The revolting world of middle class prejudice
A new ‘protesters’ handbook’ is about as rebellious as the newspaper that published it: the Guardian.
This article is republished from the August 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.
In August, that well-known agitator for social progress, Prince Charles, was prattling incoherently about the ‘evils’ of GM crops to a journalist from the UK Daily Telegraph. The BBC’s news report on Charles’ outburst was accompanied by stock footage of young protesters dressed in faux-science lab garb, awkwardly prancing around on fields where GM crops were being developed. Who would have guessed that being a supposed radical protester today would mean being on the same side as the mad and reactionary Charles Windsor?
Such is the peculiar state of what passes for radical politics, or what sociologists call ‘New Social Movements’. Increasingly, single-issue campaigns for the environment or against global corporations tend to win approval from the very elitists they claim to oppose. In recent years, these dreadlocked stilt-walkers have also joined forces with the fag end of the Labourist left to protest against the war in Iraq. Such developments apparently scotch rumours that ‘radicalism’ is dead. Anyone who dares to question the political viability of all this protesting must be a black-hearted cynic, right…?
Indeed, to combat the pernicious influence of those who criticise today’s supposedly radical protests – and to ‘shake you out of your apathy once and for all’ – journalist and activist Bibi van der Zee has compiled Rebel, Rebel: The Protestor’s Handbook. In each chapter, van der Zee outlines how to fundraise, how to demonstrate, how to lobby parliament and, with an eye on New Labour’s Key Skills agenda, how to write a letter. Thanks for that.
And yet, the very manner of this handbook, even the fact that it exists, suggests that it is not very rebellious at all. In the 1980s, another type of protesters’ manual – The Anarchist’s Cookbook, which gave handy tips on how to use a catapult with ball-bearings on demonstrations, amongst other things – was only available under-the-counter at radical bookshops. By contrast, Rebel, Rebel is published and distributed by a national broadsheet newspaper, the Guardian, which columnist and Tory Party supporter Max Hastings has described as the newspaper of ‘the new establishment’.
Indeed, much of the ideological content of Rebel, Rebel echoes and champions the petty concerns of… well, the new establishment. Top of the agenda is concern about climate change and other ‘environmental issues’, which are peppered throughout the handbook like an unwanted rash of measles. Perhaps van der Zee hasn’t realised it yet, but with everyone from UK prime minister Gordon Brown to London mayor Boris Johnson to Tory millionaire Zac Goldsmith banging on about ‘environmental concerns’, being green is not very rebellious. In fact, rarely has ‘rebellion’ looked and sounded more like an unthinking, unblinking form of mindless conformity than when it comes to the green issue.
Van der Zee at least starts off at the right place. She cites John Locke’s Social Contract theory and points out that protests and campaigns have long been central to the safeguarding and extension of our freedoms and rights. Van der Zee starts each chapter by quoting Hobbes, Locke, Marx and Engels, the Suffragettes and Martin Luther King to make a parallel between grand political visions of the past and the ‘how to’ mechanics of organising a protest today. Yet where those illustrious radicals of yesteryear were motivated by a desire to liberate humanity from its constraints, Rebel, Rebel seeks to do precisely the opposite: to impose unnecessary limits and restraints on everyday human behaviour.
In the side-panels titled ‘Why I Fight’, Joss Garman, an environmental activist, says he protests to stop people from flying abroad on holiday; Bernadette Vallely, founder of the Women’s Environmental Network, wants to stop mums from using disposable nappies; Rebecca Lush Blum, an anti-road protester, wants to restrict people’s mobility by car.
‘Are you desperate to right a wrong?’ asks the blurb on the back cover of Rebel, Rebel. And in almost every instance throughout the book, the ‘wrong’ that apparently needs to be righted is the unthinking behaviour and poor choices of ill-informed plebs or those tacky ‘new money’ types. So after Vallely was met by hoots of derision from time-stretched mothers who refused to give up disposable nappies – which, after all, were invented precisely to make mums’ lives easier – she condescendingly writes, ‘They didn’t seem to understand how privileged they are’, as if she was talking about a bunch of spoilt five-year-olds.
Outwardly, the handbook purports to be concerned with combating global warming, but references to ‘these people’ exposes, yet again, that green radicalism is frequently a transparent cover for banal and old-fashioned class snobbery. And the chatty, kids’ TV presenter style of prose means that some very revealing, quite spiteful comments – such as ‘I started discussing politics recently with a London cabby (I know, I know – next time I’ll remember to start chewing my own hand off first)’ – manage to slip through.
Such barely concealed disdain for ordinary people leads inexorably to a form of campaigning where activists don’t have to talk to Joe Schmo at all (and thus save themselves from getting gnarled hands in the process). Rebel, Rebel naturally salutes the direct action methods of Greenpeace and crusty rioters who find chainstore coffee shops so very offensive. Van der Zee makes a fanciful connection between these pantomime antics and Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaigning in the 1960s. Yet where King took his argument to the white American working classes, to try to win them to his cause, today’s direct activists prefer to shun democratic participation in favour of protesting ‘on behalf’ of others: victims, the vulnerable, animals, the planet.
And where King campaigned for equal rights and better living standards for black Americans, today’s ‘demands are NOT for more anything – more rights, more votes, more wages’, says van der Zee. Instead ‘they are for something “different”’. In fact, after reading Rebel, Rebel, one becomes convinced that today’s campaigners are freakishly demanding less and less of everything: less driving, less holidaying, fewer consumer goods. In essence, the desire to do ‘something different’, as van der Zee describes it, is similar to that adolescent urge not to become one of the ‘rat race drones’, which most of us grew out of in our late teens.
