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Protest in the digital age: A review of Shooting Hipsters by Christiana Spens

By Thom Cuell.

Shooting Hipsters review

Christiana Spens, Shooting Hipsters (Repeater Books, 2016)

Andy Warhol declared that, in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. More recently, Banksy amended the quotation to take into account the pervasiveness of surveillance in modern society: “In the future, everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes.” Reality television and blogging, alongside the prevalence of CCTV in public spaces, have blurred the boundary between public and private, and encouraged individuals to adapt their behaviour for a potential audience. This shift has altered the way we interact with everything from shopping to politics.

In previous centuries, the primary method for communicating dissenting messages was through art — the early poems of Wordsworth, for example, or the paintings of Delacroix. But in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First centuries, our information comes primarily through mass media, rolling news channels and national newspapers. This shift requires a change in the way that protest movements attempt to promote their causes, shaping them to appear respectable to an inherently conservative media, whilst also using tactics which will create striking images on television screens or YouTube channels. Romanticism has been replaced with PR.

I became aware of the increasingly performative nature of political protest during the G20 demonstrations in London in 2009. As we were kettled outside St Pancras station, protestors were being filmed by the police, as usual; but also, protestors were filming the police, and each other, and as the demonstration began to move, onlookers were filming police and protestors alike. The mass recording of the event had benefits for protestors, most notoriously by undermining the official narrative of the death of Ian Tomlinson. But such publicity has drawbacks; many who viewed the images may have sympathised with the protestors’ hostility towards the banking system, but also have been disturbed by the threatening appearance of the Black Bloc, and the air of tension and chaos which permeated the event.

In Shooting Hipsters, Christiana Spens asks a simple question: how do protest movements respond to the challenges and opportunities of the digital age; what tactics work, and which are counterproductive? By analysing modern anti-establishment movements, from Occupy and Anonymous to ISIS and The Tea Party, she questions whether the Romantic idea of protest is still relevant in the Twenty First Century, and what form the ideal protest movement would take.

As Paul Kingsnorth described in One No Many Yeses, revolutionary and protest movements are no longer monolithic and central leadership, the revolutionary cadre, is largely a thing of the past — whatever the Socialist Workers’ Party might think. There is a hint of the boutique, or pop-up, to our participation in social justice today. Causes spring up, publicise themselves on social media, and use technology and branding techniques to make an impact on the public consciousness. Actions can be organised swiftly, and images disseminated in real time through online channels such as Twitter’s Periscope, but they can also disappear just as quickly if the organisers haven’t planned an effective strategy to keep their cause in the public eye.

While many activists may be suspicious of the term “PR”, Spens notes that “political violence and protest have always had a complicated, even symbiotic relationship with the media”. A protest which receives no publicity is unlikely to achieve its aims, but the need to attract media attention can distort the aims of dissenting groups. The media loves a figurehead, and protestors from Swampy to Julian Assange have enjoyed their moments in the sun, but a close media focus on one individual can lead to the cause being discredited by association once that individual’s flaws are revealed. The creation of celebrity dissenters can also lead to strategic errors, as groups are riven by ego and infighting. This process was analysed by Joe Strummer in the lyrics of ‘Tommy Gun’, which explored the mind-set of a Carlos the Jackal style revolutionary hero. The media coverage his actions receive turns him into an instant icon, barely distinguishable from a pop star or actor, but the content of his actions take second place to his image: “I’m gonna get a jacket just like yours / an’ give my false support to your cause,” and ultimately his actions descend into destructive nihilism.

The romance of dissent

Violent protest groups are influenced by the Nineteenth Century anarchist concept of “the propaganda of the deed”. This doctrine suggests that a spectacular action can achieve more in terms of disruption and publicity than any amount of debates or articles. This was accurate, inasmuch as the figure of the bomb-wielding anarchist remains part of the collective psyche, but the violent acts they perpetrated were often counter-productive in terms of public opinion. While they never achieved widespread success, they clearly inspired the spectacular violence of modern groups such as Al-Qaeda.

The milieu which created the propaganda of the deed was satirised in Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, itself inspired by a failed bomb attempt which took place in 1894. In Conrad’s novel, anarchists plan to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, believing that this symbolic attack on science will provoke a police crackdown, which will in turn be the catalyst for revolution. Unfortunately the bomb detonates early, and the group collapses into infighting and intrigue.

