More on the Meaning of Protest

On reading my last post, a sceptical reader might proffer (i.e. half propose, half offer) some questions. Such as ‘isn’t this blanket defense of violence on protests an excuse for every bunch of thugs who want to go out and start a fight?’ and ‘if it’s true that the point of protests is to develop an embryonic rival sovereignty, are they actually very good at doing that?’

In relation to the second, I’ll comment in a later post, while this one will consider the first. If protests are the embryos of alternative societies then they can be judged as such. For example, to take the strongest example of ‘bad protester violence’, the pogrom (meant in a general sense, as targetting any group, not just jewish people). Here the protest group’s violence is directed at a section of the population, singled out by ethnicity. The implication to draw is simple: the society here created is not a society that can include multiple races, but one such that members of the targetted group can only be members through forcible subjugation.

Anarchist violence is the direct opposite. To the best of my knowledge, the last half a century of anarchist activities (and related groups, like protests at WTO summis, or yesterday’s protests) have not killed any ‘civilians’ and have injured only a handful (mainly in bombings, which isn’t what I’m on about here) – they have confronted the police, i.e. those specialised in the use of violence. The number of people killed or injured by police brutality is many times larger. Violence that is successful in acheiving obedience is invisible – as long as everybody obeys the law, the police never hit anyone (well, not quite). But their inherently violent role becomes visible when it is confronted with a disobedient rival order.

Another example of a ‘bad’ protest is what we might call a ‘pro-state protest’. The ‘yellow-shirt’ PAD protests in Thailand are an excellent example: to summarise, they were a movement of the urban middle class who wanted to force out a centre-left government that had been elected by the rural poor majority. Insofar as they had a general political program, they talked often about having the parliament be 20% elected, 80% appointed by the king. They strongly supported and operated with the tacit support of the king, the army, and the political elite in general. Eventually they succeeded by engineering a crisis in which the courts eventually intervened to dissolve the elected government, just as a couple of years earlier they had succeeded by engineering a crisis in which the army intervened to dissolve the elected government.

Here the ‘rival sovereignty’ was not a rival to the state but a part of the state – it was the content of government, in the form of protest. Its role was essentially to support the less democratic parts of the state in a struggle against the more democratic parts of the state.

Again, anarchist protests are the opposite: they oppose all parts of the state, and as a result they cannot hope to be ‘saved’ by the intervention of a friendly part.

The confluence of these two negative traits of protests – supporting the existing state, and targetting violence against particular civilian groups – are often combined, and the result is associated with fascism, though not distinctive to it. In such cases the ‘protest’ functions essentially as a paramilitary arm of the state.

If ‘good’, protest, ‘anarchist’ protest, rejects all parts of the state structure, then where does it go – what is the next step from a mere protest? The answer is assemblies, also known as councils, or in Russian ‘soviets‘. Something along these lines has formed out of developing protests, insurrections, and revolutions in places all over the world for centuries: most recently in Oaxaca, Mexico, and in the universities of Greece. In these organisations the basic nature of the embryonic society is manifested, as popular democracy.

A few points emerge: firstly, this reinforces the idea that some, targetted, measured violence (even if only threatened) is a necessary and integral part of such movements – because in order to set up assmblies, agents of the state, who would seek to enforce the state’s law, must be excluded by the threat of force – not massacred, tortured, mutilated, or anything, just expelled in the way that one would expel an unwanted and disruptive party guest. If a drunk refuses to leave, it is ‘violence’ through which the other guests pick them up bodily and carry them out, but that doesn’t make the guests ‘violent people’ – it means that they are willing to assert collective control over that space.

Secondly, it holds out the prospect of a society in which protest of this sort wouldn’t make sense. If society is organised in terms of popular assemblies, purely on the basis of the collective power of gathered humans, then a gathering of a hundred thousand people opposed to Israel’s war wouldn’t need to rally and march, but would be able to direct and control that segment of society’s power that they represented, and use that directly. I know that sounds vague and obscure but I’m hungry and want to finish this post so I won’t explain any further.

4 Responses to “More on the Meaning of Protest”

  1. Duncan Money Says:

    You may think I’m basically following you online as I’ve just commented on you Stalkbook note but never mind.

    There’s a lot of interesting stuff on this blog but there’s a couple of things which caught my attention on.

    To the best of my knowledge, the last half a century of anarchist protests (and related groups, like protests at WTO summis, or yesterday’s protests) have not injured or killed any ‘civilians’ – they have confronted the police

    I think you are taking too narrow a time frame here if you want to look at the link between anarchism and violence.

    There was a wave of anarchist inspired terrorism at the end of the 19th century, the ‘propaganda of the deed’ tendency. Adherents of this particular view killed the heads of state in Russia, France, (technically) America, Spain, Greece, Ukraine, Italy and almost got the Kaiser between 1878 and the 1920’s.

    ‘Propaganda of the deed’ gradually went out of fashion in the 1910’s, partly due to the success of anarcho-syndicalism I suspect, but a new wave of similarly inclined groups took off in the developed world after 1968 which generally saw themselves as the armed wing of various protest movements. They don’t think any of the anarchist contigent of this second cohort actually killed anyone but that’s probably says more about their general compotence than their actual aims.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Hey Duncan,
    You’re right to mention POTD but I wouldn’t count heads of state as civilians – by taking control of governments they put themselves in the firing line. That’s not to say I want them all dead (only most) but even the killing of, for example, Lincoln seems comparable to me to the killing of a general in battle – even if you thought he was better than his enemies, it wasn’t a ‘murder’ in the same way that massacring a Guatemalan village would be.

    As for post-68 groups, my impression had always been that most of the bomb-setters were actually Leninists of some description – the Baader-Meinhof were largely Leninists for example. But I don’t know if that applies universally.

  3. Duncan Money Says:

    The Angry Brigade?

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ah, touche. Wikipedia informs me that they slightly injured one person. And a bit of reading around indicates a few other groups who injured some people, and, as you say, apparently would have killed people if they hadn’t been so incompetent. Also, I was mainly talking about ‘protests that turn violent’ rather than bombings.

    I will qualify my comment, although I think the major sentiment still stands – compared to things like the Tibetan riots last year or any of the Sinhalese attacks on Tamils, or to the sort of bombings that many nationalist or religious groups engage in, anarchist violence doesn’t pose an appreciable threat to the average person.


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