Righteous rioting is an imported concept
Are our rioters all Europeans now?
Readers of a certain age may remember that there was a series of TV adverts in times past which varied individually but which were united by the same ending each time which said simply ‘You Know When You’ve Been Tangoed’. As I have now recently learned the hard way, it would be no less true to say that ‘You Know When You’ve Been Kettled.’
The secret to covering a protest is to know how one would leave promptly if it seems sensible to do so. There was a particular moment on Whitehall on Sunday night when I realised that that option had disappeared. Police lines which had been a bit jammed up around King Charles Street managed to break out and pushed protestors back towards Parliament Square in one direction and then towards Downing Street in the other. There are only so many ways off Whitehall at the best of times and with a sinking feeling, not improved by the overall atmosphere of vague menace, I realised that I was likely to be stuck between two police lines for quite some time, if not, as indeed it proved the case, into the small hours of the morning.
Time passed, with the kettle slowly tightening a bit here and a bit there, until around midnight or thereabouts the slow process of dismantling and dispersing the crowd began in earnest. The way it works is that two police officers escort one person out under the night glare of the headlights of a dozen or so police vans bearing down roughly from across the entrance to Downing Street. Or rather, one person at a time is escorted up to where a senior commander is standing to indicate with the benefit of advice from colleagues and an earpiece whether the chap in question is deemed harmless and free to go or will instead at a minimum be answering a few questions. Every once in a while someone being walked through the process gives just the slightest suggestion that he suspects he may indeed be on a bit of a sticky wicket, either trying to get the whole thing over and done with a little too quickly or refusing adamantly to remove face coverings of one kind or another.
Sceptics of the police performance over the weekend may be reassured to know that they do not have seemed to have missed a trick with any of this, and that a lot of what was let slide earlier in the evening was presumably picked up later on in the small hours. It is a very, very controlled process, involving several hundred police officers, situated in this case in the very precincts of the Cenotaph, and it takes a long time. Nobody who experienced it could be in any doubt that the Metropolitan police were entirely in control of the situation and there is clear, didactic subtext to the proceedings. We may not exercise full control at all moments, it is as if to say, but this will finish with the police fully in control and anyone who has reason to explain themselves being asked to do so. There was something, though, about the whole process which I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
After a while, I put in my earphones and resigned myself to a long night waiting my turn until the penny dropped. Much as Richard Wagner had described the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh symphony as being the apotheosis of the dance, meaning that the natural and spontaneous phenomenon of dancing found its final and highest refinement in that piece of music, the way in which the Metropolitan police dismantle a kettle is the very apotheosis of the British queue. Never mind how much disorder has just been happening, never mind if police officers have been taken from the impromptu ambulance bay alongside Whitehall to one of the nearby trauma hospitals, never mind if it’s already two o’clock in the morning, if you were at a disorderly protest which turned violent, you will literally wait your turn to be taken out one by one, in an order not of your choosing, before you can go home again. Few countries would bother, resorting instead to snatch squads for the trouble makers and tear gas for the crowd as a whole. Possibly only Britain would use the device of the queue to restore the supremacy of state authority so demonstrably and yet so unobtrusively, allowing the evening to finish with a controlled and uncontested reassertion of how things are done here. And it was probably around that point in the night that I thought, for the first time in years, of a novel by Alexis Jenni which completely failed to cross the Channel. We shall come onto that in a moment.
Very little about this peculiar crypto-revolutionary moment is authentically British or in continuity with the political culture of the country as a whole. The ideology is a largely foreign import and the idea that the street is a legitimate legislator has been anathema for centuries. Just about the only thing thus far which has been properly British is the restraint and the method of the policing response, in one of its variations at least. Quite a bit, all said, turns on whether it is that or the new doctrine of unassuageable victimhood and falling statues which finishes with the upper hand.
France’s Prix Goncourt being the country’s most prestigious literary award, its verdicts do not pass entirely without an echo in this country as well. When in 2010 the distinction went to Michel Houellebecq for what remains his most accomplished work to date, La Carte et le Territoire, the novel’s appearance in English under the title The Map and the Territory followed promptly within a few months. Houellebecq’s place in the English-speaking literary imagination was probably fairly secure to begin with, but winning the top prize the French give out did get the attention of literary editors and readers on this side of the Channel.
