By Jon Gaynor, and published in issue 12 for Shift
Peaceful and violent protests
Well, we should have seen it coming. The police, media and protest organisers were talking up the prospect of “violent troublemakers” “hijacking” the TUC march for weeks in advance of March the 26th, and a few smashed windows and paint bombs later, they showed us – in the words on the Daily Telegraph – “Britain’s face of hatred” in all its spectacular glory.
The distinction between “legitimate”, “peaceful” protest on the one hand, and on the other the “violence” of property destruction was used and abused in the aftermath of the demonstration, with Teresa May describing “black shirted thugs” rampaging through the West End, championing the arrest of 146 protesters and outlining further curbs to the right to protest. While the number of arrests was consistently quoted in the media within the context of “violence”, the overwhelming majority (138) of them came from the mass arrest of the peaceful occupants of Fortnum and Mason’s. In fact, only three people were charged with criminal damage, and two with assaulting police officers.
While the mainstream media and police had already set up their distinction between “peaceful” and “violent” protesters well in advance of the day, and made maximum use of it afterwards, this division began to be mirrored in radical circles in the distinction between the peaceful disorder of UK Uncut and the “violence” of the window-breakers. Some UK Uncutters appeared to object at being lumped in with the black bloc, and sought to distance themselves from its actions. Describing their occupation of Fortnum and Mason’s in an article for The Guardian the following day, Alex Pinkerman pointed out that “Balloons and beachballs were the only things being thrown in the air. A basket of chocolates was accidentally knocked over so we picked them up.”
While the binary distinction between “peaceful protesters” and “hooligans” is obviously questionable, there is some mileage in comparing the actions of UK Uncut and the black bloc. Mainly, this is because of the nature of the targets. Some of those of the bloc’s were simply posh shops and other ostentatious displays of wealth, Topshop was smashed because of the Arcadia group’s tax dodging, and the Ritz Hotel is owned by the Barclay brothers, who live offshore their own Island, Brecqhou. Fortnum and Masons, which was occupied by UK Uncut, is owned by Wittington Investments and has its own elaborate tax-dodging schemes.
In this article, we want to look at some of the issues surrounding both forms of protests, and make some suggestions for the direction of the anti-cuts movement.
The promise and limitations of UK Uncut
The UK has seen a wave of high-street demonstrations under the banner of the UK Uncut campaign, many of which have been organised locally following call outs distributed through the internet. The protests have seen a number of stores associated with Tax-Dodging picketed, occupied and flyered in cities and towns up and down the country.
The targets of the campaign have been pretty specific. The most high-profile company to be taken on has been the UK-based telecoms giant Vodafone, which is the most profitable mobile phone operator in the world. Last year veteran investigative magazine Private Eye broke a story on Vodafone’s successful tax-dodging, which had involved setting up a subsidiary company in Luxembourg purely to route profits from the company’s acquisition of Mannesman through a country with a more agreeable tax regime. After a lengthy legal battle, which apparently was going HMRC’s way, the taxman agreed to let Vodafone pay a tax bill of £1.2 billion, rather than the full £6 billion in estimated tax. Vodafone have since dismissed the £6 billion figure as a “urban myth”, despite the fact their accountants projected for it in their own bookkeeping. Understandably, the story produced a groundswell of anger, of which these demonstrations are a product.
Target number two is head of the Arcadia group empire – and author of the Efficiency Review advising the government on how to shape its cuts – Sir Philip Green. Green, who made his fortune on the back of workers in South Asia working 12 hour shifts for poverty wages, took home a paycheque unprecedented in UK history when he paid himself £1.2 billion in 2005. This was paid to his wife, living in the tax-haven of Monaco, so as to avoid tax.
The demonstrations have garnered a good deal of attention from the authorities and the media, both of whom have launched investigations into the “ringleaders” of the protests. On their own, the demos have caused a fair bit of disruption, and brought to light the fact that the same government seeking to impose historic cuts in the standard of living in the UK is also allowing its friends in business to avoid fulfilling their tax obligations, if nothing else shattering the great lie that “we’re all in this together”.
