The war on Gaza brought out hundreds of thousands of protesters. This force could reshape our hollow democracies, writes Richard Seymour

The pro-Palestine movement has grown spectacularly in a remarkably short period of time. Within a week of the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, and the start of Benjamin Netanyahu’s “mighty vengeance” on Gaza, central London teemed with tens of thousands of anti-war protesters.

The protests continued apace, with weekly national and local demonstrations, tactical innovations such as sit-ins at train stations and direct actions at factories supplying arms to Israel such as Elbit Systems. Nor has the pace slackened much since. Many on the right have sought to depict the protesters as extremists, but the sheer scale and regularity of the protests and actions are in fact a sign of how mainstream pro-Palestinian feeling is within British society. The question, assuming the movement succeeds in ending the Israeli assault, is where does it go next? What becomes of movements when they stop moving?

Traditionally, social movements went through phases of emergence, coalescence, institutionalisation and decline, followed by dissipation and co-optation by mainstream parties. This usually took decades, the classic case being the US civil rights movement. Yet the era since “Occupy Wall Street” in 2011 has been one of so-called “flash movements”. From Black Lives Matter to the gilets jaunes, movements have coalesced around hashtagged slogans with astonishing celerity, producing deep political crises – and then subsiding.

The Gaza campaign resembles a flash movement. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Palestine has been a cause of the international left since the six-day war in 1967, and the UK has seen repeated protests over Israel’s flattening of the West Bank, invasion of Lebanon and serial bombardments of Gaza. There is a network of organisations doing the groundwork, such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War. But the turnout for these protests shows the virtues of the flash movement: it can rapidly mobilise masses of people, tolerate a diversity of tactics and keep focus on a simple, morally obvious demand.

In many respects, it is succeeding. In the UK, despite efforts to demonise the protests as “hate marches”, and the then home secretary Suella Braverman’s inept provocation of the far right against the protests, the demonstrations brought up to 800,000 people to the streets on 11 November. This was the largest such demonstration since the invasion of Iraq.

Nor was the UK alone. There have been mass protests everywhere from Tokyo and Kerala to CairoWashington DC and Rio de Janeiro. In France and Berlin, protesters have defied official bans. In the US, the Jewish left has led the movement and often engaged in the most militant tactics, including blockading Manhattan Bridge. The embattled Israeli left has also staged protests, despite a climate of police repression and mob violence.

The movement has done what successful movements do: win over public opinion, catalyse cracks in elite consensus and expose divisions in the state. These splits were visible in the form of staffer dissent in the US state department, frontbench resignations in Labour over Keir Starmer’s refusal to support a ceasefire, protests by Dutch civil servants and EU employees, Macron’s ceasefire demand, and recently the call from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, three of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing coalition countries, for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”. Only the US now vetoes UN ceasefire resolutions. However, Kamala Harris’s call for a temporary ceasefire and Chuck Schumer’s call for fresh Israeli elections reflects a growing rift between Netanyahu and the White House.

Not all of this is down to the anti-war movement. The genocidal rhetoric from senior figures within the Israeli government, the viciousness of its campaign, with tens of thousands of deaths possible even after the war ends, the implausibility of its goal of “destroying” Hamas, and the total absence of any realistic postwar plan, have all contributed to Netanyahu’s international isolation, and the international court of justice’s preliminary ruling against Israel.

But such movements win by leveraging official chaos and incompetence. All this happened very quickly. It took 12 years to get American troops withdrawn from Vietnam, 20 years to get troops out of Afghanistan and decades for the anti-apartheid movement to make a dent on international backing of the racist regime in Soweto. Israel’s war is already testing the limits of even Biden’s enthusiastic embrace.

In the UK, the resulting political crisis has mainly damaged Labour, because Labour voters strongly support a ceasefire while the leadership is staunchly pro-Israel. Consider the scandal following Azhar Ali’s insinuations about “Jewish quarters” in the media (for which he later apologised). Labour’s grudging suspension of Ali when the details emerged during his Rochdale candidacy, left the byelection wide open to the skilled campaigner George Galloway. Galloway, symptomatic of the democratic decay on which he thrives, trounced the big parties in Rochdale. His victory was “beyond alarming”, said Rishi Sunak after the result, justifying a fresh assault on protest rights. But it’s just evidence of the democratic malaise exposed by the Gaza movement.

This is bad news for a future Labour government. Starmer, already facing serial crises of discipline before being elected, will enjoy no honeymoon. There will be a raft of independent MPs after the next election, some driven out of Labour by Starmer. The Greens may take Thangam Debbonaire’s seat in Bristol West, while the pro-Palestine independent candidate Leanne Mohamad’s challenge to Wes Streeting in Ilford North is strengthened by Galloway’s win. The softness of Labour’s vote, moreover, suggests that it will be susceptible to further electoral fragmentation and local insurgencies.

Starmer will face more flash movements in opposition to his policies. The Gaza movement, exposing how little public support there is for Westminster’s preferred foreign policy, has also underlined Britain’s crisis of representation. Unable to solve any major problems, from the climate crisis to economic malaise, the establishment’s response to popular movements has been brittle, irrational and, in the case of the recent furore about “Islamists”, cynically Islamophobic.

Future movements will erupt over all manner of issues, from the cost of living to the climate crisis, but all of them will confront a similar underlying problem: the hollowing out of democracy, the exclusion of the majority from decision-making and the accelerating drive towards authoritarianism.

Richard Seymour for The Guardian


19 Mar 2024 by Richard Seymour

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