Thursday, 31 March 2011

Where Now for the UK Anti-Cuts Movement?

OK, so a lot to unpack from Saturday's TUC march/rally in London. Much of the subsequent online discussion, it seems, has centred, not on the rally itself, but on the aftermath, with the arrests of 145 UK Uncut members who'd staged a peaceful occupation of Fortnum and Mason. This seems to mark the moment at which 'softer' activists (i.e. those who are not experienced black bloc members, well-versed in outwitting the cops) encounter the true hypocrisy and opportunism of the police, their willingness to: (a) exploit a situation for maximum threatening effect (don't do this again, don't dare challenge things or disturb the political/social order, don't dare to cause even the slightest hint of 'disruption' beyond the usual managed routes - don't do these things, because if you do, we'll arrest you again, you'll have a criminal record for life which may mitigate against job opportunities, and we might rough you up a bit as well); and (b) to do this while maintaining the media advantage, which ignores the march itself to focus on the 'disgusting' activities of a 'violent minority'. Sample headline on Sky's Rolling News service: '500 anarchists are heading towards Oxford Street'. Sitting in a pub on that very street, we looked out of the window and wondered how anyone could possibly believe such nonsense. But then again, we had actually been on Oxford Street and on the main rally for the previous few hours, so it appeared obvious to us that we were just watching a desperate attempt to stitch together a false narrative from a few innocuous images (protestors in the streets; journalists running at a small line of cops with riots shields, make one of the cops flinch their shield slightly; a couple of hooded people smashing a window and an ATM). As the same footage was looped for the next five minutes, however, the hypnotic and suggestive effect of the false narrative became apparent; and anyone coming at this coverage ‘cold’ (i.e. with no knowledge of what had actually happened on the day apart from what Sky News was telling them) might plausibly buy into the story. And even though this was a particularly hysterical variation on the ‘peaceful march hijacked by violent minority’ line, one also saw such a stance coming through in the pages of ‘liberal’ papers like The Guardian; Millbank might have been fun, something of a journalistic coup for those close enough to capture it, and something which might prove to have symbolic capital later on (perhaps plastered over some gallery showing of ‘subversive’ or ‘rebellious’ images of protest, neutered and neutralised like a Che Guevara T-shirt) – but this, well, this is just a bit awkward. We like to go shopping on the high street on our weekends; so are you implying that we’re in with the bad guys? Tory HQ is one thing (it’s clear who the enemy is then), but BHS is a whole different matter…Considering complicity in this way is not something of which centre-leftists seem capable – thus the need to disguise any real debate about the use of direct action or disruptive tactics with a blanket dismissal of ‘violence’.

Of course, such coverage begs the question, since when is paint-balling a few buildings and attempting (rather unsuccessfully) to smash a few ATMs 'violent'? (And since when is such ‘violence’ considered more newsworthy than policemen wielding batons and dragging protestors to the ground? If half as much column space had been devoted to Alfie Meadows and Jody McIntyre as has been taken up by supposed leftists’ blanket condemnations of anarchists, then the police might actually start to worry about being held accountable for their actions.) This whole argument about destruction of property was one I discussed in my blogposts on last year's education protests, and I stand by my view that: (a) Far more 'violent' than breaking a few windows is the espousal of the exploitation and immiseration of all those not fortunate enough to have been born into wealth, or to be part of the capitalist buddies club; and just as violent, by implication, is to simply accept this as 'the way things have to be' (let's all tighten our belts (well, some of us will tighten our belts, some will just talk about it from our comfy seats of power), the market must be placated because it threw a little tantrum and caused some bother). (b) Sometimes, the 'legitimate', 'peaceful' means of protest are not enough; sometimes, you have to hit them (those in power) where it hurts, just as they hit those in whose interests they are supposed to govern (but manifestly regard as a doltish mass of benefit cheats, scroungers, immigrants and hooligan leftist who might even let them get away with absurd economic and social policy). They are clearly rattled by public expression of dissatisfaction, clearly rattled by the destruction of property - a visible, concrete, physical sign, an ACT that cannot be misinterpreted or 'spun' to mean something other than what it is; a manifest truth. As Rob Ray writes on, a protest that simply stays within the white lines scares nobody:

“Tory MPs are not stupid sheep to be panicked or genuinely outraged by ITN throwing a "breaking news" strapline on the TV screen; they'll take note of the size of the march, its overall level of militancy and what it has to say (which is apparently "oh pwease don't be nasty, pweeeease" even though this approach manifestly didn't work in 2003 using three times the number of people against a supposedly more liberal Labour government which wasn't being directly pressured by the markets). In reality, if this is just a nice, pleasant walk-around, said MPs will almost certainly heave a huge sigh of relief and put those notes in the bin.”