Not so, however, with the novel to win the same prize a year later in 2011. L’Art francais de la guerre by Alexis Jenni is arguably superior to Houellebecq’s in terms of literary merit and certainly more serious in purpose, uniting a command of style with acute observation of the fragmentation of communities into chronic low-level disorder and a certain form of contestation between demonstrators and the police on French streets. As Jenni details in many persuasive vignettes, this bears a striking resemblance to performative displays of state force once used to sustain a measure of order in the overseas territories of the French Empire, only now the terrain being pacified is the urban landscape of metropolitan France. Houellebecq is sometimes said to have been uncannily prescient in some of his writing but Jenni detailed extensively the type of disorder seen during the gilets jaunes protests years before its emergence, not to mention other pertinent difficulties on the streets as well.
Nevertheless, when the book did eventually appear in English as The French Art of War in 2017, it all but sank without trace save for a handful of respectful notices in a few of the broadsheets. It isn’t difficult to see why. Our experiences of policing and pacifying the street have historically been so dissimilar to what the French have known that there simply wasn’t common ground for Jenni’s novel to hold an audience here. What had an almost mesmerising quality for French readers living in the midst of the intermittent disorder he described so faithfully must have struck English-speaking readers as being, all too literally, from another world.
Our experiences of policing and pacifying the street have historically been so dissimilar to what the French have known
One of the questions I have been curious to consider while covering the recent disturbances in Whitehall and to a lesser extent in Parliament Square is whether that gap in experience between Britain and elsewhere may soon start to close. Statements by chief constables to the effect that if the hard left assemble a large enough number of sympathisers they can then do more or less as they please, at least so far as legislating from the street on matters of heritage is concerned, suggest that the mob is being normalised as a legitimate actor in British political life. Against that, what I saw in Whitehall over two nights indicates that in London at any rate, the Metropolitan police have a rather shrewder idea of what they are doing than some commentators allow, including some voices on the right.
A frame of reference can help to avoid overreacting or under-reacting. Riots in Dublin in 2006, for instance, were initially sincerely shocking if subsequently little remembered, the capital’s main thoroughfare being trashed after demonstrators chanced upon a stockpile of construction materials perfect for pelting police and breaking up shopfronts. Despite briefly spectacular damage, though, it turned out to be a bit of a flash in the pan made possible precisely by someone’s stupidity in leaving a site’s building supplies out in the city centre over a weekend when a demonstration was expected.
Likewise, the fact that disorder breaks out does not of itself prove all that much. I once saw this in a suburb of the Chadian capital N’Djamena which had been fought through street by street a few months earlier during a coup attempt, and which erupted one evening apparently without warning. It turned out that nothing of lasting importance was going on despite fairly vivid appearances to the contrary, at least in the opinion of the American security contractor I was travelling with at the time. He was an old hand in that part of the world whereas I was in my mid-twenties, turning up in such places more or less for the first time, and I think it was something of an education to listen to the analytical care with which he spoke of different crowds, above all not assuming that just because a situation appeared to have got out of hand that there was necessarily anything important going on.
If this is all starting to sound a little laborious, that is quite deliberate, and for more than one reason. First, we are not being well served by the current coverage of the protests in this country. What shocked me over the weekend was the way in which the street was ceded not so much by the police as by the media. On Saturday night particularly, accredited and theoretically reputable journalism was extremely thin on the ground, with most of the clips circulating online coming from agenda-driven new media outlets filling the space vacated by the big players. Indeed, a number of high-profile voices on the right used clips published shortly beforehand by hard left activists, or journalists whose content is usually indistinguishable. In effect, the left is being allowed to exercise editorial decision-making over what we do and do not see, while that part of the opinion-forming class which might not see that as such a good idea is inadvertently complicit for want of much of an alternative.
I had a go both nights at putting up a few video recordings of my own from inside the faction attempting to provoke conflict with police, conveying something of what police lines were receiving in terms of relentless verbal abuse and projectiles, but I’m mainly a writer rather than anything else and I couldn’t help but think that several of the major broadcast organisations ought to have been able to get someone of their own to SW1 while something important was unfolding. It is quite near their offices in Millbank after all. In passing, it would be interesting to know if any of the handful of reporters wearing Kevlar helmets on Whitehall on Sunday night were working for any of the outlets which described the demonstrations as ‘largely peaceful’.
