During the crux of my punk rock days*, I wondered whether “the kids” would ever revolt. I didn’t put much thought into what would happen if they actually did; after all, as Sham 69 put it, “If the kids are united, they will never be divided.” I’m fascinated by the student protests in the U.K. this fall—sufficiently so that half my four blogs have been about it—not just because they are a last-ditch defense of the institutions I hope to make my home for the rest of my life; they also, I am afraid to say, reveal the limits of the “people power” I’ve always celebrated.
The first thing to say about the student protests is that they were a lot larger than I could have imagined possible in the post-1968 world. Although the 50,000 students that mobbed parliament was small as a percentage of the total number of people who are going to be affected, it’s still impressive in light of my recent revelation that a sizeable number of people will be apathetic even in the face of things that are blatantly against their self-interest. I certainly can’t come up with an issue that would lead hundreds of Princeton students to smash through a police line.
The second, though, is how utterly the leaders of the student movement missed the complexities of the politics of victimization. This occurred to me when, two weeks ago, one-hundred Oxonians occupied the Radcliffe Camera, our main library. As occupations go, it seemed fairly innocuous: the protesters invited students to continue using the library, so long as they could stand the smell of the food being brought in by Food Not Bombs and could deal with the occasional spirit-boosting protester dance party. The librarians said they planned to keep coming in: most of the protesters had studying to do, anyway, so the entire occupation was low-key.
The University responded in the only logical way for an institution of higher learning: it ringed the library with police, cut off access, and in turn massively inconvenienced the rest of the student body. The rest of us on the outside were foolish enough to believe that we were suddenly the victims, not because public education was in the process of being eviscerated, but because some socialist yokels were making it harder for us to get our papers in on time. The student body turned on the occupiers, via a massive anti-occupation facebook group.
I suppose the story of the Rad Cam occupation could be read, in the Foucaultian sense, to show that discourse and representation are the ultimate drivers of modern politic. We in civil society do seem convinced that memes and messages are now the keys to power; witness how Time debated between Julian Assange and Mark Zuckerbergs—both masters of information sharing—for Person of the Year. The entire idea behind Wikileaks, of course, is that if only we can change the discourse and reframe the debate, we will win.
But this has nothing to do with why the Radcliffe Camera occupation failed. They had a well-distributed blog and a big e-mail list. The occupation was not won and lost over the internet. Instead, after 36 hours in the library, the Thames Valley Police force broke down the doors to the library using a battering ram. As we fall over ourselves in our rush to figure out our place in the networked world, we would be wise to remember that the people in power are powerful not because they control the media—although that helps—but because they control the police and all the apparatuses of violence. I’m sure someone has already said it, but the revolution will not be tweeted.
Anti-Flag, it would seem, got it wrong: you can kill the protester, and you can kill the protest.
* As historical as that sounds, this was about three years ago.