"I Pay, You Pay, Why Doesn't B of A?": Are We Seeing the Birth of a Totally New Protest Movement?
It’s April 5, the end of the financial year, and 100 people – mostly strangers – have their arms linked in a massive circle, occupying the heart of Canary Wharf, the hyper-real maze of steel and plate glass that is the home of Britain’s financial services industries, banks and corporate law firms: the firms that caused the recession, yet lived to tell the tale. Besuited commuters look on in amusement as they sashay their way to the rush hour subway station. “It’s tax year’s eve!” cries someone from the circle, in mock celebration, then they begin to sing: first falteringly, then full-throatedly, over and over, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:
“Should tax avoidance be forgot/And never brought to mind/Should tax avoidance be forgot/Unfairness you will find/For schools and hospitals, my dear/For pensions and home care/For EMA and libraries/Just pay your bloody share.”
This could only be the work of UK Uncut. From the country that brought you the Suffragettes, the Chartists, the Levellers, and the peasants’ revolt of 1381, UK Uncut is the zeitgeist’s protest movement, a web 2.0-enabled incarnation of the aforementioned.
UK Uncut doesn’t have leaders, a hierarchy, a PR firm or funders; it’s not violent, it’s not party-affiliated or backed, and yet in six months it’s changed the face of British politics: on the left and in the protest movement, across the mainstream media, into parliament itself, and beyond the shores of the UK, to US Uncut, Canada Uncut and even, astonishingly, Sudan Uncut.
UK Uncut’s beginnings have already become the stuff of legend among anti-cuts protesters: last October, 12 friends gathered in a north London pub for a quiet pint, and conversation turned to the £83bn public spending cuts just announced by the Conservative government. This was, as many feared, to be a neoliberal austerity regime that would use the recession to destroy the welfare state, an opportunistic, radical assault on the last vestiges of social democracy, and a product of ideology not necessity, as Paul Krugman observed in the New York Times. British government policy was outlined in a nutshell by Conservative MP Greg Barker, speaking last week at the University of South Carolina: “we are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher could only have dreamt of...many government departments are seeing their budgets cut by 30 percent. We are also going to slash business tax, and slash regulation.”
The ‘gang of 12’s novel, though short-term idea, was to highlight the often inaccessible issue of corporate tax avoidance, by going straight to its most visible manifestations: the city-center branches of banks and retail chains. At the end of October they and 60 friends occupied cell phone company Vodafone’s flagship London store, in protest at their alleged £6bn unpaid tax bill, and the rest is history. It was only ever going to be a one-off, and #UKuncut was just a hashtag dreamed up the night before, for people following the action on Twitter. The next weekend, nearly 30 Vodafone stores were occupied across the country.
The friends who launched UK Uncut accidentally created a monster: over the coming weeks and months, hundreds of direct actions against tax avoidance have taken place in British town centers and shopping districts, organized locally, essentially autonomously. The user-generated ‘actions list’ is a wonder to behold.
The UK Uncut message is clear, emphatic and unburdened by ideological or party dogma: that while the British government (whose ministers number 23 millionaires out of 29) introduces an austerity and privatization regime of incredible audacity, the super-wealthy barely pay any tax at all. This intensification of what we have taken to calling ‘market fundamentalism’ – and more specifically, a breathtaking 300 percent rise in university tuition fees – led to a wave of student and youth protests, direct actions, and occupations that shocked Britain throughout the winter. Finally, on Saturday, March 26, the trade union movement gathered its institutional weight to join the fight – billed as the March for the Alternative, it saw 500,000 people take to the streets – the biggest trade union march in decades, and the largest protest in Britain since 2 million people marched against the Iraq war in 2003.
‘The movement’ is a many-tentacled beast, with manifold organizations, aims, ideologies, and tactics, and UK Uncut’s novel approach has confused some people on the traditional organized left. To tackle public service cuts, job losses and privatization via corporate tax avoidance may seem like a roundabout way to get your message across. But tactically, it’s an ingenious entry point to the debate for anyone afflicted by the stifling lassitude of late capitalism, and its twin myths: that ‘there is no alternative to cuts’ (there are), and ‘nothing can be done’ (it can).
UK Uncut works because it starts its argument by bypassing ideological and sectarian dogma, in order to point out something much more accessible, and universal: the fundamental unfairness of neoliberal plutocracy. UK Uncut actions explain to consumers that while they paid their taxes, the minority who caused the financial crisis, and the corporations that benefited from government deregulation, did nothing of the sort. Do this with a smile, a flyer, and the spontaneous, lighthearted disruption of a flash-mob, and you secure people’s sympathy in a way that screaming “one solution: revolution” never will.
The DIY creativity of the hundreds of different UK Uncut actions has been inspiring: including rock gigs and comedy shows (to highlight arts funding cuts), ‘read-ins’ (library cuts), a creche (childcare cuts), and even an impromptu medical center (the dismantling of the state-run National Health Service). Often, it’s as simple as explaining, and discussing, what the host company is responsible for: just getting the information out there about tax avoidance is a vital breakthrough.
