protest

How to Be an Activist in the Age of Defiance

Owen Jones' foreword to a new book by VICE regular, Michael Segalov.
August 29, 2018, 9:14am
Protesters in London, 2016. Photo: Chris Bethell

Resist! How to Be an Activist in the Age of Defiance, by VICE regular Michael Segalov and Huck magazine, is a practical guide for a new generation of activists who want to take on the current political landscape. Below is the book's foreword, by Owen Jones.

The whole premise of activism is this: all injustice is temporary. It is the consequence of conscious human decisions – it is not a tragic fact of life. It can be ended, but only if the will and determination are there. It is the by-product of a society rigged in favour of privileged interests. Privilege – and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of tiny elites – is inevitably accompanied by injustice. It is in the interest of elites to defend their entrenched position, and they can wield their unique power to do so.

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The only possible counterweight to this is for those who are punished by a status quo rigged against them to use their collective power. Yes, the dominant vested interests of our time have networks, media backing, money, know-how and political players in their pocket. But this systemic power has repeatedly crumbled before movements that have harnessed the collective strength of those who – on an individual level – lack wealth, power, influence and connections. That is how all the rights and freedoms we have today – often taken for granted – were won.

The early trade unionists were severely persecuted. The so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs – agricultural labourers in Dorset in the early 1830s – were deported to Australia for daring to attempt to unionise. One of the country's first great political demonstrations and a petition signed by hundreds of thousands helped vindicate them.

Pages from 'Resist! How to Be an Activist in the Age of Defiance'. Image courtesy of Laurence King

The Chartists – the world's first significant working-class political movement, who fought for working men to have a say in running Britain in the 19th century – were imprisoned and killed. Suffragettes are now lauded as secular saints. Not so at the time, when they were dragged by police officers from demonstrations and thrown into dirty cells, with tubes forced down their noses. The ideas of a comprehensive welfare state and a public health service were once impossible, far-fetched dreams, resisted by the powerful. Those who have fought racism and sexism and homophobia have been spat at, bayoneted by police officers, imprisoned and vilified by the media. All of these activists have been vindicated. It wasn't easy for them. It was often lonely, and it seemed as though the entire world was conspiring against them. Public opinion was often unsympathetic, or worse. But they achieved great victories, even if that seemed impossible at the time.

Without activism, there is no hope of overcoming the injustices that define – let alone scar – our society. But it is worth noting that the progress and social change achieved by activism is not a linear process. It is not a story of repeated successes, each building on the last. It is a story of repeated defeats and setbacks.

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Modern British politics cannot be understood without looking at the role of activism and campaigning. After her third election victory in 1987, Margaret Thatcher set about rolling out a new policy: what she called the Community Charge, but what would popularly become known as the poll tax. It established a flat tax to fund local authorities: whether you were rich or poor, you would pay the same amount. This deeply regressive policy triggered a national movement of protests and civil disobedience, with many refusing to pay. This grassroots insurgency led to the downfall of the previously unassailable Thatcher in 1990 – and the abolition of the poll tax.

When the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition cemented by austerity in 2010, a group of young activists decided on a strategy to fight back. The new administration claimed that cuts were unavoidable because the money simply was not there. Not so, said the activists: billions of pounds were being lost each year because of industrial-scale tax avoidance. UK Uncut was formed, occupying shops and businesses whose owners avoided tax, like Vodafone and Starbucks. Many of these activists were arrested. But their campaign tapped into a popular mood, and helped make tax avoidance one of the central political issues of our time.

Pages from 'Resist! How to Be an Activist in the Age of Defiance'. Image courtesy of Laurence King

The new Conservative administration triggered a wave of political dissent. The Liberal Democrats had pledged in the general election campaign to scrap tuition fees: in the new coalition, they voted to treble them. Tens of thousands of students took to the streets and occupied their universities in protest. In November of 2011, unions coordinated the biggest industrial action since the General Strike: hundreds of thousands of public sector workers went on strike. Disabled People Against Cuts took direct action against cuts that hammered disabled people. The People's Assembly Against Austerity was launched to coordinate mass rallies and protests across the country.

Without this political context, the ascent of left-wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership would have proved impossible. These struggles, protests and campaigns revitalised the left. While many students felt demoralised and defeated when MPs voted for the trebling of tuition fees, their struggle helped lay the foundations for a Labour leadership committed to abolishing them. When the Labour Party deprived the Tories of their majority in the June, 2017 snap general election, the left was confirmed as a mass political force in the ascendancy. That was down to the commitment, dedication and resilience of activists and campaigners.

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The struggle against injustice – and for emancipation – is long, difficult, arduous and full of defeats and setbacks. But all of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today were won through campaigning, activism and struggle: LGBT rights, women's rights, workers' rights, rights against racist discrimination, social security and civil liberties. The broader political struggle for a more just order is dependent on every individual battle, from the strike for higher pay to the protest against a local library being closed, to a national demonstration against the government. The power of collective strength to achieve lasting change is irrefutable, and this should inspire those of us who want a more just world. It should also terrify the vested interests who have everything to lose from a society that is no longer rigged in their favour.

Now, it's over to you.

This extract is taken from Resist! How to Be an Activist in the Age of Defiance, by Michael Segalov and Huck magazine, available now, via Laurence King. The launch is tonight at Foyle's on Charing Cross Road, featuring discussion and debate from Michael Segalov, Owen Jones and Josie Long. Buy tickets here.

@OwenJones84 / @MikeSegalov

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.