Tom Short reviews a new Repeater book about hipsters, dissent and the meaning of political protest today.
Christiana Spens, Shooting Hipsters: Re-thinking Dissent in the Age of PR (Repeater Books, 2016) 160pp.
I’ll be honest in stating that I don’t feel wholly qualified to review Shooting Hipsters, Christiana Spens’ study of modern political protest. I have rarely dissented, nor would I be particularly inclined to describe my social circle as dissenters. However, with the bad dream of Brexit now an almost certain reality and the prospect of a Labour government an increasingly fanciful one, protest and dissent would seem to be of increasingly vital necessity.
The trouble is that for many of us, political engagement starts and ends on social media. All those statuses bemoaning the pig-headed selfishness of our elders were an inevitable and even useful method of venting our collective anger, but they rarely reached their intended target, thanks to the well-documented ‘echo-chamber’ effect. Bound by algorithms and confirmation bias, our eloquent howls of rage went unnoticed by the other half of the population, much as it was possible for certain Leave campaigners to circulate lies, rumours and more unsavoury material without being challenged.
Now that the shock has worn off, thousands are commencing with a more practical form of protest, for whom Spens asks relevant questions. Which tactics promote, and undermine a cause? What shape should a 21st century protest movement take? How does the media shape public opinion about protesters? Her survey of recent anti-establishment movements is all too brief, but it affords us with some useful insights. Its starting point is that most loathed of modern practices, PR. While many campaigners would flatly reject the term, regarding it as the preferred language of corporations, Spens demonstrates that it is in fact essential to contemporary dissent, where ‘rhetoric matters as much as reality, style as much as substance’.
If we take PR in the broadest sense then its easy to see how important it is for dissenting groups: a protest without media coverage would be ineffectual. However, this attention must be carefully managed. Two of Spens’ examples seem relevant here: the 2010 student protests and the Occupy movement. In both of these instances, a hostile press portrayed these largely harmless, youth-led movements with overwhelming negativity, focusing on a minority of violent or eccentric activists.
The cause behind the tuition-fees protests was understandably sympathetic; however, the ill-advised actions of a select few gave the right-wing press ample ammunition to take a stand against it. Charlie Gilmour’s ill-advised stunt on the Cenotaph was easy clickbait for the tabloids, who simultaneously managed to represent him as a spoilt rich kid pissing around, and a scheming vandal with ‘sinister intent’. His trial and imprisonment quickly became the focus of media coverage, while the serious brain injury suffered by protester Alfie Meadows at the hands riot police was largely ignored.
Occupy Wall Street suffered hostility from the get go, with CNN and Fox News coverage frequently depicting the protesters as ‘dirty hippies’, when they weren’t representing them as vandals or rapists. Its interesting to note how this insult has been revived by conservative commentators. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher theorises that the counter-cultural protesters of the sixties were able to rely on the figure of an out of touch, square, ‘hoarding father’, whose domination of resources denied their ‘right’ to enjoyment. Today’s outwardly permissive global elite studiously avoid this image, despite the fact that they impose far harsher measures on younger generations than the baby boomers suffered. So all those cheap shots about long hair, love-ins and drug-taking reduced the occupiers to nostalgic hedonists, rather than potential agents of change. Simultaneously, the connections drawn by some of the protesters between their movement and the little-understood Arab spring allowed them to be neatly connected with that conservative byword for threatening instability, the Middle East.
These narratives seem grossly unfair, but certain structural faults within these groups allowed them to happen. Occupy’s lack of leadership and a coherent media strategy was proudly flaunted by the movement, but these decisions prevented them from presenting a clear message to the world, enabling news outlets to take quotes out of context, and satirise its superficial qualities more easily. The student protesters were also beset by internal divisions which the media was able to exploit. When grainy YouTube videos of hooded protesters who claimed they were ‘from the slums of London’ emerged, corporate TV interviews with middle class students condemning violence soon followed.
