Protest and consent – Parliament Square and the internet

Why are Britons so outraged about limits to their online freedoms but completely oblivious to the extraordinary restrictions on basic democratic rights that they are now subject to?

Police officer and protester face-off against one another, toe-to-toe and quite obvious body-language adversaries around the fenced perimeter of Parliament Square.

“We’re protesting for your pensions and your healthcare.”

“Thank you.”

It’s bizarre all right. Nobody disagrees. This is the sadness of Occupy Democracy in 2014, the idea that everybody agrees and yet few outside the maybe one thousand would ever have stood outside Parliament for as much. Where does this leave us, for without the right to protest here all politics has been atrophied with nobody even seeming to realise as much. When protest outside Parliament is rejected as a right, you might as well reject every other notion on which democracy rests.

One almost senses that the inertia could do with some disagreement to shake it, a bad guy from which to create some energy. Corporate lobbying, voters engaged with politics, fair contribution from the wealthiest individuals and most powerful corporations that benefit most from our societies – it’s as if collectively we’ve given up on forcing through the ideas we all know to be fair. Rousing rhetoric from populist commentators—whether celebrities or those affiliated with parties—disguises the honest fact that right now is a low ebb, the desperation of which is at least kept quiet by the fact that millions of voices have simply dropped silently out of the bottom of the dialogue.

The living wage might prove a strong case in point: from Clegg to Cameron to Miliband nobody disagrees with the principle of fair pay—how could they?—but the very same consensus means there is no capital to be made in the ‘significant increase’ to the minimum wage even Osborne and the Tory Party were talking about a year ago. The fruits of a policy are diminished when everyone else is in accordance with that policy; one suspects the bind will unlock only when the discontented millions stuck in low-paid, life-wrecking jobs pose a greater risk to politicians than the disapproval of corporations who’ll have to increase staff costs to humane levels.

When—it bears repeating—you are not even allowed to protest outside Parliament, that likelihood remains steadfastly distant. The successful TUC rally Britain Needs a Pay Rise, which would have sought police approval for its route and intention to march on Saturday 18 October, fails to address the fact that thousands of people asking for permission to demonstrate and then promising to go home afterwards mean less than a score who are willing to claim a demonstration in Parliament Square as their inviolable right. The problem is that when you ask for something, that leaves the door open for politicians and corporate bosses to say ‘no’. If you have asked for the very permission to protest then the message and demands for which you assemble will be taken in the very same vein and, if as much can be gotten away with, as nothing more than a polite request.

Where blame lies in all this is a tricky question, consistently coming to mind is Dmitri Karamazov in Brothers Karamazov, pointing a finger accusingly at his own chest and bellowing “We are all guilty!” Right on cue and after 9 days not running a story on Occupy Democracy, with the end of Occupy Democracy The Guardian ran a story about the mainstream media not running a story on Occupy Democracy. A journalist friend summed it up best: in a longer remark on the media silence he said the media had been “irresponsible”, a key word that belied both the responsibility vested in journalists and the fact they had failed to uphold it. Meanwhile we will no doubt continue to be treated to the (not at all unwarranted) concern of A-list journalists inciting us to shudder on account of police using of RIPA powers or Al-Jazeera staff being locked-up in Egypt. For a profession so recently emboldened on subjects of freedom, the media seemed remarkably quiet on the freedom to protest –  indeed, they hit hardly a key of their computers.

Naturally the mainstream media and its blackout (by negligence or design) holds some blame for the fact that Occupy Democracy secured a huge moral victory in holding out for their intended 9 days, but will likely have gained little ground beyond that. So too might the protest movement itself have been better mobilised and promoted but it is wider society, all of us, who must in some way scrutinise our at-best arm’s length engagement with the demands it sought to raise.

Sure there were people at Occupy Democracy you wouldn’t have agreed with on everything, others you perhaps wouldn’t even have wanted to share a beer with; protests have in them a tendency to welcome those of all colours and needs, an ability increasingly lost in mainstream society and yet the only thing by which a society can truly judge itself to be human at all. Ironically enough this very openness is the thing by which critics first seek to condemn protests, as if those same deviant and ill-adjusted individuals didn’t exist in our wider society, simply in places into which they can be shoved and then forgotten about. Unfortunately protests are neither Facebook nor Twitter, they are hard to curate or edit and are altogether less overwhelming than the remarkably bloody easy world of the internet, a place so detached from any form of reality that on it you can convince disaffected youth to leave home and decapitate aid workers.

On by far the largest night of the protest, surrounded by a considerable crowd, I heard one disappointed youngster say to another, “I thought it was going to be bigger”. The lesson ought to be that all life looks better on TV or online. But don’t be mistaken. There were cameras rolling at Occupy, managing images into more glorious frames than that of the clumsy reality witnessed by the youngster. Invariably those cameras belonged to the Russian RT and Qatari Al-Jazeera, both happily recording footage to convince their populations that Brits in Westminster or Americans in Missouri are living under the same totalitarian democracy and electoral dysfunction that our politicians and media encourage us to believe exist in Russia and Qatar.

For years there has been an insistence in technophile campaigns and communications that the real world and the online world were not distinct, but are in fact constantly interacting with one another. Of course there is much truth in this, but given the (rightfully) high interest and populist opprobrium on government snooping and the revelations of Edward Snowden, it seems strange to see no equivalent regard for real world freedoms. The argument, the assumption that one realm corresponds fully with the other, has induced a degree of laziness whereby it is felt incorrectly that what happens in one space is felt equally in the other. The internet and reality are interconnected not indistinguishable; 8 million Russell Brand followers and thousands of retweets gets you maybe ten pairs of boots on the ground.

Still more than that, however, seems to be our emotional relationship with the internet as a place in which we now vest much of our sense of self and, more crucially, our self-worth. To learn that its apparently limitless world was not only limited but also contrived, mapped and surveilled came almost as a blow to the self-esteem of the twenty-first century citizen. The right to stand on a street in the elements, it transpires, carries no such prestige.

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