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May Day: The Politics of Anti-Politics

Most people know what the wide range of groups which come
together on May Day are against - capitalism or
globalisation - but do they have any alternative plan?
One of the most memorable banners from last year's May Day
protest urged activists to "overthrow capitalism and replace
it with something nicer".

But while the imprecision of the slogan amused many, it also
highlighted an awkward dilemma for a movement that is often
perceived to oppose everything and propose nothing.

"What's the alternative?", spectators to the demonstrations
might have asked, "what do you want instead?"

According to anarchists, the answers can be found through
the process of self-empowerment, or 'DIY culture'.

Protesters are attempting to build "a genuine grassroots
counter-culture" with which to oppose what they see as the
commodification of everyday life.

Social centres

One practical manifestation of this culture is the emergence
around the UK of what their proponents call "social

The common name for this practice is squatting, although
activists insist they have little in common with the
traditional stereotype of "dirty squatters".

Empty buildings are occupied and converted into
"semi-autonomous communities," offering local residents
public spaces and free or cheap services.

The Radical Dairy is one such example.

In January this year about 20 activists entered a disused
building in Stoke Newington, north east London.

Having been empty for four years, it now boasts a cafe and
provides English lessons for foreign speakers and DJ
workshops for young people.

Jack, who helps run the centre, explains: "We provide
services not being provided by councils, or which are too
expensive for the working class and unemployed."

What sets the Radical Dairy apart from many social centres
is that its owner permits the building to be used in this

Police 'crackdown'

Even so, activists claim they have been subjected to
disproportionate police attention.

It is a charge often made by activists against the

Jack argues that the police "crack down on anything that is
seen to be slightly radical and not under their control."

Another anarchist, who gives her name as June, agrees.

Although not explicitly political, social centres take on a
political dimension by their refusal to operate within
conventional social structures.

"Anything that genuinely empowers people will be opposed by
the state," she says.

Anarchists, who instinctively distrust authority, reject the
idea of working with local councils to achieve their aims of
providing community services.

June says: "Local council help comes with clauses and
paperwork. We don't actually need grants from them. It's
much more empowering to do it completely independently".

She accuses councils of cutting vital social programmes and
pushing through privatisation of provisions and services
without the consent of the local people who use them.

"Local government is failing communities. All government

'Lost connection'

Rejecting political parties as bureaucratic and controlled
by big business, June argues that social centres provide an
effective way of influencing things directly.

"Parties have lost their connection with ordinary people and
their communities," she says.

Only a genuinely grassroots movement can rebuild these ties.

The government declined to comment on whether it believed
social centres are capable of offering any positive social
benefits, instead pointing out that trespass is a criminal

"We do not advocate people going into property and claiming
it as their own," a spokesman said

Although under British law it is illegal to occupy land
without the owner's consent, anarchists argue they are
converting a wasted resource into useful community spaces.

There are currently some 750,000 empty properties in the UK.

'New politics'

Rather than being a new phenomenon, June believes that the
development of social centres as focal points for
communities has been ignored or misunderstood by the
mainstream media.

Naomi Klein, author of the bestselling activist's bible No
Logo, has described them as windows - "not only into another
way to live, disengaged from the state, but also into a new
politics of engagement."

If so, it is an engagement which undermines many existing
ideas of political authority and property ownership.

Perhaps attempts to resolve the two are destined to fail...
and so, as a May Day website notes, the "struggle" will