What to say when people say ‘Your protest is in my way – I have to…’

Democratic constraints

It is an interesting fact of taking part in almost any kind of direct or protest action that at some point someone will point out, often quite forcefully and using swearwords, that you are in their way. You have, they think, no right to impose on them with your political expression.

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?

What to say when people say….what a politician said

Yes, this time I think we finally got the honest one

Here are some suggested answers to someone who mentions something a politician said, including, say, an explanation of what is happening in the economy and what the politicians are doing about it. This also covers the ‘news’ (i.e. repetitions of government press statements) as put out by organisations such as the BBC:

1. Take out your phone, on which you will have earlier recorded the buzzing of an injured wasp. Play this sound to the person and say ‘I find this to have more significance than what you just said.’

2. Did you learn to trust politicians’ explanations of their actions from Tony Blair? If someone in a position of power would lie to start a war that killed several hundred thousand people and made millions homeless, do you think another might lie about, say, their reasons for cutting government budgets?

3. What is it that makes you trust that your ‘leaders’ have your best interests at heart then? Who taught you this, have they lost their job and/or home yet, and have they ever studied any, y’know, history? If you don’t believe they have your best interests at heart, why do you repeat what they say in public as though it has meaning?

4. Really, I’m interested to know why you think you ‘need’ people in these ‘leadership’ positions and why you choose to respect them against a vast weight of evidence that suggests they steal from you, line their own pockets and habitually lie to you – not about minor things but about really major things – like whether they help torture people (the British government do, it turns out).

5. Look, it is not politicians’ faults that they lie about everything they are doing. They are the mouthpieces for a fundamentally dishonest and abusive economic system that is making you poorer right now and they don’t have any choice but to lie. You do have a choice whether you believe it. I find your choice…odd.

6. Say one of your own thoughts. It will be better.

What to say when people say…I vote Tory because I believe in individual freedom

Is this a criminal justice protest or did I just like the photo?

This is a post about what I have in common with Tory voters. I’m honestly not trying to be sarcastic or anything. I do have something in common with Tory voters, quite apart from having, say, lungs (I was going to say heart, then brain, but didn’t want to make assumptions – I’m pretty sure they have lungs, right?). It’s not a small thing I have in common with them either. There is a problem though, which I’ll explain later.

A lot of people vote Conservative because they believe in individual freedom and they think Labour politicians are authoritarians. And they’re right. I agree. Labour under Blair and Brown produced a raft of knee-jerk authoritarian legislation to use against suspects, against protesters, to enable government spying on people, to stop people taking photos. They tried to curtail anti-social behaviour by force. They introduced ID cards no one wanted for no explicable reason. It felt like they just liked the idea of calling the entire population into registration centres to be photographed and recorded, or just wanted to keep an eye on us all on general principles.

They produced a lot of what can only be described as authoritarian liberal legislation, trying to defend people against discrimination while not understanding that the law doesn’t actually challenge bigotry. I don’t think the government should use their vast resources to attempt to shape people’s thinking and behaviour. Yes, I know that in reality they do that all the time, but the principle of it is screwed up and Labour made more of an effort to do it than anyone in the UK since Philip II of Spain tried to invade.

The only behavioural legislation that seemed reasonable to me was making violence against children illegal. I don’t think children should have less rights than adults just because they’re smaller and the adults can get away with it. That law I saw as a correction to an obvious anomaly. The rest seemed, ironically, like a scolding teacher finally getting annoyed with us for not listening – and picking up the cane in a threatening manner.

Most of all, Labour passed laws at the drop of a hat. They passed laws for pretty much anything. If they had woken up one morning thinking wet wipes were inadequately sized they would have passed a law to specify the correct way to make wet wipes. They couldn’t help themselves. Their response to every problem was to legislate. They had the hearts of authoritarians and the souls of…. Actually there is no way to finish that sentence. According to the Torygraph:

In his 10 years as prime minister, Tony Blair presided over more than 3,000 new laws, more than 1,000 of which carried jail terms; Gordon Brown added hundreds more. Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, […]

So there you go. I do have something in common with Tory voters – or a lot of them anyway. Labour’s assault on individual freedom made me feel kind of sick, then kind of pissed off, then very pissed off, then really vomit-hurlingly ill.

There is a problem however. Quite a big problem. And it’s this: the Tories don’t believe in individual freedom either. I’m pretty sure they don’t believe in anything much except their own wealth and power. Their pretence to be lovers of freedom is something they stick to for as long as they think it’s a votewinner, then oops, the mask slips. You’ll note the quote above has […] at the end because it is incomplete. Here’s the complete sentence:

Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, which had been bad enough in this regard.

So even the Torygraph doesn’t think the Tories really respect our right to be free from government control. But if you want more evidence, or some things to say to people who say they vote Tory because they believe in individual freedom, here you go:

  • They scrapped ID cards right? Well, almost. They kept them for migrants. Partly because you never can trust those dusky foreigners, but mostly because no one was watching or caring. In Toryland an authoritarian act doesn’t count if no one notices, and particularly if their core voters don’t notice.

  • Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. A despicable piece of legislation in pretty much every regard, though I can’t really argue with extending the definition of rape to include anal rape – presumably everyone had just been too prudish to talk about it before. The Act not only increased police powers considerably, meaning a reduction in rights for ordinary people, but it was also an act of intergenerational authoritarianism passed to appease their core voters who were worried by the youngsters being able to, y’know, have too much fun.

  • Sure, the Tories hated unions, but they never prevented their right to associate, right? They would never go that far, right? Except what they did was pass a raft of legislation aimed at de-politicising unions and preventing them from taking political actions. They used the instrument of legislation to destroy a political opponent. You can associate, they said, just don’t do it politically. Because we don’t like it. But we love freedom, honest.

  • Their foreign policy. Like, forever. After the Bahrain government murdered protesters yesterday, David Mellor came on Radio 4 defending the Bahrain government as a ‘stalwart friend of the West’. By which he presumably meant a stalwart friend of him and his rich friends who’ve made money from them. They pretended they were supporting Pinochet as a bulwark against communism. Except supporting authoritarianism to prevent authoritarianism doesn’t really make sense does it? Does it? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, unless logic changed since I last checked. It does make sense if what really bothers you – much more than anyone’s freedom – is the issue of whether you can make money with that government.

  • And finally, when they do claim to be putting effort into ‘liberating’ people to do what they want, what they mostly tend to do is liberate corporations to do what they want. They’re good at that. A bit of a shame then that a corporation is an essentially authoritarian structure utterly unconcerned with the rights of individuals.

I do have common ground with Tory voters. Where we separate is the issue of whether the Tories mean anything they say.

What to say when people say… I don’t go on protests because they don’t work

Facts: You are right that marching from A to B in an orderly fashion has rarely caused politicians to come out in a stress rash. The civil rights movement in the US marched, yes, but people also used other tactics that probably scared politicians a lot more than marching. And yet from time to time, when people have had enough of being abused by those in power, they take to the streets in large numbers to try to take back control of their lives. This has worked repeatedly, but it works when people are really pissed off and they don’t much care whether Mr Policeman or Mr Murdoch like what they’re doing. And when they don’t all go home at 5pm. And when there are large enough numbers to cause serious economic disruption and disruption to the messages the politicians are putting out.

Thoughts: It may be that what you really meant was ‘I can’t be bothered to protest’, or ‘I can’t be bothered to think about what would work’. If so, move along, don’t spare it another thought. But if what you really meant was ‘I don’t think we’re pissed off enough yet to cause the serious disruption that would force the hands of politicians or force them out of office’, then why the hell aren’t you pissed off enough yet? Do you think they’re going to start providing a good quality of life for everyone when they wake up one morning full of a new-found benevolent joy that turns them into cuddly teddy bears? They’re not acting for you. They’re acting for the money people. If they are taking things away from you, it’s because you’re letting them. They won’t give you nice pressies freely. You have to take them, by acting together with other people. And if you don’t have the numbers or the organisation to do that, at the very least you can disrupt the illusion that there is any kind of consensus about their activities.

Opinion: We have a government in the UK that, even if you accept our system as ‘democratic’, has very little democratic legitimacy, and they are dismantling public services people fought very hard for, including the NHS – I don’t know anyone who voted to dismantle that. Protests don’t work in the UK partly because people aren’t pissed off enough yet. I recommend getting pissed off. They really will take everything away from you if you let them. You might as well pre-empt the shitty America-lite no-safety-nets, low-quality-of-life state they want and get pissed off now. And when you’re pissed off enough, you might just believe that protests will work. You might take the actions necessary to make them work.

Note: This is a series of posts called ‘What to say when people say…’ Obviously they do not provide the definitive answers to most questions (except the ones marked with an asterisk, like so*). They simply provide ideas, helpfully broken down into Facts about Things People Say, Thoughts about Things People Say, and Opinions about Things People Say.

What to say when people say…you should vote for the least worst option

Facts: Human societies, many of which had democratic elements to them, have survived for millenia and since before recorded history. Some of them weren’t even in Europe. Strangely they mostly did this without voting for a bunch of selfish twats who they knew were lying to them but who they were intent on giving more or less unlimited powers to for a few years anyway – just on the offchance they weren’t lying or the damage wouldn’t be too bad.

Thoughts: ‘Elected dictatorship’, as we might call what currently passes for democracy in many countries, doesn’t actually give you control of your own life (If you don’t believe you should have control of your own life, please seek self-esteem training). So committing yourself to the institutions we have at the moment, as you do when you repeat the above phrase, is committing yourself to handing over the power to shaft you. Rather than saying ‘Don’t complain about being shafted if you don’t vote’ you could say ‘Don’t complain when you’re shafted if you lacked the imagination to think of something more democratic than this’.

Opinions: What to say? How about: No you shouldn’t. Every vote helps give the appearance of legitimacy to their power. And anyway, a crisis in our ‘democracies’ brought about by low voter turnout would probably be a much better result than choosing Shithead A or Shithead B.

Note: This is a series of posts called ‘What to say when people say…’ Obviously they do not provide the definitive answers to most questions (except the ones marked with an asterisk, like so*). They simply provide ideas, helpfully broken down into Facts about Things People Say, Thoughts about Things People Say, and Opinions about Things People Say.