Tom Smith muses over student protests, the environment, and violence as a form of self-defence.
“Praising violence over peaceful protest is frankly irresponsible” maintained a statement released by Downing Street in the aftermath of the recent student protests in London, after a group of academics from the University of London lauded the students’ occupation of the Tory Party HQ. The parallels to our own recent march are tangible: a fringe element breaks away from the main march and ends up clashing with the police. They are criticised by the head of the National Union of Students, who in turn is chastised for turning his back on supportive protesters.
While the accusations of irresponsibility may seem reasonable to those of us of average undergraduate age, who’ve grown up mired in a fluffy world of hegemonic pacifism (usually defended by the false reverence for supposedly great pacifists, hilariously referred to by some as the “Gandhi Shield”), waving placards and shouting catchy slogans. All the while, socialism for the rich gets more generous, cut-throat capitalism for the poor gets more brutal, the world’s ecosystems are destroyed at unprecedented rates, global hunger increases, more Middle Eastern countries are criminally destroyed (feel free to add more good protest material ad infinitum).
So, perhaps, in the context of education cuts we should heed the words of the above academics who maintained that “the real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts.” Indeed, replace the word “cuts” in the quote with any of the above causes for concern and perhaps we edge that bit closer to the reality of the matter.
Blaming fringe elements for this “destructive and anti-social violence”, as USI and the Gardaí did, entirely confuses symptoms and causes, while reinforcing the universal societal norm that violence can travel un-condemned only down the social hierarchy and not up it. It’s like laying the blame for 9/11 solely on the backs of crazed suicide bombers, as is routinely done in mainstream media, without examining underlying U.S. military aggression and belligerent foreign policy.
Of course throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of Tory HQ was an act of violent stupidity. But this is mainly because, if violence is to be kept in the arsenal of protest and social change (as it is equally kept in the arsenal of most governments and our economic system), it should at least be kept well-targeted and effective. We live in an undeniable time of crisis, not just regarding the economy, but also factoring in decades of increasingly rapacious human activity that has rendered the global environment toxified, depleted and in an extremely precarious condition. Geologists increasingly refer to the present period as the “Anthropocene” in honour of the horrendous geological and ecological change our species has provoked on the biosphere. We have single-handedly brought about the 6th great phase of species extinction in the history of the planet. I can go on.
As the juggernaut of an ethically-perverted human society edges us and other species closer to the brink in a multitude of arenas, it becomes increasingly less defendable. Over 90% of large fish in the world’s oceans are now gone. Unacceptable levels of dioxins are to be found in breast milk of mothers in every country ever examined (actually, is any level acceptable?). World military spending was over $1.5 trillion in 2009, increasing unstoppably even throughout the ongoing global economic crisis.
But no, you have to live with crippling debt if you want to further your education. There comes a point when you see real violence for what it is, and stop believing that making pretty placards is really going to do anything. As the acclaimed author Derrick Jensen says, you just have to decide at what point that is. When 99% of the large fish are gone? 100%? You might not like the implications of this, it might make you uncomfortable, but then again, I don’t really care. It’s my planet too.
By the way, Gandhi, once wrote letters to Hitler asking him to stop his violence, signing off the last one with “Your sincere friend”. Would you believe it didn’t do anything?