Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On direct action

I've read with interest what others have had to say about the Plane Stupid protestors who occupied Stanstead Airport. Via Chris, I found a handy summary here. For what it's worth, the sentiments one finds here dovetail rather neatly with my own prejudices. I don't care if they're right - I can't stand these posh sanctimonious eco-protestors.

But it got me thinking about direct action in general - a problem that swirls around in my mind from time to time. It isn't an easy problem to resolve because only Germans circa 1939-1945 ever thought obedience to the law should stand at the apex of a man's moral obligations. Unless you're big on state-worship, it is surely uncontroversial to insist that 'direct action' is at least on some occasions justifiable?

But my feeling is in general that the modern liberal or socialist rather understates the problems thrown up by this. Part of the reason is, I think, historic examples of direct action have left the history books and entered into the world of mythology. In this country, I'm thinking mainly of the way the Suffragettes' campaign of violence has been understood. Here we have a seemingly obvious case for direct action that fulfills two of the criteria that are conventionally understood as justifying it: a) a just cause - in this case the inclusion of women in the franchise, and b) an issue that the conventional party system couldn't cope with because there was no party championing their cause.

My complaint about this interpretation of history has nothing to do with the justice of their cause. Rather, like a number of people who have looked beyond the mythology at the actual history, I question the efficacy of their campaign. Like a number of of people who have examined the actual historical record, I would suggest that what proved decisive in winning women the vote was the Suffragettes' participation in the war effort - something the majority agreed necessitated putting the direct action campaign on hold.

The other thing that strikes one about the Suffragettes' campaign is that while it was shocking at the time - and it should be understood that many of their actions lost them the sympathy they'd won during their treatment in prison under that lovely Liberal government - it seems in retrospect rather mild by modern standards. For what is terrorism but a form of direct action? Which brings me to my little list of problems that the average liberal or socialist tends not to take account of when discussing this problem:

1) The problem of proportion. What level of direct action is justified? Who decides? The obvious answer here would be the government - but direct action by definition is a resort to extra-legal means. Surely even if people haven't bothered to acquaint themselves with the great Thomas Hobbes, even a rudimentary understanding of human history would inform someone that we might have something of a problem of acceleration here. Take this example from the ambivalent Neil D at HP:
"I wondered if a campaign of direct action might be in order.

The night-time slashing of car tyres, the pulling down of Christmas lights, the smashing of garden heaters, and the decapitation of the shining angel might make people think about their transport choices and use of energy. Surely such direct action is warranted given the seriousness of the situation?

Or perhaps it might make me look like a self-righteous twat with no respect for others, or the law, and fatally undermine my cause?"
For me he isn't asking the most pressing question that he should consider, which is: what does he think I'm going to do to him if I catch him slashing my tyres? By the time I'm finished with him, I suppose he could call the police - but there's two problems: one is it is difficult to see what grounds on which he could make a complaint; the other is he would be unlikely to be satisfied with any police response - he's going to want revenge. You see the problem? If you don't then you're just too damn liberal for the real world.

2) What cause justifies direct action? I'm afraid there simply isn't that many that fall into the 'preventing genocide' category. The case that prompted this post and the responses illustrate the problem here. For example, outside of the Troubles, the most prolific terrorist outfit in the UK is not Al-Qaeda or any of its imitators - it has been the ALF. They are so serious about animal rights, they reckon it's ok to harm human mammals to vindicate these rights. My own view is that they are complete fucknuts who have taken liberal self-loathing to its logical conclusion and have managed to feel guilty about being at the top of the food chain. The difficulty here is not just one of what cause but who pursues it? This leads me to my last point:

3) This is for me the most obvious point - but it's one that is invariably missed by the pro-direct action lobby. Isn't it something of a luxury to cheer on the eco-protestors? We can do so because they are armed only with their invulnerable sense of righteousness and perhaps a bag of museli. I appreciate they've caused disruption in this case but in general a lack of power is their defining characteristic. This is why we can afford to indulge them. But what if the group of protesters are in possession of something more substantial? There is one group in societies throughout human history who have at various times and in various places been so convinced of the rightness of their cause, they have felt compelled to dispense with conventional political mechanisms and act directly to address the moral urgency of the situation. This group is, of course, the army.

I didn't intend this to turn out to be quite so anti-direct action - but what motivated it is much of the comment that treats it as if it were what the Americans like to call a 'no-brainer'. This attitude strikes me as being long on moral certainty and short on history - as well as requiring a rather otherworldly unfamiliarity with the human condition.

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