Against Rebels

Please make it stop

Rebels are not just boring, they are dangerous. We’ve had decades of rebel-worship now and if I see Che Guevara on one more t-shirt I’m going to start shooting the hostages. Che Guevara was a dick. I know this because I have the Bolivian Diary in my toilet and every time I pick it up I have the urge to use it when I’m done. He was emotionally as well as actually committed to authoritarianism – and of a particular patriarchal stripe that didn’t shrink from programs of executions for the greater good. His death was no great loss, except perhaps to his family. If the CIA had any sense they would have let him live in order to discredit him. As for the Cuban revolution, it was mostly driven by Cuba’s own social movements and for all we know it would have turned out better without Che and his pal Castro.

The rebel is a brand in our society and brands can be used by anyone. Charles Handy, master management consultant, can pose as a rebel against monolithic corporate structures. Richard Branson can pose as a rebel against corporate culture. Boris Johnson can pose as a rebel against boredom.

The rebel is easy to turn into a brand for one simple reason: it is an individualistic image. The lone warrior fighting the good fight against the dark forces of corruption. Blah blah blah. What a load of nonsense. We should be more careful about whether we confuse myths with reality.

In left politics, where everything turns on working together with others, the image of the rebel is a mixed blessing to say the least. To work together successfully we have to align ourselves with others, not see ourselves as the biggest rebel in the room. Not only that, the rebel self-image encourages reaction. That is to say, the feeling that doing something, and doing it differently, is a subversive act in itself. As I have argued in previous posts about the use of consensus in activist circles, this is not necessarily helpful. If by romanticising the rebel we make it more likely that we have to look radical, that is, perpetuate the brand of the rebel through ourselves, then we are more likely to be simply reacting to those we are fighting and so are still controlled by them.

If we wanted to romanticise anything we should perhaps romanticise some other words. ‘Uprising’ is a good word because it loses the individualism – you can only rise up together. ‘Economic organising’ sounds boring but is kind of what a real counterculture needs to do to survive. ‘Critical’ is a good word because it can move us beyond reaction. Rebels? I’ve had enough of them. But if that’s your style you’re in luck: pre-ripped tights now cost only £10 at Topshop. Being a rebel is cheap.