The G20 Summit: Beyond Broken Glass and Protest

The results of the G20 summit in Hamburg, which cost €130 million, have been, as expected, modest. According to official announcements the G20 meeting offered political decision-makers the possibility of “finding their tongues and entering into dialogue with each other.”

Submitted by Internationali… on August 24, 2017

“What presents itself to us as bourgeois legality is nothing but the violence of the ruling class, a violence raised to an obligatory norm from the outset.” (Rosa Luxemburg, “Yet a Third Time on the Belgian Experiment”, 1902)

1) The results of the G20 summit in Hamburg, which cost €130 million, have been, as expected, modest. According to official announcements the G20 meeting offered political decision-makers the possibility of “finding their tongues and entering into dialogue with each other.” 1 . In the end, it sufficed for nothing more than a few compromise formulæ valid for the briefest of times. In effect, the only agreement on the central questions (free trade, the climate, etc.) was to differ. That this was sold by bourgeois journalists as a “partial success” says more about the condition the World finds itself in. About a World which has now been in the grip of a deep economic crisis of 10 years’ standing, in which the contradictory interests of our rulers clash more and more irreconcilably and give rise to warlike conflicts and growing instability.

In the centre of these altercations stand the desperate efforts of the USA to protect its claim to the leadership of the West. The economic and political rise of China means that a powerful rival has emerged. Russia is working energetically to make good the defeats it suffered in the wake of the collapse of the state-capitalist block, and strives to renew its old stature. Germany is claiming a role as the leader of Europe, a project which, in the face of the EU’s deep contradictions, is only limping along. This became clear during and after the G20 summit through, amongst other things, the confident and independent actions of the new French president Macron. Angela Merkel’s attempt to use the stage of the G20 summit to bring Germany into the game as a calm and stabilising factor for order bore little fruit. The struggle of the rulers for resources, markets and zones of influence consummated itself in contradictions and changing alliances. But the slaughter in Syria, the Yemen or the Ukraine bears witness to the sharpness of these conflicts. They are the motor for gigantic arms races and increasing militarisation, and contain the danger of a generalised imperialist war.

2) Even in the run-up to the G20 meeting the state authorities made it unmistakeably clear that they would protect the summit from unpleasant protests at any price. An enormous army of 20 000 police was assembled. Additionally, special police commandos, and even army units, by the “request of the civil authorities” were present with arms ready, to intervene in “exceptional situations of catastrophic dimensions” 2 . The right to demonstrate was massively limited and a de facto state of emergency imposed on the entire quarter. This was accompanied by a massive media campaign, all sorts of attempts to intimidate, house searches and rigid border controls. A few days before the beginning of the summit, the Hamburg police again made it clear, by brutally evicting protest camps, that the hard “Hamburg line” would be implemented. A further step in escalation was represented by the action of the police against the “Welcome to Hell” demonstration, which was described by eye-witnesses in the following fashion:

“The police had no interest in calming things down. It couldn’t be shown more obviously than it was here. The ‘Black Bloc’, that fiction of the police and the participants themselves, was to be smashed. And this is what happened. At first they attacked from the front with police units and then with water cannon and tear gas, then the units which had been placed on the flank penetrated the bloc with unrestrained violence. They knocked the feet of individual participants out from under them and then laid into them. They obviously had no interest in arresting anyone, nor in allowing the members of the ‘Black Bloc’ to flee. On the contrary. When passers-by or demonstrators (they couldn’t always be told apart), wanted to help those trapped to climb the flood defence walls, so they could flee the unhealthy situation, these too were attacked, first with tear gas, then with water cannon. The intention, and it was achieved, was to thoroughly beat up the ‘Black Bloc’. In the end, when the police were masters of the situation, there were broken glasses, single shoes and items of clothing lying on the street. The only other place you see things like this is in pictures of wars and terrorist attacks.” 3 Even in parts of the bourgeois media the police action was described as “disproportionate”, and some attacks by the police on journalists were reported, the latter being massively hindered in going about their work. On the following day the police also acted with great brutality against the partially successful attempt at a blockade of the summit, which ended in the much-discussed riot in the Schanzenviertel [a traditionally “alternative” area of Hamburg].

