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.

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Commons Confidential: Smith, selfies and pushy sons

All the best gossip from party conference, including why Dennis Skinner is now the MP for Selfie Central.

Owen Smith discovered the hard way at the Labour party conference in Liverpool that one moment you’re a contender and the next you’re a nobody. The party booked a luxurious suite at the plush Pullman Hotel for Candidate Smith before the leadership result. He was required to return the key card the day after Jeremy Corbyn’s second coming. On the upside, Smith no longer had to watch his defeat replayed endlessly on the apartment’s giant  flat-screen TV.

The Labour back-room boffin Patrick Heneghan, the party’s executive director of elections, had good cause to be startled when a TV crew pounced on him to demand an interview. The human submarine rarely surfaces in public and anonymity is his calling card. It turns out that the bespectacled Heneghan was mistaken for Owen Smith – a risky likeness when vengeful Corbynistas are on rampage. There’s no evidence of Smith being mistaken for Heneghan, though. Yet.

Members of Labour’s governing National Executive Committee are discovering new passions to pass the time during interminable meetings, as the Mods and the Corbs battle over each line of every decision. The shadow cabinet attack dog Jon “Sparkle” Ashworth, son of a casino croupier and a bunny girl, whiles away the hours by reading the poetry of Walt Whitman and W B Yeats on his iPad. Sparkle has learned that, to echo Whitman, to be with those he likes is enough.

I discovered Theresa May’s bit of rough – the grizzled Tory chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, a former Derbyshire coal miner – does his gardening in steel-toecapped wellies stamped “NCB” from his time down the pit thirty years ago. He’ll need his industrial footwear in Birmingham to kick around Tories revolting over grammar schools and Brexit.

Another ex-miner, Dennis Skinner, was the MP for Selfie Central in Liverpool, where a snap with the Beast of Bolsover was a popular memento. Alas, no cameras captured him in the Commons library demonstrating the contorted technique of speed-walkers. His father once inquired, “Why tha’ waddling tha’ bloody arse?” in Skinner’s younger days, when he’d top 7mph. Observers didn’t dare.

The Northern Poorhouse minister Andrew Percy moans that he’s been allocated a broom cupboard masquerading as an office in the old part of parliament. My snout claims that Precious Percy grumbled: “It’s so small, my human rights are violated.” Funny how the only “rights” many Tories shout about are their own.

The son of a very prominent Labour figure was caught trying to smuggle friends without passes into the secure conference zone in Liverpool. “Don’t you know who I am?” The cop didn’t, but he does now.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories