The recent protests around the world have yet to produce a print journalist capable of transmitting the energy and immediacy of the protesters. In large part due to the easy availability of citizen-produced non-print media, there has not been a writer whose words put you in the crowd facing off against the police or enjoying the camaraderie of a fellow protester. However, if I were to nominate such a writer for the job it would be the British journalist Laurie Penny. The commentary on her blog Penny Red and articles for Britain’s New Statesman describing the direct actions and police reaction of the 2010 youth-led movement against the government’s austerity measures is somewhat reminiscent of great reportage like Norman Mailer’s book on the 1967 March On the Pentagon Armies of the Night or Andy Kopkind’s coverage of late 1960s protests collected in The Thirty Years War. Pluto Press gathered these articles and recently published them as the book Penny Red: Notes From the New Age of Dissent.
Like Mailer and Kopkind, Penny is not just a reporter. She is a participant. Also like Mailer and Kopkind, she has her own opinions of the events that she is in the midst of. Foremost among those beliefs is that the protests and the people involved represent something new. Of course, she is quite right in this. They also represent the continuation of a history that Penny somewhat disparages. While her colleagues in the British media searched for comparisons to the worldwide insurrection of 1968 and the anti-Thatcher struggles of the 1980s, Penny dismissed those comparisons. To do so, she claims, assumes a similar “trajectory of failure.” I wonder how aware Penny is that she sounds very much like her predecessors of 1968, who also dismissed (especially in the United States) the history of the Left that preceded them. As those of us present in earlier historical epochs discovered, we dismiss history at our own risks. It does exist for the lessons it teaches. At the same time, Penny is completely right when she lambastes the Cabernet Left: those democrats and socialists and democratic socialists who allowed the British Labour Party to become just another tool of the neoliberal predators that continue to rampage across the planet. Like so much of the liberal and progressive political element in the US, that left has no right to define themselves as leftist in any way, shape or form. Nonetheless less, they try and lay claim to movements like the anti-austerity movement in Britain or the Occupy Movement of today, at least until the inevitable police violence occurs.
Despite any minor disagreements with Penny’s understanding of history’s meaning–a disagreement that has little bearing on the writing or the movement itself–there is only one problem with the Penny Red’s writing on the anti-cuts protests. There is too little of it. That is not a criticism. It is just my expression of a desire for more and a testament to its readability.
The rest of the book is divided into three more sections. The first includes Penny’s observations from within the “new feminist” movement. A combination of brashness and dismay regarding what she sees as a combination of prudishness, capitalist co-optation, and the failure of that movement to recognize working class issues like child care and health care as women’s issues, Penny’s keyboard stays on the attack through out this section as she discusses sexuality, the princess craze among young girls, and defends the use of the word “cunt.” There is little mercy for the meek among her gender here.
Next in Penny’s sights are the royal family and their court, along with their fans. Written mostly during the recent wedding of William and Kate, Penny does a fine job of taking apart the royal myth. However, her best essay in this section concerns the nature of government in the neoliberal economy. There is no more democracy, because there are no more politics. Instead, every bit of legislation, every politician and every vote is an investment. Naturally, the values of these investments are assigned by the market which is controlled by those who have the most money and, consequently, the most power. The harsh reality of this, writes Penny, is that those at the bottom of the economic ladder are bound to stay there, since the investment risk is to high. Back when government played another role besides providing investment possibilities for global finance, young people from the lower rungs of the ladder were provided a means to get out. Now, even in Britain since the privatizing of higher education, that is no longer the case. To make it worse, she writes, the official mythology blames the working class youth and not the system that created the class system.
The final pages of the book include an interview with fiction writer China Miéville and a look at the capitalist fascination with phenomena like Face book and other internet mechanisms. The latter extends the observation that, when broken down to its basest level, Face book is nothing more than a com modification of personal relationships. Think about that. And read this book.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org