In the modern day, Spens notes, propaganda of the deed can be extremely counter-productive; the media and politicians are quick to frame violent acts as evil, animalistic or mad (see Martin Amis, and his description of Chechen rebels as “organically insane”), and use them to justify greater surveillance, or even war. The exception to this is ISIS, who are able to exert greater control over the way their actions are presented to the world. They can do this as they have a de facto state behind them, and access to production tools, in a way that, for example, the killers of Lee Rigby did not.

One tactic which can create public sympathy for violent or confrontational protest groups is the creation of martyrs. Spens uses the example of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker. Sands’s hunger strike was carried out to highlight a specific issue: the IRA prisoners’ demand that they be recognised as political prisoners rather than criminals. During the course of his hunger strike, public sympathy for Sands grew, to the point where he won a by-election to become MP for Fermenagh and South Tyrone. His eventual death caused a worldwide response (the Iranian government renamed the road the British Embassy was located on from Winston Churchill Boulevard to Bobby Sands Street), and gained much sympathy for the Republican cause. While Sands was predictably smeared in the British press as “corrupted”, “a moral fraud”, “pathetic”, the tragedy, and the weight of events, counted for more in terms of public opinion.

Spens demonstrates that the hunger strikers blended Romantic qualities with realpolitik to great effect, creating icons where other movements sought to smash them. In his book Revolutionary Iran, Michael Axworthy notes that religious messages tend to connect on a deeper level with communities than political ones, as they are more deeply embedded within culture. The hunger strikes channelled into the religious element of the psyche as much as the political consciousness, lending them a particularly striking appeal. It should be noted, though, that public sympathy can be exhausted: the subsequent deaths of nine further IRA hunger strikers played out to diminishing returns.

Non-violent groups such as Anonymous also employ tactics influenced by the propaganda of the deed, using subversive humour and high-profile targets to ensure maximum media coverage for their protests. They can exert some element of control over their media portrayal as they draw on expertise not always available to governments and media, and are skilled in communicating directly with the public. The role of the trickster, which they embody, is a historical one, is recognised and even indulged to some extent. Turning the camera onto the actions of groups in power and whistleblowing or leaking documents can remove the establishment’s moral high ground and force them onto the defensive. But, again, an excess of information can overwhelm public and media alike, as was the case with Wikileaks’ mass dumps of confidential documents. Without a clear narrative running through the leaked information, or a headline-grabbing detail, whistleblowing loses its impact.

Anonymous and Occupy both adopted structures which eschew central leadership, thus avoiding the problems caused by charismatic figureheads. While this allows for flexibility, and helps the movements to survive the imprisonment or discrediting of a leader, it has its own drawbacks. For example, during the Occupy protests in London, the media presented the views of cranks such as the Freemen of the Land as being representative of the wider movement. By giving a platform to eccentrics, charlatans and other outliers, the press can use publicity against radical groups by presenting their ideas as criminal or absurd. Similarly, the UK press used the actions of high-profile individuals such as Charlie Gilmore to discredit the wider student tuition fees movement.

These examples lead into an examination of the other side of the PR coin: the way in which state agencies present threats in order to gain funding, equipment and political capital. The presence of armed troops in public spaces, and the changing of threat alert levels, lend an element of spectacle to the performance of state security. In the past, deceit has been used to manipulate public opinion – for example, the cutting of footage from the Battle of Orgreave in 1984 to make it appear as though protestors had instigated the violence, and the smearing of fans’ behaviour during the Hillsborough disaster. This sort of censorship is no longer an option, due to social media and the prevalence of recording devices, so PR is increasingly important for the state in combatting dissent.

The public view of dissent is also shaped by culture. Spens astutely notes that because counter-espionage is only really visible to the public through dramas like the James Bond series and Homeland, it seems almost fictional — something we can only enjoy if we suspend our disbelief. This colours the way we think (if we think at all) about real life counter-espionage today. This might not have held true in the Sixties, when a stream of defections by establishment figures made spying seem very real, but nowadays protestors’ claims about surveillance and spying can seem like paranoid fantasies to members of the public whose only experience of espionage comes at the cinema.

