Saturday, 12 February 2011

Chris Port Blog #92. "Do Protests Still Work?"

Extracts from discussion thread in December 2010

“Do protests still work?”

President Obama on a Historic Day in Egypt 

Friday 11th February 2011

From an earlier post...

‘Local anti-cuts groups in every school, college and university’. Wonder how the caught-in-the-middle management are going to play that one? ‘Teacher/lecturer strike in March’. They seem to be building up momentum for a ‘spring offensive’, when the cuts will really be starting to hurt (and the weather will be better for mass protests).

Not sure about the analogy with the poll tax protests. That was a mass spontaneous fury that erupted across all demographics. This movement is one of a carefully organized link-up between different public sectors. It will be interesting to see, after the Thatcher years of union-bashing and the middle ground ‘consensus politics’ of privatization, whether the unions decide to reactivate the ‘class struggle’ or negotiate some neck saving ‘work practice reforms’ (or ‘sell-out’, depending on your ideology) with the government behind closed doors.

Either way, we do seem to be heading for a ‘summer of discontent’. That sounds ominous. The Winter of Discontent was one of decay and a time for change. This is more a feeling of betrayal after years of believing a lie. A hot summer with hot heads could lead to tragedy. Please remember Kent State University 1970.

Police and protesters alike need to keep cool heads and make sure that they have clear lines of communication. March organizers also need to work with police intelligence services to identify agent provocateurs. The police and the protesters must not become enemies. We, who remember, all know where that leads...

... My reading of the ‘middle-classes’ is that, at the moment, they are just peeved rather than politicized. They blame the previous spendthrift administration and are a little frightened of some of the mild violence they’ve seen on the streets... so far. Most just want to forget about it all and have a good Christmas. Many don’t even want to talk about it, probably hoping that things will all come right in the end once the ‘medicine’ takes effect. A lot of people are just abandoning the idea of uni as unaffordable and trying to get high street jobs to cheer themselves up with nice things. We probably have the most materialistic, de-politicized student body in modern history.

However, this is not where the anger is coming from (at the moment). It is coming from lower-income groups who feel that they are being squeezed out of Higher Education, squeezed out of benefits, and have no jobs to go to. There is also a noticeable revitalization of (for want of a better term) agitprop groups. They never really went away. But, when times were ‘good’, they didn’t have much of an audience. That could now change very quickly.

Student union leaders are starting to use radical terminology that I haven’t heard in a long time. I also think the (still massive) public sector unions will soon need to decide how they are going to respond to the mass cull that is coming their way. Opposition to the cuts is not yet a popular movement. It’s more the slow coming together of diverse groups who now see a common enemy and want to fight back against the ‘consensus’ of privatization and international finance that is increasingly being blamed for our economic problems.

I don’t know about the teacher unions as I’m not in that loop anymore. The previous watchword was ‘collaboration’, but I’ve been speaking to a number of teachers who are looking at ways of getting out of the system (i.e. setting up their own ‘free schools’). Strike action is always a difficult choice in the ‘caring’ professions, as teachers feel a moral obligation to their students. But (in my opinion) the education system has already failed and there is nowhere for those students to go. So even the current meek and mute work force may start to dust off some of those principles that first drew them into teaching before they got lost in the paperwork.

It could all just fizzle out in the New Year slush. But my guess now is that it won’t. It feels like a lot of different forces are starting to coalesce. It’s not the same as Iraq or the banks. Those were protests of
Guardian-reading moral indignation. This is more of a slow fuse simmering through the winter and waiting for the spring.

Although I have dismissed the middle-class students as an active political force, we shouldn’t forget that ‘67 was the summer of love. The hippies then were against the war in the same way that students today are against cruelty to animals. They were more interested in having a good time. But by ‘69/‘70 the campuses were hotbeds of revolutionary activity. Things can change very quickly. The fact that this generation was pampered and promised so much, only to find nothing at the end of the rainbow, could quickly lead to feelings of anger and betrayal once the realization sets in. It hasn’t yet. I don’t think people realize quite how savage these cuts are going to be. It is practically the dismantling of the welfare state immediately after its greatest expansion. All of this is going to happen to the have-it-all ‘me’ generation that the middle-aged are increasingly sneering at and telling to shut up and get a job (as if there were any).

That’s what the agitprop people are going to be working on over the next few months. I think that students do need to wake up to what is happening to the world outside of the party scene. Obviously I am utterly opposed to anything other than peaceful protest. I don’t want to see any of my students dead or despairing. I want to see them coming alive and finding ways to change this bankrupt system through positive action. That’s going to be the real difficult task, fighting the apathy before they turn into the wasted generation.