This touches on the second reason to be a little bit methodical in teasing out what is going on and to try to arrive at a wider perspective than simply the last fifteen minutes or hundred hours. When Burke wrote ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, one purpose of the exercise was not to reverse events in Paris or Versailles, but to make endless careful distinctions for a readership in his own country, distinctions particularly concerning legitimacy, born of precise descriptions, so as to forestall repetition of what had already happened elsewhere happening closer to home. (The most enjoyable passages where the prose starts to rise up the approach towards poetry are the rarities.) Our task is something similar now that a self-righteous mob is legislating itself the authority to recast town and city centres across the land in the image of its own ideology. Not to make hard comparisons but rather to recall a sense of how time passes, a longer period of time has already elapsed between the current moment and the 2016 Brexit vote, say, than stood between the convocation of the Estates General in 1789 and the execution of the French king in January 1793.
Frenzied crowds collapsing statues has the look of an out-of-control student prank, but things can deteriorate at a fair clip sometimes. A lot of the drama in the early stages of the French Revolution also had the same faintly ludicrous undergraduate quality about it. Saint-Just joined the Committee of Public Safety aged only twenty-six, after all, and was dead a year later.
Whatever about that, what is happening in truth is that an alien ideology concerning the nature of society and the moral legitimacy of the street is starting to collide with very deeply seated traditions of British policing, which are in turn the reflection of some foundational assumptions of the country as a whole. This ideology was very clearly stated all across Whitehall and Parliament Square this weekend, in word and in deed, and the way it is running up against British policing is an elucidating drama in its own right.
The slogans on the walls and the signs are not simply the usual stock phrases of the indigenous far left, with the reliable refrains about people before profit or socialism, but rather the announcement that entire sections of society are the victims of the country as a whole in a way in which – and this is critically important – they and they alone are competent to assess. It is this aspect of the ideology that is combining with street violence, real and implicitly threatened.
After all, in principle anyone can be a victim of capitalism, except presumably the capitalist, and in classical revolutionary Marxism it was assumed that most people sooner or later would indeed awaken to understand themselves as victims of the capitalist process. The ownership claim of victimhood being staked today, in Whitehall, in Bristol, in Oxford, and within a few days from now across much of England, is much narrower, largely unassuageable, and on the terms it accords itself, literally unanswerable by those it is directed against, as it lies by definition at a place beyond what others can legitimately respond to, namely the private realm of other people’s explicitly subjective personal impressions.
As flares were set off, police lines tested, factions ran from one part of Whitehall to another chasing police or testing for opportunities to push back their deployments, this ideology in its various slogans and theses was spray-painted on government departments, left on placards on the Cenotaph, and chanted by participants probably numbering in the low thousands all said. Beyond the headline mantra of the protest itself, almost every supporting slogan and every supporting argument is a variation on the thesis that only the protesters themselves are competent to assess what the protesters are doing, that only those identified as the victim of a long process whose history only they can write are allowed to speak to actions now being taken by them or in their name.
There has always been the idea of false consciousness haunting the theoretical emanations of the hard left, but it has historically been restricted to ideas of class. I do not recall ever seeing a violent protest organised in this part of the world substantially around the explicit claim that neither the police (to be abolished under the new creed) nor the large majority of the country are allowed an estimation of their own about what is happening because that is a prerogative explicitly to be reserved to those alone designated as victims in a way which even large-scale redistribution of resources would not alter. There is no indigenous ideological tradition in this country of any such thing, which is almost entirely an import from the various pseudo-academic disciplines of the American campus and elsewhere.
This is also the reason why this particular mob cannot be successfully appeased even if one were minded to do so. There are few stable or fundamental demands to the movement in any case and the targeting of specific statues and the like, though symbolically fraught with significance and pursued with a single-mindedness which is truly that of the revolutionary mindset, is not in fact the central event. What is central is to institute the street as a higher moral authority than the police or the formal political processes which would ordinarily govern decisions around whose statues stay up or come down. Ultimately how this contest is settled is an exercise in Schmittian alternatives: either the hard left gathered in sufficient numbers is sovereign over the symbolic landscape of the country or legitimately constituted authority is sovereign. But it cannot be both at the same time – and to concede the symbolic is to concede much of the rest of what matters as well.
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