The politics of the lonely crowd

Protest movements get personal.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

The other day my eight-year-old son came home, took off his jacket and announced ‘Daddy, I really hate Bush!’ Until that point, this child had strong views on the subject of football (which he loves), school dinners (which he dislikes) and mobile phones (which he desperately desires). But this was his first statement of political preference. Why did he feel so strongly about the American president? ‘Because he’s so stupid’, my son replied.

As a proud father, I would like to boast that my young son and his classmates have developed a precocious interest in political affairs. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Children are no more curious about political life than their elders. Rather, political life in the Western world has become so infantilised that even eight-year-olds can share its brilliant insights.

In their conviction that George W Bush is mentally deficient, children have embraced the wisdom peddled by best-selling cynic Michael Moore, sophisticated media commentators from both sides of the Atlantic, and hundreds of thousands of anti-Bush protesters. Hating the stupid US president was sufficient to mobilise large crowds of people during his recent visit to London. In the USA, demonstrating how much you hate Bush has animated discussion during the Democratic Party primary elections. Howard Dean, who has perfected the art of being very angry, managed to mobilise tens of thousands of young people to join his vociferous campaign – before it failed.

It appears that how you feel, rather than what you believe in, has become the defining feature of political protest. This sentiment was revealed by the actress and veteran left winger Vanessa Redgrave, who announced her intention to put on a one-woman play in London to ‘express her anger over President Bush’s visit’ in November 2003. During a conversation about Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor-turned-governor of California, a housewife from San Diego told me: ‘I have a good feeling about this guy.’ When I asked what she meant, she replied: ‘He is a genuine person and not a politician.’ In California, Arnie’s famously anti-political message gained him strong feelings of support (1). Similar sentiments inspire hostile gestures towards Bush.

The coincidence of the politics of feeling and an apolitical populism is one of the distinctive features of contemporary protest. By focusing on an individual politician’s personality, it personalises politics. But even more importantly, protest has become a strikingly personal matter. It is about the protester as an individual, and says more about how he feels about himself than what he thinks of the issue at stake. That is why it is difficult to define today’s acts of protest as constituting a political movement. On the contrary: they are the product of a profound mood of political disengagement that afflicts most Western societies.

  • Disengagement

We live in an era of political exhaustion and social disengagement. Fewer and fewer people are prepared to vote, and fewer still are interested in getting involved in party politics. In the UK, membership of the major political parties has fallen by half since 1980. During the same period, political party membership in France has declined by two-thirds, and in Italy by 51 per cent. By comparison, the German figure looks good: total party membership fell by only nine per cent, probably because of an influx of new recruits from the east (2).

The decline of party membership coincides with a wider disengagement from political life. Today, people’s idealism and hopes are rarely invested in a belief in political change, and individuals rarely develop their identities through some form of political attachment. Thirty years ago, an individual might have identified himself as a Labour man, whose outlook on life was shaped by his belief in a socialist future and whose relationships in the present were with a community that shared this broad view. Today the question of who you vote for is seen as barely significant, and self-identity is viewed far more in terms of individuals’ lifestyles, cultural habits and personal experiences.

What has changed during the past two decades is the very meaning of politics itself. Last century, political life was dominated by radically different alternatives. Competing political philosophies offered contrasting visions of the good society. Conflict between these ideologies was often fierce, provoking violent clashes and even revolutions. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ were not mere labels – in a fundamental sense, they endowed individuals with an identity that said something crucial about how they saw themselves.

Ardent advocates of revolutionary change clashed with fervent defenders of the capitalist system. Their competing views about society dominated the conduct of everyday politics. So debates about the health service or taxation, for example, were not the bean-counting spats about exactly how much a particular initiative will cost the consumer that they are today. They were debates about the future direction of society, and the symbolic ways in which today’s policy could shape tomorrow’s world.

The twenty-first century offers a radically different political landscape. Politics today has little in common with the passions and conflicts that have shaped people’s commitments and hatreds over the past century. There is no longer room for either the ardent advocate of revolution or the fervent defenders of the free market faith. Political sentiments rarely acquire a systematic form, in which vague aspirations for change are transformed into real-life discussions about how change might come about. This is definitely not an age of political programmes. Where political life was once defined by debates about the welfare state or privatisation, now similar-sounding manifestos pick over class sizes in schools and university tuition fees.

It would be wrong to conclude that politics has become simply more moderate. Politics has gone into early retirement. Our culture continually emphasises problems that are not susceptible to human intervention, and, therefore, outside of the political realm entirely. Theories of globalisation stress the inability of people and their nation states to deal with forces that are beyond their control. The big issues of our time – potential environmental catastrophe, killer bugs like SARS, weapons of mass destruction – are presented as perils that stand above politics.

