Revolt without revolution

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.


  1. I can appreciate why you don’t agree with half of what Zizek says: he takes a very academic line that takes things to their ‘logical’ conclusion – which is part of the problem rather than the solution of it.

    But then, what do I know? I no longer live in the UK and now live 6,000 miles away in Hong Kong.

  2. Sorry Dorian but I think you are understimating the Movimiento 15 M (Indignados). It is true that there is no a leader (actually, this movement is against them). I also agree with you that its success will be difficult without having one voice. It is also very clever how you finish your piece. But history is in the making and what this movement is confident in no repeating the same mistakes of political parties and trade unions. What they are really about is in taking seriously the democracy, and extended to its possible limits. To some degree this new collective democracy is modelled on the Anarchist philosophy of the XIX century such as direct action and horizontal participation with the technological tools of the XXI century (networking logics). But I think the real model is not the anarchist philosophy but the very recent Icelandic peaceful revolution. The citizens of this small country achieved to change the government and took some of the bankers and political leaders to court for the general state of corruption in 2008, which was to be blamed on the crisis and its financial bankruptcy (it is not all to be blamed outside our borders, national goverments and its central banks play an important role in the financial crisis too). No political party or trade union in Spain has voiced this discontent and have also claimed responsibilities for the big unemployment figures that young people are facing (the higuest in the EU) and the economical crisis than Los Indignados. For many people institutional and vertical political organizations have stopped to represent them. Up to now the only Movimiento 15 M’s political direct success achieved is probably the proposal by the Socialist Party to introduce a new parliamentary seat (351) for the direct participation of citizens in parliamentary proposals ( I agree with you that at present it seems more a revolt than a revolution but time will tell.

    • Thanks for the insight. To be honest I’d be delighted if I turned out to be underestimating the indignados. I have doubts about the efficacy of the current wave of leaderless protests but if they do prove to be a successful new model then great. It’s an experiment in progress and, as you say, only time will tell.

  3. I’d like to echo noisyspaniard: I take the lack of spokespeople from the rioters as being a good sign, even if the media have cast around and found variously qualified people to be presented as ‘community leaders’. If it’s an indication that the younger generation don’t feel the need for a Joe Strummer style deconstruction then all the better and the instrumental electronic music which soundtracks the discontent only leaves a space for every young person to fill with their own words.

    Having just attended the event at the Scottish parliament at which you spoke I’ve got to say I don’t lament the end of the golden thread of political song which you described as being handed down from Guthrie to Strummer & Dylan – it hasn’t served well, apart from in a few specific cases where a song can be said to have made a difference (maybe, Free Nelson Mandela by the Specials AKA) and perhaps if protest is soundtracked with songs about love or dancing (like Martha & the Vandellas) it will be less likely hijacked by eager A&R to sell stuff.

    Football crowds have for a long time adapted the lyrics of all kinds of unlikely songs to support their team. Perhaps that’s a more honest approach than a custom built song by someone who’s livelihood would disappear along with capitalism, come a revolution…

    Looking forward to reading your book!

    • I like the idea of protesters filling instrumental space with their own words but obviously as a fan of protest songs that doesn’t engage me in the same way. I don’t understand what you mean about “serving well” – I think expecting a political outcome from any work of art is a tall order. Equally harsh to suggest that anyone with a record deal is somehow dishonest in their political statements, or that A&Rs routinely use protest songs to “sell stuff”. But if your general point is that this aversion to leaders/icons/spokespeople is a generational thing which might bear fruit in unexpected ways then sure – I’m eager to see it. Like I said to noisyspaniard, this is an area where I’m hoping to be proved wrong.

      • It’s less about expecting a ‘political’ outcome from a song – more that political songs can often give the impression of creating or actually being a political outcome: ‘you don’t need to do anything because you listened to this song and agreed with it’. Plus i think it’s entirely reasonable to expect a political outcome from the occasional, well aimed tune. I wanted a political outcome from this one: – but John Major’s lawyers put the kibosh on that…

        True, I’m not sure if any A&R person has ever told an artist ‘you need to record a protest song’, although it wouldn’t surprise me, especially circa mid-60s, but sometimes their job is to acknowledge the zeitgeist and make sure their artists are part of it, so I’m pretty sure there was some tacit nudging in the 60s and the late 70s towards some political meaning which was too generalised to actually mean anything, for Instance, Eddy & The Hotrods marvelous Do Anything You Wanna Do.

