THE ART OF POLITICAL FUTILITY

Last night my Twitter feed filled, briefly, with closely cropped images of protestors in V for Vendetta/Guy Fawkes masks making some noise outside the Houses of Parliament and comments criticising the BBC for not covering what was, obviously, an epoch-making event 1. I made some snarky comment about the size of the demonstration and its meaning in the greater scheme of things and got told by one enthusiastic responder:

Now, I was going to respond with some clever tweets that culminated in the hashtag #WideAwakeButAllICanSmellIsBullshit – but I’ve decided, instead, to take the high road, and write something about why I think the Anonymous/Occupy “revolution” as it has unfolded is betraying the needs of a generation who feel justifiably angry at the way they’ve been hammered by austerity and burdened by the mistakes of their elders.

So, let’s be clear: Last night’s demonstration wasn’t covered extensively by the BBC and most other media because it didn’t matter.

Seven hundred people – at a generous estimate – turned up outside the UK Houses of Parliament. It isn’t entirely clear what they were demonstrating about – the general feeling is that they were “anti-austerity” but, beyond that, there was no evidence that anyone there knew precisely what they were doing. Some proportion seemed to belong to the Russell Brand fanclub. It hardly matters – seven hundred people is a pretty hopeless turn out for a demonstration. Less than the English Defence League can manage in Bradford, there were fewer than half the number of people dressed in Guy Fawkes masks in London last night than turned up to burn him in Lewes. More people turn up at my daughter’s primary school fete on a wet Saturday afternoon than protested outside the Houses of Parliament.

This wasn’t the 99%. This was the 0.00001%

That’s depressing.

Occupy began by claiming it wanted to be a mass movement. The slogan “We are the 99%” was always manifestly nonsense, but it did reflect a sense that those involved in that struggle wanted to represent something more than the few thousands camping in parks and city spaces around the world – to build something larger. That pretence, however, quickly passed and too many of the various offshoots of that initial movement have only been interested in talking to themselves 2. So we’ve ended up with situations like last night where a few hundred people make themselves feel better by dressing up identically and shouting vague slogans at people who aren’t listening.

Now I understand the appeal of such demos. As a younger man with working knees I had great times shouting at people (and I was pretty good at it) and, every now and then, engaging in boisterous activities that were frowned upon by Her Majesty’s police forces. It feels great to be in a crowd like that. It’s the same feeling you get at a rock concert or football match – the sense of being part of something bigger is thrilling.

But demonstrations don’t mean much without a recognition that they have to ultimately engage in politics 3. Politics isn’t just about parliamentary parties and voting for leaders (though I’d argue that, even when imperfect, this is still an important part of the process), it is the mechanism in which citizens listen to and engage with those who hold different points of view and find ways of constructing structures which satisfy the largest number or, more likely, which are vociferously opposed by the smallest number. It takes place in a wide variety of times and places and it is essential to the organisation of any society more complex than the simplest family/tribal grouping.

Politics is an act that occurs between consenting adults. It often requires complex negotiation just to get to the starting point. The actual process requires a degree of give and take by those involved and not everyone always gets what they want, which makes it frequently frustrating. Sometimes things go terribly wrong and it is deeply disappointing and, at its worst, it can leave people feeling violated. It is almost always messy. But it can also be amazing and it can create offspring that do great things and that become the source of long-lasting pride.

The protest movements, in pursuing their strategy of inchoate bluster, are not engaging in politics, they are engaging in public masturbation.

Now there are a lot of advantages to masturbation. It feels good. You can do it whenever you want without having to persuade others to join in. You get to close your eyes and work through your personal fantasies without any interference. And you don’t have to worry about making anyone else happy.

But, in the end, political masturbation isn’t going to create anything.

What we have are a series of protests that offer those taking part what feel like moments of catharsis but which spill the seed of an angry generation on barren soil. Eschewing focus and organisation in favour of determinedly utopian structures that refuse to offer even partially programmatic responses to their powerful analysis of the problems facing our society, these movements have proven themselves incapable of recognising and negotiating with those whose opinions differ from or conflict with their approaches. They have become isolated and increasingly irrelevant.

They have fallen into the trap of the perpetual demonstrator – enjoying the sense of rightness that comes from never actually meeting or engaging with views that differ from your own and assuming that any action you and your friends take – no matter how trivial on the larger scale – is of earth-shaking importance. Thus the failure of the “mainstream media” to offer wall-to-wall coverage is blamed on a conspiracy of silence and the lack of broad public support becomes a badge of pride – demonstrating superior insight and conferring a sense of specialness on the select few. As such groups shrink it becomes harder for those inside to imagine anyone having honest disagreements with them, harder to see beyond the edge of the ever smaller group, more difficult to hear anything but the chanting that no one else is listening to.

It’s still feels good to be on the inside, but it’s achieving nothing.

The great pity is that we desperately need an engaged and radical political movement to act as a counterweight to the prevailing consensus – one that doesn’t treat a comic book movie 4 as a manifesto and that has broader aims than making its members feel smug about their ideological purity on occasional group days out to shout at bored policemen.

Notes:

  1. Of course the BBC did cover the demonstration – but this was considered insufficient
  2. There are notable exceptions – campaigns like UKUncut, that have tried to use direct action to communicate issues to the wider public
  3. A hard truth that emerged even in the most dramatically “successful” of the recent wave of protests such as in Egypt
  4. Especially one that completely misunderstood the comic book.
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