Friday, December 10, 2010

How the coalition brought the rage back in 2010

Something almost innocuous, at the end of 2009, has helped herald a historic moodswing. Buoyed by a Facebook campaign, music buyers threw out the bland Cowell puppet to make Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of’ the crimbo number one. We’d had this type of direct action before (and are getting it again with Cage Against the Machine) and it was hard to discern whether this rose above the level of gimmick. But the event was worthy because it showed the type of content that voters were swapping mediated passivity for – angry, agit-prop, music alive with discontent and possibility. This had to be worth savouring.

This was in the last few months of the New Labour era which we knew that, even with support for the Conservatives wavering as more of their dark policies were unveiled, was on its way out. Brown was never going to win a plebiscite but his hold on the party was strong enough that no-one else was going to be allowed to have a try. In early May after a week or so of pictures of men with dossiers going in and out of offices, the Con-Dem coalition took the kool-aid in the Downing Street garden. The outlook brightened for them as Camers and Clegg shared in-jokes as their collective hallucination kicked in but it was going to get bleaker for the rest of us.

Months of media preparation led to 20 October’s Comprehensive Spending Review, as Osborne gleefully set the scene for a dismantling of the state’s role. As the frontbench slapped the back of the chancellor for his performance, we would keep hearing that Labour’s legacy had left them with no option, so they could argue it was wholly necessary more than it was ‘ideologically’ driven. Working on the coverage of it that night, I felt increasingly sick at the unending stream of stories on swingeing cuts for each sector (my publication called it an ‘austerity gamble’). There were demos then, outside Downing Street and elsewhere. And it's the anger at planned changes to higher education that has catalysed a much broader uprising that accordingly will not be quelled with Cable’s last minute fixes. The anger targets specific policies but runs on a generalised pent-up rage.

Lord Browne’s review of university financing was published on 12 October and was brilliantly dismantled by Stefan Collini in the LRB for its focus on the survival of the fittest (of students, teachers and the institutions). The first day of protest against the raising of tuition fees and other elements of the bill came on November 10. I was at the rear of 50,000 or so who marched down Whitehall, got kettled for a while, broke out into Parliament Square and a rump made it to Tory HQ (we got to the junction of Lambeth Bridge as people were being told not to go down Millbank), where a staggeringly inept police presence lost control of the situation allowing a minority to storm the building. Twatty extinguisher-throwers aside, it was an iconic takeover. With the full extent of LibDem acquiescence into these market-overfriendly proposals slowly being revealed, there was now impetus for more demonstrations. And with Aaron Porter’s condemnation of the Millbank events, it was not going to be led by the NUS. Events were overtaking those who wanted only a little change, who still saw a future for themselves in the current privileged set-up.

On 24 November, the first branded ‘Day X’ demonstrated students’ rising anger, and not just from undergraduates. Of course the media just focused on a police van suspiciously left to be trashed in the middle of a Whitehall kettle (just one of the full range of highly questionable police tactics). Less than a week later, on 30 November, Day X2 was a strange but inspirational day of fast paced perambulation round the city and similar marches round a host of university cities – the snow was no deterrent for the protesters. All the while, universities and even colleges were going into occupation, and ‘pay your tax’ flashmobs against the likes of leading corporate non-doms Vodafone and Top Man were growing in frequency. Localised events, such as the big demo at Lewisham Town Hall in Catford as Bullock and co waved through a big programme of cuts (sparing the libraries only to announce their possible sell-offs), had also become a common feature.

Which brings us to yesterday’s Day X3. I won’t patronise protesters as I wasn’t there, having to make do with following them keenly online and retweeting useful bits of info, but it’s clear this movement’s palpable energy, anger and desire for more action can and will take these protests much further. This has already gone way beyond its ‘squeezed middle’ core of politicised students/academics/public and private sector ‘lefties’ who vent not only ideological opposition but fear for their own future as well as those with even much less chance of considering university as an option.

