March 26th and the aftermath – where next for the anti-cuts movement?

March 26th and the aftermath – where next for the anti-cuts movement?

Jon Gaynor on the events of March 26th, and the questions posed to the anti-cuts movement by the day's events. Originally published in May 2011.

Well, we should have seen it coming. The police, media and protest organisers were talking up the prospect of “violent troublemakers” “hijacking” the TUC march for weeks in advance of March the 26th, and a few smashed windows and paint bombs later, they showed us - in the words on the Daily Telegraph - “Britain's face of hatred” in all its spectacular glory.

The distinction between “legitimate”, “peaceful” protest on the one hand, and on the other the “violence” of property destruction was used and abused in the aftermath the demonstration, with Teresa May describing “black shirted thugs” rampaging through the West End, championing the arrest of 146 protesters and outlining further curbs to the right to protest. While the number of arrests was consistently quoted in the media within the context of “violence”, the overwhelming majority (138) of them came from the mass arrest of the peaceful occupants of Fortnum and Masons. In fact, only three people were charged with criminal damage, and two with assaulting police officers.

While the mainstream media and police had already set up their distinction between “peaceful” and “violent” protesters well in advance of the day, and made maximum use of it afterwards, this division began to be mirrored in radical circles in the distinction between the peaceful disorder of UK uncut and the “violence” of the window-breakers. Some UK Uncutters appeared to object at being lumped in with the black bloc, and sought to distance themselves from its actions. Describing their occupation of Fortnum and Masons in an article for The Guardian the following day, Alex Pinkerman pointed out that “Balloons and beachballs were the only things being thrown in the air. A basket of chocolates was accidentally knocked over so we picked them up.”

While the binary distinction between “peaceful protesters” and “hooligans” is obviously questionable, there is some mileage in comparing the actions of UK Uncut and the black bloc. Mainly, this is because of the nature of the targets. Some of those of the bloc's were simply posh shops and other ostentatious displays of wealth, Topshop was smashed because of the Arcadia group's tax dodging, and the Ritz Hotel is owned by the Barclay brothers, who live offshore their own Island, Brecqhou. Fortnum and Masons, which was occupied by UK Uncut, is owned by Wittington Investments and has its own elaborate tax-dodging schemes.

In this article, we want to look at some of the issues surrounding both forms of protests, and make some suggestions for the direction of the anti-cuts movement.

The promise and limitations of UK Uncut

The UK has seen a wave of high-street demonstrations under the banner of the UK uncut campaign, many of which have been organised locally following call outs distributed through the internet. The protests have seen a number of stores associated with Tax-Dodging picketed, occupied and flyered in cities and towns up and down the country.

The targets of the campaign have been pretty specific. The most high-profile company to be taken on has been the UK-based telecoms giant Vodafone, which is the most profitable mobile phone operator in the world. Last year veteran investigative magazine Private Eye broke a story on Vodafone's successful tax-dodging, which had involved setting up a subsidiary company in Luxembourg purely to route profits from the company's acquisition of Mannesman through a country with a more agreeable tax regime. After a lengthy legal battle, which apparently was going HMRC's way, the taxman agreed to let Vodafone pay a tax bill of £1.2 billion, rather than the full £6 billion in estimated tax. Vodafone have since dismissed the £6 billion figure as a “urban myth”, despite the fact their accountants projected for it in their own bookeeping. Understandably, the story produced a groundswell of anger, of which these demonstrations are a product.

Target number two is head of the Arcadia group empire - and author of the Efficiency Review advising the government on how to shape its cuts - Sir Philip Green. Green, who made his fortune on the back of workers in South Asia working 12 hour shifts for poverty wages, took home a paycheque unprecedented in UK history when he paid himself £1.2 billion in 2005. This was paid to his wife, living in the tax-haven of Monaco, so as to avoid tax.

The demonstrations have garnered a good deal of attention from the authorities and the media, both of whom have launched investigations into the “ringleaders” of the protests. On their own, the demos have caused a fair bit of disruption, and brought to light the fact that the same government seeking to impose historic cuts in the standard of living in the UK is also allowing its friends in business to avoid fulfilling their tax obligations, if nothing else shattering the great lie that “we're all in this together”.

