuns and rabbis invest in target companies they hope to influence. So far Sister Patricia has persuaded Pepsi to pull out of Burma and Kimberley Clark, makers of Kleenex, to sell off its tobacco operations. Brent Blackwelder, the president of Friends of the Earth, tells Hertz: "Corporations often ignore stakeholders, but they listen to shareholders."
Of course there are limits. Greenpeace cannot afford the number of shares it would need to get BP policy changed. It has to rely on embarrassment power instead. Nor do pressure groups always know what corporations are up to; plenty of companies keep their most unattractive activities in the dark.
What would help is full disclosure, with companies forced to lay their affairs out in the open. But that takes laws, and they require governments prepared to pass them - even in the teeth of fierce corporate opposition. No government dares take on big business alone - for fear the big firms will simply pull out, moving factories and jobs somewhere more hospitable - but if governments worked together they surely would be strong enough. The World Trade Organisation, instead of being a tool of the corporations, could be a weapon against them. Either way, we are all having to face up to a tough truth. Hurling rocks will not be enough; shareholder rebellions may only be a good start. This threat is global and serious - and so must be our response.
jonathan.freedland at guardian.co.uk