An older favourite
Tag Archives: bullshit
Hi Jo, the only conclusion I can draw from the Quidco advert on Spotify (in which you imply that women are largely attracted to a man’s wallet) is that you think your target market is sexist in a kind of 1950s Mad Men style. This may in fact be the case. I also have to listen to the advert and am not sexist but possibly I am not your target market (my membership of Quidco is pretty inactive but I do already have an account so need no persuasion). I was wondering if you have done much research to back up the assumption of your audience’s sexism. If so I’d be interested to see this. I admit to being surprised. If time-travelling back to 1950s gender stereotyping were that lucrative I’d expect more people to be doing it. I look forward then to hearing what it is that has led you to believe this is a good way forward.
I think that you are yourself a woman, so I’d also be interested to know your personal experience of choosing a man by the contents of his wallet. I’d like to know how that has worked out for you and so on. Perhaps you did not do this however. Perhaps instead you thought “What’s a little lighthearted sexism between friends?” But we’re not friends are we Jo? And most of the people who listen to that advert are not your friends. And you do not know how people will read the sexism. Because some people actually do believe women are just interested in a man’s wallet. I’ve met some of the British sex tourists in Thailand who thought exactly that in the UK and went to Thailand to find ‘girlfriends’ who would confirm all their prejudices. Come to think of it, was this your target market? The sex tourists of the future? That would make sense. If so I have underestimated your targetting.
You may however wish to have a word with Spotify about their targetting. I think the Baka Beyond fan/sex tourist crossover market is smaller than you might wish.
For those interested, Baka Beyond play West African/Celtic fusion. It isn’t really true to say I’m a fan – they’re a bit too easy-listening for me – but I listen to them from time to time.
Now I also copied Spotify into this email. They had a category on their contact form called, and I quote exactly ‘Share something fun ’, so I wrote a little intro saying ‘Hi Spotify! I know you like us to share fun things with you! So below is a copy of an email I sent to Quidco. Enjoy!’
I had no particular axe to grind with Spotify. They are still struggling financially and would probably sell their grandmother’s corpse to a necrophiliac for a bit of extra ad revenue, so I sent off the email and thought nothing more of it. Until they served me up this slice of grating corporate chirpiness:
Hay (sic) Jacob,
Sorry. We might have got that one wrong please forgive us…. 〷◠‿◠〷
I have let our content team know and they will definitely keep an eye on this type of content.
Thanks for raising your points with us.
Kind Regards and a friendly smile,
Spotify Customer Service – Cambridge
At the root of all power and motion, there is music
and rhythm, the play of patterned frequencies against
the matrix of time, Before we make music, music makes us.
Now perhaps I should feel grateful that Spotify responded and said they’d pass it on. But here’s the thing John L, if I can call you that: I hate to dent your no doubt 100% genuine twenty-four hour effervescence, but a cute picture in company emails is a poor substitute for functioning brains and a sense of ethics. Isn’t it now? I rather feel that I should never have had to send this email.
I’ll update you all if the Quidco marketing geniuses get around to replying between bouts of patronising their customers.
It would be remiss of me not to thank the following people for my freedom of speech: David Cameron, George Osborne, the Queen, the Queen Mother, Gary Lineker, Stephen Hawking, Commander Hogan-Howe, George Orwell, Jedward, and John Stuart Mill.
All of these people have, in some undefined but inestimable way, contributed to my freedom of speech. This freedom, in which we glory, is allowed to us not only for our own good but for the good of the nation. How, as Mill said, can rulers know how to rule if they cannot hear the squeaks of their subjects?
While the contribution of Jedward to my being allowed to say anything I like is not immediately obvious then think about it this way: the ability of Jedward to say whatever they like, without fear of arrest, without fear of torture or persecution, helps to create the space for my own words. I, like Jedward, am not tortured, and for this I thank them.
I would also like to thank Commander (or is it Commissioner? – I always forget) Hogan-Howe of the metropolitan police, for never knowingly entering me into a database of dissenters. Why would he know? And definitely Gary Lineker, that brave and owl-like soul, has never done such a thing. So thank you.
