What is the nature of protest in a society that calls itself free? What can it tell us about ourselves, our government and our political system? And, most importantly, what are its limits?
Following last month’s article, I wanted to discuss both Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin this month to get some acute and unorthodox perspective on these questions. For considerations of space and your patience, I have to bracket Benjamin for the moment; I’ll introduce him in a future column instead. For now, I’ll focus on Arendt’s thinking in her 1969 work On Violence.
Dissent in liberal democracies
Before turning to Arendt, some remarks about how protest is generally understood right now:
1. In countries like the USA and Canada, protest is generally seen as an instrument that citizens can use to apply pressure to elected officials.
2. In countries like ours, there tends to be a division between two spheres known as ‘civil society’, the sphere of private and economic activity, and ‘the state’ (or ‘The State’, as some marxists and some libertarians might call it), the sphere of public, political activity.
3. Protest is therefore conceived of as at once social and political. It is social, because it is a measure available to private individuals and groups of private individuals. It is political, because the state makes it available to private individuals and groups of private individuals: through these measures, private individuals enter the public sphere and act as citizens. Protest occupies a broad spectrum of activities which are understood to accomplish at least two things: first, to build consensus and support for causes, and second, to alert political representatives to those causes so that those representatives can advocate for them in assemblies like our House of Commons. Protest is a publicly acknowledged mode of communication between civil society and the state: people write letters of protest, people resign in protest, people circulate and sign petitions protesting government actions, people attend marches and demonstrations and become protesters with their very physical presence.
4. To the extent that protest is governed by the political sphere at the behest of the social sphere—for instance, when protesters are required to apply for permits, or when authorities designate “free speech zones”—people understand that it is rightfully limited by governments. Broadly speaking, protest must not upend the constitutive relationships of civil society. It must not interfere with the network of rights that support the free individual — the rights that allow each of us to engage in day-to-day life. It also must not disturb the way that civil society and the state remain separate from each other so that each can support the other. When it doesn’t obey the constraints placed upon it, it oversteps its limits and becomes illegitimate. Protesters are accused of attempting to subvert or abuse the system: fundamental changes, after all, are to be administered through elections and political representation in parliamentary bodies.
5. Protest is, implicitly or explicitly, understood to have a representational or quasi-representational function. Protesters are expected to consider whether or not they represent a significant enough segment of society to deserve being taken seriously from the point of view of electoral politics, which justifies itself first and foremost quantitatively and numerically. We frequently hear critics of protest movements complain that protesters make up only a tiny percentage of the populace and are therefore not a representative sample of it. Public opinion gauges the success of protest by whether it makes gains in terms of public policy, and that reinforces the view that protest must feed into the electoral-representational system and contribute to it somehow.
Living with an inverted political spectrum
All of this is consistent with what I suggested last time about what I called the “counter-Hobbesian inversion”, in which the consent of the governed becomes a derivative political idea rather than a primary one. What is primary is the self-preservation of political parties—what I call electoral machines—and their ecosystem: the political formation I’ve called electoral-representational. Of course, that’s not how we end up talking about it. We say that preserving “democracy” and “freedom” are primary.
Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt?
-Henry David Thoreau
You can see how the understanding I’ve just outlined works when you look at public opinion, or at the writing of pundits like the deeply misguided Margaret Wente, who think that student protesters in Québec simply want what a “free society” has to offer. So many of them are surprised when these young people don’t move through established avenues to acquire those goods, take to the streets instead, and wind up in violent confrontations with police. Many of them are equally unsurprised, and suggest that the students are lazy and entitled, and simply want a shortcut to what everyone knows they want. And many also construe young protesters as thrill-seekers, vandals and thugs.
Thus the debate about the meaning of protests like the ones in Québec, Occupy Wall Street, and even the Egyptian Revolution, gets reduced to the question of “legitimacy” or “illegitimacy”, which itself is based on the question of representation. Everything turns into a numbers game by directing public discourse toward the question of whether a given protest amounts to a representative sample, and away from the question of whether or not a given protest might be articulating political truths. This is unfortunate but not surprising, since in our society political truth—or something that passes for it—is determined quantitatively and numerically by elections and opinion polls. Public debate never seriously asks whether a political minority might be right. Worse, it’s relieved of having to understand why or how a small group of people could have profound convictions that are currently unpopular.
How to think about power: Hannah Arendt
This situation is not just a curious and dangerous mutation of the political tradition we think that we uphold. In Hannah Arendt’s view, it also supports a dangerous confusion about the nature of political power itself. As she argues in On Violence, it is “a sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and, finally, ‘violence’—all of which refer to distinct, different phenomena and would hardly exist unless they did … [t]o use them as synonyms not only indicates a certain deafness to linguistic meanings, but it has also resulted in a kind of blindness to the realities they correspond to” (43).
It’s been over 40 years since On Violence was published, but not much has changed. Arendt is correct to think that we don’t have an adequate notion of political power, which in her view is commonly misconstrued as a relationship of domination: command and obedience. “Behind the apparent confusion [between power, strength, force, authority, and violence] is a firm conviction in whose light all distinctions would be, at best, of minor importance: the conviction that the most crucial political issue is, and always has been, the question of Who rules Whom? Power, strength, force, authority, violence—these are but words to indicate the means by which man rules over man; they are held to be synonyms because they have the same function” (43).
