Oxford, UK – No one wants to sound naïve and over-excited. We much prefer to come across as worldly-wise and realistic. So it's always tempting to dismiss direct action. After all, we tell ourselves, politicians and their friends always end up doing what they want, no matter how loudly we protest.
In Britain, vast public demonstrations in 2003 failed to prevent our government from joining the United States in a war of aggression in Iraq. If they can get away with that, why bother? People power to remove a tyrant is one thing. Taking to the streets in a democracy is quite another. If we don't like what the government is doing we can wait patiently for an election and vote for the other team, the one promising hope and change. Anything else is pointless self-indulgence.
Like much of the common sense we've relied on in recent years, this rejection of politics-as-participation in the West is starting to seem increasingly absurd. There is too much evidence that direct action, if sustained and sufficiently troubling to the established order, works. A relatively small number of people who aren't supposed to act politically have begun to act in ways that effectively disrupt the orderly circulation of idea, goods, and alibis for inaction. In assembling and discussing matters of common concern they have exceeded the formal limits of polite protest. Their methods are demonstrably effective.
Breaking the silence
In the winter of 2010, the campaign group UK Uncut started sit-down protests in shops on Britain's high streets. They did it to draw attention to the sophisticated tax planning of some of the country's largest companies. Before they started making life difficult for Vodafone and Top Shop's public relations managers, politicians and the major media rarely found time to mention corporate tax avoidance. They were much more interested in naming and shaming old ladies who were picking up a few quid more than they should from the benefits system.
UK Uncut successfully broke the silence about tax avoidance and the offshore structures that made it possible. After a year of demonstrations and protests, the head of the tax authority, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), was admitting to Parliament that the institution had made "governance errors" in its dealings with large companies. MPs were loudly demanding more powers of oversight.
Tax officers themselves were coming forward to challenge the conduct of their own institution. One of HMRC's lawyers, Osita Mba, went as far as to report his misgivings to the National Audit Office. Now Nick Clegg, the head of one of the parties in the country's governing coalition, is pressing for a general anti-avoidance rule to be included in the next budget and Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, is talking about tax havens.
In a related development, the Prime Minister David Cameron has been busy promising action on executive pay and bonuses. The news that the heads of Britain’s largest companies had received annual pay rises averaging 49 per cent appeared a couple of weeks after protesters occupied land outside Saint Paul's Cathedral in the City of London in October of last year.
The coincidence was too much. Even the state broadcaster, the BBC, explicitly linked the government's proposals and the occupation movement. In a news bulletin broadcast on Sunday, January 8, 2012, its correspondent said that "protest movements such as Occupy London suggest that public tolerance of excessive pay has hardened and undeserving bosses getting enormous salaries or pensions has intensified that."
Politicians continue to insist that they, and only they, are entitled to determine the scope and content of the political. They can acknowledge that, in Nick Clegg's words, "lots of people are increasingly frustrated and angry" about tax avoidance. But they have no great desire to credit the work that UK Uncut has done to publicise the issue. Nick Clegg insists that he is merely communing with the ordinary, decent, hard-working people of Britain.
Similarly, when Ed Miliband wrote about the occupation of Saint Pauls, he said that it reflected "a crisis of concern" that was a challenge to politics. The occupations, with their assemblies and working groups, were not political, as far as Miliband was concerned. Politicians tell us that what they do is politics. The rest of us have to make do with being frustrated, or angry, or concerned.
For much of the time, the British media are happy to follow the lead of politicians.
They too define politics in terms of what happens in Westminster (with occasional, increasingly nervous, glances towards Holyrood). I remember watching a senior political correspondent at the BBC when she was asked if she thought her job should include facilitating conversations between citizens. Her reaction was one of sincere bafflement. Politics was what politicians said it was. Political journalists asked the questions they thought the audience wanted to ask. The rest of us were expected to listen in silence.
But while broadcasters and politicians insist that they should define what is and isn't political, direct action by citizens is changing their agenda and forcing changes to the content of public speech. Party leaders have been forced to notice problems they successfully ignored for at least a generation. A few people acting as if they matter have done this. By all means, believe that you are powerless to change things for the better. Irresponsibility has its charms, after all. But bear in mind that you are wrong. You aren't powerless.
This year we look set to find out what we can do once more than a handful of us start acting like free citizens in a democracy. When we spend as much time talking with one another as we spend listening to talking heads on the television, we will discover the full extent of our shared power to describe and change the world.
Daniel Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is the 2011 winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize.