Love Will Tear Us Apart, Again

Last weekend our glorious government spiced up the long bank holiday with its own special blend of haplessness and idiocy, proposing that all under 25s be denied Housing Benefit, thus forcing them to “move back in with their parents”.

It does not take long to realise why this is completely unworkable: many people cannot move back in with their parents, many parents do not have room – especially those who have separated, found a new partner, or been compelled to downsize rented property. In the end the reasons for quietly dropping it are far more about the cost of assessment rather than  those who cannot speak up to say “I can’t”: those estranged, those abused by their families as well as LGBTQ youth who would be forced into abusive relationships, survival sex work, and street homelessness.

It is wrong to dismiss the suggestion out of hand as simply a bank holiday-motivated wheeze, however. Among the callous indifference and breathtaking naivete, a few good intentions lie buried. When seen alongside Rowan Williams’ speech on the ills of identity politics, a pattern begins to emerge of a rising tide of nostalgic communal conservatism. To remain with this specific case, perhaps some young queers will be able to repair their relationships with parents once forced back into the parental home. Yet, for me, the thing that worked to restore my once-fraught relationship was distance: with distance came the ability to see things clearly, and with distance came equality of power. The one thing that would not have worked is trying to force me into a proximity that, through putting us on an uneven footing, would have prevented real communication and created an abusive relationship. As a lonely young queer person, I knew this well, and had I had to choose between that and the streets, I would have chosen the streets.

This is not just about me, however. Not just the Tories but Labour have been speaking of this. Take this quote from 2010, for example:

“The politics of equality of opportunity has licensed ever greater inequality; we need instead a more radical economic egalitarianism coupled with the recognition of a difference of roles and a hierarchy of excellence.”

If this sounds like justification of entrenched inequality couched in the language of progressiveness, well, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s not alone. Today saw two astonishing pieces on gay rights: one in the Guardian, advocating that Stonewall, a notoriously socially conservative group, should stop advocating social change and stick to an almost-Victorian charitable comforting of the bullied; the other in the Telegraph, arguing that the Christian message that “Gayness can be cured” is more progressive than “We should stop attacking gay people”.

Never mind the facts, this utopian vision of return to some imagined communal, conservative past is here to stay, and as equal rights legislation is repealed and campaigns against abortion ramp up in both the US and the UK, this is rhetoric that we will see again and again.

So where is this drive coming from? It is worth taking some time to look at the idea of the community, the communal. In Science Fiction fandom, a generational shift is becoming apparent, with new activist writers and fans clashing with an older communal “union culture“; the new generation centres anger at racism and other forms of often unconscious discrimination, while the old generation centres following established procedures and first taking care of the emotional needs of the group. Both groups often have the same aims, which makes the disagreements all the more bitter and heartbreaking. When miscommunication happens, it seems almost intangible: we seem to inevitably split into both sides, with neither comprehending the emotional dynamics and unstated assumptions of the other.

Ideas of the “new lost generation”, the “generation without a future” are mocked almost as often as they are felt to be fiercely true. Yet the gap between generations is not just an economic divide. Neoliberalism has struck deeply at the structure of social relations, leaving the majority of a generation with embedded liberal assumptions that there truly is no “us and them”: just as there is no outgroup which is fundamentally and absolutely different, there is no ingroup which can always be trusted and relied upon for support. Each social relationship must for ever be renegotiated at the point of contact, like a NHS service put out to tender to the best-connected bidder. The assumption that no outgroup member is fundamentally different doesn’t combat prejudice, it simply airbrushes it, writing off discrimination as failure to meet a set of “objective” criteria, meritocracy in action. There is no real ingroup, only circumstance and situational alliance. We are all in competition with one other, from the cradle to the grave.

How can we imagine something other than this? At present this is a difficult question: we already seem to be living in a dystopia imagined by our forebears, with Orwell and Atwood seeming more like writers of a blueprint than warners against potential disaster. Dystopian fiction is incredibly popular, particularly among young women, who already face vastly intense pressures on their appearance and conduct. Do we already live in a kind of surveillance society, where keeping a watchful eye on one another has replaced mutual identification, respect, care?

It’s starting to seem as if we do, which is one reason why nostalgic, dangerous dreams of some sleepy 1950s village have such appeal.

If we are not to sleepwalk into some hellish future-past, we need to begin thinking big and daring to dream beyond identity politics –  in a positive sense. We need to reforge some new version of the communal, collapsing down neoliberalism’s eternal Elsewhere and Elsewhen of suffering and dissent in order to Be in the here and now. We need to recognise the inherent ambiguity of technological progress, yet turn it into a tool in our hands and at the direction of our imagination, not of our fears. We need to re-centre science and factual analysis, while remaining conscious of science as a social process that can be twisted to any end. We need to sweep away old certainties, and turn away from the past to look ahead into the real future, with our only comfort the fact that we are not doing so alone, but are proceeding, step by rough step, hand in hand.

