Sunday, 14 November 2010

"Stop shaking the tyrant's bloody robes in my face!"

Is there any more disgusting spectacle from last week's news than the sight of former Bullingdon vandals queuing up to denounce the looting of their London club house?

"Thuggish" cried Boris Johnson. "Unacceptable... violence and destruction" bellowed David Cameron. Both of whom spent their student days vandalising restaurants and scarpering before the arrival of the police.

While Zizek speaks of a "speculative identity" between those perpetrators of the "objective violence" - structural damage enacted upon on the people and state infrastructure through budget cuts to welfare and education - and the "subjective violence" of physical destruction directly enacted against persons and property; here there is no need for speculation. They really are the very same people. The same people who would hire out restaurants in order to smash them up, throwing money at the owners as they leave; the same people who now ransack higher education and benefits provisions in order to line the pockets of their friends in high finance.

What is so "unacceptable" to Cameron is clearly not the so-called "violence" and property damage - how can it be when he has as good as admitted to the thuggish behaviour of his own student days, all the while dismissing it lightly as mere drunken japery? No, what they object to is that this vandalism is not a mere jape, a prelude to flaunting one's wealth, all the while cravenly keeping one eye on any possible damage done to one's own future career; but direct action targeted towards a cause that transcends the people who fight for it, a cause for which those people are willing to sacrifice their own interests to defend.

There is perhaps only one more dismal voice in the week's news. The shrill voice of National Union of Students President Aaron Porter, leaping to denounce his own members before even the Bullingdon Boys had a chance to stick their oar in. Porter's denunciation shows unequivocally the same pusillanimity as Cameron and Johnson's hurried escape from the scene of the crime, the same craven eye towards a future career in politics (the list of former NUS presidents to have ended up in cabinet, screwing over the very constituent they once represented, is an extensive disgrace).

Those who, like Porter, praise the "good protestors" who obediently marched along the agreed route, sitting down when they were told to and standing back up again when they told to do that, but leap to condemn those "bad protestors" for whom such empty play-acting is not enough, want, in Robespierre's phrase, "revolution without the revolution."

In 2003, over a million marched obediently against the Iraq War and changed nothing. In France, this year, several times that figure marched and many also went on strike, achieving just as little. When the political parties show their contempt for the standard democratic procedure of making manifesto pledges, winning votes based on those pledges, and then sticking to those pledges when those votes bring them to power - it is time the public too accepted that normal democratic procedure has been suspended. Now, only direct action - and, yes, potentially violent struggle - has any chance of bringing about change.

There are other voices making themselves heard, less shrill, less contemptible, but equally curious. Those who say, 'What a pity! That the good intentions of 50,000 peaceful protestors were put to shame by the violent actions of a few!' And, 'Why must the media always focus on this hardcore minority instead of the overwhelming majority who did what they were told peacefully and dutifully?' - which latter is rather like saying, there are a million honest peace-loving citizens of Gotham City who feel no need to wear a mask or garish make-up - why must those mean old comics focus on the few who choose to spoil it for everyone else?

What emerges from these complaints, outwardly sympathetic to the aims of the protest, is the image of a subject supposed to vandalise. This subject is, inevitably, not a student, some sort of interloper, probably a member of the increasingly spectral 'black mask faction' of anarchists (the problem with the notion of anarchists protesting against the dismantling of the state clearly somewhat under-thought here). No matter that every report from anyone actually within spitting distance of millbank tower has found that at least the vast majority of the occupiers were, indeed, just 'ordinary students', swept up in the fervour of the moment. No matter that there is no evidence for the existence of this much phantasised 'black mask' faction (beyond the rather more prosaic reality of a few people spontaneously covering their faces in order to avoid identification by police photographers and cctv cameras). There is evidently a felt need for those protestors who occupied the building to be othered, for the speaking subject to distance him or herself from this supposedly dangerous and violent minority.

What appears to be lacking amidst all the hysteria, is any real question of why last week's protest erupted into this kind of conflagration. As with the riots in the Parisian banlieues in 2005, the answer seems to be a simple demand for visibility and recognition on the part of a constituent that has been shown by successive governments that its needs are simply not important to them. Even within the students own union, street protest has been largely suppressed for over twelve years now, twelve years in which first tuition fees, then top-up fees were introduced despite promises to the contrary, and student debt has escalated beyond all recognition. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have now broken their promises to students - and in what appears to be a kind of retrospective incitement after the fact, it emerged only days after the protests that, far from Nick Clegg's official line stating that he simply didn't realise how bad the economic situation was before the election, the Lib Dems had plans in place to abandon their promises on fees even before the election took place.

It should now be clear that if last week's protests achieved anything, then they achieved precisely this longed for visibility. At least one Lib Dem MP (in a stroke of typical Liberal opportunism) has now pledged to vote against education cuts, claiming inspiration from the "nostalgic" sight of student protestors. Trade union leaders have extended a welcoming hand to the students to form a coalition against cuts, with Nigel Stanley of the TUC claiming the protests have "given heart" to angry unionists. Manchester University has since been occupied in protest against the cuts. And the protest has been the focus of discussion across the media. To claim this would have been achieved without the occupation of millbank tower involves an extraordinary disavowal, a kind of willful blindness to the logic of spectacle.

There are those who will say that violence of any sort of unacceptable, those who will say that the Conservative Party Headquarters is the "wrong target". But a distinction must be drawn between violence against people and violence against property. The building's staff had long ben evacuated. These were acts of violence perpetrated against the building itself, and what it stood for. Like the Suffragettes, these protestors know how strong an argument is a broken pane of glass. As a symbolic target, what could be better than the new club house of the former Bullingdon boys and their running dogs? The only failure of the protest is that they did not stay longer, preventing in perpetuity the return of the usual occupants. And that they did not destroy more - computers, hard disks, filing systems, the very walls themselves. But this, of course, is only the beginning.