It is obviously the period immediately preceding a clash with the police, who are guarding a nuclear power plant, a military training camp, the headquarters of a political party, or the windows of an embassy. The young people have taken advantage of this dead time to make a circle and take two steps in place, one step forward, lift first one leg and then the other – all to a simple folk melody.
I think I understand them. They feel that the circle they describe on the ground is a magic circle bonding them into a ring. Their hearts are overflowing with an intense feeling of innocence: they are not united by a march, like soldiers or fascist commandos; they are united by a dance, like children. And they can’t wait to spit their innocence in the cops’ faces.
That is the way the photographer saw them too, and he highlighted his view with eloquent contrasts: on the one side the police in the false (imposed, decreed) unity of their ranks, on the other side the young people in the real (sincere and organic) unity of their circle; on the one side the police in the gloom of their ambush, on the other the young people in the joy of their play.”
Milan Kundera - The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Over the last 6 months or so this idea has been coming to the fore of my mind; what we are going to witness over the next 10(+) years, and what we’ve seen the bare beginnings of in the student protests and especially UKUncut (more on that later) is an understanding that, well, maybe we won’t get anything done, but at least we’ll have fun trying. It’s a straight up middle finger to a generation of dour union protesters sitting around in the rain, shouting ‘scab’ at passersby. We’re here, and we’re having fun, because that’s what’s being taken away from us.
Ranked against this new playful protest movement are the pinstriped ranks of the banal. The bankers, politicians, ACPO and even some of the old unions, plus our favourite sparring partner, the Conservative party, are contriving to be, well, just so fucking serious about everything.
Maybe it’s because we grew up playing games, or watching the Goonies, but this group of Gen-X/Y/Millenial (oh, and there are a few boomers knocking about, alright), just can’t seem to take the powers that be very seriously. Day X3 was noted for the way that protesters took it on themselves to lead the police on a merry run around the city, but no-one I knew who was there did it because of a belief that was the point of the protest. We wanted to be talked about, and someone was trying to stop us, so how did we react? Not in the serious Marx/Lenin/Trotsky mode of discussing what it meant as workers, nor even as self-consciously as the situationists, but rather as though it was a game. People had Sukey to guide them, and the more they won, the more fun it became.
This is politics from a generation that’s seen a thousand keystone kops clips in our painfully hip mashups. While it’s taken a lead from the situationist tradition, the new protest brings whimsy; the perfect lance for the boil of pomposity on the nose of the powerful.
And this is where I think UKUncut certainly misstepped; the occupation of Fortnum and Mason was a terribly earnest undertaking, and, while it wasn’t about this, it certainly reeked of the politics of the class war and will, I fear, mark the moment that movement started to decline (ably assisted, of course, by the punitive arrests of the occupiers).
Imagine instead, that UKUncut had gone to lend solidarity to the police who had preemptively closed Boots, Vodafone and Topshop. They certainly couldn’t have left with a large group there, but would have had to stand while being earnestly congratulated for doing UKUncuts job for them. It’s awkward and potentially hilarious.
So let’s not disregard the energy this movement has; it can maintain it’s networked roots, supporting and enabling playful protests and occupation that move before the establishment has a chance to respond, befriending grannies in the street and forcing smiles out of the side of police officers faces. New targets need to be established, and a clear narrative of alternatives, not opposition to the cuts allowed to merge. Cameron has made it clear what he thinks of the intelligence of the hoi polloi. He needs to learn the old adage, and find out that he’s only fooled some of the people, some of the time.