Vince Cable, 24th January 2011:
For the past eight months, we have been dealing with the public finances as we needed to do to restore business confidence.
Quarterly National Accounts (ONS), 29th March 2011:
Real household spending and fixed investment growth both fell in quarter four, which may reflect weakness in business and consumer confidence.
Later on, Paul will be holding forth, with Hannah Arendt – on why “‘peaceful’ protestors who are also ‘angry’ at the cuts may not always compartmentalise their peacefulness and anger as they are instructed.”
Before he does that, I would like to address violence myself, in the context of Saturday’s protest.
Firstly some general context:
- Conservative estimates suggest 300,000 people joined the march
- Mainstream media pundits, trade union leaders, Ed Miliband and the police have all gone on public saying the day was overwhelmingly peaceful, though a break-off group in the evening targeted such hot-spots as Vodafone, Boots and notably Fortnum and Masons
- £300,000 in damage by protesters has been quoted by the Daily Mirror
- Another important backdrop for the violence was Vince Cable telling the “BBC that the government was listening to the trade unions but would not change its strategy because of yesterday’s march.”
What I will say is not new: when we’re told that those young people on Oxford Street and elsewhere have ruined a peaceful protest, we should remember the cuts to
- NHS services
- housing projects
- domestic violence projects
- adult education
- initiatives for young people from deprived areas
- the police force
- transport services
- disability services
- fire and rescue teams
- play areas
When journalists point to the violent hardcore, thugs, and ruiners of a peaceful day, we must remember to put their violence, not in the context of the march as a whole – but in the context of a government which is chopping at the funding streams of services many people rely on in their everyday lives, while bending over backwards to give concessions to the rich in the name of economic growth.
Important to the debate of violence is the work of Slavoj Žižek in his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. Žižek’s task is to distinguish subjective from objective violence. The former is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the news or on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict”. The latter violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the symbolic (bound in language and its forms, reminiscent of the point made by Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim that to speak or write about Hitler gave him a posthumous life) or the systemic (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.
In this context, Vince Cable announcing on telly that the government will listen to the Trade Union movement but will do nothing, which means the government will go ahead with its viscious attack on public services, is the real violent act – because of its consequences on people’s lives and the poverty that will result.
In short, the violence on the streets of London on Saturday is nothing in comparison (see Martin Rowson’s Sunday illustration for another view).
Why doesn’t the government mind peaceful protest? Because they can ignore it.
In these times the violence done by the government deserves a name. I suggest peaceful violence. This is so because they do it from a desk; they aren’t throwing bricks themselves, or making people suffer using their own hands, but they are setting the conditions for people’s misery. It’s not perceptibly obvious, as Žižek might suggest, but nonetheless the government are preparing to unleash pain and they’ve admitted that peaceful protest will not stop them. Who can blame people for taking to civil unrest.
There’s a big march in London tomorrow. You may have heard about it.
How big will it be? Some people are estimating 100,000. Some say 300,000. Some reckon it might be more than a million.
But the more relevant question is whether it matters how big it is?
No, say the pessimists. A million marched in 2003. The war still happened. Yes, say the optimists. It’s different this time.
I tend cautiously to the latter view. I, and many others, are marching for the first time in a while because there has been a surge in collective responsibility, as well as a genuine interest in what it will be like.
In addition, the TUC and False Economy, amongst others, have done a very good job organising and advertising public transport: 600 (known) coaches with 50 people on each, plus 10 special trains means that we’re already talking 30,000 from the regions, and the knowledge that this is happening will have spurred on many more to make their own arrangements to get down. Even many local Labour parties have got their act together.
But the fact that it might be big doesn’t make it matter more in itself. It will only really matter if it really changes, or starts to change the rules about what marches mean.
As Mark Ferguson has noted, marches generally just make marchers feel better (though I suggest the exeception is direct counter marches), and the size is an irrelevance.
But that’s in Britain. In France, size matters because there is an acceptance on both sides of the marching argument that it does. Take, for example, this mainstream media reporting of demonstrations in France about the increase in the retirement age being imposed by the Sarkozy regime:
Quelque 395.000 personnes ont manifesté en France pour la défense des retraites, dont 22.000 à Paris, selon le ministère de l’Intérieur, tandis que la CGT a fait état d’un million de manifestants…..
