On Violent Protest

When I took to review OLR #3, which was published following the Tories’ 2010 cuts in culture and education, I only had a faint idea about what circumstances led to the cuts, what devastating effects they could have, and what role student activism played in resisting them. When the protests started, I was only a lowly undergraduate, studying on another continent, with little experience in student activism, and with little knowledge about the UK, at least outside what transpired from BBC News in North America. My fading memories of the 2010 protests blur with countless other events – e.g., WTO protests, anti-war protests in 2003, Quebec student protests in 2011 – whose reporting in mainstream media conformed to the selfsame narrative: a ‘crisis’ occurs; suspicious protesters react using VIOLENT means; we need to end the VIOLENCE before we can tackle the ‘crisis’, which is probably just a glitch in an otherwise perfectly functional system; a momentary challenge to our blissful democracies; a misunderstanding – really, just a misunderstanding.

We will come back to the theme of VIOLENCE in a moment, since it was much discussed in OLR #3. For now, I just want to say that given my lack of personal involvement in the 2010 protests; given my faint, distorted memories of the events; and given my relative unfamiliarity with the UK student movement, the following review inevitably relies on textual and audiovisual evidence – the essays in OLR #3, of course, but also bits and pieces from news reports, images, videos, or personal accounts. This entails obvious disadvantages, not least of which is my inability to intelligently speak about strategic choices made in the UK student movement: their successes, their failures, their overall merits.  However, I can and will speak to other ‘theoretical’ concerns raised in OLR #3. This, I think, is what my situation allows me to write about: ‘theory’, which is neither some vague language play nor some idealized vision of human conduct, but a reflection about concerns whose anticipated practical effects are similar across a range of comparable cases – or, in line with the theme of this issue, comparable student movements. This review addresses two main concerns, namely the role of education in contemporary societies and the role of violence in student protests. Wait, did I say violence? I meant VIOLENCE. Never forget about it, even if you must forget about everything else.

Most readers will be familiar with the general circumstances leading to the publication of OLR #3. The Tories announce massive cuts in universities, public television, public arts funds, legal assistance funds, and so on. The students – and other affected groups – react to the announced cuts with successive demonstrations, marches, and occupations – most salient among which, of course, is the Millbank occupation. In this context, without exclusively focusing on discrete events, OLR #3 begins with a simple interrogation: why should students continue on protesting cuts? As several articles in the issue show, students should not – and mostly do not – protest out of strict self-interest in avoiding more tuition fees, or out of blind love for welfare state institutions, but because recent attacks on these institutions signify a deeper divergence about what we think our education should ideally be – and that these attacks will bring us further from, not closer to, this ideal.

What ideal, then? Certain themes recur in OLR #3: education should be ‘free’, ‘accessible’, ‘popular’. Our Tory reader (if any) will think that these terms ‘don’t mean anything’ and offer ‘no clear alternative’ to the cuts. This would be grossly unfair, of course, yet it is not entirely inaccurate. Depending on what historical, political, or even interpretive angle one takes, one can read different resonances into such terms as ‘freedom of access’ or ‘popularity’. The RadCam occupiers (pp. 6-7), for instance, sketch a hippie version of education, where to increase ‘freedom’, ‘access’ or ‘popularity’ would mean to attack, indistinctly, the economy of knowledge in our capitalist societies, the epistemic authority attributed to academic knowledge, the very walls guarding our universities, and our tyrannical system of accreditation. I call this ‘hippie’, not just because it seems like a juvenile attack on ‘everything we don’t like’ about universities, but also because it is reminiscent of the original hippies’ quasi-anarchic, quasi-utopian ethos – minus the loose morals, perhaps. In contrast, Tom Cutterham (pp. 8-10) and Peter Hill (pp. 20-23) imagine education in more socialist terms, working towards universal access by lowering financial barriers to education, while bringing in more interaction between students, professors, and the world – i.e., a better articulation between curricular and extra-curricular activities, a greater popularization of academic knowledge, a more encouraging environment for critical thinking, and so on.

The difference is sizeable. On one end, we have an education ideal whose goal is to destroy any form of authority – economic, political, epistemic – in favor of a constant flux of politicized discussion. On the other end, we have an ideal seeking to reform existing institutions in order to better coordinate academic and non-academic spheres. While diverging on several points (chief among which, in my opinion, is the epistemic value of academic knowledge), these ideals share a total distaste for the Tories’ views on education. I do not mean to suggest that all Tories have an identical view on education, which is certainly untrue in historical terms. However, in a surprisingly consistent way across industrialized nations, today’s conservative forces share a certain common view about what education involves: since students are destined to work in competitive labor markets, our national education system needs to ‘harmonize’ (what a beautiful word) training offers with current labor market demands. Universities, here, become akin to factories, where value-added student-commodities are produced; and education, in similar measure, morphs into an autonomous sector of our free market economy, inserted in a supply chain of labor, subject to consumer market dynamics.

Our Tory reader (if he is still with us) will perhaps protest such a simplistic characterization. He will say that it is unrealistic – and thankfully so. He will say that it is closer to a neoliberal version of conservatism than to good old-fashioned conservative values. The difference is worth noting, of course, yet there remains something eerily retrograde in dreaming about reinstating a ‘good old-fashioned’ education system, in its most stubbornly nationalist form (see Michael Gallagher’s article, pp. 43-44). Our Tory reader will finally say that our description objectivises individual student-subjects. We will then remark, in our defense, that the subjective language of ‘leadership’, ‘career-advancement’, ‘lifelong training’, and ‘research impact’ leads directly, in fine, to the conservative version of education sketched above: students as self-marketing commodities inserted in a universal labor market; academics as workers designed to create value-added research products. If the Left protested and continues to protest cuts, it is precisely because it massively rejects this model of education, objectively and subjectively, regardless of internal divergences about what actual alternatives are available. This point is plainly illustrated in OLR #3, and it raises further questions about how we can propose different models of education, or perhaps generate consensus about available alternatives.

