The State never considers itself violent. It never considers its actions questionable or its deeds unconscionable.
Witness the many times over the past decade when civilians have been killed in the name of war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, or against Iraq as an extension of myriad Mideast entanglements and our “interests” there. Sometimes this is by accident, as when errant intelligence points to the wrong compounds and a bevy of elderly folks, women and children go down in a haze of bullets or a swift surgical strike. Other times it’s just the price a state is willing to pay for war.
The unjustness of this violence may garner a brief military or government statement apologizing for the collateral damage. But the underlying issue remains unaddressed; that in support of its aims the state will unceasingly use violence, both openly and covertly. It will also use violence against its own people, whether because they protested against such endeavors, or because they’re agitating for other ends.
This violence is nothing new.
A monopoly on force
The State’s natural right to the instruments of violence remains immutable, a point which is underscored by its access to and control of the greatest violent instruments within the State — the police and armed forces.
Tables turn dramatically when violence erupts among the populace, bringing what the State would consider to be “collateral damage” — innocent persons injured or property destroyed—into the more ambiguous realm of society-at-large. From the government’s viewpoint, these are exclusively acts of criminality, exactly the interpretation we’re hearing from Downing Street as riots roil the UK.
A brilliant analysis by Mike Freedman on the relationship between how the State behaves and why citizens behave similarly, but in a different, rawer fashion, appeared on our site earlier this week. In a rag such as ours a discussion of causal events is not only welcome, it is relished, as observers seek to understand why things happen, and what it means for our times.
No such conversation appears to be happening among government officials, where issues of democracy are subsumed by the State’s de facto imperialism.
Behave, or I’ll take away your Twitter!
In response to violent outbursts among the people, the Conservative government, under Prime Minister David Cameron, is contemplating cutting off access to social media, recognizing in Twitter, Facebook and other social media and communication devises, tools for organizing demonstrations of disgust with the State. So he seeks to put it down forthwith, imagining that will bring an end to the eruptions.
The Prime Minister considers this even while his government monitors that social media for its own purposes.
The common concern voiced about curtailing social media is that it would infringe freedom of speech, which is obviously true. But the implications are far deeper than simply further sidelining voices which are already muted under the State’s hegemony.
The power of the powerless
It is said of terrorists and/or insurgents that they use asymmetrical fighting means, including hitting civilians in the process, because those are the only tools they have access to with which to fight a repressive or unresponsive State. And that one man’s interpretation of random violence is another man’s just cause. Both groups of fighters or rebels use rudimentary tools to coordinate and organize with one another, exhibiting an agility and craftiness that often keeps the better organized and more formidable appearing State on the run.
Much the same can be said of discontented populations within a given state, like in Britain today. As Freedman noted, many Brits feel that they have peacefully demonstrated, protested and raised their voices in opposition to State and plutocratic behavior only to be ignored time and time again. He wonders whether we should be surprised that people have lost patience and even coherence and are now resorting to violence?
When democracy devolves to an empty ballot-box ritual, the meaning of which is forgotten once the newly elected officials take office, what is the democracy we’re left with?
When public officials and the State forget that they work for us, and not the other way around—that we are not passive subjects, but democratic actors—then what is the charge of representative government anymore?
And if public opinion is repeatedly ignored, as in the recent US debt debate, in which Tea Party priorities and GOP tantrum politics exhibited all the signs of a tyranny of the minority, (or when Brits marched against austerity for the taxpaying masses—among other causes—only to be roundly disregarded), how does democracy retain the exalted status we apply to it?
Or has the term become meaningless in our supposedly free societies?
The widening chasm
Whatever one’s take on the current mayhem in the UK, it’s likely that similar outrage will increase there and in other countries as the gap between rich and poor around the world reaches astronomical heights (it already has) and as governments exhibit an increasing indifference to real qualities of democracy in favor of the appearance of democracy.
With plutocracy at the heart of almost every major industrial state, with rule by corporate fiat and control of the instruments of the state, including communication channels, fuel, distribution, etc., the citizenry should expect very little sympathy from national governments toward their concerns, and very little tolerance for their means of expression, whether peaceful or violent.
That’s when things will get much more hairy.
The people are facing an unprecedented downturn in economy that was wrought by Big Business, white collar crooks and complicit governments. We’re also facing looming climate chaos and depletion of oil and other resources. The differences between the haves and have nots will only grow in this situation, as will the demands for justice. And it wont be pretty. Nighttime in Manchester might seem like kid’s play by then, especially in the US, where we’re armed to the teeth.
Who then decides what is legitimate violence? Or whether organizers have a right to the tools of communication in order to press their case in the face of a trenchant, unresponsive State?
Would King George have cut off the social media of American revolutionaries back in the 18th century if they had Twitter? You bet! And they would have been outraged, and fought back. These are the guys we hail as heroes. Aren’t we the same rebels today on any number of legitimate grievances? Don’t we face a similarly long train of abuses?
Personally, I prefer the great path of nonviolence demonstrated by Gandhi and taken up here in the States by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights era. I believe it can work to reassert the will of the people and the demands for accountable government. And I definitely believe such organizing and focus is long overdue and very necessary today. But it calls for sacrifice, clarity, and belief in one’s institutions.
But what faith have we now in the wisdom of our government leaders to allow demonstrations of that nature, or to respond to them, when they have repeatedly capitulated to Big Business’s plutocratic aims and ignored the will of the people? And how do we even begin to make that commitment to change when privilege and distraction have made us soft—complacent on the one hand, and prone to inarticulate violent outbursts on the other?
And what if we lose the ways of communicating we’ve come to rely on? Shouldn’t one man’s just cause be allowed an outlet?
If the UK clamps down on social media, a great and disturbing precedent will have been set whose aims are to quell not only seemingly purely chaotic violence, but also the will of anyone to #StandUpFightBack against the failure of governments and leaders to deal with the issue of our times.
It is not just freedom of speech that will be at risk. It is the very foundation of freedom itself, and the whole apparatus of meaningful government. And we’re the one’s who’ll bear the batons, both real and metaphorical, if freedom is compromised any further.
The time for an honest reckoning between the people and our governments is at hand.
–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice