by Professor John Effra of the University for Strategic Optimism. All comments here are fictions and for entertainment purposes only of course. This is a longish essay, so make sure you have a little time and a cup of tea before beginning.
250 000 people gathered in central London on the 26th March to protest against the UK Government’s Neoliberal cuts to education, social services and public sector pay. Largest protest since Iraq war 2003. I joined them, Lambeth North to all over the West End. A lovely afternoon. Pat on the back. Fine. Enough. We know this.
I felt the day was a failure, and here I want to clarify, and direct some alternatives and test out some ideas. I need to hear what others think.
I. MARCHING IS POINTLESS
is invariably the conclusion one makes before such events …and afterwards too, once the buzz and the anger of the police violence wears off. This is one reason why many people choose not to come (and to clarify, the people I refer generically to here are young people aged under 25, the majority of who do not have university education). Several people I’m very close to chose not to come to this event, and have avoided many of the last protests – except when something considered to be ‘real’ has happened – violence beyond testosterone-fuelled scuffles with the police. They know my way of thinking and I know theirs’. Again generally speaking there are four questions of doubt:
1. When had a protest like this made any difference in the past?
2. Why bother when the government don’t care and nothing will change? 3. What do you actually want out of this?
4. I’m already against it, but if I go up there’ll be too much violence and I’ll get stuck in a kettle.
The standard defence I offer is yes, but there is an important political point to peacefully march and demonstrate noisily your disagreement with some corporate or government action. Even if the government doesn’t care, you have to express your anger and disapproval, take a stand and let it be known. But this view has a certain amount of elasticity before it splits. Because protesting for the sake of it is fine, but if we rarely ever win, why are we here?
REAL ALE SHIT
We will be cynical for a moment. If you are not already biting your lips or picking your nails, please begin so now.
The major marches since Mayday 2001 (of which I refer principally to the Stop the War marches 2001-3, annual Maydays, anti-G20 2009, Anti-cuts demos since November….) have achieved little so far except the momentary excitement and satisfaction of their participants, a few broken windows, a scrap with the police that is always lost, being kettled for hours (=intimate knowledge of Westminster street architecture oh yes), with a little bit of vandalism, though perhaps no more than a boozy generic UK town-centre Friday night. Oh, and disrupted traffic. Sorry Tories. But each time we lose because we have no aim, no desire to win at any price, even when the future and the present are up against the wall.
Each march is so entirely restrained by the police that all elements of spontaneity and violence are co-opted and rendered facile or impossible, unless they can somehow lunge free for a moment and wreak a little damage. And this violence does not come from the Anarchists – who are largely the myth and fantasy of press hacks – but from defective youth, working-class and middle-class. And this violence is the protest. This is the actual point of confrontation, of making the world listen. Beneath press denouncements there is a common public anger at corrupt politicians, bank bailouts and bonuses, the declining standard of living and new youth debt feudalism, rising prices and the privatisation of the public commons, be it schools or the NHS. The public are unhappy and alienated but are too depressed to seek alternatives, and the government do not care – the elected leader of London’s government Boris Johnson sat and watched the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.
The peaceful march here was a complacent waste of time. Social change and political change will be violent, it has to be, if a democracy is going to be gained in this country. Equal rights, democratic representation, the NHS and the welfare state are not gifts we should be grateful for, but hard-won gains by generations of workers’ movements who pressured and threatened the state with revolt, and which we are entitled to and must defend. But kicking in the Next store is not in any world an effective form of anti-cuts or anti-capitalist protest. At least loot the place. A symbolic and real violence with more ambition than petty vandalism is necessary, and I illustrate this with a case in point. How many marches do you remember? I would bet it is those where broken glass occurred, where symbolic damage was wreaked against the order of things – Millbank, the riots in the City, Mayday 2001, the Battle of Trafalgar Square. But in terms of symbolic effect and popular memory, in the general conscience at least two separate protest marches are conflated into the ‘Millbank protest’, the 50 000 peaceful marchers forgotten and only the few hundred inside Millbank discussed. My only memories of protests is when actual protest has occurred, not an organised walk around the back-streets of the West End. Neoliberalism cannot possibly listen to a democratic multitude, so it has to be forced to listen. But what are we saying?
When do we stop losing?
AH MAN x 2 x 2 x 2 !
I feel sick for saying it but, considering the aims and ideas of the organisers (TUC, UkUncut, Resist26 etc) I see the event as a failure. Enjoyable, fun, but as a protest, a total failure. A missed opportunity. We took over the streets and did nothing. It was not politically recognised, there were no effective spontaneous or creative protests, nothing was occupied, no infectious symbolic violence was wreaked – by which I mean the sort that can be easily emulated in every city, as each town builds up to a refusal to work and a violent takeover of the streets. No. There was no collective desire to win, no collective desire at all.
The mass march format did not achieve anything except the illusion of democratic expression, which is never recognised. This isn’t the fault of the protesters, who strike me as well-meaning and tolerant democrats on the whole, but the state and corporations have huge armed police protection, powerful PR spinners and a submissive electorate who although generally against cuts, unnecessary oil wars etc., lack the confidence to expect any other change. The mass march is too safe, too easily restrained and ignored. If the protesters actually want change, the strategy has to shift, the stakes raised. Protest can be effective, but marches are not. Ah man. I wished they were.
Like bad music or comedy, from its failure we can gain a new perspective on what constitutes something good or effective. Big numbers are not important. Effective protest has to carefully strategised and organised. Everyone must know targets. Disrupting shops on Saturday afternoon does little, as Philip Green can confirm. Try headquarters and government departments? We need to be optimistic. The government is very unpopular, even if the Tories have done a fantastic sleight of hand in pushing through their agenda and diverting all the discontent onto Clegg and Cable. We are not so weak as we think.
250 000 who knew what they were against, but what were they protesting for? Ok – change the record. But a specific example: what if all the police left – what would happen? What did the protesters really want to happen?
Dance to music in the streets, burn a few fires, sink some beers, pass a spliff round then totter off home at night when it got too cold? I’m not being puritanical ( – well I am, but not in the way you’ll expect – please follow) – but this then is little more than a festival. The atmosphere was remarkably similar. At the festival site we are guaranteed fun – we smuggle in our own alcohol and drink it furtively, sit around, get high, go a little bit ker-azey! in that awful way, run around the shopping streets in a disorganised haze, trash the portaloos and middle-market consumer stores, maybe even get a little closer, crowd-surf or occupy a high-street bank – in short do what we want, in a very limited theme-park space, just so long as we don’t try to disrupt the acts. Security will allow deviant behaviour up to a certain point. Try to break into a shop and you will be hit with a baton. Fine. But what would we do if the police left?
Two thoughts on the above: the festival analogy works, but in itself for the entirely white middle-class make-up of the rebels in the streets. The festival analogy for them works. Secondly, the police did leave. The police presence in large was visible but light, up until the beatings and charges at Trafalgar Sq. This strategy was remarkably effective. Police confrontation energises and antagonises protest, it gives people a hostile focus. Clearly the police experience pleasure in meting out justice in these confrontations too. Yet the whole affair was reminiscent of that show Supernanny: the police/father did not engage with the child, who tore around aimlessly, driving for any kind of confrontation. The strategy worked yesterday too, at the the University for Strategic Optimism’s free free market market yesterday, by not intervening or trying to disperse the protesters, the lack of antagonism made things formless, dull. The police watched and were harassed by a bonkers tourist until after half an hour, satisfied we’d done all we could, we peacefully strolled away from BIS, no symbolic or actual damage inflicted.
We became like children, tearing around the festival-site of the West End in search of some action, some confrontation, some reaction from the father, some vulnerable point where we could easily strike a blow, hit a chord, but no – there was none. The tantrum quickly became exhausted, we marched around demoralised. Tens of thousands of demonstrators were in the West End, who had broken away from the march and were specifically looking for some active civil disobedience. The lack of obvious parental authority revealed the internal contradictions of the march and the lack of collective will. Here we have a model demonstration of a perfected parental authority, a collective self-kettling, Hyde Park corner as the naughty-step…. “we will not smack you but will refuse to acknowledge your desires, let you tear around your room crying and shouting until you give in to cynicism, boredom and excessive self-reproaches”.
CUP OF TEA PLEASE
Even 10 000 of the demonstrators, if coordinated, would have brought complete control of Trafalgar Square, or any of the government departments administering the freakish anatomical reassignment of the body politic. Is that what we want, direct action and popular takeovers of the state and its means of (re)production? Or just a nice afternoon out? Both alternatives are viable. I realise what I’m calling for is by and large unwanted, and many accept things reluctantly as they are – psychologically sensible, at least.
But the weaponry of the Winter 2010 marches has been effective – the fear of kettling is so great that everyone retreats and run backs. We convene in non-places instead of continuing to occupy, to stand up and fight. Turning Trafalgar Square into Tahrir revealed two of these contradictions: the Egyptians stayed and stayed and stayed and fought. Fair enough, it’s a warm country. But staying power is one thing. The other is mass popular support for uprising – we’ll come on to the problem of this in Inglan is a bitch. Read on.