3) The riots in the Schanzenviertel have now been mythologised and are being hotly debated. All that can be said at the moment is that the official story, as exaggerated by the media, that the rampages were just the work of a group of well-organised “autonomist riot-fomenters” is not very convincing and, in relation to the organisational and political coherence of the so-called “autonomists”, is simply risible. And it’s the same with the attempts to find meaning by the left-radical spectrum, which celebrated the events as a “small Hamburg uprising”, “Victory on the Streets” or an “oasis of freedom”. All this illustrates once more the intellectual failure of the so-called “autonomists” to even begin to distinguish between the simple breaking of glass and the expropriation and socialisation of the means of production and consumption through the action of the proletarianised. A failure that has lasted 30 years. True, the riots are underlain by a social content to a certain degree. Primarily, though, they are fed by (justified) anger towards the police, frustration and lack of a political perspective, which finally translate themselves into blind violence and actions which are irresponsible in every sense. It is highly doubtful that organised left-radical elements had any influence worth the name on the timing of the riots, or on what they did or the extent of them. 4 And even if they did!? The dynamic of capitalist thrill-seeking society has already long deprived the “autonomists” of the monopoly for unforced action. The riots may have been ignited by anger over the police, but they quickly took on the dynamic of a content-free event-riot, participated in by party-goers, unpolitical youth and, according to rumours which must be taken seriously, even Nazi hooligans. For a socially marginalised radical left, there is therefore not the slightest cause to dress itself up in borrowed feathers, or to distance itself from the material damage caused, in pre-emptive obedience to the state.

4) A picture of a complete loss of control persists in the public perception of the events, fuelled by the bourgeois press but also by police statements. This is the well-known cue for authoritarians of all stripes to happily demand that the full force of the legal state be applied. The police’s behaviour and idea of their mission in the Schanzenviertel is difficult to reconstruct. Through their statements, the police have tied themselves up in all kinds of contradictions. Many lies have come to light. Others will follow. In the meantime, the official version of a planned ambush from a house surrounded by scaffolding, which was dealt with by the intervention of a task-force carrying automatic weapons, has completely collapsed. Was the idea of the mission to escalate things in the sense of a police state? Overall, this question can’t be answered at our present state of knowledge. It remains clear that the intervention of police commandos complete with the threat of the use of guns represents a new stage in state repression.

5) Also of a new quality was the media’s cheerleading to drum up hard actions against “left extremists”, which is still ongoing. “It is a matter of violence and terror. A small group of rootless delinquents has terrorised parts of Hamburg and, into the bargain, tried to kill or at least severely wound police officers. In many cases, they succeeded in the latter. Despite this, their crimes are being covered up in left circles,” commentated the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung under a heading which is incitement in itself: “Red Hate-Preachers” 5 . According to the Federal Chancellery Minister Altmaier (CDU), “the extreme left terror in Hamburg was as vile as the terror of the extreme right or Islamists” 6 .Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also aligned himself with these delusions; according to him, the riots in the Schanzenviertel differed “not at all from the Neo-Nazis and their arson attacks” 7 .The SPD candidate for the Chancellorship, Martin Schulz, fantasised about “murderous arsonists” who “worked their way through the streets, pillaging as they went” 8 . While the Bild-Zeitung printed off mug-shots of alleged rioters and mobilised denunciation and lynch justice, Justice Minister Maas ruminated in an interview with the self-same Bild-Zeitung over a “rock against the Left”. An idea which was taken up with enthusiasm a few days later by 6000 Nazis in Themar in Thuringia. All in all, a propaganda offensive, which sometimes took on post-fact characteristics. “There was no police violence. That is an accusation that I decisively reject”, declared the Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz 9 ,which moved the Federal Chairman of the Police Union, Oliver Malchow, to say that, making the line of the current hate campaign unmistakably clear, “Whoever looks to find the blame for this development with the Police, puts themselves on the same level as the rioters and criminals and associates themselves with them” 10 . As expected, it didn’t take long for the leading politicians of the Left Party to serve up their loyal protestations of confidence in the state. “People who maraud through the streets, set fire to cars, attack residents and injure Police Officers are not left-wing, but violent criminals”, announced Sarah Wagenknecht 11 . The Berlin Cultural Senator and long-term head of the Berlin Linke, Klaus Lederer attempted to be a little more statesmanlike: “One must resolutely oppose the anarchists and despite this, demand the maintenance of basic rights” 12 . This kowtowing before the state’s monopoly on violence was only outdone by the Hamburg Linksjugend [Left Youth, youth wing of Die Linke], which recommended itself to the organs of repression in best Stalinist fashion as a willing helper of the People’s Police: “We wish our injured colleagues a quick and complete recovery and direct an explicit warning to all who resort to violence: everyone who is seen exercising violence against our Police Union colleagues will be identified by the Linksjugend [‘solid] [this stylised form is how the Linksjugend refer to themselves: solid = SOzialistisch, LInks, Democratisch] and denounced. We know where you sleep, and we are not afraid to lead our colleagues of the Hamburg Police Union to your tents and sleeping places!” 13

