On Saturday, despite a fucked ankle, I was intent on going to the march to protest the pope in London. I’d come up the night before, with the intention of making banners, but anarchists being anarchists, someone forgot the card, another the paint, and we were left with some bamboo canes and no open craft shops; let it never be said that I heed omens correctly. The argument I had with a bearded, cheese-making 9/11 conspiracy theorist while getting coffee in the morning really could serve as a metonym for the whole day.
I went into the march with low expectations. That’s because the major marches I’ve previously been a part of, including the 2003 million-person London anti-war march, have largely been ineffectual, largely because they’re built on broad bases which crack at the slightest hint of dissent (see the trajectory of the Stop the War Coalition.) This particular march was born out of a coalition of odd bedfellows: atheists, human rights campaigners, women’s ordination groups, mad evangelicals, gay priests, fiscal conservatives and so on. In order for such a large action to take place, every trace of a demand per se has to be eliminated, or at least kept so vague that everyone can agree to it.
Of course, this means that there are further problems: much of the discussion about the Papal visit has been around the personal habits and peccadilloes of Benedict XVI himself, from his delicate love of red loafers and handsome personal secretaries to his personal role in covering or relocating the sex abuse scandal. At times, this can be well-targeted: any conversation about the current Pope should remember his personal vindictiveness in the crushing of liberation theology, but shouldn’t forget, either, that such directives also came from his predecessor in the throne of St Peter. But in granting the ground of the argument to the personal culpability of the Pope himself, we reframe the argument so to concern, essentially, the personal grace of a single man. In this conception, which is increasingly popular, politics ceases to be a question of actions and responsibilities and instead becomes about the personal moral standing of the individual. (Hence the odd Papal defence: he is nice, compassionate, gentle, plays Mozart and the like.) In fact there should be far greater and more complex questions about the institutional politics of the Church itself (e.g., the Banco Vaticano, the systematic culture of deference, total autocracy, obedience, anti-democracy) as well as rage over child abuse, the treatment of homosexuals, the treatment of women, the message on HIV infection — partly because these positions do not simply exist in a scriptural vacuum, but extend from a secretive and precipitous political system. In fact, Benedict is right on one thing: the Church is not outside of the political, though not, perhaps in the way that he would want it. It is not that the Church is somehow a bulwark of unchanging truth to which we should have recourse, but rather an institution as extensively festering, corruptible and loathsome as any government or party. It must be called to account.
Hence protesters marching and wringing their hands about not wanting to offend anyone (one protester actually went to the police to have an ‘offensive’ banner removed), or refusing to condemn an institution, or, worse, mocking ‘men in dresses’, or whinging about a Papal visit being perfectly acceptable, save that we now live in the age of austerity and jolly well shouldn’t be paying for such extravagances. Is this really the basis of our protest? There’s a sort of fanatic sense of superiority that percolated through the march, of a particular kind of ‘enlightenment’ that I found tedious: a reverential, almost ecstatic quiver at the thought of Richard Dawkins. For all that Dawkins’ line on religion can be seductive, it is all too easy to forget that he, alongside many other sociobiologists, was conscripted into and complicit with the rise of Thatcherism, the virtues of the ‘selfish’ and the promotion of an aggressively ‘free’ market; not all atheist political positions are necessarily progressive.
Yet, also, there was something curiously evacuated about the march, perhaps because it had no content. The slogans on the banners were polite, not punchy. The many paper mitres in evidence floated free of any signification other than, well, what a silly hat he wears. The chants were confused or unenthusiastic; the guidelines for the protest had instructed no disruption, no confrontation, no aggression. The only thing chanted with any enthusiasm was ‘Pope Go Home!’ Well, yes. Save that, of course, the Pope was already going home the next day. We already knew that. I don’t think the problems for which he is merely the most clear figurehead are going to disappear when he flies into the sunset.
