In recent years the British public has become increasingly ambivalent to the waves of protestors that have swept down London’s famed thoroughfares and across the nations television screens with unerring frequency. Demonstrations are so common now, their character so cliched, and their aims so diffuse and multiple that it is hard to strike a spark of interest in much of the country, irrespective of the determined efforts of the rolling-news channels and (to an admittedly diminishing extent) tabloid headline-writers to convince us otherwise. As a public we have developed a blind-spot to the protestors – confident of what to expect, and largely bored by it. The pattern is indeed predictable: a parade of anti-government sentiment manifested in mostly young people will for the most part march, display banners and chant good-naturedly, while a few of them will don their blackest togs and play at being revolutionaries for the day. The police will move in, a few arrests will be made; everyone else goes home – the integrity of the bastille remains uncompromised.
Nobody minds the protests too much – but there seems little faith in the probability of success, especially if we are to judge by attendance figures, which seem to dwindle ever further, every time. The November student protests attracted just 2000 or 2500 people; for many, perhaps, the heady optimism of the million-strong march of 2003, and the inviolable march to war which saw it crushed, lingers too fresh in the memory. After all, if that unified and populist protest, the largest ever seen on these shores, which seemed to capture public opinion and carry it forward on an unprecedented wave of support, was ultimately to count for nothing, what hope for the disparate, fractured groups out on the streets today?
On October 15th, the Occupy London Stock Exchange protestors, barred from Paternoster Square, relocated to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and set up camp. My immediate impression – one shared by many – was that the event seemed to mark the end of a line: the final death-sigh of a confused and fragmented movement – out of ideas and out of energy. It seemed as if the idea-vacuum (so prominent a feature of recent protests) had finally collapsed in upon itself and exposed the laughable reality it hid: the sit-in in the cul-de-sac. In a asense, the protest seemed the respectable version of the recent riots in England: reactionary, accidental nihilism – the apathetic response of a visionless community.
The riots themselves were startlingly modern – the apotheosis of the consumerist ideal, and emblematic of its material and moral bankruptcy. In this they were historically unprecedented;:politics was an excuse after the event: anything but a conscious motive. The anger was real enough, and that anger was justified by its cause, but the riots read as existential scream, rather than political statement: nothing was offered but negation. The protesters who sat down on the steps of St. Paul’s similarly appeared initially to offer little but their discontent or boredom: in spite of the concerted efforts of organisers to put forward a positive message, it was very unclear what, if anything, was the substance of their ambition.
In another way, however, news of the riots and of OccupyLSX came as something of a relief – there was something new, and different about them: at least they didn’t seem as outmoded and as out-of-touch as the voices of the majority of other recent protests, violent or not, which all-too-often have been rooted in a very old-fashioned political worldview, which entirely fails to capture or engage with present reality.
We live in a post-ideological age. Absolutes and universals have not only fallen from fashion but have been proved categorically improper: moralising, totalising meta-narratives wholly inadequate to describe the conditions of the modern world. ‘Communism’ or ‘capitalism’, ‘existentialism’ or ‘humanism’: these are terms redolent of a long-dead world. In this, theory has, as usual, been way ahead of practice – of politics. This broadly deconstructionist project began in earnest in the latter part of the twentieth century, and by the 80s and 90s had unequivocally won the argument. Died-in-the-wool, traditionalist, conservative thinkers – especially those with Marxist leanings – were no longer taken seriously in academic debate. Protests give voice to a different sort of person, however, and those manning the megaphones have all-too-frequenty beenthe sort of outspoken ideologues with whom discourse is impossible – fundamentalist politicians, unconcerned with nuances and detail, unwilling to compromise or even to listen: too busy drowning out dissenters with their own tedious, tired and embarrassingly predictable slogans, amplified to distortion. Manifesto Marxists – Capital what?! ‘Class War’ still features in the lexicon. The ‘rebellion of the working class’ is still supposed to be relevant – as if conditions of labour and arrangements of social hierarchy are identical today with those of our Victorian ancestors – or even with those of Thatcher’s Britain..
So while the irritating presence of posturing would-be anarcho-syndicalists has been, as ever, unavoidable both at the riots and at St Paul’s, it has been a relief not to see and hear Socialist Worker slogans dominating events: however uninspired and lacklustre the protests at St Paul’s initially appeared, by declining to offer a totalising solution they seemed somewhat contemporary.
But this initial response (equal parts relief and disgust) has been tempered, and a good serving of the proverbial pie has been gobbled. The longer the protest has continued, the more coherent its message has become and the more support it has garnered from increasingly wide and diverse sections of the public. Moreover, the would-be condemnation of the protestors, which characterises their concerns as those of a privileged minority who can afford not to camp out for weeks on end in lieu of jobs, simply doesn’t wash: even if the protest were made up largely of such people, their reasons for protest are the antithesis of the privileged positions that would afford them the opportunity to take part: they are the call for the rescinding of social and economic privilege that negates the need for everyone to have the opportunity to earn a reasonable wage. Similarly, the desire of those involved to shower, to sleep a night in a real bed, and even to drink the occasional franchise-coffee in no way invalidate their demands for a fairer, more transparent economy and wider society. Increasingly, it seems fair to argue that the concerns motivating the protesters’ camp are shared by a majority of the British population.
I have, in a sense, been won over. That is not to say I believe that their ambition will be achieved, but only that I think it a good thing that they are there, because by so doing they are forcing debates to be had that call into question the very substance of our democracy. The eviction notices issued by the City of London Corporation is tacit admission of the camp’s relevance: by their very presence the protesters are asking questions whose answers matter to us all, and standing up for rights that we must not be without.