Finally I would like to extend special thanks once more to all the ministers in this current government, who in their generosity allow me and everyone I know to say whatever we wish without it bothering them one little bit. Thank you. Democracy is a fine and noble thing.
Let us all now stand and sing the national anthem.
It was a Saturday on the thirteenth consecutive night of rain and the Poachers Arms was to be found on an unfashionable side street off the cripplingly fashionable Hoxton Street. I stepped gingerly over the puddle of water spreading from the umbrella stand by the door and into the usual convivial atmosphere around the bar.
“We’re thinking of building an ark,” said one of the regulars. “Where do you think we should build it?”
“It should be somewhere public,” I said. I ordered a pint of Poacher’s Pipe-dream then explained: “Part of the point of building an ark is to remind people that the punishment for their decadence approacheth.”
“I work in a museum,” said a woman who had come in the door just behind me. “Plenty of space there. We could get it sponsored by BP – everything else is.”
“Yes, I’ve often wondered about that,” I said. “It seems weird for public institutions to take advertising from companies that do so much harm.”
The woman looked affronted. “We turn bad money into good,” she said. “We’re using them really.” She turned to the barman. “A gin and tonic please.”
“Why do you think they spend the money though?” I said. “They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t get some kind of PR or political gain from it. They presumably think they are using you.”
The woman shrugged. “I see you’re some kind of idealist,” she said. “I’ve learned to be realistic. We need the money. They have it.”
I turned to Downer Dave, one of the regulars at the bar. Downer Dave is so called due to his unrelentingly negative, or as he calls it, realistic, take on the world.
“Who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said, then to the woman. “This is Downer Dave by the way. What’s your name?”
“So who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said.
“You,” said Downer Dave. He looked at the woman. “They’re using you. Sorry.”
“Hey listen,” Louise put down her drink and held up her hands. “I think the world shouldn’t be so crap but I just don’t think you can change it. I used to work in the House of Commons. It was horrible. It’s an oppressive building and the people who work there are weirdos. But change it? Please!”
“She has a point,” said Downer Dave.
“I’ve worked in government too,” I said. “In international development. And they thought I was ‘unrealistic’ too. Problem with that is that they were trying to solve a political problem – global poverty – with technical solutions. Imagine thinking you could solve a problem of too little power by taking decisions on behalf of those people. So that word ‘realistic’ is a tricky one – it often is when people use it politically. Who was being unrealistic there?”
“All of you,” said Downer Dave. He turned away and asked the barman to put on some lively music. “I’m depressed now,” he said, casting a glance back over his shoulder at us.
Louise looked at me, started to say something, stopped herself, raised her glass and clinked it against mine. Without another word we parted, and I moved deeper into the Poachers Arms, my damp clothes steaming gently in the warmth.
1. Take out your phone, on which you will have earlier recorded the buzzing of an injured wasp. Play this sound to the person and say ‘I find this to have more significance than what you just said.’
2. Did you learn to trust politicians’ explanations of their actions from Tony Blair? If someone in a position of power would lie to start a war that killed several hundred thousand people and made millions homeless, do you think another might lie about, say, their reasons for cutting government budgets?
3. What is it that makes you trust that your ‘leaders’ have your best interests at heart then? Who taught you this, have they lost their job and/or home yet, and have they ever studied any, y’know, history? If you don’t believe they have your best interests at heart, why do you repeat what they say in public as though it has meaning?
4. Really, I’m interested to know why you think you ‘need’ people in these ‘leadership’ positions and why you choose to respect them against a vast weight of evidence that suggests they steal from you, line their own pockets and habitually lie to you – not about minor things but about really major things – like whether they help torture people (the British government do, it turns out).
5. Look, it is not politicians’ faults that they lie about everything they are doing. They are the mouthpieces for a fundamentally dishonest and abusive economic system that is making you poorer right now and they don’t have any choice but to lie. You do have a choice whether you believe it. I find your choice…odd.
