« Gender inequality & overconfidence | Main | Small truths about the minimum wage »

November 12, 2010


Torquil MacNeil

"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. "

So there can be no principled objection to, say, the EDL's race rioting?

Paul Sagar

I share your concerns re "strategy".

Because I'm such a wild party animal, I plan to spend my Friday evening writing-up my thoughts on this, to answer some objections levelled at me and some requests for greater clarity.

My original post is actually a bit confusing, so this all seems like a reasonable thing to do. Watch my space.


@ Torquil - the objection on principle is to the EDL's racism.
Their violence is wrong on mere cost-benefit grounds - its costs exceed the benefits (which are themselves negative).

Luis Enrique

"What matters is what works" ... and to what end.

also: not only is it harder to organize benefit claimants, it's harder to organize those who may not wish to pay for university educations out of general taxation (without making any comment on how many of such people exist and whether they are right).

do you get atavistic pleasure from seeing coppers hurt? to me that's not terribly different from enjoying seeing G20 protesters hurt one basis that some of them are thugs and idiots who have it coming*. Or do you think the prevalence of thugs in the police force is high enough that the chances are the one being hurt is a thug?

* to be clear, i don't do either.

Torquil MacNeil

"Their violence is wrong on mere cost-benefit grounds - its costs exceed the benefits (which are themselves negative)."

But the EDL would not agree with you Chris, so the argument ends up question begging: it is right to riot if what you are rioting about is right. How do we get a principled position out of that?


Er, you've quoted from Trotsky and Bruno Frey, both writing specifically about terrorism, and then made an argument about violence per se. But not all violence constitutes *terrorism*, does it?

It would certainly be absurd to see the events of earlier in the week as *terrorism* - they were much closer to the sort of low level destruction and disorder once commonplace before, after (and sometimes during) football matches. Or anti-fascist mobilisations from the 1970s onwards.

None of this excuses the idiot who threw/dropped/allowed to slip out of his hands accidentally the fire extinguisher, but for the rest of it, it was a low level public order problem essentially wasn't it? Let's not get carried away with ourselves here.

As for was it necessary - well I refer you to the wise words of someone close to me


Where can one get the 'opressed' certificate? Because everybody today feels to be one and some order seems to be needed.


Political my arse, it was a bunch of kids ripping the place up because they could.

Even if it was a "protest" that does not make it political in anyway, its easy to be against things. The politics start when you are for things. How can a 20ish something have any idea about what they are for, that comes from experience which i suppose the futility of rioting is one they will now have.


@ Charlie - you're right. It was low-level stuff of no political importance. I shifted the talk to terrorism not because I see the riots as terrorism, but to focus on the question of what role there is for more significant violence.


Violence may very well be an appropriate - even righteous - response to aggression or oppression. But even its sternest advocates must surely acknowledge that it is an utterly inappropriate response to the withdrawal of a subsidy. One would have to have a truly horrific sense of entitlement to think that not giving people free education justifies those people in causing millions of pounds' worth of criminal damage and assaulting police officers.


So you agree that the State only exists because of its monopoly on violence? That without the ability (in the extreme) to use force to make me pay taxes, the State would no longer exist?

Just checking.

Francis Sedgemore

"But even its sternest advocates must surely acknowledge that it is an utterly inappropriate response to the withdrawal of a subsidy."

Outside of France.

Tom P

I see Guido - who uses the old anarcho Guy Fawkes/honest intentions slogan on his site - has gone all 'law n order' about this and is trying to Nark-Source/Crowd-Nark by getting his readers to offer info on the rioters. Doesn't seem very anti-state to me somehow.

Luis Enrique

"The fact is that politics is founded upon violence, and the threat thereof ... it is good to be reminded that politics is about dark forces"

This I don't understand. Where is the implicit threat of violence? If you don't play by the rule of - in our case - the democratically elected government and the laws of the land.

How would an isolated peace loving hippie commune deal with somebody who went renegade, started stealing, raping etc. and refused to come quietly? They'd have to resort to violence to enforce their (minimal) rules about not raping people etc. Are hippie communes "founded on violence" and is hippie politics about "dark forces".

