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October 14, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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I Went to a Protest Once. It Was Shit.

Protests aren’t what they used to be. They used to be good. Now, they are not. From this startlingly original observation, Sam McChesney took a look at the changing face of student activism. For your reading comfort, the leftist agitprop has been edited out.

I went to a protest once. It was terrible.

It was cold, the slogans were cringeworthy, and the marijuana lobby turned up to hijack the event with irrelevant hemp banners. Also, the protest was about VSM, so we lost. Inclement weather, misuse of the English language, self-righteous hippies, and losing—pretty much a perfect stew of Things I Hate. Throw in Jack Johnson and celery, and I probably would have deflated into a misanthropic husk.

I now see a little bit of that day in every protest I witness. If there’s something my protracted BA has taught me, it’s that marches don’t matter and things don’t change, because we’re all on an inexorable slide toward a liberal late-stage capitalist society with its own predetermined ideology and code. Yes, I find it interesting and less than ideal, but fuck getting out of bed and writing “National put the ‘n’ in cuts” on a sign; I’d rather just observe, crack cynical and collect a paycheck. I am Generation Y. Come at me, bro.

***

Putting aside the arch posturing for a while, yes, we do come from a nation of protestors. New Zealanders are rightly proud of their suffragettes, their anti-Springbok-tour protestors, and their anti-nuclear stance. The ability to show mass opposition to a particular event or policy, and to have this opposition listened to by those in power, is an essential part of a healthy democracy.

At the same time, though, the traditional protest is in (terminal?) decline. Over the last three generations people have, or so we’re told, become more disengaged from the political process and, importantly, have become more individualistic. Our generation—Generation Y—is less likely to identify strongly with mass political movements or join mainstream political parties. We’re unique snowflakes—our identities are complex and multifaceted things, and we don’t like hitching our flag to any one banner. We don’t see any inherent value in being part of a movement that’s bigger than ourselves, and we’ll only participate if we see that there’s something in it for us: a classic Prisoners’ Dilemma that fatally undermines most group action.

Generation Y is renowned as the “me” generation. Surveys of the attitudes of US freshers showed that while 45 per cent of Baby Boomers rated being wealthy as “very important” to them, this increased to 75 per cent among Generation Y. Meanwhile, “keeping up to date with political affairs” fell from 50 per cent for Baby Boomers to 35 per cent for Generation Y; and “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” fell from 73 per cent for Boomers to 45 per cent for Generation Y. In short, we’re greedier, less engaged, and more nihilistic than our parents (though perhaps more honest).

***

Veteran student activist and OUSA life member Mark Baxter has witnessed much of this change first-hand, and bemoans the apparent lack of activism among today’s students. “This generation who grew up in the ‘90s are more self-interested and greedy,” Baxter says (thanks for the kind words, bro), “and there’s the obvious barrier of young people thinking ‘I can’t change anything.’”

When Baxter was at Otago University in the late ‘80s, more than 7000 people marched against Labour’s tertiary fee hikes, over half of Dunedin’s tertiary population at the time.
“Back then there was massive student engagement,” Baxter recalls. “Everyone in society had grown up in a welfare state where their parents and their grandparents for the last 50 years had paid for their children’s fair and equal access to tertiary education. That was just the norm. And all of a sudden Labour dropped a $1000 fee on any university course, and $1000 was a fuckload of cash for anyone back then.”

According to Baxter, “the big problem now is that students of today have grown up in that neoliberal Rogernomics environment.” Young people feel alienated from a system that no longer provides for them. Having been socialised into an individualistic, user-pays mentality, we don’t care as much about society, and no longer engage in collective action or see solidarity as particularly important.

***

As the traditional social-justice movements have declined, much ‘activism’ has shifted online. The rise of social media in particular has made possible ever greater levels of political engagement. However, the experience of activist groups is that social media has been far from a cure-all—as VUWSA President Rory McCourt points out, it’s hard to engage with someone who’d rather be looking at pictures of cats. Social media enables, even encourages, a shallow level of participation—slacktivism—that often consists of little more than a click; and carries the risk of information overload, with its associated fatigue.

Baxter praises the way that social media can be used to coordinate large events at short notice. He’s right—I hear Kate’s party was a blast—but if the wind has gone out of the protest movement in the first place, there isn’t much point. Social media can #inform, but it hasn’t stimulated an unstimulated population.

Seeking to bridge this divide between the online and real worlds are a new crop of activist groups like Generation Zero and JustSpeak. These single-issue, nonpartisan groups try to effect change within the current institutions of government, through submissions and lobbying. While they communicate primarily via social media, they also carry a physical presence, taking up the space once occupied by the social justice movements of old.

