November 13, 2020

Ten years ago, I was part of a protest that stormed the headquarters of the Conservative party in Millbank Tower. A ragtag group of school, college and university students, we came together to protest the scrapping of EMA and the trebling of tuition fees. People set placards ablaze and danced around the fires, offices were ransacked, and – famously – a fire extinguisher was thrown from the top of the building.

For those of us who had been attending protests for years, usually against austerity, this one felt different. It was exhilarating, and a far cry from the institutionally organised marches where we forced ourselves through the streets holding the prescribed banners and drearily chanting the prescribed slogans. At Millbank and in the weeks that followed, we were transformed into subjects with our own agency, and the chaos and uncertainty of those days was experienced as the opening of possibilities that extended beyond the protests themselves.

In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher wrote that, “the tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again,” and this felt like one such event. The next day, NUS President Aaron Porter wrote an article in the Sun in which he described the disorder as “despicable” and that sharpened our swords against the ranks of careerist New Labour bureaucrats (a look at his subsequent CV is dispiriting; this class is still disappointingly employable).

The leftist magazine Tribune describes Millbank as “one of the most important demonstrations in British political history”, striking a blow at “the nerve centre of the British establishment”. They are certainly right that it has taken on “mythic significance”, judging by the numbers who claim to have been there compared to the relatively small number of people who actually stormed the Tower.

For the few weeks following, protests and occupations spread over the country, culminating on December 9 when the bill was passed and we were kettled on Westminster Bridge until gone midnight. There was no food, no water, no toilet, and the rallying cries passed from joy, through defiance and anger, to desperation. As we were finally released into the night, including school-aged children hundreds of miles from home, we had to walk one-by-one through a tunnel of riot police shining a light on our faces and taking our photo. Any face coverings, worn to protect anonymity, were forcibly removed. We had lost, and the government and police had won. We had been humiliated and it felt like the end.

But it was not. Tribune argues, rather meekly, that Millbank’s legacy lives on through its participants: “Many took on important roles as trade unionists, climate activists, Palestine and Kurdish solidarity workers, disseminators of alternative media, organisers of migrant and refugee campaigns, and senior officials in the Labour Party.” This is another way of saying that Millbank did nothing but reproduce the ranks of the professionally ineffective Left. Tribune should be more ambitious: Millbank’s real significance was much more serious. Though we couldn’t see it at the time, it marked the emergence in politics of a class faction that was just coming into view and is even now transforming our country: the graduate without a future.

During the dead period of the noughties, protests stuck to a tried and tested formula. We would march through central London, before gathering in Trafalgar Square to hear from Left-wing veterans like Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn while Trotskyist parties competed to sell papers and sign up the uninitiated. It was all pretty harmless, an alternative to a trip to a National Trust property for a different subset of the middle classes.

There was the odd exception. A year before the Millbank protests, in Spring 2009, I remember skipping school and protesting against the G20 summit in London. A window was smashed and a police officer pushed a bystander, the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, to his death. But this was on the way out; the tired tail-end of 1990s radicalism temporarily given a new lease of life by the recession, and it marked the last moment when the Left was defined by its opposition to globalisation. For the most part, rallies conformed to our cynical characterisation of them: not so much A to B, as A to Benn.

Millbank changed all that. We were no longer content to participate in ritualistic set pieces that achieved nothing. And it was also something new for many of its participants. This wasn’t another protest about Middle Eastern conflict, instead it related directly to our material conditions.

In the months and years that followed, a new class consciousness was born. Not among the idealised proletariat but among the immiserated sons and daughters of the middle class. Of this new set, the Deterritorial Support Group were the sharpest. They pranked the world media into believing Slavoj Žižek and Lady Gaga were close friends. They exposed Johann Hari’s plagiarism and accused him of “policing the boundaries of acceptable thought” and the liberal-left as representing the “left wing of capital.” One of their members explained to the Guardian that “without the specific historical and economic conditions I live under, I don’t feel I would be involved in this sort of thing.” Instead, he would “probably have a mortgage or something”. More often than not their agitprop stung because it was accurate.

And it spoke to the depths of our radicalisation and disillusionment with mainstream politics. The coalition government implemented the reforms but in truth they were coming even if New Labour had clung on in the 2010 general election. This was a bipartisan reform implemented by a generation who had paid nothing for their education. To top it off, the Liberal Democrats broke their pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees. This had a prolonged effect on a generation’s trust in mainstream politics and Nick Clegg’s disappearance from the UK scene and new career as Silicon Valley executive can be understood as a form of exile – if not a particularly painful one.

Millbank was our year zero. Some of the DSG had voted for the Lib Dems in 2010, and one had even been a member. It was the disenchanted demographic to which they belonged that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to his leadership of the Labour Party and without it he may never have won in 2015. Instead it would have been Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham managing Labour’s decline.

Yet 10 years on, the movement Millbank gave birth to has crumpled. Its predictions – that scrapping EMA and trebling university fees would put off poor kids from college and university respectively – have been proved wrong. The Left has descended into internecine conflict and the policing of individual behaviour. The collective joy and mutual self-interest of those early days has gone. There is a distinct irony that this radical energy was assimilated by the electoral project of Benn’s most loyal acolyte. With that comprehensively crushed in December and Jeremy Corbyn suspended from the party he led, it is hard to see how the fragments of the new Left can pick themselves up again.

The old Left is back to where it started, too, with a few thousand members spread across a few dozen organisations. Were it not for the coronavirus restrictions, I have no doubt that they would be organising their next ‘march against pandemic austerity’, the placards would be out calling for ‘the people’s vaccine’, and the paper sellers of the Socialist Workers’ Party would be setting up their stalls in Trafalgar Square in search of new recruits…

And yet, though the more interesting elements have dissipated, something has changed. The Left is formally defeated but it remains – in its cultural form – more influential than ever. Many of those radicalised at Millbank have graduated from higher education institutions and are reshaping our national political discourse. At the expense of a playful politics of collective self-interest, however, has come the importing and regurgitating of the life-draining successor ideology from the United States, an ideology which every power we claimed to be protesting against 10 years ago has embraced wholesale.

In 2010, we felt as though we were at the precipice of something real. History was re-emerging from its long slumber and it was finally possible once again to imagine radical futures, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams attempted to do in the briefly influential Inventing the Future. Their book, published in 2015, seemed at the time like the beginning of a newly ambitious Left modernism. We can see now it marked the end of a short chapter. Today, the Left is shattered and poses no serious alternative to liberal, capitalist modernity. That challenge comes from the Right, while the Left is reduced to dragging cultural institutions ever further down the rabbit hole of intersectionality. What a long, strange trip it’s been.