Direct Action & Democracy

November 15, 2010

There’s a fascinating minor schism currently echoing through the radical Left right now, one which can be clearly see in the video to which this blog post refers. It concerns the relationship between direct action and the democratic process, and the disavowal by Aaron Porter of what one might call the extra-curricular activity at last week’s tuition fees protest.

Direct action is a term which covers a multitude of different types of protest, the majority of which involve infringing upon social norms or laws in a minor fashion. I am reminded of the hothead who, during my days as a student protesting against Esso for their various sins, was determined to try to climb on the roof of the Esso garage we’d made the target of our protests. We always dissuaded him, thankfully, but it’s a useful illustration of direct action typically involves protest that is broadly illegal but is generally handled by the police and its targets in a civil fashion, rather than criminal. There is all manner of interesting debate to be had about when a political act becomes criminal – not in a legal sense, but in the more grounded moral sense which is typically applied in these situations.

For example, many of the trespassers in CCHQ last week will not be prosecuted for doing so. Using CCTV footage it is entirely possible that many prosecutions could be secured, but the political cost for doing so is too high. The fact that the actions of the students involved were ostensibly political places them in a strange social grey area where the law ceases to be a practical tool, and politics at its most immediate, at the place where relationships between people and the perception of those relationships overrides social convention and the law itself, takes place. Politics is essentially about power relations, and the law is the framework within which those power relations are meant to be constrained. However, when a political act strays outside that framework it does not cease to be a political act, and recourse to the law as a form of ready-made judgement is not appropriate.

Direct action, therefore, is a non-legal political act, but it would be incorrect to call it illegal. It is an appropriate political move when your opportunity to effect change within a given legal framework is severely constrained to the point of impossibility. This does not make it legally or morally correct, merely an rational political judgement.

In this sense, it is a very interesting form of political judgement. Calling for ‘occupations’, as Clare Solomon does in the video linked above, is a call to use the manifest physical force of a movement to overcome the lack of influence that movement has within our legal framework. This is justified by Solomon on the grounds that the legal framework has failed to deliver in such a serious way as to break the social contract that motivates its acceptance.

In this case, this is the breaking of the Liberal Democrat pledge to scrap tuition fees, and to oppose any rise. It is manifestly an egregious break, especially as we now know that plans were made to scrap the pledge before the election.

I have made my feelings on the proposed reform clear – it is an inadequate and ill-thought-out move that aims to satisfy too many parties and will inevitably require further reform. It does not justify breaking our pledge. However, it requires a further step to say that the only remaining option to students is direct action. This is where the schism lies. Aaron Porter and much of the NUS hierarchy recognise that the legal framework is manifestly beneficial to them, and will therefore restrain any response to this matter to purely legal actions. However, it is clear that, to Solomon and her fellow occupiers, the legal framework is less beneficial. Therefore, they will withhold their consent from that framework more often in the future.

This is something that the Right will never, ever understand. Their fetishisation of property means that a legal framework that protects property rights will always be beneficial to them, and withdrawing consent from that becomes anathema. They therefore have no frame of reference to grasp the fact that the division between the two camps – broadly, the division between the ‘masses’ and the elite – is symptomatic of something broader, which is the division between the intellectual justification behind the Labour movement and the practical gains the broader Left will seek.

I have previously written about how I believe this division came about – this is merely the latest iteration of it. The conclusion is that direct action, standing as it does outside the legal framework in which democracy takes place, has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with power relations. We would be wise to use this division to embarrass Labour at every turn, to demonstrate that they continue to stand away from the interests of their ostensible supporters and are yet seeking to capitalise on it to further their own confused intellectual cause. Porter’s efforts to further his own career will stand as a paradigm example of this.

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