I worry my last post might have come across as over-focusing on how to categorise protest tactics as either ‘violent’ or ‘non-violent’, like I’m saying that’s the central moral issue here. That wasn’t my intention, so I’m going to try to make explicit some of the background ideas I had in mind.
In brief: I think our imaginations are trained to see protests that involve any sort of disruption or lawbreaking as ‘disorder’, as something negative, as a breakdown. Instead, I suggest seeing this in terms of the temporary constitution of an alternative system, an embryonic version of a different order. Rather than simply a breaking down, it’s a brief glimpse of an alternative building up.
First off, just to be clear: I don’t think all violent actions are wrong, or that all non-violent actions are right, or anything like that. But I do think ‘violent’ is a morally salient category: the fact that we view an action as ‘violent’ should change what sort of justifications we require for it or accept for it. And just as importantly, it’s an emotionally charged category: people do and should feel different emotions in response to things they think of as ‘violence’. Violence is scary and threatening in a distinctive way.
The first implication of this, of course, is that we should be scared of ongoing police brutality! The fact that it takes nationwide protests even to get charges laid against a man who cold-bloodedly killed another man on a widely-seen video, surrounded by witnesses, should be terrifying. The fact that behind every such filmed killing, there are a hundred that never got filmed, and that behind every killing, there are a thousand smaller assaults, threats, and other abuses, whose perpetrators will be reliably believed over their victims, and may even be able to send their victims to jail for ‘resisting’ – that should be chilling.
The second implication is that we should be shocked at both unprovoked police violence at protests, and at policing measures, like kettling, that predictably escalate violence. It should feel deeply unsettling that you basically can’t tell, when you attend a public demonstration, whether you’ll be shot in the face with a rubber-coated bullet.
Anxiety about any violence that might come from the protesters themselves is a distant third implication. I’m not saying that it’s completely misplaced: these scenes are unpredictable and chaotic. And, even though I’ve been arguing it’s not properly regarded as violence, it could be reasonable to worry about your store being damaged or you merchandise taken, but the severity of these harms does pale in comparison to both the injuries many protesters are sustaining and the deaths, assaults, incarcerations, and also loss of property that comes with unaccountable police brutality.
But there’s a certain style of reaction lots of people tend to have to big protests, that enormously inflates that third thing, that fear of ‘rioting’, construed as violence, and lets it obscure or dominate the first two. Let’s call this the ‘but-the-rioting’ reaction. This reaction may come out as opposition, but can also manifest as abivalence, uncertainty, reluctance, as an insistence on always adding an ‘if’ or a ‘but’. The intention of my posts was to engage with the ‘but-the-rioting’ reaction and try to undermine it through deconstruction.
I think there are a few factors coming together in the ‘but-the-rioting’ reaction. One obvious factor is social position: which sorts of threats seem major and important to you is partly a function of how likely they are to affect you. If the violence of policing seems like something that only happens to other people, it’s not as scary. And I don’t mean to be accusing others of anything I don’t recognise as a tendency in myself: however much I read about unaccountable police violence, there’s a struggle to internalise it, because on some level I know it’s not that likely to happen to me, and I have to work to detect and correct for that. And this isn’t exclusively about race – it’s about class, about education, about queerness, about sex work, about disability, about drug addiction, about all sorts of factors that can change how police are likely to treat you.
A second obvious factor in explaining the ‘but-the-rioting’ reaction is predictability: police violence is a known quantity, a part of everyday life, while a wave of huge protests sweeping the world is new, strange, and unpredictable. There’s likely to be an interaction between this and social position: if you feel like police violence happens to other people, the fact that it’s a predictable known quantity can make it seem less threatening, whereas if you feel like it could happen to you or your loved ones, the fact that it’s a predictable known quantity can make it seem more threatening.
So one way to address the but-the-rioting response is to draw attention to these two factors, and ask people to overcome them. It sounds something like this:
“Yes, the protests bring with them disorder, violence, chaos, but this is justified because they’re a response to more extreme violence, and are aiming for an improvement. If you care more about violence against property than violence against black lives, you need to re-examine your priorities.”
This sort of defence of the protests is great, as far as it goes, but it still concedes a lot: it concedes that the protests are in fact an outbreak of the same bad thing being protested against (‘violence’), and so they’re justified only as an emergency remedial measure.
A related defence is to point out that insofar as violence is occurring in this wave of protest, it is overwhelmingly coming from the police themselves. And again, I fully agree. But I think there’s a stronger defence also available, which doesn’t say ‘ok, you’re right to be scared of the protests, but these other things are worse‘: a defence is available that says ‘you don’t have to be scared of the protests at all.’
