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K-Punk: 'Apathy is Dead'

Young people have been taking to the streets in a display of politicised rage this country has not seen for a generation. For Dazed & Confused's February issue, the outspoken author and cultural commentator dissected the causes of the new militancy

“You know, this was meant to be the first post-ideological generation, right? This was meant to be the generation that never thought of anything bigger than our Facebook profiles and our TV screens. This was meant to be the generation where the only thing that Saturday night meant was X-Factor. I think now that claim is quite ridiculous.” So argued the 15-year-old student Rodney Owen McCarthy at the Coalition of Resistance conference in November last year. For good reason, the film of McCarthy’s speech on YouTube has been widely circulated. McCarthy’s poised but impassioned speech eloquently captured the way that the political landscape changed so utterly in the last two months of 2010. Here was a generation decisively overthrowing the dominant image of itself – and in doing so showing up antagonisms that have not been visible in the UK since the Miners’ Strike a quarter of a century ago.

McCarthy was speaking in the wake of thousands of young people – including many who were even younger than him – protesting on the streets of Britain’s cities. But this was a new kind of protest. It was not organised by major political parties or unions and it wasn’t heavily populated by already-politicised activists, nor did it obey the protocols of polite petitioning. It wasn’t restricted to demonstrations either – shopping centres were invaded and buildings in colleges and universities were occupied. In London, the sounds of militancy – chants, drums, sirens, helicopters – sometimes became part of the background noise of the capital.

The immediate causes of the militancy were changes to education funding – the plans by the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to permit universities to increase tuition fees, and to end the Educational Maintenance Allowance (a small grant paid to teenagers to allow them to remain in full-time education after 16). The first big protest in London on November 10 resulted in damage to Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank Tower on the north bank of the Thames, and this set the tone for a series of increasingly fractious confrontations between the authorities and the protestors. The next week, the police “kettled” – held against their will – thousands of protestors at Whitehall for up to ten hours. The protestors’ experiences and their accounts were at odds with the narratives being peddled by the mainstream media, which responded to the movement with a phobic panic.

On the night when MPs voted through the increase of university tuition fees by a narrow margin, news broadcasts led with protesters attacking a car containing Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. Meanwhile, a 20-year-old philosophy student, Alfie Meadows, was undergoing a brain operation for serious injuries allegedly sustained after being hit by a police truncheon while on the day’s protests. The country was divided – between those who demanded that the forces of reaction respond even more brutally (there were calls for the introduction of water cannons), and those exhilarated by the new militancy and outraged by the heavy-handed attempts to contain it.

“Apathy Is Dead” read one of the placards at the protests, but it’s questionable as to whether the young in Britain were ever really apathetic. In my book Capitalist Realism, I described some of the emotional, psychological and cultural effects on the young of the widespread view that there is no alternative to consumer capitalism. I contrasted the young in the UK in the last decade with their counterparts in France. While the French young were out on the streets contesting the attempt to impose the “reforms” that were being made to work and education in the name of the market, British youth – even though conditions were much worse here than on the continent – was nowhere to be seen. But it seemed to me that, in a situation in which consumer capitalism had colonised the unconscious, where alternatives to it could not even be imagined, the reticence of UK youth could not be conceived of in terms of political disengagement so much as a kind of hopelessness – a self-reinforcing feeling that there was nothing that could be done.

Alongside the US, the UK has been one of the countries that most enthusiastically embraced neoliberalism – the political programme that aimed to subordinate everything to the logic of the so-called market. (I say so-called because in practice the supposedly anti-elitist rhetoric of the “market” has in fact operated as an alibi for the predatory, quasi-monopolistic operations of big business, and legitimised a massive shift of wealth from the poor to the super-rich.) Neoliberalism equated itself with modernisation itself. The direction of history, neoliberals insisted, was away from the social democracy of “Old Europe” and towards the shopping malls of the US. Since this process was as inevitable as it was irresistible, it could only be slowed down or held up, never reversed. It’s no accident that the French protests were called “immobilisation”. In the UK, any attempt at immobilising neoliberalism had failed long ago.

