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Comrades, the politics of the streets is not always liberating

29 March 2011

11:48 AM

29 March 2011

11:48 AM

I am struck by the confusion of left-liberal opinion over the violence at the anti-cuts
demonstration in London over the weekend. Poor Lucy Annson of UK Uncut on Newsnight last night was arguing gamely that she was an artist who just wanted to set up crèches and creative
happenings in the occupied shops of tax avoiders. But, unfortunately she fell back on the old “Sinn Fein defence” when asked whether she condemned Saturday’s violence. “I
reject the premise of the question,” she said, thus undermining her movement’s credibility in one ill-advised utterance.  

The likeable Laurie Penny also appeared on the programme to explain that the anarchists of Black Bloc (or is it Blac Block), were until recently Labour and Lib Dem supporters, though how she knows
is something of a mystery. She has ruffled some feathers with her New Statesman blog about the
events of the weekend by quoting Martin Luther King Jr’s: “A riot is the language of the unheard”. Writing on Labour List Anthony Painter was quick to point out that King was explaining why riots were the politics of the already-defeated.
“Living with the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation, some ghetto dwellers now and then strike out in spasms of violence and self-defeating
riots,” wrote Dr King in “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?” (the answer was community by the way).

Charlie Beckett, the LSE media expert, also makes some important points about the coverage of the violence on his blog post entitled
“Don’t blame the media if your demo doesn’t work”. Charlie wrote:

“Today’s demonstration – both peaceful and violent  – was an admirable manifestation of people’s desire to make a political gesture. But I suspect that however
the media had reported it, it would not shift the balance of opinion. In fact it has probably put off a lot of people who are genuinely unhappy about current economic policy.”

The point is that demonstrations are not representations of the will of the people (at least half of whom appear to back the cuts if your believe the opinion polls). Marchers at large
demonstrations become so convinced by the impressive numbers and the thrill of the spectacle that they become convinced they are in the majority when they are not. How long was it after the giant
Iraq war demo that we voted Tony Blair back into power?

Like all good lefties I like a good demo and have marched for many a passionate lost cause in my time (I was one of 250,000 on the great CND march of 1981 at the age of 15.)

But I have learnt to be very wary of the politics of the streets. The ability to protest without being cut down by bullets remains a defining freedom of a liberal democracy. But riots are mark of
democratic failure. Violence happens when the argument breaks down.

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