Last weekend’s “peace” marches in New York, San Francisco, London, and Western Europe — with marchers of every race and organizational input from major political parties and NGOS — were nonetheless a vast surge of collective emotion. And what they deserve is neither justification nor contempt but explanation. Exactly why do millions of people, separated by thousands of miles, suddenly come together to shout the same slogans and wave the same banners in furtherance of the same political cause?
To some observers, of course, these vast events are their own validation. The voice of the demo is the voice of God. If millions of people actively march to “oppose” Bush and war when others merely register their opinions in the voting booth or the opinion poll, then the marchers have somehow established a greater claim to be heard and obeyed. Some years ago, British Trotskyists invented a theory (inevitably) to justify this superiority. They called it “the democracy of the committed.”
Its deconstructed meaning is rule by the minority of people who are activists, demonstrators, and street thugs. Actual democracy, of course, is the opposite of minority rule and safeguards the ability of ordinary people to choose their government without the necessity of becoming full-time political agitators. It lacks the “street cred” and revolutionary glamour of demos; but then so do most of the voters. Elections are called “representative democracy” for a good reason.
Other observers grant no moral superiority to the marchers, but they regard them warily as the vanguard of irresistible popular sentiments. Even if we dislike their message, this argument runs, we cannot disregard the fact that millions of people feel strongly enough about it to take to the streets.
This surely overstates the sacrifice involved. It does not require an overriding serious political commitment to get into coaches and trains, journey to very pleasant cities like London and San Francisco, and spend a lively Saturday afternoon marching along, chanting, and singing in a generally festive atmosphere of collective moral self-congratulation. The late Edward Banfield, a great American sociologist, pointed out that one neglected explanation of the 1960s’ urban upheavals was that testerone-driven young men were rioting mainly for fun and profit. Demos may be interpreted as the equivalent activity, naturally more timid and less risky, of middle-class young people with longer time-horizons and careers to consider. Their parents, nostalgic for their own lost youth and Sixties’ “sit-ins,” would certainly approve and very likely “participate.”
Besides, it is not very easy to follow the advice implicitly being offered by the marchers. Yes, they want to “Stop the War.” But they have little or nothing to say about how to deal with Saddam Hussein who, as Tony Blair pointed out, has killed more Iraqis in torture chambers and war than there were people marching on Saturday. They suggest no solution to the acute problem of Saddam’s drive to acquire nuclear weapon — nor any relief for the sufferings of the Iraqi people. And when they are shamed into proposing an alternative to liberating Iraq, they fall back on the two solutions they opposed until recently — namely continued inspections and economic sanctions. Yet these policies merely delay Saddam’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, punish the Iraqi people rather than their brutal government, and are supposed to be backed by force if they fail to obtain their objectives peacefully as they clearly have.
On second thoughts, therefore, it was probably wise of the demonstrators not to draw attention to their solutions to Saddam. It is hardly surprising that almost all Iraqis living abroad are opposed to the “peace” marchers. They regard them as doing the dictator’s work for him and postponing the liberation of their families.
As to the “irresistible” character of the marchers and their opinions, it is worth recalling that there have been three such mass movements in the last two decades. In the years 1982 and onwards, there were massive “peace” marches in Western Europe and the U.S. to protest against the installation of defensive U.S. missiles in NATO countries when the Soviet Union refused to withdraw its own SS-20s. NATO and the West stood firm; the Soviet Union imploded; and it is now hard to find someone who admits to having been a peace marcher.
Nine years later in 1991 there were massive peace marches in Europe to protest against the U.S.-led war to liberate Kuwait. The young (well, youngish) Gerhard Schroeder, now Germany’s Chancellor, led the campaign, warning that the Bush regime might use nuclear weapons against Iraq “with terrible consequences.” But the U.S.-led coalition ignored the marchers and liberated Kuwait without any of the horrors predicted. Does even Schroeder now defend his “peace” activities then? Almost certainly he would prefer a kindly veil to be drawn over them.
So today’s peace marches really are “déjà vu all over again.” All that remains of the first two campaigns is a fading outline of revolutionary posturing and a nasty smell of idealism gone sour. The irresistible advance of the peace marchers was resisted. And history sees them merely as the dupes of tyrants.
This year’s marchers, however, seem to me to have an additional motive, albeit an unconscious one, driving them into the streets. Additional, that is, to the anti-Americanism, anti-Israelism, anti-capitalism, etc. that other commentators have already (and rightly) perceived and analyzed. That is a nostalgic clinging to international anarchy.
If such a claim sounds counterintuitive, that is because the liberal foreign-policy establishment has been arguing that it is the Bush administration — with its alleged “unilateralism” and willingness to wage “preemptive” war — that most undermines world order and the prestige of international institutions. Yet how well have those institutions tackled either the particular problem of Saddam Hussein or the more general one of nuclear proliferation? Very badly.
It is the U.S. that, having failed to solve those problems within the approved U.N. structures, now proposes to enforce the international rules on violators through its own leadership and alliances. And that alarms not only the Saddams of the international system but other less obvious groups — notably, both those powers that benefit from international anarchy and those international bodies and NGOs that want to replace international anarchy but only with their own “governance.”
It is rather as if a stern headmaster with traditional views on discipline were to arrive at a disorderly school. He would be resisted by the school bullies, of course; but he would also be resented by many of the children who had got used to misbehaving occasionally and by those teachers with “progressive” views on how to keep order.
The U.S. has now entered the school in response to a bomb threat. It intends to enforce at least a modicum of discipline. And the rumblings from the playground are an infantile nostalgia for the Wild West world that is passing away.