#GetToriesOut

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After reading Christina’s blogpost, I started to think about the dissatisfaction surrounding the election. Does the answer lie in electoral reform or in unruly action, or both? And then I heard about the anti-Tory protests.

Yesterday protests began in London against the newly elected Tory government, who won the general election with a slim majority. Protesters have used smoke bombs, and a number of people have been arrested. Strikingly, the protests were not initially reported in the mainstream UK media. The agitation isn’t only on the streets. My facebook newsfeed is dominated by people lamenting the outcome of the election, with articles like How to Leave the United Kingdom trending. Yet with 37% of the vote, the Conservatives still gained more support than any other party. It seems the nation is divided.

tories

The question everyone seems to be asking is What right do we have to protest a government that we elected?  I have read comments on youtube labelling protesters as ‘hypocritical socialists’ who can’t accept the democratic outcome. But was this outcome democratic? As Christina has argued, there are representational flaws in the system of First Past the Post, which allows a party to run the country despite the fact that 63% of voters did not vote for them. But the protests are targeted at the Conservative party and austerity measures, rather than attacking the electoral system. The message is Get the Tories Out rather than Get Proportional Representation In.

Representation through protest

Maybe rather than seeing protest as a means to change political representation, we should view it as political representation in itself. I think it’s unfair to paint the Anti-Tory movement as hypocritical. Millions of people do not have their political views given fair represention in parliament, and this heightens the need for other forms of political representation to be seized: people take to the streets to represent their own interests.

The figures that Christina presented below show how disproportional the seats are to the overall percentage of votes. I think this is most striking in Scotland, where around 50% of the population did not vote SNP and yet will have Scotland almost wholly represented by this party. I don’t think the percentages are even a fair reflection the views of the public, as people’s voting was strongly shaped by the First Past the Post system. People who might have voted Green voted Labour because they had more of a chance of keeping Conservatives out. Votes for the smaller parties are considered ‘wasted votes’, and so the voting percentages to some extent reflect tactical voting rather than true political views.

Proportional Representation?

I do have my reservations about Proportional Representation. PR is more likely to result in a coalition government, and I personally prefer the idea of a one party government that can quickly and effectively get things done. Even if we don’t agree with what they do, this can spark momentum to challenge this. And at least the FPTP system has kept out extreme parties such as UKIP, but will this too result in a backlash, with UKIP supporters seeking other forms of representation? I think these protests highlight the fact that people feel unrepresented by the election, so maybe electoral change is indeed needed.

So what now?

People are angry, people are disillusioned, people feel unrepresented. What’s the answer? Should we accept the outcome of our democratic system? Should we look to reform? Or should we protest? Are the current protests using the wrong approach by attacking the Tories rather than calling for electoral change?

These are questions that I would love to explore more, but for today it’s back to finishing up my term papers! What is striking is that it seems we’re entering an important time for British politics. Badiou would perhaps argue that we shouldn’t try and place a narrative on the meaning or objectives of the protests, but acknowledge them as events in themselves. There is a rupture in society and an opening up of discussion around our politics.

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The Hidden Rulers of the Internet

I have a complicated relationship with technology. I acknowledge that it’s a useful tool for so many aspects of life and to be honest, I don’t know where I’d be without it. But I’ve never really trusted it, and as it advances year by year I get scared of our dependency on something that the majority of us don’t really fully understand. The internet can give us the power to engage with politics in a whole new way, but what power does it take away from us? And is it really a space for challenging structures of power or is it subject to those very structures?

Our studies have made me realise the way that advances in technology can be used as a tool to be unruly in so many varied ways. I’ve come to understand the power that the smart phone can bring to each of us in a political way. When we discussed photography, I realised how the smart phone gives each of us the power of the journalist. Where media coverage of protests and other unruly actions has previously been dominated by select newspapers, the phone equips us all with a tool to instantly share photographs on social media and frame these in our own ways. Social media also gives us the power to organise riots, with the London riots organised through BBM, the use of twitter in Tahrir Square, and the current use of social media to coordinate political protests in Burundi.