An Island

“Arriving in Keflavik is like landing on Mars.” I hadn’t thought that it would rain this much on Mars.

At first, the transition away from Britishness was gradual: depart through a terminal gate emblazoned with “Barclays”, arrive through one logoed “Landsbanki”. Airports exist to facilitate the free movement of capital, not of people, not that I was in any danger of forgetting this: like a growing number of my student peers, I was an economic migrant. Come to Iceland on the ERASMUS program, pay less rent than London, and receive an additional grant together with a tuition fee waiver. Alone in a new country, speaking none of the language, I suddenly had cause to doubt my own economic logic. Was any of it worth this?

Outside the terminal showed more promise. I peered through my coach window, stunned by public art that wasn’t a hideous corporate abortifact: a metal seed sprouting hesitantly among a pile of rocks; the Norse gods’ rainbow bridge, Bifrost, reaching up into the air. Perhaps Iceland is different, I thought.

First impressions confirmed that. Reykjavik is a spacious, green city, with better weather than Edinburgh: colder, brighter, with winter snow that’s less hostile than driving rain, heated by free geothermal energy. I saw no homelessness; sleeping rough in winter would equal murder. I found that I breathed more easily once outside the UK, away from the grinding negativity of the media and from new-found fear of the police, inspired by student and activist friends’ accounts of truncheons and dubiously legal arrests.

I did feel that I had escaped something by coming to Iceland, but exactly what? Contrary to the hype, Iceland hasn’t escaped the economic consequences of the banking crash, facing cuts and 
the ratcheting open of the country to outside corporate investment. Still, as Iceland’s government stated firmly to the IMF, this is a Nordic social democracy, with a solid social safety net. Was the difference here purely economic?

Something did feel different. There was no nastiness in the air, no murmuring about scroungers and laziness. Some of my friends had the kind of precarious service-jobs that usually serve up micromanagement and bitter depression to their workers. Here this was completely absent, personality clashes aside. Crime was rare, supervision minimal, and people were free to work under their own initiative.

Still, clearly the Crash showed that everything wasn’t hunky-dory, with many of Iceland’s richest people having fled abroad to escape prosecution. This wasn’t some kind of capitalist utopia. Socially, historically, and geographically Iceland is different, even from the other Nordic countries: family and social bonds are strong, and, knowing this, many women have children young – and choose to do so across social classes. There is less pressure on women to be thin, to regulate their sexuality, to fit into a specific media-mediated mould. Society in general felt less controlled, less hierarchical, and more open to possibility.

I opened my own mind, too, and found myself thinking less about how much of freedom is economically determined, and more about how much is not.

Living in Iceland, I found myself linguistically privileged. Most Icelandic people speak English, and are happy to do so when asked, otherwise defaulting to Icelandic. People talk freely in English about the rich, about Klein’s Shock Doctrine, yet most of the country’s political debate is conducted in Icelandic. If there is nastiness in Iceland, it doesn’t make it across the language barrier. Whatever regulatory regimes exist work on those living within a culture permanently, mediated through social connections and language. As a foreign visitor, albeit a long-term one, I got a free pass.

This, naturally, led me to 
read about the English. I read about how much of class is mediated in Britain through language: the usage of living room, sitting room, or lounge being one gross, banal example. Iceland isn’t the classless society it would like to be, but it doesn’t have that. I also felt free through not being part of the horrific grind of British politics, with its accompanying apocalyptic levels of pessimism from Left and Right.

I wondered: when I did feel hopeless about the future, how much of my pessimism was based on direct experience, and how much on media-mediated narratives, on shows and articles commissioned for profit? Anyone who reads anything online knows how awful and unrepresentative comment threads are, and how impossible they are to avoid. A few awful experiences, a few hate-filled idiots, are far from the totality of experience, though in terms of word-volume it feels as though they are.

When Occupy Wall Street began to take off, I attended meetings in Reykjavik, understanding little, speaking less, and ultimately cooking in lieu of words. I saw Occupy Reykjavik evolved, not into the equitable meetings between homeowners, nationalists and radical left that we hoped for – and initially saw – but into two or three hardy men sleeping in tents, raising awareness of something that everyone in Iceland was perfectly aware of already. Something had gone wrong here, and something inevitable: instead of working on change in Iceland, we were replicating what we saw on Youtube and looking overseas.

Looking to New York, and to London, centres of global economic hegemony – and world centres of the English language.

It turned out that I couldn’t escape after all.

Yet now I don’t feel so hopeless. Another world is certainly possible, though not one I can step into by boarding a ‘plane. I couldn’t cut my ties to the UK so easily: every day I was online reading, talking with friends and relatives, all in English.

