Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest

Fight Back! is a collage of instant reportage, online polemics, "how to occupy" guides and several thinkpieces covering the rise of the student protest movement, the political and media reaction to it, and the development of the direct-action organisation UK Uncut.

The collection is limited as a contribution to the movement's internal debates by things having moved on. Some of the student protesters have become further radicalised and have "masked up", adopting not just "black bloc" tactics but an entire lifestyle. It's all so new to them, but will be entirely familiar to anybody who has studied Blanquism in the 19th century.

UK Uncut, for its part, has been hit hard by the arrest of activists at Fortnum & Mason during the TUC's anti-cuts demonstration on 26 March. And the whole movement remains in turmoil over the question of violence v non-violence, its attitude towards the trade unions and its relations with the Labour Party.

However, as a historical document, the book provides evidence of several things - first, that the police tactic of "kettling" demonstrators has radicalised large numbers of students. You can see this in the vividness of the language and in how often the first-person accounts included here spark into life when they begin to describe the experience. Having been taught throughout their lives that their rights were primarily individual, not collective, but at the same time inalienable, many of them regard being kettled as an offence against the person. Jonathan Moses outlines the basic conclusion they drew, rightly or wrongly: that, to the state, "property comes before people; the rights of the former supersede those of the latter".

Second, the collection shows the extent to which, for this generation, the orthodox social-democratic and Marxist left has been marginalised and replaced by "autonomism" and "horizontalism". It also illustrates how tactics centred on the sporadic occupation of shared spaces have largely superseded the one-off protest event.

This development is described in a contri­bution from Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters, activists in the London student occupations, who outline the thinking behind networked, decentralised and ultimately "open-source" forms of protest. They are determined to avoid domination and direction by hard-left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party or by what they refer to as "gatekeeper NGOs". Aitchison and Peters also demonstrate this generation's deep disengagement from mainstream parliamentary politics.

There is some decent writing here. Dan Hancox's contribution (titled "This is our riot: POW!") - about how the dance music genre "grime", which has been banned from many London nightclubs, resurfaced on makeshift sound systems in Parliament Square during the student protests - embodies the two principal qualities of good reportage: he is knowledgeable and he was there. And the New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny proves capable as always of giving her political enemies, on both left and right, a verbal tasering. "Of course the old left is not about to disappear completely," Penny writes. "It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack the only remaining life forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of Socialist Worker."

And yet, throughout Fight Back!, the lingering question is one of strategy. Given that the default ideology of this new movement is what Noam Chomsky calls "libertarian communism", it would be worth exploring why all its predecessors fell victim to their "sour-faced" opponents from the right or the left (or, as in the Spanish civil war, both at the same time).

What gets in the way of proper consideration of this matter is a constant rhetorical disdain for the "baby boomers" and their obsessions with programme, hierarchy and power. Though this is understandable, given just how much patronising crap has been written by that generation about this, if you study what happened to the radicals of the 1960s you begin to understand where their fixation on power and accountability comes from.

The boomers saw three things happen that this generation has yet to experience. First, their movement was channelled into existing political hierarchies and systems, with the collusion of many "leaders" who had begun as horizontalists and were therefore opposed to hierarchical power structures. Second, they witnessed the detonation, between 1968 and 1974, of organised labour struggles on a scale previously unimaginable.

Finally, they saw the whole thing crushed by repression, division, defeat and incorporation. The black polo neck and Ray-Bans look was replaced by the donkey jacket and - once it was all over - the sour face.

For all their faults, the children of 1968 started out with something you don't find much of in the pages of Fight Back! - a coherent vision of the kind of society they would like to create. We'll find out at some point whether this helps or hinders the children of 2010. l

Paul Mason is the economics editor of BBC2's "Newsnight". A revised edition of his book "Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed" is published by Verso (£8.99)

Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest
Edited by Dan Hancox
OpenDemocracy, 340pp, £8.99

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden