Some responses to my last blog post asked why I considered earlier riots as explicitly political yet not this one. It’s a fair question and the distinction is debatable, but I still feel the absence of either a clear agenda or a clear enemy on a par with, say, Daryl Gates’ infamously corrupt, brutal and racist LAPD at the time of the 1992 riots. Say what you like about the self-serving recklessness of bankers and corporations — neatly described as “feral capitalism” — but connection is not the same as causality. Whatever the complex political factors which sowed the seeds, the unrest itself was, by historical standards, apolitical.
I don’t agree with all of this London Review of Books piece by Slavoj Zizek (I don’t agree with half of what Zizek says about anything) but he gets to the nub of what is lacking in the current wave of unrest in the west: a way forward. Agendas may fail and leaders may disappoint but without them all you have is that initial howl of rage and impotence, whether it be in the form of London’s looters or Spain’s more genteel indignados. Zizek’s final sentence strikes an ominous, authoritarian note to my ears (“one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness”) but I think he’s broadly right about the absence of old-fashioned organisation and political muscle in the current wave of leaderless, social media-enabled unrest.
This is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.
Hence the unfiltered voice of the people was a wonderful thing to behold in Egypt but the revolution is struggling there without revolutionary leadership to match that of the army and the Islamists. In London, it was striking that there was nobody with the authority to voice the grievances of the rioters or, concomitantly, to encourage them to stop the violence — just a cauldron of inchoate emotion and tangled motives which pundits and politicians struggle to comprehend. The familiar demo chant “What do we want? When do we want it?” is incomplete. The when is clear — “Now!” — while the what is clouded with confusion. A protest might begin with vague aspirations but a successful one needs to master the details.
When I’m asked about the shortage of new protest songs even in such a turbulent year I tend to argue that the collective songwriting muscles have grown flabby over the last 20 years; the tradition has faded; the habit has been lost. Musicians perceive problems but lack the confidence to step up and confront them. This is a microcosm of the wider problem. In 2011 a generation has remembered how to protest but it has little sense of how to identify what it wants and even less of how to get it.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.