Friday, 8 April 2011

The success of peaceful protest is an illusion

Writing in the Guardian, James Mills tells us that "The Save EMA campaign proves peaceful protest works." It is a facile and patronising piece, seriously hampered by his lack of understanding of most of the terms he uses. The result being a misleading headline and an article that proves itself wrong.

Before I pick at the details, the main thrust of his argument. As the byline puts it, "our peaceful direct action has achieved two government U-turns – but nowhere near the same media attention as the black bloc." Thus, although the media gifted "the young, reckless radicals of our age" with "all the attention they crave," it was the campaign being ignored by the press that really got the goods.

But what were those two "u-turns" the campaign achieved?

One, "forc[ing] the government to provide support to the quarter of a million teenagers next year who are currently in receipt of the education maintenance allowance (EMA)," is fair enough. This shouldn't be made bigger than it is, because the payment is still gone for those who have yet to commence further education, but it's better than nothing. Unfortunately, as Mills himself admits, this was nothing to do with campaigning or protest.

It was the threat of legal action which gave those currently on EMA this slight concession. The campaign was to force the government not to scrap EMA in the first place, on which front it decisively failed. Calling for a judicial review afterwards is not protest or direct action. It is due process through official channels.

As for the second u-turn, I'd hardly call Boris Johnson going from fence-sitting to petitioning his own party over EMA a major win. How many influential Labour Party members, even sitting MPs, "rebelled" over Iraq? How much difference did it make? All this goes to prove is that advocates of the working class can't even "win the argument" with the establishment when they're part of it.

It is only "with an unruly mob on the streets and a strike-prone workforce" that "those reasoned reformists all of a sudden look like workable negotiation partners to whoever's in government." Even if people like Mills "claim it was their 'responsible' protests which got them there."

Without the weight of such resistance, the Save EMA campaign is almost impotent. In Mills' own words, "the fact that Johnson has taken six months to pick up the phone to call Gove on an issue that affects almost 100,000 Londoners ... is only a small step." Whilst "getting financial support for a quarter of a million students next year is small beer when students starting in September will still not get EMA."

But what really bothered me about this article wasn't its advocacy of peaceful protest and lobbying. Reformists will always advocate reformism, revolutionaries will always advocate direct action. That isn't going to change. No, what pissed me off was the terminology he appropriated.

Mills writes that "our peaceful direct action" achieved success. He argues that change is made "by legitimate and peaceful direct action, rather than jostling in the street." But there is one enormous problem with his reasoning here: he hasn't taken any direct action in any form. In fact, judging from his usage of it, he doesn't even know the meaning of the term. Either that or he is being wilfully dishonest in his choice of words. We shall have to see.

For Mills, and anybody else who doesn't know, here's what direct action means;
Direct action is, as the name may imply, action taken without any mediator between those taking it and the desired aim. Rather than pleading with our ‘betters’ to make changes for us, direct action is the practice of simply doing it for ourselves. Recognising that in a society defined by rule of the capitalist class - bosses, politicians, bankers - over the rest of us, all that we can achieve is what we can force from the capitalists with our collective strength. The practice of direct action is therefore about imposing our collective power, and leaving those who run society no choice but to accede to what we demand. Directly in opposition to party politics, direct action sees that only when we act for ourselves - without being represented by politicians, unions or any other would be representative - do we have the ability to change the world, and begin to shape it in our interests.
This is, quite obviously, not what James Mills is engaged in. His method is precisely that "pleading with our ‘betters’ to make changes for us" that is the opposite of direct action. If "protest complains about a problem," whilst "direct action does something about it," he is most definitely engaged in the former.

This is significant because he cites a YouGov poll which shows that there is significant support for peaceful direct action, but not for "the violent alternative advocated by groups like black bloc."

Leaving aside that the black bloc is a tactic, not a group, there is a debate to be had here. Certainly, in my report on March 26th I made a point of highlighting the bloc's effectiveness as a roaming blockade over the vandalism on its periphery. Adam Ford adds that the vandalism was an inevitable consequence of "class tensions [being] at incendiary levels," the perceived need for which will disappear "when largescale grassroots struggle does emerge."

But all of this is by-the-by. What Mills is trying to do, by redefining direct action as its opposite when he uses the word, is build a false dichotomy between political lobbying and violent disorder. You're either with the reformists and bureaucrats, or you're with the black bloc.

The truth is somewhat different. The truth is that the insurrectionist "propaganda by deed" has long been discredited as an effective tactic and now exists more as an expression of impotent anger. It is no longer a substitute for a mass movement, but a desperate act in the absence of one. It should not be condemned as a failure of the individual but as a damnation of those who have led the working class up the blind alley of reformism and party politics.

The real argument, then, is between protest and direct action. The latter can be "violent," but only if necessitated by circumstance. The former, on the other hand, serves only to feather the nests of the useless. That even winning over a single politician is the kind of change that has to be "dragged ... kicking and screaming" tells us all that we need to know.