by Edd Mustill
I’m going to add my personal account of Saturday’s protest to the many that are already out there, and hopefully draw some political conclusions from it. As always, discussion is welcomed and encouraged.
Marching and Uncutting
On Saturday I spent most of the day, more by accident than design, leaving areas just before things kicked off in a big way. This happened at Fortnum and Mason’s, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square.
The march itself was, I reckon, at least half a million strong. Why the TUC still seem to be playing down the numbers is baffling, and perhaps a worrying indication of their (lack of) future plans. I spent the early part of it finding, losing, and finding again people I knew in places. I was still on the Embankment by the time the rally in Hyde Park was under way.
Ed Miliband’s Hyde Park speech pulled out the usual cliché about the “peaceful” movements of the past, including the suffragettes, who burned churches and whose window-breaking antics make today’s students look like Autoglass. There was not only nothing in his speech about class (we expect this from Labour by now), but nothing even about what Labour’s “alternative” is. No hint of policy, except to say that “some cuts” are necessary.
The trade unions were out in force in their contingents, and it really was a sight to see. Uniformed firemen, the huge banners of the RMT, doctors in their uniforms. Encouragingly, many in the trade union contingents were younger than I expected. The left was organised and engaged with the marchers.
There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”
Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.
When I saw the UK Uncut flag appear out of the window of Fortnum’s, I had to ask someone I was with what the shop actually sold. Perhaps this shows how unlikely it is that “normal” people will ever shop in those places or, for that matter, be able to stay at the Ritz. But some people were dismayed by the choice or target, and some people by the use of direct action (both from UKUncut and from the black bloc) altogether. “Look at that,” one Unison member said to another as we went past the Ritz. “That’s terrible.”
I spoke to some who were very much in favour of direct action, but wondered why more “political” targets hadn’t been chosen. UKUncut’s targets are softer and easier, and revolve around the central political demand of “pay your taxes,” which is hardly radical. The politics of the group is unavoidably amorphous, but seems to be based around the sub-Keynesian assumption that getting tax-dodging companies to pay up can solve the current capitalist crisis.
The obvious potential contradiction here is that you’re demanding that the state, currently steered by a Tory government, acts against these companies. We don’t have any tax-collecting powers.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the UK Uncut actions have been very good, but the disciplined Marxist in me is saying, sooner or later you need a strategy for confronting the state.
A narrative quickly developed, pushed by both the police and the TUC, that there were two separate protests, and the direct action had nothing to do with the main march. But by the time we passed the Ritz it had been done in. Also, this had the immediate effect of confusing UKUncut and the black bloc protesters on the day itself. The BBC News ticker on Saturday night read “Police clash with protesters from UKUncut in Trafalgar Square.” This atmosphere possibly contributed to many knee-jerk condemnations of the direct actions from the left, like this from Andy Newman and this absolute garbage by Anthony Painter on LabourList.
Those complaining that the later action took media coverage away from the main march are just wrong. There was a lot of coverage of the march, then something else happened, which got covered too. That’s how the news works. I’m pretty sure that, with everything going on in the Middle East, the networks would have moved on pretty rapidly anyway.
To paraphrase Matthew Perry’s character in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60, I’m sure the media would be happy to cover the TUC if only anyone from the TUC would say or do something.
It didn’t really dawn on me until later on Sunday that I had spent my Saturday evening wandering through a riot. I came to the conclusion that riots are weird. Does this have any political implications?
Having left Hyde Park we decided to check out Oxford Street, but there was nothing going on. Several shops were shut and guarded by riot police. People were shopping away. Normal life continued around a huge demonstration that could have been a life-changing experience for those on it. Later, as I went home on the tube, there were no excited conversations, or even indignant rants against violence. There was no-one heading home with their home-made placard. So obviously we have a lot of work still to do.
On Regent Street a group of people were dancing in the middle of the road, holding up four riot vans. Shoppers came out of H&M to take photos, then wandered away. After a while the vans turned round and left. I have no idea if this logistically helped any protesters in other parts of London. Soon after the vans left another one pulled up, a short-shield riot squad formed up and charged up the street. So the police tactics were confused. That’s when the fundamental characteristic of a riot hits home; it’s weird not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because no-one else does either.
The police appear clueless, just responding to the latest event. The black bloc appears to have fragmented and is running around choosing targets somehow. Two people sit down in Piccadilly Circus and begin to paint a picture of protesters on the Eros statue, before noticing that a building appears to be on fire, and a line of riot police have silently appeared in front of Boots, as if from nowhere. On Haymarket, a man is tackled to the ground by seven police officers and an attempt to de-arrest him leads several dozen anarchists to congregate outside a hotel where Ho Chi Minh used to work. As we turn round, a squad of TSG rush out of a van straight through us. We don’t hang around.
Is any of the chaos useful? It’s difficult to know straight away. It is probably no more or less useful in itself than a TUC rally in Hyde Park. We have been treated to the usual cliches about how all the anarchists must be middle class, but the black bloc didn’t seem any more or less middle class than, say, the teachers’ unions’ contingents. And the crowd in Trafalgar Square certainly wasn’t.
We need to recognise how complex people’s political positions can be. Could it be possible that there are people who think that smashing up the Ritz is an important political statement, and also think that trade unions are organisations crucial to the fight against the government? Could be. Could people exist who want to march, go to a rally, and do some direct action? Let’s hope so, for the sake of the movement.
Opposing or denouncing direct action in order to seem more “serious” or “responsible” is meaningless. Does anyone on the far-left who calls for a general strike seriously think that it would or could pass off without some picket-line scuffles or property damage? Does no-one in the trade union movement remember that there was a time when industrial sabotage was a feature of many big strikes?
Strikes are a form of economic warfare, or sabotage, and they cost people money. Of course, it’s “better” when this sabotage is organised, directed, and sustained democratically by unions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that any other form should be dismissed as useless. Why not argue that strikes are counterproductive because they might “alienate” people from the cause?
Doing the rounds on the Facebook walls of a lot of lefties is the following quotation from Martin Luther King Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Catchy. But in its full context, it is clear King is criticising riots as a childish exercise. Could we take more from Malcolm X’s discussion of “extremism”?:
“When one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings then he is a sinner… Patrick Henry said ‘liberty or death’, that’s extreme. Very extreme.”
Like it or not, the West End riot was a series of political acts. To pretend otherwise is to accept the police narrative that it was just criminal elements in it for themselves. If that was true, why wouldn’t they do it on a weekend when 4,500 cops weren’t on duty in central London?
Closing the gap
There’s obviously a huge political problem confronting the anti-cuts movement. Only a tiny minority of those opposed to the cuts are at this stage comfortable with taking direct action, just as only a minority are in favour of taking militant industrial action. There are also differences over what forms of direct action to take.
The crucial question now is this: how do we get more people more militant while still being able to engage with the people who carried on shopping around Oxford Street?
We know from the student occupations that militant action can (and if it is to be successful, must) be part of a political debate. The Fortnum and Mason action did not “detract” from any debate; if anything, it at the very least highlighted the tax-dodging behaviour of the business. It concretely highlighted the sort of “alternative” that the TUC figures were nodding towards in their Hyde Park speeches. That is, a limited one. The anarchists and the organised far-left have, of course, nominally got a much more holistic alternative in mind: revolution.
On Saturday we saw, broadly speaking; moderate activity with reformist goals (from the TUC), moderate activity with revolutionary goals (from the far left), militant activity with reformist goals (from UKUncut), and militant activity with revolutionary goals (from the black bloc).
Individuals in the anarcho-syndicalist Solidarity Federation have published this letter urging UKUncut activists not to fall for the false divide between “good” and “bad” protesters. They rightly point out that “repression is not provoked by violent actions, but by effective actions.”
It seems that, unless the unions and/or the far left are willing to organise more militant actions, they will remain the “stunts” of a few. The direct activists should be union organisers in their workplaces, working to democratise their unions.
The various left groups who are now turning their attention to the possibility of bringing about a general strike should talk about not only the quantity of strike action, but also its form. Will the picket lines do what picket lines are meant to do? Will there be work-ins? Will there be wildcat action? Does enough rank-and-file strength exist in any union to pull this off? If not, how can we change that?
Because unions are big and on the front line, their adoption of militant tactics would involve far more people than UKUncut or anarchist groups can currently mobilise for such ends. But in the meantime there’s no point decrying direct action as the work of a minority – after all, nearly everything is. Even a general strike would be. For its part, The TUC should, if possible, be giving legal support to those who get in trouble on its protests, not disowning them.
Whether or not Saturday was a success cannot be known yet. It depends on how many people go back home determined to carry on fighting, rather than seeing the march as an end. The TUC appears to have no strategy. The left’s strategy is largely to rely on the TUC to call a general strike. Meanwhile, direct activists risk being isolated from the rest of the movement.
In future articles I’ll try to express some more ideas about what I think should be done next. In short, we need to be in a position where direct action and trade unionism are not seen as mutually exclusive. We need, somehow, to redevelop militant unionism.