In what possible form of human existence are we ever going to get beyond that fact that if people insist on not playing by whatever rules are operative, then violence is the implicit ultimate threat? Does this mean everything is "founded on violence"? If so, it's a statement without much content because it would apply to the most benign and fluffy society imaginable.


WTF is this post all about? Friday or not, get off the bong.

Sample craziness:

"Even if the violence does succeed, it is not necessarily a force for egalitarianism."

Oh yeah?


Jim - I think the State would survive without your taxes, at a pinch.

The upper lower middle

Is this about the withdrawal of a subsidy? I would have thought that it was about government policies to make sure we have an ever increasing pool of graduates competing with each other, whilst at the same time massively increasing the cost of becoming one (and also the cost of not becoming one - just to make sure you can't win).

The question is whether increasing the pool of graduates adds any real value (economic or otherwise) for either the individual graduates or society as a whole. Are we certain that these graduates have more economically useful skills (soft or otherwise) than their predecessors gained through A levels followed by three years in the workplace?

And, more to the point, are we certain that these skills or any other value gained from a university education are worth the cost of getting that degree, whoever pays? Or is this just another way of shifting costs to the next generation?


BTW, on students: I know lots of them (occupational hazard). They're not a very sympathetic crowd, IMO, probably on the same level as bankers.

Stephen Shaw

`The question of the form of repression, or of its degree, of course, is not one of “principle.” It is a question of expediency. In a revolutionary period, the party which has been thrown from power, which does not reconcile itself with the stability of the ruling class, and which proves this by its desperate struggle against the latter, cannot be terrorized by the threat of imprisonment, as it does not believe in its duration. It is just this simple but decisive fact that explains the widespread recourse to shooting in a civil war.'

I think we should contextualise the Trotsky quote which I reproduce in full above as it comes across as cynical the way it is presented here. Having established the right of the revolutionary regime to utilise violence to achieve its coming into being or in its own defence then `the question of the form of repression' is a matter of political expediency. At no point does he say `what matters is what works' (he was always very clear that the use of violence has to be taken very seriously and justified in the court of public opinion) he was simply explaining that throwing the counter-revolutionary commanders in jail when they believed they were going to win anyway was no deterent and the regime needed to claim the right to execute those who plotted violence against it if they were to be detered.

We should remember that war is the continuation of politics, war is violence and that therefore violence, in every example of it, is the continuation of politics by other means. Was the smashing up of the Tory HQ by some of the students politically expedient. It seems to have generated sympathy for the cause on this occasion despite the best efforts of the Sun but of course each situation ideally should be judged on its merits. There is however no legislating for spontaneity or for that matter an unexpected opportunity that looks to good to pass on even when perhaps it should be.

In any case, well done to the students on a splendid demonstration. Make sure the next one is even bigger and don't expect further kid glove treatment from a police force that at the moment is itself none to happy with the ConDem Coalition.

Nick Rowe

OK. Here's the Deal:

1. We all agree that we will not beat up anyone who signs onto this Deal.

2. We are free to kick the shit out of anyone who does not sign onto this Deal, whenever we feel the benefits exceed the costs.



@ Matthew: Can I have that in writing? Its just that my 6 monthly tax payment will be due at the end of January and I'd rather keep the money I worked hard to earn if its at all possible. If the State would just agree not to try to throw me in jail if I don't pay it, that would be great. I'm sure no-one else would refuse to pay their taxes if the State wasn't threatening them with jail if they didn't. Its just me being awkward, I'm funny like that.


To Jim,

the Tax power of the state gives your income its value. The Tax power gives money its value in exchange as all modern money has no intrinsic worth, so violence is the basis of your Income and the basis of private property.

All contracts also depend on this power as the Judge in the Law court enforces contracts and thus all private compacts like property depends on state power. the command of the Judge is that of the political sovereign.

No Tax = no state. no state = no Law = No property rights .


@Keith: So in the absence of a State there would be no money, and I could earn no income with my labour?

Gee, I wonder how humans managed to trade for the vast majority of human existence before the invention of the modern State?

Paul Sagar


"If so, it's a statement without much content because it would apply to the most benign and fluffy society imaginable. "

No, you're missing the point. Your imagined fluffy hippy commune only works because at some level in order to continue being a fluffy hippy commune some fluffy hippies have to be prepared to exclude the non-fluffy - and to do it by violent force, if necessary.