6. Say one of your own thoughts. It will be better.
this one instead. Instead this post is going to state the obvious. I’ve worked with monitoring systems: outcomes, targets, outputs, measurables, Key Performance Indicators in the public sector. I’ve met dozens of people who have worked with them across the public and NGO sectors. Very few people had anything good to say about them and yet everyone works to them anyway. The management say they have to because of the funding imperatives or the political imperatives. Some managers put a brave face on it and say ‘We can get something good from this’. Others will admit it is nonsense but tell us that’s the way to get funding these days. And it is, which brings us to the first of seven very obvious points:This post is not going to be one of the funnier ones. Try
1. People structure their work to produce outputs, meaning projects are changed – some might say corrupted – by the funding they get, which means the people with the money get to decide or at least change the course of most projects.
2. Everyone uses targets and outputs these days. That means there is only one way to run an organisation. In all the world. Perhaps this should bother us. I mean, really? Only one way?
4. Far from making organisations efficient, it creates a new layer of bureacracy. Think about those application forms that take several weeks to fill out. Think how much time is lost to inventing the measurables, justifying them, monitoring compliance, reporting on deviations from expectations.
3. Everyone lies about what they’ve achieved. That’s not a statement of moral condemnation. You have to do it to make the system work. But having spent all this time and money on the bureacratic machinery to make it work, what it usually turns out is nonsense.
5. It is promoted by management and funders because they want control. This is why some managers adopt it even when the funding doesn’t require them to. It is way to reproduce strict top-down hierarchies that a lot of organisations claimed to have got rid of with flatter structures and informal ways of working.
6. Output measurement is done in mimicry of the private sector working to a bottom line. One of the reasons this is ‘efficient’ in the private sector is that it creates a huge amount of collateral damage that the company never has to pay for. People, resources, environment, political systems: all are ignored for the bottom line. Very efficient.
7. Most of the things that matter in life can’t be measured. And in obsessively measuring certain things, it is easy to push out the things that make life worth living. Measuring outputs is sucking the life out of us.
These points, though mostly very obvious indeed, might make some people ask ‘How else can we achieve our goals?’ But it’s a funny question, because this is a relatively new fashion. Presumably good things happened before the fashion hit us and I’m pretty sure we’ll find ways to make good things happen again. But we should also ask, how else can we achieve what goals? The goals in your mission statement? That’s a fiction anyway. What does your organisation really do I wonder?
But finally, if you want a serious answer: if your organisation is based on values, staffed by committed people who believe in those values, and embed those values in your work, and if your organisation is structured so that these committed people collectively control their work, then I don’t think you’ll need to worry about whether you are going to achieve things. Of course if your organisation is actually a bunch of hollow people doing hollow tasks for hollow reasons in a sneakily hierarchical dance then maybe you’re right: you should keep an eye on your progress with measurable outputs. It will be the only way to get anything done.
THIS IS YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD LOUDHAILER AGAIN. YOU HAVEN’T BEEN LISTENING TO ME RECENTLY HAVE YOU? I KNOW YOU HAVEN’T. I HAVE CCTV EVERYWHERE. PLEASE LISTEN TO THE FOLLOWING ANNOUNCEMENT CAREFULLY. IF YOU SWITCH OFF HALFWAY THROUGH YOUR POWER AND WATER WILL BE SWITCHED OFF.
ALL PRAISE OUR GLORIOUS DEMOCRACY FOR ITS BENEVOLENT MERITOCRACY! OUR SYSTEM OF ECONOMICS AND GOVERNMENT IS BETTER THAN ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD FOR ONE SIMPLE REASON: ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS. YES, YOU HEARD ME: ANYONE.
WE’RE NOT LIKE SOME TINPOT DICTATORSHIP WHERE YOU HAVE TO BE IN THE RIGHT FAMILY TO MAKE MONEY OR RUN THE GOVERNMENT. WE’RE NOT LIKE CHINA WHERE YOU HAVE TO BE IN THE COMMUNIST PARTY. WE’RE NOT LIKE IRAN WHERE YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE RIGHT RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. WE ARE A MERITOCRACY! ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS! ANYONE CAN MAKE MONEY! ANYONE CAN RUN THE GOVERNMENT!
IT MAKES ME LAUGH WHEN I HEAR PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY COMPLAINING ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT. WELL IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GET IN THERE AND CHANGE IT! THAT’S WHAT WE’RE ALL ABOUT! IT MAKES ME SAD WHEN PEOPLE COMPLAIN THEY DON’T EARN ENOUGH MONEY. START A BUSINESS! ANYONE CAN DO IT! ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS!
