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A social democracy of the people? A review of Fight Back!

A review of Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, published by OurKingdom on February 15 and free to download. Stuart White concludes that the Reader is

In early June of last year I wrote for OurKingdom on where the Coalition government sits on the ideological map of British politics. I argued that progressive notions of ‘liberal republicanism’ or ‘Red Toryism’ are peripheral. The government, I claimed, would be one of ‘Thatcherite consolidation’.

How wrong I was.

This is not a government of Thatcherite consolidation at all. It is one of Thatcherite audacity.

It is audacious enough to propose the most draconian programme of public spending cuts since the 1920s, highly regressive in their distributive impact. But not satisfied with this, the Coalition has decided upon a break-neck marketising ‘reform’ of the public services taking in secondary education, higher education and the NHS. This is Thatcherism returning to its ‘Maoist’ phase, previously abandoned after the Poll Tax fiasco of 1989/90.

Labour’s response has been muted. Its reflexes of opposition are balanced by the New Labour imperative to address more conservative values and interests. Had the Conservatives won the last election outright, the Liberal Democrats might have become the voice of outright opposition. But one of the most remarkable features of this new phase of Thatcherism is the incorporation of the Liberal Democrats into the project. The last of the three main UK-wide parties to be seriously permeated by neo-liberal ideology, they are making up for lost time now.

All this adds up to a major crisis in representation. The Coalition is set upon a radical program for which it has no real mandate. But the official voice of opposition is tentative and uncertain.

What to do? Well, as Johann Hari points out: ‘You can act in your own self-defence.’ Enter the anti-cuts movement: local anti-cuts groups and alliances, drawing on unions and community residents; direct action networks like UK Uncut; progressive bloggers, blogs and websites like False Economy; and, not least, the student movement which took off in response to the Browne Review of higher education.

Fight Back! is an excellent exploration of an important phase in the emergence of the anti-cuts movement. It brings together in one place a number of key articles on the demonstrations of November and December 2010, the occupations at university campuses, the higher education policy debate, and the emergence of UK Uncut. For anyone who wants to understand the anti-cuts movement, whether or not they agree with it, it is essential reading.

A number of themes cut through the different sections of the book. One underlying theme is the importance of forms of organizing based around fluid networks and consensus decision-making (see the chapter by Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters). A related theme is the importance of social media in coordinating action within these networks. Fight Back! makes a powerful case that the contrast between online and offline activism has been oversold and that the two can come together in mutually reinforcing ways.

Fight Back! emphasises that the protestors of late 2010 were by no means all upper middle-class university students (as if there was something wrong with them protesting) but included a lot of schoolchildren from poorer backgrounds, angry at the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance as well as the increase in fees. It argues persuasively that many mainstream media organizations, such as the BBC Newsroom, are unable to report on these events with rigour and impartiality. (Although Newsnight’s Paul Mason gets a number of honourable mentions, as well he should.) The reader gets a vivid sense of the demonstrations in all their complexity: the exhilaration, the volatility, and, of course, the trauma of kettling. One can trace how student protestors reflected on the dynamic of confrontation emerging in the demonstrations of November and early December and sought to escape it by adopting a new strategy of ‘dispersed protest’ (see the chapters by Jonathan Moses and Markus Malarkey).

The book thus covers a lot of ground very well. However, it does not claim to be a comprehensive account of the emergence of the anti-cuts movement, and it is worth emphasizing that it doesn’t serve as such.

For example, there is hardly any mention of local anti-cuts groups and alliances. These groups started to emerge in the early summer of 2010, pre-dating the student movement. Once the mobilisation by students and schoolchildren began, some of these groups played a helpful, supportive role (e.g., in Oxford). They can also help to connect students with the wider community and anti-cuts movement. Indeed, this role looks set to become more important as the student movement seeks to refocus its energy in 2011.

One particularly impressive and promising development Fight Back! doesn’t cover is the rise of a new campaigning force around disability rights. The Coalition is trying to shift some of the pain of deficit reduction off public services like education and health-care and on to the welfare budget. This implies major cuts to the benefits of disabled people. Mainstream charities oppose these policies, but in a ‘diplomatic’ way that avoids stating criticisms in too trenchant terms. Their emphasis is on deploying insider contacts to lobby for amendments.

For many disabled people, however, this approach is both unreliable and intrinsically disempowering. So, in the same way that students had to learn to work around the NUS to mount effective opposition to cuts and fees, disabled people have taken new initiatives independently of the mainstream charities. One example is the excellent Broken of Britain and the growing impact of bloggers such as Bendy Girl and Sue Marsh, making powerful use of personal testimony.

In terms of what it does cover, Fight Back! could be more interrogative on some points. It repeatedly makes the case for ‘horizontalism’, ‘open source resistance’, and consensus decision-making. I am very sympathetic to this. But I would like to have seen more exposure to the arguments on the other side, or an article that explains how horizontalism, consensus etc. are by no means incompatible with an implicit vanguardism and manipulation. This danger is acknowledged; but it is not explored and considered. And in celebrating new forms of ‘dispersed protest’, Fight Back! arguably fails to make clear the merits of old-fashioned forms of protest. The innovative protest forms can be exclusionary, shutting out some people who want or need the relative predictability and safety of the old-fashioned AB march. And how effective is ‘dispersed protest’ as protest? How far does it communicate clear messages to a wider public?

Of course, the key question Fight Back! can’t answer (because none of us can) is that of where all this is going and the long-term impact it is likely to have.

The student movement was always going to have a problem keeping momentum after the December 9 vote, and it does seem to have lost some since then. On the other hand, UK Uncut, which obviously draws on student activists, has maintained a strong ongoing campaign on corporate tax and bankers’ bonuses, helping to push these issues onto the political agenda and stimulating parallel campaigns in other countries. We have seen major campaigns around forest privatisations and library closures – with some success in forcing the Coalition into policy reversals.

In his recent speech in Oxford in opposition to library closures Philip Pullman evocatively named the oppression from which we suffer: ‘the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism’. Politicians, from all three of main UK-wide parties, have a tendency to run scared in the face of this ghost. But the response to Pullman’s speech, along with the protests over forests and libraries, shows, I think, that there is a wide and growing determination to stand up to the ghost. This is not confined to the conventionally left-wing because (a point repeatedly made in Fight Back!) it actually taps into small-c conservative hopes and fears. At its best, the anti-cuts movement represents a new social democracy: a non-doctrinaire social democracy of the people which has emerged as a democratic, republican response to the plutocratic drift in which our political elite is caught.

Fight Back! is a 350 page reader that is both an initial, hasty record of the protests of November and December, from its posters and images to its location in the history of upsurge against the established order, as well as an argument about their originality. As such it has been welcomed from Andreas Whittam Smith in The Independent to Cory Doctorow in Boing Boing.  If indeed a new politics does emerge in response to the ultra-Thatcherism of the Coalition, the free downloading of Fight Back! may be seen as one of its starting points.  

Go to bit.ly/fightbackUK to download Fight Back! for free, read it on Kindle, join the debate and find out about forthcoming Fight Back! events. A print edition of Fight Back! will be available from 24 March. 

About the author

Stuart White is a professor in political theory at Oxford University. He is interested in democratic political economy and is a co-editor of the e-book Democratic Wealth.


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