Take the quiet life

A whole array of trivial pursuits, from Jamie Oliver cookbooks to popular dieting, will always be on hand to liberally furnish our conversations, when we feel increasingly powerless to steer the course of modern politics. But the foundations of today’s political indifference stretch even further back.

Nicholas Barrett
27 September 2014
Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street 2011. Demotix/Angel Zayas. All rights reserved.

Back in January, the journalist George Monbiot published a short essay entitled ‘Freedom is something to use or lose’. The standfirst reads: “Consumerism's petty liberties have made us inhumanly passive”. Monbiot laments the passivity of our culture in the face of diminishing civil liberties, an ecological crisis and a highly visible plutocratic takeover. On top of this Monbiot accuses us (I suspect with at least one eye firmly fixed on the British middle class) of what Christopher Hitchens described as “the one unforgivable sin”: being boring. He laments, “how many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts?”

A whole world of trivial pursuits, from Jamie Oliver cookbooks to popular diets, will always be available to decorate our short time on earth and can be used liberally to furnish our conversations, especially when we feel increasingly powerless to steer the cargo ship of modern politics. The understood narrative is that they proliferated as interests among the baby-boomer generation born after the end of the Second World War, as if at some point they realised that it was significantly easier to change their own circumstances than it was to change the world. Meanwhile, politics is now regarded, by every generation, with a kind of vague nihilism.

But the foundations of today’s political indifference were built in 1958 by a public intellectual sitting at the heart of the British establishment. When Isaiah Berlin gave a famous speech in Oxford defining two separate definitions of liberty (negative and positive), he radically changed the way the western world regarded the meaning of freedom. Prior to Berlin’s speech, the popular definition of freedom included that of the power of ordinary people to try and change society from the bottom up. This was what Berlin described as “positive liberty’’ before going on to tell of its inevitable danger. In the long shadow of Stalinism, Berlin warned that positive liberty would always result in violence and tyranny, as it had done in Russia. He also predicted that it would always involve the dominance of a small intellectual elite. The antidote, according to Berlin, was negative liberty, defined as the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her personal ambitions and desires. As long as people did not interfere with or obstruct each other’s negative freedom, society would remain stable and liberty would be protected. This idea had the potential to create a powerful contrast between the USSR and the western world and as a result it spread fast. Its first challenge would be to endure the most socially unprecedented decade in history.

In many ways the 1960s represented a trans-Atlantic revolution in progressive legislation. In Britain homosexuality was legalised and the death penalty was abolished. America saw the passing of the Civil Rights Act. But overshadowing much of this was the war in Vietnam, opposition to which became the jewel in the crown of the new counter-cultural identity. These tensions boiled over in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention where Hubert Humphrey, vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson, was seeking coronation as the party’s presidential candidate.

Humphrey would have to fight off his contenders, including the anti-war populist Eugene McCarthy. The party was still reeling after the assassination of Robert Kennedy a few weeks earlier, while the American left was still trying to recover from the assassination of Martin Luther King and the nationwide riots that followed it. In Chicago, these riots had killed 11 people. The convention was always going to attract a Vietnam demonstration (and it did), but at the same time an offshoot of the anti-war movement, the Youth International Party (known as Yippies) were planning to hold an anti-war music festival in Lincoln Park. The city authorities, eager to avoid the kind of violence that had followed the murder of Martin Luther King a few months earlier, denied permits to both groups. This decision backfired catastrophically. When the protesters and the festival goers arrived, the police had to stop them and this resulted in violent chaos on the streets of Chicago.  

Many of the protesters were young, middle class and white. If they had been poor and black they might have been prepared for the cruelty of which American police officers were capable. Instead they were being led into battle by Alan Ginsberg and were shocked to be met with fists, batons, boots, dogs and tear gas. John Schultz’s account of what happened in those streets shows just how far the police brutality escalated: “Now came mass cop violence of unmitigated fury, descriptions of which become redundant. No status or manner of appearance or attitude made one less likely to be clubbed. The Cops did us a great favour by putting us all in the same boat. A few upper middleclass white men said they now had some idea of what it meant to be on the other end of the law in the ghetto.”

Faced with all the intimidation and brutality the police could throw at them, the demonstrators managed to stand their ground for five days. They repeatedly defied a city curfew before the National Guard were called in to kick them off the streets and out of Lincoln Park. Meanwhile the anti-war voices inside the convention were also being suppressed. Delegates and journalists were intimidated, abused and removed from the convention hall. A debate about the war was promised, but postponed until after midnight when almost nobody would be watching on television. Ultimately, Hubert Humphrey won the nomination but he could not win the White House. A decade that had started with sexual liberation, racial empowerment and the optimism of John F. Kennedy had ended with the crooked paranoid cynicism of Richard Nixon. Decades later it would be revealed that Nixon’s team had secretly sabotaged America’s peace talks with the Vietnamese to ensure that the war would be dragged though the 1968 election. 

Despite the attacks on journalists and the destruction of recording equipment, the reality of Chicago was clear and what happened was reported around the world. The anti-war voices had been suppressed with force and intimidation. The cultural aftermath of this event was explored in The Century of the Self, a 2002 documentary series by the radical filmmaker Adam Curtis. In the episode ‘There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed’, Curtis shows how radical psychoanalysis, Madison Avenue and eventually the neo-liberals, hijacked a culture of non-conformity and steered it back towards consumerism. By extolling the virtues of individual self-expression, voices from both inside and outside of the counter-cultural movement were able to tilt the 1960s generation towards neo-liberalism and negative liberty. The business of politics continued to be the domain of a demographically refined collection of enthusiastic graduates, flowing straight out of the world’s elite universities and inadvertently intimidating others away from taking part. The sigh of resignation was so well captured in the song ‘No Surprises’ by Radiohead, released in 1997: “You look so tired-unhappy, Bring down the government, They don’t, they don’t speak for us, I’ll take a quiet life.”

Decades later, another generation of protesters would take to the streets. In the summer of 2011 a Canadian magazine called Adbusters called on their readers to occupy Wall Street. This was partly to remind politicians (still scrambling to comprehend the extent of the banking bailouts) to regard the interests of ‘the 99 percent’ and partly to show solidarity with the protesters demonstrating in post-Mubarak Egypt. A few weeks later, ‘Occupy movements’ were popping up everywhere, from Tucson to Tokyo. Thanks to digital media, the speed and size of Occupy was incomparable to anything that had ever preceded it. Around the world, the millennial generation had watched the wealthiest of the baby-boomers save themselves after the banking crisis at the expense of the world’s welfare states. University tuition fees, rents, utilities and working hours were all rising as wages stagnated for the class of 2011.

The consensus that currently surrounds the movement is that it ‘failed’ due to a ‘lack of alternative ideas’. And yet we all know that the Occupy movement was not quietly concluded. In London, throughout Europe and across America, the Occupy camps were dismantled by force and their occupants wrestled away with the help of disproportionate police violence. In Zuccotti Park and on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, protesters were removed by riot police on live television. The enduring image of the police response to the movement is that of Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna dressed in riot gear casually deploying pepper spray in the faces of students at the University of California, Davis, as they sit passively on the pavement.

It is worth wondering whether the legacy of the international Occupy movement will rhyme with the legacy of the protests of Chicago: tragically, because the status quo was once again preserved with the baton, and farcically, because what appears to have followed is a vacuum of millennial involvement in politics.

In Europe and America, young voter turnout is negligible, and as a result politicians on both the right and left pander to older and more comfortable voters. There is little else left but the kind of political posturing typified by Russell Brand in his New Statesman essay of last year: “I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.”

This outlook prevails because it allows those who possess it an emotional immunity from the mess of current affairs. But when young people disengage, the neglect of their generation by the political class is allowed to be reinforced. And what remains is the seductive call of negative liberty, the option to abandon politics altogether and instead concentrate on one’s own personal ambitions and desires. Yet if the people who understand and care about the nature of power, inequality and injustice choose to exit the political stage, all that will happen is that the stage will be left to those who wish to maintain the rigid supremacy of an unsustainable status quo.

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