This is what happens when you outlaw peaceful protest

  • December 15, 2013

People & Protest

The banning of peaceful protest from Egypt to Spain is increasingly leaving citizens with no other way to express their opposition but through violence.

When the conservative government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy proposed a new law that would effectively ban protests near state buildings and impose hefty fines of up to 600,000 euros and even jail time on those trying to organize “unlawful” demonstrations via social media, they probably thought they were being clever. Now that the massive street protests that rocked Spain through 2011-’12 appear to have subsided, those in power probably expected the people to just take their Orwellian Citizens’ Security Law and suck it up.

But the people will have none of it. Instead of being cowered into submission, the decentralized coordinating platform of Spain’s powerful social movements immediately coalesced back into action, organizing a major demonstration in front of Congress last night. What happened next may well be a sign of what lies ahead for governments the world over as they seek to slam shut all doors — both institutional and non-institutional — to legitimate opposition and democratic participation. Thousands of protesters descended upon Congress and, as the cops tried to break up the demonstration, attacked them with bricks and bottles and smashed up their police cars.

Last night’s clashes in Madrid are only the latest in a long line of actions and reactions, uprisings and crackdowns, rebellions and repressions. All around the world, a nefarious process is afoot. In many of the countries that experienced dramatic social mobilizations from 2011 onward, terrified elites are now drawing up laws banning the type of street demonstrations that kick-started the Age of the Protester, desperately trying to institutionalize their Thermidorian counter-revolution now that the movements appear to be on the retreat. But everywhere these type of anti-protest legislations are being passed, the attempted closure is only drawing people back into the streets.

In Egypt, when the revolutionary movement suddenly resurfaced last month, the military-controlled government moved swiftly to implement a new law that would effectively ban all unauthorized gatherings of over 10 people. The day after the law was passed activists took to the streets of Cairo to denounce it and the regime responded by attacking and arresting the protesters, subjecting them to torture and sexual assault before dumping a number of them in the desert. Still, activists in Cairo warned that “we will not protest at the whim and convenience of a counter-revolutionary regime,” declaring that “the January 25 Revolution has returned to the streets.”

Apart from Egypt and Spain, similar anti-protest laws have been drafted up elsewhere as well. During the student uprising in Québec last year, politicians tried to deal with the outburst of popular indignation by pushing through emergency legislation banning the demonstrations. In Japan, the government is trying to do the same following the massive anti-nuclear demos after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. And wherever protest has not yet been made illegal by law, police forces are trying to do everything within their power to treat it as such — just take a look at the way cops treat students in the UK, or the coordinated fashion in which the federal government cracked down on the Occupy movement in the US.

The worldwide repression of popular protest should be seen as part of a general evolution in the nature of the capitalist state: away from a modicum of democratic accountability under the Keynesian social welfare state towards an ever more authoritarian neoliberal form. In this respect, the protest bans are indicative of a contradictory rearrangement of power relations. On the one hand, the movements have clearly left an impression: apparently the massive street demonstrations of recent years have terrified governments so much that they now consider such draconian measures necessary to maintain their grip on power. This reveals something about the ideological fragility of the dominant order, whose legitimacy was shaken to its very core by the uprisings of 2011-’13.

But when ideological power can no longer serve to restrain the masses within their straitjacket of “democratic” consent and complacency, pure physical force must make up for that lack of legitimacy. Machiavelli once conceptualized political power as a centaur — half man, half beast — both sides of which must be mobilized by the astute statesman in order to subdue his enemies; not least the rebellious multitude that in a state of discontent marches upon the palace gates. In his words, “there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second.”

And so we find ourselves at a historical crossroads: now that the ruling elite can no longer command the voluntary consent of the ruled, they will increasingly resort to the use of force in order to retain their position of privilege. This leaves the movements in a frightening predicament. If the state’s inner bestiality is taking over from its limited human capacity to dialogue and reason, can we really keep fighting it through the same means? Does it really make sense to reproach a rabid and murderous beast with the cunning reason of man? What is the point in peaceful protest if the state simply outlaws it and arrests us for disagreeing in public? What future is there for us if we are to be mercilessly jailed or bankrupted, our lives destroyed, simply for calling on our fellow human beings to peacefully speak out against injustice? What direction is the state driving us into? And can the movements be held responsible for what comes next?

These are questions we may not yet be able to answer, but as Machiavelli also crucially observed, we need to remind ourselves that no political authority can ever rule through force alone. Violence breeds violence, and perpetual cycles of retribution will even cost the victor dearly. It is not in the interest of the capitalist state to run its affairs purely on the basis of violence and terror. Sooner or later, the Leviathan will either have to make some serious compromises — or face the consequences. For those of us who desire peace, the future may not look pretty. A hungry beast is staring us in the eye. What do we do now?

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