“These young people need to learn when they’re fighting a losing battle.” That’s what the judge told the student protesters and anti-cuts activists whose trials got underway this month in Westminster. Young people engaged in this ‘losing battle’ have now been charged with dangerous acts of proto-terrorist sedition that range from kicking a bin to throwing a tub of strawberry yoghurt at a wall. As the government’s austerity programme comes under fire, the press, the police and the criminal justice system appear unanimous that no matter how peaceful the protest, standing against the official consensus is an offence in itself, and the official consensus is simple and terrifying. The consensus is that the livelihoods and futures of ordinary citizens across Europe must be sacrificed in order to finance the debts accrued by the wealthy, and there is no alternative, and anyone who suggests one will feel the fist of power.
I was reminded of this yesterday on the picket lines as almost a million teachers and public sector employees launched the largest co-ordinated strike in Britain in recent memory. A murmur of entirely anticipated disgust ran around the HMRC picket when news emerged that Ed Miliband, the leader of an opposition party purporting to represent working people, had come out in public and on Twitter to say: “these strikes are wrong”.
This morning’s Times uses the same language. It declares that industrial action, at a time when workers’ rights are being hammered with unprecedented speed and savagery, is not just unwise, but morally “wrong”. Going against the official economic consensus is now phrased as heresy. The Labour Party is still part of that consensus, as it refuses to fight the coalition’s brutal programme of welfare reforms or to support ordinary people struggling to protect their jobs and pensions.
Like almost every centre-left party in Europe, Labour appears to have nothing to offer ordinary people whose jobs, homes and futures are being mortgaged to finance a global debt crisis they had no part in creating. And like almost every centre-left party in Europe, Labour’s poll ratings are plummeting, as people find themselves more and more disgusted by the helpless shoulder-shrug our liberal representatives seem content to call politics. As the PCS rally in central London moved towards Westminster, there were whispers of “scab” in conjunction with Miliband’s name. It’s increasingly difficult to fault the sentiment. The betrayal tastes almost as rotten as the predictability of betrayal.
As the unions lumber and creak into action in the UK, significant parts of Athens are on fire. Tens of thousands of union members and activists are striking and occuping the squares of the capital, as the Greek parliament forces through the gruelling austerity package imposed as a condition of the IMF bailout, designed to prevent the country defaulting on its debts. This austerity package differs from the cuts taking place in Britain only in scale. Greece needs the IMF in order to save itself, and the Eurozone needs Greece stable in order to avert disaster, but it is not necessary to gut the public sector and punish workers in order to save the Greek economy. It is an indulgence on the part of the IMF. It is a savage power show by shock capitalism: we will try to save you, and thereby save ourselves, and in return you will swallow our ideology and betray your people. The Greek people have reacted to that betrayal by striking, and by taking to the streets.
Again, the consensus of the political and financial elites is that, in the words of Mrs Thatcher, as ventriloquised by the Greek finance minister on BBC Radio 4: “there is no alternative.” Again, their consensus has become dislocated from the needs and concerns of the people who they are supposed to represent. No wonder the call in the people’s assemblies of Athens, Barcelona, Madrid and now London has been for “real democracy”. Suspicion is mounting that we’ve been sold a cheap imitation.
Simply repeating lies until they are wearily accepted as truth is the hallmark of a political consensus in crisis. The frantic repetition of the slogan that “there is no alternative” belies the truth that, in fact, there are many alternatives — it is just that the governments of Europe are not currently prepared to consider them. Even if one accepts that the best way out of a recession is to pay off a country’s deficit as soon as possible, getting the banks and the very wealthy to pay the relatively small amounts of tax they legitimately owe would do so in no time.
In Britain, tax avoidance, tax evasion and fraud cost up to £100 billion a year, and that’s before anyone considers actually raising top-rate taxes a scant few percentage points. There are other, grander, alternatives, of course, but a counter-consensus on those alternatives has not yet been reached. This is unsurprising, given that an entire generation has been born and grown to adulthood understanding that socialism had failed, and that free-market laissez-faire capitalism was the only possible future for the human race.
In 2008, the promise of that future was exposed as fantasy, and now, three years later, the realisation is dawning that simply tweaking the system will not work. There is only so far you can push young people and working people without giving them hope that their lives will at least be lived with dignity. The closer ordinary people come to building a consensus that rewarding the rich for their recklessness is not just unwise, but morally wrong, the more vested interests will declare them liars and fantasists, dangerous troublemakers, madmen and fools.
In Britain, the shoots of this new consensus are being stomped down upon with panicked efficiency. Students and anti-cuts activists have gone nowhere, despite being diminished in number after police crackdowns and months of insidious hatemongering in the tabloid and broadsheet press. They continue to stage demonstrations, disruptions and occupations across the country whenever a government minister or public intellectual comes forward to excuse austerity measures and mass privatisation, and they continue to be punished for doing so. They have now been joined by hundreds of thousands of union members and organisers, who yesterday declared themselves “inspired by the students”.
In the past few months, I have spent a great deal of time living and working with anti-cuts activists and student organisers in Britain, and I have watched the movement grow and change. There have been teething problems: paranoid internecine squabbles, long gaps of inactivity as key activists sat their finals, meetings whose attendees spent six hours deciding whether or not to have another meeting. There have also been moments of brilliance as the young people of the British anti-cuts movement have done the only thing individuals of courage and conviction can do in the face of public opprobium and police violence: they have carried on. Sometimes, carrying on is enough.
For me, one of the smaller but more emblematic flashpoints was when someone dropped a smoke bomb in a bookshop. The occasion was a lecture by coffee-table atheist A C Grayling, whose private New College of the Humanities threatens to open the floodgates to higher education as a for-profit commodity reserved for the children of the elite. I sat two rows from the front and listened to a man who made his reputation arguing against the unassailable, inevitable orthodoxies of the Church attempt to justify his lucrative acquiescence to the unassailable, inevitable orthodoxies of the market.
This sort of wet liberal apologism is what used to pass for iconoclasm in the west. In the lecture in Foyles bookshop, a staggeringly young female student in a nice white blouse raised her voice to ask Grayling just what gave him the right, as the poorest universities in the country have their humanities departments eviscerated, to charge rich pupils £18,000 a year to have their prejudices about western supremacy and market fundamentalism confirmed by Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins. Grayling had no answer. He offered to stay after the lecture to try to think of one. Then the flare went off a few seats behind me, filling the room with roiling red smoke, a spluttering parody of the self-indulgent, philistine act of vandalism taking place in the British academy, and in the culture of this country, as the private sector is permitted to fillet the social democratic settlement that delivered the hope of prosperity to four generations. It was hardly subtle, but it made the papers.
I have learned some lessons in the past few months, and not the kind that you pay nine grand a year for in weary anticipation of one day getting a job in PR. I have learned that sometimes, fighting for a better world is lonely and exhausting. I have learned that if you voice alternatives to the official consensus, or attempt to build a new one, you are likely to be beaten and bullied, hounded into silence, threatened with violence, denounced as amoral and insane, sometimes by foaming bigots who are easy to ignore, and sometimes by people you respect, by your friends and neighbours and elders and betters, people and parties who are meant to be on your side, and that can hurt deeply.
As the Labour leadership mobilises against the strikes, I have personally been advised by professionals I greatly admire to distance myself from “the movement” if I want to carry on working in the media. I refuse to do so, because I believe that the students and striking workers are right. I believe that what they are doing is morally correct. And what you do in those circumstances, when the official consensus is stacked against you, when you are ground down by threats and running out of hope, is you carry on. You carry on because you believe in a better world and a new consensus. You carry on, and you support one another, and you refuse to be cowed, and you do the work that is in front of you. Because perseverance in the face of power is the only thing that can truly change the world. And the hysteria with which those with vested interests in the official consensus are lobbying against any breath of an alternative suggests that they know that, too.