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Faith Beyond the Facts - Violent Disorder and its Non-defence

In light of the ongoing student demonstrations which have witnessed an encouraging level of militancy, along with sporadic flashpoints of violence, there has been much talk about political violence in general, and in particular the possible defences of it. An interesting feature of the reaction to the protests has been the apparent disconnect between the arguments put by the students on the one hand and the forces of reaction on the other. It seems there is no middle ground on this issue and what we are dealing with here is an instance of a Real disjuncture. What I mean by this is that there is no objective statement that can be made about these events which can be held to have universal truth value. Let’s examine this closely.

The defenders of the students claim the violence was an authentic expression of dissatisfaction with the coalition cuts to education and the raising of fees. Having been let down by politicians who garnered their support only to betray them once in office, anger was always likely to find expression in direct action. Further, it may be claimed that if the protest had been entirely non-violent then the media would have all but ignored it, or (perhaps worse) claimed that the politicians will have heard the students message and that now the issue should be dropped. In other words any decision on education would be made with the tacit consent of the protesters who having put their point of view have simply lost the argument.

The politicians and reactionary media take the view that any violent protest is illegitimate, that it runs counter to the rule of law and democracy. Protest of course but do it quietly. Express your anger in conformity with the law and then accept the final decision.

What is interesting here is that taken from the perspective of either side, each argument seems reasonable. It seems all too obvious that the media would have ignored the first demonstration if it had not turned violent, as they do with almost all other demonstrations. The video footage from outside Millbank puts to bed any suggestion it was the action of a small minority. In any spontaneous action like this roles are assigned more by chance than design. A minority break windows, a significant number run through the holes they make, and thousands gather outside chanting their support. As a whole the scene was an authentic representation of the anger felt by most students who see their options narrowed, their expectations lowered and their futures darken. With this in mind it makes Jeremy Paxman’s attempts to force ULU president Clare Solomon into accepting personal responsibility for the violence appear all the more absurd. It is to our opponents advantage to subjectify the dissorder into the hands of a few radicals and fringe anarchist groups rather than accept it as the authentic mass movement it really is.

From the perspective of the politicians we can say of course we must condemn violent demonstration; if people did this every time they disagreed with a piece of legislation the country would be ungovernable. The electorate have voted and given a mandate for these politicians to make decisions on their behalf, so any violent resistance like this is clearly undemocratic and illegitimate. Those who use violence to resist parliamentary authority are clearly outside the rule of law and a threat to that very authority which guarantees our freedoms.

If it is the case, as I am claiming that we are dealing with a Real disjunction then there is no possibility of compromise between the positions, no possibility of judging one side is 'objectively' right or wrong. Here we can draw on Georg Lukács distinction between knowledge of an object and the consciousness of it. While both sides may have the same knowledge of the object, the facts of what happened, when, where and who was involved, none of this is determinate upon how the object will appear in consciousness. The bourgeois politician, the defender of capitalist parliamentary democracy, views the object in its ideological form. Whereas the student who does not recognise herself in the ideology of the latter, cognises beyond the facts to the properly social and historical place of the object, inclusive of her participation over and against the parliamentary democratic position.

Our very subjective involvement in the class struggle negates any possibility of an objective standpoint from which to judge the truth. The student, the proletarian, those who resist, see the universal values of education, welfare, and equality under attack, and wager that against the systemic violence of the government responsible the only option available may be equally violent. The bourgeois politician sees only a rabble, an external threat undermining the very notion of democracy. If these positions are absolutely disjunctive then it follows that any debate on the limits of protest or of violent resistance to government authority is pointless. The question of political violence in any one case is undecidable. Thus the media fixation on the images of youths kicking in windows or police brandishing batons acts as a convenient distraction from discussing the real issues being fought over.

As socialists we should not attempt to justify or defend outbreaks of violent resistance, we owe no explanation to our detractors, even less to the ruling class. Indeed, I would even say that any attempt to defend such actions is already to concede ground to our opponents. For to do so implies that there is a neutral position from which to pass judgment, whereas every Marxist knows that your consciousness will reflect your position in the class struggle and determine the ground of objectivity upon which any judgement will be made. Rather we should assert the righteousness of our struggle which holds those universal values to be true. I say righteousness with its full religious weight, for when the facts do not impinge upon the decidability of a situation the imperative to keep going against all odds is more an act of faith than many are prepared to admit. But nonetheless we must keep going.

Xaven Taner 07 Dec 2010