The principle and practice of “violence” against property
The recent student protests – in particular the siege of Millbank Tower and the riots on the day of the tuition fees vote – have provoked an awful lot of debate. Among other things, it brought the boogeyman of anarchism back into the media spotlight and helped to reinvigorate the fight against the cuts.
What really exercised politicians and the mainstream media, however, was the spectre of “violence.” Not the brutal police repression against protesters, including dragging a disabled man from his wheelchair, twice. It was damage to private property that was the cause of much outrage. The disabled man was worthy of vilification, and another protester needing brain surgery not worthy of much coverage. Broken glass, graffiti, and people occupying spaces in defiance of authority were the source of much outrage and fear from the ruling class.
For the right, such actions only prove that those who oppose the government are “thugs” and “hooligans.” The typical line is that whilst “everyone has the right to protest,” the use of militant tactics is “unjustified” and “helps nobody.” For the left (that is the “left” of the narrow mainstream spectrum), such tactics represent a “tiny minority” who “distract from the issue” or are “just out for confrontation.”
But is that right? Obviously, such views originate with those who have interests that are threatened by an upheaval of the established order. However, repetition through the media and intense, deliberately selective coverage of “violence” helps the same message permeate public consciousness. This makes it not just a case of the views of the state and the ruling class versus those of the working class resisting them, but a debate weighted in favour of the former viewpoint by propaganda and misinformation.
Thus, I wish to make the case for the latter position. That is that violence to property is – both in principle and in practice – an acceptable and effective tactic in the struggle against state and capital.
The basic point is put, most succinctly, by Emmeline Pankhurst;
There is something that Governments care for far more than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy. Be militant each in your own way. I incite this meeting to rebellion.
There are those who will argue that we do not need to “strike” the enemy in order to challenge it. In the most extreme form, pacifists will argue against violence of any kind, and cite Ghandi and Martin Luther King as proof that it is possible to win great victories without resort to violence.
I would agree with this, but not unequivocally. Yes, non-violence can yield great results. However, it does so as a tactic rather than an absolute principle. When explaining why pacifism is morally indefensible, I wrote that ” unlike a pragmatic recourse to nonviolent resistance only in situations where it will be effective, [absolute pacifism] offers no recourse for the defence of innocents from injustice and brutality. And, ultimately, there is nothing heroic, even in principle, in offering yourself to the butcher’s knife.”
And if rejecting violence altogether is indefensible, rejecting violence against property – which is inanimate and feels no pain, after all – certainly is.
Remember what it is that we’re opposed to here. The title of this blog reflects a basic principle of the anarchist movement;
If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: What is property! may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?
The above quote, from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, refers specifically to capitalist property. That is, the situation wherein a separate class of people own and profit from that which is occupied and used by the masses. Where we toil, produce, and consume so that the bosses and landlords can reap the benefit in profit, rent, and interest.
It is important that this distinction is made. After all, anarchists are opposed to the present class system and to the parasitic ruling class it maintains, not to ordinary people having a roof over their heads or possessions. When I, or others, justify attacks on property it must be remembered that we are arguing for opposition to capitalism, not to ordinary people.
But if, in principle, there is nothing wrong with attacking property – as both the suffragettes and the students did – there is still a question of how and when. Clearly, just going around committing petty vandalism is not going to bring the revolution. Breaking the windows of McDonald’s on May Day isn’t going to achieve anything, and yet smashing in the windows of the Treasury had revolutionary potential. So what is the difference?
The difference is in tactics. Too often, such as at annual set pieces like May Day or the G20, ambitions will not stretch beyond the vandalism – making it an end rather than a means. But where the aim – such as at Millbank – was to occupy space either in a show of strength or to win concessions, so the action becomes more constructive.
Thus, whilst justification based upon the a bove principles can be applied generally, the merits of attacking property need to be judged on a case by case basis. Whilst it is no good engaging in vandalism in a campaign to save a school from demolition, for example, smashing through glass in order to occupy the headquarters of a ruling party to challenge the vicious class war it is waging is an entirely different matter. PR is also an important factor, as whilst mass mobilisation against an unfair and unpopular tax becomes even more potent when riots erupt, a fledgling campaign is unlikely to build mass support if it consists solely of masked activists hurling bricks.
In the case of the student protests, the merits are clear cut. No amount of marches back and forth would have convinced the government to forgo its ideological commitment to uphold the ruling class at the expense of everyone else. Passive opposition wouldn’t even have gained much media attention.
But a campaign of direct action and mass mobilisation could actively force change. Had more students broken through police lines on the day of the vote, they could have stopped it happening altogether. The case is clear cut not for abandoning such tactics but for building upon and improving them, especially in response to the state’s efforts to do the same. Austerity measures will not cease because of opposition, but because of active resistance. The ruling class needs to be afraid of the working class, and to know that we will not let them get away with injustice.
As I wrote in support of direct action;
If all protest was of the “legal” and “orderly” type – i.e. confined to cordoned-off “free speech zones,” drowned in police presence, unseen, and unheard – then nothing would ever be accomplished. Indeed, we might even begin to move backwards. Progress is what happens when ordinary people take to the streets en massé and force as much concession from the ruling classes as possible. Societal advance is the result of ever more layers of power being stripped from the state and capital.
During the Spanish Revolution, Buenaventura Durruti Dumange said this;
It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.
The only thing that stops this being true is our submission. When those in power cannot use the brutal force exacted against the Haymarket rioters, it locks us up in pens and calls it “free speech,” and the hounds of the media print lie after lie after lie. Whatever form suppression takes, it must be resisted. “Moderation” is the admission that you have no desire to see your goals and visions come to pass. Direct action is the only guaranteed agent of progressive change in our society.
Waiting on the benevolence of those above will achieve nothing. Only direct action can force through positive change. If we are to see a better world, then it is our duty to disobey.
Private property is one of the main manifestations of the injustices wrought by the capitalist system. We should not be afraid of attacking it, or of having the media call this “violence” whilst ignoring brutality by the state against human beings.
As Rudolph Rocker once said, we must advocate “every method of immediate warfare by the workers against their economic and political oppressors.”