I love Iceland, and my hopes go with it into an uncertain future; I remain confident in Icelanders’ ability to fight back against negative social changes, no matter how economically inevitable they are painted to be. Yet building something new, something needed? That’s something we all need to do, through organisation and through language, and hiving off and becoming an island is the only thing that isn’t possible.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

But islands can only exist
If we have loved in them

Derek Walcott

The “War on Twee” and the illusion of choice

Cupcakes, it seems, are feminism’s new enemy. There’s no arguing that a new wave of pink sugar-frosted femininity and its love for kittens, craft fairs, and retro kitch of every kind has burst out from a section of the indie scene to become mainstream. Decried as some sort of female class treachery in Jezebel, it is now due to become completely inescapable, as the US sitcom New Girl explodes across our screens.

Let’s take another look at that Jezebel article here. Leaving aside just when it became feminist to go after how other women dress, it has a lot of problems. First of all, the article casually assumes that all women who embrace “twee” do so simply so that men will have sex with them. Not only does this assume that all women are heterosexual – or perhaps that only heterosexual women are “real women” – but it states as given that this entire package of gender expression exists solely in order to please men.

The equation of femininity with weakness , artificiality, and existing solely in order to please men is hardly a new thing. What is new, or at least newer, is separating out the quality of femininity with the lived reality of being female, and then using that separation as a basis for feminism. It’s okay to be a woman, as long as you don’t act too girly about it.

This is simply femmephobia, attacking feminine qualities rather than women in general. The “natural” femininity advocated in Jezebel isn’t precisely defined, yet a general picture is painted: seriousness, “age-appropriate”ness, wine rather than fro-yo. All of which are certainly less juvenile, but also strikingly gender-neutral. There is another unstated, and therefore unchallenged assumption here: that femininity is rightly taken less seriously, that it somehow precludes serious thought, that it abolishes female agency. The Jezebel article’s alternative, however, is somehow magically free of patriarchal pressure: male ideas have influenced twee girls’ style and sense of self-worth, yet the formless proposed negation of all things kitteny stands alone among historical womanhood in being free of these influences. Amaze.

What is also amazing is the sheer intensity of the hatred for this kind of “cupcake femininity”. Just like every other cultural trend co-opted by capitalism, this kind of retro-geekery happened in waves. While online hatred of trend-latecoming hipsters abounds, criticism of neotenous tastes: 8-bit gaming, animation, comics, bad movies, cupcakes, crafts, and kittens, is reserved only for the “feminine” things on that list. It’s fine to indulge in this kind of zeitgeisty retro fetishisation if a man does it – or so long as a woman steers clear of that awful fake girly thing.

Now, a kind of neotenous femininity has one striking advantage for women: the avoidance of compulsory sexualisation. That’s wrong, too, right? Modern feminism is sex-positive, and women who pose as oversized children must just be playing weird and questionable games with male sexuality.

This, too, is horribly problematic: “male sexuality” is centred and naturalised, put forth as something we should all aspire to. Sex positivity is all, any woman who doesn’t want sex needs help dealing with her shame, or perhaps medical intervention, and the existence of rape culture is, again, magicked away. The issue of self-determination, instead of being paramount, shrivels away and vanishes. Any thought of the economic and societal trends behind delayed social maturation is also verboten: what a consumer chooses to do with their money and the increasing age of being able to afford a first mortgage couldn’t possibly be connected in any way, right?

In reality, women in 2012 have few choices in our self-expression. We can embrace a juvenile version of femininity: pink, twee, and  less sexually objectified. The price is the boundless ire of other women, who know that their preferred strategy for survival under kyriarchical capitalism makes them better than us.

Or we can embrace mature femininity, the illusion of choice, sex positivity, and deal with objectification: in contrast to the Jezebel article, misogynists are still perfectly able to indulge in woman hate whether or not women are “adult” or not. A glance at any popular internet forum, or indeed the comments section of almost any media article written by a woman proves that.

Our final choice is a queer androgyny that is becoming increasingly masculinist in its appearance, language, and outlook. For those committed to abolishing patriarchy, none of these offer any meaningful choice at all. We can mix and match to our hearts content, yet no simple combination of gendered behaviour will make the bars around us fall away.

The Lie of Iceland – and what it might mean for the UK

Iceland has the solution to the banking crisis, or so I keep reading on Twitter. It’s true that, unlike many other countries, Iceland has actually arrested some bankers. Still, of the four government ministers implicated in the Special Investigation Commission’s “Truth Report”, only one is being tried. In a country where family ties are strong and in which government ministers are frequently passed in the street, it’s impossible to have a catastrophe on the scale of the banking crisis without someone carrying responsibility. Icelanders talk openly about the rich, responsible for the crisis, many of whom have now fled the country completely.

It’s worth highlighting the inconsistencies in the media account. It’s often said that the banks were “allowed to fail”, yet a State Department cable released by Wikileaks clearly calls Icelandic government intervention a “bailout”. One of the three banks involved remains publicly owned, while the other two are now largely owned by anonymous foreign investors.

