A contribution to the "Reflections on J18" collection.
June 18th - a personal view
For me, what happened on June 18th was both inspiring and disappointing. I was inspired by the sheer numbers of people there, as it's always good to be among huge numbers every once in a while. It was particularly inspiring to see that this time, lots of people weren't just happy with having a party but wanted to take direct physical action against capitalist institutions. I was disappointed that more people didn't want to take this action, disappointed that more autonomous actions in the morning didn't materialise, and above all, disappointed that J18 didn't broaden out to include a wider diversity of groups and people, and that at the Carnival it was mainly just the usual RTS crowd. (I'm also disappointed that we're not now living in post revolutionary utopia, but hey ho….)
While I feel that the most crucial discussion for us to be having is where do we go from here, and what worked and what didn't. However, in my town, the criminal damage and fighting the police has yet again raised massive divisions, to the point where a significant number of activists have said that they'd never go on a demo like J18 again. We may be following the state's agenda to be even discussing the 'violence' issue, but where I live, it essential that we explain our stances and have understanding for others in order that we don't make ourselves so much smaller than we already are. I'm not going to defend the random meaningless acts of vandalism or untargeted insults physical threats or attacks. What I aim to do is put forward a defence of the economic damage caused by the trashing of LIFFE, of Mercedes Benz, of McDonalds, and any other capitalist institutions. For people who disagree with me, this issue appears to divide into two aspects - was this justifiable and was it effective.
I'm an anarchist, and the way I see it, anarchism is fundamentally opposed to violence. One of the main aims of anarchy in my eyes is to remove violence from all human relationships. However, up to the point where we live in an anarchist society, we remain living in a system which is founded on violence. For two sides to live in peace, both must want peace. If one side insists on using force to make the other obey them, and work for them, then the other, if they want to retain their dignity and not be reduced to slavery, must resist force with adequate means, despite their love of peace.
I don't think it's difficult to prove that the state and the capitalist system is founded on violence - requires constant force or threat of force to maintain the existing order. Government needs laws to maintain inequalities and their order, and therefore needs police and armaments to back it up and force people to obey. Otherwise only people who wanted to obey would do so. The state has used violence throughout its history to rob the poor of their land initially, and then to maintain their monopoly on power. They are then the side that does not want peace freedom or equality, that relies on violence to exist - not the anarchists.
So I believe that violence is entirely justifiable in defending yourself from the onslaught of violence coming from the state. But I don't just mean it is justified against direct sudden physical attack (as in defending yourself from being beaten by police truncheon, which in my mind is quite clearly justified and doesn't need to be explained), but against a much more insidious attack. Using force against all those institutions which use violence, be it physical or mental to keep people in a state of oppression, is totally justified.
"The slave is always in a state of legitimate defence and consequently his violence against the boss, against the oppressor is always morally justifiable" (Malatesta)
Some people would say that excusing individual acts of violence leads naturally to an excuse of any violence and so excuses the arms trade etc. I do not accept that self-defence by the people against its government, or against a section of the community which maintains its power and privileges by underpinning it with force, has any affinity with the self - defence justification used by states to stockpile weapons. "The violence of the oppressed is defensive, unorganised and individual and usually unarmed. The violence of the state is massive, systematic, aggressive, and frequently involves the use of sophisticated weapons." There is no moral equivalence between the oppressor and the oppressed.
Some would go further to say not only is violence in self-defence justified, but that it is our duty to protect others in this way. And I don't extend this to war e.g. in Kosova - when the state usually forces its citizens to war, to fight rival nationalist powers, and where the state controls and organises the means of destruction.
To bring this back to June 18. Here, it is clearly the City that is the oppressor - it's veneer of respectability is underpinned by the laws and institutions of the state, and so by force. The deals that are done there cause ecological destruction, loss of livelihoods, debt, and death, on a massive scale. Everyone who opposes this in any way is acting not just in self-defence but in defence of oppressed people everywhere. Some people who argue for principled non-violence say that they would not criticise those in the third world for rising up and taking violent action, but that we in this country are not faced with such blatant oppression, we are not fighting for our lives in the same direct sense. We have a choice and we should avoid violence which only will lead to more violence.
