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Notes on the violent minority

December 16, 2010

The Millbank riot and some of the subsequent student protests have been widely condemned in the media as the actions of a ‘violent minority’. NUS president Aaron Porter infamously described the riot as ‘despicable’. Property destruction, we were told, undermined the message of the NUS’ peaceful protest. This was the behaviour of ‘anarchists’, outsiders hijacking what would otherwise be respectable political protest in a liberal democracy. But liberals would do well to reflect on their own glass house before casting such rhetorical stones.

Liberalism: doctrine of the violent minority

Liberalism in fact is nothing but the ideology of minority violence par excellence. Margaret Thatcher’s favourite thinker, Adam Smith, was refreshingly frank about this back in the 18th century:

“Laws and government may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.” (source)

The father of liberalism, John Locke, was equally candid: private property was prior to government, and government existed to protect private property. Consequently, property is freedom, and only proprietors should have political representation in the state. For liberalism legitimate political violence is that of the state, exercised to defend the privilege of the propertied minority (Locke’s ‘right to revolt’ only applied should a government fail to do this). Despite the bitter struggles to extend the franchise beyond the male propertied elite, it still does this remarkably well. The Liberal Democrats’ pre-meditated abandonment of their pledge on tuition fees is only the latest example. Much like Aaron Porter, subsequent self-serving backtracking notwithstanding, they stand at odds with those they purport to represent.

This has led many to say they’re not doing their job. Our representatives are meant to represent us, and they’re not doing an adequate job. This completely misunderstands the nature of representative politics. The string of ‘bad apples’ that have headed the NUS; warmonger Jack Straw, racist liar Phil Woolas, despicable Aaron Porter; the undeniable Machiavellianism of politicians who say whatever it takes to get elected then go back on their word once in office… These are not exceptions but the rule. Representation produces so many bad apples because it is rotten to the roots. It was designed to empower the propertied class and it does so like clockwork. The problem is not that ‘our representatives’ aren’t doing their job but that they exist.

Chomsky meets Gramsci

Once elevated to positions of power, with the salaries, prestige and privileges to match, representatives no longer share our interests. Careerist NUS bureaucrats and lying politicians are a symptom not a cause, the problem is the inherent divergence of interests between representatives and the represented, which forever frustrates attempts to replace ‘bad’ representatives with ‘good’ ones, who go bad in turn. Representation means elected officials are empowered to speak for and take decisions on behalf of those who elected them, as opposed to simply carrying out the will of the electors (as with mandated delegates). Guy Debord had the Leninist dictatorships in mind when he wrote that “the representation of the working class radically opposes itself to the working class” (source), but the point generalises to representation itself. So if the system’s rotten, how does it survive?

Clearly, it does not do so by brute force alone. Unlike the various flavours of tyrannical regime, liberal democracy requires a large degree of consent, without which the rule of the propertied can only be enforced by brute force – too much of which reduces liberal democracy to straightforward tyranny. This consent is not a natural phenomenon, but is constantly being manufactured. The role of the free press here is central – as the headlines following the Millbank riot would suggest.

Noam Chomsky’s famous ‘propaganda model’ explains how this works, without the direct political censorship of dictatorial regimes nor resort to conspiracy. Rather the media consist of businesses that aim to make a profit by selling a product to a customer. However the product is not neutral information sold to readers – the media make most of their money by selling their audience’s attention to advertisers, which in turn means that information is subjected to different pressures and filters. The information reported is shaped by business interests and corporate hierarchies : at the top sit corporate and state interests, and like in any hierarchy, promotion is achieved by pleasing your superiors. Writing cutting exposes of said corporate and state interests is a sure-fire way to abort a promising career. The safer path is to internalise the expected line and repeat it like Pavlov’s dog.

Altogether now: ‘the violence was despicable’, ‘anarchist infiltrators’, ‘outside agitators’, ‘ruining it for the majority’… We even see this working with the unpaid careerists around the student press. In York, the student paper has even been identifying students who took part in the occupation of Millbank. The aspiring Pavlovian editors are no doubt eager to bolster their CVs with examples that they’ve learned the correct script. In a year or two, they’ll likely be on the dole queue with the rest of us, if they aren’t copying and pasting press releases for some local paper somewhere. But hey, maybe if they grass up enough students they’ll get a foot on the propaganda ladder, manufacturing consent.

Hegemony and repression

The consent thus manufactured is what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called hegemony, where the ideas of the ruling class – the propertied – are accepted by the majority. Thus liberalism is the default ideology of capitalism. Pretty much all of us start off as liberals, and only change our ideas when certain facts hit us in the face. Sometimes those facts are batons.

Since liberal democracy rules by hegemony and not brute force alone, using too much repression undermines itself. While liberal regimes have historically turned into illiberal ones when faced with internal unrest (we need only think of the Weimar Republic), in general hegemonic rule is far more stable, easier to maintain and more conducive to capitalist economics than plain old tyranny. Thus the violence of liberal democratic states can be self-defeating. An example is the occupations here at Sussex uni earlier this year.

When students occupied management offices in Sussex House in March, management fabricated a hostage situation and called in riot police (clearly they knew perjury charges wouldn’t be brought against the defenders of property). The subsequent police violence hastened the end of the occupation, but created a massive backlash on campus. The next week, hundreds of students occupied the Arts A2 lecture theatre in direct defiance of a High Court injunction.

The first time, no major laws were broken and the police attacked with violence not seen on campus for some time (the videos are still on YouTube). The second time, over a thousand students and staff openly broke the law with impunity. No doubt the state had the violent capacity to evict the occupation. But it felt unable to use it for fear of losing legitimacy and weakening their hegemony.

Direct action, not representation

So direct action like occupations or the Millbank riot opens up a counter-hegemonic space that not only challenges the state but exploits a chink in its armour. And few who take part in such actions are unchanged by the experience. Once you’ve broken a window or punched a cop, or even simply left the route of the sanctioned A-B march against the orders of cops or stewards, liberal democratic hegemony never quite has the same hold over you. Once you’ve read the newspapers take on events you experienced first hand, you can never quite take them at face value again.

Direct Action is a notion of such clarity, of such self-evident transparency, that merely to speak the words defines and explains them. It means that the working class, in constant rebellion against the existing state of affairs, expects nothing from outside people, powers or forces, but rather creates its own conditions of struggle and looks to itself for its means of action.” – Émile Pouget

Direct action is fundamentally opposed to the politics of representation. It means the dispossessed – i.e. those of us who don’t own enough property to make a living – taking action for themselves independently of, and invariably against those who claim to represent them. It can mean strikes, occupations, riots, blockades. It is strongest when it is done on a mass scale, involving people who’ve never taken such action before.

Representatives want to channel anger into safe outlets which don’t challenge existing power structures – of which they are a part. They oppose direct action so vehemently, so reflexively precisely because it renders them superfluous. If they had it their way, we’d all peacefully march through London, chant some slogans, then go home. A million marchers didn’t stop the war. The difference between representative politics and direct action is the difference between saying ‘Not in my name’ and ‘No fucking way’, between feeling like you’re doing something and fighting to win.

With the vicious, and yes, violent austerity programme, the stakes are simply too high for all of us to do anything else: the future they have written for us is call centres and SSRIs. The Millbank riot has to be just the beginning. It has to set the tone. In 1912, the Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst wrote:

“There is something that governments care for more than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy…. Those of you who can break windows—break them.”

We need not necessarily break windows, but we will need to break some laws. In doing so, we’ll no doubt meet the uniformed violent minority of liberalism, defending the interests of the propertied, of capital, of austerity. No riot, no matter how spectacular will reverse the austerity programme alone. But widespread direct action in our campuses, towns and workplaces just might. In 2006, French students reversed the CPE law which attacked the rights of young workers after weeks of rolling direct action, including the use of economic blockades of strategic targets – train stations, department stores, major junctions… It can be done, and as friends new and old, lovers and strangers we can do it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Daisy permalink
    December 17, 2010 9:11 am

    It’s interesting. I personally feel that non-violent civil resistance is one of the most effective forms of protest. Don’t get me wrong… by that I don’t mean well behaved civilians walking along the well planned routes decided by the police and being watched over by the still plotting and scheming state as they march past. That’s all accommodated for; it’s budgeted for. It is not a counter protest, it’s just an expected and contained retaliation to the changes and unfair laws imposed, and, thus, these types of planned, peaceful protest are accordingly controlled. These forms of demonstration are non-argumentative and they are submissive, thus, they fall directly into the hands of the state, with the only impact being a small dent in the policing budget. I feel that such types of peaceful protest over such vital issues give further consensus to the distorted understanding of ‘democracy’ that is widespread in the UK.

