No one has really protested Brexit. Sure, lots of people have gone to the streets and politely walked around their major cities. But there is no real protest, no unrest, no potential for disorder. Instead there is an endless cycle of hot-takes: hot-air continuously recycled on twitter, the airwaves and in print. For all the energy that goes into this, no one is ever energised or excited to action. There is a reason that exhaustion is the dominant feeling of Brexit.
Even the 700,000 march on the 20thof October ended up being another moment of exhaustion. The march, and the many others like it are aimed at ‘petitioning parliament’. The media is imagined as the medium of this petition, partially because it has facilitated this type of third way politics for at least the last twenty years. But when the media fail to report the numbers, the content or even the existence of the march, the protesters experience it as yet another defeat. The protest march is yet another moment of exhaustion.
There is a paradox in all of this. The EU excites the passions of that part of the population that is used to being represented (hearing their views on radio, TV and in parliament). The passions behind Remain, are precisely the ones that are not used to manifesting their power on the streets. This part of the population is simply not habituated to extra-parliamentary modes of power. At the same time, for the most part, the EU does not generate attachments for those parts of the population that are used to exclusion and powerlessness. Yet, that is where we find people familiar with the types of protest that might actively challenge Brexit.
Let us imagine a different scene of Brexit protest: Teresa May has failed to secure either a deal or delay by the end of March, and Britain crashes out of the Union. ‘No Deal planning’ proves woefully under developed. Despite the army being deployed to support freight distribution, there are shortages of food, medicine and the million different things that consumer society takes for granted. At the same time the currency is shorted on the exchanges. Prices inflate dramatically. There are rumours of profiteering and an active black-market emerges. In response, people are furious. An organisation emerges that coordinates the occupation of major sites in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff and Manchester. These occupations gather tens and then hundreds of thousands as Spring turns to Summer. Under pressure to clamp down on the growing unrest (after all it creates a negative investment environment), the government re-deploy the army to the cities…
These two moments of protest obviously resonate in totally different ways. In the first, people take a sunny Saturday to come to their closest city and listen to a few well-heeled speeches. In the second, after suffering a significant deterioration in living standards, large groups come out and illegally occupy large parts of the major cities. The capacity of the first is to be measured by the extent to which the gathered crowd might disregard all their extant party loyalties and vote (at some abstract point in the future) because of the failure to offer a second referendum. The capacity of the second is shaped by material necessity, by the failure of representative democracy to govern, and by the pressure on a Tory government to repress dissent.
The 20th of October protests protest were aimed at parliament, they sought to communicate a message. This future unrest is so much more. It is an active counter-power. It looks beyond parliament to the very constitution of the political and social order. So, let me reassert my initial claim: no one has really protested Brexit,because everything up until now is aimed at the stable good governance of an apparently functional democracy. But this democracy is not functional. And successful protest is rarely polite and orderly.
But what if a genuine protest could be shaped in the growing urgency of this coming catastrophe. What if the occupations started on Saturday the 23rdof March. What if there were kettles outside parliament on the 24th. What if there was a festival of occupation in Trafalgar Square and down the Mall on every day of the week leading up to the 29th? We know the drill: tents and crowds, a festive atmosphere (live music, dancing, food, conversation), a library and study area for students, and a massive General Assembly beside St James’ Park Lake. What if we learned the lessons of the Umbrella Movement, the Student Protests and the many massive occupations of the last ten years? What if we really began to protest Brexit, austerity and general sense of exhaustion that has beset this country? How might we change Brexit? What else might we change?