It is widely believed that the world is out of control and that there is little that human beings can do to master these developments or influence their destiny. Now that there are no competing visions about how society should be organised, real choices about how we control our future are no longer possible. Humanity is forced to acquiesce to a worldview that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher aptly described as TINA – There is No Alternative. If there is no alternative to the status quo, the notion that we can control the future at all ceases to apply. Instead, it is assumed that all we can do is try to limit the damage that is threatened by a destructive system.

In a world governed by TINA, politics can have little meaning. Without alternatives, debate becomes empty posturing about trivial matters. Politicians are forced to inflate relatively banal proposals to the level of a major policy innovation. This is the age of ‘micro-politics’. Politics has adopted the language of technocracy and presents itself as a matter of effective management. Politicians now promise to ‘deliver’. They carefully ‘cost’ proposals and offer ‘value for money’. Policies are no longer good – they are ‘evidence based’; they are rarely generated by a worldview, but derived from ‘best practice’.

The growth of a managerial political style has gone hand in hand with a shift from politics to the personal. Personalities and individual behaviour dominate the presentation of contemporary politics. As public life has become emptied of its content, private and personal preoccupations have been projected into the public sphere. Consequently, passions that were once stirred by ideological differences are far more likely to be engaged by individual misbehaviour, private troubles and personality conflicts, from Bill Clinton’s affair to Tony Blair’s health to Gordon Brown’s baby.

The private lives of politicians excite greater interest than the way they handle their public office. In Britain, it is widely noted that the reality TV show Big Brother ‘arouses passions that politics can no longer stir’, and the political elite makes much out of the millions of people moved to vote in this trivial television poll. In the USA, plans are afoot to launch a TV programme titled The American Candidate, which aims to use the reality TV format to pick a ‘people’s candidate’ from its contestants. With so many people turned off by managerial politics, it is little surprise that politicians are turning to television producers to learn how to engage with an otherwise uninterested public.

  • Personal protest

Some critics of the prevailing social order believe that the public’s disenchantment with contemporary politics provides an opportunity for the flourishing of radical dissent. Witness, for example, the delight among the one-time left at the million-odd people in the UK who turned out in February 2003 to march against the military invasion of Iraq. Claims that these were the biggest anti-war protests since Vietnam, not to mention the first protests since Vietnam to attract any number of young(ish) people, implied that the reaction against the Iraq war was spawning the kind of radical political movement last seen in the 1970s.

But confusion and distrust of the political system or suspicion towards authority are not inherently progressive responses. In such circumstances, cynicism, passivity and a sense of fatalism can influence public attitudes. Such attitudes do not preclude acts of protest – but they do mean that such protests express the politics of disengagement. So it was fitting that one of the most prominent slogans of the movement against the 2003 invasion of Iraq was ‘Not in my name’.

‘Not in my name’ is self-consciously framed as a personal proclamation. It is not a political statement designed to involve others, and does not seek to offer an alternative. It does not call on anyone to choose sides or even insist on a particular course of action. Insofar as it represents an attitude, ‘Not in my name’ is a statement of individual preference and represents an opt-out clause, rather than an attempt to alter the course of events. This is a shrug of the shoulder, which reflects a mood of general anti-engagement as much as it does a weariness towards war.

That is why, despite the mobilisation of millions on the streets of Western capitals, this protest has had such little impact on society. Despite the fact that so many opposed the war, the absence of passion or the belief that protest could make a difference meant that the large numbers never amounted to a movement, at least in the old sense of the term. The personal presentation of anti-war sentiment contains an implicit renunciation of social activism and protest.

Of course, disengagement is a troublesome concept. Certainly, people out on the streets of London or Seattle, protesting ‘against capitalism’ or the invasion of Iraq, do not think of themselves as disengaged. Today’s activists continually point out the large size of many of the recent demonstrations. However, understanding the dynamic of mobilisations and protests cannot be gained through just counting numbers.

Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen on numerous occasions the phenomenon of self-consciously apolitical public mobilisations. The public outburst of emotionalism around the death of Princess Diana; the so-called White Movement in Belgium, sparked by the appalling Dutroux child murders of the late 1990s; the US evangelical men’s movement The Promise Keepers; and the UK vigilante protests against paedophiles have been driven by groups of people who are committed to making their own personal statement.

There are many activists who feel that their activism represents a valid form of engagement. To these individuals, no doubt it does, in a personal sense. But engagement in a wider social sense is not reducible to individual activism. Political engagement involves action directed at influencing aspects of public life. It is not simply a personal statement, but part of a wider communal project. Engagement expresses an attitude and an orientation towards interaction with others. It is undertaken as part of a wider dialogue that seeks to establish or alter the prevailing consensus.

The clearest expression of disengagement can be seen in what is often depicted as the most attractive feature of contemporary social movements: its sheer numbers and diversity. The variety of organisations that are called movements is truly breathtaking. Protests against the building of new roads have had a common appeal to well-to-do NIMBYs and hardened vegans; the ‘anti-war movement’ contained everyone from the hard left to militant Islamic groups to Jewish peace groups to upstanding members of rural and suburban communities across Britain.