I DON’T WANT ANYONE SAYING THEY HAVEN’T HAD OPPORTUNITIES TO BE A SUCCESS – PUNISHMENT FOR THIS CRIME IS HAVING YOUR BANK ACCOUNT FROZEN – SO I’M GOING TO GIVE YOU SOME TIPS ON HOW TO BE A SUCCESS.
ANYONE CAN DO IT! ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS THE FOLLOWING:
1. ACCEPT OUR DEFINITION OF SUCCESS I.E. YOU MUST WANT MONEY AND POWER OR YOU WON’T GET IT.
2. SACRIFICE YOUR FAMILY TO YOUR AMBITIONS. THE REASONS FOR THIS ARE OBVIOUS.
3. BE PREPARED TO IGNORE THE EFFECTS OF YOUR DECISIONS ON OTHER PEOPLE. THE NEED FOR THIS IS OBVIOUS.
4. MANAGE YOUR VALUE. NO ONE ELSE IS GOING INVEST IN YOU, SO INVEST IN YOURSELF! TREAT YOUR LIFE AS A BUSINESS OPERATION AND YOU WILL SOON SEE THE RETURNS.
5. BECOME YOUR OWN PR COMPANY. MANAGE THE IMAGE YOU PRESENT TO THE WORLD. WHEN YOU SCREW PEOPLE OVER, PRESENT IT AS AN ACT OF BENEVOLENCE. WHEN YOU ARE UNSURE OF YOURSELF, PRESENT UTMOST CONFIDENCE.
YOU SEE? THAT’S IT! ANYONE CAN DO IT! WE’RE NOT LIKE THOSE MEDIEVAL COUNTRIES WHERE ONLY CERTAIN TYPES OF PEOPLE CAN BE A SUCCESS. IF YOU’RE NOT A SUCCESS, IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT AND I DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOU WHINING ABOUT IT, OR ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S SUCCESS. AND I CAN HEAR YOU: I AM NOT JUST A LOUDHAILER, I AM A NETWORK, AND I HAVE A DIRECT LINK TO YOUR HEAD.
PUNISHMENT FOR WHINING ABOUT YOUR LACK OF SUCCESS OR ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S ‘UNDESERVED’ SUCCESS IS SOCIAL OSTRACISM. NO SUCCESS IS UNDESERVED. THAT’S WHAT MERITOCRACY MEANS. THAT’S WHY YOU ARE THE LUCKIEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.
THIS IS THE END OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT. THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.
[FIZZZ, *CRACKLE*, SCREEEEEECH]
This is a new series of posts in which I intend to talk about simple things. I will however extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them complicated. I’m not getting paid by the word but it will probably start to feel like that to you. I like writing is the problem. What you people need is a blogger who doesn’t actually like it. Or you could try twitter.
People don’t always know what I mean when I say that religion saturates our culture still. Most of us don’t believe in God or do what the priest says and most of us think we can shag whoever we want and gay is okay now, so where’s the religion?
The idea of ‘free will’ is an example. This was something theologians had to invent to make God’s harsh judgements of us okay. And we still think we have a deep-running facility for choice, that we can pull our actions out of a vacuum. And yes, it’s true, from the inside of our heads we perceive choices, but other religions at other times have spotted this for the illusion it is and it is a legacy of monotheism that we put up so much resistance to breaking the illusion.
As soon as you question the idea of free will people immediately think you are trying to ‘excuse’ people who do bad things. Really all you are saying is that our judging of each other performs a social function rather than referring to some objective moral code. This has always been the case of course, but the objective moral code became so lodged in people’s minds that they had to re-write it as human rights even as religion was fading in the Western world. So now we still have laws for everything and we imagine our free will allows us to obey or disobey them.
It’s not that I deny responsibility for my disobedience. I’m just aware my desires are embedded within complex social and historical structures that lead me to want to disobey policemen. And I do want to disobey them, I do. I just can’t explain it, because no one has the information gathering or processing ability to trace my impulses into my dark/tedious past and the past of everything else too.
