An older favourite
Monthly Archives: December 2011
On a Tuesday night of plummeting temperatures I came upon it on the corner of two narrow streets in Bloomsbury. Rain was blowing around the streets in cold gusts, threatening to freeze in mid-air but for now still flooding the gutters. The lights behind the timber-framed casement windows had never looked so welcoming. I entered to the glorious smell of roast pork belly. Thomas, the oldest barman in the world, served me a pint of Slipshod and shouted through to the kitchen for a plate of food.
I sat at a table beside a middle-aged man reading a paper and young couple, the woman wearing an office shirt, loose tie and trilby hat.
“It’s disgraceful!” said the man as I sat, looking up from his paper. “The government!”
“They usually are,” I said, taking a sip of Slipshod. “What do you suggest?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t seem to matter who you vote for. They’re all at it.”
“Do you think you would be any different?” I said.
“I’d do a bloody sight better than those worthless twats!” he said. “Course,” he added, “I probably don’t have the tact.”
“I don’t think anyone would be better,” said the woman with the trilby hat. “I think it’s the conviction that you would do better that is part of the trouble.”
“So it’s better to leave them to it?” grunted the man.
My plate of roast pork belly arrived, borne by the ancient Thomas. “Can’t leave them to it,” he said. There is nothing wrong with his hearing even if his joints aren’t what they used to be. He slapped the plate down in front of me. “I’ve been around a while. They’re all mad, the politicians. Mad as hares.”
“I don’t think we need them,” said the woman as Thomas departed. “I think we can create new ways of doing things ourselves. I don’t want to run the government.”
I got busy with the food as the newspaper reader and the be-hatted woman sparred.
“So,” said the man. “You think we should just leave them to it.”
“No,” said the woman. “You don’t have to pay attention to the government to do something about it. If you create new ways of doing things it challenges the power of those in charge.”
“Takes bullets to challenge that lot,” said the man. He picked up his paper as though that were the end of the conversation.
“It might, in the end,” said the woman. “But I don’t think that should be the first resort.”
“Wasn’t suggesting it should be.” The man looked annoyed at the misrepresentation of his position.
“Thing is,” said the boyfriend of the woman in the hat. “I think the structures of government and economics that exist now will corrupt anyone. The trick is to get power away from them.”
“How?” said the older man, putting his paper down again. “Who should have the power?”
I swallowed a mouthful of pork, gravy and potatoes. “Perhaps you need actual democratic structures that are different from those that exist now,” I said, wanting to be helpful. “And you pull power towards those structures.”
“You’d still end up cock-waving at each other,” said trilby hat.
“Then maybe you need to reshape the existing structures,” I said, piling apple sauce onto a forkful of pork. “You don’t choose between the state or not-the-state. You change the nature of the state. But you still need other forms of organising to do that.”
“What, a party?” said trilby hat suspiciously.
“No, no,” I said. “It would only betray you. Something less hierarchical. And not one organisation. Many overlapping forms of organising aimed at undermining the usual form of organising a government.”
“Isn’t that what I said?” said the woman.
“Nope,” said newspaper man, butting in again. “You said you should ignore the government. Doesn’t seem like such a good idea to me. God knows what they’d get up to.”
The woman in the hat looked between the two of us. “Okay, if I did say we should ignore the government I didn’t mean it. I don’t trust the fuckers.”
Her boyfriend nodded as though thinking about something for the first time. “So maybe we do need organisation. Not like parties or anything. Just channels for attempts to distribute power better.”
I raised my glass of Slipshod. “Here’s to multiple channels for our rage. Home-made gutters for the rain of dissent.”
The newspaper reader grunted and nodded toward the window. “It’d better be warmer than this, that’s all I can say.”
“That’s up to you,” said trilby hat to him with an overly sweet smile. “You’ll be the rain.”
Recently I was involved in one of the strongest forms of blocking action: a picket line. Although many people turned back from the line the responses of those who didn’t was interesting. The silliest was ‘I support you but…I’m going in anyway’.