That stronger defence says: the protests are not violent, not ‘disorder’, even when they don’t accord with the established laws and the dictates of established authority. They’re not disorder, but an alternative order.
Here’s what I mean. The legal regime established by the US government (I’ll focus on the US here) and enforced by the police is one way of assigning power over different resources to different people. It says, for instance, that all the computers in a computer store belong to some company, and so do the windows, and nobody can remove, modify, or damage those computers or windows except with that company’s permission. That company (or the people acting on their behalf) will usually permit you to do things with the computers only after you press some buttons on a device so as to tell other people to reduce the rights you have over other objects, and increases the company’s rights over other objects – i.e. ‘give’ them ‘money’. And they’ll only permit you to do things with the window if you’re following their specific instructions, usually to put in new windows they prefer.
None of this is a matter of impersonal facts – there’s no objective fact that ‘the company owns these computers’. It’s a social construction, given practical force by the background threat of enforcement by police and other arms of the legal system.
Now one night something unusual happens: while the store is empty and locked, some people come and remove the window so that they can enter, and take the computers away to their homes. Other people enter after the window is already gone, and take computers for themselves. The reason this happens is that the balance of enforcement power has changed: there’s a huge demonstration going on that occupies the energies of the police and makes it harder to track down the people who took the computers.
We have this ideology in our society that says: what happened in this second case is ‘disorder’, ‘violence’, ‘chaos’ – a pure negative, nothing but a breakdown of something positive. Because resources ended up distributed in a way not sanctioned by the usual rules, the whole episode is seen as dangerous, a threat to society as a whole. It’s ‘looting’, and this ideology says that ‘looting’ is a form of violence – threatening in the same way that stabbings and shootings are.
(Indeed, this ideology may even say that we should see ‘looting’ as destruction, as though all those computers just disappeared, ceased to exist when they were taken without legally-sanctioned ownership. Like everyone grabs a computer just so they can take it home and smash it with a hammer.)
By contrast, this ideology encourages us to see the normal days, when everything proceeds in accordance with the company’s plans, as intrinsically ‘orderly’, intrinsically ‘safe’ and ‘secure’. If those normal days feature you getting harassed by cops, or exploited at work, or denied healthcare even while your illness advances – those are maybe bad but they’re limited, contained; they’re imperfections in a basically reliable and trustworthy system. This ideology says that anything good and positive about the night of ‘looting’ is just a speck of order in a sea of disorder, while anything bad and threatening about the status quo is just a speck of disorder in a sea of order.
I could call this ideology ‘statism’ or something, but I don’t know if that’s really helpful – it’s not really an ‘ism’ in the sense of a theory, it’s a habit of emotion and imagination that we’re trained into. For now maybe I’ll call it ‘the dichotomous perception’.
I want to try rejecting this ideological perception, this dichotomy of one distribution being inherently ‘order’ (feel safe!) and the other being inherently ‘disorder’ (feel scared!). I’m saying, let’s try seeing the protests, and everything that comes with them, the same way we see the legal regime. Lets try to see them as people coming together to enact a new regime, a new sort of order.
- When protesters burn a cop car, let’s take them as saying they don’t think that car is useful. We can consider that the same way we consider a city councillor’s budget proposal to defund the police force.
- When protesters break a window and take computers out of a store, let’s take them as saying that those computers ought to belong to some local individuals, not to the company. We can consider that the same way we consider a plan for wealth redistribution via progressive taxation or economic stimulus.
- When they tear down or deface a statue, let’s take them as saying that this statue shouldn’t be up, and the person it celebrates shouldn’t be celebrated. We can consider that the same way we consider a mayor having the statue taken down.
- When they don’t show up for work, let’s take them as saying that people shouldn’t have to work this day. We can consider that the same we consider a city making a new holiday.
Here a bunch of objections may spring to mind.
- ‘But the protests don’t have good decision-making mechanisms – they don’t vote on everything that some individual does, and in practice they can’t!’
- ‘But the protesters have all sorts of conflicting views, not a single shared program – in fact, some of them may be actively trying to sabotage the efforts of others!’
- ‘But lots of the things that happen at protests aren’t even intended by anyone, they’re just side-effects of things people are doing – sometimes unwanted side effects!’
All of this is true – but it’s also true of the everyday legal regime we live under. Why does this company own these computers? Was it voted on by the whole US population – or, perhaps more importantly, by all the workers in the supply chain who actually made the computers? No, it’s a knock-on effect of a complicated, messy, process of people seeing the opportunities made available by laws that were voted on by representatives who were elected (or weren’t), and then taking actions based on those opportunities, which had knock-on effects on the opportunities other people had, and on what they did, and so on. Very likely, the people in charge of the computer company violated lots of laws – or, what comes to the same thing, carefully looked the other way while slipping money to people who would violate laws. (Where did all that coltan in the computers come from?) And yet they managed to remain the official owner of these computers. There are ‘rogue elements’ in the economy operating against the interests of the whole, just as there are in the protests. Neither is anything like a perfect model of consistent, rational, collective action.
