The creeping redefinition of violence

Alex Hern speaks to David Graeber about the liberal abandonment of Occupy New York.

For a brief moment in 2011, it seemed like change was in the air. The Occupy movement, growing from an encampment in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan into a worldwide network of activists, aimed to bring the spirit of the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados movement and the Syntagma Square demonstrations in Athens to America. But then it all came crashing down; in some cities, literally so.

Anthropologist, author and activist David Graeber was there from the start. I met him in a café outside Goldmiths University to talk about his new book, The Democracy Project, which chronicles the rise of Occupy, the conditions which allowed it to happen and the political motivations behind its downfall.

There's always been a deal between the activist and parliamentary left. Graeber phrases it as "we win them a place at the table, they keep us out of jail". Even if the soft left might not agree with the tactics or the politics of those on the barricades, they have historically protected them to a certain extent – because their political negotiations were significantly easier if they could point to a body of people who wanted to go much further.

But in recent years, with 9/11 being the key break-point, that relationship has broken down. And it was sundered completely once the battle to save occupy began. It started with the police, he insists. The real split between the liberal left and the activists in Occupy happened after the police had already moved in. "Suddenly the debate was not about police smashing people's computers, burning libraries, things that you'd think would be of concern to civil libertarians, but was like" – he puts on a silly voice – "'but, you know, two months ago there was one city where some people broke some windows.' And the amazing thing, as I keep pointing out, is that here we have a movement with 500 occupations, at least 300 of which are major, and there's one city where there was property destruction."

But it was always a tricky position for the movement to be in. While the police were getting more and more militant based on largely illusory threats of violence, the demands for pacifism were getting ever stronger. Graeber takes particular issue with the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who suspended his non-cooperation movement after violence broke out in Chauri Chaura. "Yeah, they hacked 17 policemen apart with machetes. I think if that had happened in Cleaveland, we would have called off the campaign too! It just shows the difference in standards."

A common refrain throughout the period when Occupy was active – and, indeed, during direct action before and since – was that violence against property was used to justify violence against people. Activists break windows, so police break skulls. Wouldn't it be easier to avoid giving them the pretext? And even if radicals want to uphold the moral legitimacy of damaging property in the name of a cause, where's the converse understanding that it is still a weighty action to perform?

"I would put it this way… Imagine there's a child in danger, and the only way you could save that child is by breaking some glass that doesn't belong to you. Would anybody consider that an act of violence? So is it different if it's, like, ten thousand children? The difference is that you don't know – in the case of a child right there, you're pretty sure you'll be able to get them to a hospital, in the case of a political act there's a certain ambiguity. It might backfire, it might not work. Therefore my moral rubric is that in a world of radical uncertainty, don't do anything that would be more damaging if it didn't work. So you don't blow somebody up to save a hundred people, but a window – come on, it's a window!"

Two years later, the ramifications are still being felt. This week's protests in Turkey have been dubbed "Occupy Gezi", even as the links with the Occupy movement – and the Arab Spring, and all the other uprisings large and small – remain hotly debated. I ask Graeber what he thinks Occupy's effects actually were. Was it a sea change? "They will talk about the world revolution of 2011 in the same way they talked about 68, that story is already written. It almost reminds me of the famous Zhoue Enlai quote, on the effects of the French Revolution? Where he said 'it's a little too soon to tell'.

"We're not going to know what it all meant until at least ten years from now. And a lot of it's being fought out right now."

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.