More contentious arrests were made, (noticeably, after sunset), during the otherwise successful Occupy Democracy protests last weekend. What does this tell us about the vitality of UK democracy, and the interests of the ‘establishment’ as a class of its own?
‘[Europe] had pushed off from tyranny with gusto; with an apparently uncheckable impetus, it had swung up towards the blue sky of freedom … But, see, gradually the pace slowed down, the swing neared the summit and turning-point of its course; then, after a second of immobility, it started the movement backwards with ever increasing speed. With the same impetus as on the way up, the swing carried its passengers back from freedom to tyranny again. He who had gazed upwards instead of clinging on, became dizzy and fell out.
Whoever wishes to avoid becoming dizzy must try to find out the swing’s law of motion’.
— Arthur Koestler, Darkness At Noon
In context, the above inclusion of Koestler’s ‘swing’ is melodramatic: we do not live under Stalinism. Even so, measuring this ‘law of motion’ remains a constant imperative for any society. If civil rights and freedoms are to mean anything in practical terms, they must indeed be practiced, continuously, and improved upon. Our liberties must be falsifiable or else they are simply possibilities, (which is the case regardless of legality). In other words, how do we know if our ‘freedoms’ are authentic? Experiment is the necessary anecdote for illusion. It avoids ‘dizziness’ and credulity and speculative freedom, preserving the difficult but still useful concept of progress.
On Sunday, this idea was given voice from amongst the sunset stragglers of Occupy Democracy, as they moved from the lawns of Parliament Square, to the pavement which trails the Houses of Parliament. George Barda, an organiser and prominent supporter of Occupy London, was challenged by an onlooker: ‘I’ve lived in China for two years; you shouldn’t attack Parliament when you don’t realise how lucky you are; we have the vote, so you already have political expression; you’re allowed to be here without disappearing next week’, and other clichés. The fallacies, I hope, are already obvious. It’s a boringly familiar approach, where proponents seem aggravated by any structural opposition to the status quo. This insecurity often betrays a veiled sympathy, or at least an interest in oppositional politics. (As it happened, the heckler all but reversed his views within the space of a five-minute discussion, explaining to the demonstrators, ‘I appreciate what you’re doing’ and ‘agree with what you’re saying’, before adding a vacuous, defeated ‘but…’.)
Barda’s response was on point: ‘I agree we’re lucky, comparatively, but the best thing about a democracy is that it reserves its citizens the right to criticise and improve the society in which they live. I assume you don’t think of modern Britain as beyond improvement? This is one of the few freedoms which actually separate us from countries such as China, so you should be supporting our right to be here’. Barda’s comrade, the citizen journalist ‘Obi’ Abadinas, asked the man if he was happy with the definition of democracy as one vote every five years, where, in the intervening time, the government are effectively an invulnerable authority.
This is why Occupy Democracy, as a platform for discussion, is politically virtuous. More interesting however, is the level of hostility it faces. The persecution of Occupy illuminates the arc of the ‘swing’, testing the reliability of assumed civil liberties.
Since Occupy Democracy was forcibly partitioned from Parliament Square last autumn, a judicial review (sketched out in our recent interview with Matthew Varnham) seems to have pushed back Boris Johnson and the GLA’s liberal use of political eviction. The legal challenge is grounded in the Human Rights Act (HRA). Since its presentation, a significant note of caution seems to have chimed through the ranks of bureaucrats and officers. As Varnham noted, the ‘change of approach was a welcome development following previous months where the Square has been closed’. There is a growing hope, daubed across many of the placards of last weekend’s occupation, that ‘the Revolution will not be confiscated’.
Indeed, the weekend went ahead largely as planned. Under the theme of ‘Equality and Representation’, groups such as London Black Revs, Save Shaker Amer and 50:50 Parliament held workshops and spoke in the square. It also corresponded with the rally in support of Syriza, which occurred at neighbouring Trafalgar Square, the other end of Whitehall.
Later on Saturday, the occupiers had scheduled a fake funeral; a sham service, entitled ‘The Death of UK Democracy’. This kitsch affair was intended to be a phoenix-style ceremony, whereby the procession would lay to rest a symbolic coffin with the epitaph: ‘UK Democracy R.I.P. – Killed by Corporate Billionaires’. The protestors were then to relight ‘democracy’s flame’ in Parliament Square, by way of Vigil. The police elected themselves to join the farce, and arrested the former Liberal Democrat vice Chair Donnachadh McCarthy and several others. Arrestees included ‘Obi’ who claimed, ‘I got arrested due to a false testimony from … heritage warden H22 … He claimed that he had asked me to leave and to provide my details — I had not spoken to him that day’. The funeral was one of the weekend’s quieter moments. With only a small crowd present, it occurred after all light had fled the Square. The arrests were made under Section 3 of the Criminal Act, an arbitrary power of Kafkaesque proportions which allows officers to make arrests in the ‘prevention of a crime’. Even the Former Deputy Mayor Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, who chairs the GLA’s Police and Crime Committee, condemned the operation: ‘I’m horrified at the rather nasty policing of the latest Occupy protest. The police need reminding that it’s their job to facilitate peaceful protest, not suppress it’.
Matthew Varnham reflected her disappointment: ‘Unfortunately the GLA have now backtracked and last night’s arrests demonstrate an inflexibility on behalf of the GLA to continue to facilitate such protest’. However, this shift in approach demonstrates a consistent interest, not a compromise. The Mayor wants the protestors gone, and does not value their right to protest. It’s as if he is admitting that people’s politics and thorough democracy present an existential threat to his career and privileges. The judiciary review, and the threat of the HRA has cowed him somewhat, so now he targets the protestors when they are most vulnerable in terms of numbers and exposure.
Last autumn’s occupations, and the subsequent suppression, revealed just how far the ‘swing’ of British democracy had reclined, identifying the political class as largely responsible. Now, the demonstrators are experimenting with its law of motion using the current legal framework, via judicial review. This is important, because when the occupiers can no longer exercise their civil rights legally, revolutionary action becomes necessary.
The British conservative illusion that we should be happy with what we have (an example would be comedian Robert Webb’s dismal 2013 polemic), is anathema to democracy, and robs it of its power. As Slavoj Žižek has said, ‘there is no freedom without form’. Occupy Democracy is one of the few forms in which the freedom to protest is being routinely realised, or not, as the case has been. The demonstrators have tied their politics to their actions, becoming victims of the intolerance and elitism they’re agitating against, and a case study for their own ideas. Their difficulties suggest that, since capitalism’s victorious fin de siècle, the swing has drifted back somewhat. It is only with experiments such as this that we discover the regression.
Now, after the dizziness of 2008-2011, lucid and strategic responses are being launched. The injustice of economic imperialism has dawned upon Greece, and is becoming undressed in Spain, with the Los Indignados and Podemos. In Britain, with the surge of the Greens and the emergence of Left Unity, this General Election could be a stage for intervention against Koestler’s law of motion; against Capitalism’s trampoline fate, to consume unto bust.
Photo By: Louis Mignot, firstname.lastname@example.org