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May 29, 2014

Razer's Class Warfare: you call that a protest?

Students are taking to the streets with home-made signs and jostling former politicians at uni like it's 1969. Someone has to let these kids know that the old forms of protest have been kaput for some time.

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Writer Annabel Crabb has enjoyed freedom from misunderstanding for too long, and so her bollocking by social media this week was as long-overdue as it was (more or less) undeserved. The former press gallery wunderkind dared venture Sunday in her Fairfax column that “the last few decades have turned our world upside down” and that protest had not turned with it.

She was subject to the form and the volume of critique familiar to any writer imprudent enough to suggest the Left is not doing a bang-up job of efficient social change and might want to try something different. She is old, they said; she is irrelevant; she thinks she knows everything; how dare she be so negative; and why doesn’t she just marry Marine Le Pen if she loves hating freedom so much.

After a storm of tweets doused her in enough scorn to wash all the Rosie the Riveter do-rags from The Guardian’s comment pages clean, Crabb was a good enough sport to say she had been wrong. She linked to a blog post Senator Scott Ludlum had already tweeted with all the reasonable humility for which he has become lately known. “PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR DESIGNATED PROTEST ZONES” he offered in majuscule, the official case of easy snark.

The blog post by Alex McKinnon itself is quite funny, and the writer does make the very decent point that protest was never meant to look anything but, as Crabb has it, “dreadful”. I can think of no significant battle that was won by good manners, and thank goodness for Annabel that her foremothers were dreadful enough to throw themselves in front of horses.

I imagine those young, and now quite legitimately angry, people have lately had a gutful from an old media that thrives on easy censure. It must seem that when their protests are wholesome and internet-based, they’re slacktivists. When they’re unseemly and physically present, they’re missing all the marvelous strategic opportunities an online awareness ribbon presents.

It’s easy to understand this frustration, and in recent days John Birmingham has been so eager not to feed it he’s blown a little smoke both ways. On his Fairfax blog, Birmo affirms the might of street protest. On his personal blog, he affirms the might of informal social media protest. It’s all good, apparently, and so say a number of other commentators who are giddy with hope for the future that has not, after all, been headed these past 40 years down a Too Big Too Fail late-capitalist lavatory direct to a feudal sewer. No. Things are on the up-and-up and the Left in buoying its old traditions of street protest, and its new tradition of publishing emotional things online is doing all it can. RETWEET IF U CRY.

I can take or leave online “protest”, myself. What Birmo sees as a gloriously compact J’Accuse, I see as a delusion of power and enlightenment. But I did love seeing the little blighters going politicians and revved up on ABC1’s Q&A.  Frankly, those two minutes of screaming were the best I’ve seen amid a tedious hour of anti-intellectual ping pong in some time. Probably since Zizek talked about the death of the real with half a sandwich in his beard.

The re-emergence of Cold War-era tactics such as we saw deployed toward Julie Bishop make me feel young again. But they don’t make me feel particularly hopeful. I know participation in them feels good, but I am pretty sure that they achieve little beyond that. This is not for a minute to diminish the students’ motivations, which are noble and worthy and right. It is, however, to join Crabb is suggesting that a new era may demand a new form of protest.

It’s unfashionable to agree with Crabb this week; she’s even denounced herself. So I shan’t agree with her mild assertion that digital media channels will free us all, nor will I join her in denying students the same undergraduate pleasures I took in politician-jostling.

But I will say that the Left’s repertoire of contention could do with a little freshening.

And no. I really have no clear idea of how that might look but a solution has never been requisite to the identification of its need. Perhaps Crabb erred in suggesting that her solution would look more sober than recent protest scenes. She did not err, however, in identifying a problem.

And as much as the Micawbers of the new and sunny Left might see revolutionary riches ahead, there is a problem.

Someone has to let these kids know that the old forms of protest have been kaput for some time. The techniques my friends and I used to protest HECS produced fuck-all but an ALP that knew it could get away with neoliberal economic policies as long as it made the right emotional noises to its broader base. Someone needs to let these kids know that there is very little hope.

There is a good case to be made for pessimism and an even better one for devising new tactics for its public expression. There is, of course, a popular view that a positive outlook leads to positive change. But perhaps what we need now most of all is not the tenets of Personal Development but a dose of “This Isn’t Working” administered much more forcefully than Crabb could ever dare.

Birmingham and others are currently happy to give the Left its self-esteem. “You go!” they say. Good job and don’t go changing. You’re perfect as you are. Except, of course, that the world has turned without pause to shit for several decades and an eight-hour day and an early retirement is a dream as distant to the nation’s younger boomers as affordable housing and education are to its younger adults.