I take Dan Hind's point that smashing things up can play directly into the hands of the cops: as he points out, undercover police instigators love encouraging this sort of behaviour, as it provides perfect material for the ‘violent minority’ media coverage.

“I support direct action. I was at the UK Uncut occupations in December, for example. But I am wary of photogenic attacks on shop windows precisely because they distract attention from what is a serious - potentially fatal - challenge to the Coalition.

In general I am very reluctant to adopt tactics that are actively encouraged by police agents. Peaceful civil disobedience and rational argument hold out our best hope of stopping the cuts and securing a wider transformation of the country.

The state wants to encourage violence because it can win a fight.

It cannot win the argument.

So, let's have an argument.”

Given this, one might feel that one is stuck between a rock and a hard place: a mass, peaceful demonstration of public opinion can be politely noted and then completely ignored (as per Iraq), while simply ‘smashing things up’ plays into the hands of those who wish to bring repressive tactics to bear on protestors, thus threatening peaceful protestors as well as those who want to take things further. I’m not convinced, though by Hind’s “[the state] cannot win the argument”; I’m not convinced that the current government wants to have an argument in the first place, or that they would be willing to have one in the second; and neither I am convinced that they give a flying fuck what anyone on the left of the political spectrum believes should be done in response to the financial crisis, or, indeed, about any ‘movement of the people’.

What am I advocating, then? Despite the impressive turn-out on Saturday, I remain sceptical about the TUC’s ability and willingness to organise a genuine resistance movement; it still seems to me that they will end up compromising with the Labour party leadership (as per Ed Milliband’s insipid headlining speech at the rally), hoping that the ConDems will shoot themselves in the foot and that we’ll be back to New Labour for the next election (which will suddenly seem like rather a good option after several years of Tory rule, much as we despised Labour’s right-ward turn under Blair and Brown). To which it could be said: but what do you really expect? Stop being so idealistic (unrealistic) and put your efforts behind something that can actually work, that can actually have some effect. Well, perhaps some people are fed up of the pressure to be all peaceful and unthreatening and 'reasonable', when something more angry and maybe, yes, 'violent', would be much more convincing. I don’t just mean paint-balling high-street shops and smashing ATMs, but strikes, sit-ins, occupations, street theatre, squats, ‘actions’; all these are visible, public measures which do not have to be governed or organised by a centralised, nationwide leadership. Given the extremity of the government's right-wing measures, calling for something as 'extreme' as a general strike or civil unrest is not unreasonable, and one feels it’s only because we’re in England (where the tradition of resistance and protest is either ‘underground’, glossed over in the official histories (the Luddites, Ranters, Diggers, Chartists, poets, artists), or becomes neutered by mainstream acceptance (punk’s (semi-)recuperation by the culture industry)) that something like a general strike seems so extreme, seems beyond the pale.

In the end, perhaps that’s the problem: we are too scared, too often; we are too timid, too afraid, when, perhaps, encouraging/ forcing the powers that be to play their hand, to step up repressive measures, might allow us (we, the opposition), to start winning the media battle, to make things go so far that even woolly liberals start braying in unmediated anger. Or perhaps we should stop focussing on media coverage so much and focus on scaring the shit out of the government through a movement full of spontaneous, unpredictable action as well as mass, organised protests such as Saturday’s; for while big rallies in London are all very well, London is not the only place in England – the cuts will be felt across the country, and mobilising support, moulding a network of interconnected pockets of resistance, seems like a more attractive option than simply relying on centralised union bureaucracy. The student protests were (I use the past tense, though I’m not suggesting the movement has died away; instead, it may align itself with the general anti-cuts outrage that will surely become more and more prevalent in the coming months) a loose coalition between students and supportive academics; when the NUS failed to take the lead they should have, despite organising the first big march, a much looser group of occupations and protests filled the gap left by an insufficient/non-existent centralised leadership. Millbank didn’t happen because Aaron Porter directed us toward it like a lollipop man; it happened because a general feeling seized a small and spontaneous crowd, and it suddenly seemed possible to take action rather than simply standing politely and watching some well-meaning anti-cuts videos. With general anti-cuts protest, the scope is clearly much wider, and a broader movement may have to be more organised; yet local, less centralised occupations, squats, etc, will still be vital as the main meat of the movement, the bricks in the wall for which central organisation is merely the cement. Those are a couple of dodgy metaphors; and the idea of wall is not fluid enough for what I mean to suggest: collectivised decision-making processes; workers’ councils; direct action; self-organisation; that which is organic, rather than circumscribed.

