Dead Men Left

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Ran into this, and I know not how. Had a brief skim over proceedings, since - between furiously pummeling the keyboard in an effort to polish off first drafts before a June deadline, and thrusting Respect leaflets into the unsuspecting punters' hands - brief skimming is all I have time for, and I will admit to being not wholly impressed. Hardt and Negri's Empire has many strengths, amongst them their chapter on Lenin's Imperialism, but clarity of prose is not one of them: Negri, always inclined to vocalise a mulitiplicity of signifiers where one will do, has been supping a little too deeply from the heady brew of post-structuralism and it has affected him somewhat. Unfortunately, his ragged band of admirers have felt it necessary to join his po-mo party - real parties are probably beneath them - and indulge themselves in delirious, chaotic flights of linguistic dexterity. The net result is, of course, that whatever they do commit paper is very hard to read, particularly for those of us in a hurry.

(NB: I stress at this point that I make no great claim to clarity, particularly when I am in a hurry. But I plead incompetence, rather than deliberate intent.)

What, for example, can we make of this short piece on February 15? This was the international day of protest against the war last year, which saw over 8,000,000 marching around the world. After briefly (and typically, for the genre, stressing its significance) noting the media's fixation on anti-war protests, Erik Empson goes on to say:

"Over a million people converge on London. The majority of these people are not affiliated, nor actively engaged in 'politics'. They think Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator who should be punished, on the whole they believe that with a UN resolution the war would be just and on the whole they believe that on a demonstration it is 'best to do what the police say' because 'there must be good reason for it'. The rhetoric of this anti-war feeling draws equivalences between western sponsored terror and the crimes of the regimes it targets. It calls for the King's head. But insofar as it does that it sees itself as in the dominions of an American Lord. 'Tony' is seen as a wayward friend, local councillor turned bad or as the ombudsman destined to deliver on various money back guarantees. In Britain this is how we think of justice: as what is due."

Now, first of all, I very much doubt that the majority of those on the march would have supported the war had the UN backed it. The logic is easy enough: vast numbers - from my memory of the polls, around 70% - of the country opposed the war prior to its commencement. A smaller fraction of that huge chunk attended the demo. Those most likely to attend were therefore most likely to be those most significantly opposed to the war. They would, then, be those most likely to continue to oppose the war were it to be backed by the UN. Again, and from memory, I seem to remember a goodly minority - around 40% - at the same point in time claimed they would continue to oppose the war, were the UN to back it. This resolve was never tested, of course, so all this remains hypothetical; but I think it is fair to assume that a second resolution would have significantly diminshed the size of the anti-war movement, whilst conversely making it a far harder and more committed body.

However, our po-mo chum seems to have adopted wholesale the opinion of the media he so criticises: that those attending "weren't really" protestors, as we notice from his barbs about their attitude to the police. The majority of that march had never been on a protest before in their lives; the sheer size of the demo meant as much. Vast chunks of the Feb 15 march were filled with silent ranks of marchers, who were unsure as to whether to chant, or sing, or blow whistles, or whatever. This doesn't seem a reason to treat them with contempt, so much as to conduct an argument: the great majority of people simply do assume that the police are on "their side" in some indefinable way, and will give way to their moral authority before any coercion becomes necessary.

This is not an attitude set in stone. One of the fastest lessons that can be learned as to the purposes of the state and its police forces is when the bobbies start knocking you about a bit. Never mind The State and Revolution, a sharp crack over the head with a truncheon - and the sheer injustice of this - soon dispels fuzzy ideas about police neutrality. Our aim should be (obviously) to win this argument without that violence being necessary; but if delivered it can be a dramatic lesson.

Empson goes on to ponder as to why the police did not attack the demonstrators. In true po-mo "radical" fashion, he assumes it is because police and march organisers are playing the same game together: they really are all on the "same side", just like most of the protestors assume they are - except for those well-versed in Buadrillard and Derrida, of course, who can spot these "games" a mile off. May I discretely suggest a couple of points. It is the fact that the police weren't on "our side", that we weren't playing a game, and that the stakes were so high that the police did not dare attack the demonstration. This is assuming they had any inclination to do so; despite Empson's assertions, the police very rarely attack protests. This is one of the virtues of living in a liberal democracy, where certain democratic concessions have been won. Allowing for that, it is not implausible that the police would lay into anti-war protestors, and - when things starting getting sharper, the closer we came to war - they did so with abandon. Schoolkids in uniform dragged by their hair across roads, my tiny female friend kicked to the ground, and a particularly vicious headlock all stand out in my memory. However, to lay into a two million strong demonstration, on an emotive issue such as war, was to play for far higher stakes than we are used to: as an admission of the government's total lack of legitimacy, it would be ideal. We, the protestors, would either be cowed into submission, or so enraged that all the police in Britain could not contain us: a short, sharp lesson in capitalist rule, learned by thousands upon thousands. There was little reason, in an exceptionally stable liberal democracy like Britain, for the police to risk that.

I'll leave the final word with Empson:

"This withdrawl is crucial to understanding the enigmatic processes of transition from imperialist control regimes to the bio-political topographies of Empire. To all of those that seek to act under the appearance of the representational guise, this withdrawal is the worst possible thing. However for those of us breathing the same air as these dissenters, and opposed to the manufacture of the war from start to finish, it is something of a liberation it is a step outside of the control paradigm, it is a step outside the liberal politics of consent - whilst consituted political agencies rush to fill out the exposed but now vacated spaces- the multitude, whose activity far outreaches the boundaries of political terrain, continues to evolve its own multifarious dimensions of affective activity. No doubt the organs of detached power will continue to hurry after it and recuperate a language of consent. Let them. So long as they fear anti-political and a- political behaviour they will fail to be part of its enormous creative potential and socially manifest expressions of and desires for non-separated social being."

Well, quite.