It’s my hope that by comparing two recent high-profile fuck-ups from both sides of the political divide, we might learn from their mistakes. Or, at least, sneer at their stupidity.
From the left, we have the anti-corporate, socialistic practitioners of the dreaded ‘black bloc’, who, in Central London on Saturday afternoon, unleashed their emo fury in violent protest of the government’s cuts. On the right, we have the champions of the free market, willing cannon fodder in the government’s war for growth, who launched StartUp Britain on Monday to widespread, often hilarious, occasionally furious derision.
The members of both sides are (despite what some may claim) essentially apolitical. The former are arrogant teens, latching on to the recent wave of popular protests to boost their egos, play the romantic revolutionary and bash shit with sticks. The latter are self-assured entrepreneurs, riding the waves of Cameron’s pro-business rhetoric to gain publicity and try to make some easy cash. Grappling with political realities they barely understand, the two forces have ignorantly suicide-bombed the causes they purport to advocate.
So what went wrong? A lot of things. But I’m going to focus on the misplaced confidence, political misjudgement and the perils of cyber-utopianism which characterised both efforts.
“Well, I’ll smash this window with a brick and then, one day, they’ll build a fucking statue of me”
Both sides vastly overestimated how much other people think like them. The rioters may believe they’re at the forefront of a popular revolt to overthrow an unjust regime; but to most observers they’re seen as a thuggish minority of idiots. In a letter sent to UKUncut, they even identify themselves as representing a “highly visible radical presence” of the mainstream movement. I’ve seen supporters claim in online comments that left-wing critics of their actions are not displaying sufficient solidarity.
While it is no surprise to me that they are being turned upon by those they saw as their ‘comrades’, overconfidence in their own righteous indignation blinded them to the inevitable divisiveness of their plan.
It’s a similar story with the brains behind Start Up Britain: a concept so vacuous and devoid of creativity, only other entrepreneurs could appreciate it.
Heroes within their own echo chamber, I’m sure they never imagined the ferocity of negative opinion their little website would incite. Unfortunately (for them), not everyone ‘gets’ the entrepreneur mentality. The inherent flaws and slapdash sloppiness of the product on launch may not bother the type of people who are focusing on the ‘bigger picture’ (whatever that is) and already working on their next ‘revolutionary’ idea, but the general public simply hasn’t bought in to that bullshit.
On Twitter, they seem genuinely surprised that people don’t understand where they’re coming from (and trying to get to). If they’d have tried thinking like ordinary people, they might have anticipated such a reaction.
“I tried to get Nick Clegg involved, but he was worried about it damaging his credibility.”
The political misjudgement of the rioters hardly requires explanation. It was only a matter of time before measures were proposed to clamp down on such activity, and it’ll take a brave politician to oppose them. Protests will be a little less free in the future, wholly because of the rioters.
Did they really think such indiscriminate violence would be likely to attract popular support? For the majority of the country, watching Saturday’s events on TV or reading about them in the Sunday papers, the overwhelming impression is not going to be one of honest families, unified in support for a real alternative to the coalition cuts, but of masked yobs starting fights with coppers and terrorising shoppers. To what political end does this serve?
Of course, the rioters would angrily contest this portrayal. The entrepreneurs, on the other hand, wandered blindly into a political shitstorm. Following hot on the heels of the budget and Cameron’s pro-growth speeches, it’s unimaginable that they would not expect to be intimately associated with the government. Maybe they thought the presence of the Prime Minister and Chancellor at their launch party would have a positive impact? Big fucking mistake. They opened the floodgates and within hours spoof Twitter accounts, spoof news articles and even a spoof website had turned their vision into a joke. They failed to put their scheme in context.
