Activist revival or aimless hyper-activism?

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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Josie Appleton
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State

Hugo Rifkind
columnist, The Times, Spectator and GQ; author, Overexposure

Andrew Robinson
leader, Pirate Party UK

Jack Tan
president, Students' Union, Royal College of Art

Suzy Dean
freelance writer; blogger, Free Society

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