what are you going to do about it?
You might be first in line at the voting station or you might be conscientiously washing your hands of the filthy system. Remember not to wash away the power those hands possess. Oscar Quine navigates the existential minefield of today’s politics.
At the start of this year, under a slate-grey January sky, Jasmin Stone marched south over Tower Bridge. She had walked two miles from Shoreditch in the driving rain to City Hall, along with 5,000 other people. Aged 20, and the mother of a two-year-old, she had been evicted from her east London flat. She was sick of seeing people she knew priced out of the city. "Social housing, not social cleansing," she chanted as the rain came down.
That same morning, one of Britain's broadsheets published a comment piece under the title "Young people who don't vote should grow up". David Cameron had just announced, it observed, that if re-elected, he would take to his lectern in the stale air of the House of Commons to prevent under-21s claiming housing benefit. The thrust of the article: if young people want a better deal, they should turn up on polling day.
Dwindling turnout among young voters and our government's seeming disregard for them are locked in a death spiral. As one plummets, the other is dragged down with it. But Jasmin, and thousands of others like her, offer hope. They show that voting and political engagement are two different things. And with a general election looming, concern over the ill-health of one can overshadow the ruddy cheeks of the other. The Occupy movement bubbles away, turning its attention to shaking up the democratic system. Direct action against fracking often tops the news agenda. In November, 10,000 people marched through the capital in protest against tuition fees. And around the world in recent years, from Cairo to Ferguson, people have responded forcefully to injustice.
But not everyone is onboard. In the broadest terms, to be an engaged citizen is to be an activist. Yet, even with such a low bar for entry, many people do not self-identify as an "activist". The problem is that the A-word has been sullied; activism has an image problem. From Wat Tyler to the Paris Commune, the urge to respond when things aren't right evidently runs deep in human blood. Despite this rich history, the idea of activism has become entangled in many people's minds with an idea of the 70s: lentil soup-eating student groups not getting much done, picket lines, three-day weeks and rubbish in the streets.
This is an unfair and inaccurate reading of history. After the great paradigm shift under Thatcher, activism and much else "of the left", was cast as beyond the pale. People won't declare themselves a feminist — despite believing in gender equality — for much the same reason. There is a nihilistic impulse to reject activism as fusty, ineffective and out-moded.
Now, at a time of acute wealth inequality and social injustice, it is important that we free it from this impasse, like flotsam from a storm drain. "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world," said anthropologist Margaret Mead. "Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Today, that small group is in a double-bind. On one hand, it has greater potential power than ever before. As well as the many who are already engaged, we are all — thanks to the internet — more enabled. Social media allows us to connect and share our convictions. On the other hand, when did a friend last invite you over to go online? Pull up a chair and log on. It doesn't happen. Browsing the internet is an insular activity. The internet connects you but leaves you feeling alienated. We surf alone. It's a toxic by-product of this state of high-screen culture we have reached — summed up in that moment when the screen falls blank, and we catch a reflection of ourselves, removed of human colour.
In this dislocated world, it can feel like we have lost, and the bad guys have won. The money men, the vested interests, the Masters of the Universe. Somewhere along the line, us ordinary folk started singing out of tune, then, in the roar of onward progress, we were drowned out altogether. For many, this disenchantment is felt most acutely when we look around and realise we live in a world driven by the grossest income inequality for over a century.
Anger is often a rational response to what's going on in the world. Anger because NHS workers have to fight for a one per cent pay rise, while MPs give themselves nine per cent. Because in some rare cases, vulnerable people have committed suicide after having their benefits cut. Because you or younger friends may have to think hard, and think twice, about whether you can afford higher education. Because arts funding has been all but abolished. Because of what happened in Ferguson. Because our greed in the west is causing untold suffering to those in the developing world.
The key is to harness this upsurge in emotion, rather than, in a fit of futility, let it deflate in on itself. This is the first step to engagement. There are many ways to do it. We see expressions of this energy throughout the human world. Art, design and fashion are influential public arenas full of people powered by a desire to challenge. From Marcel Duchamp's urinal to Damien Hirst's pickled shark, from Joyce's use of stream of consciousness to Beckett's disregard for form, from Kanye West reappropriating the autotune to Vivienne Westwood throwing away the pattern book — pioneers aim to turn the world upside down.
Westwood knows well the relationship between the aesthetic and political, once saying: "an art lover is a freedom fighter." It is why she put Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and civil rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti in the front row of her LFW show in February.
The great punk designer has the right idea. Because, if you want change, you're best off working from inside the system as well as outside of it. This can be frustrating to hear at a time when it seems that the political alternatives are shot. Labour, at best, offers less of the same. Clegg sold Britain's youth down the river on tuition fees. UKIP — really? And while the Greens perhaps appeal on paper — £10 minimum wage, scrap tuition fees — it's hard to imagine them in charge in a world of Putin and the Islamic State.
A few years back, the journalist, writer of The Wire, and activist, David Simon gave a talk in the shadows of the skyscrapers of downtown New York City. He told the audience that they were nothing more than extras in an obscene and unrelenting pantomime of Wall Street workers dispensing of ill-gotten gains. As they play, the scenery slips. Us extras are left exposed, priced-out.
How to break free from this downward spiral? To paraphrase Simon: "change will only come when enough people feel angry enough to pick up a brick."
The insurgent spirit is important in and of itself. Keep it bubbling. Attend that protest, sign that petition, consume more news. Take 20 minutes to research that story which makes you think "what the!?" and vote whichever way you feel compelled. And if you don't want to vote, that's okay: just be sure you do it with good, informed reason.
Text Oscar Quine