Rebel, Rebel has its work out cut out when it examines the former bête noire of middle-class liberals: trade unions. One chapter republishes a famous photo of a striking miner from 1984 squaring up to a policeman, yet the chapter’s tone is one of relief that those days of class warfare and picket-line violence are long gone. Indeed, Rebel, Rebel is delighted that these old organisations are ‘relaxing the idea of trade-based unions and making them far more inclusive and adopting a new kind of internationalism that’s not just about voting in a notion of solidarity but actually applying pressure in several places at once’.
In other words, trade unions are no longer sectional interest groups but rather morally altruistic outfits in tune with prevailing middle-class sensibilities. As van der Zee points out, sounding oddly like the old union-busting Tory minister Norman Tebbit, ‘the old stereotype of the “I’m All Right Jack” 1970s striker is slowly eroding’ (er, slowly?). Elsewhere, Rebel, Rebel expresses delight that trade unions have devised ‘environmental representatives’ in the workplace similar to traditional union reps. Of course, this particular chapter closes by advising readers to join unions, but only in the safe knowledge that they no longer aggressively fight for the material self-interest of their members.
If Rebel, Rebel is uneasy about trade unions, it is downright hostile to political parties. Van der Zee asks a question: ‘Is there really any point in forming your own political party?’ After a brief history of the Labour Party’s ‘betrayals’, and the recent fiasco of the Socialist Worker’s Party’s RESPECT campaign, the answer to van der Zee’s question is the same again and again: ‘Of course there’s no point setting up a party!’ It is true that the days of mass political parties are over, and it would be a waste of energy to mourn the demise of the Labour and Conservative parties as mass organisations. But what van der Zee really seems to object to is the idea of being partisan, of organisations being defined by their members’ sectional interests, as the old mass parties once were.
In the sections on party politics, there is also a cynical and contemptuous undertone in relation to the mass of the people who, through the democratic process, hold parties to account. A book that champions middle-class individuals who hector busy mums about nappies, but which denounces political parties comes across as deeply anti-democratic. Indeed, protest is presented as a way of getting around and even controlling mass sentiment, rather than harnessing it and representing it.
Rebel, Rebel’s preferred politician is Martin Bell, who in 1997 successfully defeated the Tatton Conservative MP Neil Hamilton. As both Labour and the Liberal Democrats withdrew themselves from the election in Tatton, Bell won by occupying the moral high-ground over the scandalised Tories. Van der Zee’s message seems clear: one man-in-a-white-suit’s subjective sense of ‘what is right’ is preferable to old-style party politics and issues-based democratic engagement. The chapter on ‘Legal Action’, which advises on how to get unelected lawyers and crusty judges to challenge government decision-making, further reveals the contempt of Rebel, Rebel for the democratic participation of the masses.
Little of this is new or surprising. Many of the issues in the handbook have been championed by the liberal intelligentsia and the new political elites for more than a decade. In particular, ‘saving the planet’ and cancelling Third World debt are campaigns that have been supported by everyone from anarchists and radical lefties to Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Far from this handbook putting forward anything truly radical or rebellious, it is a bible of contemporary conformism and consensus. Why else would a national newspaper which in the past has expressed hostility to popular protest movements publish it?
And if there is so much common ground between political decision-makers and the contributors to Rebel, Rebel, it makes you wonder who exactly van der Zee is railing against.
Of course, the manual points the finger at global corporations and big business. Yet this sounds unconvincing, especially when you consider that many of today’s global giants have rebranded themselves as green and ethical. Indeed, the rise of environmentalism has provided something of a boost to certain capitalist sectors, stimulating fresh demands for ‘ethical’ consumer goods and enabling capitalists to restructure business practices and boost profitability in the process.
No, the main targets of the protesters lauded in Rebel, Rebel are those who are really seen as standing in the way of the middle-class, caring, ethical agenda: the unethical masses. Those who still shop at Tesco, fly abroad on holiday, drive 4x4s, and haven’t got round to buying low-energy light-bulbs yet. Clearly, they don’t understand how ‘privileged they are’ and must be taught to rein in their unethical consumerism and follow the lead of more sussed individuals like van der Zee.
As the section in society that is most estranged from the production process, either as workers or as capitalist decision-makers, the middle classes have always found it difficult to relate to modern, mass society. Their response has usually been to adopt a detached bemusement at the two great competing classes, or to offer themselves up as society’s ‘moral conscience’ against both corrupt capitalists and materialist, oafish proles (but mostly against the proles).
Today, the middle-class activists’ self-styled position as the ‘watchful ones amongst the slaves’ – as one green-leaning author recently referred to himself – has been boosted as the traditional sources of elite authority and rule have diminished. Ethical activism has, slowly but surely, become a kind of amorphous, pervasive mechanism through which other people’s behaviour can be morally judged as either ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’. Far from offering progressive rebellion, the rebels of Rebel, Rebel seem really to be concerned with imposing and popularising these new behavioural standards across society at large.
In this context, protesting is recast as opposing those who do not conform to ethical standards of behaviour. Protesting against McDonald’s, smashing up Starbucks or setting up camps near Heathrow airport are all designed to shame those who have bought the ‘wrong’ type of burger or chosen the ‘wrong’ type of holiday. The language of limits, which is dominant in this deeply cynical handbook, is really about placing limits on personal freedom via a new form of ethical and moral blackmail.
Rebel, Rebel is a handbook packed with the new establishment’s prejudices and all of its petty, authoritarian concerns. Even by their own miserable standards, the middle classes have never sounded quite so revolting.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
Rebel, Rebel – The Protestor’s Handbook, by Bibi van der Zee, is published by Guardian Newspapers Ltd. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
This article is republished from the August 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.
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