Let's stop pretending internet activism is the real thing

There's a lack of modern activism.

Open any newspaper, current affairs magazine or political website and it soon becomes clear that things are not right in the UK. Pictures and idle speculation concerning new-born princes aside, it’s a quagmire of unhappiness directed towards the government, the opposition, the public sector, the private sector, our own country, foreign affairs, ourselves, each other, and One Direction. There are complex and important issues surrounding the environment, the future of the NHS, youth unemployment, the economy, how we deal with an aging population and more, yet apart from lightly grumbling when asked our opinion, we seem to be in tacit acceptance of all that’s imposed upon us.

It didn’t always used to be like this. In the 20th Century, we – the people – got things done. From the success of the Suffragette movement, to the Jarrow march, through to the miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 80s, it’s fair to say we made sure our voices were heard when we weren’t happy with how things were going. In 1976, racist statements by high-profile musicians of the day provoked a number of artists to play a series of concerts under the Rock Against Racism banner. In Thatcher’s Britain, a new generation of musical names disillusioned with Conservative rule and the country’s growing apathy towards politics formed the pro-Labour Red Wedge collective.

Protest was commonplace and activism was the means to achieve the aims of the populace. In 1979, UK trade union membership stood at an all-time high of 13 million, but as time has gone on, interest in the unions has waned. Last year, there were fewer than 6 million active trade union members, the lowest figure since the end of the Second World War.

This is mirrored by the lack of modern-day activism. The standard riposte is that people today are less politically engaged, but general election voter turnout has been on the rise since the dark days of 2001’s 59.4 per cent. We’re a rich and varied country with a high standard of education and our own individual opinions, so why do we no longer take it upon ourselves to make things happen?

There’s no one simple answer. For starters, the double-edged sword of the internet means that whilst it everybody is given a platform to make their views known, it also gives the impression that a simple show of opinion is enough. Thirty years ago, you had to invest time and effort to truly support a cause, thus fostering an environment of solidarity amongst like-minded people. However, if you want to show your frustration 2013 style, why not simply "Like" on Facebook an article you agree with? The truly passionate could always offer up a retweet as well. We can then all sleep soundly at night knowing that we’ve made a statement, we’ve done our bit and, lo and behold, awareness has been raised.

Perhaps the problem is that, as a population at large, we’re generally quite comfortable these days? This isn’t intended to trivialise the daily injustice and struggle, government legislations that severely deteriorate people’s quality of life, and issues with poverty, unemployment and crime, amongst others. We certainly have problems, but we live in an aspirational society seemingly sponsored by Apple and maybe for a lot of people, making a stand is just a bit too much effort right now, actually. Obviously we’re against a lot of the stuff that’s going on – incensed, even – but those HBO boxsets don’t watch themselves.

It also seems that a handful of major events from the early years of this century may be shaping our collective malaise. On 15th February 2003, one million people descended upon London to march against the impending invasion of Iraq. Similar marches took place in various cities around the world, meaning the events of the day formed part of the largest protest in history. It is estimated that up to thirty million people took part in anti-war events that weekend, yet subsequent events taught us that it was all in vain. You may have also noticed that demonstrations against the rise in university tuition fees and the G-20 summit achieved little more than adding the term “kettling” to people’s vocabularies. It’s little surprise that protests and grand political gestures aren’t high on people’s priority lists.

A mere five weeks after history’s largest protest, 45,000 British troops were deployed as part of the coalition that invaded Iraq – a key moment in the 21st Century’s ongoing “War on Terror”. The phrase “War on Terror” was first used by George W. Bush just nine days after the attacks of 11th September 2001. However, in a similar way to the “War on Drugs” (originally declared by Richard Nixon in 1971), a war on terror can never truly be won. Neither drugs nor terror will ever be fully eradicated and, in the case of terror, it’s simply a concept and thus a war against it has no tangible measure of success.

Waging war upon a noun coupled with the more impersonal nature of modern conflict (people can be killed with a few taps on a computer keyboard rather than hand-to-hand combat being necessary) means that concepts of the enemy and what’s being fought against have become much more generic and fuzzy. This has been exacerbated by the deaths in the last decade of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Osama Bin Laden – no more recognisable “bad guy” to nominally fight against means the agenda becomes less clear, both for the personnel doing the fighting and for us, the people they’re supposedly fighting for.

What happens in America still has a big say in setting the agenda for the UK, and these woolly definitions of war have now permeated into mainstream protest in this country. People no longer protest against particular events with a clear objective in mind; they too are preoccupied with fighting nouns. Much of the civil action in the UK over the past few years has been to campaign against capitalism, yet the focus is on being anti-capitalism rather than pro-anything else. Critics of the system recognise the need for something different, yet there appears to be no widespread agreement of what that something different might be. It isn’t unilaterally socialism, communism, anarchy, or anything else set up to oppose what’s currently in place.

This devolution of a single, coherent idea was aptly demonstrated by the Occupy London camp set up outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. Rather than be united behind a single message, cause or aim, it was more like the protest equivalent of a Best Of album, railing against capitalism, lack of democracy, war, the actions of large corporations, the treatment of animals and crimes against the environment. These are all important issues facing the world today, yet it’s unlikely that things will change if everybody’s clamouring to make their voice heard in the same place at the same time.

Despite this picture of 21st Century protest being a mess of non-specific sloganeering with no thought to a solution from the few who can be bothered to turn up in the first place, there are areas where activism appears to be flourishing. A century after Suffragette Emily Davison was fatally knocked down by King George V’s horse, Anmer, during the Epsom Derby, protests in support of feminism and against sexism are plentiful. The tactics of radical protest group, FEMEN, may be controversial, but they cause a stir and are forcing people to take notice of important issues. Whilst their enemy may again be a concept – the patriarchy – they choose to fight it by campaigning against particular aspects of it: sex tourism, international marriage organisations, FGM, and more. FEMEN have also staged events in support of Russian feminist punk outfit, Pussy Riot, who have performed a series of guerrilla gigs attacking the leadership of Vladimir Putin, criticising the Russian Orthodox Church and in support of LGBT rights. These events haven’t gone unnoticed in this country, with FEMEN the subject of articles in The Guardian and on the BBC News website, and a documentary on Pussy Riot, entitled A Punk Prayer, premiering on the opening night of this year’s Sheffield International Documentary festival, which also included a Q&A with one of the band.

In terms of activism focused in the UK, Take Back The Night events and SlutWalks have been growing in prominence and popularity, with many marching against sexual violence and rape culture (admittedly, that is a concept too but it’s protest with a clear goal – the eradication of victim blaming in cases of sexual assault). Such activism shows there is still a place for well-coordinated protest in the 21st Century, and that not all people believe widespread collective effort is doomed to failure.

Perhaps other areas of society need to take note. As we’ve seen, there’s plenty to be angry about in this country right now and it’s no use just voicing dissatisfaction; nothing will change without a viable, sustainable alternative. But if a protest is planned, considered, focused and has an agenda or tangible objective that people can support, generations before us have proved that social activism and the power of numbers is still the best thing we have to effect change. Let’s get to it.

Graffiti in Eqypt. Photograph: Getty Images
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Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad