Protests do not defy the system, they validate it


CATCHING SIGHT last week of a poster advertising a “Right to Work” event, I was put in mind of Ali G’s deadpan question to Tony Benn: “Everyone’s goin’ on about the right to work – what about the right not to work?”

It’s a good joke, because it touches on something fundamental: the inability of ideologies to comprehend human desire for happiness resides neither in working nor not working, but always in a “something else”, and contingent on factors that change as that-which-is-desired is attained.

A few days later, the right-to-workers fetched up outside Leinster House, where, whipped into a frenzy of revolutionary zeal by some populist agitator, they stormed the Dáil and left a garda with a bloody nose. A Socialist Workers Party survivor of the fracas told The Irish Times: “We tried to get into the Dáil to make our point as forcefully as we could.”

At mention of the SWP, or Sinn Féin, or Éirigí, most people switch off, or just smile. It is not funny that a garda has been assaulted because of the inflammatory rantings of some well-heeled follower of Leon Trotsky, but still the whole thing suggests itself as something unserious.

Occasional outbreaks of such agitation are essential to the maintenance of the fiction that a democratic system embraces a wide range of options vying for the public’s attention. That they sometimes spike into the red suggests the limits of democratic freedom are being healthily explored. Thus, such episodes have precisely the opposite effect to that intended, deflating rather than exacerbating public dissatisfaction with “the system”.

The SWP has a clear-cut role in this society, but not the one its members imagine it to have. It is one of those small, shambolic organisations refusing to accept the system “democratically” decided. As such it functions as a kind of necessary nuisance, occasionally validating the system by virtue of its willingness to stage controlled protests with no chance of achieving anything. If the SWP did not exist, capitalists would invent it. They probably did.

In Violence (Profile Books, 2008), the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj ZiZek studies the presences of various kinds of violence under the surfaces of our societies. He argues street violence is an incoherent response to the hidden violence that holds societies together; that such demonstrations, far from threatening “the system”, are dramatisations of impotence, “blind acting out” in societies operated by systems impervious to any kind of citizen intervention.

A few days before the scenes of anarchy at Leinster House, a slightly different kind of mob gathered in front of the Liberal Democrats’ HQ in London to protest about, er, the first-past-the-post voting system. The emotions of this assembly had been whipped up not by a lone demagogue but by the media in general, which for three straight weeks had promoted Nick Clegg as the British Obama.

In the election, the Lib-Dems’ vote had remained more or less the same as in 2005, but this in no way encumbered the delusion of the 1,000-strong gathering of Notting Hill luvvies that they were on Wenceslas Square in Prague, dateline 1968. Their faces were transfixed with hate, but all their banners said was “Save Our Votes”.

I have this odd feeling of late that everything is being acted out as a reprise of some inspirational moment from deep in the last century. Half of those who address us want to be Che, and the remainder JFK. Each development in the public lives of our societies becomes like a movie in which everyone becomes infused with a sense of what “should” happen, ie what would happen if it really was a movie. The media whip this up for all its worth, unleashing massive collective disappointment when it emerges that, actually, it’s the same plot as last time and drifting again in the same direction.

Although we live in an advanced capitalist society, in which psychology is far more important than ideology, our political culture remains frozen somewhere short of 1970. Although the real divisions are now to be located within the torn, paradox-ridden heart of the individual, we still describe things in terms of “us” and “them”. Although our market culture conditions us to lionise and covet private property, our public discussions seem simultaneously to hold that wealth somehow rightly belongs to everyone. And, although welfare and other radical forms of redistribution have unleashed a statist monster that now threatens to throttle the life out of the individual, we find, while the “have-nots” are utterly uninterested in left-wing ideas, a ludicrous pseudo-socialism persists among the “haves”, more and more of whom employ the “most vulnerable” as human shields to protect their own stashes of loot.

All this would make for interesting material for a media genuinely interested in describing what actually happens. But, thanks to the poor quality of the scriptwriting, the drama of our public square seems incapable of achieving coherence beyond the level of a 1970s B-movie: leaden, predictable, with occasional bursts of gratuitous violence.

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