One of the charges of incompetence thrown at the entrepreneurs was their recommendation of a US crowdsourcing site for logo design. ‘What’s wrong with that?’, they ask, naively. After all, new businesses don’t have money to throw around and the crowdsourcing solution is a practical, cheap alternative to a professional designer. In the context of growth for Britain, however, such a recommendation is understandably seen as undermining British graphic design companies – exactly the opposite kind of message the government wishes to promote. This wouldn’t be a problem for the average non-political startup, but has proven a disaster for the politically-loaded Start Up Britain.
“Just think, a little over a decade ago we’d have had to travel door-to-door to sell this shit”
I think both examples are products of cyber-utopianism, the belief that the internet, or, more specifically, social media, is the ultimate harbinger of enlightenment, liberalism and progress. Evgeny Morozov warns about the dangers of cyber-utopianism in his book, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, in which he chastises those who preach the internet as a panacea, while conveniently ignoring the poisonous elements.
What we’ve seen over these past few days are some of those poisonous elements.
If we are to accept the conventional wisdom that says social media better enables the mass mobilisation of politically active individuals, we can reasonably say that Saturday’s protests (both nasty and nice) were greatly helped by this technological wonder. However, we should also consider that the TUC rally (with its vast, largely offline network) could still have taken place, while the ‘anarchists’ campaign would’ve been far less likely to make up the numbers.
And let’s not underestimate the power of the echo chamber. Through social media like Facebook and Twitter, it’s now easier than ever to immerse yourself in opinions that support your world view while simultaneously dismissing anything you don’t want to hear. This will naturally distort people’s perception of reality and convince them their views are more widely accepted than they probably are.
The case of Start Up Britain portrays a different side of cyber-utopianism. Rather than being by-products of the internet revolution, these entrepreneurs are fully paid-up acolytes. In many cases, the ‘brains’ behind the ‘initiative’ owe their very success to the web 2.0 explosion. Their faith in the transformative power of the internet clearly lies at the very foundation of their idea. Crowdsourcing, blogs, social networks… seemingly, an expensive, expansive bureaucracy providing individual, personal advice to businesses to help them grow is no match for a single page website linking to a handful of online resources.
While all this social media jazz may be considered exciting (in some circumstances), when it comes to policy this approach has, yet again, been resoundingly rejected and ridiculed. The public obviously don’t share the cyber-utopians confidence that Britain can crowdsource its way to growth.
I suppose you could argue that this is only evidence of a lack of vision on behalf of the public. And, naturally, we should wait and see before making any final judgements regarding how effective this will be in the long run. However, the mistake the entrepreneurs made was assuming web 2.0 principles (iterative development, beta launches, internationalisation, crowdsourcing, etc.) would easily translate into public policy (or an extension thereof) and be widely accepted. How many times will people make the same mistakes before they learn?
I hope everyone’s cheered by the thought that both anti-corporate thugs and free market-loving yuppies can be equally incompetent. Sadly, both sides of the political divide have to deal with the respective consequences.
A rare, passionate and awe-inspiring gathering of those much talked about ‘hard-working British families’ was pushed off the front pages; the message of a real alternative was lost amidst the din of shattered glass and the more media-friendly context behind the forthcoming strikes has been irrecoverably muddied. This only helps the Tories.
For the blue team, their first thunderous shot at a growth narrative has turned into yet another embarrassment. Within just a few hours of an enthusiastic launch starring the biggest players in the coalition, Start Up Britain was desperately trying to distance itself from the government. Dave and Gideon’s strategy for growth once again appears as shallow, vague and unwelcome as their Big Society.
So that leaves us still locked in a brutal programme of cuts, unemployment and inflation, but without even the pretence of an intelligent plan for growth. Thanks, wankers.
The sad thing is how easy it would’ve been to avoid such gross errors. If the rioters and the entrepreneurs had simply broadened their world view to include, y’know, normal humans in their plans, many of these mistakes could’ve been averted.
More importantly, if any one of them had genuinely cared about the cause they claim to exemplify, maybe they would’ve been motivated to look beyond their own ego and narrow self-interest.
Alethiaphotos have some awesome shots of the anarchists. Well worth a look.