Kettled Youth: the emergence of a new politics in Britain

A new polemic pamphlet reflects on the emergence of a new politics in Britain, through the lens of the police tactic of 'kettling' protesters
James Butler
3 August 2011

Kettled Youth, by Dan Hancox, Vintage Digital, July 2011. 

The very best kinds of journalism, which are rare and difficult to accomplish, are not those which seek to present a spurious, pseudo-objective ‘balance’, but which dwell in the heart of their subject matter, overturn orthodoxies, present an event from its inside. By that definition, Dan Hancox’s new pamphlet Kettled Youth (available on Kindle or iPad) is very good journalism indeed. In the pursuit of such ends it can be easy to traduce or simplify one’s subjects, or cede to the tabloid instinct for pruriency, or search for the ‘telling’ detail confirming a reader’s prejudices. That Hancox avoids doing so on a subject so extensively written-about as the largely youth-centred uprisings and ‘student movement’ of the end of last year is laudable. That he chooses to pursue instead an understanding of a difficult, politically complex and defining moment in the beginning of the anti-austerity struggle makes the piece crucial reading.

It is sometimes a little difficult to remember how different the political landscape looked in Britain before the occupation of Millbank in November of last year. While Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, edited by Hancox and published by OurKingdom in February, captures the energy of the nascent movement, little has been written on the transition from what went before. Certainly, student politics – a subject ripe for satire at the best of times – seemed largely to consist of drab bureaucrats-in-training seeking to undercut each other on who could deliver the most alcohol, or the closest links to banks or consultancies, or the most watery absence of political principle imaginable.

Where there were centres of vitality and energy, they seemed to lie primarily with identity campaigns: LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bi-Trans), women or black students being most inclined to dissent from the prevailing complacency surrounding them, given they were more likely to see the sharp end of it. It might well, indeed, be true that those struggles provide a convenient and obvious locus from which to broaden into a wider social understanding of what structures misogyny, homophobia or racism; that, certainly, has always been one of my explicit aims in involvement in LGBT identity politics. However, even those campaigns were – and always have been – subject to an insidious form of recuperation, reaching half-accommodations and compromises with power, or being bought off by the promise of lucrative rewards for complicity (women in the boardroom and gays in banking becoming a warped synonym for ‘success’), not to mention the political recuperation of such struggles as training grounds for future MPs, civil servants or thinktank grandees, where they can blow off their radical steam for a few years without changing very much.

It has become standard to say that Millbank changed that. It did and it didn’t: the sclerotic grip of mediocrity remains around the throat of most electoral student politics, and, having chosen to amble in irrelevance alongside unprecedented levels of student self-organisation, the youth wings of political parties remain more or less the same. But in the buildup to Millbank and afterwards, the most remarkable feature of the movement was that it interested and spoke to students and young people who were not within the normal constituency of youth politics. The truism is to argue that this is a rejoinder to critics who declare the young apathetic or without politics; certainly, anyone who speaks or works with the young in even the most ancillary of ways will recognise that they regularly express political views, though often with so rigorously realistic an understanding of Westminster that they may sound uncomfortable to those within the mainstream political machine. What was, in fact, remarkable was not that people possessed these views, but that they put them into so forceful and inspiring an action.

To act on political views both requires and creates certain conditions: anger is one of the prerequisites, but so is an awareness of the instability and artificiality of the political situation; the very best of such actions also inaugurate a new condition, impel further resistance, lend inspiration to others. Very briefly, it might be worth thinking about that first part: what was it that tipped agreement about the government’s hypocrisy and rampant fetish for the market over into action? What made people come on to the street, possess the courage to push through police lines, break glass, enter the building? You might point to several things. Most defences of such actions argue that they are born of an awareness that the act of demonstration is easily ignored by those in power, that the defining political memory for many marching that day is of the Labour government ignoring the million people marching in opposition to the Iraq war.

