If things are so bad in Britain, where's the uprising?

Given the obvious harms being inflicted on the population of the UK, in the name of austerity, why did the resistance not start sooner? And now that is has began, why are more people not getting involved?
Guy Aitchison
1 December 2011

This article is cross-posted from the Occupied Times.

At some point in time anyone involved in social movement activism confronts a tough question: if things are as bad as we say they are, then why are more people not taking action? This year has seen the beginnings of a popular response to the breakdown of the neoliberal global order. It has been a year of protests, riots, strikes and, of course, occupations. But the question remains: given the manifest harms being inflicted on the population, in the name of austerity, why did the resistance not start sooner? And now that is has began, why are more people not getting involved?


The social movement scholar, Charles Tilly, suggests six possible answers to the question of why subordinate groups don’t rebel. In most places at most times, Tilly says, all of them will apply to a greater or lesser extent. Here I consider each of them in turn and try and draw some lessons for the occupy movement.

1.       The premise is incorrect:  subordinates are actually rebelling continuously, but in covert ways. 

Anyone who secretly sticks two fingers up to authority - even if it’s just moaning about the boss behind their back - is ripe for collective action. Consider this: 13.5 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to stress-related illness compared with 12.9 million due to strike action in the 1970s when we were known as the “sick man” of Europe. This is testament to the oppressive conditions of the modern workplace. But it also suggests that with the decline of organised industrial conflict over the last few decades we have seen the rise of privatised acts of rebellion against the discipline of work. A key question is how to turn these individual subterranean, transgressions into collective, politicised acts of resistance.

2.       Subordinates  actually  get  something  in  return  for  their subordination, something that is sufficient to make them acquiesce most  of  the  time.

The economist Joan Robinson once said that “the one thing worse than being exploited in capitalism is not being exploited”. Under a capitalist system, the immediate material interests of the population are intimately tied to processes of capital accumulation and investment, which creates jobs and the possibility of a regular income. Over time, most people will come to identify their interests with those of capital. Anyone arguing for a change to a more egalitarian social system must therefore convince enough people that such a transformation will serve their material interests (or, if not, that other benefits, such as sustainability or community, will compensate). This explains why periods of crisis assume such significance in revolutionary critique. At times of crisis, like the one we’re living through, the close link between individual material interests and capitalism is weakened. With 2.5 million unemployed, a looming double dip recession, and savage attacks on living standards, there is a powerful opportunity to make the case for system-wide change.

3.       Through  the  pursuit  of  other  valued  ends  such  as  esteem  or identity,  subordinates  become  implicated  in  systems  that  exploit or  oppress  them.

It’s easy to decry as “shallow” and “fake” the mixture of pleasure and social recognition people get from the latest Apple product or Adidas trainers. It's much harder to understand the complex processes by which capitalist consumer culture secures consent for exploitative practices across the globe. The co-operative forms of citizenship practiced in the occupations point towards more democratic ways of being. They can also be socially enriching and rewarding. As sociologist James Jaspers observes “virtually all the pleasures that humans derive from social life are found in protest movements: a sense of community and identity; ongoing companionship and bonds with others; the variety and challenge of conversation, cooperation and competition. Some of the pleasures are not available in the routines of life.”

4.       As a result of mystification, repression, or the sheer unavailability of alternative ideological frames, subordinates remain unaware of their true interests.

Termed the “third dimension” of power, by philosopher Steven Lukes, this process takes place most explicitly at the ideological level where domination of the mass media by corporations helps ensure the elite mantra that “There is no alternative” to austerity dominates public discussion. It becomes, in the words of Antonio Gramsci, the “common sense” of the age, endorsed by our “moral and intellectual leaders”.  

Culture, too, is a key terrain where neoliberal beliefs and attitudes are reinforced. Think, for instance, of how “reality” TV shows reinforce the values of hyper-competitive individualism. As soon as the participants, in a show like Big Brother, start to work together the producers nearly always introduce some new element to sow division, as if to prove collective action is futile. 

Instinctively, many people are uncomfortable of thinking about power like this, because of the ideological baggage associated with the Marxist concept of “false consciousness”. However, the idea that people are mistaken about their “true interests” needn’t presuppose some objective “truth”, with all the authoritarian possibilities that implies. It can, as Lukes says, simply reflect the fact that subordinate groups lack the possibility of genuine ideological choice. The great success of the occupy movement, to date, has been to highlight the fact we are not all in this together, austerity is a choice and that, in the words of the alter-globalisation movement, “another world is possible.”  

5.       Force and inertia hold subordinates in place.

When all else fails, systematic violence on the streets keeps people in check. Naturally, this refers to the Territorial Support Group, police batons and dogs; the threat of rubber bullets and water cannon. Yet the threat of force isn’t limited to demonstrations. It lies always beneath the surface, reinforcing the various institutional rules that make collective action more difficult, such as those regulating trade union activity.

Over the last year, the state has been gradually escalating the costs of collective action. Obscene jail terms have been handed down, including an 18 month sentence for Omar Ibrahim for throwing a joke smoke-bomb at Top Shop on the TUC march on March 26th.

This kind of overt repression by the state is always a risky gamble. It can backfire, especially in the era of smart phones and social media. Witness, for example, the mass mobilisation and port shut down in Oakland in response to police brutalising protesters and putting Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen in hospital with brain damage.   

6.       Resistance and rebellion are costly; most subordinates lack the necessary means.

Many lack the time to attend a protest, let alone take part in a lengthy occupation. People lead busy, stressful lives. Crucially, they also experience injustice and deprivation on a local level. That’s why successful opposition politics requires more than dramatic public protests, useful though these are in communicating ideas, building solidarity and exploring political alternatives. There is an urgent need to build the long-term groups and networks that empower people in their everyday lives, as workers, tenants, benefit claimants and public service users. This is difficult work. Understanding the forces that breed despair and inertia is an important first step.

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