How protest became a prisoner of the media

Once, radicals used the media to try to spread their ideas. In 2011, the media class used radicals to spread its ideas.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

2011 was the year in which protest became a prisoner of the media. Many end-of-year commentaries have gushed about the fact that, in contrast to the ‘complacency and apathy’ of the 2000s, 2011 was a year of political tumult everywhere from Tunisia to Manhattan. Yet while some of these protests were refreshing, there was something weird about them, too: the extent to which they were dependent on the media. Modern protest is increasingly reliant upon the media not only for impact, but also for ideas, and this gives the media extraordinary power to create political possibilities today.

It is fitting that 2011 ended with Time magazine naming ‘The Protester’ its Person of the Year and using a photoshopped image of an Occupy protester crossed with an Arab Spring protester on its cover. Because in many ways, these protesters are creations of the media; certainly they are creatures of the media, their complaints of the past 12 months having been sanctioned and, more importantly, shaped by the media class.

The Occupy movement was set in motion by the media, by one of the most elitist magazines on the market: the ‘anti-capitalist’ Adbusters. Having spent the past 22 years railing against the ‘army of zombies’ that makes up modern Western society, with our ‘glazed eyes, blank stares, faces twisted into ugly masks of want’, Adbusters decided to kickstart a live-performance version of its disgust for the masses. It published a one-page advert in its July edition saying, ‘What is our one demand? Occupy Wall Street, 17 September. Bring tent.’ The non-brainwashed sections of society, those good people who aren’t a part of what Adbusters brands the ‘billions and billions’ who have been ‘disfigured’ by consumerism, heeded the call and headed to Wall Street.

It is remarkable how much the outlook of Adbusters, which is only a more quirkily stated version of the anti-consumerist, anti-wealth sentiment rife amongst the respectable media classes, has infused the now-global Occupy movement. Occupy Wall Street complains that ‘the working class of [America] has been brainwashed’. A placard at Occupy London says capitalism has turned the masses into ‘chumps and tarts’. Here, the supposedly radical occupiers faithfully ape the political posturing of their founders and patrons in the cliquish liberal media. And they have the temerity to call themselves ‘the 99%’.

The Occupy movement wasn’t only founded by the media – it has been sustained by it, too. Occupy has continually sought legitimacy and traction, not in the public square, with its unpredictable hordes, but in the media square. The absence of any clear constituency for these self-styled voices of radicalism to engage with means they increasingly see the media as their key, perhaps only platform. And their dearth of a political alternative, their absence of an overarching ideal, means they’re extremely prone to having their agenda set for them by others. It is striking that influential voices in the media have implored the Occupy movement to ‘resist the pressures to clarify [its agenda]’ and to stick with its ‘lack of concrete demands’ – because it is the very amorphousness of Occupy that allows media practitioners to project their concerns on to it, to influence the political agenda through treating the occupiers almost as ventriloquist dummies.

So when a supportive columnist says the great thing about Occupy’s ideology-lite, goal-free protesting is that it opens up a space for ‘creating new possibilities’, you can’t help feeling that the only class ‘creating possibilities’ today is the media class. They continually project their own politics and prejudices on to the Occupy movement, claiming it’s all about social inequality, the problem of greed, the need for higher taxes, or whatever their social set’s bugbear happens to be. It’s notable that Time magazine’s end-of-year issue congratulated Occupy for its role in ‘shifting the national conversation’, by which it meant rejuvenating chattering-class debates. Apparently, ‘the Nexis news-media database now registers almost 500 mentions of “inequality” each week’, compared with only 91 a week before Occupy started.

How fitting that a movement founded by the media, sanctioned by the media and crowned ‘Person of the Year’ by that most respectable media outlet should have its success measured in terms of newspaper word-counts rather than real-world shifts. Time is really pleased that Occupy has acted as a kind of willing conduit for the arguments of the respectable media class, boosting the standing of today’s cultural elites.

Of course, radicals have always had a relationship with the media. French revolutionaries published propagandistic pamphlets. The street-fighters of 1968 loved having their protests photographed and written about, while civil-rights protesters from the American South to Northern Ireland chanted ‘The whole world is watching!’ when there were TV cameras around. Yet in the past, radicals used media outlets to communicate their own ideas and demands. Today, we have an almost perfect inversion of that scenario: now, the media class uses radicals to push its own narrow political agenda.

There are three problems with the unholy marriage between protest and the media that was consummated in 2011. First, it nurtures a nasty elitist outlook, where those who fail to join in the media-celebrated protesting – the vast majority of people – are denounced as uncaring or dumb. Where Adbusters labels us ‘zombies’, Time prefers to fret about those who are still in an ‘internet-induced fugue state, quietly giving in to hopelessness’. Second, it allows for the undemocratic setting of political agendas, where small groups of cut-off hacks and activists claim to speak on behalf of ‘the 99%’ and claim to have a special insight into what are the big problems facing the world (Time says the biggest problem is ‘hellbent megascaled crony hypercapitalism’ – expect to see that on an Occupy placard soon).

And third, it gives rise to a very shallow, contradictory form of solidarity. One of the reasons modern protesters are so drawn to the media, seeing it as a tool for ‘globalised action’, is because they feel they have more in common with other middle-class ‘creators of possibilities’ overseas than they do with the everyday people who inhabit their own streets. This is not internationalism, but rather a means of escaping the disappointing masses at home by creating media-enabled links with like-minded people abroad. Sadly, the largely educated protesters of the Arab Spring have also played this game, preferring to link up with decadent Occupy movements in New York and London rather than engage with and enthuse and potentially lead the people of their own nations.

The media has won its new political authority by default rather than design: it is the corrosion of the old political constituencies and the crisis of political thinking that created the space for the smart set to wield such influence. Consequently, we’re obliged to ask of 2011: was it really an historic year of political upheaval, on a par with 1848, or the year when the undemocratic, pious media class successfully conquered and colonised the world of protest?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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