6) What can be concluded about the protest in the light of this authoritarian formation? Representatives of the reformist spectrum happily point to the fact that in the main demo on Saturday, 76 000 people demonstrated “peacefully”. Considering the massive repression and intimidation and the fact that in the run-up several NGO’s under the working title “G20 protest wave” had already pulled out of the mobilisation in order to offer themselves to our rulers as constructive advisors to their governments, one can mark this down as at least a partial success. Nevertheless, the number of participants was below expectations. Because of the riot pictures the Hamburg protests obtained an enormous media presence, but remained below the level of previous “summit protests”. Like other mobilisations critical of globalisation, the protests expressed the most varied motivations and concepts of the goal.

The spectrum stretches from conservationists, human rights activists and the battle-weary of all sorts political movements, through the state-fetishists of Social Democracy, Stalinist fossils and Trotskyist middle-class unions to the anti-semitic “Boycott, Disinvest, Sanction” [Israel] campaign.

That all these elements are sometimes able to enter into extremely unappetising coalitions highlights a further problem. A unifying factor for the protests was, for many, the idea that the caricature masks worn by those assembled in the Elbe Philharmonic Hall were the chief cause of the political and economic distortions of this world. That is a trapdoor for all sorts of democratic illusions, but a pretty bad point of departure for a thorough critique of capitalism’s normal functioning.

7) The attempts at a blockade, on the part of the section of the protesting spectrum with claims to be left and radical, as expected, failed to go beyond symbolic politics, and, particularly in the case of the attempted harbour shut-down by the boastful student fraternity “Ums Ganze” [“About It All”] showed the characteristics of classical representative politics 14 . Certainly, there were sometimes some good pictures and, of course, this or that blockade might have disturbed the smooth running of the summit. From the viewpoint of those animating the movement this may be a measure of success. From the point of view of the main strategic task of a genuine revolutionary left, the communication and strengthening of socialist positions in the class, these outcomes are, however, feeble. And here there is great dissent between us and this political spectrum.

In the conceptual world of the “autonomists” or “post-autonomists”, the roots of social contradictions do not lie in class conflict but, mostly in a very vague way, in the struggle between “enlightened subjects” and the “authoritarian state”. Without directly admitting it, they assume that the “mass” of wage-labouring “normal” is not capable of independent and responsible action, but, on the contrary, requires the leadership of intellectuals (which is what they regard themselves as being – and they flog this to death). From that comes the idea that the population can be aroused by “exemplary actions” and events staged for the media, and a “counter-culture” can be created, in which people’s real needs can be communicated to them. Our point of departure is diametrically opposed to this elitist and self-referential concept. We start from the reality of a class society and are of the opinion that the system’s life-blood is the exploitation of human labour power, the extraction of surplus value.