The way in which successive Icelandic governments have dealt with the crash is illustrative. The Icelandic Krona was saved from complete decimation by means of an IMF-agreed refloatation together with currency restrictions. Still, Iceland didn’t go crawling to the IMF, cap in hand: talks were held with Russia over a currency deal, and it seems unlikely that the issue hasn’t been discussed with China, too. This is hardly without precedent: while Iceland hosted a US base at Keflavik until 2006, Cold War talk of switching sides to Russia was a useful negotiating tactic. It seems to have worked in the case of the crash, with the IMF deal being infinitely less harsh than the “structural adjustments” often imposed on the global south.

Iceland has also dealt with its debts advantageously, at least up to the present. The money owed after the Icesave crash may soon see repayment, as prospects of a good deal on the Iceland food chain are now much better. Even if frozen food doesn’t pay off all the debt, there will be years more to find a solution before the European Court renders a judgement.

While Iceland’s outgoings look stable, the same can’t be said about her assets. While Naomi Klein initially bought in to the heroic story of Iceland resisting the IMF, the current austerity and sale of Iceland’s assets could come straight from her account of the neoliberal shock doctrine. Before the crash, almost all businesses in Iceland were owned by Icelanders. Now the foreign-owned aluminium industry is swiftly growing, and debate over use or sale of land continues. When you follow the money, what emerges isn’t so much the story of the lone plucky Viking but a country which has had much of its own “rich”, it’s own ruling class deposed in favour of the rich from abroad, and which now only awaits the lifting of the currency restrictions to lie open to foreign capital.

It is worth emphasising the scale of resistance to land exploitation in Iceland. In 1970, opposition to a large dam project was so strong that farmers dynamited a smaller dam in warning. Iceland has always had a strong rural conservative element, and this allied to environmental concerns has made Iceland a tough nut to crack. It is only after the crash, and the threat to the standard of healthcare and education, that Iceland has come to accept the current need to court foreign investment which it is now convinced that it needs.

Since the crash, levels of private debt have soared, particularly levels of mortgage debt, due to the effect of the crash and refloatation of the Krona on mortgage indices. While the current left-wing government largely holds repossessions in moratorium, it seems clear that, just like in the rest of Europe, the banks’ private debt has been socialised. Right now there is no alternative to neoliberalism, and there is no escape: though more Icelanders have emigrated than at any time since 1887, a few have even gone directly to serve as soldiers for Norway in Afghanistan.

There is hope in Iceland. The swiftly-occurring ousting of Haarde’s 2008 government put down roots, and while things are now quieter there is much scope for future co-operation between broadly nationalist, home-owning, environmentalist and left-wing groups. Most ongoing protest in Iceland centres around the issue of mortgage debt, yet the lack of trust in government and demonstration of the power of protest shows the potential for a dual-power situation to arise. In the Europe of 2011, such movements are largely concentrated in the European South, yet Iceland shows that there is yet hope for the North, though perhaps in some unexpected places.

Iceland’s geopolitical position is different from that of the UK, just as its economic and sociological position is different. Iceland drifted into being a Norwegian client since well before vassalisation in 1262, and since then it has been a Danish protectorate, owned (briefly) by a Danish pirate operating from Barbary, (briefly) by a Danish adventurer, been occupied  by the UK during WWII and afterwards hosting a US base. Iceland knows very well how international conditions can swiftly change.  However, like pre-crash Iceland, the UK economy is strongly reliant on its financial sector, the UK parliamentary left and right are both firmly neoliberal, and Cameron & Osborne have been making some particularly poor decisions of late.

Iceland’s leading professor of economics observes that “we need to know how to read the warning signals. We need to know how to count the cranes”. It may be worth taking a look out at the London skyline – and learning what we can from Iceland now.


How to suppress a protest movement: part three

<—Read Part One Here—>

<—Read Part Two Here—>

Destroy trust within a broad movement and between more and less radical activists:

Some of the easiest protesters to smear are the “unwashed” in squats, with the tabloid phrasing linking back to a long history of anti-working class sentiment. With the wealth gap in the UK dramatically increasing, and the same picture repeating around the world, such sentiment is likely to increase. The most violent societies tend to be the most unequal, and while the needs of the poor remain unaccounted for in mainstream politics it seems unlikely that class prejudice and violence will decrease on their own.

Not only are the poor the most affected by cuts, but they are alo the most affected by aggressive protest policing due to differential treatment by race and class. With poverty associated with increased stress, greater likelihood of being the victim of violence, being unable to escape other forms of violence, and with having less time and energy for organising, it is unsurprising that those most affected by cuts are not always able to protest in huge numbers.

When protesters are more privileged, a new narrative comes into play, with charges of hypocrisy being made and smears targeted at prominent protesters. As previously stated, UK tabloids have typified all of the student protesters as “rich”, playing into a culture which charges all left-wingers with hypocrisy and demands that they constantly prove their credentials or else have “no right to complain”. When the actions of one protester are held to be the actions of all, it becomes both easy to drive wedges both among protesters and between them and the public at large.