On the ‘tax year’s eve’ UK Uncut tour of Canary Wharf last week, we stopped outside Bank of America’s London skyscraper, another plate-glass totem to high finance. Liam Taylor, the local public school teacher who organized this action, told the gathered ‘uncutters’ that Bank of America is a leading US Uncut target that did not pay a single cent of federal income tax in 2010, while its CEO earned $29m. “Solidarity with US Uncut!” shouts one member of the group, and cheers go up. At the end of this mini-lecture, we depart for the next stop chanting “I pay, you pay/Why doesn’t B O A?” There, in only 11 syllables, you have the entire UK Uncut argument.
This relatively modest demand, that capitalism deliver something approaching a level playing field, has found sympathy in sections of the British press normally disposed to treat anyone to the left of General Franco as a pinko Commie scumbag. The Daily Mail is a newspaper whose owners backed the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and continues to froth incoherently about immigrants stealing British jobs and Muslims stealing British souls – it also sells almost 10 times as many copies as the liberal ‘paper of protest,’ the Guardian. The tabloid press are equally quick to characterize anyone protesting as violent thugs, mindless mobs, or self-indulgent rich kids – in the case of the student protests in November and December, normally all three.
Yet UK Uncut has achieved the unthinkable, securing regular, sympathetic coverage from across Britain’s stiflingly right-leaning press. The Daily Mail has run numerous reports detailing the group’s arguments at length; its city editor, Alex Brummer, wrote in a furious editorial in December that “it is outrageous that the Government has failed to ensure big business shares the load. [Tax avoidance] comes at the expense of millions of hard-working people who are not in a position to exploit such loopholes and have to bear the brunt of subsequent cuts in public services and increases in their own taxes…”
Even the Daily Star, a tabloid whose main concern is the welfare of topless models, gave them substantial coverage, likening tax avoiders to burglars engaged in “daylight robbery.” UK Uncut is just a pressure group, you see – not Trotskyites, not Marxist-Leninists, not anarcho-syndicalists, not even social democrats – they just want the super-rich to pay their taxes like everyone else; and who, among even the most staunch of Daily Mail readers, could argue with that? Hardline ideologues may think it something of a sell-out to have to ditch the cloak of progressive ideology, to condescend to play by the rules of post-ideological politics and present themselves as just a pressure group, asking sweetly for reform: but at least UK Uncut is playing. More than that, they’re winning.
In January the Financial Times reported that the National Audit Office would be investigating how Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) ended up letting large corporations off the hook: “in the age of austerity, there is a perception – whether fair or not – that HMRC is selling out to big business", they reported. Last week came an even bigger victory: the government announced it would be launching an inquiry into corporate tax avoidance, overseen by a cross-party committee. “Senior executives face the prospect of explaining their companies' tax structures to the committee,” The Guardian reported. “George Mudie, the Labour MP for Leeds East and the chairman of the Commons Treasury sub-committee, said there was growing public interest.” Growing public interest: and where do you suppose that came from? It wasn’t from a sudden upsurge in Bloomberg subscriptions, nor from our politicians, save for the dedicated work of MP Chuka Umunna (often described as ‘the British Barack Obama’, for what it’s worth).
Thanks to the UK Uncut method, this growing public interest self-perpetuates virally. Once people have learned about UK Uncut, the means for them to do something is instantaneous: you don’t need to go to a meeting, or join a party, to take part – you don’t need to wait for someone to organize an event in your local area, because embedded in the UK Uncut ethos is that you have the power to organize it. Integral to the model is a leaderlessness the traditional British left find uncomfortable. TV interviews with UK Uncut activists deliver the same message: this isn’t a party that’s trying to recruit you, I’m not a UK Uncut spokesperson, or leader – “we are all UK Uncut”: and so are you, you just might not realize it yet.
UK Uncut works through what Joss Hands, author of ‘@ is for Activism’, describes as QARNs, or Quasi-Autonomous Recognition Networks: the theoretical and practical tools for protest are available online, inspiration and solidarity is available at the click of a button – and actions take place without the top-down dissemination that normally characterizes protest. It echoes the epithet at the heart of punk rock – a meme before the internet – “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. NOW FORM A BAND.”
Often groups of friends have come together to organize a UK Uncut action, having never been part of one before, or even met anyone who has: this story about a ‘rock-in’ to highlight cuts to arts funding being one of countless examples. The meme, and the means, are out there, and they’re anyone’s for the taking: witness this instructional UK Uncut video, ‘How to do your own bail-in’.