In that situation there was only one way to support the picket: not crossing it. The very point of a picket line is that it makes people make a decision and take an action based on that decision. It defines physical space in a new way and it doesn’t want your good opinion, it wants your support in maximising the effect of the strike.
Another great response given by many people was ‘I have to go in.’ To which the only answer was ‘You really don’t.’ What did it mean, this phrase ‘I have to’? Clearly it was not objectively true – they were not going into the building to feed their baby or to save the world. Some of the mostly immigrant staff doing poorly paid service jobs without any job security had to go in to keep their jobs it is true. But it wasn’t them saying ‘I have to’, it was people who would have suffered nothing except a missed lecture or meeting.
I tried to explain it to people as a priorities issue. ‘I know going in there was your priority for right now, but we’re asking you to re-prioritise for something bigger than yourself.’ I sympathise with the people who were taken aback. You rush around London doing your stuff for the day and it is a bit shocking to abruptly have people in your face asking you to do something different. But it was disappointing when people couldn’t reconsider the course of their day. It felt like what ‘I have to’ meant was the ‘I’ – they couldn’t really conceive of re-prioritising for a collectivity.
As an aside, some people on the picket line shouted ‘scab’ or other insults after those who crossed the picket line. I didn’t think this helpful, not because I thought the individual freedom of those people was the most important thing at that moment, but because politics is about ongoing relationships and shouting insults closes down future discussion.
Meanwhile some people took our very presence personally – were resentful that we were there at all. They could get through into the building but not without talking to us. This they saw as an imposition. In truth our attitudes were far worse than that: we would have closed the building if not for the police keeping the line open. This would be perceived by some as a gross infringement on their liberties.
My experience of doing other protest activities is that people can view even some minor inconvenience as an imposition. They think you have a right to political expression, just as long as you don’t get in their way. As for if you deliberately constrain their actions – as a closed picket line would – that is an outrageous breach of personal liberty.
But let’s look at this in a broader context. Our behaviour is constrained all the time; to be human is to be constrained. And while we take some constraints volutarily to help us live together with people, we are often constrained not-so-voluntarily by the people who pay us and rule us. If our boss says something we do it. Sure, we can walk out. We are free to live in poverty. Thanks. The state creates rules about who can strike and when, and this constraint is what…’necessary’? Or is it a rule that deliberately pits one part of the population against another?
So what is it about certain people and institutions that they are allowed to constrain us while others are forbidden? Because certain institutions have ‘legitimacy’? I never gave consent. Because they have a certain ‘official’ role? Because they have certain power over us (the ability to withdraw our pay) this makes it okay for them to order us around?
Isn’t it at least as legitimate to constrain other people as a group of people fighting for a better way of living? Why is that such a terrible infringement of personal liberty while the word of your boss is not? Part of the reason to engage in direct actions is to expose the ideology of everyday life that creates unexamined ideas like this.
I could go further and say there is a better basis for constraining others during protest than the usual hierarchies have: that is, you are engaging with actual people in a two way exchange. Our constraints are not absolute and fixed, they consist of what is negotiated between people who have equally little power. While the point of the negotiation is not to end all conflict, the conflict that remains has a real basis: the constraint occurs because we have a different vision of the world and this has to be created in physical space.
So here’s something to say to people who are inconvenienced by a protest:
It may inconvenience you. But you have been living in the world created by other people with infinitely more power than us. If you notice our constraints more, it’s not because you live without constraints, it’s because those other constraints have become ‘normal’ to you. Perhaps you’re happy with that, but why expect everyone to accept them? Are you sure you’re such a champion of liberty? We’re not sorry you’ve noticed us. We’re not sorry we inconvenienced you. We are constraining you. But ask yourself, do we leave the ‘right to constrain’ to a few people with power over us or do we attempt to create another way of being between ourselves?