While a few protesters are given the media spotlight, the police certain to be infiltrating their ranks are cloaked in secrecy. With the budget of the NPOIU, a body tasked with combating “domestic extremism” having more than doubled in the last four years, all that is certain is that there are a number of undercover officers tasked with infiltrating the protest movement. While the unit has been brought into the Metropolitan Police, its structure has not changed: one unit has a role “similar to the ‘counter subversion’ functions formerly carried out by MI5” in the 60s and 70s, and which involves working alongside MI5, likely to compile dossiers on large numbers of student and left wing activists.

To secure convictions, officers must be involved in planning actions and can be key to them happening at all. Police outside the UK have admitted to disguising themselves as demonstrators, and there are videos of them acting as agent provocatours. Whether police in the UK are acting to incite violence as part of undercover operations is unknown.

What is certain is that both courts and the media often come out against “career protesters”, even the Daily Mail and a former policeman admit that the picture of activists is mixed. This is a picture that does not fit with the news coverage of the student protests.

Another striking thing from the student protests were the attacks on activists for being “too serious” and “party poopers”, for having a negative attitude and making life difficult for the majority. This occurs even when many activists are also comedians, and when many actions are fun and entertaining.

Questioning the official narrative is allowed, but offering another in its place is not. Moreover, all questioning is depressing negativity on the behalf of the questioner, a personal failing. All other narratives can be is either fanaticism or the delusions of harmless hippies. When Obama’s adviser stated that “liberal naysayers” ought to be “drug tested”, it made news only because he conflated his attacks on hippies and party-poopers, rather than making them separately.

These attacks centre around the difficult to oppose idea of “reasonableness” in politics, which pushes discourse towards the centre. When the centre is always unspokenly moving to the right, the end result is a narrative that drifts rightwards over time with no counter to prevent it.

I cannot comment on cases coming to court, but there are a history of arrests that are unfounded but serve to stigmatise movement. The numbers of arrests can be announced in the media, and immediately a perception of “they must have arrested them for something” is established. When the media print numbers of unfounded arrests, this is never corrected, just as untrue press releases are never followed up on.

(At the time of posting, prosecutions have been dropped against over 100 of the Fortnum and Mason arrestees.)

Taken together with bail conditions preventing further protest, and punitive strategies by law enforcement, this renders political protest extremely difficult.

People can also be put off protest not only by the difficulty, but by alienation from experienced activists who often have strongly negative views of the police. When individual police decide to punish experienced activists for being too assertive, it can include takedowns, hands around their necks, use of pressure points for asking for police numbers (which they are legally obliged to give), and standing on people’s feet. Police have acted to disrupt benefit gigs for activists, and a smash EDO protest way back in 2010 saw all the now-standard tactics: kettling, mass arrests followed by release without charge, denial of toilets and water combined with press statements that proved flatly untrue.

The us-and-them mentality of police occurs any time that police anticipate conflict. In one anti-terror raid, police were rightly concerned about armed attack by one subject following the death by stabbing of another arresting officer months earlier. When he surrendered, evidence attests that police proceeded to violently beat and abuse the suspect once he was cuffed and kneeling, and again once he was in his cell.

The effects of the expectation of conflict, antagonism, and adrenaline produce brutal results, as the Stanford Prison Experiment and successors show.

There is extensive evidence behind differential treatment by police forces. Obama mentioned this in relation to race. There is no doubt that an antagonistic culture emerges between police and activists.

While checks and balances exist, many IPCC staff are ex-police, especially those in senior roles. Despite there being over 400 deaths following police contact in the last ten years, no police officer has ever been convicted of murder or manslaughter. There are also serving officers with dozens of complaints against them, none of which have been upheld.

When peaceful protest is constantly challenged and faced with violence, and the agenda is removed from the hands of the public, it is unsurprising that violence emerges. No effective mainstream non-violent action or debate is ever taken to stop violence emerging.

This is shown in sharper relief after the recent rioting to which the political response has largely been punitive, with little thought given to examining evidence or to preventing violence from happening again. The evidence on public order policing shows firmly that low-key approaches are far more effective than punitive ones. The causes of the UK riots are many and beyond the scope of this piece. It is worth noting that the effect of stop-and-search on crime reduction is doubted by criminologists, while those stopped multiple times report feeling angry and alienated just as people are by patterns of racial stereotyping.

While black bloc is a controversial tactic, masking up is often in direct response to FIT teams and surveillance. After the recent riots, the legality of masking up may face more questions, leaving police FIT tactics facing less opposition.

These police tactics are international, forming patterns of violence which replicate over the globe. Activists talk of structural and symbolic violence. Removing all of these forms of violence would constitute a systemic change in the way in which the world is governed, and talking about them explains, while it does not justify, violence by various groups of people including the violence the police are called upon to perform.


Suppression in action:

All of these systemic pressures on protest have combined, in the anti-cuts movement, to result in protester numbers being reduced to a core who are middle class, predominantly white, well educated, well informed on the history of protest movements and the UK law – a minority of people which are easily contained and controlled. The other result is that people who persist in protest must have both a strong narrative behind them and supportive friends, which alienates them from potential protesters.

None of the societal forces behind this are “natural”. Some are explicitly intentional. Many others occur simply through the isolated actions of well-meaning people, actions that have systemic effects which are usually not challenged. Some acts of violence are held to be more moral than others.

These circumstances result in moves which have public supermajorities against often being implemented. NHS blood services are set to be privatised with 64% to 74% against. A majority support renationalising UK railways outright in 2009. While support hovers around 50% for bringing back the death penalty, whether this would persist after a wider societal debate is unclear. At the same time voter turnout has fallen significantly in the last 30 years.

While opinion at the time was divided the Iraq war was pushed through against mass protest, but not direct action. Regardless of the conclusions of the Iraq enquiry, there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths while massive numbers of private security contractors remain, and war rages on elsewhere.

Even without direct pressure from right-wing forces such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp these forces serve to skew the functioning of a society intended to be both free and open. Direct collusion between police, the media and politicians serves to distort, repress and perpetrate injustice to a far higher degree. This piece was written before the current scandal engulfing the British political class and News International, and the degree to which intentional corruption and collusion has played in the suppression of the anti-cuts movement remains to be seen.

While it is well established that we live in a world of growing inequality and changing climate, our decisions are made in a framework which demands constant growth, and where that growth is increasingly measured with reference to ever more speculative bank holdings. These measures ignore human and environmental costs as “externalities”. As the implications of this continue to be ignored, rational questions have to be asked about how truly adaptive our society’s behaviour is.

All the facts behind the current News International scandal have been in the public domain for a long time, yet it has not been news. The effects of war, oil depletion, or cuts are only news long after the event. This is too late to change our behaviour, or even to consider how our society functions and these decisions are made.

We seem to be a society which keeps trying the same thing while expecting different results, yet in many cases the damage has already been done and we cannot go back.


This is what democracy looks like.

How to suppress a protest movement: part two

<—Read Part One Here—>

Make legal protest difficult, frightening and degrading:

The main focus of recent protests has been kettling by the police, with police ready to kettle at almost any excuse, or as a default response to any protest.

This omnipresence of police kettles means that protesters need to be young, energetic, and physically able to take care of themselves in kettles, as they are very dangerous places to be. The involvement in protest of people outside these groups is drastically curtailed. The kettle becomes a means to intimidate people away from protest by large numbers of police, designed to keep people from turning up to protest, or ensuring that they leave for fear of being detained.

The unpredictability of police violence serves as another strong deterrent to protest, with the cases of Alfie Meadows serving as an exemplar, and the case of Ian Tomlinson showing how death can be the result of even incidental involvement in a protest. Recent police actions have involved plainclothes snatch squads and “something you would have expected from the former Soviet Union”, and many at Millbank and during the student protests were hit with batons while not being violent in any way.

The arrest process itself is both traumatic and designed to be, requiring mental preparation to face loss of liberty together with potential humiliation and degradation, with police going so far as to place a 15 year old girl in a paper suit. Arrest is a process intended not only to detain the arrestee, but to put them through an unpleasant experience and to stop repetition. The more people the police can arrest with any potential justification, the more are intimidated away from protest. Bail conditions are often also set to stop further protest. UK Uncut arrestees have been advised by their solicitors to take part in no further activism while awaiting increasingly delayed trials, including not to tweet or blog about political matters.

Journalists are also intimidated away by using the threat of arrest, and “citizen journalists” asked by “official” journalists to upload footage have been arrested.

Networking is prevented by taking control of occupied space, through police raids on squatted homes and community centres, and the eviction of university anti-cuts occupations.

Control is taken over online space, with many activist facebook groups shut down for what has now revealed to be linked to “reasons of national security”.

Even with these measures the Evening Standard (31st March) among others has argued for Twitter to be shut down on protest days, and for more anti-protest laws to prevent peaceful and legal protest.

Through these actions the formation of alternative narratives is prevented at source, with speakers being silenced or their forums for debate being taken away.

While individual police officers are often friendly, rational and reasonable, there exist many career incentives for police officers to go with the “spirit” rather than the letter of orders from above, and rather than the letter of the law. This occurs whether they believe in the “old fashioned policing” embraced gleefully by some officers or not. A “canteen culture” exists within the police which valedicts aggressive, “old fashioned” – often meaning prejudiced and threatening – and gung-ho attitudes and practices. Ex-officers often speak about police collusion in giving statements and evidence, which, due to the extreme unreliability of human memory, is a necessary measure to secure any defended convictions at all. Statements which varied so much as human memories of dramatic circumstances do would, without exception, lead to cases uniformly being thrown out. Though police themselves have called for wearable cameras, the technology to store such data continues to be out of reach.

Collusion has only grown slightly more circumspect since the 20th century, and has the side effect of massively reinforcing the police side of contested circumstances. No matter the truth of events, police loyalties must lie with the other officers and bad practices cannot be challenged in a culture which would punish not being one of the team with, at best, ending any chance of promotion throughout the entire career of that officer. One narrative, forged by agreement in this environment, takes on the stamp of “official version of events” and is rarely, if ever challenged.