8) We see the fundamental task of social revolutionary politics neither in storming summits nor in marketing protests to the media, but in the expression of the political interests of the working class. Due to its position within the means of production and its ability to organise itself, the working class is in a position to see beyond and ultimately overcome capitalist society, which is a transitory, exploitative society.

However, in view of the dominance of bourgeois ideology, development in the consciousness of the working class is not a straightforward process. In capitalist class society, the working class is necessarily fragmented. In the face of different divisions within sectors, such as hierarchies in the workplace, racism and discrimination against women, consciousness and class struggle are necessarily at very different levels. The task of communists is to try to enter into a political dialogue in the everyday conflicts and struggles of other wage-earners in order to promote the development of class consciousness. In concrete terms, this means developing the crucial questions of the political debate, expressing the interests of the working class and attacking the domination of bourgeois ideology. The defence of revolutionary positions, of course, also presupposes the readiness to accept unpopularity as a result of making a clear denial of racist, sexist and nationalist views, which are widespread due to the domination of bourgeois ideology. The current weak attempts by the left to set up basis or workplace groups are usually limited to collective bargaining, resolution of legal and organisational problems, and ultimately to purely consultative work. As important and necessary as this may be, this “economistic approach” circumvents the real problem of finding ways and means to overcome the ideological confusions of the working class and to promote political clarification. The direct interests of the working class can only be articulated through a political programme. This requires an organisational framework on an international level, an internationalist communist organisation that is able to raise the class-consciousness of the working class and give it a communist perspective. We do not claim to be "the party" or the kernel of such an organisation. Nevertheless, we think we can deliver, on the basis of the Communist Left’s political and theoretical positions, a contribution to overcoming the isolation and fragmentation of internationalist forces. This is obviously only possible in a very long-term perspective. In the present conditions, all “mass politics”, no matter how it is structured, is not possible.

Our present task is to engage in a process of discussion with people open to a revolutionary viewpoint, and to anchor and consolidate in the class an organisational structure capable of resisting the pressures of everyday capitalism. This is completely detached from the “events” staged by the remnants of the Social Democratic left and of Stalinism, and can be summed up as “Welcome to Hell!”

For a society without classes and states!

GIS (July 2017)

Translation: CWO, August 2017

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  • 4 As an example, a description of the events which is to some extent realistic was given by a comment from the left petit-bourgeoisie. According to a statement by business people from the Hamburg Schanzenviertel: “Yes, we have seen first-hand how windows were smashed, parking meters uprooted, ATMs smashed, street signs broken off and the pavement ripped up. But we have also seen how, for many days after, water cannons have been used for every triviality, in a completely disproportionate fashion. How uniformed and helmeted have shoved people around without reason and even knocked people from bikes. All day. This should not be swept under the carpet when the events are being weighed up. At the high point of these conflicts, in the night between Friday and Saturday, a “Black Bloc” was supposed to be raging through our part of the city. We cannot confirm this from our own observations. Apart from when they were in direct confrontation with the police, the damage that the press complains about is only in small part traceable to these people. The by far greatest part was youth eager for experience, or voyeurs and party-goers, whom you are more likely to meet at a pop movie, a football game or a Bushido concert than on a left-radical demo. It was drunk young men that we saw on the scaffolding throwing bottles. Calling this a planned ambush, and a threat to the officers’ life and limb is for us incomprehensible. Predominantly, it was these people who, after the shop windows were smashed, entered the shops and tried to get away laden with stolen goods. They had got themselves very drunk in an act of sporting self-overestimation, and, with bare chests they threw bottles at the water cannons from a distance of 50m. The bottles rained down on other people while by-standers cheered them on with beer in hand and videoed the scene on their mobiles. It was more a mixture of anger at the police, people losing their inhibitions through alcohol, frustration at their own existence and the desire for a spectacle – because of all the groups of people there – that was making the running here”.
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  • 11 Gipfel-und-kritisiert-Merkel.html
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  • 14 In answer to our enquiries “Ums Ganze” unfortunately could not be supply us with the number of harbour workers they organised.