This is a long introduction to what I really wanted to talk about: the two positions that many people fall into when regarding their society as a whole. Either they think that things will generally be okay, that the people in charge will more or less keep everything under control and their life will go on as usual, or they think that the world is sliding into some terminal (social, ecological, moral) decline from which it will never emerge.
The vague sense that everything will be okay could be a common-or-garden complacency common to all comfortably-off humans, but there is something more suspicious about it I think. We know that many people think (a) that politicians are in charge and (b) they are some of the least trustworthy humans in existence. On a personal level many people regard politicians with disgust, while acknowledging them as the actors who make our world. So where does this faith that things will be ok come from? We can’t trace it to one cause, but I do know a religion that, despite a stream of thought concerned with social justice, liked to create the mentality that if we put our heads down and do the will of the Lord, everything will be okay in the end. The habit of faith is hard to break it seems.
As for the apocalyptic tendency within Christianity, this barely needs pointing out. Everyone knows the nutty hallucinatory doom-mongering of batty old John. It extends back into the Old Testament too: Judaism pretty much invented the prophet of doom. The apocalyptic prophecy in monotheism is deeply bound up with moral judgement, and not just a moral judgement of individuals either. It relies on passing a moral judgement on the whole of society. Think about that for a while. It’s a fucked up thing to do. It doesn’t make any sense. Peak oil is not a punishment for ‘our’ sins. It is a consequence of certain organisational forms in our society, designed for the benefit of certain people, but here’s the more important point: since it isn’t a punishment, it won’t bring the world to an end. Really. There will be a long tail after the peak, not a sudden apocalypse.
Things aren’t going to be okay. The world isn’t going to end. Instead what is going to happen in the future is that things will go up and down. At the same time. I know this, because this is what has always happened. Some things get better, some things will worse – for who, when, how, we don’t know. But things won’t be okay and the world won’t end.
Having reached that certainty there is one major ambiguity left: the actors in this unsatisfying up and down drama (if you ever watched Heroes you’ll be familiar with the form). Who makes things go up and down? And so we see that my lengthy prevarication on the topic of free will at the beginning was not as self-indulgent as it first appeared but in fact an integral part of this post. HA! I snuck that one up on you!! The notion that it is our leaders who make things happen, that it is the famous names or even the bankers behind the scenes who create our world, seems a bit too simple once we question the idea of free will. For the same reasons it seems too simple to say that ‘we’, the people, make history, as some proponents of ‘the masses’ like to say.
That doesn’t rob us of all power. We are actors in the drama of history if we choose to see ourselves that way. We can still make the choices in our heads, make things happen in the real world, try and work out improvements to what we see in the world and put them into practice. But the reason that things go up and down now becomes apparent: no one is in charge, not even the people in charge. God is dead, you see. Many people think they know that but they’ve just made God fuzzier and hidden him away somewhere. They pretend he doesn’t exist while still he’s everywhere in their minds, making the world ok or sending it to hell.
1. If you’ve ever opened a crap present, and someone says ‘It’s the thought that counts’ and you secretly thought ‘No it isn’t! I’d much rather have a good present!’ then you know we should be suspicious of good intentions. Good intentions have crap effects. Often.
2. Your good intentions frequently serve the purpose of making you feel good. By having good intentions the point you have established – beyond any doubt whatsover – is that you are the sort of person who has good intentions. Well, you’ve established it in your mind anyway. But let’s be honest, most people have good intentions in some way or other. They’re really nothing special. Sorry.
3. Look, I know this is scraping through the bottom of the barrel of rhetoric before I’ve even got to point five but I’m going to say it anyway: Hitler probably had good intentions. In fact, no probably about it. He wanted to elevate his people and give them better lives. You aren’t Hitler (Yet – careful now!) but do you really feel sure there are no dodgy ideas and perceptions in your mind distorting your thinking?
4. The structures within which you live and operate will twist your intentions to their own ends. They always do. You can’t ever entirely calculate the effects of your actions, even when you’ve done them. But that’s no excuse for charging ahead borne along purely on the conviction that your intentions are good so it must be worth doing. We should at least try to take account of how our intentions will be interpreted, used, and distorted.