“When the people are lied to, stolen from and abused, and the voices of peaceful protest are ignored, do you think it’s ever right to justify violent revolution?”

Violent revolutions are justified if they are successful and their descendants write the history books. But on a less cynical note, I think that they can be justified if the government is demonstrably evil. For example, if this were 1942 and there was a violent revolution in Germany against Nazism, although I would regret the loss of life, I would still approve. Not only because it would have been good for us. It would have been good for them too.

I certainly don’t think that our government is evil, or comparable, so I don’t think that violent revolution is justified at all under current circumstances. If circumstances were to dramatically change, then you’d have to ask me again. But it would have to be quite a dramatic change. One that would even get Guardian readers talking about forming militias. We have a deeply flawed representative parliamentary democracy. But, for all its flaws, it is still a parliamentary democracy where opposition and dissent are allowed (if sometimes ignored). If the economy collapses, the middle-classes draw their net curtains, the poor are starving in the streets, the troops surround the ghettos, and the skies are orange with flame every night, then, ask me again. But by that time, I think it’s happening whether I agree or not.

“History shows that some campaigns actually have worked. Many haven’t. But massed civil disobedience hasn’t really been tried. And the obvious point is: if you don’t like this what DOES work. Not polite discussion, lobbying, focus groups, internet campaigns.”

Mass peaceful civil disobedience, designed to bring the country to a standstill, is not a tactic that I have any moral problem with. Even if it is in breach of the law, if so many people feel so strongly that they are prepared to risk fines or imprisonment, then the government would be compelled to take note and do something to address the protesters’ concerns. After the Kent State shootings, students hung a banner out of a window with the slogan ‘They can’t kill us all’. 

Similarly, the authorities would have to accept mass peaceful civil disobedience as they would be unable to cope with law enforcement on such a scale. The fact that I don’t have a moral problem with it, and recognize its potential effectiveness as a tactic, is not the same as advocacy.

A counter-argument from the lawfully appointed government (whether we agree with it or not) might be that ‘there is no alternative’, that any other course of action will only do more harm, and bringing the country to a standstill is simply futile self-harm.

However, if enough people felt so strongly (we are talking millions, not thousands), and if such a mass action was repeated without satisfactory concessions being made, then I believe it would be self-evident that the government had lost the confidence of the nation, and that the democratic system itself was in danger. In this event, with such a fragile Coalition government, I don’t believe that the Prime Minister would have any choice but to ask the Queen to dissolve parliament and return to the electorate for a fresh mandate with a more truthful manifesto.

Eventually, whatever government was formed, and whatever policies it pursued, people would either have to accept it, or risk civil war.

We are a long way from this I would say.

"In Britain today, class is a very confused concept. Try this: Middle class = WORKING people, often on crap salaries subsidising the NON-WORKING people (often referred to as the working classes, which is a bit of a joke!). This can’t be called a class war because the word ‘class’ is totally ambiguous and hence meaningless. As used here by your friends, it conveys the opposite meaning to what is intended and is therefore counterproductive in any mature debate."

There are many different ways of defining social class. However, they all fit the following hierarchical pyramid structure: upper class, middle class, and lower class. The ‘family resemblance’ between different stratification models is a definition of social class in terms of power. That power may be defined in many different ways, e.g. money, property, occupation, status, political office, media ownership. But these are just bank notes, not the real currency. I would argue that the gold standard of power is control: control over your own life, and decisive influence over others.

(Curiously enough, by this criterion, the Prime Minister defers control over his own life for the duration of his power over others. But, when you take into account the lucrative book, speech and boardroom circuits after he cashes in his poker chips, it is still a good investment.)

We shouldn’t get too hung up on terms like ‘working class’. Even if ‘benefits class’ may be a more accurate modern description, the main point is that the lower classes are (and always have been) the ‘great unwashed’ at the bottom of the pile.

As we have rapidly evolved from feudal agriculture, through market towns, to industrialization and then the technological arms race, the elite and the merchants have always had an ambivalent attitude toward the plebs. On the one hand, they needed them to work in factories or service the machinery of goods and services. On the other hand, they have always feared the power of numbers. Workers may only have been cogs in the machine, but they could still bring that machine to a halt.

To quote Mario Savio:

'There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part’.

