Paul Mason Is Wrong To Oppose The Brexiteers Demonstration

This is a guest post in response to Paul Mason’s recent article in The Guardian: “Bond traders, Trots, and mumsnetters must unite against Farage’s mob”

I was a huge admirer of Paul Mason for his decision to go to Channel 4 in order to escape the confines of the BBC that had stymied his ability to report economics accurately. Last year, I heard him speak in Athens on the state of the economy. It was something of a Marxian argument – technologies have developed to such a degree that we don’t need to work like in the days of old and can be liberated from the fetters of inefficient drudgery.

My admiration was in large part hopeful – “if he continues his line of reasoning, perhaps he will come up with something interesting”. But on the basis of his latest piece on Brexit, which was published in The Guardian (see link above), this hasn’t happened.

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Monotonous, Repetitive Failures – We Need To Change The Way We Protest In 21st Century Britain

In 2011, during my second year of university, Time Magazine chose The Protester as their Person of the Year.

On the one hand this is a great cause for celebration as the millions of individuals committed to the struggle were, in some way, rewarded for their actions. The hours of work, the days of organisation, the minor victories; whatever it was, their efforts were now recognised, and praised, on a global stage.

One of the reasons given by Kurt Anderson of Time Magazine for choosing their Person of the Year as The Protester, was because protest had once again become “fashionable”. (So long as it was being conducted in the MENA region and toppling dictators).

But this representation of “the protester” did not sit well with me. No protester wants to be on the cover of Time Magazine, and if they do it would be for the wrong reasons.

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A Blueprint for Protest

A demonstration, by its very definition, is a show of force by the people on matters which they feel strongly about. It is the physical manifestation of a groups voice in support of, or in opposition to, an action or decision. The fact that people are able to march through the streets and chant their slogans is a sign of democracy in action.

There are countries whereby such freedom of movement, freedom to gather, and freedom of expression are not allowed. Demonstrations and marches are brutally put down by regimes and dictators that allow for no opposition.

Whilst some world leaders greet demonstrations with bullets, the smarter ones simply decide to not greet them at all. The demonstrations, marches, and gatherings are allowed to occur, but no attention is paid to them. They do not influence government policy, and are ignored by those they are directed at.

Like a well oiled machine, when the pressure gets too much, a valve is switched which allows for things to cool down a little. With the ability to speak out, to petition, and to march in the streets people are led to believe that such actions, along with their ability to vote, will impact and influence upon the key decision makers in the country.

The reality is that demonstrations and marches, for all the enjoyment it may give to those on the street, do little or nothing to change the issue which is being protested in the first place.

Do you recall a time whereby 50,000 people marched in the streets of London and afterwards the Prime Minister said that he would change his policy? Do you recall a time whereby 75,000 people marched in the streets of New York forcing the President to change American actions on foreign soil? No, because such events do not occur.

I believe that such marches and demonstrations do have a place in the activist movement, but they cannot be the only tactic applied. Their aim is more aesthetic than impactful. Designed to make headlines, create good photo opportunities, and raise awareness of the issue, perhaps even attracting more supporters.

For these reasons, demonstrations and marches have to be accompanied by other tactics. Used on their own I doubt they will achieve much, but used in conjunction with other tactics, they can prove to be very useful tools.

It is all well and good having thousands of people, even tens of thousands of people on the street on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, traffic will come to a standstill, and the media will publicise it, but what happens on Monday morning when the overwhelming majority of those people have to return to work? What happens then when the pressure is off the government, when society returns to normal, when the papers run different headlines? The march had its time to shine and then it was dismissed.

Apart from signing an online petition – something I see very little value in – marching in the street is perhaps the lowest form of support an activist can give to a campaign. In all seriousness, it is not tremendously difficult to walk out of your house, meet at a specific location, and then march a planned route. It is the most basic weapon at the disposal of activists. The worry is that once that weapon has been used, and that battle lost, too many then believe the war to be unwinnable.

In any sport, in any field, and in any arena, what defines success is the ability to diversify tactics. Adjust to the situation as it unfolds and use the most appropriate tactic at the most appropriate time. There are times when a single tactic on its own may well provide victory, there are times when a combination of everything will give you the edge, and there are times when some tactics are just ignored as they can serve no purpose.

Let’s look at the state, and how they use their police force. At times a simple police presence may be enough; there are other times whereby mounted police, canine units or riot police are used; and if things are still not going in their favour they can even call upon water cannons.

But what of activism? When your march is escorted by the police, when your route is already known or expected, when the targets for your actions are protected, what then? What can your march achieve aside from simply the disruption of traffic and the wasting of police time.

With activism and campaigning, I believe there are three fundamental questions that should be asked before anything is done. Firstly, what is the aim? Secondly, who, or what, is the target? And thirdly, what is the appropriate action? Once you have the answers to these questions then the necessary foundations have been laid.

I also believe that campaigning can be broken down into two distinct categories. On one hand you have activism, and on the other you have appeal.

Appeal is using tactics which persuade, coerce, educate, or as the name suggests, appeal to those who have power, and the public at large. It is the weapon of choice when you are looking to bring more people on board with the campaign, or looking to raise awareness and educate the public about what the campaign is about. It is also a tactic that can be used when governments are likely to listen and respond to people power.

Unfortunately, appeal alone will not bring about the changes that any campaign wishes to see. Governments are not in the business of giving hand outs, and it is extremely unlikely that a government will cave to demands simply because of demonstrators on the street. For this reason, appeal has to be used in combination with activism.

How long would the suffragists had to have quietly demonstrated for in order to get the vote? How long would it have taken for female suffrage without a more radical, activist group of supporters joining the campaign? Similarly in India, would Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful movement have achieved such success were it not for the existence of more radical doers and thinkers such as Jawaharlal Nehru and members of the revolutionary movement for Indian independence? So too it is true for the civil rights movement in the United States with Martin Luther King leading the peaceful arm of the campaign, and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers being more radical and active.

Activism involves more than simply online petitions, demonstrations, and educating the public. If the defining words of appeal are coerce, educate, and persuade, activism’s defining words are confront, disrupt, agitate, and resist. It is the arm of the campaign or movement that refuses to be ignored, and its tactics ensure that this will not be the case.

Wherever there is a campaign to be fought, and won, I believe you will see both the tactics of appeal, and the tactics of activism. Without appeal, activism alienates those you should be looking to recruit. But without activism, appeal does no harm to the state, and has no effect on policy.

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Brighton Faces New Wave of Protest

As is so often the case in times of dissatisfaction, the student movement appears to be leading the way. With the betrayal of the Lib Dem’s free education promise still in the minds of young voters, and having faced a tripling of university tuition fees under the Coalition government, students are at the forefront of anti-government protest.

In November as many as 10,000 students descended on London to demand the right to free education for all, no matter their class, race, or financial situation, and an end to austerity. This protest was not supported by the National Union of Students (NUS) who cited safety fears as the reason they were not alongside the people they were supposed to be representing. The decision not to support the protest shows that the NUS are out of touch with the wishes of students across the country.

Though the NUS distance themselves from this new wave of protests, the tide appears to be turning against their authority. Following on from the protest in London, marches and demonstrations have occurred throughout the country without the need for NUS support. It seems that the students have woken up to the fact that if they want something done, they need to do it themselves.

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Brighton and Hove Against Austerity

Brighton, forever the hotbed of activity, has a way of sweeping you up in some sort of action. And this is precisely what happened to me today.

Returning from a stroll into town where I was picking up some more pads of paper, I was greeted by a throng of people marching, whistling and calling. Of course, today was strike day, and Brighton and Hove were out in force.

I stopped and watched as the procession walked past, smiling and nodding approvingly, and was all set to head home, when the feeling struck me to just join in. So I did.

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