Postmodernism in the Streets: the tactics of protest are changing

Three things were revealed by the recent wave of nationwide student protest. Firstly, the demonstrations represent a new political mood, that can manifest itself in excess and formless anger. Secondly, they cannot go on as unwieldy, monolithic marches. Thirdly, a new infrastructure is proving capable of rapidly mobilising disparate, localised groups in a way that can give form to the emergent appetite for direct action.

Neirin Llafar
22 December 2010

In place of the traditional, top-down organisational models, groups like UK Uncut are pioneering co-ordinated direct action orchestrated through social media and rolling days of local action. For their own part, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts adopted a similar model on November 24th, following the initial NUS demonstration two weeks beforehand, triggering waves of university occupations and other protests across the country. There is no leadership in either organisation. Rather, they channel a coalition of local groups relying on key activists and organic leaders to supplant anachronistic formulas of vanguards and steering committees. My intention is not to disparage conventional tactics employed by long-established organisations like the TUC (whose own protest takes place on March 25th), but it is clearly outmoded to continue applying uniform formulas to heterogeneous social actors.

What makes a fluid approach particularly appropriate within the context of the student movement is the way in which the informal networks crystallised during the very process of direct action can be utilised to enable its advancement. The recent occupations are instrumental not just in politicising campuses and building opposition to higher education reform, but in creating nascent ‘strike-teams’ capable of coming together at short-notice to take part in autonomous, targeted actions. From the UCL occupation alone, a flash mob staged a teach-in of tax-avoiding high street stores like Topshop under the mantra that “if you marketise our education, we’ll educate your markets”.

What binds these groups internally? What prevents them – leaderless, and in part, self-defining – from a confusion of agendas? Nothing so crude as an ideology, but collective experiences, affections and trust. Call this fey, but the defence of a shared spatial project is a powerful psychological tool for bonding humans in politically tangible ways. It overrides the weaknesses inherent to sectarian ideological foundations; it develops a far sharper appreciation of respective skills and talents. This is political action for the ephemerality of the postmodern era: antiform, anarchic, decentred and spontaneous. Yet it simultaneously avoids the dangers inherent to ‘clicktivism’ and the masquerading aesthetics of A-B marching that are too often appropriated by the very structures they set out to challenge. It restores risk and physicality to protest in a way which disrupts with creative authenticity.

Crucially, these tactics have a broad appeal. Billy Bragg is right to note that the student movement is “determined to avoid… ideological nitpicking” – its instincts lie in a philosophy more akin to avant-garde movements like Situationism than potentially alienating leftist discourses centred around political economy. This is not to dilute its objectives: fighting the marketisation and privatisation of our institutions, the proliferation of generic tax-avoiding corporations with their generic contempt for the societies they operate in. Situationism – with its critiques of the destitution of an urban experience held captive to the agendas and spectacle of late-capitalism – offers a pertinent and playful form of resistance to the flattening vacuity of celebrity and consumerism.

By moving away from the set-piece confrontations that enable riot police to gear up and create battle-lines exploited by those looking for a fight on either side, we can begin to fulfil not just political objectives but a duty of care. Flash mobs are one approach, but we should now be discussing how newly networked groups can contribute in major, long-term projects of spatial reclamation in which protest can reciprocate with alternative visions of social participation. Most importantly of all we should not be prescriptive: the old institutions – the mass media, the police, the government – have struggled to classify the emergence of this leaderless, energetic movement. I see no reason to assist them: for once we can be asserting rather than reacting to the political agenda.

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