When a “new” issue for discussion arises within the left, it is often a proxy conversation for more timeless debates, a way of re-engaging old, important and unresolved differences under the cover of a pressing novelty. Currently, the dish of the day for commentators and pundits is “violence at demos”.
We attended the EMA protest in London last Wednesday, and the change in atmosphere was striking. The crowd were similar to previous demos- schoolkids, young students, jumping on the bus straight from school to attend, with their homemade banners, enthusiasm and thirst for a party. But the attitude of the “organised left” was somewhat different. Gone was the wide-eyed wonder from late last year, when they stood around shocked that, christ, genuine working class kids are turning up and are mad for a protest. Gone was the refrain “it’s their movement”, and gone was the willingness to set free the improvisation of smart young kids.
Instead, painfully, we saw a line of hi-vis, not from cops, but from party officials and union members who had taken it upon themselves to organise stewarding. No more the “anything but a kettle” carnival of the 30th November, when gangs of protestors hurtled across the capital, bringing traffic and commerce temporarily to a halt. This, we were reliably informed, was Organised. A chain of stewards linked arms, self-kettling the protestors, holding them back from bursting out from the prearranged route and taking grasp of the streets. It was a genuinely sad sight, to watch the lessons of last year being ignored in what seemed like a desperate grab for control.
Tired of being pushed and shoved, fearing a kettle, we pushed through a barrier, onto the oncoming lane. There we were confronted by a steward, wearing (literally no joke) a hi-vis jacket and a “Crass” hoodie. This, we were informed, was for our own good, to stop police provocation and stopping violence. And here, in a nub, was what we are to expect from future demos. A return of the stewarded A-B march, some riveting political rhetoric at the end, a bit of self-policing and a morose pint afterwards, as our protest is registered and politely ignored. The TUC has even organised a stewarding call-centre at Congress House where inter-steward communication will be linked automatically and immediately with the police. This is not the route to a confrontation with capital, but neither is the spectacular violence we have seen.
Spectacular violence should no more be a feature of the ultra-left than political action- it serves no real radical, direct purpose, and exposes many people to a level of physical risk or risk of arrest and state recrimination who really needn’t have to take such a risk. We have no need of martyrs. We should deal with it on practical grounds- because it’s an ineffective tool to achieve social change- and not on moral or ethical grounds. It’s usually justified, it’s just not always particularly useful.
The mistake is, perhaps, to conduct the debate assuming that violence is an exception, that it isn’t normally there, that it’s a result of an exceptional will by malcontents to create a violent situation. The violence is always there- the violence is the routine of our daily lives. The violence is always there, as a potential, in the very presence of the police. Whether they choose to make it explicit, to realise it upon our bodies and our bones is, yes, another question, but what we are talking about isn’t the creation of violence by dark extremist infiltrators, but the reaction of people to the violence they see, either implicitly or in the sight of black rubber crashing into a body of people.
We do not seek out violence. We do not recognise the caricatures painted by both right-wing rags like the Daily Telegraph, or their utilisation as a spectre in lieu of an argument, by liberal journalists like Sunny Hundal. Such a characterisation positions the ultra-leftist and the anarchist as having a somehow pathological need to conduct the rhapsody of breaking glass. This is conflated with “anarchist” as a term to describe anyone engaged in spectacular violence at a demonstration, regardless of political persuasion. The reason, perhaps, that the ultra-left are wearing such wry smiles these days is not because they’re now capable of orchestrating certain non-hierarchical, direct action tactics, but because more and more people are adopting those tactics of their own accord out of pragmatism and a lack of dogmatic pressure upon their own organising.
However, if we continue to take up these tactics, to push street action from the symbolic, by acting directly to disrupt capitalism, we can expect violence. We come into conflict with the police whenever we transgress the boundaries set by the state as an acceptable territory for politics. Whenever a march spills from the declared route, we know the TSG will be there to greet us. When we force a blockade of roads and goods depots, no brick need to be thrown or window smashed for the state to use physical violence to enforce its will. When we conduct wildcat strikes and solidarity pickets in defiance of anti-union laws, or occupy our workplaces, we know that we can expect a literal manifestation of the term “full force of the law”. Demonstrations aren’t (necessarily) effective when they’re violent- they’re violent when they’re effective, when they start to damage political and economic power. If we’re genuinely interested in this nebulous concept about “left unity” perhaps we should recognise this, and work to help each other deal with this violence appropriately, not start purging our ranks of kids who chuck stones at coppers, in a breathless attempt to woo the press.
The resurrection of the heavy-handed stewarding model is an attempt to stop this sort of action, to reinsert the organised left as the arbiter and mediator of the anger and drive of working-class people. The aim is not just to prevent conflict with the police (thereby supposedly damaging the cause in the eyes of the general public) but also to regain the political influence of our presence as a justifier for their own political position. Owen Jones raises interesting issues regarding this wider “public perception” issue in his blog when he posits a fictional working-class woman, worried about hitting the streets for fear of violence. Obviously, he ignores his own parties massive complicity in the general feeling of impotence in street politics, and in doing so ignores the fundamental lesson of it- that symbolic protest is simply a minor distraction to parliamentary politicians. Of course, the opposite to symbolic action isn’t spectacular violence, but direct action within the economic system, but by implementing “discipline” through a reinstitutionalised, shepherded march in an attempt to quell violence you end up preventing any action with genuinely radical potential. Such action destroys any chance of direct action, and, eventually, saps the enthusiasm of even the most committed. There is only a certain number of times you can walk 4 miles to hear Tony Benn describe a truly historic moment before you just don’t have the heart for it any more.