It is claimed that the diversity of social movements is necessitated by the plurality of experiences and meanings in contemporary society (3). Because we live in a relativist world, in which many equally valid opinions compete for attention, and in which people live all kinds of different lifestyles according to their personal values and individual preferences, it is argued that homogenous campaigns united around one broad worldview are impossible. There is some truth in this idea: when society lacks a set of common values either to espouse or to reject, it is unlikely to breed the political agreements and solidarities of the past.

But it can also be argued that the pluralisation of experience is not so much a natural fact of life, but a self-conscious rejection of engaged dialogue. One of the key features of contemporary protest is the extent to which it relies on the attitude of ‘live and let live’ – celebrating the diversity of lifestyles, actions and viewpoints, and refusing to claim that one perspective or form of activity is better than any other. This is attitude is generally welcomed as a form of enlightened tolerance. I fear, however, that it may represent the renunciation of engagement through dialogue. If no protester is prepared to argue his viewpoint with anybody else, this clearly implies that he does not hold any passions or opinions with any conviction, and more importantly, that he does not see the point in having anyone else share them. In this view, passions and opinions are for personal consumption only.

In the past, the self-conscious cultivation of sectional interests – particularly, among the left – was frequently characterised as sectarian. These days, outside of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the term sectarian is not used too often because movements are generally not inclined (or cannot be bothered) to wrangle with one another. Yet the approach of today’s movements bear an uncanny resemblance to old-fashioned sect-like attitudes, in particular in their lack of interest in influencing the wider public.

Such attitudes are bound up with the orientation of contemporary movements towards issues associated with identity and lifestyle. This is an age that continually encourages people to define themselves according to whom they really are, rather than according to what they do, what they believe, or their relationships with others. It pushes people to focus on their own fashion preferences, body-art, sexuality, family roots or emotional feelings about themselves, and to see engagement with others as a dangerous distraction from their own personal journey of self-discovery.

One of the most significant manifestations of political disengagement is the reconfiguration of activism as a form of lifestyle choice. Murray Bookchin’s critique of ‘lifestyle anarchism’ provides an astute analysis of the way that the motif of self-expression comes to define the parameters of a particular form of activism (4). A similar critique could be made of a variety of other lifestyle, identity or consumer focused organisations – for example, those that mobilise people against junk food for children, or in favour of more ‘rights’ for cyclists.

The politics of self-expression are extremely influential, because they are continually affirmed by contemporary culture. Self-expression is validated as a genuine and authentic act, and is often favourably contrasted to what is perceived as the estranged artificial world of politics. The Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci claims that one of the distinct features of contemporary social movements is that people’s participation within movements is no longer a means to an end. ‘Participation in collective action is seen to have no value for the individual unless it provides a direct response to personal needs’, he writes (5).

When movements become an end in themselves, the link between protest and the politics of change becomes ruptured. There is nothing objectionable about individuals participating in organisations in order to become members of an emotional community of people who feel the way that they do about certain things. However, when the pursuit of self-discovery becomes an end in itself, it represents another form of disengagement.

Some of the largest mobilisations in Europe during the 1990s have been influenced by the trend of expressing ‘personal needs’. I was in Madrid at the time of the mass demonstrations in July 1997, which mourned the murder of Miguel Angel Blanco by the Basque separatist group ETA, and was struck by their strange emotional dynamic. At times the crowd exuded a sense of intensity as if something tragic was just about to happen. At other times, a sense of anticipation – not unlike at pop festivals – helped create a feeling of exhilaration. Demonstrators told interviewers that they were not sure why they were there and some suggested that they too felt like victims. This reaction was self-consciously cultivated by the crowd with the gesture of placing their hands at the back of their heads in the posture of surrendering prisoners.

The crowds that thronged the streets of Madrid, like the protesters that wish to vent their anger against George W Bush, are no more engaged with society than the people who watch their activities at home on TV. They are making a personal statement. It is their lifestyle choice. Such crowds echo with the voices of the disengaged. They are above all motivated by the impulse of finding meaning by taking to the streets, and do not think very much about how to influence others. It is a lonely crowd indeed.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
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  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

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Visit Frank Furedi’s website

(1) See ‘I’ll be blank’, by Helen Searls

(2) See Party Membership in Twenty European Democracies 1980-2000 (.pdf 85.6 KB), Peter Mair and Ingrid van Biezen, Party Politics, Sage Publications, 2001

(3) ‘Social Movements and the Democratization of Everyday Life’, Alberto Melucci, in Civil Society and the State, ed John Keane, Verso, 1988

(4) Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: an Unbridgeable Chasm, Murray Bookchin, AK Press, 1995

(5) ‘Social Movements and the Democratization of Everyday Life’, Alberto Melucci, in Civil Society and the State, ed John Keane, Verso, 1988, p49

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Topics Politics


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