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This is no conspiracy, Glenn Beck: Laurie Penny on Uncut

The UK and US Uncut movements are a genuinely popular, if gentle, insurrection. So why are their members being branded "extremists"?

The greatest conspiracies happen in plain sight. Today, across the Northern Hemisphere, activists from the grass-roots movement UK Uncut and its newly-formed sister group US Uncut are staging more than 90 protests in local branches of Natwest, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland, in locations from Hawaii to the English town of Ashby de la Zouch.

The blackboard-happy, shoutyporn shock jock Glenn Beck has denounced this growing movement as a "conspiracy", telling Fox News that "this unrest could spread from Middle East to Europe and eventually America... this would be co-ordinated all around the world."

Welcome as Beck's condemnation is to left-wing protesters, the yammering wingnut happens to be right. This is indeed a global insurrection, albeit a gentle one, running on poster paint, caffeine and cross-continental co-ordination via horizontal networks and it does come with an overtone of threat. I have spent the past week with members of UK Uncut and affiliated movements as they made placards and managed their twitter feeds, responding to messages of solidarity from across the world, from Wisconsin to Tahrir Square.

This morning, preparing for the latest protest and slurping down a hasty mug of tea, I watched one activist adjust her leotard for a heros-and-villains-themed flashmob, accessorised with a cloak bought for a Harry Potter costume party. Her friend, dressed as a tweedy university professor, put on a sinister Death Eater mask. "Look!" he said, "I'm Milton Friedman!" Red Army faction, it ain't; but right-wing pundits like Beck are still wetting themselves.

As I write, from one end of Oxford Street in London where 150 Uncutters are marching in the rain, activists are turning bank branches into temporary homeless shelters, libraries and classrooms. These are all vital public services due to be confiscated as world governments impose austerity programmes on their populations in order to bankroll the recklessness of global financiers. The protesters' message is simple: "The government," in the words of one 42-year-old UK Uncut protester, "should be making the banks pay, not ordinary people."

They make their point with flashmobs, bail-ins, street parties for pensioners and pre-schoolers, reclaiming the private space of banks and tax-avoiding businesses, relentlessly restating the hypocrisy of the financial elites. Courageous, yes; Baader-Meinhof-style conspiracy, no. What is most amusing, having spent time with the principled young people who began it all, is how thoroughly the commentariat is failing to understand what the hell is going on here.

The Uncut movement could be kids playing -- except that they have a scrupulous economic alternative and an informed network that stretches across the globe. They could be Glenn Beck's bug-eyed domestic extremists, except that the protests involve toddlers, grannies and young parents with brightly painted placards. In the UK, the police have responded with the classic pose of state agents on the back foot: panicked, malicious bewilderment. A protester shows me photo evidence on her phone of a previous demonstration, when a young woman was dragged away by the police for putting leaflets under a door. "They used CS spray, and three people ended up in hospital," she tells me.

Despite the cries of extremism, the Uncut movement is grounded on the same principles of fairness and accountability that politicians have mouthed for decades at the ballot box. Commentators and cabinet ministers nonetheless seem to be shocked by the notion that their electorates can, in fact, count.

Take the UK, for example, where the Royal Bank of Scotland was bailed out with £45bn of public money -- over half the government's £81bn austerity package -- and yet continues to award itself astronomical bonuses. Ordinary people who dare to stand against this manifest injustice are now "extremists". Students who post leaflets about tax avoidance through shop doors are "extremists". What kind of world are we living in, where wanting local libraries and schools to stay open is now "extremism", worthy of police crackdowns? What kind of society is this, if it is "extremist" for people to want to lead decent lives?

Conspiracy-touting like Beck's often looks like plain old scaremongering. In fact, those who toss out conspiracy theories often do so to distract themselves from larger, scarier, less manipulable outrages happening in plain sight. It is easy to rant at anyone who will listen about how the Pentagon bombed the twin towers; it's harder fully to conceptualise that Nato has bombed ten types of bloody hell out of the Gulf for a decade on the slightest of pretexts. Similarly, it is convenient for Beck and other wet-lipped neocon hate-peddlers to claim that the free world is under attack from a network of rabid communist conspirators; it is far less convenient for them to consider the notion that a real people's movement might be on the rise.

The notion that ordinary workers, students, pensioners and parents might finally have found the tools and the impetus to call out the lies of the powerful and demand accountability is deeply uncomfortable for reactionaries everywhere. That notion, the notion of a networked, principled people's resistance, is far more frightening to neoliberal governments than any terrorist cell.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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I organised so much support for Maria, I wonder if I became part of the problem

She began to attend our appointments with a support worker in tow, almost as a symbol of her incapacity.

Maria hardly ever came to the doctor’s. So, it was surprising when, out of the blue, I took an urgent call from an occupational health adviser. Maria, he said, was sitting in his office, having been referred for an assessment by her employers. In the course of the interview, she’d disclosed that she was contemplating suicide. The adviser sounded rattled. He wasn’t prepared to let her leave unless he knew I was going to follow her up that day. I duly fixed an appointment, and told him I would take it from there.

So began a two-year relationship. Initially, I saw Maria at frequent intervals to develop an understanding of her situation. She had been suspended from work following an alleged breach of duties. She felt powerless against the juggernaut of disciplinary action that had been unleashed. Divorced some years earlier, and with volatile relationships with her parents and siblings, she had little social support. Suicide had come to seem the only way out as her world tumbled around her.

I started her on antidepressants, but more importantly I set about shoring her up. She was in a trade union, so I encouraged her to get assistance. I referred her to the mental health service, which allocated a key worker with time and expertise to come alongside. They put her in touch with an employment support team. Fairly soon, she was surrounded by an array of professionals, all of them fighting her corner.

Over the next five months the conflict with her employers polarised irretrievably, and eventually the union negotiated a severance deal that allowed her to walk away with a reference. Still more torrid times lay ahead as she sought to rebuild her confidence to seek new employment. Every so often there would be a new crisis in her personal life to complicate matters: various family members would cut off relations with each other or with her. Her mood fluctuated between guarded optimism and despair.

Then came the breakthrough: a job at a department store. It was seasonal, so not a permanent contract, and in many ways that seemed ideal, allowing a time-limited try-out of a new environment. And once she’d overcome her initial fear it went swimmingly. She enjoyed the customer contact, and found the return of structure and income positive. It was fantastic to see her happier again, and all the work of the preceding months seemed to have borne fruit.

As the temporary post drew to a close, she became despondent at the prospect of leaving. Her managers were evidently pleased with her and there was talk of a permanent contract. But, crushingly, it came to nothing.

That proved to be the last straw. What confidence Maria had regained, disintegrated. Over the ensuing year she became ever more entrenched in the sick role, the professionals around her now merely validating her fragility, rather than helping her move forward. I continued to certify her unfit so that her benefits were maintained, but persisted with our cognitive work, encouraging small steps, my memory of how transformed she had been when she worked at the department store still fresh. Maybe that was a misjudgement: she began to attend our appointments with a support worker in tow, almost as a symbol of her incapacity.

Eventually Maria was summoned for an independent medical to assess her ability to work. She was placed in the “support group”, meaning the benefits agency accepted that she was long-term unfit. I tried to establish how she felt about this, but couldn’t work out if it was a relief, or whether deep down it felt like being consigned to the scrapheap.

Shortly afterwards, she left my list and registered with a neighbouring practice. Perhaps she blamed me for her redundancy; or maybe my reluctance to give up hope was no longer compatible with how she saw herself. Either way, the rejection hurt – an inkling, perhaps, of the way Maria herself experiences the world in which she lives. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war