Are we really in a unique time for political action? Is there something new about the unruliness filling our screens and clogging our feeds? Are we at a critical juncture in history? Is this the rebirth of History?
I recently went to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum entitled Music and Protest, and was struck by its potent relevance for the many struggles that exist today. Oppression and injustice wear different guises in today’s world, but many of the issues we are confronted with are the same facing people in the 1960s. There was an evident nostalgia for the electric sense of possibility and change that charged street corners, sit-ins and festivals of that revolutionary era. And I left with the impression that people in the 1960s were really living the change that they wanted to see. Prefiguration was almost so fundamental to the project that it need not be mentioned.
But rather than uplifted, I left feeling a little unsettled. There was a sense of a lost time, a time gone by. The collective spirit and clamour for change had been on display in glass cabinets, separate from ourselves. Yet we are so in need of that collective spirit today and so many are clamouring for change. The fights that people were fighting fifty years ago are still going on: we are struggling for equal rights and opportunity regardless of gender, sexuality, class and/or race. We are still trying to save the planet from irrevocable damage. We are still seeking to hold politicians accountable and to redistribute the massive inequality of wealth. Why then are we romanticising protest instead of replicating it? Can we recreate the magic of the 60s today? Or are we destined to the apathetic doldrums that so many attribute to this hopeless millennial generation?
Evidently there are people across the world being unruly. And there is something characteristically new about the ways in which people in Tahrir Square or the clowns of the Clandestine Clown Army reconfigure spaces and tear up the political rule book. But there is also something new about the ways in which people engage in political action from behind a screen. Activism has become trendy. Whether it’s a filter on your facebook profile photo that says “I am a compassionate human being, go me” or signing a petition on Change.org, it’s an activism that starts and ends in an internet instant.
This is not to say that the internet has not contributed in vast and valuable ways to mobilising people, spreading awareness and facilitating social change. But I think it’s contributing to the virtual, sedentary way in which we increasingly lead our lives, and dulls our expectations of what political action can be. We’re flooded by information on a daily basis. Every day we read about new suffering and new struggle as we scroll down the guardian app on our phones. Are there simply too many fights to fight? It’s as though we become exhausted and overwhelmed by the challenge ahead before we’ve even begun.
In the UK we are still taking to the streets. But I feel as though even street protest has been infused with a ‘turn up-show your face-take a photo-instagram it’ mentality. Over the last few months I’ve attended several very large marches in London, and during the most recent, ‘March Against Racism’, I was handed several flyers for upcoming marches. Is marching now an industry? Are we a demographic blob that likes to protest on a Sunday after we’ve brunched, and can be a guaranteed bum on seat? When ‘taking to the streets’ is so managed and organised and now apparently exploited, does it still have value? I have struggled with these questions a lot. I very much believe in strength in numbers, and the positive effect that simply being there in solidarity can have. Knowing that you are not alone, that you are many and you have power, is a vital step in realizing collective action. But when it feels like people are just there for the sake of it, or that there is nothing after the march, that’s when I start to fear that acts of unruliness coexist with this bizarre combination of apathy and half-hearted action.
In a recent review of Slavoj Žižek’s new book, Will Self wrote an entertaining yet depressing summation of the author’s overall message:
“Žižek paints a portrait of pampered, self-indulgent bleeding hearts, who dither over what is to be done while indulging in febrile clicktivism and agonising over the provision of gender-neutral toilets. His discussion of LGBT+ and the spell cast by identitarian politics on the left generally amounts to this coarse- yet amusing- summation: we’re fiddling with ourselves while Rome burns.”
Whilst this made me chuckle it was sadly a truth that I recognised. I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on Žižek’s thoughts on identitarian politics specifically, but I can certainly agree with the sentiment. With all of our social media bubbles we never stray too far from the ‘echo chambers’ that are so often mentioned today. It’s easy to find people who agree with us on the internet, and to pick and choose causes we’ll align ourselves to. But what if we’re missing the point? As Khanna and other unrulistas argue, the greatest challenge before us is imagining a “politics beyond the compromise of ‘consensus’.”
Discussion, disagreement, difference and dissensus should be at the heart of politics. We must challenge ourselves to go beyond turning up at marches and sharing topical articles on facebook to show that we care. If we want to capture some of that magic of the 60s we need to live the change we want to see. I speak only for myself but I don’t think we want to see or live in a world of isolated screens propping up humans.
Bertolt Brecht was reported as saying: “power comes from the people, but where does it go?” I am an eternal optimist, and buoyed by acts of unruliness which see new forms of political engagement inspire new possibilities for social change, I believe we can still fight the fight. But when the energy of activism today so often seems to dissipate as soon as a new hashtag starts trending, I do find myself wondering: “but where does it go?”
I don’t know whether or not I agree with the apathetic condemnation of millennials, but I am most definitely disturbed by “febrile clicktivism”. Ultimately I believe we should all take note of Césaire’s warning: “do not allow yourselves to cross your arms as a sterile spectator.”
Césaire, A. cited in Fanon, F., 1952. Black Skins, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, p.187.
Khanna, A., 2012. Seeing Citizen Action Through an Unruly Lens. Development 55(2), p.170.
Self, W., 2017.The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Žižek review – how the big hairy Marxist would change the world. The Guardian. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/28/courage-of-hopelessness-slavoj-zizek-review>.