Sunday, April 03, 2011

How not to make a difference

Laurie Penny's BoingBoing article has pushed me to blog because it says so much of what I don't want to think but can't help thinking - can't help coming back to.

The process of "violent" demonstration is something I've been tussling with since at least 2004. It has its seeds before that - probably back in February 2003 when I took to the streets against the Iraq war.

That was my first large-scale protest. It is likely my last. It became rapidly clear - on the arch, watching the news, listening to speeches - that public opinion was no longer a factor. It was obvious that the march might as well just have been a party, or a funeral, or a bank holiday.

It had its purpose, but the purpose wasn't to protest. Ultimately, its purpose was to keep people off the streets, by conceding the streets to the public - for one, single day. After that it was back to business as usual. Politics rambled on. Shops sold stuff. I felt like I'd done something, even if it had had no effect.

Fast forward, though, and it turns out that this bothered me more than I thought. I am political, but I am not a politician. I listen to MPs, but only to see if they've come to any sense. Their arguments bore me - the rhetoric is transparent and the logic is wrong. Anyone with a moment to think things through knows this. But it rumbles on. It is a game. A show. These are not decisions.

Watching the protests against cuts on the news last week, I still had no idea what to think. Passivity is so easily ignored. Violence is so easily fixed. Even with all the headlines, business still continues as normal. The damage shown on TV was nothing compared to some streets in town after a Saturday night.

So what, then?

In the years since the anti-Iraq war protest, I've managed to realise a few things, I guess:

1. Violence is no longer a cause for influencing decisions - media and politicians portray it as such because it gives them a reason to argue against doing something. But modern violence is not terrorism - it is merely an outlet. It is delinquency, it is anarchy - because chaos is all we have left on our side.

Everyone is angry, and the anger has reached a level that video games can no longer contain. But we have no political outlet for that anger - I have marched, I have written letters, I have ranted on blogs. But the rules rule me out. I am defeated by standard replies which barely respond to my points. FFS, there isn't a decent space for debate, let alone decision-making.

The only way to participate meaningfully, for me, then, is to start by tearing the rules down. This looks like chaos, but only in the same way that you have to unpack everything before moving.

2. Violence is not an answer - in Tai Chi, the first thing you learn is not to use force to oppose force. The stronger side will win, and the stronger side is probably not you.

Violence is a last resort, but we are not near this resort in this country, not yet. Convincing people takes both passion and logic. Destruction is pure passion, and is therefore so easily outmaneuvred.

If you are truly passionate about something you will sacrifice yourself, not others. (By this benchmark, I am political, but perhaps not passionate.)

The most moving, memorable protests in the world use non-violence. It is easy to use violence against violence - the riot police work on the principle of subtle incitement, followed by over-reaction. They simply wait for the right excuse, the moment of ignition.

Non-violence doesn't let this happen. It is meek, but through this meekness, it is powerful. Gandhi's Satyagraha principles expound this amazingly. Protest is no longer about "us vs them". It becomes "us and them". Unfortunately there are many, many reasons why this is becoming increasingly difficult here.

3. Politics is not total - indeed, politics is undergoing something of a soul-search. MPs have power, yes. But do they have influence? As network politics increasingly takes hold, and people do organise and decide things for themselves, what is the role of the centre? Is it to organise and guide? Or is it to step in when things go societally wrong - a kind of hyper-market-failure role? Is the centre doomed to becoming an inherently police state, simply because all other functions are done more effectively elsewhere?

There are no answers to this yet. But the questions are answers in themselves. People are routing around political parties and representative democracy. Companies have more cultural power. The Internet has more informational power. Wikileaks Cablegate showed us not only that secrecy was a sham, but that the secrets themselves were boring as mainstream news.

We live in an exciting age. People are starting to realise the potential of the networks they've always had - but which are being revealed through formalisation and RSS feeds. Nobody really knows quite what to do with this yet, because we've forgotten that we have even the questions we need to ask. We have got so used to relying on central politics that we no longer remember what we need.

But change is coming. It requires effort, ideas, implementation, and safeguarding. Change is not easy, which is why focusing energy is of utmost importance. Avoid useless endeavours and distractions. Make the change happen.


If you've read all the way this far - thanks. I'm sure there are more points. But I have a small baby and a job. I could rant all day on this, but I wouldn't get anything else done. It's nice to reach this point. I feel slightly less helpless, and it feels like ultimately, the original question itself has changed.

That is - perhaps we don't need to ask what the best way of getting our voice heard is. Our voices are actually heard all the time, but when we're going forwards, not fighting going backwards. When we're doing something we truly believe in, not just marching against what we think is wrong.

I guess it'll take a long time yet, but isn't that just the way of the world?

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