5. Good intentions without thinking through the context in which you perform them, without attempting to work out the reason for the failures that have gone before you, without wondering what the price of failure would be, are lazy as well as egotistical. It’s not that good intentions don’t count at all, it’s that good intentions alone don’t count. Stop being so fucking lazy. (If you are not lazy and not convinced of the inherent worth of your good intentions please forgive this minor rudeness – it was well-intentioned.)
I’ve always quite liked those essays and pamphlets that have from time to time been put out to confront politically active people with their own behaviour patterns. They tend to have a provocative edge and slightly supercilious note that I will attempt to emulate in this post. Because this one is for people who think of themselves as radicals. This is a post about how radicalism might not be radical, and you’re probably to blame. No, not you, obviously, I mean all the people behind you.
I should make it clear I’m not talking about spontaneous outbursts of action by people fighting for what they need. It’s not reasonable to discuss what is or isn’t radical about sudden mass movements of people trying to make space for themselves in the world. It simply happens. I’m talking about – and to – the people who sit around discussing how to change things.
Events like the demonstration on the 26th March have begun to bother me. Before it happened there was all sorts of talk about all the cool stuff that was going to happen, yet apart from UKUncut very little happened outside the march. Some people ran around in circles for a bit and had some barneys with the police, but no targets, no occupations, no serious disruptions. It seemed that people were waiting for someone else to organise the cool stuff and when it didn’t they just accepted they were riding on the back of a demonstration created by an organisation many of them despise.
What is the cool stuff anyway? What is radical action? Well we’re all agreed now that radical stuff should feel good. It should feel liberating as well as being liberating. It should be exciting. It should give you a buzz. It should give you some sense of inner release, or expansion, or connectedness. Having read a load of radical literature from the 60s and 70s I think I’ve found the roots of this attitude: the 60s and 70s. And its not only our attitudes we get from there, but also our rhetoric, and our theory, and most of our idea of what radical action is. A startling amount of it comes from the Situationists and if you haven’t read them, you should, because that’s who you’re following.
Problem is, that was a time of a great outburst of individualism among young people. It felt great. I’m sure many people had really interesting experiences of personal liberation. And the structures of society remained largely untouched. I don’t think that was just because the US government shot people at Kent State University or whatever other particular event you choose to blame. I suspect it is because you can’t really challenge large-scale structures – hierarchical collectives if you will – as individuals. And here’s the really horrible thing I’ve begun to suspect: in political terms your personal liberation doesn’t count for diddly-squat.
Yes, I know we’ve all come to believe that the liberation of society and our personal liberation are intimately bound up with each other, and maybe they are bound up with each other a bit, but they are different things. I think when eager young people (like me ten years ago) are inducted into what passes for radical culture, they are really inducted into a sub-culture that is very good at giving a sense of personal liberation. And that’s it. Not much more.
I think this helps to explain why some people in Britain in the late 90s and early 2000s were convinced they were part of an anti-capitalist movement. As individuals they were anti-capitalist. All their friends were anti-capitalist. The fact that 99% of the population didn’t care often seemed to escape their notice and they called themselves a movement. It wasn’t a movement. I don’t think there is an anti-cuts movement at the moment either. Just a few people who agree with each other hanging around with each other and not much will – from what I’ve seen – to try and break out of that bubble. So someone can make a claim like ‘everyone knows the NHS is being privatised’ and not understand how wrong they are.
The truth is, it’s hard work to set up organisations open to everyone. It’s hard to beat the mainstream media at disseminating information outside of twitter. If activism should feel fun, I guess we just won’t do it, because hard work isn’t fun. As for why I would focus on organising: I think the people in charge are really well organised at the moment. The reason every government is more right wing even than we feared is because there is very effective right wing organisation pulling in one direction and there is no organisation at all pulling in any other direction.
One of the problems with radical political circles is the failure to communicate with ‘outsiders’ and another, perhaps even more insidious, is that everyone agrees on what radical action is. Even though in our current social context (by definition, since each context is unique) these actions we are taking have no track record of success, this is what we do. This is radical action. Protest. Direct Action. Solidarity rallies. Occupations. I do these things myself too, but I’ve often been filled with doubt while doing them, and surprised by the certainty of others that they know the right way to fight for change.
