Paul Sagar welcomes this week’s riots as “a useful corrective, and a check against the abuses of the powerful”.
I in turn welcome his analysis as a breath of fresh air against the fetid hypocrisy of the sanctimonious moralizers who condemn violence.
The fact is that politics is founded upon violence, and the threat thereof, as it is this that underpins the very existence of the state. Sometimes - World War II or the American revolution - this violence is justified, and sometimes not.
The question of when violence should be used is merely an empirical matter - as Trotsky said, a question of expediency. What matters is what works. See this paper by Bruno Frey for an economists‘ take upon this.
Where I differ from Paul is in doubting that the recourse to violence by the oppressed is often successful. I have three problems.
1. It can be counter-productive. Where it is mild, as this week, it merely provides rulers and their apologists with an excuse for moralistic drivel. And when it is more severe, it gives them an excuse to introduce repressive measures. As Trotsky put it:
The smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen.
2. Even if the violence does succeed, it is not necessarily a force for egalitarianism. Why is it that students rioted but benefit claimants haven’t? One reason is that it is easier to organize students than atomized (and often disabled) claimants.
If violence does bring concessions, then, it might do so to the benefit of the less powerless, but not to the most powerless.
This might or might not be a good thing. But it is not a wholly good thing.
3. Violence can displace other - potentially more effective - forms of organization. Trotsky again:
Individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.
I do not say this to condemn violence outright. It is good to be reminded that politics is about dark forces, and that rational SCR-style debate is merely a cloak for those forces. And we all get some atavistic pleasure from seeing Tories and coppers roughed up. But we do not always advance our political goals by doing things which please us.