Ultimately, then, foul treatment by the press has more pernicious effects than simply making dissenting groups look daft. The image of the occupiers was ultimately fatal, eventually turning many of the 99% off their cause, leading to the eventual absorption of the movement into the mainstream Democratic Party. Its arguable that something similar has happened with the student protesters, many of whom are now frustrated Corbyn supporters. Future dissenters must be more self-aware and anticipate these threats, Spens asserts: ‘Optimism and vision may feel as thought they will last forever, but unless they are accompanied by careful planning and realpolitik, they simply won’t.’
With both of these movements revealing the limitations of old-fashioned forms of protest, Spens uses much of the second half of her book to examine other methods. Clandestine networks like Anonymous represent an intriguing alternative. They are near impossible to suppress because they lack any sort of structure, yet their populist stance unites a broad sweep of dissenters: anyone with an internet connection can claim to work for ‘the many, not the few’. While their attacks can seem scattershot and inconsistent, Anonymous are also making forward-thinking arguments about the future of dissent, petitioning for DDOS attacks on companies like Paypal to be viewed in the same way as old-fashioned sit-ins.
As Spens demonstrates, the efforts of Anonymous et al represent one of the most effective forms of dissent due to their ability to leak information, turning the camera on governments and corporations. Even when they have been exposed by the authorities, figures such as Edward Snowden have gained support from the surprisingly broad section of the public still concerned about civil liberties. But its also worth bearing in mind the many potential pitfalls of cyberactivism. In his polemic on the modern crisis of time, 24:7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary warns against placing too much faith in the potential of social networks, because if ‘they are not in the service of already existing relationships forged out of shared experience and proximity, they will always reproduce and reinforce the separations, the opacity, the dissimulations and the self-interestedness inherent in their use’. A formless movement like Anonymous may be difficult for authorities to suppress, but their petty in-fighting and lack of a program clearly illustrate Crary’s point. This is a conclusion which Spens largely draws when she reinforces the importance of grassroots activism and working with local media primarily to inspire sympathy for a cause.
Its a shame that the author makes no consideration of Black Lives Matter, who have managed the difficult balancing act of working on a grassroots level (they are a chapter-based movement) and using social networks to gain international attention. BLM activists are notable for their use of services like Facebook Live and Periscope to draw international attention to real instances of police racism and brutality (challenging the ‘tough but tender’ model of western policing which Spens describes), and have also been effective in their ability to maintain their privacy, organising local demonstrations privately on secure messaging services like GroupMe. Unlike many groups with a strong online presence, BLM are able to conserve new members who first displayed an interest in their cause online. Research from The Georgia Institute of Technology has shown than a third of those who participated in their events via social media for the first time continued their participation during the next event, which suggests that it is possible to create solidarity online. Perhaps this is a model that could be followed by future dissenters?
Spens argument is mostly cogent, but it starts to unravel when she makes her conclusions. Glib observations about the viability of art as a form of dissent simply read like a distraction from the fact that this is a difficult subject, especially when many of those famous dissenting works are sixty or seventy years old. A more relevant question would have been: what happened to modern protest art? (no easy answers to that one either). Likewise, given that this book is so concerned with the term PR, it would have been interesting to read more about the modern techniques that work besides the age-old ‘propaganda of the deed’. What about the groups who have successfully repurposed government and corporations’ PR? (Greenpeace’s brand-jacking of BP following the Deepwater Horizon spill comes to mind).
This is certainly a very useful and potentially important book from an exciting new publisher. There have been many theoretical reconsiderations of crowd politics in recent years (see Jodi Dean’s HKRB interview), but we were overdue a primer on the various dissenting groups and their PR mistakes. However, without wishing to sound like I know what I’m talking about, I think the times now call for even more rigorous work on the politics of dissent. Perhaps Spens’s book can be the start of this vital work on the politics of dissent and spur us to pick up the baton.
Get a copy of Shooting Hipsters here.
A Manchester-based journalist, Tom Short usually writes about clubs and classical music for publications like The Skinny and The Strad. However he would like to start writing more in cultural studies. Please let him know if you would prefer him not to.
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