There are evidently positive aspects to the protests, but some of their limitations are immediately striking. Fundamentally, the protests don't push beyond the logic of social democracy, in fact, playing devil's advocate one could go further and argue they are compatible with a right-wing populist analysis of the crisis: tax-avoiding multinational companies are sucking money from the country, unlike the hard done-by 'British taxpayer', forming another fundamentally alien parasite on the country's back – add it the the list with the EU, immigrants, etc…

Furthermore, the basic logic of the callouts is the need to uphold the rule of law – these companies have a legal obligation to pay their taxes, which they shirk. This much is stated up front by UK Uncut, who, styling themselves as “big society revenue and customs”, state that “if they won't chase them, we will”. Essentially, the argument as it stands is for the state to live up to it's promise and to actually deliver on the idealised face of its material function. The role of the state in capitalism is to underwrite the functioning of the capitalist market. The state is a prerequisite of capitalism in that the ability to guarantee private property rights and therefore the ability to buy and sell requires a legal and judicial system and repressive state body there to make those rights possible. What makes any property yours or mine, but much more importantly what makes the property of the capitalist his is ultimately the ability of the state to adjudicate and guarantee that he can dispose of his accumulated wealth as he pleases. In practice this means the need to mediate parties and maintain the social fabric in the face of potential unrest – translated into bourgeois ideology in its current, successful iteration as an even-handed regime of “fairness” where we are all taxed, prosecuted, and end up on the receiving end of cuts fairly. Witness every political party attempting to outdo one another by positing the “fairness” of their plans for the economy and attacks on working class living standards in the UK. The state is a subject of criticism because it fails to fulfil its promised role correctly, not because this promised role, along with the toleration of tax avoidance and the regime of austerity all step from its role as a key actor in the continued existence of capitalism.
However, saying this is not to dismiss these protests out of hand or deny they have positive aspects that can be built on, or that there is no space for growth and dialogue. To remain aloof to nascent movements and all the inevitable contradictions real people in the real world bring with them as they become politically engaged is to condemn ourselves to irrelevance.

One positive feature of the demonstrations is the fact that protesters in many cases are willing to create disruption as a tactic. Effective direct action, be it in the form of strike action, demonstrations or occupations is effective by virtue of its ability to disrupt the normal functioning of society. In a society entirely based on the accumulation of capital, this means the disruption of the economy. Occupations of high-street stores have the capacity to inhibit buying and selling and affect directly the normal working of parts of the economy. If we are to effectively resist these cuts, we will have to recognise that ultimately symbolic protests and petitioning representatives to manage capitalism differently isn't going to cut it. The rowdier of the UK Uncut protests have involved high-street linchpins like Topshop being effectively shut down and unable to trade. Such disruption needs to take the form of mass action, and links need to be built with shop workers – the vanguardist paradigm of a few activists on an “action” supergluing themselves to things is no basis for a mass movement, and promisingly many UK Uncut activists recognise this fact.

Another positive aspect of the protests – with qualification - is the fact that the line spun by the government, opposition and media on the ultimate inevitability of the cuts agenda is being rejected. Clearly, the “there is no alternative”, “Britain is bankrupt” line on cuts to public services isn't washing with people, and with good reason – it's hardly a convincing argument when HMRC is haemorrhaging billions in unpaid tax. This rejection is obviously positive. However, this needs to be qualified. Ultimately, if those on the receiving end of these attacks feel the need to balance the state's books on capital's behalf by offering alternate solutions to Britain's deficit there is a problem. Firstly, because we can question the degree to which public debt is a “problem” for capital anyway, as opposed to an integral part of the functioning of states in today's world which is neither inherently “good” or “bad”.1 Secondly, the overall subordination of everyday life and our needs to those of the economy needs to be questioned. Many attacks on tax-avoidance take the desirability of a healthy national economy as a given, with tax-dodging companies being seen as at least in part to blame for capitalism's present difficulties.

Of course, nascent movements are going to be full of contradictions. People don't develop a perfect analysis (if such a thing exists) overnight, and any mass movement against the cuts that may appear is going to be full of all kinds of illusions in social democracy, the labour party, the petitioning of our representatives, the rule of law and order and so on. There remains the possibility of escalation and radicalisation, that participants in such campaigns can move beyond the initial limitations they have. There are a number of positives to such protests which can be built on without tempering constructive criticism.

“Violent protest”

There are criticisms to be made of black bloc-type actions too, but first it is necessary to question some of the common assertions about these kinds of protests, which inform some of the most common criticisms. One obvious point to make is that the policing of protests, even the “fluffiest” of peaceful demonstrations makes any situation implicitly violent. The role of the police is to exercise the state's monopoly on violence; under capitalism this means providing the underpinning of commodity exchange and capital accumulation by guaranteeing property rights and containing any social unrest that could pose a threat to capital. In the context of a demonstration, the police's presence represents ultimately the threat of state violence.

Another obvious point is that property destruction is not violence – violence is the harming of living things, breaking a window is damaging an inanimate object which can be replaced by another. By this reasoning, the overwhelming majority of the black bloc's actions were nonviolent.

However, there are criticisms to be made of this kind of spectacular protest. One is practical – the risks involved as far as prosecution goes compared to the outcomes are significant. Another is that the black bloc strategy can lend itself to a kind of protest tourism and the separation of political action from our daily lives. There are many activists for whom politics is something they do at the weekends, “actions” unrelated to day-to-day organising and agitation in communities and workplaces, the front line of our exploitation by capital. There isn't much evidence that this was the case in London, but nonetheless it is a tendency associated with these kinds of actions that must be borne in mind.

Still, the “disorder” was much more captivating for many of the marches participants than both the official rally and its unofficial rivals, such as that organised by the National Shop Steward's Network, which was a washout. Many demonstrators, admittedly overwhelmingly younger than the majority of the TUC marches participants, were pulled into the unofficial splinter marches and direct action which the black bloc were part of. The author even saw a fair few afternoon drinkers out for a pint before the football getting involved. So much for the elitism of this actions, as was roundly asserted on the internet in the following days.2

Moving forward – dialogue, direct action, and mass action

March 26th was inspiring, both in the numbers who turned out to show their opposition to austerity and the willingness of many to break out of the straightjacket of police-”facilitated” protest. But mass demonstrations like it are not going to beat the cuts.

Ultimately, being right isn't what matters. We can turn out in the hundreds of thousands to make the point that the deficit is a fraction of what it was for decades after the war, that the cuts aren't necessary, that they are opportunistic, that they are laying the bill for the financial crisis at the feet of those who didn't cause it, that the government could raise funds by cracking down on tax evasion, by selling the banks it owns, by returning corporate tax levels to somewhere near what they were for most of the postwar period, etc, etc. We're right, but that isn't what matters.

What matters is the balance of power between capital on the one side and those it exploits on the others – all those who have to work for a living, will have to work for a living (students) or those who must scrape by on the dole. The government feels confident enough that they won't face significant resistance that they're even cutting the pay of the police and prison guards.

So how do we go about building a movement against austerity that can win?

First, by resisting attempts to divide and rule. We have to reject the narrative of “peaceful” protests being hijacked by “extremists”, of property destruction as being inherently “violent”, or of UK Uncut being the legitimate face of direct action as opposed to hooded youths.

Secondly, by taking what is effective from the protests which have emerged so far. Occupying a shop en masse and denying it a day's trading is an effective way of causing economic disruption for those who are not in a position to go on strike or take other workplace action. This logic can be expanded to carrying out economic blockades, which have been used with success in the past 20 years as part of protest movements in South America and France. Direct action is only meaningful when it is mass action which has an economic impact – it is alienating and counterproductive when it becomes the preserve of activists “doing actions” for their own sake.

Thirdly, by not fetishing “non-violence” - either as unthinking reverence for property even when it belongs to a company like Fortnum and Masons, or refusing to defend ourselves in the face of police violence. Peaceful protesters chanted “this is not a riot” and held up their hands as they were brutally kettled and dispersed during the G20 demonstrations in 2009 – it didn't stop them being beaten by the police.

