From Tahrir Square to Parliament Square?
As Arabs confront the problem of state authority, British protesters see the state as the only agent of change.
‘They’re fighting for democracy in the Middle East, but we have a fight on here. Because [of what] they’re doing to our people… they’re cutting people’s jobs and making people unemployed. And on 26 March there will be a very big demonstration organised by the trade unions in this country. Let’s say “our struggle is your struggle” and “your struggle is our struggle”. Let’s link up the issues.’
According to many British protesters, such as the prominent anti-war campaigner who recently delivered the above lines in a speech at a ‘solidarity with Libya’ demonstration outside Downing Street, ‘linking the issues’ between the protests in the Middle East and anti-cuts demonstrations in the UK sounds as simple as playing join-the-dots.
This logic has led to anti-cuts banners being waved at recent Middle East solidarity demonstrations, as if there were simply a degree of separation between the two issues. ‘We are all Egyptians now’ is an oft-declared claim by British left-wing activists, who urge the crowd to learn to ‘walk like Egyptians’ in their struggles against the Lib-Cons’ cuts. As one student protester put it in a recent column: ‘The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance. Across the world, ordinary people are being denied a voice, shut out of work and education, having their dignity trashed.’
Certainly, inspiration should be drawn from the protesters across the Arab world, who have shown that even regimes that seem permanent can be toppled by the collective action of people. However, many are making far too strenuous attempts to find similarities between the protests here and the ones over there. Ultimately, these comparisons are based on the flimsy notion that in both Britain and the Arab world it’s a case of Us against The Man, the dispossessed against the corrupt millionaires in power – which is a naive interpretation of events, to say the least.
In reality, it is evident that there are fundamental differences between the aims of those who occupied Tahrir Square and other Arab protesters and those of the anti-cuts lobby in Britain. In a feature article on the new faces of student protest in the UK, one activist declared that anti-cuts activists are ‘articulating a culture of resistance to the narrative that we have to pare down the state. People are standing up and saying there is an alternative.’
The messages behind the Cairo protests, on the other hand, were primarily aimed against the state: in fact they wanted the state to be ‘pared down’, in particular in its role in interfering with people’s choices and liberty. The central message that galvanised the Egyptian people was ‘Mubarak must go’; they demanded the removal of the head of state and an end to the state of emergency that allowed for the suppression of people’s freedoms. In other words, the protesters were rallying for greater freedom against state control and a retraction of state powers. Likewise in Libya, where large sections of the population have declared war on the state, and not, as is the case with Britain’s anti-cuts lobby, marched for its preservation.
The new left protesters in Britain see the state as the chief agent of change and progress, preferring to call on it, rather than on the masses, to achieve certain allegedly progressive goals. By contrast, the protests in the Arab world have involved people confronting the fact that the state is a problem, and that they themselves, in their millions, are best placed to push society in a liberal and democratic direction.
This difference can be seen in the ‘alternative’ demanded by trade unions in the upcoming 26 March anti-cuts demonstration in London, where a large number of people are proposing to ‘take Tahrir Square to Hyde Park’. Their alternative is for the state to increase its remit over corporations, imposing a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on the banks and closing tax loopholes, as well as saying no to ‘unfair and unnecessary’ cuts in state expenditure. Equally, the student protesters are demanding a greater state subsidy for education, under the banner ‘education is a right, not a privilege’.
The most lauded of the contemporary anti-cuts movements, UK Uncut, goes further, taking militant action on behalf of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs tax inspectors by naming and shaming companies it believes pay insufficient taxes. UK protesters are effectively demanding that the state shield them from the harsh realities that exist in the cold cruel world outside. Where the protests in the Arab world have led millions of people to see state authority as a problem, the anti-cuts protests here continually put pressure on the state to do ‘the right thing’.
If British protesters really want to walk like Egyptians, to ‘link up the issues’, then a good place to start would be to begin to think the unthinkable: that far from being an unalloyed good, our dependency upon state support can be deeply harmful. It is possible for people to cope – indeed thrive – without the state’s permanent assistance. Rather than arguing for an increase in the state’s powers in the name of the people, we should be mobilising for greater freedom from the state instead.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.
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