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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.

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.

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22 comments

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

  1. Vince

    Helen, I think you’re confusing strategy with tactics. The tactic of street protest is a good one! As social creatures, it’s important that us humans actually gather with other humans, interact, discuss, debate, get angry, have fun – it’s how we work – and physical action in the real world ultimately is how change is effected.

    The street protest, of course, needs to be supplemented with all other available forms of protest, online offering us a bunch of options.

    But if the political strategy of the campaign is crap, then that’s where we have a problem.

    All this pessimistic whining about the need to ‘evolve’ beyond street protest completely misses the point that it’s not the ‘old’ forms of protest that are kaput – it’s the idea that market mechanisms are in any way an ‘efficient’ way to organise the allocation of social resources, let alone an entire society.

  2. klewso

    That degeneration of journalism seems to happen a lot, as they get older and take themselves and their omnipotency of opinions too seriously?

  3. Roger Jones

    Bring back interpretive dance! More mime! More street theatre!

  4. 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.

  5. Helen Razer

    Yes. Roger. And more cow-bells.

  6. puddleduck

    Nice work, Helen.
    Love reading your stuff.
    Keep up the great work.
    THIS IS NOT A PROTEST
    oLE!

  7. Carlene Colahan

    Let’s not forget women on stilts & tie dyed t-shirts. Changed a generation they did!

    It was heartening to see the young angry however fruitless. I feel the difference between then & now is that in my day protest had the general public asking what it was about & now they appear to be worried about the manners of the young

  8. Helen Razer

    Also, Carlene, I think, as indicated previously, that protest as a spectacle (and that is its primary function) has been used in marketing since at least the time of the Virginia Slims campaign. “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” showed women dressed like Gloria Steinhem and Toni Cade Bambara celebrating their liberation and smoking cigarettes. And I remember seeing QANTAS ads that showed young hip-nikk travelling the world with their anger. This stuff has now become a spectacle so predictable, through no fault of anyone but Madison Avenue, that it needs to change.

  9. Liamj

    Protests are great, speed-dating for those too inhibited, oops socially concious, to admit they want to get laid (cite- personal experience). But considering the LNPs many fronts of attack, uncoordinated push-back on particular issues is trivial, particularly when all the pushback seems to say is ‘make it like before’.

    Wake up and smell the fracking fluids people, we’re past the peak of resource supply and no amount of screaming will bring back the sort of socialist largess that the boomers enjoyed. Realise that the corporate feudalists will always afford the better liars promising more ‘jam tomorrow’. Fine, let them, they will never be able to deliver.

    The backward-facing Left and the mostly dreamy Greens must openly discuss our grim prospects, which are increasingly seeping into the lives of those living outside zone 1, and propose coherent policies to minimise the pain. Only then will they have any sort of significant and durable constituency.

  10. Draco Houston

    I dismissed Crabb’s article shortly after reading it, because she seemed to have missed the whole twibbon sign my change.org petition stuff

    My pet theory is we have allowed ourselves to be weakened by an insistence that protest must be polite and non violent. Even relatively tame protests are seen as violent, the goal posts constantly moving.

    The anti-CSG blockades are doing well, probably because they are willing to impose their will and force a crisis for the miners and government. And they don’t sit around worrying what people who go on the panel shows think about it. They have diverse support.