Comrades, the politics of the streets is not always liberating

29 March 2011

I am struck by the confusion of left-liberal opinion over the violence at the anti-cuts
demonstration in London over the weekend. Poor Lucy Annson of UK Uncut on Newsnight last night was arguing gamely that she was an artist who just wanted to set up crèches and creative
happenings in the occupied shops of tax avoiders. But, unfortunately she fell back on the old “Sinn Fein defence” when asked whether she condemned Saturday’s violence. “I
reject the premise of the question,” she said, thus undermining her movement’s credibility in one ill-advised utterance.  

The likeable Laurie Penny also appeared on the programme to explain that the anarchists of Black Bloc (or is it Blac Block), were until recently Labour and Lib Dem supporters, though how she knows
is something of a mystery. She has ruffled some feathers with her New Statesman blog about the
events of the weekend by quoting Martin Luther King Jr’s: “A riot is the language of the unheard”. Writing on Labour List Anthony Painter was quick to point out that King was explaining why riots were the politics of the already-defeated.
“Living with the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation, some ghetto dwellers now and then strike out in spasms of violence and self-defeating
riots,” wrote Dr King in “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?” (the answer was community by the way).

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Charlie Beckett, the LSE media expert, also makes some important points about the coverage of the violence on his blog post entitled
“Don’t blame the media if your demo doesn’t work”. Charlie wrote:

“Today’s demonstration – both peaceful and violent  – was an admirable manifestation of people’s desire to make a political gesture. But I suspect that however
the media had reported it, it would not shift the balance of opinion. In fact it has probably put off a lot of people who are genuinely unhappy about current economic policy.”

The point is that demonstrations are not representations of the will of the people (at least half of whom appear to back the cuts if your believe the opinion polls). Marchers at large
demonstrations become so convinced by the impressive numbers and the thrill of the spectacle that they become convinced they are in the majority when they are not. How long was it after the giant
Iraq war demo that we voted Tony Blair back into power?

Like all good lefties I like a good demo and have marched for many a passionate lost cause in my time (I was one of 250,000 on the great CND march of 1981 at the age of 15.)

But I have learnt to be very wary of the politics of the streets. The ability to protest without being cut down by bullets remains a defining freedom of a liberal democracy. But riots are mark of
democratic failure. Violence happens when the argument breaks down.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Blog is good.

  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice view.

  • Foxgoose

    The vast majority of political activism involves people from the left of the political spectrum who simultaneously proclaim a commitment to �democracy�.

    They never seem to reflect that all forms of �activism� are simply organised attempts to subvert the democratic process � by giving �activists� a louder voice than non-activists.

    When the left campaigned for self-rule in colonial territories the worldwide cry was always �one man one vote!�, but most current political activism could best be described as �sod the voters � this is what we want!�.

    Protest groups, often generously financed by wealthy individuals seeking political influence, are quite happy to organise protests which involve disrupting other citizens’ freedom of movement, employment, business activity and even the democratic process of parliament itself on the questionable justification that their beliefs give them moral superiority over the rest of us.

    In the most benign case, where their view on a particular issue could be clearly and objectively seen as morally superior to the majority view � forcing it through outside the democratic process would still be a subversion of democracy.

    In the majority of cases, where there are complex ethical and practical arguments for and against a particular case, political activism is nothing less than organised bullying and the tolerance extended to it by certain sections of the media is bizarre indeed.

  • MArk2

    Riots are the mark of democratic failure? “What rot. Riots are usually the result of demagogues, secular or religious, fomenting civil disobedience or anarchy.”

    A misunderstanding I think. The point is that riots (generally – there are few absolutes in politics) are the result of the democratic failure of those doing the rioting. Saturday was instructive here – how many ordinary shoppers in Oxford Street does anyone think would have been converted to anarchistic ideas by their proximity to the thugs?

  • Victor Southern

    Riots are the mark of democratic failure? What rot. Riots are usually the result of demagogues, secular or religious, fomenting civil disobedience or anarchy.

    I have witnessed riots in Brussels, in Cape Town, in Paris, in Kuala Lumpur, in Nicosia that had nothing whatsoever to do with democracy. In each of those cases they were bodies of people who had another axe to grind, sometimes even about affairs that happened in other countries. When people riot in Indonesia over cartoons published in Denmark is that about democracy?

    The UK has universal democracy – let us realise that. A vital part of that democracy is the simple principle that those who are elected hav been legitimately elected. The fact that you don’t like them or that they have policies which impinge directly on you is no justification for violent protest. Such a protest is then clearly undemocratic – a protest aginst democracy.

  • Keith

    “But riots are mark of democratic failure. Violence happens when the argument breaks down.”

    I don’t understand this. Surely riots in a democracy are the mark of a violent minority that cannot get its way by democratic means? Violence tells us nothing abount the quality of argument on either side.

  • Sterling

    I actually been in the Gaza demo and all I saw was an extremely white minority inside a very large Kaffia wearing majority that none of which could really explain to me what is it they were demonstrating against.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    “But riots are mark of democratic failure. Violence happens when the argument breaks down”


    Violence happens when the authoritarian, statist left clashes with a legitimate body which refuses to accede to the statists demands.

    There was democratic failure in the run-up to the mean-minded hunting legislation, and this led to a protest by 400,000 people, out of which I think I’m right in saying that there were zero violent incidents.

    No, Martin, violent attempts to get their own way is specific to the authoritarian left, and it won’t matter how much you seek to promote democracy and argument – if their demands are not being satisfied, they’ll riot.

  • Patricia Shaw

    Erica, he’s golden wonder compared to the poison pen of Melanie Phillips.

    Erica is right though.

    The Gaza demonstration was awesome. A rainbow of age, colour, sex and political persuasion, drawn together by anger not only at Israels’ stunning barbarity, but by the injustice of – our – response.

    It was a global demonstration, in a global City, that reminded governments across the world how close the nation’s boiling point simmers beneath the veneer of reluctant tolerance.

    demonstration that showed

  • Erica Blair

    Now here’s Martin ‘Hasbara’ Bright being very critical of some low scale violence.

    I don’t remember him having a word of criticism as Israel bombed Gaza, killing and maiming hundreds of civilians.

    The stench of hypocrisy rises from every word he writes.

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