Laurie Penny: People power isn't just a fad for a magazine cover

Waiting is no longer an option for those of us who can envisage a future beyond the year 2050

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It's the eyes that hit you first – the sort of eyes that stare at you from the other side of a glass window, considering whether and when to throw a brick. Masked up in front of a backdrop of unspecified placard-waving public rage, "The Protester", the cover image of Time Magazine's "person of the year" issue, is so obviously designed to be iconic that it almost feels offensive. It is as if the demonstrations, revolutions, occupations and riots that have cascaded through the streets of Tunis, London, Cairo, Athens, Barcelona, New York, Moscow and hundreds of other towns and cities across the globe were somehow a fad, a manifestation of a momentary zeitgeist, rather than historical necessity.

The choice of artist is as significant as the image itself. LA-based Shepard Fairey is famous for producing the 2008 "Hope" poster that became the emblem of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. It is significant that four years on from an election that was supposed to change the world, with a double crisis of economic security and representative democracy sweeping Europe and America, we are beginning to learn that hope is not just something that you use to elect a president. Hope is a weapon you use to smash your way through to a liveable future.

On the cover of Time as much as anywhere else, we are used to seeing power wearing the face of a rich, white American. Since 1927, when the magazine first began selecting its "person of the year", the process has become as close as the English-speaking press comes to open declaration that affluent American males run the world, or should – in 84 years, only four women and 14 people of colour have been named. The rest of the list is a dull procession of well-cut suits with jowly Caucasian men inside them, with the occasional gimmicky nod to things the suits don't care about, like "the Endangered Earth"(1988) or "You" (2006). This year's choice of "person" acknowledges for the first time that people power is real power – but seems to anticipate that it can be slotted into a roster somewhere between Mark Zuckerberg and, perhaps, Mitt Romney.

The idea that "the protester" can be "the face of the year" may be a comfortable one for many of the readers of Time. It implies that the angry crowds that have populated their flatscreen televisions for the past 12 months are engaged in only polite protest. The best summary of the distinction between protest and resistance still comes from Ulrike Meinhof, who wrote: "Protest is when I say I don't like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don't like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too." Protest, to put it another way, says "not in my name". Resistance says "over my dead body". What is happening now in the streets of Moscow, in the city squares of Egypt, in foreclosed homes in Oakland and east New York and Barcelona, and in Wukan in China, is resistance, and it is happening because people around the world are sick of being told to wait while their lives and futures are mortgaged to the notional interests of a rabid financial elite intent on cannibalising its own future.

Of course, we could wait. Let's wait until we see how bad it's really going to be. Let's wait until years of austerity have broken the spirit of another generation, and decent healthcare and education have become the sole preserve of those with the money to pay for them. Let's wait until the universities have become dull factories of complicity where the struggling middle classes endebt themselves in the hope of employment that never arrives. We could wait until the next stock market crash, or the one after that. We could wait until the oil has gone. We could wait until the water runs out. We could wait until the ice melts and the oceans rise. We could wait until the power generation is shuffling off into comfortable graves on the last remaining plots of dry land, and then, if we are not too weary, too weighed-down by debt, we can begin to speak honestly about the world we want to see.

Waiting, however, is no longer an option for those of us who can envisage a future beyond the year 2050. The Durban climate summit, which concluded in a dull round of vacillating is the canary in the mine. With a maximum of five years to go before carbon emissions at current rates make climate disaster a certainty, governments ask those already under water to give them 10 years to think about it. The present political consensus offers no way out. For those with the courage to be the ancestors of tomorrow, this makes things remarkably simple. For my generation, the generation with no memory of a political alternative to unfettered capitalism, the questions are no longer how we will be able to afford a mortgage, or get a secure job with a pension, or educate our children, or pay for the care of our bodies when we are sick. We already know the answers to those questions. The only important one left is, will we let it happen?

Are people content to voice their objections politely, to sign petitions and wave placards and go home, or are they prepared to put their bodies and futures in the way of encroaching catastrophe? Will people be content to remain "protesters" – or will they resist? Those who do will surely not find themselves alone.

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