Reading between the lines: books on tour
I have spent a fair amount of the last couple of years reading old books about social movements. It is, after all, a fairly central part of writing about social movements of the past. In contrast, I have recently been able to take advantage of the combination of speaking events at bookshops and long train journeys to savour some of the more recent publications from the frontline of the struggle.
I began with Carmen Aguirre’s memoir Something Fierce, a first-hand account of a Canadian family of Chilean descent who returned to their continent of birth to support struggles against the US-backed dictators of the 1980s, during the birth of modern neoliberalism. Narrated from the innocent and passionate perspective of a teenage girl, Something Fierce mixes the best elements of a revolutionary adventure story and coming-of-age novel while at the same time offering a humane critique of the political and economic structures which dominated the region at the time, and went on to influence much of the rest of the world.
Two prominent voices from today’s social movement milieu bring the struggle up to date: Chavs by Owen Jones and Meat Market by Laurie Penny. Although the former focuses on inequalities of power between classes, and the latter between genders, read side by side the similarities between the two are striking. They each articulate how consumer culture serves to marginalize potentially powerful groups. For Jones it is the way that tabloids and TV shows have created the ‘Chav’ caricature, concluding that ‘the demonization of the working class is the flagrant triumphalism of the rich who, no longer challenged by those below them, instead point and laugh at them’. Penny goes a step further, arguing that sexist adverts and gendered labour are ‘necessary fetters in a superstructure of oppression that has become so fundamental to the experience of femininity that it is effectively invisible’.
But if anyone was to labour under the misapprehension that resistance is a thing of the past, Fight Back provides the antidote. Written by an ‘editorial kettle’ of students involved in the protests of Winter 2010, the book commits to paper something of the hope, thrill, despair and pain of committed activism. From the occupation of Millbank to the wave of street-level civil disobedience and university occupations it triggered, Fight Back transports the reader to the front line of the struggle led by the generation whose future the government is frittering away.
The relevance of the books is reflected in some of the questions I am asked at events. More than once audience members have told me that neoliberalism is ancient and inevitable, that class isn’t relevant anymore, that gender inequality is a thing of the past or that young people don’t know how to campaign nowadays. In turn, Something Fierce, Chavs, Meat Market and Fight Back provide painstakingly researched, eloquently argued, poetically written retorts. What is more, they clearly show that the struggle between the haves and the have-nots is not consigned to the history books. It is central to the writings and action of the present day.
Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen. He is currently on a speaking tour of the UK.