Tuesday, July 05, 2011

How Subversive is Radical Graffiti?

The scene at the Liscard branch of HSBC
Over the weekend, banks in a Wallasey shopping centre were targeted by a demonstrator or demonstrators, who sprayed graffiti on the outside walls. As Wallasey was my home town until I moved down south last year, I want to use this opportunity to look at the significance of radical graffiti.

The banks in question were all located in the Liscard area of the town, so people from the run-down terraces of Seacombe to the slightly more affluent Wallasey Village will have seen the graffiti. A circled A symbol of anarchism was sprayed on the HSBC at a busy set of traffic lights, along with the words "Fuck the rich - class war". Spanish bank Santander was even redecorated with a Spanish language invitation to anarchist revolution.

Though no individual or group has publicly claimed responsibility for the action, it can be guessed that the banks were attacked because of their role in the pain working class people face, in the wake of the banker bailout. This will not be lost on many of those passing the messages, and indeed a large number will share in the anti-banker sentiment expressed.

Its political significance is therefore very obvious. Someone - who presumably self-identifies as an anarchist - has decided to use public hatred of the bankers as a propaganda tool, as a means of promoting a working class fightback against the rich. With many people sinking further into the financial mire as a direct result of the bailout and government austerity measures, this is not surprising. But will it have the desired effect? Will the graffiti stir the oppressed of Liscard into rebellion? My answer is a qualified 'no'.

Graffiti is illegal, though ruling class propaganda is everywhere
Back in April, I posted on the 'propaganda by the deed' debate, which has raged within anarchism since the mid 1800s. Talking about 'violence' against symbols of wealth on the March 26th London demonstrations, I argued that it made sense to apply the criteria suggested by Alexander Berkman - the Russian anarchist who was jailed for shooting a steel boss. A changed man, he later commented that the assassination of US president William McKinley was "inevitable" as "as an expression of personal revolt", and "in itself an indictment of existing conditions". However, it was not "educational", because "because the social necessity for its performance was not manifest".

The context was also lacking in the case of the Liscard graffiti. Yes, the bankers are despised, but for most of those who will have seen the graffiti, the "class war" is a thoroughly one-sided affair, so few will have any idea what the sprayer wants them to do. Over the three decades since the Thatcher counter-revolution began, the phrase has almost entirely lost its meaning. What's more, 'anarchy' is still synonymous with 'chaos' - a misconception the graffiti does little to dispel.

On the other hand, it could certainly be said that radical graffiti can contribute to a 'culture of resistance' - where organised resistance exists. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the graffiti was a temporary territory marker, which probably led some to think 'So I'm not the only one who blames the rich for the way things are going', in an era when ruling class propaganda consistently targets the poorest.
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