Mario Savio: Sproul Hall Steps, December 2, 1964
Hence the union-bashing by Thatcher after the strikebound 1970s. They may have been given a rudimentary education, a TV set, a vote and an opinion, but the jobs that they used to do now either no longer exist or have been outsourced to sweatshop economies in the Third World. I suspect that this is one of the underlying considerations in cutting Higher Education. From the elite’s (Jungian collective subconscious) point of view, do they really want the masses learning how to analyze their own powerlessness?

The rather quaint notion of broadening the middle class through the exponential expansion of a global financial derivative service economy was (to me, anyway) deluded. There are now going to be millions of people without jobs, education or much in the way of benefits. They are going to see themselves as a betrayed and oppressed class. Whether we like it or not, the lower classes are being cut from the welfare state. They are going to be left to scrap over bones in the ghettos. But when they turn their hungry eyes on the middle-classes, they are going to be angry. Call it what you like, but I would say that ‘class war’ fits that scenario quite accurately.

“The lower-middle class you describe are just as much victims of the government cuts as the working class. However you choose to categorize the classes, the divide exists. Semantic pedantry over where the line exists doesn’t change the fact that the poor are being priced out of education.”

“Education IS free to everyone in this country. What you’re talking about (and presumably the protestors too) is paying for HIGHER education. If higher education was about equipping people to carry out the tasks needed to benefit society (be it training to be a brain surgeon or plumber), I would like it to be FREE! It would be paid for by the tax payer or commerce. But not if it’s purely about self fulfilment.”

Interesting argument... He seems to be suggesting that the tax payer should only fund those occupations or activities that serve a physically beneficial function to society. Many hard-core Marxists would be delighted with this radical approach. By the same rationale, he would also be advocating the immediate withdrawal of all public funding from institutions such as the monarchy, and elitist minority arts such as opera and ballet, since these do not provide any obvious physical benefit to most people.

To argue that these institutions perform a vital role in defining our national culture and identity, our birthright and our heritage, would not be consistent with withdrawing funding from people finding individual fulfilment. We don’t actually need these elitist institutions to do it for us.

If he argues that they are of benefit to the economy through tourism, etc., then there are reams of data to demonstrate that the more populist quality arts (theatre, TV, films, music) bring in a lot more money.

So, either way, his argument contradicts itself. If we stop people from a diverse range of social and economic backgrounds from learning about our artistic national heritage in Higher Education, then we are shallowing the gene pool of the next generation of creative intellectuals. This is not likely to end well for the arts, or our national identity. All we are going to be left with is the lowest common-denominator, an endless diet of exploitative X-Factor drivel.

Also, since we are unable to predict what the world will be like next month, let alone in 10 or 20 years time, I would say that teaching versatile creativity is VITAL for our national survival.

If you have any love of learning, please watch this. Sir Ken Robinson. One of my gurus when I was at Central. Everything I was taught to bring to education. Everything that our system doesn’t let us do at the moment...
“I agree with the spirit of what you say, but not some of the details. I don’t think ‘hard core Marxists’ exist - certainly not in the UK. And to equate Marxism with an outlook of dull functionality is to do them a terrible injustice.”

I was being facetious about Marxists, guessing that this was almost certainly NOT the point that G was trying to make. I was trying to show that reducing arguments about public funding to narrow functionalist criteria can have some unintended consequences. Marxists are, however, utilitarians (within a prescribed politico-economic framework) and would gauge an activity’s worth on how it benefited the masses rather than the elite (in theory, anyway!) My point is that an activity’s value can be calculated in different ways, not all of them reduced to immediately obvious jobs.

Higher Education, in essence, is speculation. We don’t know what the future is going to look like. So we need a broad range of creative people in Higher Education to be ready to meet the challenges. If we increase the cost to the student, and clobber the arts and humanities, we reduce our evolutionary diversity. We increase our chances of extinction if the world changes quickly and dramatically (as it almost certainly will) and we’re not ready for it.

Plumbers don’t need to go to uni. Brain surgeons do, but the country could survive quite well without them. I don’t think the country can survive if it has no sense of art, culture and identity. People can find and create these qualities for themselves without going to uni. In fact, it’s vital that they do. But business tends to take a short-term view on how to exploit immediate opportunities. It has no interest in quality. We can’t rely on business to train the intellects of tomorrow. If the banks had employed a philosopher, instead of some whizz kid mathematicians, the fairly obvious logical flaws in their Triple A rated securities would have been spotted instantly and saved us all this trouble in the first place. It’s not rocket science. It’s just putting thinking above greed.