We will come to these points later. VIOLENCE has waited long enough. We need to make a few general remarks here. To begin with, one must always resist any discussion of ‘VIOLENCE’ in general. Under this general form, it is used as a self-explanatory defusing tool for genuine political debate. After all, why would we still be talking when we need to reckon with VIOLENCE? Notice that the mere emphasis on the term ‘VIOLENCE’, which was thus far achieved via letter-capitalizing, is at best distracting from more pressing issues, and at worst discouraging for further reading[1]. Since it always occurs under given conditions, then, violence is most likely to be unevenly distributed when it is exercised by some group against another. We always need to understand, therefore, what structural power relations exist between groups affecting – or affected by – violence, since it is rarely (if ever!) shared equally in society.  

In OLR #3, talks about violence were centred on the Millbank occupation. To briefly recall the events, a bunch of anarchists trashed a building, and were later removed by a police intervention. This description will surely soothe our Tory reader. And sadly, it is also very close to mainstream media discourses on the events. Several articles in OLR #3 (see, in particular, Rowan Tomlinson & Jennifer Oliver, pp. 28-31; and Alexander Hacillo & Matthew Barber, pp. 32-34) denounced the unfairly tilted balance of mainstream coverage, which emphasized violent confrontation or destruction over peaceful protest. This not only misrepresented the student movement vis-à-vis public opinion: it also directed attention away from its core demands. The problem is not that the majority of the movement was ‘peaceful’ and that ‘a few bad apples’ ruined its peacefulness. The problem is that the movement’s demands became illegitimate – or even inexistent – in the public eye as soon as the movement was associated with any form of violence whatsoever. This situation raises two interlinked questions in OLR #3: 1) is violence an effective strategy in the UK student movement?; and 2) is it ethically acceptable?

I cannot give more insight into the former question than was given in OLR #3. It seems like violence is effective in attracting media attention, but that the kind of attention it attracts is undesirable in the long run (Tomlinson, p. 30). It seems like civil disobedience under certain forms (e.g. destruction of property) have been efficient strategies in the past, but we’re not sure how well they would work now, even if we fully commit to them (Hacillo & Barber, p. 33). Obviously, if people consider ‘violence’ as an effective strategy, it is assumed that ‘violence’ is ethically acceptable in some sense, or under certain circumstances. This is where it is important to understand what we mean by ‘violence’, since we are too prompt to condemn it when we use the term too broadly. Articles in OLR #3 make an important difference between violence against people and violence against property. While the former is understood to be entirely unacceptable (see Anthony Barnett, p. 14), the latter attracts more nuanced sentiments, with sometimes squarely favorable reactions (see Rowan Tomlinson, p. 29).

I do not intend to judge, here, what kind of violence is ethically commendable under what circumstances. I simply mean to emphasize that it is crucial to situate ‘violence’ within the specific circumstances in which it occurs, and it is even more crucial to understand what power dynamics sustain it. If we take the Millbank occupation, we cannot simply focus on occupiers as violent ‘anarchists’ (for they were not), all the while dismissing violence done against protesters. The most repulsing thing about Millbank – and the most violent, to my mind – is not the occupation itself, nor the impunity with which police forces rooted out protesters, but the general sense in which police actions were not really that violent, because they were somehow necessary. In fact, the amplification of protest violence in mainstream media was invariably done at the expense of any serious reporting about police violence, which is in itself a violent act, if not just biased reporting, insofar as it enforces and legitimates police violence against citizens exercising a right to protest. This point was not sufficiently raised in OLR #3, but I think it quite important. As Anthony Barnett argues (p. 14), one of the greatest victories from the 1960s was our inalienable right to protest. If we were to abdicate this right in the face of police violence – that is, if we disallow ‘violent’ protest tactics simply given imminent police sanctions – we are simultaneously giving license for increasingly exaggerate police repression while giving away our hold on various means to pressure an otherwise blind, deaf and insensitive government.   

I want to conclude with a brief note about the role of ‘theory’ in student movements. In his introduction to OLR #3, Cailean Gallagher (p. 4) talked about the importance of ‘creative praxis’ in the student movement. By this, he meant an active invention of practical alternatives to current education systems, current movement tactics, current economic forms, etc., instead of direct, knee-jerk reactions to the government’s proposals. The idea is an old one: social movements, including student movements, need not be caught in the moment, so to speak, since continual proximate reactions to the dominants’ actions will, in the end, advantage the dominants. Instead, it is suggested, we should think about long-term alternatives to further their implementation in practice. This, I think, is a worthy effort. Yet efforts of imagination must not supersede continual resistance to government action, since only in continual resistance can there remain a space for further change. Therefore, even when a movement does not have a clear idea about its ultimate goals, it remains vital for it to resist its proximate targets – reactionary policies; unfair media coverage; police intimidation. What OLR #3 accomplishes, in this sense, and what I hope to have accomplished in part, is to catalyze our theoretical understanding of what we need to target, and to galvanize resistance thereby. The next step, as intimated above, consists in convincing wider audiences to join in resistance and, eventually, to implement fairer models of education in practice. 

[1] Which is why we will stop capitalizing the term VIOLENCE from then on: our readership has been abused long enough – even you, Tory reader.

This article was initially published under the title “Thoughts on the Oxford Left Review #3” in 2013 by the Oxford Left Review, vol. 9, pp. 29-32