In this situation, it seemed as if the young could either withdraw into the pleasures offered by cyberspace and entertainment culture, or else engage in useless acts of self-destructive rage. Many did both, and the amount of young people in the UK suffering from depression, self-harming, eating disorders or other forms of affective disorder indicated that this was not a population that had happily accepted neoliberal culture. Deprived of the outlets that previous generations had taken for granted – political militancy, forms of cultural revolt such as punk and its successors – youth discontent and disaffection had not disappeared, but had turned inwards. Partly this was a symptom of a situation in which it seemed that the only way was in – public space in the UK had been all but abandoned; culture was increasingly dominated by a celebrity-confessional mode which had no place for anything other than a particularly shallow form of PR-driven biographism.

All of which makes the events at the tail end of 2010 all the more remarkable. Suddenly, the same cyberspatial matrix that had up until then seemed to lock the young into a kind of networked narcissism became the means by which a new militancy was coordinated. The protests were not organised through familiar channels; they were extemporised on Facebook and Twitter. New bodies – such as UK Uncut, which agitates against tax avoiders such as Topshop owner Philip Green – rapidly emerged, co-ordinating disruption in retail outlets across the country. Unlike the protests against the Iraq war or the G20, these weren’t demonstrations that caused only temporary disruption. The protests, the authorities complained, had “departed from the agreed route”. Indeed they had: they weren’t confined to particular times or places, but were erupting unexpectedly in all kinds of spaces, exerting a sustained pressure.

The “official” political channels were wrongfooted by the speed and extent of these developments. The President of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, was eventually forced to backtrack after initially condemning the supposed “excesses” of the protests. Like New Labour, the NUS had long since given up offering any challenge to the neoliberal order. Porter’s volte face – his belated recognition that he had not done enough to support the movement, that the NUS had “perhaps been too cautious and too spineless” – was a sign of the new times. Even he was forced to acknowledge that his “post-ideological” moderation was playing to a gallery that no longer existed.

But what led to the old ground falling away? How have we gone from a situation in which youth revolt against capitalism was unimaginable in the UK, to one in which militancy was sprouting everywhere? Three factors explain the shift. The first and most crucial is the bank crisis of 2008 and the response of the political class to it. The bank collapses meant that neoliberalism was discredited at every level. Now it could not be claimed that markets would automatically self-correct. Embarrassingly belying neoliberalism’s trumpeted disdain for the state, the bank bailouts were a massive transfer of wealth from public into private hands. Mainstream political culture in Britain was unable to adjust to the new situation. The three major political parties had all assumed that there was no choice but to adapt to – and affirm – the neoliberal consensus. So they responded to its collapse with a curious, business-as-usual inertia – like a cartoon character which has run off the edge of a cliff, but which is kept from falling only by its continuing belief that it is still on solid ground. Public anger against the bailouts simmered but, lacking any agent to focus and represent it, this rage found no expression. Parliament failed to discipline the banks – in part because it had itself recently been disciplined by the expenses scandal. Big business remained the only powerful force acting on politicians.

The second “game-changing” factor was the end of New Labour. The fact that there was a Labour government – no matter how cravenly subservient to capital – soaked up oppositional energies that were re-ignited once conspicuously privileged Old Etonian Tories assumed power again. The third factor was the Tories’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and specifically their leader Nick Clegg. Improbably, it is perhaps Clegg who, unwittingly, has done most to cause  the new militancy to explode. During the election campaign, Clegg briefly raised hopes of a break in the old two-party system. His career over the last year has been like Tony Blair’s at hyperspeed – from a messiah promising a new politics, Clegg has ended up a universal hate figure, a symbol of all the failed promises and self-interested compromises of parliamentary politics. Clegg fronted the Liberal Democrats’ “pledge” to get rid of university tuition fees. The speed with which Clegg not only abandoned this commitment but actually reversed it – astonishingly agreeing to his coalition partners’ plans to triple fees – produced a surge of rage which shows no signs of abating. Clegg no doubt expected his abandonment of principle to be greeted with the resigned fatalism that has presided since neoliberalism defeated the forces of the old left. But the young could no longer be induced into this resignation. They had been betrayed, and they knew it.

The question now is: what next? The government and its supporters have been hoping that the militancy is a throwback. But it is increasingly looking like the government who live in a world that has collapsed and which cannot be restored. The young have broken out of the neoliberal “end of history”. Everything is up for grabs again.  

Dazed & Confused's February issue is out now

Text by K-Punk
Photography by Sebastian Sussmann