It’s a good thing to listen to the chants that get passed and volleyed and picked up in a crowd — they’re good indicators of what’s going on. In this protest, the only one picked up with any enthusiasm was ‘Pope Go Home!’ — i.e., get out of my sight, be here no longer, out of our country. Don’t forget there’s a long history of seeing Catholics as a fifth column in this country, and though overstated by reactionary Catholics, it was unquestionably there. But more than that, the point is that what the Pope represents won’t disappear simply because he’s no longer physically present, partly because institutional corruption and unquestioning deference permeates to every level, and partly because the blurring of the distinction between the logic of grace or salvation and the political logic of the state isn’t dependent on a single person. But rather than address this, the unbearably smug crowd work themselves into a fever [orgy, orgia — a ‘sacred rite’] over the crystal perfection of their own rationality, allying it to every muddled conception of ‘this scepter’d isle’ as somehow an outpost of the finest distillation of the enlightenment.
I’m glad there was a protest. But in reality it felt both strangely evacuated and directed toward a muddled end. In the past couple of days, I’ve had people send me links to Dawkins’ speech at the rally. Neither impressive rhetorically nor complex philosophically, it was precisely the kind of catharsis that these marches tend to end in, and that I tend to find a little hollow. Yet this is partly the nature of marches and partly the nature of the cause. The absurd conspiracist cheese-farmer in Borough market forces the question: do we only encounter these strange kind of passions in defence of a delusion about ourselves and our preferred mode of government? In defending 9/11 conspiracies one has to project the notion of a vast, hugely capable, hugely secretive, hugely efficient government body that works vast and total deceptions of which no primary evidence has ever reached daylight; not only does this then mean that they are one of a small band of the enlightened, but that government competency is wide and far-reaching, with a long plan in sight. Far from finding this terrifying, many find comfort in the supposed impenetrability of government and therefore the impossibility of real or profound social change. Thus one can rail against conspiracy while absolving oneself of complicity — it is far more terrifying, far more of a call to action, to realise that government is both precarious and incompetent, that what are made to look like strategic decisions are frequently made up on the spot, that government largely flounders in the face of complexity.
Much of the anti-papal march took on a similar tone – of the band of the enlightened, of the impossibility of dealing with the vast mass of the deluded and of the absolute solidity of the Church. None of those things are givens, but it would be a far harder call to action to realise that a better world is possible, since one then has to work for it. (And we might ask why they seem counterintuitive.) The march largely involved a logic of catharsis and disclamation, as marches tend to. Thus the cathartic whooping for Dawkins, but equally thus the personal disclaiming of the state visit. The same logic was operative in the 2003 march: ‘not in my name.’ But this is again a logic of purely personal culpability when social and collective questions are actually at play: the 2003 march and this one were both salves for guilty consciences, designed less to create change than to register a formal objection while retaining the status quo.
Many anarchists refused to go on this march. It’s worth asking why. It’s partly, I think, a refusal of the conditional logic behind marches, the logic of formal objection: i.e., in order to object to a state visit, one has to first accept the value and legitimacy of the state itself. In marching under a form of regulated, civilised (i.e., ineffectual) protest, all one does is argue for a minimal reform in an inherently corrupted mode of government. That is not valueless, but it’s also compromised. Instead, we might argue, direct action as opposed to civil protest is an action that undertakes to immediately alter material circumstances by simply acting as if the state is illegitimate; it can and does, as such, point to some powerful conclusions. What would a direct action at the papal visit have looked like? Well, it could have involved street theatre, peaceful action designed to provoke thought in the onlookers instead of registering ‘oh, another protest.’ It could have been setting up a spokescouncil in Hyde Park to determine how to react to the Papal visit. It could certainly have been ignoring the logic of an unequal society and refusing the respect accorded to spurious authority and simply obstructing his progress, or issuing a demand to him. It could have been many things beside. But none of those things would involve the same kind of approach as a march, which is all about visibility rather than action – and often of the worst kind, of a kind of visibility in order to obtain a kind of self-contained satisfaction which goes nowhere, changes nothing, generates no new world.