I think our interactions through technology take us back to the heart of the question of who we are as political subjects. The internet can give us the power of anonymity. We can seemingly comment on anything, share anything, without it being instantly obvious who we are outside of the technological realm . As Donna Haraway argues, through communication technologies we have ‘fractured identities’ as we construct multiple interactions. Technology can be an ‘embodiment’ of ourselves rather than something to be demonised and feared (Haraway, 1991). But whilst I think that we can create compound identities through the internet, these compounds still appear to be subjected to complex networks of power relations.

Gaventa's 'power cube'
Gaventa’s ‘power cube’

Last week I was reading John Gaventa’s work on spaces of participation. He uses the model of the ‘power cube’ to consider how spaces were created, on which level they operate, and the visibility of this power (Gaventa, 2006). The internet strikes me as an interesting and unique space for participation because of its many dimensions, which blur the lines of who has created the space and who is in charge. Although I’m sure that coders and hackers might be able to shed more light on the matter, to me it’s not clear who the ‘leader’ is and where the power structures lie. The internet is perhaps a network of constantly evolving spaces, each with their own set of power relations, which often operate on a ‘hidden’ level.

Despite the freedoms that the internet can give us to nurture and explore unruliness, does it really give us as much power as we think? Perhaps, as Zizek says, ‘we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedoms’ (Zizek, 2002). I recently went to a talk by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, who spoke about the infringement on our civil liberties by government operated surveillance. The complex networks that share our data mean that our ‘embodied’ technological identities created through social network sites are often not as anonymous as we might think. Even without using my smart phone as an unruly tool, I feel violated by this infringement on my privacy in the name of security. When government programmes such as PRISM are gathering data on us, they are enforcing power structures that mostly remain unseen and unconsidered. If we embody technology, then they are violating our bodies.

This can particularly work to undermine created spaces of participation. I recently read an article about surveillance of the internet in China. I’m sure you’re not surprised to learn about extensive internet censorship going on in China, but what surprised me is that censorship appears to focus not on silencing criticism of the government, but on silencing collective expression. Unruliness is monitored and curtailed, and potential spaces of participation are shut down.

So what does the internet offer us in the way of an unruly tool? I think that technology can be a tool for recreating power, but only if you know how to use it without compromising your own civil liberties. How can we trust something unless we understand it? There is evidently a complicated power play in the use of technology. I believe that the internet is revolutionary in its potential as a space for participation and for challenging power structures, but we should also be aware of the power structures that it creates less conspicuously. There is a great deal of ambiguity on whose space it is, how it is controlled, and what rights we have within this space. With the rate at which technology is advancing, it is both exciting and disquieting to think how advances in technology will shape our participation as political subjects in years to come.

Further reading: I found a link (thanks to our beloved internet) to a lot of interesting articles on the subject of social media and politics: Global Protest, Technology, and Social Media

Unruly Borders

In our first class, we were introduced to the idea of unruliness as a rejection of political language. Politics is framed in an institutionalised language, spoken by authorities to create and sustain power and legitimacy. Unruliness can be seen as the subversion of this language, the creation of a new language that questions the prevailing discourse. Ranciere claims that ‘Politics revolves around what can be seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces’ (Ranciere, 2004). As a governance student I am used to focusing on the institutionalised language, the political ‘rules of the game’ and how these affect politics. An unruly lens helps me to question how people can reject these rules in their engagement with political spaces.

Over the weeks we have looked at how unruly politics can take the form of appropriation – claiming back language, claiming back the body, and claiming back spaces through aesthetics. This led me to question aesthetics as a subversion of political language, and how aesthetics can be used to claim back contentious spaces. Here I consider the contentious space of political and territorial borders by focusing on the West Bank barrier.