There are evidently positive aspects to the protests, but some of their limitations are immediately striking. Fundamentally, the protests don’t push beyond the logic of social democracy, in fact, playing devil’s advocate one could go further and argue they are compatible with a right-wing populist analysis of the crisis: tax-avoiding multinational companies are sucking money from the country, unlike the hard done-by ‘British taxpayer’, forming another fundamentally alien parasite on the country’s back – add it the list with the EU, immigrants, etc…
Furthermore, the basic logic of the callouts is the need to uphold the rule of law – these companies have a legal obligation to pay their taxes, which they shirk. This much is stated up front by UK Uncut, who, styling themselves as “big society revenue and customs”, state that “if they won’t chase them, we will”. Essentially, the argument as it stands is for the state to live up to its promise and to actually deliver on the idealised face of its material function. The role of the state in capitalism is to underwrite the functioning of the capitalist market. The state is a prerequisite of capitalism in that the ability to guarantee private property rights and therefore the ability to buy and sell requires a legal and judicial system and repressive state body there to make those rights possible. What makes any property yours or mine, but much more importantly what makes the property of the capitalist his, is ultimately the ability of the state to adjudicate and guarantee that he can dispose of his accumulated wealth as he pleases. In practice this means the need to mediate parties and maintain the social fabric in the face of potential unrest – translated into bourgeois ideology in its current, successful iteration as an even-handed regime of “fairness” where we are all taxed, prosecuted, and end up on the receiving end of cuts fairly. Witness every political party attempting to outdo one another by positing the “fairness” of their plans for the economy and attacks on working class living standards in the UK. The state is a subject of criticism because it fails to fulfil its promised role correctly, not because this promised role, along with the toleration of tax avoidance and the regime of austerity all step from its role as a key actor in the continued existence of capitalism.
However, saying this is not to dismiss these protests out of hand or deny they have positive aspects that can be built on, or that there is no space for growth and dialogue. To remain aloof to nascent movements and all the inevitable contradictions real people in the real world bring with them as they become politically engaged is to condemn ourselves to irrelevance.
One positive feature of the demonstrations is the fact that protesters in many cases are willing to create disruption as a tactic. Effective direct action, be it in the form of strike action, demonstrations or occupations, is effective by virtue of its ability to disrupt the normal functioning of society. In a society entirely based on the accumulation of capital, this means the disruption of the economy. Occupations of high-street stores have the capacity to inhibit buying and selling and affect directly the normal working of parts of the economy. If we are to effectively resist these cuts, we will have to recognise that ultimately symbolic protests and petitioning representatives to manage capitalism differently isn’t going to cut it. The rowdier of the UK Uncut protests have involved high-street linchpins like Topshop being effectively shut down and unable to trade. Such disruption needs to take the form of mass action, and links need to be built with shop workers – the vanguardist paradigm of a few activists on an “action” supergluing themselves to things is no basis for a mass movement, and promisingly many UK Uncut activists recognise this fact.
Another positive aspect of the protests – with qualification – is the fact that the line spun by the government, opposition and media on the ultimate inevitability of the cuts agenda is being rejected. Clearly, the “there is no alternative”, “Britain is bankrupt” line on cuts to public services isn’t washing with people, and with good reason – it’s hardly a convincing argument when HMRC is haemorrhaging billions in unpaid tax. This rejection is obviously positive. However, this needs to be qualified. Ultimately, if those on the receiving end of these attacks feel the need to balance the state’s books on capital’s behalf by offering alternate solutions to Britain’s deficit there is a problem. Firstly, because we can question the degree to which public debt is a “problem” for capital anyway, as opposed to an integral part of the functioning of states in today’s world which is neither inherently “good” or “bad”.1 Secondly, the overall subordination of everyday life and our needs to those of the economy needs to be questioned. Many attacks on tax-avoidance take the desirability of a healthy national economy as a given, with tax-dodging companies being seen as at least in part to blame for capitalism’s present difficulties.