Instead we ran around without direction, full of energy but running out of steam. Mostly standing around waiting for something to happen. For a protest against government cuts, the only real targets were kitsch, twee, camp, middle-market shops and a couple of banks. When you see the rebels trying to smash Dorothy Perkins or BHS or Boots you realise the process of alienation here. The occupation of Fortnum and Mason was great theatre but totally irrelevant to social and political change. The premise of UkUncut is at best a right-wing liberal one – you have a moral duty to pay taxes. But isn’t the taxation system itself the problem, or the wider class system itself? Does fairer taxation stop the erosion of working rights, full-time jobs, pensions, support services for the disabled and elderly – if so, clarify. Tax evasion is not the problem: if Philip and Tina Green were to give a one-off payback to UK Revenues and Customs, would UKUncut unravel?
Ok – enough. It was a nice day. Pat ourselves on the back, hip hip hurray. Maybe marching in its current form is ineffective and mostly self-satisfying, but it’s fun and it’s something….Let’s lay off it for now, and consider some wider issues.
II. INGLAN IS A BITCH
I don’t intend to make light of the trauma of domestic violence, and the comparison is way too crass. Yet from my perspective the British people have become like a battered wife of the state. Earnestly, perhaps a little out of desperation but hope too, political representatives are elected and they form a government. They tell us they love us, that they will listen, that they care, that they won’t go sleeping around with others, that only they can give us what we really want. Manifesto pledges are always broken. MPs embezzle funds. Without any kind of referendum, they go round beating up smaller Middle Eastern countries for oil, pawn our jewellery (even heirlooms) selling off the property of the British people, be it the NHS, post office, any state infrastructure. Wages are frozen, tax indirectly goes up for the poor but not high-earners or large businesses, education becomes privatised, the basic services that give care and support to the vulnerable and elderly are cut down so that we can have more bankers in jobs. How much does it take for us to say no? But the government loves us, these bruises are only there because it cares so much for us. Where else can we go? Against this state-driven neoliberal capitalism, what is the alternative? This is the battered wife syndrome. People by and large are against the government and rightly distrust politicians, but nothing can be done. Money makes the world go round.
All of this is true. Previous abusive relations are forgotten as through the years we yo-yo like amnesiacs between political parties. It is a relation founded on negation – people make their voting choices based on who they don’t want in power. Negativity is the whole problem. We know what we are against, but what are we for? Because change needs to be affirmative, optimistic. Dress up nice, critique state ideology, organise raves in DSS centres, draft up a new English constitution and dissolve the UK. We deserve better, but with the self-esteem shaken out of us, the drive for greater democracy becomes more and more academic.
But democracy has to be our rallying point, because we are not meaningfully represented either by deceitful political parties who immediately change policy in power; we are not meaningfully represented by the inadequate first-past-the-post electoral system; and we are not meaningfully represented by MPs who are bankrolled by complacent trade unions or worse by banks, property owners and financial institutions. We are not represented. We need to learn how to speak and articulate ourselves. Submission like this will not last forever, not if we want to change.
III. THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TWEETED
‘Friends’ are now electric – Gary Numan is eerily prescient on this matter. The Internet has become the key site of protest organisation and activism in the past ten years. The benefits are enormous, bla bla, and frankly too long-winded for us to go into. But it begets a new kind of internet activism that began with the online petition or forum and has extended into a deferred rebelliousness, deferred protest.
Instead of feet on the street or conversations with strangers talking about what is wrong with the government and society, and how we might collectively make real change – our time-deprived lives drive us into retweeting 140-character sloganeering (we have no time now to read more – reader when did I lose you? Did you scroll down to the bottom of the page, realise this was indeed ‘a bit long’ and instead return to look at some more catlols?). There are now virtual marches instead of real ones. Slacktivism, hacktivism. Clicking instead of unpicking, untangling. The examples of this new kind of activism working is often the anti-Mubarak democratic movement in Egypt, but beneath social networks was a major and popular mass occupation of a city-central square for weeks, overcoming violent confrontation and other hardships. It is a means to an end and not more.
