Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The British antiwar movement: new research.

Via Socialist Worker, I see there's some interesting new research by academics at Warwick University on the antiwar movement in the UK. Rachel Lara Cohen and Natalie Pitimson carried out random sample surveys at three different protests to determine the kinds of people attending and the reasons for doing so. They found some intriguing things. First of all, about a quarter of participants were 'demo virgins' - on their first ever protest. Seasoned, hardcore activists, those who attended all six post-9/11 major antiwar demonstrations, were a minority - about a third of sampled participants. This militates against the view which sees the antiwar protests as embodying a single pool of activists which just shrinks. Of course large numbers people attend one demonstration but can't make others or get disillusioned or decide to be there 'in spirit', but getting new people to attend doesn't just mean having more feet on the ground - it means more discussion, more arguments, more connections made, and a larger base for future 'hardcore' activists. It means that the momentum is still very much there. Secondly, there was actually a wide spread in the age range of people attending. It is often remarked that the demonstrations attract a large number of young people, but actually new participants from all age groups are being pulled into activity. While we should be gratified that new generations are getting into political activity, discussing ideas, reading the books and getting acquainted with various strategies, this research suggests that the focus on youth is based on a misleading stereotype. Pensioners are also stirring themselves into political activism for the first time.

Thirdly, despite the emphasis on the internet as a tool for online activism, most people use the internet in a very different way. Over 90% of people who attend the demonstrations actually use the internet, which is higher than the corresponding figure for the reference population (see Oxford University's most recent figures), but most people don't rely on the internet to hear about protests (those who do tend to be older and are better able to find useful information on the net, which dispels the myth about young people being especially technophilic). Those who take part in online activism tend to be those who are very active offline. Most people who do use the internet find it useful for sharing information, but not as an independent activism tool in itself. I might mention that this tallies with my own experience, and it is hardly to be sniffed at: I remember when something big happened and you had hardly any sources of reliable information, especially if there was a bit of military censorship going on. Now you've got news filter sites, blogs, radical newspapers with regularly updated online systems, handy search tools and so on. You don't have to read the newspapers and watch television bulletins in disgust - that can be quite demoralising and demobilising. However, a surprisingly large number of people, approximately a third, are put off using the internet for activism because they don't like the way others communicate online: on this point, I suppose the main issue is trolls and jerks, but there's also spam, sectarian lunacy, diversionary nonsense, competitiveness, high-handed rhetoric, any of the many ways in which people can just waste time. From personal experience, I would say that you hardly get this sort of thing at all on exclusive activists lists, where seriousness of purpose overrides the temptation to get into spats.

Such research has obvious limitations, being focused as it is on the most visible signs of organisation, which are not always the most important forms. They have a media impact, which is sometimes exactly what is called for, and they reflect sudden upsurges of anger and outrage, such as during the Lebanon war in 2006. But, as the research actually indicates, there is a lot that goes on beneath the radar. There are meetings, leafletings, posters, street stalls, film events, fundraisers, anti-recruitment campaigns, union activism (the NUT has recently voted to oppose military recruitment and propaganda activities in schools, for example), local protests, lobbies of the local MP, media-focused campaigns, all the stuff that actually keeps the arguments and facts in people's minds, and keeps the pressure on those who would otherwise get too comfortable and start thinking about - I don't know - maybe bombing somewhere else or sending troops back into Basra. There are two recent news items that I think reflects where we are. On the one hand, the Tories are opportunistically calling for an inquiry into the war, clearly hoping to capitalise on antiwar opinion even though they have been overwhelmingly supportive of the 'war on terror' in all of its dimensions. The neoconservative ascendancy in the Tory party is presumably okay with this. On the other, the MoD has embarked on a wide-ranging PR campaign to overcome the damage done to the military's image and sell the virtues of 'humanitarian' war. Expect a lot more pro-military news angles. (Perhaps the most glorious PR initiative of all is that, after the scandals over Saudi arms deals, the red-faced former CBI windbag and current trade minister, Lord Digby Jones, has announced his intention of implementing an ethical arms-dealing policy.) Some want to co-opt us, others want to neutralise us - and neither has been successful so far.