Some of the actions are even actions known to have failed. I was surfing the internet while distracting myself from writing this post and I came across the Jarrow March 2011. A bunch of unemployed workers are planning to march from Jarrow to London to highlight their situation, in imitation of a similar march in 1936. Now, I don’t know how to point this out without sounding like the bad guy, but someone’s going to have to say it. Guys, you know it didn’t work in 1936, right? You know it made bugger all difference? I suppose the reference to history is supposed to create certain resonances with another time of austerity. But couldn’t we try something that might work this time?
It might seem counter-intuitive that I’m talking about a lack of hard-work organising and that people are organising things that don’t work in the same post. But they are related. They’re both about people pursuing their personal liberation along lines laid down in another time, by other people. And the personal liberation can be such a good feeling that people end up sure they know how to liberate others and throw themselves into ‘radical’ activism with all their might. And often what they’re really doing is continuing their personal journey of liberation. Don’t get me wrong: personal liberation is good, and the first direct actions anyone does can be amazing for that reason, but it should be the start of other things.
I really don’t want to denigrate people’s efforts within anti-cuts groups. But more and more I start to get the feeling that many people are campaigning within a bubble of them and others who agree with them. I think this is in part a consequence of the idea that activism is meant to feel good. And I don’t see much reflection on how we can bring change prior to taking action, or see enough thinking about how society is different now than in the past, and how we might have to adjust our methods to deal with that. I see very few people admitting that we aren’t sure how to be radical yet. And it may turn out we want to be as individualistic as mainstream culture – or even more so – but I don’t think we should just adopt that culture with self-fulfilment without thinking about it.
I don’t know how to be radical, but I would like to propose two ideas that might lead in that direction. The first is to analyse in detail the structural and social landscape in which you live. It is different to at any time in the past. Any radical actions proposed in the past may no longer be radical. Like the TUC march, they may be mere ritualised resistance, bothering the people in power not one bit. So let’s examine the possible routes to change as society stands right now. To do this properly doesn’t quite mean throwing away everything you know about radical action, but it requires you to bracket it while you imagine doing things completely differently. It might mean never going on a protest again. Probably not, but it might.
The second idea is for you to challenge your notion of yourself, the way you relate to the world, and what you expect of the world. Because I don’t think radical action will always feel good right now – though I agree that if it doesn’t feel good in the long run that’s a problem. I don’t think it will always feel liberating in the moment of doing it. And I don’t think how you feel about it should matter as much as most people seem to think it should. If we care about change we need to have an effect on the world, and that’s a very different thing from the satisfaction of individual desires. I certainly wouldn’t want people to engage in hair-shirtism for the sake of it, or return to the days of moralistic mutual discipline in political organising, but I wish at least more people would start thinking about – for instance – how we can really get organised outside of the traditional leftist modes and the boring legwork that will be necessary for it to happen.
I think the lack of self-reflection among people who consider themselves radical is so great that to some extent I wish people would stop doing stuff. Stop marching, stop occupying, stop publishing, stop tweeting, stop doing direct actions, stop everything. Just for a bit. As you become ‘radicalised’ you become inducted into a culture of ‘radicalism’ that is as individualistic as the culture it claims to oppose, and adheres as strongly to ritual forms as our would-be masters do. I think we still need to work out how to be radical: how to think radically, how to act radically, how to relate radically. I don’t think we know yet.
I think the assumption you know how to be radical is killing radicalism.
This is the first in series about the ‘liberal’ mindset, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.
In the wake of recent protests, and through the pre-emptive arrests for the royal wedding, the government and police have made it clear recently that only ‘legitimate’ protesters are protected by our ‘right’ to protest. I would expect them to make this distinction but it seems crazy for protesters to adopt it too. I’ve seen too many rants online and in newspapers against the ‘aggressive’ protesters who spoil things for all the peaceful protesters. This should be a debate about tactics but many people turn it into a debate about morals (I posted on this recently) and worse, happily adopt the term ‘illegitimate’ protester. If you’ve been using the term, even implicitly, you need to start questioning what the crazy liberal in your head is making you do.