Much of this is to do with the decentralisation of the movement, both in its dissemination of support online and in its physical presence on the march. There is no ‘head of the snake’ to stamp on to bring it under control, as the police are finding. Online, you would be a long time trawling through Twitter search results for either #demo2010 or #dayx3 but it would give a sense of just how bottom-up these protests have become. Some argue that this lack of leadership does the movement a disservice but I can’t see it. Tailor your search, find trusted allies, check the veracity of your feed.

Off the internet, official rallies and routes are left behind as people try to avoid kettling/direct police brutality or get closer to the core of protest. And there is an uneasy and unclear symbiosis between the ‘ugly violence’ and the ‘legitimate’ protests. There was no real reason why the northern phalanx was trying to head up Victoria Street but that doesn’t mean that pushing against police or indeed the smashing of the Treasury make for an ineffective demonstration of support (it’s also interesting how in the liminal space between the legitimate protests and the clashes that music in the form of the mobile soundsystems has taken on an important role in keeping the spirits of the crowd going).

‘The reports of yesterday in the press don't seem particularly representative of what was experienced...’
But there’s an even more uneasy relationship with the media, who show no such impartiality and have their cameras relentlessly skewed on that ‘violence’, a term increasingly used for virtually anything of a vaguely physical nature. Then their Christmas came early when Chas ’n Cam’s royal car got attacked as people dispersed from Plmt Sq to Trafalgar and the West End leaving police with little grasp of the situation (and if we’re adding to the list of demands then a republic should be high up there). As K-Punk tweeted, any differentiation of mainstream coverage is long-gone, BBC News 24 looks exactly like Sky News, minus the Burley.

It’s true the spectacle broadcast on internet and news channels will draw in some with different motives (the BBC yesterday reeled off anarchist groups leading the extremities but one claimed far more localised concerns), while people complain that some of the youngers are just hoodrats out for the ‘dubstep’ and the ultraviolence. But on balance I’d back this politicisation of youth any day. With the reforms hitting kids at FE level and elsewhere, this is more survivalist mode than petty vandalism. The rage manifest in these demos has brushed away the incipient tide of passivity that featured in British protest right up to last year’s G20 demos. (Just imagine if even a small proportion of the Iraq demo had pushed against the police like they are doing now, as it was our 1.5m looked like fatalistic acceptance of Blair’s impending war crimes.)

The media are not solely responsible for representation. Consistent from the coalition is their argument that the protesters ‘don’t understand’ the reforms. In considering this continued misrepresentation of students’ argument there is a clear need to go beyond debate, to demonstration. Gove shoving LibDem Lambs into the slaughter, politicians talking among themselves, what has this to do with accountability, with their status as representatives of the people? Yet the unrest was never going to change the tuition fees vote – a couple of LibDems abstained or nayed and resigned from their ministerial posts, but a majority of 20 on a key piece of legislation is wafer-thin, and prey to further attack.

Focus should now be on its repeal. Direct demonstration on that issue should continue to be complemented by protests in other areas. Camers, Clagg, Cables and co will try to ignore the seriousness of the demonstrations, but a further broadening out of the protests to pull in the wider workforce and they will find it hard not to. Momentum and co-ordination ahead of the TUC’s planned March need to be maintained, and a general strike given serious consideration. The public generally accepted that some rebalancing of the economy was necessary but they did not accept the scale of its planned implementation nor can they stomach the glee with which these Tory grandees are delivering it. We are reeling even before most of their policies have taken hold.

With paralysis the coalition will learn the true value of their economic programme. Deleterious in its direct effect and catastrophic in its wider repercussions. In ’68 and beyond, education in places like the Sorbonne and Berkeley was the site of protest, but it wasn’t the direct cause (I do not accept the leveraging of my children-as-assets by the age of 22 as an inevitable reality). Now it is driving the protest movement along, at the forefront but just one issue among many. What these last few months have shown is that this movement is more than capable of rupturing that programme. All that time spent in the i-hole, building networks, sharing analysis of the neoliberal crisis and possible solutions, now seems time well spent.

Four reads:
Sunny Hundal: Can the new movement be sustained?
Siobhan’s “Kettles and a lot of confusion"
Paul Mason: ‘Politically, there is an almost total disconnect with the established parties’
History is Made at Night: Panic on the Streets of London (photo-report)
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