Owen Jones on writing about protests

This article originally appeared on the Guardian website.

‘The sympathetic writer is there to take a step back and put unrest in a broader context’

Owen Jones: 'The power of any writer is limited' (photo courtesy of the Guardian website)

This year has been a blur of angry, determined crowds on the move: chanting, barricading and occupying. Each protest movement has differed in scale and ambition. When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians thronged into Tahrir Square in February, they were battling a thuggish dictatorship with few qualms about killing to stay in power. There has certainly been brutality in the west: this month, peacefully protesting students at University of California, Davis were pepper-sprayed in the face at close range. But, while thousands of Arabs struggling for democracy have been butchered by senile tyrannies, there have been few fatalities and far weaker repression against the anti-cuts protests sweeping western cities.

That does not mean links cannot be made between the upheavals and struggles of 2011. Each time I’ve visited the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp around the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, I’ve been struck by how conscious the protesters are of being a small part of a worldwide phenomenon. It is as though someone has thrown seeds of dissent across the globe: here is just one patch where roots of rebellion have poked through. Occupy is, in part, the culmination of a decade of global struggles and experiences. Tahrir Square inspired, in May, the Spanish indignados of Madrid, who occupied the city square in disgust at the political elite; in turn, this action helped to inspire Americans to erect tents on Wall Street in October, which proved the detonator for a global Occupy movement.

But there are also echoes of the global anti-capitalist movement that rose to prominence at the turn of the century, and of the millions who marched for peace across the world in 2003 as the Pentagon aimed fire at Iraq. As the New York Times put it at the time: “There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” But after Shock and Awe slammed into Baghdad, faith in the power of marching diminished among many of the discontented. Protest had to be made impossible to ignore, or so went the thinking. The drive to occupy and hold public space for political purposes was born out of that.

Occupy has proved such a contagious idea because it sums up popular resentment at being made to pay for a crisis caused by a wealthy, unaccountable elite. Its signature slogan, after all, is “We are the 99%“. The figure doesn’t have to be accurate: it simply appeals to the sense that the overwhelming majority have divergent interests from those at the top. As the Resolution Foundation thinktank has highlighted, even if Britain were to return to a similar level of economic growth as it experienced between 2002 and 2008 (which is optimistic to say the least), average wages would be no higher in 2020 than they were in 2001. It’s a different story on planet 1%: the wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain leapt by a fifth between 2010 and 2011. Recession for the majority, boomtime for the top. Perhaps the real surprise about Occupy is that there aren’t more angry people erecting tents.

London’s Occupiers don’t owe their existence simply to foreign influences. Last May, all three main parties lost the general election. The Conservatives lost least badly, but they amassed only 36% of the vote, despite the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s and an almost farcically unpopular Labour prime minister. The Tories managed to form a majority government only because the Liberal Democrats junked their key election promises. Since then, the government has used its questionable mandate to reshape society with the biggest cuts since the 1920s, driving through a de facto dismantling of the NHS, stripping workers’ rights, slashing benefits, marketising education and so on.

And yet the emergence of mass protest came as a surprise to commentators and demonstrators alike. When 52,000 students marched in November 2010 – culminating in the storming of Millbank – they ushered in a new age of rebellion: it gave others the confidence that it was possible to resist. Waves of student protests and occupations followed; and, on 26 March, the long marginalised trade union movement showed its continuing relevance by mobilising one of the biggest workers’ demonstrations in history. The hundreds of thousands of public sector workers – ranging from lollipop ladies to teachers – who have voted for strike action this month are part of the same movement. Conservative politicians and commentators question the legitimacy of the coming 30 November strikes on grounds of turnout – even as a party that won the support of less than a quarter of eligible voters imposes one of the most radical programmes of postwar Britain.

Before last November, the consensus on both left and right seemed to be that the supposedly moderate Brits aren’t like the excitable French and Greeks. How quickly it is forgotten that – just over three decades ago – Britain was routinely described as “ungovernable”. Rebellion is part of the fabric of this country, however much British exceptionalism attempts to erase it. It can be traced all the way back to the Peasants’ Revolt of the 14th century, when the priest John Ball assailed the class system to the assembled crowds: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” It’s an unanswered question worth repeating today on the steps of St Paul’s.

As protest movements have gathered place, I have wondered what role the relatively small number of sympathetic writers should play. It is not to pose as a voice for a movement, because writers are not accountable to those they would supposedly speak for, though they can provide a platform for the otherwise ignored. Neither is it to be uncritical. Out-and-out propagandists may cheer the already convinced, but they generally grate as far as everyone else is concerned. And the power of any writer is limited: progressive change is driven by collective action, not by individuals who write about it.

The sympathetic writer is certainly there to provide counterbalance to a media and political establishment that – on the whole – is inherently hostile to those who mobilise against the status quo. But above all it’s to take a step back and put unrest in a broader context: to have a go at making sense of it from a historical point of view, and to at least help explain where it’s all heading. The new age of rebellion has only just begun. There will be a lot to write about.

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