This younger generation of activists largely sees traditional forms of protest, like the VSM demonstration I attended, as outdated and ineffective. Though Maddy Foreman of Generation Zero is quick to stress that she is “not a fan of telling people how to voice their dissent,” she also admits that, “I feel like protest in the traditional sense is a bit passé … I think there’s a time and place for everything, but having sit-ins and having marches are not as popular anymore, and there are reasons for that.”

Rather, Generation Zero is “fully involved in the processes at the local- and central-government levels. We try to engage with the civic structures that are already there, rather than having more of a counter-culture approach that you might have seen 40 years ago.

“I think some people simplistically look at student activist groups and think that protest has to be like it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Foreman says. “And so they expect, like, collective action, and people wearing berets and no shoes. And that’s not what they’re seeing, so one of their conclusions that they reach is that ‘these kids aren’t being effective’ or ‘they don’t have much support.’”

McCourt believes that the “pragmatic approach” of groups like Generation Zero is proving far more effective than their forbears. “This is a new generation who understands and accepts for the first time in a long time that the structures of power exist the way they do,” he says. “And yes, you have to change them, but we’re not yesterday’s activists who were frustrated that the revolution didn’t happen tomorrow and gave up at that point. I think this is a savvy generation … who are making real gains.”

***

Savvy these groups may be, but their approaches also avoid rocking the boat or challenging social values, to the extent that ‘ideology’ is somewhat of a dirty word. People are tired of generalised left-wing posturing—the ideological battle between right and left has already been fought and, as Baxter glumly admits, “the neoliberals won.”

Indeed, Foreman balks at my suggestion that Generation Zero’s aims might necessarily involve wider ideological issues around the free market and the role of the state. “I think the values that drive people to act on the climate are quite compatible with values you’d find on the right and values you’d find on the left.

“I think there’s a tendency when people know you’re involved in a climate-change organisation to automatically assume you must be anti-capitalist, when that’s just not true. In fact, most of the solutions we advocate for are market-based solutions and don’t talk about any fringe left ideas.”

More than that, though, Foreman believes that remaining nonpartisan is vital to the movement’s very survival. “We don’t want to be seen as just another iteration of the left … I think it’s really important that we remain nonpartisan and it’s one of the key things I love about Gen Zero. Climate change, which is our sole issue, shouldn’t be at either end of the political spectrum, and it’s not good enough for an issue like that to just be one party’s special issue.”

While Baxter sees the value in single-issue movements like Generation Zero, he also rejects the notion that their causes can be separated from the wider political context. Single-issue campaigns won’t achieve a total victory, he believes, “until the country steps back and look at how they’ve fucked education, they’ve fucked health and they’ve fucked everything with neoliberalism.”

However, Baxter also believes that broad-based coalitions of left-leaning groups are largely a thing of the past. “It’s certainly something that could happen, but I can’t see it happening … joining all those dots has been absolutely useless from a general left perspective, to be honest. The single-issue thing certainly gets people thinking ‘hey, I can change this, and I can make this a better world.’ And that’s always a good thing, even if it is a single issue.”

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  1. Jacobin says:

    Couple of problems with this article:

    1. No mention or discuss of the protests and public meetings related to the GCSB Legislation which were enormously well run and attended. These were also organised in part by young people, including locally in Dunedin. This campaign also made great complementary use of social media by platforms like PledgeMe and Promoki to make billboards and such.

    2. Intellectually boring generational politics and re-enforcement of a politics of resentment. Uses surveys of American first year students to justify this.

    3. Article driven entirely by one milquetoast experience at a VSM protest in Dunedin, which was indeed pretty shit. Yes, it is very hard to get people growing up in a neoliberal educational context to protest, particularly about VSM, but even so the VSM protests and protests to student cuts have been quite a bit different in other cities than Dunedin. One experience does not thesis make.

    4. The impression I take away from the article is re-enforcing a lack of spine for direct action amongst the author and seeking to justify this on other grounds.

    5. Going to ram home the point about the GCSB legislation- even though the protest “lost” there is pretty rock-solid agreement by the Leader of the Opposition on track to be our next leader to repeal that legislation. This because of all of the public opposition given a physical showing in protests in cities across New Zealand.

    6. We all have some umbrage with the excessively shouty campaigners and ISO/Marijuana campaigners who typically arrive to put their hobby issues/cause forward. I would have to cite the GCSB protests as the most recent example where organising was good and there was a consensus against allowing those things to distract from the issue at hand.

    7. If things are frustrating, organise to make them different. I will never respect the views of the author to just sit back and let things slide, indeed those views are an intractable part of the problems we do see with direct action in various sectors.

  2. Matthew says:

    Maybe social media looks like it encourages shitty kinds of protest, but the research shows that slacktivists do more than the rest of us. http://mashable.com/2011/10/24/slactivism-cause-engagement/

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