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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Why Ukip might not be dead just yet

Nigel Farage's party might have a second act in it. 

Remember Ukip? Their former leader Nigel Farage is carving out a living as a radio shock jock and part-time film critic. The party is currently midway through a leadership election to replace Paul Nuttall, who quit his post following their disastrous showing at the general election.

They are already facing increasing financial pressure thanks to the loss of short money and, now they no longer have any MPs, their parliamentary office in Westminster, too. There may be bigger blows to come. In March 2019, their 24 MEPs will all lose their posts when Britain leaves the European Union, denying another source of funding. In May 2021, if Ukip’s disastrous showing in the general election is echoed in the Welsh Assembly, the last significant group of full-time Ukip politicians will lose their seats.

To make matters worse, the party could be badly split if Anne-Marie Waters, the founder of Sharia Watch, is elected leader, as many of the party’s MEPs have vowed to quit if she wins or is appointed deputy leader by the expected winner, Peter Whittle.

Yet when you talk to Ukip officials or politicians, they aren’t despairing, yet. 

Because paradoxically, they agree with Remainers: Theresa May’s Brexit deal will disappoint. Any deal including a "divorce bill" – which any deal will include – will fall short of May's rhetoric at the start of negotiations. "People are willing to have a little turbulence," says one senior figure about any economic fallout, "but not if you tell them you haven't. We saw that with Brown and the end of boom and bust. That'll be where the government is in March 2019."

They believe if Ukip can survive as a going concern until March 2019, then they will be well-placed for a revival. 

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