Extremes of stupidity: StartUp Britain vs. The March26 Anarchists

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.

Join the Bevoiviions! (awesome photo via alethiaphotos.com - link at bottom of post)

“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.

Text expertly aligned by the broken ruler society

“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.

God gave up on humanity the year "Speed-Networker" passed for a job description

“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?

"If you even think about spinning that bottle I'll cut your fucking balls off" (another aletheiaphotos.com pic)

Final thoughts

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.

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Alethiaphotos have some awesome shots of the anarchists. Well worth a look.

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What can we learn from the failure of the student protests?

Although I suspect I may be preaching to the damned here, if (and that’s a big IF) Labour’s opposition isn’t purely political and the student protesters aren’t simply aiming to rage against the machine, there’s a lot that we could learn what NOT to do by looking at the campaign to fight the coalition’s rise in tuition fees – if you can call it a campaign.

What went wrong?

1. Lack of a clear objective: there was no clear argument being made by protesters and those who supported them. I heard people saying the demonstrations were against high increases in tuition fees, any increase in tuition fees, the existence of tuition fees, the scrapping of EMA, the extreme cuts to university funding, any cuts on principle, the pace and/or extent of the coalition’s cuts, the haste with which the vote went into the commons, and the broken promises of the Liberal Democrats. With such fragmentation of purpose it’s difficult to achieve anything.

2. No real alternative was pitched against the coalition’s plans. Subsequently, the Tories have emerged from this ordeal virtually unscathed. Without the challenge of a fairer, more agreeable alternative, no real pressure was put on the government.

3. No command structure: nobody took responsibility for organising the opposition to the fees increase. This resulted in mixed messages and chaos in the streets. To their credit, the NUS seems to be attempting to tie everything together, but their efforts are clearly not enough. Maybe mass demonstrations would have been better concentrated in key constituencies to sway floating Liberals and, indeed, Conservatives? Maybe the Tories would have been more reluctant to drive this forward if, instead of students, their traditional middle-class supporters were the ones doing the complaining (as we saw during the child benefit fiasco)? The point is the passion of those involved could’ve and should’ve been used more strategically.

4. The campaign was misdirected. I never felt the protesters really hit the government where it hurts. For starters, the attempt to gain the sympathies of the police against a common enemy was destroyed when people started throwing rocks at them. Hopes of attracting wider public support was damaged when people started defacing national monuments. In terms of trying to halt the cuts, George Osborne may still prove to be a weak link in terms of embarrassing the coalition, but he’s clearly intransigent with regards his economic plan (at least overtly). There was no way he would back down. Similarly, Nick Clegg and his fellow Liberal ministers were determined not to retreat on this (although the effectiveness of getting Clegg ‘on side’ by burning an effigy of him has to be questioned). Arguably, given the right leverage, Tory backbenchers are the weakest link of the coalition. Regardless, no attempts were made to go for the jugular. Time, effort and blood was wasted.

What would I have done differently?

Firstly, my chosen objective would have been the lowest-hanging fruit: the hasty nature of taking this vote to parliament before Christmas. Labour would’ve needed to take the lead and request the vote to be held off for a few months. This request could’ve been made to appeal to all parties: it would have given Labour more time to develop a saleable alternative, it would have given the Tories more time to convince the voters their policy is the fairest one, and it would have given the Liberals a stay of execution. A reprieve would also have given protest groups greater opportunity to rally wider public support around their cause.

If students, politicians and media were united behind the same purpose, it would have seemed extremely unreasonable for the government to refuse. If they did, Labour could have justifiably blamed the riots on the government’s arrogance. Still, Labour could have argued a Nay vote would not have reflected a total rejection of the coalition’s proposal; merely a desire for a longer period of public discussion and the chance to consider other options.

This would’ve given loyal Liberals cover to vote against and found sympathy amongst Tory backbenchers (remember, the Tories also had an anti-tuition fees stance until relatively recently).