FORGET YOUR BOOKS
The revolution will not be theorised either. I’ve been at a fair few radical events and conferences lately. Whilst interesting ideas have been bandied, many radical thinkers have had generally tenuous and unoriginal specific examples of effective revolt, or why revolts e.g. Millbank, French revolution succeeded. Theorising is great, is what I do, but it is like studying the rules of chess without ever playing. Communism or democracy should be a means to an end. If the end is no longer desired by the multitude, then we should reconsider the whole project. The recent arguments for Leninism or a return to a dictatorship of the people made by Jodi Dean, Peter Hallward and others are premised on an axiom that presumes Historical materialism is valid and that Communism is a dead cert as a means to change society a happy, fair and equal place, and rescue the environment. The arguments immediately fail to engage with wider concerns about the validity of Communism. Secondly, these arguments implicitly perceive the obstacles to a social revolution (e.g. popular disinterest) and propose that people will be made to want this. I think this is arrogant, as it assumes that the majority of people aren’t capable of making their own minds up, and that only overseeing academics can recognise the real truth of what should happen. Thirdly the Leninist-type model is intrinsically totalitarian, and each time it has been used – Russia, China, etc. – it has depended on a brutal and lethal suppression of dissenting voices, with tens of millions preventably dying in famines for ideological reasons – Holodomor in Ukraine, Great Leap Forward in China. Setting up a single mass party with a single newspaper which singularly decided the will of the singular People – and who is not part of the People?, because many are necessarily excluded – leading to another totalitarianism. Leninism and the French Revolution cost too many lives with no real radical change, just another change of totalitarian hands, albeit more modernised. Democracy is far more radical, but it must be practised and discussed – and theory has a value only to this extent. Theologies are dull and dogmatic. A means to an end.
And if the means isn’t succeeding, why carry on with these marches, university occupations or teach-ins that only other students go to, that tell everyone in a self-congratulatory vein what they already know, that totally fail to engage with the 17-year-olds whose future really had been stolen from them?
TUC: CALL A GENERAL STRIKE
…has been bandied around at protests for decades. But the nature of labour has changed so much that a strike is a luxury and is ineffective. The number of people who work full-time with contracts is decreasing – how do temporary workers, agency workers, freelance or self-employed workers strike? We are encouraged to be entrepreneurs of our own fate on the one hand whilst basic working rights are replaced with precarious lives and unpaid labour. And the unemployed, systemically underestimated by statistics, how do they strike? Only relatively well-paid professionals are in a position to strike without being sacked. The strike is archaic. The bureaucratic destruction of trade unionism by Thatcher, Blair and since in making unplanned strikes illegal or requiring ballot approval has confirmed this. Plus the great decline of numbers in the trade unions. Like the march, the strike was effective in the past but has less and less power now, so that if people withhold their labour companies and governments can simply hire new temp workers with less pay and rights. Organised strikes, like organised marches, are easily co-opted by police and bureaucrats. Everybody has to stop working, just as everybody has to not march in the West End but gather in organised groups and creatively and spontaneously take over local government departments.
IV. SLEIGHT OF HAND
Magic tricks aim to confront the spectator with the astonishment of seeing the impossible. With a single card trick, say where the magician reveals the player’s chosen card, the viewer would not (we hope) logically believe the magician has clairvoyant abilities, but the joyful surprise of the trick becomes the overwhelming feeling. The magician aims to impress his audience (perhaps because else he does not feel impressive), and to give them the sensation of having experienced something magical.
We will confront this castle of our own self-kettling with something magical, something it believes to be truly impossible. With their cameras and drones and CBT experts, the officials at the castle feel they have full view of the vassals. But using the mirrors of Archimedes and mind-bending cunning, we proles will keep our cards hidden. The financial system is a ruthless game of three-card Monte where our blinded sisters and brothers have squandered their savings and expectations. In the sleight of hand, the magician is all too aware that the card-picker is scrutinising each tiny movement and expression. This hawk-eyed vigilance plays into the magician’s hands, for the sleight occurs precisely when the magician relaxes and slides his hand, not when he lurches forwards with violent festivities, which simply serves to trick the viewer into expecting the trick will happen here.
You and I, we have an ethical responsibility to one another and to the earth’s current environment for giving us the conditions for life. We’ve run out of time, and have little time for this too. The environment is going to be irreversibly damaged if we continue to let the global capitalist financial system operate in a way that increases the greenhouse effect and wipes out our rare flora and fauna. The time for actions is long past us, but it’s not too late. The future itself is at stake. Visualise the obese and depressed kids of the future! Ah man! Things are in a bad way. Time for cunning, fellow magicians.
V. RIOT PORN
The Ritz hotel was covered in spattered paint and graffiti, a fantastic sight. People rushed together to take photos against the hotel, of broken windows. There was a great moment when, in the centre of Oxford Circus now occupied by hundreds of rebels, a tourist family caught up in the carnival wandered up and, against the backdrop of the Hessian trojan horse of the TUC armed wing, a young girl smiled as her dad took her photo.
