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Archive for July, 2012

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If you want to see the most complete conservative reaction to the activism of the last eighteen months, all you need do is go and get a ticket for The Dark Knight Rises. In the new Batman film we are presented with a vision of the hell that is unleashed when the populace are driven to overthrow those people who are oppressing them. This Burkean vision of the inevitable bloody consequences of revolutionary action is something that is thrilling to see. It is an audacious, and largely successful, attempt to produce a piece of political philosophy and dress it in the clothes of a quarter of a billion dollar blockbuster movie.

However it is far less successful if it is attempting to make a point about the modern activist and revolutionary movements, which I think it is. This is because it is using an outdated model of revolutionary activity, one that is lead by demagogic figures – as represented by the film’s central villain Bane. If the film were trying to do nothing more than transpose Burke’s ideas about the French Revolution – with Bane as a Robespierre cipher – then this would be fair. And although this is clearly one of the film’s purposes, as seen in the parallels in the trial scenes with Wajda’s Danton. The sight of running battles in Wall Street – the ground zero of the Occupy movement – and an ironic prison in a non-specific Arabic location shows that Nolan is trying to make a point about 2011. The lesson takes he appears to be taking out of these movements is that it will collapse into vertical tyranny because he is making the mistake that outsiders make about modern protest movements, identifying leaders.

Once the police arrive at a protest they will find the oldest white man in the group and assign them a leadership position – by using them as the deliverer of messages. That is because they, like Nolan, have not yet realised the profoundly horizontal nature of these movements. These are not movements that will be taken in by despots, because they have come together through social networks that disperse power rather than focus it.

It shouldn’t be any kind of surprise that a Batman film has an inherently conservative tone, as a series its core idea that the ideal keeper of social order is a vastly wealthy individual with an armoury of futuristic weapons. It is a story about the legitimacy of violence –  and in this film’s final showdown with Bane, torture. This goes further as Batman is co-opted by the typical possessors of the state’s legitimate violence – the police.

The idea of the ‘Good Rich Man’, which is the Batman myth, shows its profound muddle-headedness at one moment when it goes in for some mild, but now de rigueur, banker bashing. As Batman returns from his imposed exile one Wall Street trader says that change will either drive the markets up or down, then admitting that he will choose how by the flipping of a coin. Having set up this problem the film offers only good behaviour by the rich, which as Orwell identified in his essay on Dickens is the standard trope for defenders of status quo, or the horror of Stalinist show trials. It is in this that Nolan reveals most clearly his profound dislike of revolution.

The trust that we are asked to place in people, in various uniforms, in this film is something that has been reflected in the real world in just the last few days. The acquittal of the manslaughter case against PC Simon Harwood, in connection with the death of Ian Tomlinson seems to reflect this. To an outsider the evidence seems cut and dry – a police officer, without provocation, pushes a man to the ground with such force that he later dies. However the acquittal of this officer appears to come from the fact that the jury were more willing to trust the narrative of the individual that represented the state than any other.

However critical I may be of this film’s political outlook it is still sensational to see a movie with such commercial intentions that has at its heart, ideas about the state in which we live. It is a joy to watch, even as it is a joy to criticise its central thesis.

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One year ago I went on my first demonstration, after it was winding up I was hit by a car, broke both bones in my leg and spent the next three months in plaster and required an operation that saw me in a wheelchair over Christmas. This has meant that every protest I have been on since the checklist in my head has gone, didn’t get arrested – tick – didn’t get hit by any vehicles – tick. However this is an entirely personal list and doesn’t really answer the question of the purpose of political protests.

It is something that I have been thinking rather more about having been to several different protests, or events that started as protests, over the past few days. These protests all represented different, and differently successful, tactics of using protest as a method of delivery of a message. The tactic adopted by the first of this week’s Boycott Workfare actions, vocal  protests outside some of the remaining users of the scheme’s labour, was succeeded because as well as acting as an embarrassment to the retailers it sought to aimed to raise awareness of the manifest unfairness of the scheme by interacting with public. This led to the profoundly heartening sight of a older woman with, what I assume were, her grandchildren joining in the chants and taking the message away with her. The most successful protests are those that are both directly entering, and providing a space for, the public debate.  Therefore many of the most successful protests are those that find ways of grabbing the attention of the public and leaving them with a set of ideas to consider. Testimony to this can be found in the astounding success of UK Uncut in transforming debates about tax avoidance from the dinner party talk of forensic accountants to the front page of the Daily Mail.

The importance of the protest movement as a location for public debate can be seen when a protest is seeking only to speak truth to power with little concern for debating with the public. Monday night’s ‘Dino Demo’ protest against the Natural History Museum’s hosting of the arms dealers at Farnborough Air Show. Its role was to shame those dealers who were attending the event, and therefore it was targeting its message at those who it stood against. As with the Boycott Workfare movement there are many messages that need wider publicity – the number of organisations that are attending Farnborough who are facilitating the repression of the Syrian people for one thing.  However by focusing these messages at the powerful figures, who one assumes must have grown deaf to the demonization that follows them around the world, this message had no chance to influence anyone. Without a form of public debate protest runs the risk of being little more than background noise, when the sight of protesters talking about the arms trade – dressed as dinosaurs – is exactly the kind of spiky campaign that should be a publicity magnet.

Protests should be as open as possible, seek to reach as many people as possible. As someone who has sought to take up placards in anger this year I have always felt welcomed, from my first nervous steps and chants – true to such an extent that I have bought a copy of the Socialist Worker through embarrassment – but it seems clear to me that the most successful protests open up their message by focusing it on an often receptive public, rather than letting it wash over an often unreceptive establishment.  

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If this coalition is a marriage then the Conservatives just announced their affair at the anniversary party. Make no mistake, Conservative failure to support Lords Reform, a flagship policy of the Liberal Democrat party, is a betrayal of everything this coalition is about. A Lib Dem party that has consented to austerity, accepted conservative orthodoxy on higher education, and watched a disastrous budget from a calamity chancellor has been stabbed in the back on the one policy they could not afford to lose.

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