Originally published in Shift magazine.

  • 1.
  • 2. See Andy Newman at Socialist Unity: “The self-indulgent actions of a small minority of protesters yesterday in occupying Fortnum and Masons, and enagaging in vandalism at the Ritz and elsewhere was I believe tactically mistaken, and elitist.”


Apr 25 2011 16:30

Excellent article. There has been some top literature doing the rounds on this subject. This is one of the best I've read.

Apr 26 2011 15:19

Good Article man, the critique of UKuncut needs to be put forward, but of course it should remain in a friendly manner.

As for Andy Newman and Socialist Unity. What can I say, heh, voice of the proletarian! [sic]

Apr 30 2011 02:16

"Ultimately, being right isn't what matters. We can turn out in the hundreds of thousands to... {prove}... We're right, but that isn't what matters.".

Asbo-fucking-lutely. Reading between your lines, your inherent criminality as a wannabe revolutionist was covered in 1848 Marxian texts. The sub-Hegelian style you employ is a tedious Debordist switch (much beloved of the former WAGS), but you've proved nothing to me... some satirical references, commonplace activist beliefs... show me the money, find me an accountant who didn't major in journalism that will expose this shit.

Working outside the law ain't that hard.

May 15 2011 10:23

Doubtless many people have analysed the events of 26th March in London to death but personally I believe that there are still some lessons to be drawn for the future struggle.
The demo was of significance due to its size and the veracity of direct action. Indeed without the size of the demo so much direct action would not have been possible and conversely without the direct action the event would have been just another march from A to B and Milliband would have been able to hijack the headlines.

The fact that it was so large shows that there are still many trade unionists who deferentially answer the call of the TUC, but again many people came not through any union. The fact that thousands of people occupied Hyde Park and central London carrying out direct action whilst the police were kettled, out manoeuvred and forced to retreat shows that with numbers, courage and tactics the police can be at least held in check and we have the power to change things. Both the size of the demo and the strength of direct action have inspired other people to get involved.
Let’s seize back the language, there was no violence till the police started attacking people in Trafalgar Square in the evening. Damage to inanimate objects is not violence, passive protest and direct action with or without damage all have a part to play in the movement. We must have the debate in the movement about tactics but not let the media set the agenda. Just because they say something is wrong doesn’t mean to say that people out there agree with them, if they do we have to have that debate. There have been many people who support or at least respect the actions of the Bloc and when people are assured that the damage was not discriminate but targeted to the corporations and banks that are inflicting damage on us many people (and even some cops) can see the point.

We are all agreed that the way forward is a general strike at first limited and then outright. Such actions will lies and distortions from the press which again we will not heed and let them set the agenda; we set the agenda through debate. And when the police attack such a movement then the tactics which were practiced in the streets of London on the 26th March will be needed.
Indeed to get to the general strike we must push the movement forward by assisting people to gain confidence in their own actions, showing that the state can be defeated and sowing disobedience to break the hold that society has on many people who as they suffer under the system will increasingly lose their passivity.

We must beware those who would divide the movement.
There is no contradiction between the tactics of the Bloc or UK-uncut, both are necessary at different times. If the Bloc and breaking windows becomes a fetish then we have lost the plot, it must be used as one tactic amongst many and not become elitist or give the impression of being estranged from the movement.

Rita Rearguard.

May 15 2011 11:07

Impressive article, especially the critique of UK uncut, however I contest this,

'Another obvious point is that property destruction is not violence – violence is the harming of living things, breaking a window is damaging an inanimate object which can be replaced by another. By this reasoning, the overwhelming majority of the black bloc's actions were nonviolent.'

Violence is defined as - behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something, this clearly includes property as well as people.

May 15 2011 17:00
JIMIXY wrote:
Violence is defined as - behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something, this clearly includes property as well as people.

that is the bourgeois definition of violence! (that holds property to be more sacred than humans)

for instance the bourgeois state will ensure that no 'violence' is committed against TopShop's shop fronts, but will fail to remove a homeless person from the violence they inevitably experience during a life on the streets.