“Yesterday’s anti-colonialists are trying to humanise the generalised colonialism of power. They become its watchdogs in the cleverest way: by barking at all the after-effects of present inhumanity.” So wrote the situationist Raoul Vaneigem in The Revolution of Everyday Life, his manifesto for an insurrection of the felt, the experienced and the real against the collective, the mediated and the fake. Vaneigem’s book was published in 1967 but it reads as fresh as ever: it is a bracing indictment of a society that inculcates alienation not through the whip across people’s backs (or at least not those anywhere too nearby) but by marketing the whip for £19.99, together with a range of pastel-coloured accessories.
All this weighed on me as I sank down on a crowd-control barrier that’s been installed beside a bus stop at the Trafalgar Square end of Whitehall. The barrier consists of the familiar, vertically pivoted steel members, each of which resembles either a hydrofoil or an aileron, depending on whether you view the people they are intended to deflect as particles or waves (which in turn depends on whether you view the metaphoric ship of state as sailing the seas or the skies). Currently not in use, the barriers lie alongside the kerb – to extend the marine metaphor – like steely, dark grey whales about to be flensed.
On the pavement, directly between the barrier and the window of one of those charming boutiques selling souvenir tea towels decorated with red phone boxes and tit-helmeted “bobbies”, a curious gate has materialised – a crown-shaped pergola of thick, yellow-painted poles. In conjunction with the barriers that now seal off Downing Street and the ones that act as bagatelle bafflers (funnelling ball-bearing legislators into the Palace of Westminster, while deflecting tourists, malcontents and al-Qaeda franchisees away), the new ones complete the act of enclosure: the government quarter has become a right, tight little Kremlin.
I called a flak at Westminster City Council to ask about the new barriers. Nice young chap – Nick Thompson, I think he was called. Anyway, he’ll go far, because he puppyishly said he’d look into the matter, then called me back a couple of days later to tell me that my memory was playing tricks and that the barriers had always been there. I assured him that this was not the case (while restraining myself from pointing out that Oceania hadn’t always been at war with Eurasia, either). He conceded that the new barriers might have been installed for the state opening of parliament or possibly Elizabeth Windsor’s birthday and that he’d make a few more calls.
This is my way of telling him not to bother. Over the past 20 years – and, in particular, in the 12 years since the attacks of 9/11 – Westminster has become the political equivalent of Battersea Dogs Home, so loud is the barking of the former anti-colonialists. The years-long sleepover of Brian Haw and his confrères; the Tamils’ fortnight-long occupation; the student protesters’ saturnalias – anyone with a sentimental attachment to British democracy could be forgiven for thinking that these represent the vigorous contesting of public space. But the truth is that as parliamentary democracy in this country comes increasingly to resemble a dumb show (without even the virtue of the players remaining silent), so the physical manifestations of that impotence are erected with greater and greater frequency.
As I sat on the barrier, there was a crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square, milling about beneath a gantry from which hung four giant TV screens. They seemed to be watching some sporting event or other and doubtless the mayoralty was involved, working for London by walling-off the here and now with the then-and-elsewhere. Except that central London is no longer a place at all but merely a commodity to be flogged to tourists who issue their own receipts in the form of digital images that they’ll never, ever look at again.
Under such circumstances, it’s ridiculous to view the barriers as expressing anything as crass as the rulers’ fear of the subjected. Rather, we should see them for what they are: turnstiles that regulate the flow of bargain hunters through this pound shop of ideals; one that never ceases in its efforts to stimulate consumer demand by hanging out the red, white and blue banner that’s blazoned: “Closing-down sale, all stock must go!”