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)