And who could argue with her? The way that democratic rule is commonly understood as a strongman contest in which the “winners” get to beat up the “losers” for four years supports her claim.
But according to Arendt, we can’t understand politics at all until we start separating words like “power” and “violence” from one another. For her, the word “power” “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual: it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with … disappears, ‘his power’ also vanishes” (44).
The history of political consent, again
Given some thought, Arendt’s notion of power seems obvious. If one were to write a history of political power in the “West”, it wouldn’t just feature millennia of kings and emperors dominating ordinary people, which were interrupted by brief “democratic” moments in Greece and Republican Rome, and which would then resume until we discovered freedom in the 18th century. It would just as much involve instances of ordinary people getting fed up and pulling support from their rulers. The “consent of the governed” has always been at work; it just hasn’t always operated as an explicit political principle. What makes political thinking since Hobbes interesting is that it takes what was always the case—that people will put up with being ruled this or that way until they won’t anymore—and turns it into a condition for legitimacy. Louis XIV claimed that monarchical authority is divine, but that theory didn’t save Louis XVI in 1793.
So how does Arendt distinguish power from violence, if the two don’t overlap? For her, they are simply opposites, although they often have very complex relations with one another. Politically speaking, violence involves threat and injury through the use of implements like weapons. Its principle isn’t collective action, which is what defines power for Arendt. Most interestingly, she argues that a surge of political violence indicates that power has actually been diminished, “and tyranny … is therefore the most violent and least powerful of forms of government. Indeed one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence is that power stands in need of numbers, whereas violence up to a point can manage without them because it relies on implements” (41-2).
If societies persist and live, that is, if the powers that be are not “utterly absolute,” it is because, behind all the submissions and coercions, beyond the threats, the violence, and the intimidations, there is the possibility of that moment when life can no longer be bought, when the authorities can no longer do anything, and when, facing the gallows and the machine guns, people revolt.
“Still,” she continues, “it must be admitted that it is particularly tempting to think of power in terms of command and obedience, and hence to equate power with violence, in a discussion of what actually is only one of power’s special cases—namely, the power of government. Since in foreign relations as well as domestic affairs violence appears as a last resort to keep the power structure intact against individual challengers—the foreign enemy, the native criminal—it looks indeed as though violence were the prerequisite of power and power nothing but a façade, a velvet glove which either conceals the iron hand or will turn out to belong to a paper tiger. On closer inspection, though, this notion loses much of its plausibility” (47).
For Arendt, “power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance” (56). Violent confrontations between rulers and dissenters indicates an inability to act in concert. It could be that those who dissent refuse to accept any concessions they are given, or it could be because rulers refuse to concede. The key point is that political violence erupts wherever collective action cannot be coordinated.
Canadian anti-politics and the destruction of power
So in Québec, for example, the Charest government and the student protesters are at violent odds, on an Arendt-style reading, at least in part because neither can accept what the other proposes; also in part because one side can’t even grasp what the other proposes. It would have behoved Charest to invite student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois to have a televised discussion with him about the aspirations of CLASSE, instead of engaging in the usual silliness about lazy, entitled students who just want a free ride and a free lunch. It would have behoved Charest to do so because there probably are people in the student movement who are exactly as someone like Margaret Wente describes; after all, there can’t be only one Margaret Wente in the world. By allowing someone like Nadeau-Dubois to articulate his critique of neoliberal politics and economics and to offer his alternative view, Charest could have taken steam out of the movement by helping crystallize it and alienating any protesters who might realize that they, in fact, do want a world of commodified education and consumerist individuality. That would have been, in Arendt’s conceptualization, a real exercise of political power. It would have required that Charest be supremely confident in the superiority of his own position, or ready and willing to make serious changes if Nadeau-Dubois’ view resonated. But Charest is clearly neither of those things, and now his government is on the defensive while Nadeau-Dubois is getting air time on the radio.
Which brings us back to the question of political violence: what are we asking people when we ask them to renounce violent protest? It seems to me that nobody can ultimately, and in advance, ask others to renounce violence, or to renounce it themselves. It would be like asking people to renounce love in advance of every contingency. Even in our own form of political organization, nobody renounces political violence, per se. Instead, we collectively authorize certain institutions to exercise violence “legitimately” — not a moral refusal of violence, but a political allocation of its use. The critical insistence on peaceful protest isn’t a pacifist demand but a dispute over political power. When people are told that they must, above all, remain peaceful no matter what, they are not being appealed to morally but politically: Don’t compete with us. It’s an understandable appeal, but too often concealed inside vague moralizing. And, as governments increasingly marginalize, insult, and betray the real source of their power, it turns into a threat.
Once that becomes clear, it seems to me that the supposed function of a protest as a systemic tool is put into question. How can a form of government call “legitimate” or “illegitimate” movements dedicated to overcoming the vision of human life that it represents? What could be the true meaning of non-violent protest, if non-violence is no longer just a tactic to ensure the approval of police and bureaucratic political parties who have no intention of listening? And how do these questions stand for us at a moment when, for example, Conservative MP David Wilks has regretfully admitted to his constituents that he cannot represent them, despite having been elected to do so? Or when our own provincial government has passed the execrable Bill 29? Both of these deeply anti-political events signal not a cancerous growth of political power, but rather its decline and the destruction of consent.