Ces taux sont moins importants que ceux de la journée d’action du 23 mars, date de la dernière journée de mobilisation, note le ministère dans son communiqué. La mobilisation avait été de 18,9% dans la Fonction publique d’Etat, 11,1% dans la Fonction publique territoriale, et 7,9% dans la Fonction publique hospitalière.
In France, both unions and the Interior Ministry measure the ‘strength of feeling’ by counting (and contesting) the number of demonstrators and associated strikers.
This reflects the validity, rooted deeply in French political tradition, of the demonstration as proxy (even potent symbol) for what may come next. It remains enough to have the ruling Parisian classes discussing the potential for working class foment over a soirée au 15ème, and to ensure that the appropriate ‘coups de téléphone’ are made the next morning.
The question is whether we can impose that validity in Britain, whether we can force the government to accept that size matters, especially by effective use of comparison with demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere; whatever the disimmilarities, we should not let the media forget about Cameron touring Tahrir Square in a cynical attempt at reflected glory in the achievement of the Egyptian people.
I don’t know whether we can change what marches mean in the UK, especially for a first big march; as in France, it may be the trend in numbers which matters more than absolutes.
But at the very least we should be aware of this as an objective, and as part of the strategy for the day we should be ensuring that we do get a statistically reliable picture of the numbers on the march so that the inevitable understimates emerging from the police can be properly countered.
(This might be done most easily by a number of people simply recording the march as it goes past, counting the numbers moving through the frame in a minute, and then mutiplying this by the number of minutes taken for the start and end of the march (there will be some fuzziness at the end), again properly recorded and timed.)
Sozaboy: A novel in rotten English is a novel by Ken Saro Wiwa who was a Nigerian Human Rights activist. Of the many things he highlighted in his political life, according to Lucy Harrold writing for felix Online, one important point was to show the “paradox that somehow the more resources a country has the poorer it is.” He argued that multinationals must share the wealth made from resources with the people who live, and survive, on that land, especially on the Niger Delta, often referred to as the “oil rivers”.
On November 10, 1995, Wiwa was hanged by Nigerian authorities, accused of inciting riots and separatism, though this was false. Instead the authorities were disposing of a political enemy that had truth on his side. One year after his death, Wiwa’s family brought lawsuits against Royal Dutch Shell, accusing the company of being involved in his death. Shell settled out of court, explaining their decision as the desire to “move on” thereby raising suspicions that they had a good deal to hide.
His book, narrated by a young man by the name Mene, deals with The Nigerian Civil War from July 6 1967 – January 13 1970. The focus on Mene (facilitated by a first-person narrative style) allows us a very personal insight into the fear and pointlessness attached to war, and the heavy heart he suffers for his family, including his Mother who pleads with him not to become a soldier during the beginning of the tale, fearing the risky consequences.
The Nigerian Civil War has a very long, complex history. To be brief, it was a conflict caused by the secession of south-eastern provinces, the so-called republic of Biafra. Nigeria as it is known today has always been known for its differing tribes and cultures, but it was in the interest of old colonial masters to try and keep the country as one to make it easier for controlling vital resources. After 1914 the North and the South were amalgamated, though the only commonality between the two was the name of the country in which they found themselves; unity and cohesion had been further set on the backfoot and division, hatred and rivalry grew stronger.
The resistance to keep dominance over certain sections of Nigeria, distinct from the rest of the Federation, soon began, leading to a struggle that eventually entered into coup, shortly followed by a bitter and bloody civil war.