So, while violence is generally counter-productive and martyrdom may have a limited appeal for most dissenters, which tactics do work? Spens argues that groups need to exercise strict control over their public image. In a sentence which should be required reading for UK political organisation Momentum, she states that groups cannot “expect that their vision will simply win everyone over, that the smallest of problems will not be depicted as catastrophes by the press, or that significant issues will be understood and forgiven”.

Examining the difference in perception of two American grass roots movements, Occupy and the Tea Party, she highlights the way in which the media sensationalised minor issues such as littering at Occupy camps. The Tea Party, with their roots in organising church events and willingness to adopt top-down leadership, were careful to avoid such minor infractions. By appearing clean, tidy and generally within the bounds of acceptable behaviour, the Tea Party avoided being cast as the Other by the media, while the carnivalesque nature of Occupy’s camps repelled as many as it attracted. Similarly, peaceful tactics in response to police and state violence can gain respect and sympathy from the public, and may bring concessions from governments which do not wish to appear tyrannical.

Beyond martyrs and terrorists

Another, incongruous, attempt to normalise a radical movement was described by Sami Moubayed in Under The Black Flag. In his chapter ‘Women in Isis’, Moubayed examines the way that females are encouraged to use social media to counter the portrayal of Islamic State in Western media. The content posted by ISIS women is “cutting edge, trendy and well-planned… far from amateur”. They highlight aspects of life within the Caliphate that women in the West may relate to, concentrating on family relationships and leisure activities: “nothing is said about beheading, strict dress codes or the many items that women are banned from owning under the government of ISIS”. The blogger Aqsa Mahmood, for example, has gained over 2,000 Twitter followers and runs an English language Diary of a Muhajirah, offering advice on healthcare, shopping and Syrian customs for would-be female jihadis.

Protest groups need to begin with local media, and need to ensure that they have a strong support base. By focussing on the misdeeds of the state, particularly through whistleblowing, they can occupy the moral high ground, but must also be careful not to have their image damaged by individual acts of disorder. Marches can have a dramatic effect, but must be planned effectively, and not treated as an end in themselves: the Blair government’s reaction to the Anti-War marches of 2001 show that even the largest of public demonstrations can be ignored by a sufficiently confident ruling class.

This all sounds fairly unglamorous so far; are grand Romantic gestures, poets and revolutionaries, a thing of the past? Many icons, Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela among them, have been co-opted by the capitalism, turned into marketing tools and eventually neutered. Hillary Benn even claimed the Romantic leftist legend of the International Brigades in support of a reactionary cause. And yet the Arab Spring was sparked by a Romantic act of martyrdom, and Sands and Mandela are examples of individuals who advanced their causes through their suffering, humanising the movements they represented, and highlighting the oppressive nature of the regimes they resisted.

In his polemic In Defence of Lost Causes, Slavoj Zizek argues that a return to past ideals is essential, marked by a return to centralised, organised groups, with an aim of seizing state power. There is definitely a role for Romanticism within this view, even if it has little else in common with Spens’s conclusions. However, with the ever increasing disparity in arms between state and the people, the form of revolution advocated by Zizek is unlikely to succeed.

Shooting Hipsters is an astute, entertaining and erudite examination of the problems facing modern protest groups, and the possibilities opened up by PR. If anything, the book could stand to be a lot longer, in order to draw out the points made more fully, as the pacing is fast throughout. There is more to be said about the tactics of groups like the black bloc, the movements of 1968, and the role of student politics beyond the tuition fees protests. Ultimately, as Spens recognises, a movement without an element of Romanticism is unlikely to have the spark to inspire activists to the cause, but the idealism has to be tempered with a firm sense of realpolitik, and a determination to control the message. Most importantly, she argues that dissenting groups must work together to oppose any government attacks on civil liberties, as a common cause. Spens ends by quoting from Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819:

Blood for blood – and wrong for wrong –
Do not thus when ye are strong.
With folded arms and steady eyes
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away.

Another line from the same poem would also be apt:

Be your strong and simple words
Keen to wound as sharpened swords,
And wide as targets let them be,
With their shade to cover ye.


Thom Cuell

Thom Cuell is the editorial director an independent publishing company Dodo Ink, and tweets @TheWorkshyFop.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 5th, 2016.