That’s my real point. There’s a lot of sloppy thinking going on at the moment. People need to be very clear about unintended consequences as well as intended ones. Our education system is a disaster. Personally I’d like to see the whole thing scrapped and redesigned from scratch. But that’s another story!

“I totally agree with your last point about the terminal disaster of our education system. Like the old joke about the countryman asked for directions to a particular farm - I wouldn’t start from here.”

Lovely promo. Lovely Bill Nighy. Lovely idea. I’m definitely in favour. However, knowing international finance, they’ll just electronically move all those taxable transactions through some loophole small print to an exempt foreign banking system. The City will whine that this miniscule levy will frighten off foreign investment and reduce tax revenue, etc, etc. And they’re right. Merchant banks are the megaladons of mammon. If they can’t feed here, they’ll move to the Pacific. But do it anyway. Somebody has to start. And we can’t have an economy built on the financial services market anymore. The last financial crisis was Mount Saint Helena. The next one will be Krakatoa.

HEVEL: Do you claim to see the future?

MARTY: I claim that you’re a fool. The future is obvious to anyone who cares to see it. Something is coming.

HEVEL: What?

MARTY: Something wondrous.

HEVEL: A good thing?

MARTY: Oh yes. Wondrous. In the sense that Krakatoa was wondrous.

HEVEL: Krakatoa?

MARTY: A volcanic island. It exploded in 1883. The force of thirteen thousand Hiroshima bombs. Two hundred million tons of TNT. The sound shattered the eardrums of sailors. It went round the world seven times. Wondrous.

HEVEL: Is something going to explode?

MARTY: Yes. Your world. And good riddance to you. If the insects were to disappear, all other species would die out. If your species were to disappear, all other species would flourish. You will not be missed, or mourned...

"Oh how many more times do we have to tell people the bloody obvious? No wonder they’re destroying the arts in education..."

First They Came
by Pastor Martin Niemoller

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

‘Jews are just a manner of speaking. The inverts could just as easily be gypsies... My point is only that when a community celebrates its shared pleasure in the ordinary, something perceived as extraordinary has to get it in the neck.’

(Howard Jacobson, Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime, Penguin, 1997, p.206).

... Why not ask yourself, Miss Feletti, what sort of democracy requires the services of dogs such as these? I’ll tell you. Bourgeois democracy which wears a thin skin of human rights to keep out the cold, but when things hot up, when the rotten plots of the ruling classes fail to silence our demands, when they have put half the population on the dole queue and squeezed the other half dry with wage cuts to keep themselves in profit, when they have run out of promises and you reformists have failed to keep the masses in order for them; well then they shed their skins and dump you, as they did in Chile; and set their wildest dogs loose on you...’
(Dario Fo, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Methuen, 2001, p.72)

Oh Dio! Whichever way it goes, you see, you’ve got to decide. Goodnight.
(Dario Fo, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Methuen, 2001, p.75)

... You see before you a declining representative of a declining social group. We lower middle-class artisans who toil with our humble jemmies on small shopkeepers’ cash registers are being swallowed up by big corporations backed by the banks. What’s a jemmy compared with a share certificate? What’s breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank? What’s murdering a man compared with employing a man?...
(Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera, Methuen, 2000, p.76)

All come forward, singing to the organ:

Injustice should be spared from persecution:

Soon, it will freeze to death, for it is cold.
Think of the blizzards, and the black confusion
Which in this vale of tears we must behold.
(Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera, Methuen, 2000, p.79)

Art and History keep warning people. But people keep forgetting, not caring, enjoying their bear-baiting and cockerel fights. The sacrifices of our forefathers are pissed away by wastrels. Then we have to go through the whole bloody struggle again. Each time, it’s more bloody. The last one killed 70 million people. How many lives will the next crisis of capitalism demand? Enjoy your pop. It has the blood of Third World children in it.

Metropolis [Fritz Lang, 1927]

1 comment:

  1. Extracts from President Obama's pronouncement on the Egyptian ‘revolution’ - Friday 11th February 2011

    “ ... And above all, we saw a new generation emerge - a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears; a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations...”

    (I wonder when our youth will begin to emerge?)

    “... it was the moral force of nonviolence - not terrorism, not mindless killing - but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more...

    "... As Martin Luther King said... “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” ...

    "... The word Tahrir means liberation. It is a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forevermore it will remind us... of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country, and in doing so changed the world.”