In some ways the legal regime is better and more democratic – for one thing, it has a large body of legal precedents and judgements that can help people (sometimes) to predict how it will operate. And it has some ‘democratic’ institutions that are (sometimes, on certain questions) roughly-equally sensitive to input from different people everywhere inside the country.
But in other respects the protest regime is better and more democratic – it’s less captured by powerful companies, less controlled by wealth, less stymied by bureaucratic apathy, and so on. It’s particularly sensitive to input from people who go out and protest, which isn’t everyone equally (e.g. the young are likely to be over-represented), but in some ways helpfully balances the opposite skews in the legal regime (e.g. those with the least to lose, who benefit the least from the existing regime, are most likely to attend the protest).
There are also some ways that protests can resolve collective action problems: if 90% of people think local people deserve those computers more than the company does, but everybody is scared of legal enforcement if they try it individually, then the brief opportunity to “loot” allows the collective will to be better expressed, not held back by individual fear.
I’m not saying this other way of seeing that I’m advocating is the impersonally, scientifically, correct one. By reading collective decisions and collective values into the outcomes of the protests, we are choosing to selectively amplify specific aspects of reality, and thereby fitting reality into one of many possible narratives. It’s no more or less factual than seeing the protests as ‘disorder’, by selectively amplifying other aspects of reality.
But I do think the way of seeing that I’m advocating is less distorting, and in that sense more objective, than the dichotomous perception we’ve been trained in, where the everyday regime we live under gets seen through the rosy lens of ‘order’, and any alternative or rival system that emerges within it seems like ‘disorder’. And I think that ideological perception is a big factor behind the but-the-rioting reaction.
That’s what I want to get across here. I think the oxymoronic construct of ‘violence against property’ is a big part of supporting that dichotomous, ideological, way of seeing, which is why I wanted to undermine it. Because I do believe in an objective sort of ‘disorder’: disorder is a situation where you have no security against violence. Disorder is having to fear other people. Any form of social order – established by law or by protesters – has to begin with non-violence, with a basic understanding that we won’t hurt each other (see this story for a recent example of protesters doing this better than cops). And so having a conception of violence that equates it with departures from the currently-established regime implies that nothing that goes against that regime can possibly be ‘order’, because it has been made definitionally impossible for it prevent ‘violence’. I think that conception is a dangerous mistake.
My hope is also that seeing protests as alternative orders can be reassuring: rather than our cities being engulfed in a menacing cloud of chaos, they are temporarily hosting some alternative social orders. You might still worry that these alternative orders might make some people worse off, but it’s just as reasonable to worry that about some new regulation or social policy. There’s no need to fear that social order itself is unravelling.
I’ll close by noting that there is obviously a huge and complex question of political philosophy about how alternative orders ought to relate to one another. I can’t even begin to fully address that here but I’ll make some remarks. Liberalism is in part defined by guaranteeing a (limited) right to assemble and protest. At it’s best, liberalism embraces the power of alternative order-formation as a way to improve and reform broader society – look at all the ways that official governing bodies have already moved to ‘legally’ do things like remove confederate monuments before the protesters do it themselves.
I think one version of what it means to be an anarchist is to go further, to hold a sort of presumption of egalitarianism about rival orders – people are free to shift from living under one order to living under another, and the new one is not automatically less valid than the old one. In part you could think of this just as an effort to see reality clearly – people do an can create social order from the bottom up, in different forms, all over the place. In part it’s a matter of not being convinced by any of the arguments used to legitimate the state’s claim to a rightful monopoly of force. And in part it’s a matter of recognising that out of all the different forms of social order that exist, the official, dominant, one is in many ways destructive and unfair, and that the temporary alternatives created by protests often speak with greater moral authority.
Whatever you might think of anarchism as a theory, I think there’s a compelling case that the alternative order enacted by these protests has greater moral authority than the police-regime that opposes it, and than the Trump government. The dominant order in the US is the descendent of the order violently established by white men owning black slaves on land taken from indigenous Americans, and despite centuries of social struggle its racist and authoritarian character has clearly persisted. Everyone is seeing that now, even those who managed not to before.
A black-led anti-authoritarian mass movement deserves to be recognised as the articulation of a political message and the enactment of a political order, and my aim in these posts has been to analyse and undermine habits of thought and feeling that obstruct that recognition.