Sunday, 14 November 2010

Protest and Political Privilege

"Anarchists, Trots and Idiots" were responsible for the violence on Wednesday, according to Caroline Flint on Question Time this week. She wasn't there, of course: she just knew. Someone ought to get James Randi on the phone because Luke Akehurst is exhibiting a similar talent with second sight. Luke's 'The Old Cancer at the Heart of the Student Riot' on Labour Uncut stands as the most miserably wretched commentary on the 10.11.10 demonstration to have been produced outside Tory circles (and even then he gives them a run for their money).

After whinging about how the protest was supposedly spoiled by a
tiny minority (in reality, the occupation of Millbank was a mass action, involving anywhere between 2,000 - 5,000 people), we are informed that this was inspired by a most sinister enemy within. Luke writes of the protesters, "I’m not convinced they were all even students – I’m sure there were a good few rent-a-Trots and anarchists there who just came along for the scrap and wouldn’t have cared what the issue was ... Probably the same grizzled veterans of the struggle for dictatorship of the proletariat planned this little jape, updating their efforts only to employ social media as an organising tool." And Luke's evidence? Um ... he doesn't actually have any. There were no plans for insurrection organised via Facebook, no direct action organised on Twitter. Going by the accounts of people who were really there - including actual anarchists - it sounds as if the invasion of Millbank caught everyone on the hop. Police, NUS stewards, Trots, anarchists, all were left responding to the situation. If Luke has evidence to the contrary gleaned from afar via astral projection, he should present it.

He won't of course. Luke
has form when it comes to this sort of thing, and just like witch-hunters of old suspicion is evidence enough. But Luke's pathetic calls to hammer the hard left, which hasn't been in the rudest of health for many a year anyway, show he's not only completely out of touch, but also is voicing the commonsense assumptions of a rigid and dogmatic form of thinking that is shared between Tories, LibDems and plenty in the Labour party: the idea of politics as a minority pursuit. In their world, only people like them are able to understand the problems society faces and have the political education necessary to make "tough" decisions. Differing opinions are okay if, and only if, they're relevant to and couched in the language of their managerial politics. The "activists" and the "grassroots" have some funny ideas, but as long as they knock on doors, stuff envelopes, do as they're told and try not to win positions in the party for themselves and their opinions, they're tolerated as a regrettable necessity.

As for the broad mass of people they're little more than spectators. They don't have opinions and interests of their own. They're a herd to be managed and manipulated. So if large numbers spontaneously begin doing things off the official script - such as protesting and occupying it
must be the troublemakers of the far left who are to blame. For our political managers behind every outbreak of direct action or mass anger are the machinations of a shadowy central committee or the whispering of balaclava-clad anarchists. That people might be genuinely and violently pissed off is something that cannot be entertained: it challenges their elitist view of politics and the chummy constitutional carve-up on which their positions of privilege depend. Politics is their property, and they don't like being elbowed aside by manifestations of people power one bit.

What Luke and his ilk cannot see is how adrift they are from the people they claim to represent. They exist in a bubble governed by the rules of politics-as-usual and the media. It believes it condenses the defuse concerns of atomised Britons but in fact it only reflects back what they
think these concerns are. And unsurprisingly these tend to reinforce what passes for their commonsense. Chris Dillow recently wrote that Nick Clegg can no more see his privilege than a fish can see that water is wet. He could almost have been writing about the inhabitants of the Westminster village.

Next time worthies pronounce on protest movements, offer advice and condemnation, or try to separate out particular minorities from the mass; remember that not only are they voicing their own interests and prejudices, they do so from a position of contemptuous ignorance too.


Callum said...

Good on you, Phil.

jamiepotter said...

Well said. This is perhaps my main source of anger at the way Aaron Porter handled the NUS response. It seems apparent to me that the student union are trying to claim ownership of the education issues and the right to protest on them.

This is dangerous for two reasons. 1) It seeks to exclude people from the 'movement' who aren't students or university employees. The changes being wrought to education will have a widespread affect throughout society. And 2), we should be celebrating the diversity of this oppositional movement, including respecting the choice of individuals/groups to undertake direct action as a result. I can understand why the NUS would want to distance themselves from window smashing and occupation, but at least respect these independent actions and show some solidarity. People are pissed off and are actually doing something about it. This is a good thing and we shouldn't be undermining it.*

*Obvious exceptions for those actions which actually do cause harm to people. Clearly unacceptable.

Boffy said...