Yet it strikes me that other conditions were crucial in transforming belief into action: the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent servile kow-towing to bankers’ demands, the glut of obscene bonuses and fiscal prestidigitation that followed laid out in very clear, sharp terms what the priorities of the state were. It is hard not to make the obvious connection, displayed on placards everywhere on demonstrations, that austerity measures were simply a reflection of those priorities, which placed the demands of a small, wealthy, connected elite, above the demands of the people. Equally, a minority government pursuing radical austerity measures, with the complicity of a party deemed in popular opinion to be ‘nicer’ but tacitly sharing a very similar economic agenda, served only to underscore those priorities and stimulate the dissatisfaction with a seemingly rigged political system. In the face of a future not worth the name, there is a choice of despair or action, and a great influence on that choice is whether the world as currently constituted seems immutable or whether, in fact, the whole edifice looks rickety and contingent. In a way that seemed unimaginable even five years ago, it looks increasingly the latter; those are conditions in which political action on a large scale blossoms. (Nor are they going away any time soon: the recent media-political scandal over phone-hacking and the cynicism of European economic manoeuvring certainly suggest otherwise.)

Such an excursus on Millbank is necessary, I think, to understand the phenomenon Hancox addresses in Kettled Youth, an account tightly focused through the lens of the barbaric and brutal police action in Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge in December last year. Where Millbank took the police and government – and indeed, us – by surprise, they were determined to contain and neutralise any disruption on the day of the fees vote itself. Hancox is acutely aware of the role of kettling as a tactic that extends beyond physical, logistical containment, acting as a crude, physical way of dissuading those inside it from ever returning to the streets in dissent. He also raises doubts about its effectiveness in doing so, given the solidarity it evokes in those contained, the determination expressed by many to return, and the jarring, radicalising effect of physical containment.

It should be apparent, also, that the physical kettle in many ways expresses the logic structuring the police approach to protest: the endless trawling of proliferating CCTV images, the absurdly overblown briefings about ‘violence’, the subsequent pre-emptive arrests and raids prior to the royal wedding. The insistence of the political class in reading these as the acts of ‘feral thugs’ or a destructive minority is equally an act of intellectual sleight-of-hand, designed to contain protesters as removed and distinct from civil society; in fact, what can be said about Millbank, Parliament Square and the actions of March 26th is that for the first time in a very long time, they weren’t solely the domain of a cadre of experienced, organised activists, but instead involved and spoke to a broad cross-section of people, many of whom found themselves involved for the first time. It’s no surprise that as a consequence the political class has tried to reinscribe them as the actions of a ‘despicable’ and alien minority, but even in trying to do so concede that they present a very real threat, and reveal a poorly-concealed anxiety about the popularity of such dissent.

That they have failed to quite bring out the fear and hatred they desire as a reaction to protest has partly been due to the diminishing ability of police and government to determine what images and footage reach the media, with a concomitant upswing in the rise of camera-phone footage, social media dissemination and internet organisation. Hancox’s pamphlet recognises the importance of these means in bringing so many people on to the streets and combating disinformation campaigns, as well as containing numerous links to Youtube video footage, which has been crucial in establishing the reality of events in the face of a somnolent media machine; presumably the decision to publish digitally was in part a nod to this.

There is also an excellent section on quite what the significance of the battle to control representation of reality means. Yet he is also right, I think, to avoid the temptation to write a panegyric to the wonders of the internet, the tendency to ascribe a total novelty and implicit egalitarianism in its modes of engagement. Though there is certainly a crucial dynamic between digital organising and propagandising, their usefulness would be minuscule without the rise of a new political awareness. (Hancox: "The smashing of the glass in Millbank tower marked the first shattering of capitalist realism, and the forging of a new mind-phase for a generation of protesters.") What is that awareness? It is, in part, an awareness of just how much is at stake:

…the worst thing you can say about this government is not that they threaten ‘a throwback to the eighties’ or a ‘return to Thatcherism’. This is less a revival of the 1980s than a revival of the 1880s: a return to pre-suffrage plutocracy – the wealthy propped up by toothless, unaccountable parliamentary institutions, nobbled trade unions, and a butchered welfare state, with charities and philanthropists asked to rescue as many of the poor and destitute as they can. … What we are seeing now is the final phase of a Plutocratic Restoration, the re-establishment of Victorian wealth and power inequalities, after the relatively brief social democratic interregnum when we began to build a more equal society.

