Dominic Lawson: Smash a window, lose the argument

Non-violence is a hard road to tread. But liberation movements based on brute force are corrupted by the experience

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The Anarchist Federation has taken grave exception to the claims that acts of violence were perpetrated by only a tiny minority of the thousands of students who took part in last Wednesday's demonstration against the Coalition's planned tuition fee increase.

It insists that "contrary to the corporate media commentaries, a significant portion of the march also involved itself in the property destruction and occupation at Millbank Tower ... None of the assessments of the protesters as 'a militant minority' is accurate. Such a claim is made even more ridiculous by the rolling 24-hour news coverage that... showed a clear diversity of students and education workers taking great pleasure in smashing windows, office equipment and scuffling with the police".

Actually, the idea that the "corporate media" would wish to downplay the extent of the violence perpetrated by the students is itself ridiculous. The more widespread and endemic the violence, the bigger and better the story and the more newspapers can be sold off the back of it. Nevertheless, there is an unmistakeable sense of wishful thinking in many articles by journalists opposed to the Coalition's policies; that it would have been wonderful if the violence had been as widely supported as the Anarchist Federation claimed it was – to "send a message of resistance to the cuts". Thus Priyamvada Gopal in The Guardian writes of the criticism of the students who engaged in physical violence: "Those who inflict violence through laws, budgets and the hypocritical language of shared pain feel entitled to demand non-violence. As the basis of protest, non-violence has been perverted ... into a subterfuge for rulers; a pious excuse to protect them from the consequences of their actions."

Ms Gopal, a lecturer in English at Cambridge University, obviously has little faith in the ability of the electorate to deliver, via the ballot box, appropriate "consequences" for the Coalition.

Something more violent than the loss of power at the next general election is clearly required. In a way, one can understand this frustration – the opinion polls show that the governing parties enjoy a 50 per cent share of public support: remarkably high, by the standards of most administrations in recent years. How infuriating that the deluded public fail properly to appreciate the completely unnecessary nature of the Coalition's debt reduction programme!

Still, it is easy to understand the fury of those students who voted Liberal Democrat specifically because it was the only party committed to ending the system of tuition fees introduced by Labour, with Nick Clegg declaring to the National Union of Students' annual conference in April: "The plans that... the Conservative and Labour parties are cooking to raise the cap on tuition fees is wrong. We will resist, vote against, campaign against any lifting of that cap." Johann Hari argued in this newspaper last week that as a result of this betrayal, Clegg is "committing political suicide... it is now probable he will lose his seat."

Yes, and that's the proper way of going about things in a parliamentary democracy governed by the rule of law, rather than a contest of brute physical force between riot police and the mob (a contest, by the way, that will almost invariably be won by the former).

There is a certain irony in these events, coinciding as they do with the release from house arrest of Burma's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. This inspiring campaigner for democracy has always been a rigorous proponent of the politics of non-violence, repeatedly citing her intellectual debt to Mahatma Gandhi. In 1999, she told an interviewer: "We are convinced that the non-violent approach is the best. In the long run it pays off, even if that run is longer because of its non-violent nature."

Essentially the same approach was adopted by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, but not by Robert Mugabe.

The non-violent approach is a desperately hard road to tread for such freedom fighters and Aung San Suu Kyi, King and Mandela were all criticised from within their own movements for subjecting them to such a difficult discipline. The point, however, is that liberation movements based on the exercise of brute force are permanently corrupted by the experience. This is particularly clear in Zimbabwe; when last week one of Mugabe's spokesmen said that "only war veterans and chiefs have the right and the power to hold rallies because they fought for this country... no leader without war credentials will rule Zimbabwe", he was giving characteristic expression to this form of absolute entitlement via armed struggle.

Similarly, as Frank Dikköter observes in his remarkable new book Mao's Great Famine, it was in large measure because the Communist leadership had been brutalised by its bloody campaign to seize power in China from the Nationalists that it was able to countenance the starvation of millions of its own people as part of a policy of so-called "modernisation" (turning farms into steel mills).

This might appear a ludicrously long way from the events at Millbank last Wednesday, but there remains on the extreme left, in some of our former polytechnics, a strand of deep admiration for Mao and his methods and a constant delusion that their own tiny cliques truly represent the oppressed proletariat in its entirety.

It is interesting to imagine what said proletariat will make of the view of such students and lecturers that the increase in university tuition fees represents the most unacceptable edge of the state's oppression.

Since those attending tertiary education come overwhelmingly from non-proletariat homes, one wonders if they might instead think that this is more of a middle-class protection racket. After all, the Coalition's proposals involve former students in the repayment of loans only when they start to earn more than £21,000 and even then the repayment level would be at a rate of 9p per pound of annual income.

Besides, the alternative policy, suggested by the Liberal Democrats before the general election, was of some form of graduate tax. Is there the slightest difference of principle between these two supposedly antithetical polices? In each case, students will not be paying for their university education during their time of studying. In each case they would only be paying back the state once they had achieved a certain level of income.

It may be, as the protesters allege, that the prospect of having to make such repayments will discourage some from less affluent homes from applying to universities in the first place. We don't yet know. What we do know is that the same critics were certain that the original imposition of tuition fees would result in a sharp drop in the number of those applying to enter tertiary education – and nothing of the sort happened: there was a continued rise in university applications. This suggests that the overwhelming majority of would-be students regard the idea of university education as something of such value that they would make a future financial sacrifice in order to benefit from it. Given that graduates on average earn about £100,000 more over a lifetime than non-graduates, that has to be a reasonably rational calculation, even setting aside the additional benefits of three years of wonderful parties – or, for those of an anarchist persuasion – "great pleasure in smashing windows".

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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