Spirit of the Wombles

I was cruising towards an early deadline for my G2 cover story about Paul Robinson when the first plane hit the twin towers. Robinson was a British librarian I'd interviewed in Gothenburg prison, where he was serving a year's sentence for his allegedly violent part in the anti-capitalist protests that accompanied the G8 summit there in June 2001. Then the second plane hit and it was clear he wasn't the cover story any more.

Robinson was one of the tens of thousands of people involved in the messy, multi-cause, anti-globalisation movement that came to international attention at the end of the 90s. It's hard to recall now - when our most recent memory of mass protest is a march against a war that achieved nothing - the energy, creativity and sense of possibility of those times. September 11 provided governments on both sides of the Atlantic with an inalienable excuse to limit dissent. Tolerance for direct action, had it ever existed, was scaled back to nought. So whatever happened to the anti-globalisation movement? What became of the summit-hoppers, the Wombles and the chicks in fairy wings who appeared every May Day?

This week marks the 10th anniversary of similar G8 protests in Birmingham, which sum up the nature - and the fracture - of this country's direct action movement across a decade. On one hand, there was Jubilee 2000, the developing world debt campaign that brought out the best of middle England, most of whom had never protested before, to link hands around the delegates' conference centre. On the other, Reclaim the Streets, the anti-car organisation, launched its first Global Street Party in the city, shutting down roads to all but pedestrians and cyclists, an action that was replicated around the world. Regardless of the dissonances between these groups - and there were many - they did share a common aim: social mobilisation.

And that resonated. There was a point, around 1998, once everyone had given up on scented candles and before we'd begun angsting about Muslims, when the dialogue was all about those scary anarchists in white uniforms who were close to upturning the state. Protest was significant again - at the G8 summits in Seattle, Prague and Genoa, at J18 and successive May Days in this country. For all the violence around those events - mostly, I'd argue as someone who witnessed those in London, facilitated by the way they were policed - what was special about them was the way that they brought a sense of play to the argument. They were also the first actions to be organised via this strange new invention called the internet.

Even if 9/11 hadn't happened, it's doubtful whether the anti-globalisation movement could have been sustained. Its membership was too disparate, its aims too vague. It lacked structure, coherence and ideology. The tactic of summit mobilisation ran its course, as the confrontations became increasingly militarised. Likewise, in Britain, large-scale London May Day rallies became increasingly untenable when over-zealous containment rendered them little more than a lengthy stand-in round Oxford Circus with nowhere to pee.

Diversity, the movement's greatest strength, was also its greatest weakness, meaning that no consensus was ever reached on what an alternative to global capitalism might look like. And it ultimately allowed Bono and Bob Geldof, two good-willed but wrongheaded musicians, to turn developing world debt into a philanthropic cause, rather than a political one, and hold a pop concert, rather than a protest, over Gleneagles.

The assault on Afghanistan and then Iraq shifted focus and energy to a more pressing and, significantly, less complex cause. The disillusionment that followed the failure of those marches dampened the appetite for mass protest in many. But it also radicalised a fresh generation, who walked out of their classrooms and walked into Climate Camp. Those of us who are - ahem - older have found more localised ways to conduct their activism, whether that's by living sustainably, volunteering or, if you're close to Brighton, taking on EDO, a nearby arms manufacturer.

All protest movements have a limited lifespan - the novelty wears off and the energy fades. What's important is whether the commitment lasts. The anti-globalisation movement didn't die - ironically, it went mainstream. What was once marginal is now everyday, with Marks & Sparks and the Daily Mail campaigning about plastic bags.

Arguably it's only because of the movement that plastic bags are being discussed at all. The green momentum of groups like Reclaim the Streets was obscurist back then but is central now.

Nostalgia warning: one of my fondest memories from my early 20s is dancing in Trafalgar Square for no more impressive reason than that I was pissed off, along with most of my friends, that we couldn't play loud music in a field after hours. The RTS demo against the Tories' criminal justice bill lasted all that sunny day. What we learned about the Liverpool dock strike, about business, about the environment, lasted longer. And that's why the anti-globalisation movement - for all that it has changed - still has traction today.

Libby Brooks