The latest UKuncut protests have been going on this afternoon, closing Topshops and other malfeasants in 50 or so cities across the UK. The liberal left is of course entirely supportive both in print and in person. On the first weekend in December even Polly Toynbee turned up to protest at Topshop for the first time, and wrote approvingly of the quality of the targeting in the Guardian a few days later.
On one level this liberal support is of course understandable and good. The CEOs of the target companies collectively owe so many billions in UK taxes that they could each single-handedly wipe out the need for university tuition fees to be charged, EMA to be closed, etc. for several years. These are, if anybody is, Bad Guys, and nobody should mourn if their outlets are shut down for a few hours on a snowy Saturday afternoon. But this is not the protest the liberal left thinks it is. For one thing, its poster boy was an echt-capitalist symbol. Sunny Hundal, editor of Liberal Conspiracy, Guardian contributor, and an important liberal voice, tweeted at 3.03 p.m.:
This is a group of ‘anti-capitalist’ Santas who apparently sing carols in such circumstances every year. Another Santa glued himself to the window of Dorothy Perkins:
Ho ho ho, we might be forgiven for thinking. Using the symbols of capitalism like this archetypal figure – a walking advertisement for Coca Cola, nothing else – we are socking it to the man. If only. The snow, which closed Brent Cross shopping centre among thousands of other businesses, did more material harm to capital today than these admirable protests.
It is of course difficult not to feel supportive of these protests. They are targeting odious people and raising public awareness – insofar as a disinterested BBC will allow them – of the vile nature of a corporate capitalism that scorns the interests of the relatively poor majority for the sake of private interest. But it is not immaterial that they are doing so with the aid of one of the principal tools of capital.
Capital is ugly. It requires an impoverished proletariat to feed the wealth accumulation of a tiny number of rich. If the poor, who are infinitely more numerous, rose up against the rich, then even the violent arm of the status quo, the police (and ultimately the armed forces) would find it difficult to suppress a revolution. Capital is so ugly that it can exercise its control only by consent – and that not in secret but in the clear light of day.
Santa is this season’s traditional sanitization of capital. Santa is cuddly, he has rosy cheeks; he is the only adult whose knees we gladly allow children to sit on. He represents for us the warm, loving behaviour of giving gifts, coming together, forming community, being caring humans. We know of course that the gifts we buy one another at Xmas are both excessive in themselves (as needless accumulation) and in many cases the pretty product of hideous production processes such as child labour. The liberal protestors at Topshop and other shops need no reminding of this.
Yet although they know very well that gift-giving at Xmas on the scale at which it is practiced in the rich West is one of the biggest sustainers of global capital (just look at the average company’s sales figures in the pre-Xmas period), how many of today’s UKuncut protestors have forgone the practice of buying Xmas gifts?
Philip Green is a toad who should pay his taxes. I have little sympathy for him and hope that nobody ever buys his ghastly clothes again. But he is a relatively small player in the global business of capital, and it is capital, not Green, which is the problem. Polly Toynbee may think these protests are well-directed but is this not a delusional balm to the conscience of a liberal left that knows very well it is complicit in what it purports to oppose?
It may make protestors feel kooky and sweet to sing anti-capitalist Xmas carols with Santa as they march in the snow against the monstrosity of the chain stores, but it doesn’t stop them buying into the system. They know very well that their buying habits are an important part of the problem, yet they go along with the ideology of Xmas. It’s no accident that Santa was on the streets today. Like it or not, he is a bigger figure in the background to these protests than a thousand Philip Greens. Yet we draw him close to our hearts.
We need a more radical revolution than this.