writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Intoxicated by a spirit of anarchy

The Independent, December 20th 2010

Students may protest in black and white, but ministers have to govern in grey

If you went tobogganing at the weekend, you’ll know the feeling. You’re going too fast, you’re out of control, bouncing about and yet completely exhilarated. It’s a natural high, but you know it’s dangerous. And it’s not that different from the frisson of excitement that a lot of us have been feeling about the challenges to authority from WikiLeaks, the student protests and the shop sit-ins.

What Julian Assange and the street action have done is to bring out our inner anarchist. It’s a sprite that lurks in many a breast. It doesn’t matter how old you are: if your inner age is less than 21, which is still true of many a baby boomer, you may have some sympathy with these activists. For me, the frisson is all the more illicit because I don’t really approve of much of what they’re doing. But like many others, I suspect, my heart has been struggling with my head.

For anarchy is fun. It has a touch of the original Saturnalian spirit. This very week of the winter solstice was when the Romans celebrated Saturnalia: masters waited on their slaves at table, and the Saturnalicius Princeps, or “lord of misrule” was allowed to give orders, however bizarre. All the conventions of society were overturned for one delicious week.

The Romans understood, though, that while the world could be turned upside down for one week in 52, it needed sensible government for the other 51. It may be boring, unamusing and absolutely no fun, but democratically elected ministers, with their civil servants and red boxes, do actually end up running the country better than a bunch of students in balaclavas.

I appreciate how seductive the alternative can be. As a student myself, I used to get fired up by The Clash’s “White Riot” – “White riot, I wanna riot, white riot, a riot of my own.” We used to protest (though not riot) against apartheid in South Africa and go on Rock Against Racism marches. The song goes on, “All the power’s in the hands, Of people rich enough to buy it. While we walk the street, Too chicken to even try it.” It could have been written for today’s protesters against bank bonuses and tax avoidance.

It’s no bad thing that companies should pay the price for socially irresponsible behaviour, even if it’s legally within the tax code. Much better, though, simply to boycott Topshop or Vodafone if you feel strongly about it than to take direct physical action. As students, we refused to open accounts with Barclays because of its links with the apartheid regime in South Africa and the bank lost a lot of valuable business as a result. We didn’t go round smashing windows.

Nor did we shut down branches, as UK Uncut protesters did on Saturday. Who does that penalise? Innocent citizens fighting their way through the snow and ice to buy presents for their family and friends. Shopping is intolerable enough on the last Saturday before Christmas without your favourite department store being barricaded against you.

Today’s spirit of anarchy has been inflamed by the internet. Not only is it now so much easier to join a flash mob or a protest – all you have to do is follow #UKuncut or #demo10 on Twitter. Events can be plotted by like-minded people all over the country without the need for top-down organisation from the centre.

But there’s also something about the levelling nature of the internet that makes its users believe that all views are equal, all voices equally powerful. Anyone can start up a blog, all Twitter users can talk to each other. Some may have more followers than others, but none is in charge, there’s no chief operating officer or executive vice-president. So when a government enacts policies that some of these people disagree with, they feel this is somehow grossly unfair. They don’t see why the Government’s views should have priority over theirs, even if it won a democratic election.

The internet also encourages users to believe in an amorphous ideal of freedom of information. As a general rule, that’s good. We want the Chinese or the Iranian democracy supporters to be able to find out online what’s really going on in their countries and the world. But do we want paedophiles to be able freely to post photos of abused children? Thought not.

There have to be exceptions to freedom of information. Posting a list of sensitive sites which could be targeted by terrorists, as WikiLeaks did, should clearly be one of them. Yet such is Assange’s Robin Hood status (enhanced, helpfully for him, by chiselled cheekbones and cool hair) that his fans don’t discriminate between leaks that merely embarrass governments and leaks that put people’s lives in danger.

These are the sort of discerning decisions that politicians have to take every day. Students may protest in black and white, but ministers have to govern in grey. Yes, grey is boring and black and white are exciting, but if you translate black and white into politics, you tend to end up with movements like communism and fascism.

The so-called democracy of the internet is a bit of a misnomer. It has little in common with real democracy. Internet democracy allows people to answer back, without having to hope that a letters editor will publish their missive. It allows people to have their say on their own blogs and to join up with kindred spirits who may live on different continents. But it doesn’t weigh them down with responsibility.

Government does. As a minister, you may want desperately to tax bankers more, but you soon find that they move their operations to Switzerland and you end up taxing them less. You may want desperately to abolish tuition fees, but you’re faced with a Treasury saying, “Where’s the money going to come from, then?” Just ask Vince Cable how it feels.

Anarchy is attractive because it’s simple. And it’s attractive because it taps into the anger people are feeling about the banking crisis, a dud economy and the prospect of higher prices, lower wages, lost jobs and more cuts to come. Of course no one wants to pay much higher tuition fees. Of course they don’t want their benefits to be cut. And it’s much more satisfying – fun, even – to go out on the streets with a placard than to sit down, do the sums, and work out how the country’s going to pay its way instead.

With the exception of Hillary Clinton, we probably all found elements of WikiLeaks amusing. I enjoyed reading much of the gossip ambassadors sent home, even though I don’t believe, as Assange ludicrously does, that “we now know that Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and others are instruments of US foreign policy”. Protest is perfectly legitimate and a little bit of anarchy can be entertaining, as long as no one gets hurts and nothing gets damaged.

Most of us were able to laugh when the statue of Winston Churchill ended up with a grass Mohican on its head. But throwing fire extinguishers off roofs is no laughing matter. Nor is smashing windows. Most of all, though, it’s no substitute for the dull grind of complex decision-making and painful dilemmas that face the politicians the country elected. And it’s irresponsible to pretend otherwise.

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