And I know this realisation fuels the anger that Crabb found so unseemly. It is not as though younger Australians are unaware that they’ve got a shitty deal. They’re certainly not stupid, but they are new here. For the sake of goodness, let them know that protest must evolve.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian.

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22 thoughts on “Razer’s Class Warfare: you call that a protest?

  1. Helen Razer

    Vince. Hey. Totally. I think you probably know I agree that the campaigning will never be right if the branding is stuffed. But, the brand failure, the refusal to see the market mechanism, is not only a discussion for another time but I think something that legitimately angry students can’t be charged with. And in this case, I think Crabb makes a half-decent point which is: guys this protest stuff is maybe not working as well as once it did.
    Of course, one would never wish to halt the spontaneous expression of anger and I really love seeing those mad-as-hell kids. And I do take your point that physical meeting buoys a movement. It makes people feel good and that is in itself good.
    But, as an effective spectacle, the street protest is as useful as the awareness ribbon and I really do think new times call for new forms of protest. There is no jolt to the footage which recalls Olden Times and signifies to many viewers a memory of the Big Chill soundtrack. Our electronic unconscious is full of such banner-holding brave images and we have seen them so many times, they look nostalgic at best and hackneyed at worst. And while I totally endorse the students’ anger, I have to say that this age of the spectacle demands something new from them.
    I am not for a minute saying that all campaigns are doomed to failure. (Although I am a bit of an Eeyore. Or maybe a Blackboard from Mr Squiggle.) I am just saying that this stuff is not working as a means of jolting public expression. As you say, though. It works for the participants. And that is not nothing.
    Totally agree about the poor strategy. But wanted to talk in the terms everyone else has been this week which is largely “CAMPAIGNS ARE ALWAYS GREAT!” It’s a bit Chose Life for my taste.

  2. Connor Drum

    Hi Helen – I am an irregular Crikey reader, and I usually don’t comment on comments sections because no good can ever come of it. However, I’m also one of the ANU students who organised and ran a couple of protests over the last week and a half, in total pulling more than a thousand students – not counting the staff and wider community involvement which was, dare I say, significant.

    I suppose one point I’d make about the effectiveness of otherwise of the protest march as one tool amongst others, is that it’s best targeted locally. Yes, there is certainly scope for protests to scare the shit out of politicians, executives and mandarins alike when they manifest in the tens or hundreds of thousands in city streets – but that’s clearly not what (at least we) were hoping to achieve. As students at a university nominally lead by the chief of the Group of 8, our goal is the removal of VC Ian Young, and the institution of a democratic system of Chancelry appointment. The first goal, at least, is possible – mainly because the man is an idiot who has all on his own undermined almost all support he has from general staff and academics/PhD candidates. Undergraduates are starting to come around as well (although a three year span from entry to graduation punctuated with Fun obviously makes it hard to maintain the rage in a corporate sense).

    Before anyone replies “but he’s not in the government, you twerp” – I know, and thank you for your contribution. He is, however, one of the most powerful lobbyist voices for the university sector in Australia, and the only Vice-Chancellor who has been comfortable coming out on national television and publicly saying that he has no idea how fee deregulation is going to work, but fuck, he’ll do it anyway. His role in legitimating fee deregulation should not be underestimated, both for government and for wider public discussion. After all, if the person who is supposed to know most about this says it’s a good idea, you might be persuaded to think he’s telling the truth, and that it is one.

    I’d also point out that street protest is but one thing happening around campus in terms of trying galvanise opposition to fee deregulation broadly, and Ian Young personally. I won’t go into too much detail because you’ve already read this far (and because it turns out that the ANU has a whole bureau devoted to monitoring whatever we do on Facebook etc.) but you might;ve seen mention of the Read-In happening at the ANU – Annabel Crabbe at least deigned to give it her tick of approval. What it has become is a space where information around deregulation and university policy is being discussed on a regular basis, and where that information is freely available and centrally located for anyone interested. All kinds of people are coming along, from rosy-cheeked and shirted trots to Young Labor hopefuls wrapped in chinos and cheap blazers, which means that we have both broad support AND lots of different kinds of campaigning expertise, outside of banner painting and wearing sturdy boots.

    I’d just make one final point as well – there really is not, and never will be any substitute for foot leather. The internet might be great for organising, but if you want to convince someone you’ll have to actually talk to them like they’re a real person with actual concerns, especially if you want them to join you in doing or arguing for something specific. This is what we’re doing everyday, and this is one of the important functions of street protest.

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