Whether the vote is postponed or not, Labour and those opposing the coalition cuts are seen to have achieved a small victory. The image is one of a hasty, reckless government ignorant of the social turmoil their policies are causing, against a considerate and cautious union of politicians and public, aiming to reach a consensus.

Of course, the onus is then on Labour to work with student organisations to develop a viable, preferred alternative and sell it to the public. If they can’t… well, that would be pretty damn embarrassing and I guess they’d have no choice but to stop their whining and support the coalition’s plans.

So that’s what I reckon, but I may be speaking shit. I would love to hear what you think could’ve been done differently.

Student riots: so, what’s next?

In what is becoming a depressing trend, the left’s position on the student riots is another example of polemical cul-de-sac. Their approach so far has had limited (if any) positive impact; yet their rhetoric promotes further chaos without constructive solutions.

Already the media is asking whether water-cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas should be used to control future protests. The less extreme alternative I’ve heard involves the police monitoring social media accounts and arresting potential troublemakers at the first sign of trouble. Based on the discussions I’ve seen on Twitter, blogs and the news, both these options would be seen as an act of provocation by protesters.

Revelers

But what else can the police do? If the propaganda of some on the left is to be believed, the violence is an understandable reaction to the coalition’s “cultural vandalism”. The suggestion is that it is not only unsurprising, but inevitable. It may surprise these commentators to learn that such language would not invite a softer approach from the police.

If we ignore the fatalists and instead listen to those we might call the determinists, the student violence is a direct consequence of the actions of the police. This line of argument goes: you buggers started it; if you stop bashing us with bats, we’ll stop tearing up central London. Determinists know the police are the problem. The negative energy generated by all those badges and batons drive good middle-class girls and boys crazy.

You only have to remember the storming of Millbank Tower to spot the flaw in that line of thinking.

With neither side backing down, we’ll either end up with the kind of authoritarian police state radical lefties have wet dreams about, or a continuation of the misdirected aggression that will eat away at public support until talk of loony lefties and militant socialists destroy all the credibility built up by the progressive movement over the past decade.

But there could be a middle ground. Protest leaders should work with the police to confirm a mutually acceptable route and accept responsibility to ensure that route is followed. Any groups who break away from this route are NOT protesters, and can assumed to be in “breach the peace”. If they refuse to rejoin the protest proper, they should be immediately arrested. Sounds harsh (and mighty simplistic), but if this can be done quickly and efficiently there is no need for violence to overshadow the cause of the genuine protesters.

There are a few glaring problems with this.

DayX3_Nicholas_Adams (22 of 120)

The first being: lefty-liberals won’t like the idea. Mass arrests. Officially-sanctioned protest routes. I may as well suggest they glue identification cards to their foreheads. Many will prefer rioting. They seem to agree with Donald Rumsfeld who once said (much to left-wing derision, I might add), “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

The second problem is that I get the feeling the police were actually attempting a more liberal approach to this already. From what I understand, the theory behind kettling is that it contains a potentially unruly crowd without the bad press of arresting a whole lot of innocent people. At the moment, the police study CCTV footage after the event to identify criminals. I assume they do this to avoid inciting more trouble by dragging teenagers into police vans in front of their mates. If the less heavy-handed version of my compromise plan already enrages the left, a concerted effort to ‘beat’ the police’s change of tactics will be a certainty.

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The third problem arises if the vast majority of protesters, even those who flee down side streets to escape the agreed route, are genuinely peaceful. I, for one, don’t buy the idea that these protests were infiltrated by a small group of thugs (European-anarchists have been blamed, but the worst example was on Newsnight. They blamed the violence on “London gangs” and attempted to back up this claim using a shot of a few black kids wandering through the crowd). The unapologetic language of virtually every student group and left-wing organisation, twitterer or blogger I’ve seen tells me that even if it was all the fault of a few bad apples in the pot, there’s no real desire to have them removed. However, if it really is a minority who are the problem and the majority would gladly see them identified and detained, the ‘middle ground’ approach is too broad a brush and innocent people will likely be wrongly arrested.

The fourth and final problem is that, so far, I’ve seen no evidence the organisers of the protests are willing to accept any responsibility for the chaos. They all fall into either the fatalist or the determinist camp and talk about the protests as if people randomly turn up and do whatever they want. In other words, it’s not really their problem and they don’t care. This is a failure on two levels.

  • One: as Malcolm Gladwell explained in his controversial article about social activism, movements succeed by utilising rigid, almost military-like command structures. If there is no central force organising the protest they’re not only inviting anarchy onto the streets, but the movement as a whole is also likely to fail.
  • Two: this makes it far more difficult to achieve a middle ground between police and protesters. Without a clear idea of who’s organising the campaign, the police can not properly plan for it and will therefore have to resort to less sophisticated, more reactionary measures to cope. Without control over the situation and a working relationship with the police, protest leaders can’t protect those who want nothing more than a peaceful demonstration, which could result in more people being hurt (by both club-happy rozzers and brick-hurling agitators).

And so we’re stuck in a game of chicken between the protesters and the police. One in which neither seem keen to back down in. You could argue the police literally can’t back down. They’ve tried hands-off and it was a disaster. At best they could move sideways and try to refine the current techniques, without resorting to more exotic tactics. I hope (but don’t really expect) they can find a way to quickly spot and remove the ringleaders, without stirring up more animosity in the process. I believe the left has far greater leeway to tone down their inflammatory language and help isolate the firebrands. But to many that would be seen as surrendering to the coalition and Police State UK.

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It’s easy to lose sight of the fact there’s tens of millions more people in the UK watching these protests on their TV screens than there are taking part in person, or in their own particular echo chamber on the infoweb. There’s millions of royalists appalled at the attack on the Prince’s car. There’s millions of nationalists disgusted by the desecration of our national heritage. There’s millions of bemused, ordinary people who aren’t too fond of the cops in a vague British fashion, but also reckon (in a level-headed, detached, not unsympathetic kind of way) that if you rush head-first into a line of riot police carrying clubs, you’re probably going to get smacked. There’s also millions of people whose families have never gone to university, never expect to go to university and are wondering why they should pay for a bunch of feral, narcissistic idiots to get a better career and earn more money than they could ever dream of.

The real battle isn’t between protesters and police. It’s not you versus them. It’s winning the hearts and minds of voters and politicians. Explain to me how the behaviour we’ve seen over the past month has helped achieve that.

Photo credits: honeylotus, guerillaphotography

When a violent mob doesn’t change things, it’s obvious democracy doesn’t work

Hypocrisy is a fact of politics – arguably even more so amongst activists and opinionaters than the sleazy MPs. But still the intellectual inconsistency of the left following the student fees riots surprises me*. The left believe the rise in tuition fees represents a failure of democracy; ipso facto, it’s understandable (maybe even commendable) that people are rioting, smashing property and assaulting police to get their voice heard.

For a second, let’s ignore the fact that 65% of voters in the last election (known as “a majority”) democratically supported parties promising to follow the recommendations of the Browne report. Instead of looking at the inaccuracy of the leftist position, let’s look at their hypocrisy.

Lefty-liberals are not averse to demanding politicians rise above populism when it comes to drug policy, immigration, Europe, speed cameras, prisons, and restrictions on civil liberties designed to prevent terrorism (to provide but a few examples). When it suits their own agenda, they appear to expect politicians to make the unpopular decisions rather than give in to the demands of the misguided masses. They know that doing what’s right for the country (as far as they’re concerned) is not always the same as what the people want.

And yet now, when riding on the waves of (apparent) popular support, they seem to be championing mob rule.

Here’s my message: Grow up, realise democracy doesn’t mean getting your own way all the time, and don’t expect everyone to support your fucking hissy fit when the government does something you disagree with.

It’s worth pointing out that the Tories, after collecting the most votes for their manifesto during the last election, have since retreated on a host of policies. They have been praised by the left for doing so. Isn’t this also a betrayal of democracy?

* It’s evidence of my blatant bias that hypocrisy from the right does not surprise me.