    On the other hand, however, civil resistance, or non-violent resistance, against the commands of a government has been seen to have huge effect when practised correctly. It takes huge effort, self restraint, bravery and organisation, but as far as I can tell it more most importantly seems to require an understanding of human behaviour, psychology and the heart. Objectivity and compassion are essential is achieving success through protest.

    Having been present at demonstrations that have ended violently, I have witnessed that the aggression presented by protesters or civilians caught up is often due to kettling, or protesters reacting aggressively to the frustration of not being able to manoeuvre as they had intended or would like to, ie. going home when the protests start to turn bad, or when the police trun up with riot gear on and start insulting (…that is when I know it’s about to turn bad). I’ve felt such frustration and anger when faced with a snarling, ignorant police officer, calling me names, swearing at me while I’ve stood, calmly and politely asking to leave the area before the violence kicks off. I’m not interested in fighting police. I’m not interested in getting pulverised when caught between them and the very brave, but very ignorant and reactionary protesters who may want to fight. Thugs meeting thugs… It’s time for me to duck out.

    The students and young people at these protests, I personally feel, have every right to fight if they so wish. The government does what it likes and the police tend to do as they like – it is deeply unjust to proclaim that these young people, who are having what they know of their futures torn up and trampled on, are wrong to resist that. However, even though it may be an animalistic and instinctive right of any human being to fight back and defend through violence, further study and thought about how to stand against the government may provide an alternative, and most probably optimal, outcome.

    Through reacting violently, this again falls into the hands of the state. There may be feelings of achievement; the battle is easily justified by the wrongs that the defendants, or civilians, face. However, in this particular political climate, much of the support from working class average Joe or Jane, middle class individuals who reads the news, upper class artisans and entrepreneurs and so many other other people who support the fight to keep tuition fees low and provide a fair higher education, is lost or retracted. The public face of this very fair call for justice has become angry, shouting and covered in blood. That is a ‘bad look’, and a lot of this has got to do with how things look to other people, as a lot of civilians do not leave the comfort of their homes and instead view and review the situation through the media. ‘Look’ and portrayal is key. Images of violence and aggression from protesters caught up in police kettles are so easily warped and spun AND THAT IS WHY THEY DO IT.

    Everyone who wishes to protest publicly or resist that actions of the government should read about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and satyagraha. Before I researched this I had no idea about the reality of civil resistance; how brave one must be to walk, not fight, into a line of armed officers to exercise their right to protest. There are examples where lines of civilians have been organised to stand by just to pull harmed people out to the side and tend to serious head injuries and other wounds. People who protest in this way are not pushovers. It is not the same as the allocated, cordoned protest paths we have seen organised for anti-war marches or so on. It is also not the bustling, chaotic scenes we have witnessed at the G20 protests, or the poll tax riots. It is somewhere in between. The blood of the riots is there, but the chaos of the demonstrators is not.

    If, or when, police smack and beat a man or woman who calmly wishes to walk into an area they wish to walk into, a police state is clearly identified. When reports of this come up in the media amongst other reports of violence at a protest, the calm civilian is damned as the actions by the police are’justified’ and the rights that are being lost and abused are lost in a sea of negative, exaggerated and spun coverage: “Police battling to hold back protesters”… “A police officer lies on the road, apparently out cold after clashing with protester”… “Protesters tried to use a barrier to smash through the police cordon”… All these excerpts from reports following the student fee protests seem, to me, to condemn the actions of the police state as they create a scenario where ‘adequate’ measures would need to be taken to protect person and property.

    The educated and objective protester must consider the position of the media highly. If one actually wishes to see genuine change from the government protest must not be about personal gain and release of anger. To achieve change and to reveal the state as it really is, scrupulous measure must be taken to ensure protest is organised and with direction and aims. What do the protesters wish to achieve? How will they reveal the truth? How are they going to challenge to media portrayal? What does kettling do to ones feelings? How can I stay calm?

    The greatest key is to understand that they have a heart.
    Do not reinforce their self trickery; violence towards them reinforces that what they are doing is just and right!
    By smacking you when you are calm, it hurts them.
    If an entire crowd is calm but calculated and organised, the police aims will be revealed.

    In the end it will eat itself from the inside out.

    Peace x

  2. Daisy permalink
    December 17, 2010 9:14 am

    Blunder! I meant:
    ‘All these excerpts from reports following the student fee protests seem, to me, to CONDONE the actions of the police state as they create a scenario where ‘adequate’ measures would need to be taken to protect person and property.’

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