The peaceful violence of the government
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.