For people looking to pick up an initial understanding of some of the politics of the ‘winter of protest’ a new book, Fight Back: a Reader on the Winter of Protest, edited by Dan Hancox, is an excellent place to look.Essentially a gathering together of pieces already published elsewhere (Open Democracy, The New Statesman etc.), this downloadable work (available here) is a first hand, multi-authored account by people involved in student and other recent protests of their experiences and reflexions both immediate and more strategic. It has sections on the demos, occupations, flash mobs, universities, under-19s, the state and violence, trade unions, aesthetics and generations, plus practical advice on occupations and what to do if arrested. For those of us who, like me, were curious what traditions people involved in recent actions were drawing on and how they theorised their action, the book provides some answers. Clearly, those writing the book come from the left, but not from what one might call the old left of political parties, unions, hierarchical organisations and cultivated sectarian differences. Rather, they believe in direct, horizontally organised democracy, the reaching of consensual decisions through collective deliberation and the power of networks. Their inspiration comes from movements like Reclaim the Streets, Climate Camp, the environmental movement more broadly and those that mobilised around the G20. They are the generation of open and crowd sourcing: the net-based, free distribution of the book and its nature as an assembly of writings from multiple sources is clearly in this spirit. Their tools are facebook, e-mail, smartphones and Flikr, not as an alternative to the strong connections of group action but as a complement to it. If some of what they do (flashmobs, culture jamming) has a recent history, other elements (occupations, sit-ins and teach-ins) clearly look back further. The Yes-men are a reference but so too, predictably, are the Situationists.
Although some of the book gathers experiences of the occupations, the kettling and so on, and so looks back to last year, the book as a whole seeks to be and is absolutely current. It raises a series of questions that are both tactical and strategic, practical and philosophical: What is the best way to counter kettling and its capacity to immobilise, generate violence, deter and stigmatise? How can the tension between the need for coordination and national action be balanced with the attachment to deliberative, direct democracy? How can a democracy based on direct discussion and with a healthy distrust of bureaucratic organisations be sustained over space and time? As the fight against the cuts moves into a new phase, can action be coordinated with the Trade Unions, institutions with a very different culture, mode of organisation and repertoire of action (tellingly, perhaps, the section on unions is decidedly thin)? Can we oppose the privatisation of the universities with something other than a simple defence of the status quo? All pressing questions worthy of our attention.
Beyond the details and the real insights it gives into last year’s actions, the book serves as a reminder of how shrunken, how ‘kettled’ our democracy has become and how it need not be so. It is perhaps best understood at the confluence of two crises, one much spoken of, the other hardly mentioned: the economic crisis and the cynical way it is being instrumentalised for an assault on state provision and the political one constituted by the hollowing out of representative democracy in the age of neo-liberal hegemony.