Saturday 31 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Student Union
A revival of activism was augured for 2009, with police warning of a ‘summer of rage’. The G20 demonstrations in April, Plane Stupid’s runway invasions, and ongoing climate camps seem to have fulfilled expectations. Despite alleged student apathy, the year began with 24 campus occupations in protest at Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip. The election of two BNP MEPs later revived egg-throwing ‘anti-fascist’ protests. While we live in a post-ideological age, the FT recently suggested the end of the Cold War has left ‘a great range of issues to protest against’; indeed, protests are as likely to be about international poverty or global warming as the evils of capitalism. But LSE economist Robert Wade suggests the particular issues that provoke protest may be ‘fairly arbitrary’, and ‘the motivating force will be anxiety about employment’. Is the renewal of activism really a response to the recession? What kind of alternative is on offer, then? More critical voices suggest today’s activism is a militant reflection of mainstream cynicism rather than representing a radical challenge.
Demands to ‘stop the killing’ or ‘save the planet’ strike a note of moral outrage rather than collective self-interest like traditional mass movements. Banners on the G20 demos declared ‘Jobs, Justice, Climate’, but what does this mean, and are these goals even compatible? Grievances seem free-floating: much was made of police aggression at the G20 demonstrations, which almost became a retrospective reason for the protests, as victim-activists demanded a public inquiry. Some argue the diffuse nature of the protests is a strength, allowing a more open-ended approach, and that the plethora of small groups without individual leaders indicates the ‘democratisation’ of protest. But there is also an emphasis on tactics, rather than more difficult discussions of strategy: protests seem less about convincing others of a cause than pulling off stunts to snatch the headlines or look good on YouTube. Is this the triumph of form over content?
Do today’s activists lack political depth, or are we seeing the emergence of new forms of politics? Is it cynical to dismiss new-style activism simply because it lacks a political programme? Is the desire just to ‘do something’ an embryonic idealism or an anti-intellectual, immature response to the profound problems facing society?
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director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State
columnist, The Times, Spectator and GQ; author, Overexposure
leader, Pirate Party UK
president, Students' Union, Royal College of Art
freelance writer; blogger, Free Society
Is activism dead – or is it blooming? Some look at the G20 demos or student occupations and see a vibrant youthful movement, taking on the injustices of the day. Others look at the same gatherings and see only a confused bedraggled crowd, a mere shadow of 1960s mobilisations.Josie Appleton, openDemocracy, 9 November 2009
Greed Is Good? Michael Moore Begs to DifferManohla Dargis, New York Times, 25 September 2009
Like the society to which it has played the faithful servant, the university is bankrupt. This bankruptcy is not only financial. It is the index of a more fundamental insolvency, one both political and economic, which has been a long time in the making.we want everything, 24 September 2009
France's youthful demonstrators aren't just winning support for their various causes — they're challenging the very social and economic pact that has defined the country for the past 60 years.
Bruce Crumley, Time, 31 August 2009
The climate change protesters haven’t thought this one through.Hugo Rifkind, The Times, 28 August 2009
The national healthcare movement was doomed from the start. TV clips of shouting matches at town halls and fear-mongering by cynical politicians may be lamentable, but we are witnessing something more profound than the collapse of civic discourse.Douglas Rushkoff, arthur, 15 August 2009
In the 21st century, unconventional protest groups are thriving. Plane Stupid has blockaded runways and scaled Parliament. World Naked Bike Ride members cycle through British cities in the nude to protest against “car culture”.Julian Flanagan, Financial Times, 1 August 2009
The G20 protest of poseurs against bankers confirmed that anti-capitalism itself has become an empty brand, like KFC or FCUK.Frank Furedi, spiked, 2 April 2009