        It might be that these more generalised songs were more effective at mobilising just because they had room for the listener to project their own meaning. Or it could be that they ‘took the sting’ out of any rebellious notions of activism. Not sure how it could be proved without some detailed analysis of Sham 69 V Bob Marley V Mike Oldfield audience voting patterns… but, anecdotally, I would say that I and friends of my generation, all fairly left wing and all highly influenced by punk and the subsequent political culture of the 80s have failed dismally for years to do more than try to present a desperate balance to the overwhelming weight of freemarket consumerism and militarism that have dominated UK politics. Which is a bit depressing, even if the pop music was fantastic.

        Perhaps we were too busy having a good time, singing along to White Riot, or There’s A Riot Goin’ On to do what is really necessary. Perhaps we still are.

  4. Hi Dorian

    I hope you’re well.

    I am sorry to randomly jump in on one of your posts to say something not totally unrelated but not about the post itself but:

    I am writing about subculture and the ‘death of punk’ including a bit about protest and music.

    I was wondering if there were any of your posts or newspaper articles that you think are particularly relevant to my essay, so I can link back to you.

    I haven’t read your book yet but I have read your blog and I have probably been influenced along the way by your writing, so I’d like to give you a hat tip.

    (either reply here or on my blog I will check back here soon!)

  5. […] Zizek’s argument resonated with me a few weeks ago but I was, I think, too pessimistic. OWS is America’s introduction to the new protest already witnessed in Spain and Greece: a miasma of disaffection with no obvious focus. Like it or not, this is the direction of left-wing dissent for the coming months and understanding it is a challenge for protesters and observers alike. In Zuccotti Park union activists and antiwar veterans mingle with Ron Paul supporters, 9/11 Truthers and the inevitable guys in V for Vendetta masks. Placards engage with student debt, Troy Davis, Wisconsin, Cairo. Slate’s David Wiegel is refreshingly candid: “What’s the story? I hung out with Occupy Wall Street on Friday and Saturday, which wasn’t enough time to figure out what the movement is about, because no one knows what it’s about.” […]

  6. The speed with which the occupy wall street youth revolt spread at the end of 2011 within the usa (especially after the mass arrests on the brooklyn bridge increased the daily global mass media coverage for the next few months), seems to indicate that a leaderless, collective/consensus, unspecific (but anti-System) approach can lead more rapidly to a possible revolutionary/general strike situation in usa than previous 20th-century-based approaches. And it’s also possible that out of this recent new wave of massive youth protest will come a new wave of 21st-century protest folk songs that reflect the collective concerns and rebel feelings/consciousness of the revived protest movement in the usa.

    Richard Farina indicated In his Summer 1965 liner notes to the “Singer Songwriter Project” vinyl album, for example, how, historically, a new wave of protest songs can sometimes appear, when he wrote the following:

    “…We’d been born into the arbitrary confines of a United States…And each year, came the silent chorus of bored asides, millions of tons of Grade-A bullshit pours forth from our country’s collectively twisted head…

    “A number of people began adding their own songs to otherwise derivative repertoires and finding astonishing response from their listeners. That the songs were intensely personal in their grievance or celebration was inevitable, but in nearly every case the audience was not only ready for the new compositions but anxious to have its own sensibilities strengthened through such an unaffected medium…The protest songs lost their earlier occasional subject matter and were ambitious enough to take on concerns like the military-industrial complex which made its money by preparing for a war of blistering absurdity. The satire was quick and to the uneasy point, having gained the best from the psychiatrist’s and musician’s private vocabularies. And in keeping with the anxiety of societal surroundings, the overall production was prolific, frenetic, uneven, often brilliant, and at times appalling.

    “But at least it was being heard, and not buried in literary journals…”

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