This is what is fundamental: a realisation that the victories gained in establishing a more just situation were never permanent, always inconvenient and more under threat than we could have imagined. The education issue foregrounds many of the glaring contradictions of the cloak of ‘fairness’ or ‘necessity’ under which the government seeks to sneak in its agenda: it is a permanent restructuring in order to deal with a half-fictional temporary problem, and one which rests on a preposterous crazed faith in some very shaky economic creeds. It is sold to the public on the basis of hazy promises of future ‘fairness’, or by appealing to the parsimonious, jealous suspicion that someone, somewhere might be getting something for free, or, most of all, by insistently reconfiguring every human interaction as one of market exchange. The austerity agenda has very little to do with concern over justice, or fairness, but is at its heart, as John Lanchester put it:

...supposed to be a consequence of us all having had it a little bit too easy (this is an attitude which is only very gently implied in public, but it’s there, and in private it is sometimes spelled out). But the thing is, most of us don’t feel we did have it particularly easy. When you combine that with the fact that we have so little real agency in our economic lives, we tend to feel we don’t deserve much of the blame.

The explosive potential of the realisation that this is the private opinion of our nominal masters is what we saw burgeoning on the streets and in the determination of student and UKUncut activists to refuse to let this obscene realisation – that they think what little they condescend to give us is already too much – slip back beneath the folds of political culture. It is a startling, shocking, sometimes frightening awareness to hold on to, but one that impels change. Inside the kettle, in front of the police lines, we saw just how dangerous, how threatening a realisation it is.

There is too much in Hancox’s essay to dilate upon here, but much worthy of reflection. One thing that strikes me is the connection between the chosen lens of analysis – the largely young, contained and violently-treated demonstrators in Parliament Square – and the passionate sense of hope and engagement that suffuses the essay. I am certain that Hancox, like me, drew an immense, revitalising sense of hope from participation in those demonstrations, and that sense suffuses the essay. This is what I mean when I argue that the best kind of journalism refuses the false reflexivity that drains writing of emotional or political attachment to a cause in the service of a hand-wringing ‘balance’: no account from inside the kettle could read otherwise and still be true to the experience. Many of us who had secretly made concessions to the diminishing possibility of radical responses to the neoliberal onslaught will recognise that sentiment:

Idealism always gets corrupted, leaderlessness never lasts, bonapartism will always triumph, cry the cynics – well, maybe: but I’ve lost patience with cynicism. Protest works, and it’s addictive, and it radicalises, and it’s transformative.

The choice to centre the essay around the moment of the kettle, what went into it, what came out of it, what was transformed in its crucible, necessarily brackets some of the other distinctive features and concerns about the disparate and diversely understood youth movement: the modes of formal organisation (the ‘consensus’ process) and the reflected dissatisfaction with orthodox vehicles for change, the diverse class composition of protesters, the stumbling interactions with the media, the inspiring, flawed, but above all passionately engaged student occupations, the question of the involvement of young people in the coming, wider anti-austerity struggles. Hancox’s choice to focus on the kettle is because it is a potent and timely symbol which has only partly been decoded: what is most impressive is the defiant insistence on reclaiming the kettled space, refusing to reduce it to a simple litany of brutalisations, or portray those inside it as simply kids whose innocence precedes and eclipses their intense, intelligent, political anger.

Writing like this is retrospective, and as such differs substantially from the analyses and responses emanating from the movement in the heat of the moment, collected in the Fight Back! Reader, as it serves to illuminate the causes and potentials that may not have been immediately obvious in the spate of rapidly-produced journalistic commentary during that time. Equally, I suspect, and hope, it presages some longer reflections from other participants in the movement, too. We are in urgent need of such reflections, especially because occasionally in this piece one sees other avenues of thought that urge opening up: for instance, the psychology of debt as a part of subject-formation, or what the much-defended ‘prefigurative politics’ of either the kettle or indeed the occupations prefigure precisely. To me the most telling of these avenues is the extent to which the psychological fact of kettling, the media and political response and the avenues of organisation pursued by the student movement put them in conflict not simply with the policy choices of the government, but the very structure of the state itself; this is most obvious when Hancox talks about the ‘lengths the state will go to’ to protect the rich. What this instinctively-realised politics means – that it is not just those in government, but the apparatus of the state itself that is complicit in silencing dissent – needs to be explored, especially by those holding anarchist views.

Kettled Youth, then: not simply a description of something that happened, but a phrase expressing the political conditions we find ourselves in. It’s a timely essay, both for those who have been involved and those who want to understand some of what was actually going on in those protests. I can’t read its conclusions as anything other than a call to arms rather than a mourning over loss. And that makes me very, very hopeful.


This piece was originally published on the blog Pierce Penniless. 

Kettled Youth can be purchased from Amazon here. Go to the Fight Back!  A Reader on the Winter of Protest page to read the book for free, or purchase as an e-book or print copy. 

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