Sozaboy documents the empowerment of local self-proclaimed leaders in the aftermath of the European colonialisation attempt – namely in Chief Birabee. In the effort to round up troops, leaders such as Birabee would go about recruiting whoever was young and close by. Mene, at this point an apprentice driver, was one such candidate. Torn between talk of war as being a duty by locals in the African Upwine bar (the tall man, who eventually is known as Manmuswak – translated literally from Rotten English as “Man must live (eat) by whatever means.”), by his friends and then by Agnes, the women he was to fall in love with and marry, as well as the anti-war stance by his Mother, he eventually joins up to show everyone that he is a real man, a real sozaboy.
the destructive after-effects of botched colonialism runs its course. Tribal identity crises, senseless wars over the control of resources, the pollution or effacement of cultural customs and languages lost through the years of externally imposing forces, all of these comprise only a fraction of the damage.
Out of this damage came confusion about the war itself, which just about sums up the corruptness of the local leaders, extending their remit as pseudo-colonisers. According to Kulutempa at The Hyena’s Belly blog, Mene’s effort in the war meant he could be “fighting against a group of people of whom, only a few hours earlier, were a part of his own team.”
To make matters worse for sozaboy, Manmuswak, who he heard in the bar, at one point in the novel saves his life shortly after he escaped a bombing campaign which killed his friend Bullet, then at another, after being arrested by Chief Birabee – who now considers Mene an enemy soldier* – narrowly escapes being killed by him. The device used here by the author is to show that during war one is out for oneself; Manmuswak represents this sentiment perfectly well. But it also highlights the devious cunning of the leaders, for whom the cost of human life means nothing compared with gain for themselves.
As Jonathan R. Greenberg notices about the character, through seeing Manmuswak on both sides of the war throughout the rest of the novel:
Manmuswak has symbolic meaning: after witnessing the corrupted ideals of the war first as a naive apprentice driver and later as a sozaboy himelf, Mene comes to understand that his own survival, not grand ideals like freedom, have first priority.
It wouldn’t be unkind to suppose Wiwa thought this attitude had found its way into the Nigerian consciousness altogether; exactly how the corrupt corporations would want it.
Other than corruption and war, another device appears to be at play in the novel, that of salt. Sozaboy comes across one who he refers to as the ‘thick man’ preaching a sermon. During this sermon he says “And salt must be inside your salt otherwise they will throw you away like mumu, foolish idiot. Amen.” Salt, here, seems to work on two levels; during the story we are aware that there was a scarcity of salt, and what there was of it was rather expensive, which was particularly erring since so much of the Nigerian diet relies on salt. Indeed during World War Two it was considered as precious as gold in Nigeria. Since there seemed to be some embedded notion that salt shortages required soldiers to fight, no doubt this was used as a propaganda tactic to drum up support for the war effort.
Furthermore, when the ‘thick man’ refers to “your salt” he seems to imply a link between what we eat, what we must fight for, and who we are – quite literally we are salt, and we must fight for ourselves.
Is there not this sub-text running through every war effort? It’s no good war leaders selling war as this effort for abstraction, for some external cause, the cause must be sold as something from within. Salt has this very meaning here, and it is no surprise that it is mentioned throughout the novel – it shows that the propaganda effort worked, keeping Nigeria from being one (arguably even in this very day).
Ken Saro Wiwa succeeded in writing a book set on freedom and how leaders often falsify our stake in liberty to get what they want. It’s a commentary with a strong post-colonial context, and a disturbing look at how power corrupts. It’s as relevant today as it was on its publication, and it should be celebrated while we never forget those responsible for his premature death.
*The reason sozaboy is considered an enemy is not simply a product of the confusion of who is fighting who, but also because the villiage thought him dead, and after reports that he was bringing bad luck to his villiage of Durkana as a ghost, it would have been impossible for him to stay in the area. At least, this is the version of events as told by Duzia – an old disabled man, friend of sozaboy and former soldier.
James Forsyth said on Sunday:
When trying to understand George Osborne Budgets, you need to bear in mind the mantra that he and his team live by: in opposition you move to the centre, in government you move the centre.
Lo and behold, Brendan Barber notes that:
Lib Dems are “abandoning centre-ground”
Or perhaps not. Maybe Osborne is simply moving the centre, as his team’s mantra describes.
I certainly hope so, because I know a certain party who are only too happy to fill in for the absence of centre-ground politics.
(A clue: he’s not actually that red at all)
Watch your squeezed middle…