Rioting is sexy, but the testosterone of giving the police/father a bloody nose obscures the real reason for protesting. This point relates more to the Winter 2010 riots, when the school and college boys charged around, faces covered, throwing bins at buses. In an old post on this blog there was written a report about the student riots then – but one incident back then was not mentioned, a humorous one in fact. A small group of east-London boys, one carrying a huge piece of pavement, were debating whether to chuck it into the plate-glass façade of the Boots on the Strand. After passionate pleas to do, the would-be revolutionaries dropped the rock and ran down to Parliament Square. Not quite the same when you buy your lunch and painkillers there perhaps. There was a dark comedy in it.
But rioting and police confrontation become ends in themselves, which means that when the police largely do not respond the protesters lose shape. Negating and not affirming. We are like Nietzsche’s people of ressentiment, lovers of shadows and dark corners, being against so much but affirming little except what? except perhaps the government is bad, some shops are bad, tax-avoidance is bad. Nihilism. The beatings and kettle at Trafalgar Sq at the end of the night let the dogs off the leash, a treat to bored cops to apparently save the publicly-derided Olympic clock. The riot becomes a false festival catharsis, no real goals, easily localised and defeated. It has to spread out with collective targets, appearing random but carefully plotted. The blue flag was a great tactic, even if a daft failure.
VI. STRATEGIC OPTIMISM
You’ve got this far, bravo. A summary: marches and strikes were effective in the past but against today’s neoliberal governments are easily restrained, ignored and dismissed. We enjoy these and get an egotistic rush from marching, but when considering the aims of protests (make a stand, stop the cuts, make taxation fairer, create a fairer society etc.) the march and strike have been failures. So something new is needed. Magic and cunning maybe – but affirmation, optimism. Protest is not dead. It has to be creative, carefully-strategised but breaking out spontaneously, apparently-randomly. Easy to copy. Above all, it has to want something.
I don’t think it does. The working-class (which whilst definitely not including 50k pa lecturers, does include anyone unemployed, underemployed, living in hardship or homeless, earning just enough to live, those in high personal debt to pay rent, low-level office-workers as well as key-workerssetc.c., bla bla) – the working class can only constitute themselves as a collective subject if a common will or desire is identified and, in fighting for it, gains are won. If we don’t identify what we want, and plan how we are going to achieve it – what has to be taken over, destroyed, enjoyed, bla bla – then we’ll keep marching like this, and my friends will say this is pointless and why bother, and I will agree whilst still going. But I am optimistic.
The University for Strategic Optimism has been one of the more serially under-looked parts of the student movement, if I do say so myself. It pioneered the strategy of occupying and lecturing in banks and shops which UKUncut later used. The first lecture at Lloyds TSB was perhaps our most immediate success I think – illegal, spontaneous, unexpected, very easy to carry out (and copy – come on people….) and above all fun. Everything after has gone well, but failed to grow in numbers. The UfSO have used performance in an original, creative and spontaneous way (which in fact involved somewhat careful planning), and this was effective at first but has since become trophies and atrophied as cute media spectacle. At galleries and community events people expected the UfSO to perform for them, rather than they performing as the UfSO. The love-film is beautiful and is often said to be people’s favourite UfSO action, but what was it for? Hence the contradiction. This was not entirely the UfSO’s fault but relates to this internet-based voyeurism of protest – and of course the mainstream is always too slow: we are writing the future because all of us are the future. And here’s the optimistic part.
1. Hey worker! Hey bored youth! Hey pensioners! Hey redundant! Hey disabled forced back into unrealistic work! Copy tactics like the UfSO. Break into banks, job centres and financial headquarters and hold your own lectures. Don’t watch, copy and disrupt. Ok, enough.
2. We are all the future. They can attempt to privatise education and the NHS but the government is weak and unpopular. They are using neoliberal shock doctrine to freakishly disfigure the body politic, putting a nose where a mouth once was and such, but surgery hasn’t started just yet. This government are just preparing the anaesthetic. Things may seem difficult now but in ten years time with a succession of compliant Thatcherite governments, depression, boredom, unemployment and sickness will be a lot higher if we do not reclaim the future. It is easy enough to do so if we only want it, and are willing to leave our self-kettles, identify ourselves as a collective group, and grab it. We have run out of time, and time itself is the stick used to beat us. Instead of marching and taking over the West End for a day, we need to identify what we want and take over for good. Enough talk and theory. Let’s play chess……