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Gary Younge
Trampling crops can be fun

To the three Brigham brothers, the farmers at the centre of the dispute, they were publicity-seeking vandals. To the Labour party they are at best an irritation. But they are more than just the provisional wing of the environmentalist movement. What took place in the field in Norfolk represents the changing nature, speed and direction of popular dissent in Britain.

Whether it is camping up a tree to prevent the bypass in Newbury or occupying a Hawk jet to highlight the government selling arms to Indonesia the days of petitioning or marching to influence the government are in decline. Replacing them is the hit-and-run protest of ambush, conflict and adventure. It is not difficult to understand why.

I remember hiding behind a skip in a back street in Glasgow in the early 90s waiting for man I had never met before to wave his arm. It was the signal for 20 of us to go running down a small hill, through an open fire exit and into what was to be the Student Loans Building. Along with around 60 others we occupied the building to protest the government's plans to introduce loans; they turned up the heating; we left after an hour. That night we claimed victory because we were on the evening news; a year later they introduced the loans.

For a generation of would-be idealists who came of political age during the Thatcher years, this was about as good as it got; trying to make as much fun as you possibly could in the knowledge that you were going to make very little difference in the process. Demonstrations were useless because the Conservative government had proved they didn't listen. The alternative was waiting for Labour to win an election; but in order to win they felt they had to distance themselves from protest. All that was left was what we called "direct action". At the time, it represented little more than a desire to make some noise in the sincere belief that anything was better than nothing. Today, as Greenpeace showed on Monday, it is proving far more effective.

As a form of protest this is not new. Sit-in protesters used to challenge segregation in the American south; it worked well for students 1968 when they went into college occupations. What is different is that these demonstrations used to run in par allel with more established alternatives. When the committee of 100 fell out with the peace movement during the 1960's over direct action peaceniks could at least choose from two alternatives.

Today direct action seems to be the only form of popular protest there is. Thanks to the internet direct action is also faster in response, broader in scope and more difficult to contain than ever before.

Nor is it hard to see why they are popular. Compared with carrying a placard through a town and chanting slogans, direct action is good fun and demands some response - even if it is a repressive one. Moreover, those who take part also have the unmistakable feeling that they are "doing something". If you want to get rid of GM foods, destroying them with your bare hands must be more satisfying than writing a letter to your MP that will be politely ignored or waiting months for a report to be published.

This presents a challenge for the traditional left - the unions and pressure groups which were the champions of dissent in the 70s and maintain the potential to make a difference today. The foot soldiers of these fast-break protests are not organised in the workplace, and do not table amendments to motions at annual conferences. But they do know the meaning of debate - you can't organise a raid on field without some consensus - and they are skilled in building coalitions - you don't get thousands of people together in the City of London without knowing how to network. They chose their issues, find their targets and strike when they are sure they will make the most impact. It's the kind of vanguardism Mao Zedong would have been proud of.

But their strength is also their weakness. Just because it feels more effective to destroy GM foods than to challenge their production in conventional ways doesn't mean it is more effective. There has to be a strong moral case for bypassing established democratic structures where they exist and some consideration given to the consequences of doing so. Otherwise, the Active Resource network would do well to learn a new maxim. "Results are what counts... Action for its own sake is posing."

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