Of course those in the Third World are on the sharp end of capitalism, but capitalism has a base in our country, at its heart is the City. I know we're relatively okay with our dole cheques at the moment, and we can get away with more protests without getting killed, but do we not feel any solidarity with those fighting in say Mexico or Nigeria to join with them and target the root of their ills with a similar sense of urgency and desperation? If people could see in front of them, the results of what goes on in those glossy buildings in the city, the deaths and misery it causes, I think most people would feel they would be justified in doing everything in their power to stop it happening immediately. And there is no being fooled that we live in a nice liberal democracy where we would never be as oppressed as activists in other countries. As soon as we begin really threatening the foundations of capitalism, you can be sure we will be repressed with practically as much force and violence as anywhere else.
On June 18th, people saw the opportunity to take physical and very direct action to try and stop some of the destructive things that happened inside those buildings, and in my mind there is no question that this is entirely justifiable as a defensive act. I also believe that fighting with the police who come in using violence to prevent us from challenging and stopping the destruction of the City, is a defensive act, and is justified. Whether it is particularly effective, or whether the people involved really understood the politics behind their defensive violence is another matter.
So is it effective to smash up property, or fight the police. Is it an effective strategy, use of energy, efforts, possible prison sentences, sentences, and bearing in mind it may lead to increased surveillance and repression. Also others would say it alienates lots of people from our cause, and even puts off lots of activists. Well, I want real permanent change, and won't be happy with small reforms. I want a revolution, and I want a non-violent revolution - as I've said, I'm not a lover of violence, and I'd struggle to eliminate violence from society. I think that for a revolution to occur and to be permanent, it'd have to be largely (I'll qualify this later) nonviolent - as its success would depend on most people wanting it, and knowing what it was they wanted to achieve by it.
But to those who extrapolate this argument to say that therefore our actions must convince the majority of people, and that using violence achieves the opposite effect of putting people off, I say that this is not our role. Our 'network' is never going to create a mass movement, nor should we try to. I for one am not trying to recruit people to our cause (well, maybe a bit), nor do I think we're a vanguard bringing lots of people to our side to sweep forward with a revolution. I'm fighting for my own life to improve, for my own right to be able to make decisions which affect my life, and fighting for a situation where everyone can run their own lives. In doing so, I hope that this will positively affect everyone else, but they have to make their own decisions and choices. I view our network as political agitators, stirring things up, forcing things into the open, onto the agenda, forcing people to think, informing people about alternatives, and crucially, inspiring people to believe that we can fight the system. You can smash the property of the rich and get away with it. You can fight back.
As a minority of people, who don't have the informed support of the masses, due to their forced ignorance of alternatives to the system, we should seek to curb the excesses. We know what's going on, and we should take action to stop it. We shouldn't allow our radicalness to be watered down in order to appease public opinion, a public opinion which is largely formed by media and state influences such as education. And in any case, I don't think people are as put off by this sort of J18 action as the state would have us believe. Many are inspired by what we achieved. What is so ineffective about trying to curb the excesses with counter-violence, and what alternative is there without having the support of the majority.
To return briefly to what I said about a 'largely' nonviolent revolution. Despite my desire for peace, I don't believe that things can truly be changed without using defensive force, as the state is built on a premise of violence to maintain the status quo. They won't hand their power away without a fight. They've been more than ready to kill, hurt, or imprison any resisters in the past, be they peaceful or not, if they threaten their hold on power. Even if the vast majority wanted change, the minority are the ruling class and they control the weapons. The numbers of people killed in insurrections or revolutions can never equal the numbers of people living in permanent slavery or dying in their thousands in the third world due to the sort of thing which goes on in the City. It's horrific that we may have to use force, but its more horrific if we fail because we refuse to do so. I find it odd that we don't hear many condemnations of the peasants revolt, of the loombreakers, or the Zapatistas, or of the Poll tax riots, all of which encompassed elements of violence. What is so different to J18?
"The state likes to present riots, revolts, and rebellions as isolated incidents and this helps deny their legitimacy, has reduced our recognition of their positive impact and has drawn attention away from the continual and consistent threat of state violence"
I also think it can be said to be effective because of the economic damage we caused to the city, we presented a very real threat to their institutions and profits, we engaged in real agitation, forced capitalism as a 'bad thing' onto the agenda, it allowed us to say why LIFFE is not in fact respectable and why it deserves the trashing, and above all, allows us to say who the real perpetrators of violence are in our society. It allowed us to remove the respectable veneer the city basks in. Finally, I hope that even if people disagree with the above, that they would not condemn the informed choices and actions of people on that day. For one, people don't tend to publicly condemn people for being peaceful. But mainly it is following the state's agenda - it merely deflects criticism away from the original issue and away from the state as the real evil savages.
This is adapted from an oral introduction at the beginning of a discussion on J18 (which took place in Manchester? -ed)