Once in custody, under whatever circumstances, treatment there, and thus how distressing and punitive an experience it is, varies drastically according to race and class, with it being enough to be “well spoken”, confident and assertive to get better treatment. Institutional and frequently individual police racism makes treatment in custody drastically different for anyone not white.

Police interactions with protesters are problematised from the start due to the collective blaming of all protesters for any violence. Analysis that steps beyond this scapegoats a minority of protesters, with a narrative of violent protesters “hijacking” demonstrations – a word evoking terrorism. As before, police press releases are often reported unquestioned in both left and right wing media.

After release, whether or not charges are brought, the disruptive effects of arrest on life continue. The seizure of mobile ‘phones together with computers takes away essential tools for conducting daily life and work. Some of those arrested must make their way home over long distances in distinctive jumpsuits and without telephones, maximising the practical and emotionally disruptive effects.

The punitive, forcibly controlling nature of this police behaviour can best be seen in light of the radically different treatment of “political” and non-political events. When 13,000 people took part in a flashmob, closing down Liverpool Street station and massively disrupting commuters, only two arrests were made for public order offences. When 20 people picnicked in Soho Square on the day of the Royal Wedding, they were told that “flashmob”was threatening and 18th century, and were forced to leave the square in small groups under threat of arrest. Some were subject to “pre-arrests”, including a group arrested while drinking tea in Starbucks.

The disruptive effects of even a single unfounded arrest on long-term life and career prospects should not be underestimated, with entry to other countries rendered impossible or substantially more difficult, and, with CRB checks becoming massively more common, is a factor that would put many employers off a candidate.

In addition to using the threat of arrest, the police also use Forward Intelligence Teams for various activities including surveillance and keeping of intelligence on protesters never arrested, to harass activists and to make targeted arrests, and to follow and keep note of journalists, and to make police records on political activists which result in consequent harassment including frequent vehicle stops and stop-and-searches.

Police publication of “mugshots” of wanted protesters are widely picked up by the media, a technique which also serves to fix the image of all protesters as a series of mugshots, that of lawbreakers. Police arrest numbers also give an impression of criminality, when often activists are released without charge. Tabloids often go after activists with mugshots, private detectives and personal attacks, printing columns that bear striking similarities to police “spotter” cards.

The Met police’s tactics for suppressing dissent are so effective that they have recently sent trainers to repressive Bahrain as well as to Saudi Arabia (see Private Eye, issues passim), where being gay or belonging to a political party are illegal. While the UK police are not murderous in the same way as police in repressive Arab regimes, there are similarities in tactics. Egyptian activists have commented with shock on how violent the UK police are. Before the recent Egyptian revolution, protest was illegal in Egypt.

All of this together not only acts as a huge deterrent to protest but naturalises police violence and blames protesters collectively for all violence. Police involved at Stokescroft stated that “if you were involved in this disorder in any way – and there were more than 400 people that were there – then when we identify you, we will arrest you”. While the photographs on the police site make all of those people look like criminals, so do police photos make the many innocent people featured on spotter cards, and so indeed do the many profiles of activists in tabloid newspapers. 

Because this broad-based negative treatment only happens to those engaged in protest, the forcefulness of this suppression becomes something alien to those outside the event. The minority voice stands without emotional support or corroborative experience by the majority, and is easily dismissed.


<—Read Part Three Here—>



How to suppress a protest movement: part one.

How to suppress a protest movement

It’s time to start talking about our democracy.

Shape the narrative, suppress competing narratives – the story of the student protests:

It began with the Millbank protest. From here the media narrative began to diverge from events on the ground, at first subtly.

Almost at once, attacks began on the protesters as “posh”, when many were non-white, not in any way posh, and there to protest the cutting of EMA, as the BBC photos – which concentrate on violence and property damage – show.

There was consensus by students in opposition to violence against people, and, unlike the BBC photos, most protesters saw no violence and took part in none. Protesters were indiscriminately attacked by police, and all protesters were blamed for the actions of any. There was shock at the anger of ordinary members of society, so much shock that scapegoats had to be found. The violence and property damage at Millbank was shocking because it was political, but not shocking on any British Saturday night.

At every stage actions that are described by those there as organic are blamed on a “tiny minority” – like reds under the bed. This is a narrative of “domestic extremists” that leads to crackdowns, scapegoating, and repression.

Subsequent protests were violently policed, kettled, and horse-charged,  yet all violence was attributed to protesters. The agenda remained firmly focused on violence. Police violence is rarely questioned, and only after evidence is gathered and put forward by members of the public, rather than by the media.

When there is violence the focus is always on “anarchists” and “thugs” rather than the actions of ordinary people. In contrast, hundreds were cautioned merely for entering Millbank, some after police dawn raids. These arrests may go on to affect their future UK and international career prospects, a cost to society far greater than the tens of thousands in property damage to Millbank.

“Dreadful violence” was still the narrative by March, when the cleanup of Trafalgar Square was around 2.5x the normal Saturday night cost. By now, violence to people and property are indissolubly conflated. A narrative that began with concern for the welfare of police and protesters has concluded with political freedom not being worth the price of a mid-range car.

How the narrative is shaped:

None of this comes to pass in a vacuum. The timing of major events is carefully chosen, from the date of the recent Royal Wedding to that of news of the scale of the NHS cuts, which broke on the same day. While scores of pages and supplements over weeks were devoted to the wedding, the effects of the cuts are rarely more than a footnote. Cuts over many years are not a story, the Royal Wedding is.

News stories now break in a different way to the past. Journalists are under increasing time pressure, and while investigative journalism is rarer, churnalism – the swift regurgitation of press releases as fact – is increasingly common. Even the comparatively left-wing Guardian straight-out reports press releases that – as in the case of Soho Square here – are factually untrue.

What editors want in a story is shaped by previous stories in that publication, as well as the feelings of owners and advertisers. In rare cases, a journalist quits over the blatant untruth of their expected output. In many more cases, owners admit to having tight editorial control, such as Murdoch over the UK red-tops. Stories that conflict with advertisers are pulled so frequently that experienced journalists take it as given.

Beginner journalists are told that top of the list for a successful story is topicality, that is that it seamlessly fits with the stories before it as part of one narrative. The first rule for freelancers is that pitches must fit with what already gets published, in a matching style. Any media with submission guidelines ensures that there is no appreciable divergence in copy, with the required prose style necessarily shaping content.

It is this environment that determines what “news” is. The way that news is constructed means that violence is news, whereas the effects of policy, anger, and open political debate are not.

Prevent formation of different narratives:

This monolithic narrative means that people are atomised, lacking contact with language to conceive of and express competing narratives. With the media narrative firmly centred on violence no discussion of the narrative behind the cuts becomes possible there. With spaces against cuts being prevented from forming or being evicted by police, public life becomes by default pro-cuts. With a massive recent drop-off in mentions of “neoliberalism” on the BBC news website, forming any alternative narrative becomes very difficult, even when there is massive evidence behind it.

Over time this unspoken narrative moves to the political right, with US presidents becoming economically massively more right-wing since WWII, the UK Labour Party moving ever rightwards, and politics in the west becoming dominated by neoliberal ideals despite the constant elision of the term, with discussion of it in the media bordering on the forbidden.

The closest the media are able to come to discussing the necessity for the cuts is reporting on a conference, while most dissenting time in media is spent responding to hyperbolic reporting in other media while sticking to the same cuts narrative.

The media also operate around a hierarchy of trust, with official media such as the BBC being perceived as more trustworthy than “just some blogger”, and more than non-media individuals who are seen as “politically motivated”. This takes place while the BBC cannot escape being political, taking the line of the perceived centre, a line which constantly evolves under attack from politicians who want coverage to reflect their interests and use threats to back this up. This leaves a BBC which can question whether Uganda was truly wrong to propose the execution of gays, but which cannot offer or allow any critique of the pro-cuts narrative. The result is a media which predicates questions on unquestioned, unjustified assumptions and posits a choice between a right-wing and far-right alternative.

With cuts affecting different groups over time, it becomes even more difficult to assemble questioning into one narrative. First student cuts were announced, moving onto local service and jobs cuts, and then arts cuts, then NHS cuts and structural marketisation. The effects of these will take place over years and in a geographically dissipated way, making resolving them into one story a herculean task.

This goes hand-in-hand with increasing modern demands on time that disincentivise any break from the mainstream narrative. As working hours increase over time alongside the increase in precarious work, and with rent in London – where there is still work – soaring, the need to work, to have fun, to spend time with friends and family, and not to spend time arguing about politics means that challenges to that narrative grow less frequent, and occur with less force. Even art, which often acts as a challenge to mainstream narratives, is not immune to these changes: in the 1990s 1% of top 10 chart acts came from public schools; in 2010 it is 60%.

All this takes place against a backdrop of many economic experts saying that the cuts are not necessary at all.

What diverging narratives do exist soon fracture across party political lines, with debate becoming about how much to cut rather than cuts being necessary, when most money the UK owes is in fact to the banks that were bailed out. Discussion centres around “how much to cut and where” with no linking with the reasons behind the collapse despite the enormous exposure of the film “Inside Job”.

Though there is an enormous amount of evidence showing that the cuts are not necessary, they are going ahead with any “mainstream” questioning being fragmented and incidental. It is as if the question has been settled before it has even been raised.

Under these established pressures, breaking from the main narrative becomes virtually impossible. Once one dominant narrative is established, a variety of factors inherent in human psychology – change blindness, attention fatigue, and the way in which we are influenced mainly unconsciously and by the people around us – mean that the vast amount of information contradicting this narrative is ignored or subsumed into the unconscious to fuel nightmare or art.

<—Read Part Two—>