Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

An invitation to riot

This week, London will go into lockdown for the G20. On Wednesday April 1, or what protesters are referring to as “Financial Fools’ Day”, anti-banker anarchists and greens are expected to descend on London’s financial districts to hang effigies of bankers and make clear their distaste for capitalism. In preparation, the Metropolitan Police are spending £10-million on a massive security operation and have drafted in 2 500 extra riot cops from other parts of the UK. Bankers and stockbrokers have been advised to “dress down” — ie no red braces, no pinstripe suits, no leather brown brief cases — in order to avoid being spotted by protesters and potentially punched in the face. Some are predicting war.

However, the most striking thing about this week’s possible protesting showdown is the level of anticipation, even fear, among the British authorities. Yes it is known that protests will take place, and yes it is true that some protesters are talking about causing trouble (one elderly professor of anthropology and part-time anarchist has been suspended by his university for hinting that things “could get nasty” on Wednesday). But the authorities’ pre-emptive response to the promised protest is not driven by what is known and what is true, but by their own out-of-control fear that things might spin out of control. The police, backed by politicians, have launched what one journalist has dubbed “Operation Overkill”, to the extent that their predictions of extreme anti-banker violence might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The run-up to the G20 has been like a countdown to doomsday. Every day the British media have treated us to yet more dire warnings about possible fire, fighting and fury on April 1 (the day before the G20 officially kicks off in London). We’re told that “black bloc” anarchists plan to hijack the protests and use truncheons and shields to fight riot cops. Frontpage “exclusives” warn of possible violence against anyone who looks or smells like a banker. The police are leaving no stone unturned in their determination to pre-empt the possibility of violence. Literally: they have called on Westminster Council to clear up roadworks before Wednesday, on the basis that “discarded lumps of concrete, bricks, wooden stakes and scaffolding poles could be used as weapons by some demonstrators”.

The Metropolitan Police are spying on social networking sites in order to pick up hints about what protesters are planning. They have cancelled all police leave for the first two days of April. One of the commanders in charge of policing the G20 says the threat is “unprecedented”. On the basis of internet-based promises of “rage” from has-been anarchists, workers in the financial district have been advised to “disguise” themselves on Wednesday. Thousands of staff have been told either to work from home or, if they must venture into the anticipated hotbed of violence that will be the financial district, to wear “relaxed clothing”. It is a perfect metaphor for the inner fears of the powers-that-be that financial workers are told to dress in “civilian” clothing and blend in, as if they were entering enemy territory.

This widespread anticipation of violence and destruction is about more than the police being simply cautious, watchful, security-conscious; rather it speaks to a powerful feeling of internal fragility and moral disarray among the British elite. If the authorities were simply genuinely concerned about possible outbreaks of violence, and were keen to find ways to counteract it, then they would discretely monitor certain alleged troublemakers and discourage the public from panicking. But instead they have chose to advertise their fears — their “apocalyptic fears”, as one journalist labels them — at every opportunity. That is because this is no mere security exercise; it’s more like an existential crisis.

The idea that the promised protests are “unprecedented” (really?) and might generate some kind of “apocalypse” reveals more about the authorities’ own insecure outlook than it does about the protesters’ strength of numbers or political coherence. It is a powerful sense among the powers-that-be that their political and economic system, even their physical city, is fragile that leads them to believe that relatively small groups of ageing anarchists and wet-behind-the-ears greens might bring it to its knees. Indeed, the police’s concern that bits of the actual city — lumps of concrete and metal blocks from roadwork sites — might be used as violent projectiles is a striking metaphor for their nightmarish vision of the city being destroyed from within.

Meanwhile, the insistence that bankers should “disguise” themselves is not merely practical advice: rather it reveals a certain shame at the top of society about the banking system itself, about the economic system itself, so that those who operate it are encouraged to hide themselves away and effectively to become self-denying. “Operation Overkill” springs not from a normal and rational assessment of the security threat posed this week, but from the authorities’ own conviction that their system is weak and given to collapse, and from their inability to make a strong moral justification for their way of doing things. Disguised bankers shamefacedly making their way to work will be a stand-out metaphor for the elite’s own self-loathing and fear of extermination.

If anything, this advertisement of fear, this very public display of apocalypse porn from officialdom, could make the much fretted-about violence a reality. In showing off their sense of fragility for all to see, and in implicitly depicting banking as something shameful that should be done in disguise, the authorities might unwittingly be inviting people to come and have a go at “the system”. Their message seems to be “We are scared, we are mortified and in the absence of moral conviction we can defend ourselves only with brute force” and such a message can act as an invitation to riot for those who might want to try to push “the system” over the edge.

In this sense, this week’s events might reveal something very telling about the relationship between anti-capitalism and capitalism today: so-called radical “anti-capitalism”, that screech of rage from shaggy-haired protesters and alienated individuals, is frequently little more than an external, physical manifestation of the self-doubt and uncertainty of the capitalists themselves.