These trends should not worry the traditional gatekeepers of political organization, but they have been. On March 26, the day of the Trades Union Congress’ 500,000 strong ‘March for the Alternative’, UK Uncut organized their own simultaneous day of mass action around Oxford Street, Regent Street and Piccadilly – London’s shopping heartlands. The trade union march itself took the same tried and tested route of the anti-Iraq mega-protests: gather on the Embankment, march to Hyde Park, listen to some speakers and some music, and disperse. It’s a type of demonstration that has become known (sometimes disparagingly) as ‘A to B’, because of its direct geometry, relative to the chaotic student demonstrations of the winter – which featured ‘cat and mouse’ chases away from riot police, impromptu occupations, and the unpredictable, strategic brutality of police ‘kettling’.
As Daniel Trilling has argued, these forms are not mutually exclusive, and in a sense marching from A to B is itself a direct action. But for better or worse, thousands of protesters (many of them young, radical, or both) rejected the official demonstration, and chose UK Uncut’s injunction to ‘Occupy for the Alternative’, instead of marching for it. After months of trouble-free protests, this time something went wrong. A small group of UK Uncutters – who knows who, though it does demonstrate they are not entirely without decision-makers or leaders – chose a site designed to surprise the police – who had already shut down scores of potential targets in central London. In mid-afternoon, as a giant Trojan horse was set alight in the middle of Oxford Street (no-one was inside, but it was still pretty tragic, if only for its historical illiteracy), sound sytsems blared out dance music to a convivial crowd, and anarchists waved their black flags in front of the monochrome Apple store, the secret target was disseminated, and several hundred UK Uncutters peacefully occupied Fortnum & Mason, a food, champagne and tea shop of extravagant luxury , whose owners are alleged to have avoided £40m in tax.
What followed is the subject of a forthcoming court case: but is relayed by witness accounts and video – 138 occupiers were shut in the store, apparently for their own safety, because of other protesters clashing with police outside. A senior police officer is on film apologizing for the delay, but not to worry, she says kindly, you can leave now and you won’t be arrested. There is no hint that they so much as knocked over a champagne bottle. The 138 left, were immediately arrested, and spent up to 20 hours overnight in police cells on a fairly new, entirely trumped-up charge called ‘aggravated trespass’; political policing of the most unapologetic kind – the activists’ phones were all taken and are now being mined for information. The charges are unlikely to stick, but that wasn’t the point: this was an intelligence gathering operation, as the senior officer in charge admitted. One of those arrested was a 15-year-old girl, who ended up vomiting on herself, and placed on suicide watch in a police cell overnight. And all this for sitting down in a posh tea shop for an hour or so.
As far as some critics were concerned, UK Uncut damaged the reputation of the whole anti-cuts movement, by allowing themselves to become a magnet for ‘violence’: namely the small amount of property damage in the surrounding area, the smashed bank windows and paint bombs neither carried out by, nor on behalf of, UK Uncut. Anthony Painter wrote on the influential Labour List blog about the zeitgeist clash between networks and institutions – and issued a sharp-tongued attack on UK Uncut: “How dare they unilaterally decide to conduct their own protest and divert attention from the main event. Even if we accept that there was no violent intent from any members of UK Uncut they selfishly, self-servingly, and naively dragged attention away from the main message of the march. Instant gratification consumerism has a mirror image in instant gratification politics. Meanwhile, those who are really hit hard continue to suffer.”
‘Instant gratification politics’ is a total misreading of UK Uncut’s message, method, and successes. Furthermore, while their achievements exist in isolation from the Labour party and the trade unions, UK Uncut’s existence also support these forms of organization. They present a more appealing, dynamic avenue into political engagement than those offered by traditional, often alienating party-political meetings – and these fluid networks calcify; the tentative online bonds established over sites like Twitter accumulate, solidify and self-perpetuate in the real world. As Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters wrote in their ‘open-source protest’ essay:
“Through the UK Uncut networks, groups of strangers come together to carry out actions, often at personal risk to themselves. By taking part in these actions together, they strike up the strong bonds of friendship and trust on which they can build a more concerted campaigning effort. In this way, online and offline activism are interlaced and reinforce each other: the dichotomy which Malcolm Gladwell and others wish to draw between low-risk online activity, such as signing a petition, tweeting a link, joining a Facebook group, and more high-risk offline activity, centered around direct action, simply doesn’t hold.”
Direct action’s duality of impact is why, I’d conjecture, so many young people have taken to UK Uncut: its first, main impact, is the message itself, its second is the method by which that message is disseminated. Britain’s high streets have undergone dramatic transformations in the last 20 years, resulting in an ‘anytown’ uniformity that denies individual character and difference. The flash mob, the 2000s’ post-ideological, apolitical updating of a situationist-style ‘happening’, was recuperated by capital with consummate ease, and co-opted into award-winning advertising campaigns. But now the flash mob is getting its own back in a massive way – it is repoliticized just like UK Uncut’s young participants, just like Britain’s gaudy, hyper-branded town centers.
Britain’s protest movement has started the fight of its lives: nothing less than the battle against the neoliberal endgame. If it is to succeed it will need the might and experience of its institutions, and the nimble, streetwise modernity of its web 2.0 networks. Here’s hoping America’s emerging networks, via the likes of US Uncut, can find a similarly inspiring sense of #solidarity.