Activism and the Politics of Enclosure

by Carl Rowlands

A Teddy Bear Catapult - what would Gandhi say? Two new books examine activists' efforts to escape isolation, political as well as physical.

First published: 24 October, 2012 | Category: 

What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage, Norman G. Finkelstein. OR Books, 2012.

Beautiful Trouble – A Toolbox for Revolution, edited by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell. OR Books, 2012.

Kettling. A modern representation of Enclosure; a combination of innovation and tradition which has become a defining experience of social control in the 21st century. My first experience of kettling was in October 1992. A newly-elected Conservative government had announced a series of pit closures in preparation for the privatization of whatever scraps remained of King Coal. Communities already buckled by the weight of Thatcher's war against her ‘enemies within’ faced yet more punishment. The demonstrations called by the National Union of Mineworkers in October were packed with hundreds of thousands of angry people, outraged at both the treatment of the miners and the Conservative Party's substantial, foul-tasting victory at the May election. On the day, the police were mindful of the many strike veterans being bussed into London (perhaps also vaguely recalling the recent fate of the regime in Bucharest at the hands of miners) as well as the unleashed fury of the poll tax demonstrations, which had resulted in chaos in Central London only a couple of years previously. The authorities’ strategy at the conclusion of the rally was to pile up row upon row of riot policemen, combined with cordons, to prevent people leaving Hyde Park and heading towards Westminster. Surges from the back of the crowd squashed demonstrators in the middle and the front—thereby placing the onus upon the demonstrators to be the first to lash out. Whilst people were penned-in on three sides, the police launched a couple of cavalry charges. The aim, to large extent successful, was to isolate those willing to take on the police, from those who would be relieved to escape. The police figured that only a fraction would choose to remain in a restricted space for an unknown period, in the proximity of the police horses and their baton-wielding riders.

Normal Finkelstein's pamphlet on Gandhi and the illustrated protest encyclopaedia Beautiful Trouble are both, in part, a response to the isolation of activists symbolised by the police kettle. Beautiful Trouble, a 'Toolbox for Revolution' assembled by Andrew Boyd, lists physical and cultural methods developed by activists over the past two decades to elude and escape entrapment. The book is composed of small chapters, organised by theme: ‘Tactics,’ ‘Principles,’ ‘Theories,’ ‘Case Studies’ and ‘Practitioners.’ These cover a broad terrain, yet manage to go into a lot of detail across the various fields, venturing well beyond sloganeering. Many of the ‘Tactics’ listed in the book relate to attracting positive media coverage, raising the profile of issues and avoiding physical containment. In contrast to planned demonstrations which lend themselves to kettling, there is an emphasis on infiltration and physical discretion. The section on ‘Theories’ is used to pull these tactics into some kind of cohesion. Perhaps surprisingly, it is one of the strongest aspects of the book, comprising succinct, well-referenced and logically constructed summaries of different aspects of theory. So rather than presenting Marx and Engels in their hirsute nineteenth century entirety, Andrew Boyd offers trimmed guides to ‘The Commons,’ ‘Alienation effect’ and ‘Capitalism’ – among others. At its best, such an approach provides accessible, relevant insights.

Beautiful Trouble makes it clear that isolation can be political as well as physical. Protestors' demands will not often be fairly reported by a media under duress from commercial pressures, state agencies and proprietors. Such movements since the early 1990s are often squeezed into a marginal, ‘freak’ channel, where protest is decontextualized and reported in a way that focuses more on the culture and social psychology of its participants than on their political objectives. Partially in response to this, and perhaps partially due to continued social fracturing, protest movements have sought to diversify across political issues and locations, converting everywhere, from Fortnum & Mason to the National Gallery, into a potential theatre of dissent. The intended effect is to circumvent cynical and slanted political correspondents, and expose more people directly to protestors' arguments.

Beautiful Trouble does not, sadly, include a chronology. But such groups as UK Uncut and Diggers 2012 are building, in this respect, upon templates developed by previous generations of direct activists. With the thick concrete of mainstream political discourse smothering almost everything likely to invoke a mass movement in the traditional sense, political argument has fractured and dislocated. The roads protests of the early 1990s were to form a kernel of one of the active political centres. They were connected to a devolving rave culture, which provided a source of energy and vitality. The WTO protests of the late 1990s were to form yet another kernel. Overall, the movements depicted in Beautiful Trouble comprise a matrix of different axes and approaches. Some parts connect and overlap; others do not. There is currently little hard evidence of the abatement of those functional necessities and social forces which drove the initial fracturing of protest. We can surmise that multiple failures and the sense of defeat and regression across different fields—such as social equality, environment and international affairs—may have underpinned the emergence of Occupy, perhaps best seen as a desperate attempt at gaining some strength through combination. In this sense, Occupy is perhaps a movement which is, at its core, millenarian.

Beautiful Trouble illustrates how the 'politics of the possible' has driven radical ideas to the scattered (and sometimes scatterbrained) margins - a situation Gandhi would perhaps recognise from his friends in the London of the late nineteenth century. As documented in Beautiful Trouble, post-rave phenomena such as 'Reclaim the Streets' are by their nature a scribble in the margins, a reference calling attention to something which is never fully notated later. 'General Strike'—listed in the book as a 'tactic'—is given the same class of seat as 'Creative Petition Delivery', with the same legroom across the aisle; all equal passengers on a flight to a hazy new political reality. Perhaps jarringly for those of us with preconceptions, there is little to denote what constitutes 'serious' political activity as opposed to situationist prank.

Norman Finkelstein dedicates his pamphlet to Occupy, a movement which has attempted a two-fold response to the politics of the kettle: the encampment of the enclosure, to reverse entrapment and push the onus back onto the police; and a fresh articulation of demands for democracy and human equality. More than Beautiful Trouble, Finkelstein engages with the political isolation of activist movements, focusing less on tactics and more on strategy.

Almost everything Finkelstein writes is in some way connected to the plight of the Palestinians. His concern with Gandhi is no different, arising from his efforts to develop a political strategy for resolving that conflict. As with the Occupy movement, this involves trying to escape a system of enclosures. What else is the Israeli West Bank Barrier, other than an enormous kettle, built for an entire population? It’s a kettle that isolates the Palestinians physically, enclosing them whilst subjecting the population to intense psychological pressures. Yet it also encloses them politically, removing their cause from the agenda, rendering them out of sight and out of mind. Whereas Beautiful Trouble celebrates eclecticism and creativity in activism, Finkelstein's emphasis is on political seriousness, urging activists in both Occupy and the Palestinian solidarity movement to keep focused on achieving tangible change, and to consider carefully what this may entail.

Gandhi is of course no stranger to rhetoric around the Israel-Palestine conflict. His example is deployed as a moral bludgeon, wielded by Israel's nervier defenders to condemn Palestinian movements for lacking his moral purity. ‘The Palestinians need their very own Gandhi,’ the argument runs. Finkelstein's response is twofold.  Firstly, he aims to recover what Gandhi actually thought about nonviolence and Israel. While Gandhi counselled non-violence, he regarded the condemnation of violence in self-defence as pure hypocrisy, given the standards of conduct which prevailed at the time. Secondly, Finkelstein re-examines the nature of Gandhi's moral authority.

As Finkelstein and other commentators have pointed out, none of our communities usually have our own Gandhi, for good reasons. Gandhi was exceptional, a religious leader. His moral authority was hugely significant, yet specific to place and time. His ability to lead thousands of people in a fast, or ask his many followers to walk smilingly into a hail of gunfire, rested on a moral, religious and charismatic authority bound up with his person. For those of us without this authority, Finkelstein argues, Gandhi's primary relevance is thus not as a moral example, but as an astute political tactician.

Gandhi was a canny political operator. The goal he pursued, that of a free and independent India, gained currency among the public, and this was crucial to his success. Finkelstein emphasises that Gandhi was careful to separate his role as ashram cult leader from that of leader of a popular movement. He was able to lure the occupying British regime into no-win situations, where they were either forced further into violent oppressive measures or resigned passivity. The 'battle for hearts and minds' was won by Gandhi through measured protest which would appeal to conscience.

His tour of the Depression-hit north of England has no recent parallel among mainstream left-wing leaders in Western countries. He directly communicated with those who, it had been said, would lose their livelihoods should a Gandhian boycott of British-made goods be successful. The Lancashire public's acknowledgement of his case for Indian independence, in the teeth of the mass poverty ascribed to Gandhi's actions, remains one of the best examples of how public support is necessary to achieve strategic goals, and of the importance of a political strategy carefully calibrated to resonate with a wider population. “I am not anti-English; I am not anti-British; I am not anti-any government,” Gandhi insisted, “but I am anti-untruth—anti-humbug, and anti-injustice.”

Such carefully constructed messages are vital, Finkelstein argues, in order to avoid marginalisation in the long-term. The continuing revelations of the Metropolitan Police's desperate measures, its unscrupulous infiltration of various activist networks and paranoid surveillance of street protests, suggest that the kinds of activism listed in Beautiful Trouble are regarded as a serious threat; not only to public order, but to the established order and its interests. As Finkelstein successfully highlights, it is precisely these kind of disproportionate and overweening responses by authorities which provided Gandhi and the independence movement an opportunity to expand. As Finkelstein argues, the aim of Gandhi's campaigns was to energise actual and potential sympathisers, to 'quicken the conscience' of bystanders. To do so, he recognised that not merely the means but the goals of the movement had to be widely understood and supported.

Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolence was thus concerned with political appeal as much as moral purity; it succeeded in striking a balance between the two. The imperial authorities in India were terrified. They feared creating a martyr through repression, on the one hand, and allowing the movement to spread uncontrollably, on the other. The new generation of protesters have yet to collectively pose such an acute political question. Finkelstein argues that in order to break out from the political kettle, a movement needs strategic goals, and it needs them to be understood by large sections of a sympathetic public. Yet it seems as though the wider the public appeal of a movement like Occupy, the less able it is to identify a clear set of definable aims. Problematic questions emerge for those such as Finkelstein, who see a necessity for broad public support.

Finkelstein's book focuses on Gandhi the individual, not as a player within an independence movement. It shows little evidence of close analysis of how the discourse around Gandhi's philosophy was able to gain resonance: how and why his message was disseminated and broke through to India's populace. But his discussion offers a useful benchmark against which to judge the seriousness of tactics like those celebrated in Beautiful Trouble, whilst also insisting that tactics, in the absence of clear and broadly appealing goals, will never be enough. Activists, who are often justifiably focused on crucial questions of principle, perhaps need regular reminders that politics is not simply about the expression of personal preference.

In the meantime, the use of kettling evolves. Shortly after the miners’ protests back in the early 1990s, the same techniques were used in order to handle 'militant' disabled people at a rally in Parliament Square in 1995. But my next experience of kettling came in 2001, when an 'anti capitalist' May Day march was reduced to the miserable experience of standing in a kettle for hours under the weeping skies of Central London. This time, though, I was outside the kettle. In striking contrast to the incident in 1992, I found a lot of young people, most of whom looked like postgraduate students, none of whom looked like manual workers (and yes, you can tell just by looking—it is England, after all).  One might be forced to conclude that many of the tactics listed in Beautiful Trouble had failed to give rise to a truly representative protest movement: that the ‘Teddy Bear Catapult’ may have backfired on its scampish creators. The protesters’ bedraggled presence seemed to spell a double victory for the authorities: public order had been maintained, and the demonstrators' demands were rendered extremely difficult for people to decipher. Many were on their side and their targets were proper: consumerism, unaccountable corporations, governments dominated by the elite; but the message seemed to hover like vapour, easily dispersed by the cold economic realities experienced by those of us with fewer material (and perhaps intellectual) resources. Perhaps growing social inequalities in the UK have created an innate political immobility, ‘invisible kettles’ of socio-geographical exclusion rendering working-class self-organisation practically impossible.

The connections between the different kinds of kettling—political, cultural and physical—are crucial for protest movements. If they allow themselves to succumb to the political kettle, the physical kettle is far more effective, and far less likely to 'quicken the conscience' of the onlooker.  Finkelstein's discussion of Gandhi provides no formulas for overcoming these kettles. Rather, it highlights the crucial importance of strategies that aim to convince.

Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.

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