This legitimate/illegitimate distinction comes to us from those currently in power. What ‘legitimate’ largely means is protesters willing to comply with the antiprotest laws of recent years and protesters who will not cause any trouble. About fifteen years ago we had far fewer anti-protest laws on the books (Do you remember those crazy days? It was barely safe to leave the house. It was anarchy. Thank you lords and masters for legislating for that problem). The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters could still be made – ‘peaceful’ protest as ‘legitimate’ is an oldie and a goodie – but the laws have made it much easier. Now if you haven’t consulted the police about where and when you will protest, it is illegitimate. Hence the police could comfortably claim that those in Trafalgar Square who were violently dispersed by police on 26th March weren’t ‘real protesters’.
As an aside, many people, establishment figures and good liberals, have recently attempted to describe the recent Egyptian protests as ‘peaceful’, which obviously helped to legitimise them in their eyes. Though the Egyptian people didn’t start a war it is absurd to describe the protests as peaceful. Talking to people in Egypt when I was on holiday there I realised that many people didn’t protest against Mubarak primarily: they went out on the streets to fight the police. They went out to oppose the arbitrary and abusive powers that had ruined their lives for decades. They burned down the police stations that Mubarak’s security services operated from. They confronted police lines and fought through tear gas to push the police back. Many protesters (close to 700) were killed, but finally, with the military largely standing aside, they won. It was to a large degree a physical fight and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring the facts.
Ah but things aren’t as bad here, is the stock response to this. Yes, this is a good one. Things aren’t as bad here. We don’t need to oppose our government with force, say the moderate liberals. That’s just too extreme when they aren’t locking us up and torturing us. This misses the point spectacularly and it misses it in a way very particular to the liberal mindset. The biggest problem, the defining problem I would say, of the socially liberal worldview is a failure to recognise and understand power.
Protest is the action of the relatively powerless against those who have much power. It is not, I’ve always thought, a particularly good way to exercise power – it lacks finesse and often direction – but when a corrupt system robs you of power, it is one of the few avenues to express power left to you. The advantage of street protest is that all it requires is numbers to make it effective. Enough people to disrupt the narrative, enough people to raise a dissenting voice, enough people to make it clear that the consensus is broken. What should matter then, in terms of tactics, is the ability of the protest to disrupt the abusive status quo, and not the severity of the abuse of power fought.
I can kind of see the argument for saying that protest should be ‘proportionate’ to the level of abuse, but I’m not comfortable with it because what do you calibrate your scale against – Nazism? Pol Pot? Relative to those things we’re all doing fine and should just go home. But in recognition of this argument, if you do think that the level of the abuse matters, if you do view the number of deaths caused by the government as the scale against which you should match your protest level, then please do examine the current plans for dismantling and privatising the NHS, and the cuts to the NHS they said they wouldn’t make. Standards of care will fall and as a result people will die.
There’s your death count for you, and you can add plenty to it for the benefits cuts, but that’s not why you should reject the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters. You should reject it because if you adopt the definitions of those in power, you’ve already lost.
Again this is about people refusing to think about the problem in terms of power. These words, legitimate, illegitimate, were carefully chosen to help entrench those with power in their positions. If you allow them to label certain protesters legitimate and others illegitimate it should be clear that they will seek to attach the label ‘legitimate’ to those who don’t bother them too much and ‘illegitimate’ to those who do bother them. Since the purpose of protest is to bother those in power, surely only a mad person would accept the labels offered. It is a recipe for failure.
The purpose of protest is to disrupt and confront. Those who engage in protest seek to express their desires when few other options are available to them. There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only protest you agree or disagree with, only protest that works or doesn’t. Yes, within any group some person may commit a foolish act, like throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof too close to people on the ground. Some may even engage in violence for the pleasure of hurting other people. Those people can and should be judged on their own actions. To attach labels to whole groups on the basis of those people is the logic of collective punishment.
There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only effective and ineffective protest. If you keep listening to the liberal in your head then you’ve chosen the latter. You should perhaps be asking why the liberal in your head is telling you these things. It frames the game in a way that ensures you lose. Where did your liberal ideas come from then, and who do they serve?
Perhaps its time to have a stern talk with the liberal in your head. There’s nothing worse than having your own head stab you in the back.