This is necessary because circumstances have changed, and the traditional leftist modes of resistance may not always prove appropriate. In particular, I’m thinking of union organisation; the history of trade unionism is indeed a vital one, but there is a sense that it is not always adequate to changing standards and practices in working life. For instance, say I have just left university, and cannot afford to do a post-grad course; so I sign on at the local job centre (where the workers tell me that their own jobs are unsafe, thus filling me with confidence), and eventually get a lowly office/admin job at a big financial firm. For all the disadvantages of old-style factory jobs, at least they offered a certain amount of job security, opportunities for collective organisation, a tradition of standing up to the bosses, going on strike, etc; with the new, information-based job market, organised around job agencies and temporary contracts, it is that much harder to organise oneself into a body that can negotiate with the bosses to ensure fair pay and working conditions. Each individual is in competition with at least 200 others from similar backgrounds and with similar skills; they are all scrapping over one crappy little six-month temporary contract, after which, if they’re lucky, they may get re-employed by the same company for another six-month period. Of course, everyone hates the fluorescent lighting, the inane and anal little do’s and don’ts, the senseless office rules for whose instigation no one claims responsibility and which no one seems able to change; but, if you’re not careful, if you complain too much or to the wrong person or at the wrong time, then you can be dismissed as if you were simply a fly, idly swatted away with the back of the hand on a summer’s day. Everyone, then, is encouraged to toe the line, to mutter and grumble a little (but only when no one’s looking), to chat about the X factor or Heat magazine, and to get their head down over their desks. ‘Solidarity’ exists only as a tamed and regulated ‘banter’ that disguises deep-set anxieties about getting fired for doing something ‘inappropriate’ or because the boss just doesn’t take a shine to you; and traditions of unionism and campaigning for one’s rights as a worker have been virtually erased. You are an individual, trying to get by, and living for the weekend; screw everyone else. Elements of this fit with what Nina Power’s analysis of ‘the feminization of labour’ in ‘One-Dimensional Woman’: the sort of secretarial, admin and call-centre work that used to be done by women has now been ‘generously’ extended so that men can do it as well. This is not a fine sign of gender equality, but an extension of old means of oppression/ keeping women down, across the board – a kind of reverse equality, in which we don’t make give some people rights equal to those enjoyed by others, but give everyone the same rights to inequality.

So, let’s take our prototypical mid-twenties graduate working on a temporary contract in an anonymous admin job (soon to become our prototypical mid-twenties non-graduate (who wanted to go to university but was frightened off by the rising cost of tuition fees, so squandered themselves on the job-centre scrap and a life of very English ‘quiet desperation’)). Depending on their level of political awareness, they make take trade unionism to stand for a distinguished and important history of workers’ organisation; but it will remain just that, a history, and one to which they have no access as a present means of support. Public sector workers may be in a more favourable position vis-à-vis unions – though they are obviously in dire straits in general terms – but the growing generation of educated/aware but financially badly-off admin workers cannot be ignored. And it is for those such as them (I’m sure there are many other thumbnail social analyses one could do for similar categories) that new methods of resistance and organisation have to be found, away from union bureaucracy and centralised TUC initiatives (remember that these people may not be able to afford the extortionate train fare to London in the first place). This will require people taking the initiative, taking matters into their own hands, rather than waiting for the next big march in London; it may involve hours of tedium, apparent failure, and miserable, poorly-attended rallies in the rain outside the local shopping centre. It will also require creativity, a desire and a willingness to disrupt and go beyond social norms, without simply retreating into an ‘underground’ of those who are ‘hip’, those who are ‘in the know’. Can it be done? Of course. Will it? Let’s see what happens…


Hoover said...

The picture of a little girl exploited to make a political point is sick.

david_grundy said...

Do you mean it's sick that it was taken? Sick that the little girl is holding the placard? Sick that she was on the rally?