Of course, nascent movements are going to be full of contradictions. People don’t develop a perfect analysis (if such a thing exists) overnight, and any mass movement against the cuts that may appear is going to be full of all kinds of illusions in social democracy, the labour party, the petitioning of our representatives, the rule of law and order and so on. There remains the possibility of escalation and radicalisation, that participants in such campaigns can move beyond the initial limitations they have. There are a number of positives to such protests which can be built on without tempering constructive criticism.
There are criticisms to be made of black bloc-type actions too, but first it is necessary to question some of the common assertions about these kinds of protests, which inform some of the most common criticisms. One obvious point to make is that the policing of protests, even the “fluffiest” of peaceful demonstrations makes any situation implicitly violent. The role of the police is to exercise the state’s monopoly on violence; under capitalism this means providing the underpinning of commodity exchange and capital accumulation by guaranteeing property rights and containing any social unrest that could pose a threat to capital. In the context of a demonstration, the police’s presence represents ultimately the threat of state violence.
Another obvious point is that property destruction is not violence – violence is the harming of living things, breaking a window is damaging an inanimate object which can be replaced by another. By this reasoning, the overwhelming majority of the black bloc’s actions were nonviolent.
However, there are criticisms to be made of this kind of spectacular protest. One is practical – the risks involved as far as prosecution goes compared to the outcomes are significant. Another is that the black bloc strategy can lend itself to a kind of protest tourism and the separation of political action from our daily lives. There are many activists for whom politics is something they do at the weekends, “actions” unrelated to day-to-day organising and agitation in communities and workplaces, the front line of our exploitation by capital. There isn’t much evidence that this was the case in London, but nonetheless it is a tendency associated with these kinds of actions that must be borne in mind.
Still, the “disorder” was much more captivating for many of the marches participants than both the official rally and its unofficial rivals, such as that organised by the National Shop Steward’s Network, which was a washout. Many demonstrators, admittedly overwhelmingly younger than the majority of the TUC marches participants, were pulled into the unofficial splinter marches and direct action which the black bloc were part of. The author even saw a fair few afternoon drinkers out for a pint before the football getting involved. So much for the elitism of these actions, as was roundly asserted on the internet in the following days.
Moving forward – dialogue, direct action, and mass action
March 26th was inspiring, both in the numbers who turned out to show their opposition to austerity and the willingness of many to break out of the straitjacket of police-“facilitated” protest. But mass demonstrations like it are not going to beat the cuts.
Ultimately, being right isn’t what matters. We can turn out in the hundreds of thousands to make the point that the deficit is a fraction of what it was for decades after the war, that the cuts aren’t necessary, that they are opportunistic, that they are laying the bill for the financial crisis at the feet of those who didn’t cause it, that the government could raise funds by cracking down on tax evasion, by selling the banks it owns, by returning corporate tax levels to somewhere near what they were for most of the postwar period, etc, etc. We’re right, but that isn’t what matters.
What matters is the balance of power between capital on the one side and those it exploits on the others – all those who have to work for a living, will have to work for a living (students) or those who must scrape by on the dole. The government feels confident enough that they won’t face significant resistance that they’re even cutting the pay of the police and prison guards.
So how do we go about building a movement against austerity that can win?
First, by resisting attempts to divide and rule. We have to reject the narrative of “peaceful” protests being hijacked by “extremists”, of property destruction as being inherently “violent”, or of UK Uncut being the legitimate face of direct action as opposed to hooded youths.
Secondly, by taking what is effective from the protests which have emerged so far. Occupying a shop en masse and denying it a day’s trading is an effective way of causing economic disruption for those who are not in a position to go on strike or take other workplace action. This logic can be expanded to carrying out economic blockades, which have been used with success in the past 20 years as part of protest movements in South America and France. Direct action is only meaningful when it is mass action which has an economic impact – it is alienating and counterproductive when it becomes the preserve of activists “doing actions” for their own sake.
Thirdly, by not fetishing “non-violence” – either as unthinking reverence for property even when it belongs to a company like Fortnum and Mason’s, or refusing to defend ourselves in the face of police violence. Peaceful protesters chanted “this is not a riot” and held up their hands as they were brutally kettled and dispersed during the G20 demonstrations in 2009 – it didn’t stop them being beaten by the police.
Jon Gaynor is a member of the Anarchist Federation