The barrier

The border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank territory is a particularly contentious border as its limits and its political status have been contested for many years. Alongside disputes of whether the West Bank should be part of a Palestinian state or under the control of Israel, Israeli troops have occupied this area and taken control of the disputed border. In 2003, Israelis began to construct the West Bank barrier, a wall surrounding the West Bank territory. It was declared illegal by the International Courts of Justice in 2004, on the grounds that it violates human rights law. Yet eleven years on, the wall continues to be constructed today.

troops

Biopolitics

The occupation of West Bank by Israeli troops can perhaps be interpreted as biopolitical control of the West Bank Palestinians. Mbembe describes Foucault’s notion of biopower as ‘that domain of life over which power has taken control’ (Mbembe, 2003: 12). West Bank appears to be a ‘state of exception’, where certain Palestinian rights are denied. Although the construction of the wall may increase security in Israel, what civil liberties should be compromised in the name of security? Israeli troops regulate movement across the barrier, restricting Palestinian mobilisation and access to services. Although the Palestinians have been given a degree of autonomy, their lives are restricted by the ID cards allocated to them by the sovereign power of Israel. So what language are the constructors of the barrier speaking? They are speaking a language of biopolitics. The physical presence of the wall speaks as a visual symbol of constraints and control.

Aesthetics

But against this language of authority is the graffiti and artwork that can be found along the wall. The wall has been reclaimed by Banksy, visitors and Palestinians themselves, who have occupied this space in aesthetic form. Mitchell argues that the occupying of space is ‘a demand in its own right… an insistence on being heard’ (Mitchell, 2012: 10). The action of reclaiming this space is unruly, as ‘public space is, in fact, pre-occupied by the state and the police’, and there is the sense that reclaiming this space may provoke a reaction from the troops (Mitchell, 2012: 10).

Artwork which has been added to and annotated by others
Artwork which has been added to and annotated by others

What is interesting about wall art is the conversation it can start. Artwork on a public space transforms it into a canvas, where others can add their own message and interact with the current messages. The graffiti is not one voice but many anonymous contributions to a conversation around the imposed political boundary. The looming presence of the wall speaks a political language of separation, warning those within the West Bank to stay away. The graffiti artwork subverts this language, inviting onlookers to come closer and observe. The wall is transformed from a representational image of Israeli occupation to an aesthetic monument, undermining its very function. This is what Ranciere might consider a reconfiguration of the ‘distribution of the sensible’, as the way politics is experienced in that space is transformed, and there is a power shift in who can create this experience (Ranciere, 2004).

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From oppressive wall to artist’s canvas

Of course, the artwork does not represent all voices. There are those who appear to disagree with this subversion of the language of power through aesthetics. In ‘Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine’, Parry claims that some Palestinians disagree with the transformation of the political wall into an aesthetic space (Parry, 2010). Some argue that they disagree with the wall, and do not think it should be beautified as they do not want it there at all. It seems that some don’t want the visual representation of power to be subverted, as they want the language of oppression to be visually evident.

how-many-layers
‘How many layers of paint will it take to tear this wall down?’

Concluding thoughts

Viewing a political boundary as a space for aesthetic conversation can lead us to question our own borders – how are our spaces divided and who has the authority to impose these divisions? What right do we have to contest this? And what language can we speak in opposition? What strikes me about the West Bank barrier is that despite UN opposition, it remains. Perhaps the use of the barrier as a conversational space is doing more to question the authority of the barrier than the political language of the UN. The graffiti is questioning the biopolitical, divisional language of the barrier and turning its function on its head. This shows the different media through which we experience our political realities. Unruliness does not just manifest itself in a large scale protest, but in the everyday way we interact with the political structures around us.

UPDATE: I just rediscovered this great video of parkour in Gaza. Reclaiming the warzone! 

Photo credits:

http://hummusnotwalls.com/2013/04/18/photos-the-wall/

http://www.e-architect.co.uk/israel/west-bank-wall

http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/obamas-shift-from-freezing-settlements-to-drawing-borders-creates-new-problems-for-israel/?_r=0