I love a good protest. I adore a march. I even think that there is a time to riot, and I strongly suspect that if Labour had been re-elected in May I’d have been ready to smash stuff up at some point during the Parliament over some particularly offensive foreign war/ mad authoritarian policy/ national bankruptcy. Yet the current batch of student protesters are an incredibly unattractive bunch.
I went along to the demonstration on the 9th of December, just to have a look. I thought I’d struck gold when I got a photo of Charlie Gilmore swinging from the Cenotaph that I could sell to the right-wing press, but, sadly, it was blurry. I saw them set fire to the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree in front of the genteel middle-aged women emerging from the St.-Martin-in-the-Fields carol service, who viewed it as an act of pure Jacobin savagery. But for all that obvious stuff, the endless pissing on statues of Winston Churchill, I don’t think that’s what really makes this ‘student movement’ so unappealing.
The problem is that this movement is an entirely conservative, indeed reactionary, protest. It’s nothing more than a yearning for the easier and more fruitful period before the crash.
They are not rioting for a better world, they are rioting for an easy world, where Britain was the centre of the worldwide financial boom, and the New Labour Government encouraged an unparalleled, and risky, expansion of the financial sector in order to cream off the tax revenue and splash it all (and a bit extra from the favourable borrowing rates) on social spending – including a massive expansion of University places.
Those halcyon days are over, and we’ve got a Government struggling in earnest with our new, grimmer world. It’s a natural reaction on behalf of the students to want a return to the easy life, to the status quo ante, but that makes it a reactionary protest against the realities of the world – not, as the protesters try to present themselves, a radical protest against the Government of the day.
Their meagre attempts to square this circle look a bit desperate, such as picketing Vodafone outlets over $6bn in ‘unpaid taxes’ that are, according to the Treasury, “an urban myth”. As Tim Worstall pointed out, given that all the variables are known – the amount of money involved, the tax laws in the UK, Germany and Luxembourg – it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of a bright accountancy student in an occupation to run the sums and find a definitive proof of what Vodafone owed, yet they have not. Treating tax avoidance as a magical wellspring from which the status quo ante can restore itself is a doomed hope, and a way of avoiding the difficult questions of policy.
This protest is a pretty low-risk affair, so they have developed a self-mythologisation of bravery (probably natural for middle-class kids being approached at a trot by police horses for the first time). They often compare themselves to 1968 (or, breathlessly, “far bigger than 1968”!). In 1968 worldwide student protesters were facing invasion by Soviet troops and tanks, Government-sponsored communist militias set up to brutalise ‘counter-revolutionary’ students, a genuinely fascist Government in Spain, and South American dictators willing to actually kill demonstrators. Even in the USA, police were instructed to shoot to kill arsonists and maim looters.
Protesting in these countries in the 60s was a brave thing to do. Protesting against Britain’s benign Government and benign police force actually isn’t all that brave or risky, in the scheme of things, and the self-aggrandisement makes them look silly.
Yet they also manage to combine this with pathetic levels of petulance and cowardice.
They are violent rioters at the end of the day. When the police didn’t control them, the first thing they did was smash up 30 Millbank and attempt to murder a policeman by throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof. On December 9th, unkettled protesters rushed to set fire to the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree and to brutally poke at Camilla with a stick. Earlier that day, I saw a group of protesters unkettled at the Victoria Street side of Westminster Square, immediately start shouting that they intended to smash up the Department for Education. They were led, at speed, by wheelchair-bound self-styled “revolutionary” Jody McIntyre. I followed this group of protesters and saw them trying unsuccessfully to kick down the back door of the DfE; afterwards, according to McIntyre’s blog, they tried to get back inside the kettle from Millbank.
Fine, fine, fine. As I said, I don’t have a particular moral problem with a little bit of rioting now and then, even if it involves poking at the Duchess of Cornwall. But they have to accept responsibility for it. It’s the police’s job to prevent damage to property, damage that a good proportion of the protesters had caused in the past and were demonstrably and visibly intent on causing. Instead, the reaction of the protesters was “OMG, I can’t believe the police won’t let us riot!” as if that should be any big surprise. The most amusing comment probably came from ‘mouth of a generation’ Laurie Penny, who twit: “I am shaken and disgusted by the police violence I saw today. Hands covered in paint and blood. Apparently they’ve occupued the Treasury”, as if she could see no connection between a mob invading the flipping Treasury building and what the police might do about that.
A real radical protest would accept the blows willingly. Instead, we have a protest of cosseted and spoiled middle-class kids who literally can’t believe they aren’t allowed their own way, even if it involves setting fire to stuff.
Next unattractive feature: the solipsism of the protest movement. A typical chant is “That’s not what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like!’” Or, as UCL Occupation hottie Aaron Peters put it, “tomorrow night will be our referendum on this government. It will be a referendum on our streets”. This isn’t what democracy looks like; this is what a mob with minority views looks like. Together, the Coalition Parties still command a majority of the country’s support, despite make a series of incredibly difficult decisions, and a series of damaging and avoidable faux pas, and suffering the consequence in opinion polls. At the last election, parties intending to raise tuition fees (ie, Labour and the Conservatives) got 65% of the votes. Yet the protest movement still presents, perhaps believes, itself as somehow the legitimate expression of the demos.
That is probably natural exuberance, and the result of the echo-chamber in the Occupations, their favoured media, and, importantly, on Twitter. It’s a commonly-recognised problem that twitterers can believe that their twitter-feed represents the views of society at large, when this couldn’t be further from the truth.
This leads to my final problem with protesters: their belief in their own technological exceptionalism.
In a sort of incoherent, but mercifully brief, article for the New Statesman, Laurie Penny wrote that Twitter has changed the face of dissent: “as social media come of age, the rules of resistance are undergoing a similar shift… Something huge is happening, and the word for that something is solidarity.” Describing this less incomprehensibly than the lamentable Penny, Aaron Peters describes a new model of dissent “that is de-centered and networked and possesses the ability to spread virally”.
A good article in the New Yorker- ‘Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted’ makes two good points in response to this.
Firstly, if there was any chance that the Tweeting protesters were actually a revolutionary threat, it would be a trivial task for the Government to shut down their means of communication. They are reliant on private websites and the infrastructure and technological devices of consumer capitalism. This would be ironic if you consider them, as they do themselves, as anti-capitalist revolutionaries; perfectly appropriate if you consider them correctly as privileged middle-class conservatives.
Secondly, high-speed networked protest isn’t even nearly new. The New Yorker article uses the example of how the 1960 sit-in by four negro college students at the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter quickly became a national movement. I’m sure it was just as true in Paris in 1789.
A high self-regard, lack of even a short historical perspective, and fetishisation of their consumer electronics has given these protesters an obnoxious idea of their own novelty. Their yearning for the easy economy of the status quo ante makes them not a radical new force in British politics, but a conservative backlash against new uncertainties. They are far less interesting than they consider themselves to be.