Why the authorities hate XR

NON-VIOLENT protest or civil disobedience is often thought of in a passive, negative or defensive way. We shuffle along on marches, sit down on roads blocking traffic and annoying people. As Shelley writes in The Mask of Anarchy:

“With folded arms and steady eyes,/And little fear, and less surprise,/Look upon them as they slay/Till their rage had died away.”

These words conjure up an image of passive resistance, not aggression. But then he writes towards the end of the poem:

“Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number -/shed your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep had fallen on you -/Ye are many – they are few.”

And that is a very different image. It gives the impression of taking matters into your own hands, of positive, even aggressive action against oppression.

In a way it’s the difference between purely passive protest and the more proactive protest of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Some people argue that people should be allowed to protest as long as they don’t rock the boat. But it is the XR protest that captures the imagination and grabs the headlines precisely because it is annoying and causes disruption, prompting governments to reach for the statute books. And the idea of ‘aggressive non-violence’ or what Albert Einstein called ‘militant pacifism’ is the key concept in The force of non-violence by Judith Butler, the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Protesters sitting down outside the Ministry of Justice in Westminster, London, during an Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate change protest.

In this book Butler makes two main claims. Firstly, non-violence has to be understood ‘less as a moral position adopted by individuals…than as a social and political practice undertaken in concert’. And secondly, perhaps more contentiously, ‘non-violence does not necessarily emerge from a passive or calm part of the soul’. As she points out, it is often an expression or rage, indignation, and aggression’. It’s not merely that non-violence can be aggressive. Butler argues that ‘non-violent forms of resistance can and must be aggressively pursued’, while also insisting that aggression should not be conflated with violence.

Not normally the image one might associate with non-violent protest!

In fact, the book’s title is derived from Gandhi, who insisted that satyagraha should be seen as a ‘non-violent force’ that can generate ‘matchless power’. Intriguingly, however, Butler also makes the point that in practice non-violence cannot always be guaranteed because when a protestor puts her body in the way of oppression she is ‘presenting a force against force’. And she adds: “Non-violence is less a failure of action than a physical assertion of the claims of life.”

Butler draws a distinction between liberal individualism and what she calls the inherently social activity of non-violent protest: “Some representatives of the history of liberal political thought would have us believe that we emerge from a state of nature,” she writes. Indeed, it has been argued often in this blog that various theories of liberalism from Hobbes to Rawls have invented the mythical concept of the social contract in largely failed attempts to create a link from the fully formed, free standing context less individual to the collective. Others, of course, and in particular right wing libertarians don’t even attempt to build a bridge. But as Butler writes: “I want to suggest, however, that no-one actually stands on one’s own; strictly speaking, no one feeds oneself.”

Butler takes a strongly collectivist position of the individual, similar to the Marxist view that our consciousness is largely determined by our social and material being, not the other way round. “The individual is not displaced by the collective, but it is formed and freighted by social bonds that are defined by their necessity and their ambivalence,” she writes.

Another key element of Butler’s thesis is equality, which for her resides in the matrix of violence and non-violence, or rather the point at which non-violence morphs into violence. She writes: “For non-violence to escape the the war logic that distinguishes between lives worth preserving and lives considered dispensable, it must become part of the politics of equality.” And it must accept the ‘interdependency of lives’. It has to be said that this probably the least convincing and most perplexing part of the book. In particular there is no reason to suppose that equality lurks somewhere between violence and non-violence, although she does concede that non-violence must be part of the politics of equality rather than the creator of equality as she seems to suggest earlier.

Butler’s analysis of non-violence treads a delicate, often Byzantine and confusing pathway between violence and non-violence and in doing so delineates a nuanced defence of protestors like XR and Insulate Britain.

Some people may bridle their tactics, which can cause considerable disruption to ordinary lives (it should also be said that it is easy to support them until such time as one is actually caught up in one of their protests!) But the protestors might respond by arguing that ‘ordinary life’ might not remain ordinary for long if humanity fails to take effective action against climate change, and, further, a bit of disruption now is worth it if it results in such change. And if it is a measure of effective action that our government has felt it necessary to introduce legislation in the form of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which will return to the House of Common on 28 February to consider amendments from the House of Lords – parts of which are designed to make such protests more difficult, then it has already been very effective. And Butler’s book explains why governments hate activists like those in XR – they certainly rock the boat!

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1 Comment

  1. It feels sad to me that Extinction Rebellion, which has my whole sympathy, has been so little in evidence these past two years. I am afraid that the momentum, and the focus of public attention that they built before that, has fallen away. Obviously, difficult choices have had to be made, amid a public which was having to restrain and restrict itself because of the pandemic. I think it was very wise to shy away from taking positions which might be decried as blameworthy, when the Authorities which weres supposed to be in charge of the pandemic situatuon were so clearly out of their depth. How delighted our governors would have been to find someone on whom to put some of the blame for the bad time everyone was having! So: let’s not regret too much, the reduction of protest.
    But it meant going quiet, and for such a long time. Now there’s the difficulty of finding a moment to re-emerge with dramatic effect and success. Let us look out for some new light to cast on old issues, so as to spring fresh into action when the time comes. What is all-important is not haste after this long delay, but the rebuild of strong momentum. C. Browne.


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