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
Show Hide image

Brexit could destroy our NHS – and it would be the government's own fault

Without EU citizens, the health service will be short of 20,000 nurses in a decade.

Aneurin Bevan once said: "Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community."

And so, in 1948, the National Health Service was established. But today, the service itself seems to be on life support and stumbling towards a final and fatal collapse.

It is no secret that for years the NHS has been neglected and underfunded by the government. But Brexit is doing the NHS no favours either.

In addition to the promise of £350m to our NHS every week, Brexit campaigners shamefully portrayed immigrants, in many ways, as as a burden. This is quite simply not the case, as statistics have shown how Britain has benefited quite significantly from mass EU migration. The NHS, again, profited from large swathes of European recruitment.

We are already suffering an overwhelming downturn in staffing applications from EU/EAA countries due to the uncertainty that Brexit is already causing. If the migration of nurses from EEA countries stopped completely, the Department of Health predicts the UK would have a shortage of 20,000 nurses by 2025/26. Some hospitals have significantly larger numbers of EU workers than others, such as Royal Brompton in London, where one in five workers is from the EU/EAA. How will this be accounted for? 

Britain’s solid pharmaceutical industry – which plays an integral part in the NHS and our everyday lives – is also at risk from Brexit.

London is the current home of the highly prized EU regulatory body, the European Medicine Agency, which was won by John Major in 1994 after the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

The EMA is tasked with ensuring that all medicines available on the EU market are safe, effective and of high quality. The UK’s relationship with the EMA is unquestionably vital to the functioning of the NHS.

As well as delivering 900 highly skilled jobs of its own, the EMA is associated with 1,299 QPPV’s (qualified person for pharmacovigilance). Various subcontractors, research organisations and drug companies have settled in London to be close to the regulatory process.

The government may not be able to prevent the removal of the EMA, but it is entirely in its power to retain EU medical staff. 

Yet Theresa May has failed to reassure EU citizens, with her offer to them falling short of continuation of rights. Is it any wonder that 47 per cent of highly skilled workers from the EU are considering leaving the UK in the next five years?

During the election, May failed to declare how she plans to increase the number of future homegrown nurses or how she will protect our current brilliant crop of European nurses – amounting to around 30,000 roles.

A compromise in the form of an EFTA arrangement would lessen the damage Brexit is going to cause to every single facet of our NHS. Yet the government's rhetoric going into the election was "no deal is better than a bad deal". 

Whatever is negotiated with the EU over the coming years, the NHS faces an uncertain and perilous future. The government needs to act now, before the larger inevitable disruptions of Brexit kick in, if it is to restore stability and efficiency to the health service.

0800 7318496