The fact that the conversation between these positions revolves around the question “Should we allow violence, and if not, how do we stop it?” reveals a certain attitude amongst the commentators, the planners, the stewards. We, the “rank and file” of the fight against austerity, lack a degree of political autonomy. Our strategies, tactics, actions have been tested against the programme, and, frankly, found wanting. We are needed, in our millions, to make up the numbers- not to make decisions about our life, or how we wish to fight this struggle. But the fact remains that we, working-class people, will continue to turn up and we will react directly, as we see fit, to actions of state and capital. We’re terribly sorry if that ruins your plans for us.
(Title recuperated from this nugget of joy, Photo:DSG)
So what’s your end game?
What’s yours Owen?
The overthrow of this government and its replacement by a Labour party with a socialist agenda, backed up by mobilized working-class communities.
I don’t understand what your plan is. Just keep turning up to demos to vent legitimate anger? How do you actually want to reorder society?
I don’t think it’s fair to say I ignore New Labour’s complicity in what’s happened because of Iraq. I marched, what, a dozen or so times against that war. I share the anger and frustration that we were ignored, and agree the A to B march is not enough on it’s own.
I have just given the tactical case against violence. The state wants us to do respond violently, partly because it will purge all but the most non militant from demos. Why should we read from a script written by the state?
Where do you see this Labour government with a socialist agenda as coming from? Are these dedicated socialists present in the ranks of the Labour leadership at the moment, or do we need to overthrow the Labour leadership as well as the tories? Once they get into power, what’s to stop their socialist principles becoming as disposable as Clegg’s progressive ones? You suggest “mobilized working-class communities” have a role to play, and I agree absolutely, but mobilized to do what? If you agree that “the A to B march is not enough”, then what is, and how should we respond to state violence directed against any attempt to break out of this framework?
Shit, accidentally hit return before I was finished there…
I don’t understand what your plan is. How do you actually want to overthrow the government and reorder the Labour Party?
“I have just given the tactical case against violence. The state wants us to do respond violently, partly because it will purge all but the most non militant from demos.” The evidence doesn’t appear to bear your case out, though. If what you say is true, the student movement should’ve shrunk massively after Millbank; instead, it took off. I’d look at it the other way around: the state wants us to use ineffective, liberal, predictable, and ultimately dull forms of protest, partly because their repeated use tends to purge all but the most committed from demos, as our shared experience in Stop the War demonstrates (no pun intended, honest guv). Effective, attention-grabbing, exciting and inspiring forms of protest may not necessarily be violent, although I’d tend to agree with DSG’s argument that they’re likely to provoke a violent response, but I don’t think we should deny the possibility that they can be.
Owen- thanks for filling out your position, wasn’t originally sure what you meant.
Essentially, our end game is the process of communisation and the abolition of wage labour through unmediated class struggle. However first and foremost we must show that the attacks on the working-class are not some inevitable, necessary cleaning up of bloated state expenditure but primarily a restructuring of society in order to consolidate neoliberal market reforms. This is an aim we should all share.
Our plan is not the continual venting of anger, but to recognise that the weapon of the proletariat is their productive labour, and that political action is limited to a narrow sphere which is specifically ordered to prevent the working class representing ourselves.
And this is where this argument arises. Any form of direct action which causes damage to the capitalist economy will be met with violence. It will be met with violence because that is one weapon the state uses to ensure the continuance and reproduction of capital.
We didn’t intend our point on Iraq as a slur– we wouldn’t insinuate you weren’t a committed activist against the war. But in your article about Mrs Wilson, you fail to address what we all know is the most common reaction when organising and campaigning for street demonstrations. “Well 2 million marched against Iraq and that didn’t change anything”. This is a much bigger impediment to getting people on the streets than a perception of violence, although we don’t doubt that violence puts people off. The greatest encouragement to getting people out would be for people to see that hitting the streets and engaging in direct action gets results. Even 2 million workers marching to Hyde Park, listening to Lindsey German, then getting the train home will not shake Parliament one iota.
Our argument is in fact the opposite of encouraging spectacular violence, but it’s an acknowledgment that once we start using direct action tactics, as laid out in earlier posts, we will encounter violence, that this is a situation we should plan for, and that we should not hesitate to support those who fight back. To repeatedly castigate those who do so as somehow troublemakers intent on violence, as supposedly leftist sites like Liberal Conspiracy do, plays into the hands of the state to exactly the same extent as the incoherent fetishisation of futile violence as a political tool.
Put simply, economic pressure is a far more effective tool than symbolic political action. If Labour can ignore 2 Million people marching symbolically against a blatantly unjust war, what makes you think the Conservatives will crumble under such pressure? The state doesn’t care one way or the other whether a march is violent or not, as long as business continues as usual.
Really interesting article, and i have a question
What exactly are the forms of economic pressure that can be exerted? The violence of liberal economies seems to stem largely from completely unregulated financial practices which even post crunch have been pitifully ‘reformed’. And these practices are so globally interconnected, abstract and speculative that i am wondering how one pin points a location which really exerts economic pressure.
In the article is mentioned blockades of roads or goods depots, and this does clearly exert an economic influence in the markets. But so much of what actually affects the functioning of the market (and hence people’s lives) seems to be dematerialized and based upon reaction, rumour and speculation within the ‘monopoly’ elites.
As far as i understand it direct economic action at the level of the physical disruption of the functioning of the market only tackles one point (the accessible one). How can direct action be mobilized against the more invisible or inaccessible forms which are so central to capitalist market economies?
Would the ideal economic pressure be to create a complete implosion of the financial market – like an escalated, apocalyptic version of 9/11 or ‘United smashes guitars’? A kind of more directed economic terrorism
What do you think?
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