All human political societies rest on a principle - whether actualised or unactualised, one step removed or three - of the use of organised force. This will become especially accute when resources are up for grabs, and even more so when those resources are scarce. Which, incidentally, is why your hippy commune doesn't tell us much: let's see how fluffy they get when the bread and water starts to run out...and let's not see if they start to develop some rules backed up with collective force (i.e. laws) to regulate the distribution of these scarce goods.

The irony of your "counter-example" to Chris is that it is precisely not a counter example. If you scratch deep enough, you are quite right that any human political society ends up being founded upon at least the bare possibility of violence. We in the west, being lucky enough to be several steps removed from this, tend not to see it. But it's true, even if we forget because we are lucky enough to be able to forget.

Johnny from Naked

"Even if the violence does succeed, it is not necessarily a force for egalitarianism."

Fucking awesome - and meant in total seriousness. How have I lived without this blog? It's like a super-dense pretentiousness spot...


Jeremy  Poynton

Pray tell me, exactly WHAT did Trotsky to do improve the world that makes him so worthy of quoting? Frankly, he always seemed a total prat to me...


The modern democratic state may ultimately be based on the threat of some kinds of violence, but it is violence that is not arbitrary and is strictly limited by laws that have been sanctioned by proper democratic process. Citizens, too, ultimately have the right to use violence to protect themselves and their legally constituted property, but again it is violence that is limited by law. The fact that these principles are generally recognized means that we have the right to protest peacefully against the government and, for the most part, are able to go about our business without undue fear of molestation. A very small number of people despise this kind of democratic state. They probably think it is “bourgeouis “ or “racist” or something, and imagine they can achieve something better by, say, setting fire to buildings, smashing up cars and endangering or taking innocent lives. They are idiots, and it is sad that you and Paul should try to offer them cloak of intellectual respectability.


Incidentally, I wonder how you and Paul Sagar will feel if there are further, even more violent riots in the next few months and people are killed.


Sorry, but this has really got me annoyed. I'm reminded of this quote from Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons"

"And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you--where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast--man's laws, not God's--and if you cut them down...d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."

It is, perhaps, appropriate that the actor who played Roper in the film version was the Trotskyite revolutionary Corin Redgrave


To Jim,

before the Liberal State there was the Tribal Chief and Feudal lord, The Roman Imperator, Pharoh etc

Man always lives in a polity and is subject to its Laws and customs from which arises economic activity exchange and so on. According to Aristotle, On Politics, The State is "A body of armed men". All individual rights are conditional on the collective power of society. And Men have not and never can exist outside of a political society.

Luis Enrique


um, no I'm afraid you misunderstood me. It wasn't a counter example. It was there to make exactly the same point you do:

"All human political societies rest on a principle - whether actualised or unactualised, one step removed or three - of the use of organised force".

Yes, precisely - even the most benign and fluffy political societies imaginable. How useful would it be to warn darkly in fluffy happy land 'this is all founded on the threat of violence you know'.

This is why I don't think it's a very interesting - and certainly not a sinister - argument. When reduced to a statement that applies equally to all possible societies, including the least violent most harmonious and liberal ones, it is banal and innocuous. Yes, somewhere down the line there has to be the threat of violence. Put like that it tells us nothing about any particular society.

More useful would be to distinguish societies that actually function via the ever present threat of violence from those where violence is only used as a last resort response to violence, or force used to restrain those who need restraining.


Um, the state (and the community) can enforce and do non-violent penalties, no? Traffic tickets are not violent. You don't need torture and the atom bomb to run a civil society.


"we all get some atavistic pleasure from seeing Tories and coppers roughed up"

Really silly thing to say.

Do you actually know any coppers? Coppers and Tories are human beings. You don't ever rough up another human being unless they are oppressing you. Coppers were not oppressing the protesters who were trying to trash the conservative party HQ. I can't think why you would stand up for people who put other people's lives at risk for no good reason. This isn't one of the situations where you have to make people bleed, surely! And don't tell me their lives weren't at risk - look at Ian Tomlinson - the copper who shoved him wasn't *trying* to kill him, was he?

And you think this is moralising? Jesus. If people with your views got into power, I doubt we'd be better off than we are now.

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad