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Riots Are Good: We Need The Student Battle Of Millbank

by | 11th, November 2010

THE NUS student demonstration, billed as the Battle of Millbank by a delighted and excited media, is a riot we need. Paul Sagar writes in Praise of Riots:

“I say that those who condemn the tumults between the nobles and the plebs, appear to me to blame those things that were the chief causes for keeping Rome free, and that they paid more attention to the noises and shouts that arose in those tumults than to the good effects they brought forth…And if the tumults were the cause of creation of Tribunes, they merit the highest praise, for in addition to giving the people a part in administration, they were established for guarding Roman liberty.”

So wrote Niccolò Machiavelli in his Discorsi, perhaps the first great work of modern political theory.

It would be misleading to extrapolate too much from Machiavelli’s concerns about the governing of a 16th century Italian city state. But regardless, like Machiavelli I have no inherent problem with “tumults” – or as we would now call them, riots.

Machiavelli’s core point is that rioting safe-guarded freedom. It was because the Roman plebs took arms against the nobles that the latter remembered not to push things too far. That made rioting a useful corrective, and a check against the abuses of the powerful.

It’s not clear that anything has changed today. If a party is elected to government on a series of manifesto pledges, and then reneges on them systematically, it may be no bad thing if the betrayed express their discontent via physical public unrest.

Indeed, Machiavelli also held a connected and crucially important view:

“If the object of the Nobles and the People is considered, it will be seen that the former have a great desire to dominate, and the latter a desire not to be dominated and consequently a greater desire to live free…so that the People placed in charge to guard the liberty of anyone, reasonably will take better care of it; for not being able to take it away themselves, they do not permit others to take it away”

Those in positions of power will seek to dominate the weaker. To defend freedom of the (city-)state, the ruled must possess the ability to strike back at the rulers.

You can see where this is going, even if it needs updating by 500 years.

If the NUS organises a 50,000-strong rally in London, and sections of the protest attack physical property owned by the powerful Conservative Party, then forcibly confront the police, this is not an inherently bad thing – and especially if nobody is seriously hurt.

Of course, the usual suspects sitting in their usual swamps have already spouted the tired old clichés about “a few troublemakers” and the importance of “peaceful protest”. But I disagree when the implication is that rioting can never be justified. There is no fail-safe reason why the populi cannot, at times of extreme discontent, employ physical force against the mechanisms of an authority which is committing violence against them.

And I do mean violence. Because when a government decides that (for example) the seriously diabetic are not “really” disabled, and can thus have their disability allowances halved over-night, rendering many unable to meet the rent – that is a form of violence.

When generations of young people suffer government policies rendering higher education more exclusive whilst reducing employment prospects for the millions already out of work – that is a form of violence.

When the unemployed are to be compelled into slave-like forced employment schemes (or rather, ultra-expensive hypocritical gimmicks aimed at a tiny minority of tabloid hate-figures) – that is a form of violence.

In short: if government systematically attacks the interests and well-being of citizens, this constitutes a form of violence. That such violence is achieved by bureaucratic mandate and the mechanisms of officialdom is irrelevant. The policies of the current Coalition Government are attacks of violence upon the fabric of British society, and the British people themselves.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of students gathered in London. Some of them fought the police, and attempted to damage the property of both the state and the Conservative party. Good. British citizens should do it again and again, until our lords and masters understand.

If rioting secured the liberty of Rome, perhaps it can salvage the welfare state of Britain. After all, who else is going to bring this radical and destructive juggernautto a halt? Not Nick Clegg, that’s for sure.

UPDATE: I should – in the vain effort to avoid confusion and misapprehension – make clear a suppressed premise in the above: namely, that people generally don’t riot unless they are really pissed off. When it gets to the point that significant numbers of people are sufficiently pissed off that they are rioting, that means things are seriously bad and that this is a dramatic wake-up call to the government of the day. And that is as useful a mechanism for political pressure and safe-guarding today as it was 500 years ago.

Further, I think people are misguided if they see any worthwhile moral difference between the vandalism being done to our welfare state by a tiny minority of privileged millionaires, and the smashing of a few windows in London. Especially if they think the former is fine and dandy, but the latter is in need of solemn tut-tutting, finger-wagging and pensive sighs of disapproval. Or if they can’t connect up doing the latter with stopping the former. Paul Sagar.

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Posted: 11th, November 2010 | In: Politicians Comments (2) | TrackBack | Permalink