On BBC's "Politics Show" today Porter gave fairly clear indication that the NUS is considering standing a candidate in the Oldham by-election. Has this been discussed with students in general? Has it been discussed with students in Oldham?

If the intention is to target the Liberals for betraying students why let them off the hook by standing a candidate and splitting the anti Liberal-Tory vote? The best way of undermining the Liberals and the Coalition would be for them to get really stuffed in Oldham, and that can only be done by getting a Labour victory. If the NUS wants to do something effective it should encourage its members to join Labour, and press for a decent candidate and a principled campaign in Oldham.

By taking this action the NUS basically says to workers in general, "stuff you, we will fight our own battle and leave you to fight the Cuts that affect you." That would be a totally stupid approach to take for many many reasons, not least that without the support of the working-class in general the NUS cannot win itself.

We need urgently the establishment of an effective anticuts movement in Oldham that can combine workers and students, and which can put together a basic, principled platform for opposition to the Cuts that can act as a focus for the by-election. The message should be "Vote Labour, but mobilise to support this programme against the Cuts".

Phil said...

Jamie, I completely agree.

Boffy, I doubt very much the NUS will stand its own candidate in Oldham. For people like Aaron doing so would be career suicide. That's not to say there isn't elements on their NEC who would like to see some kind of anti-cuts alternative, but as you say that's really a non-starter as far as the struggle against fee rises, cuts, and the wider political situation is concerned. That said the presence of such a candidate might force Labour to start making its opposition to the cuts - such as it exists - firmer.

Robert said...

When or Ms Flint opens her mouth you know whats coming out, sadly if this women is a socialist I'm a bloody commie, hold on a minute I am.

Chris said...

I agree that the NUS should not stand candidates but considering New Labour’s approach to education, the introduction of tuition fees for example, you cannot blame them for thinking it. I doubt they see this as saying “stuff you” to the workers; this is a very subjective view and certainly false. More likely they think supporting New Labour is very problematic, considering all they did. Some elements on the left want a new party, and while we can agree they are mistaken, we wouldn’t consider this as saying “stuff the workers”.

The likes of Flint do show that fighting for the heart and soul of Labour is the crucial *political* task.

The reaction of the Big capital friendly media to these protests does show it has limits to it's 'anti cuts' stance! I certainly wouldn't count on them.

modernity said...

Caroline Flint,ahh you mean the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government?

you mean the one so keen to throw the unemployed out of their homes?

you mean that member of the Labour shadow cabinet?

you mean that New Labour hackette in a leadership position in the Labour Party?

Phil said...

I agree, Chris. As with the cuts the task for socialists in Labour is to swim against the "common sense" stream and fight for our own distinctive positions, be they on tuition fees or the economy.

Boffy said...

Porter was asked by John Sopel about his wry smile, and asked to deny that they would be standing a candidate, and he pointedly refused to do so. The NUS leadership are refusing to support workers in a wider anti-cuts movement as other posts here now point out.

Yes, we should fight for our distinctive positions as I've argued above, but the reality is that that can only be done within the context of a Labour election campaign, as the results of the sects in the last elections demonstrate. What I've found interesting in recent days is the extent to which the media have changed their attitude to the demo. A number of TV interviewers have put it to Porter that had it not been for the events at Millbank the demo would have passed off unnoticed, and papers like the Guardian almost welcomed the events at Millbank talking about it being a sign of things to come.

Phil said...

Indeed. As someone pointed out elsewhere, last year 125,000 Tamils and their supporters took to the streets of London in solidarity with Tamils being victimised and cleansed in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of its long, dirty war. It passed off without incident. How much coverage did this huge demonstration get? Bugger all.

Chris said...

“A number of TV interviewers have put it to Porter that had it not been for the events at Millbank the demo would have passed off unnoticed”

Please!!! They put this question to him because that is the contrary question to pose Porter. If Clare Solomon was being questioned, they would say “How does this ‘violence’ help the student protest”. This is standard fare for political interviewers. The idea this represents a softening of the media’s attitude is risible. They have been hysterically hostile, and so have the police. You would think with the cuts they are facing, those shadowy forces within the force would have watered down the rhetoric. Not a bit of it, the met commissioner has been absurdly hysterical. Big capital is doing nothing to oppose these cuts; they are focusing on a war against the social unrest they undoubtedly fear. They hope the cuts come but with little opposition, that is the gamble they are taking. Whether that position changes at any point, who knows and who cares? We cannot rely on them in the slightest.