On Dissent, Treason And Sedition II

A whole family of rhetorical devices emphasises the link between political opposition and unsafe streets. In the UK, the criterion for reading of the Riot Acts and thereby the use of deadly force against the citizenry involves the causing of fear in a strong-minded person. Since enabling citizens to walk the streets with no fear of violence is essentially what the State is for, branding an opposition with responsibility for the endangerment of life and limb from affray, tumult, riot and disturbance of the peace, on the part of canaille, mischief-makers, troublemakers, rowdies, hooligans and brawlers, is a powerful technique.

In reality, such mob violence is not always a hazard to innocent civilians. Life is far more alarming for the residents of London when Scotland are playing England at Wembley than when a political demonstration has turned nasty. Confrontation between anarchist demonstrators and the police is arguably an organised sport, far more ritualised even than football hooliganism. Police forces sometimes harass, irritate and provoke an initially peaceful march into hostilities; like Voltaire’s God, if violence at political protests did not exist it would have to be invented, since it brings the protest message into disrepute, and there is only one side that benefits from this.

The family of terms that concentrate on disturbance of the peace, such as law and order, disorder, crimes against the social order, lawlessness and so forth, have one thing in common. Namely, they all assume that the state of affairs protested against can properly be characterised as peaceful, orderly and lawful. Frequently it is none of these things. If, for example, people are protesting against government corruption, the latter is no more lawful than the protests and probably less lawful, even by the state’s own laws. But certain people want to keep it.

Some unsubtle governments give the game away by criminalizing protest marches while at the same time mobilising support demonstrations that can be just as riotous, and even turn into pogroms; for some strange reason the latter are never considered a breakdown of law and order. “Maintaining order” and “Restoring order” are frequently euphemisms for imprisoning or executing large numbers of inconvenient citizens. Violence against oppositionals is never a crime, and bussing in miners to beat up students is never disorder.

Three more terms that share the same assumptions are sabotage, which takes the image of an essential machine that is violently broken and applies it to “society”, whereas in fact it is by no means certain what it means to sabotage “society” as a whole, as opposed to interference with particular political and economic interests. The use of malcontent as a de-legitimising term implies that everyone ought to be content, and that there is something perverse or wicked about not being so; it excludes the possibility of a justified discontent with specific abuses. Agitation, outside communist circles always carrying a negative charge, implies that discontent never happens by itself, in response to social conditions, but needs to be stirred up by troublemakers. How people who have no grievances of their own can be so excited by fomenters of mischief is never explained. It was, in fact, the conservative saint Burke who said that revolutions are not fomented, they are provoked, but his words are generally ignored; criminalizing the protest is less strenuous than redressing the grievances.

As for peace, some consider that this requires more than the mere absence of violence, but includes justice as well – the “shalom” concept. However, the state very much resembles the patriarch who defines “the happy family” in terms of his doing and saying whatever he likes, and proceeds to describe any objection as “destroying the harmony of the family”. Peace, then, means that certain individuals are allowed to amass power and riches without inconvenience.

In short, sometimes political protestors commit crimes and create disorder, and sometimes what they are protesting is itself a crime and what the government does to stop them itself creates disorder. However, in the latter case the government will never admit anything of the kind; the fundamental principle here is that whatever a state does in the way of oppression and massacre, it will invariably call by the name of “order”. Because of the way the state is rooted in the social contract of obedience in return for maintenance of order, such tendentious rhetoric will usually have the desired effect at the newspaper-laden breakfast-table.

When governmental oppression and violence are so horrendous that only the most authoritarian or gullible newspaper-readers in the country itself are falling for the “law and order” rhetoric, foreign readers and policy-makers may continue to be taken in. Or else the foreign policy-makers are on the same side as the murderous government and consequently instruct their newspapers to preach the “restoration of order” in that country. The foreigners may then intervene militarily in order to help that government “restore order”. The mirror-image situation is also common; the foreign state complains of the “disorder” in a neighbouring state, such disorder being variously real, imaginary or created from nothing by the intervening state (“destabilisation”), and invades in order to put a stop to it.

A settled nation will frequently be discommoded by a revolution-exporting country or “failed state” next door. Just as in the case of the domestic criminal, therefore, there is a real threat (cross-border incursion) to which a government is by definition obliged to respond, and this real threat represents a stock of affective capital upon which governments can expect a return – in the form of public support for many kinds of intervention to “restore order” and remove the threat to the elite economic interests.

Posted on November 22, 2010 at 12:17 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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