One year. 100 articles. So we're having a Reader's Party. Come along to Upsidecrown.
Fighting the Good Fight
25 June 2001
"We live in a dying world!"
I stand atop a newly vacated plinth, the two hundred year-old general stares stonily up from the ground. I will look out from here again later and see the same crowd wetly glistening orange from the burning arcades, pushing themselves into the water cannon. These are my troops now, general.
"Once, we lived in many worlds. Some would die, and some would prosper. Some would settle new worlds -- and so we would continue: the beauty of nature, the complexity of life, the eternal stuggle of idea and idea.
"But now there is but one world, and it stagnates.
"There is one spirituality. Christianity, hear this! We will make you see there are other gods!
"There is one society. America! We will show you other ways!
"Heros of humanity, let our shouts penetrate their deafness, let our flames dazzle their eyes."
..and so it went on. The speech, the leaflets, the bonfires. The injuries were worth the immediate coverage alone, but to see the seed being planted by the media in so many minds for weeks afterwards, now that was special.
The general wasn't so convinced. "What exactly are you objecting to?" he said.
I object to the ever-increasing sameness of things. I've been to towns in France that can barely cope with cars, that even today are a mess of alleyways and tree-lined courtyards, shops you wouldn't have thought would last a month let alone fifty years, ten thousand lives intricately crosslinked, all with their own concerns, all with their own loves. And then McDonalds moves in and the reek of French fries that aren't even French replaces the smell of fresh bread in the morning.
I've been to Moscow and seen Western beer replacing vodka. I've seen Manchester United tops in Africa and Asda Walmart plastic bags in India.
"But isn't that what the people want? Doesn't the very fact that the burgers sell and the beer is drunk mean that that's precisely what people in these places want to consume?"
"That's a bit rich," I say, "coming from a general whose greatest victory was using his army to sack a city of a hundred thousand" -- which is a cheap shot, but it gives me time to think.
There's nothing particularly great or new about America or Christianity. The basic ideas behind them (democracy and the market, or forgiveness, the soul and a single all powerful god) were around in various forms at their inceptions. But it's a matter of an idea formed just so at the right time in the right place.
The trick is to grab people quickly, punish defectors, and make the very attribute of bigness a benefit in itself. With America around, there is no game but the free market game, and if you're in it you better play by those rules. Stand up in church and bare your soul with Christianity, be damned if you turn your back; oh, and it's a valuable ethical system designed to be inherited. Who would buy a non Microsoft computer? How to be as cheap as McDonalds without having so many outlets?
These aren't the best ideas by a long way, but they've found the trick of being the only ones in town. They profit by not even allowing competition, not just by winning. And doing it globally.
Later in the year, we're marching again. It's glorious: anarchists, Greens, the militant animal rights fringe, protestors of all shades and every nationality. Under a full moon we give every carcass from every butcher in this small town chosen for the summit a decent send-off in the grand square. To the beat of a hundred drums we dance around the cremation pyre as though we had brought down capitalism itself.
"We're doing it for the people," I whisper angrily. The general still haunts me, striding invisible after me as I'm pulled by the crowd around and around the flames.
"We're doing it because we, the people, must stand up against the force of globalisation, let these corporations know that they must give us room to live our own, different lives."
The general pulls me round and I jerk away from the dance.
"One," he spits, "isn't it a little ironic that you band together with disparate groups from all over the globe, just in order to insist that it's a bad thing for people to band together?
"Two," he almost shouts, "how dare you claim to represent the people? How many of you are there here, from all around the world -- ten, maybe twenty thousand? Ten times that live in this town alone, and what do you do? Burn their shops and destroy their livelihoods."
"We are the people," I shout back, and a few others are gradually coming to a stop, staring. "And you controlled an army sponsored by a regime that assumed power, was not granted it. You acted on behalf of a supposed moral society, subduing a city that refused to submit to the empire, an empire that you said would bring with it sanitation, learning, industry. And how many had to die for that? For the children was it? And how many mothers were murdered?"
We leave it at that, and nobody mentions the incident the next morning.
At every intergovernmental conference, at every trade summit, at every treaty negotiation I attend, the general's there. He's insistant. If we represent the will of the people, why don't we try for a democratic mandate? It wouldn't be the first time, he says, that the system has been changed from within.
And if the people really want change, why don't they join us, or boycott Budweiser, or refuse to watch dubbed films, or insist that English words are expunged from their language?
And I answer: These big ideas make people think they're doing the right thing. Advertising tells people the single concept of beauty, and now pornography is the same from Rio to St Petersburg. The pyramid marketing scheme of capital, wages and property ownership locks people in to a system that they've never had a chance to think about. The monetary price of a Coca-Cola is a fraction of the real cost, but how to make an ethical and environmentally zero-impact soft drink in a world that simply precludes the concepts of not buying, not selling, not trading? Individuals have been locked in since birth and they've never seen the sun.
We're back at the plinth. I'm on it, once again, looking, grinning over the massed crowd, liberators. The general's standing on the ground, amidst the rubble.
"So you're saying that people don't really understand what they need?" Yes.
"And you're going to set them free, whether they like it or not?" Yes.
"And it's okay if there's a cost of bringing them into this new world? It's okay if some of them have to be dragged through? Is it worth interrupting, without permission, these other lives?" Yes. Yes! Of course it's okay. How can people be happy in this world? Only voting for the same leader and buying the same product because there is no option B. We're being dominated, and we have to fight back, even if we have to teach the others how to fight first.
And as I look over the burning plaza with its gutted cafes, as I see my comrades surge through the streets pulling down the symbols of the popular regime, looting the shops, wrecking the cars; pulling the chains from the suffering masses, and they may well be indoors now, but come tomorrow we'll have taken this town and they'll be free -- as I look at the fights with police and the battles with shopowners, the families clinging to their comfort blankets of owned property -- as I stand tall on the plinth looking over this city which will soon be ours, the people's, I feel the steady gaze of the general on me, but when I look down there's only some shattered rock where he stood, and I feel a new strength within me.