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The old protest playlist won’t do for the Spotify generation

Today's movements are marked by pluralism and a rejection of conventional politics and ideological conformity.

They say that if you want to understand a revolution, you have to listen to its music. Over the past year, as people's movements and student uprisings have swept through Europe and now America in response to the global crisis of capitalism, I have lost count of the number of grumbling articles by middle-aged, male columnists, complaining about the movement's lack of a defined soundtrack. There is no troubadour for this new, networked uprising, no Dylan or Billy Bragg for everyone to hum along to.

This is the charge being put to the protests that have sprung up in cities across the world following Occupy Wall Street: there is no defining ideology, no list of demands, so the movement must be inarticulate, and can be easily dismissed. If we don't know the song, how can we sing along? In fact, if you walk down to your nearest occupation - and as occupations are ongoing across the country, that should not be hard - you will find it full of music.

At the Occupy London protest on Ludgate Hill, I saw people playing reggae and jazz as occupiers of all ages huddled in sleeping bags, fighting off the wind chill under a giant banner reading "Capitalism Is Crisis".

In Liberty Plaza, at the Occupy Wall Street camp in the shadow of Manhattan's financial district, I saw the young unemployed from the Bronx clapping along to an impromptu string-and-woodwind band's rendition of Woodie Guthrie's "This Land Is Our Land", which segued without pause, and to much applause, into violent modern punk. Elsewhere, a boy of 17 with flowers in his hair sat, entirely unironically, bashing out the chords to Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are a-Changin'" on a guitar with four strings left. Around him, a gang of union members, hippies and Wall Street workers sang along.

Not that young people aren't writing riot songs, too. Grime, rap and dubstep have been the soundtrack of the British student movements just as much as rousing traditional folk tunes. There is a sense of time speeding up, of a collision of possible futures. In his book Retromania, the music critic Simon Reynolds observes that the range and quantity of music easily accessible online or in digital format at any one moment gives a sense of all of pop history happening at once. People travel to their office jobs carrying pocket playlists stuffed with Sinatra, Shostakovitch and the Streets.

Vinyl vanguard

This new protest movement - organised online and drawing in interest groups from unions to militant student groups and angry individuals holding placards criticising health-care reform - gives a similar impression of every uprising happening at once. I was in Madrid as 60,000 people crammed into Puerta del Sol, and middle-aged women brandishing copies of communist newspapers marched with masked anarchists in black and young organisers from the ¡Democracia Real Ya! arm of the summer's 15M uprising.

There are too many different tunes being sung for one melody to be audible over the noise of marching feet. To the political old guard, it can seem that the normal progression of events has become jumbled. The troops of this new uprising have not waited for a defined ideology or specific list of demands. How could they? The problems they have come together to protest against are too great - the disintegration of representative democracy, cuts to welfare, housing, health care and education propping up the oligarchy of aggressive market finance.

What marks this form of social change is precisely its pluralism, its rejection of conventional politics, its abhorrence of ideological conformity. There is no role in this multivalent movement for one group to set the tune, and that baffles and disturbs the elite, who are behaving like a bunch of ageing rock fans being prised away from their dusty CD collections.

The problem is that a political class raised on vinyl and vanguardism is only now attempting to understand a political generation that has had its Spotify moment. Technology has enabled kinds of social change that can respond in a global way to international crises, and its playlist of demands is uncomfortably broad. But on the edge of hearing, out of this cacophony of struggle, a terrifying harmony is beginning to emerge.

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

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.