Thinking of Political Violence: a minor commentary on March 26th 2011, London

by | 1 Apr 2011

Events, by definition, are occurrences that interrupt routine processes and routine procedures; only in a world in which nothing of importance ever happens could the futoroligists’s dream come true.

No one engaged in thought about history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs … 

— Hannah Arendt On Violence (1970: 7;8)

The problematic of political violence has always unsettled me. Unsettled my thoughts, my senses, my mind. Each time I tried to write about it I found myself blocked (at least until now…and let’s see whether this commentary will be completed). I could not figure out exactly why. It could have been because I was blocked by already sophisticated writings on political violence (Arendt, Benjamin, Butler, Camus, Derrida, Goldman, Sorel and many others) or by images of injured, mutilated or even dead bodies. It could have been for both or either reasons. But it could have been also because I could not see political violence straight in the eye. I guess if it takes a lot of practice to take a slap without blinking (at 1.37) it may take quite a lot of practice to keep one’s eyes open, to look political violence straight in the eye, to be able to give a minor commentary. Or perhaps it takes the risk of being intimate with it to sense the way it operates in the world.

As I woke to the newspapers and television reports of violence erupting during the 26th March 2011 TUC demonstration against the UK government’s public sector cuts and its variant and connecting manifestations (UK Uncut, anarchist damage to property, the sit-in in Trafalgar square which turned into a police confrontation after the attempted arrest of a young man suspected to be planning to destroy the clock which was counting the minutes to the London 2012 Olympics), I felt unable to blink. I was not blinded either by the reporting of violence by the broad sheet papers or the red tops (Keri Sutherland and Nick Owens ‘Stop the Cuts: marchers turn on troublemakers: No to Anarchy in UK’ The Sunday Mirror 6–7) nor the naming of the people that threw paint on police officers and shops (Top Shop I witnessed), broke the windows of the Ritz Hotel and Anne Summers shop in Soho, nor the ones that occupied for a bit Fortnum & Mason (or Trafalgar Square) as anarchists. Our modern history has taught us that anybody engaging in so-called violence has been named an anarchist.

In 1917 Emma Goldman wrote about the media reporting on political violence in her essay ‘The Psychology of Political Violence‘; she wrote: ‘That every act of political violence should nowadays be attributed to Anarchists is not at all surprising. Yet it is fact known to almost everyone familiar with the Anarchist movement that a great number of acts, for which Anarchists had to suffer, either originated with the capitalist press or were instigated, if not directly perpetrated , the police’ (Goldman: 1969, 86). So neither the reports of political violence nor their attributed causes surprised me. Goldman teaches us not be surprised. She experienced this many times. Let’s take one example, the assassination of the US President William Mckinley. Leon Czolgosz assassinated the President of the US, William Mckinley, in 1901. It was reported that he was an anarchist and his act was incited by Emma Goldman. She did not recall ever meeting the young man, nor that he was a known anarchist. There was not even a written record stating that he actually stated that Goldman incited him to this act (Goldman: 1969, 88). The papers, though, headlined Czolgosz’s arrest by connecting Goldman to the assassination (Goldman: 1970, 296). She was arrested, questioned and eventually set free due to lack of evidence. While in custody she received numerous vitriolic letters accusing her of her of instigating the assignation of the US president. In one such letter she wrote: ‘I wish I could get at you. I would tear your heart out and feed it to my dog.’ (Goldman: 1970, 301). All the letters she received where propagated by media reports. Despite her arrest and harassment Goldman both supported Czolgosz and offered to nurse (as she was a trained nurse) McKinley, who did not die immediately of his wounds.

Moreover, just a few days now after the 26th March we are waking to the news that either the police directed some of the more radical demonstrative actions of the day or we are finding out that the police tricked the UK Uncut group into bring their action to an end in Fortnum & Mason with the sweetener of safety but which instead it transformed into sour arrests. All these are chilling reminders of what Goldman said over and over again during her life about what happens when people demonstrate the truth to power.

All this does not though tell us much about violence or the discourse surrounding violence. It just alerts to the manufacturing of reports and blame about violence. A manufacturing that perhaps we need to be aware of so as not to be allured by their titillating remarks. There is more in the quote from Goldman that we may use as a way of understanding our relationship to political violence. If we turn to the quote above we may notice that she indicates that only ‘a great number of acts’ and not all acts are fabricated or blamed on anarchists. The space ‘a great number of acts’ and ‘all acts’, it is the space that she allows for political violence to be owned by anarchists, to be authored more generally by political activists. Indeed in the same essay she explains one such act. She explains  how her friend, once lover and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (who did not only try to break the union of steel workers that worked for him but moreover hired an army to dismantle the striking workers and caused the death of eleven workers, despite the existence of a series of peaceful demonstrations against Frick and the death of the striking workers in the hands of his paid army). He was prompted to a murderous act, she explains, by the death of the eleven steel workers. Berkman was arrested and convicted for this attempt (Goldman: 1969, 92–93). The presentation of Berkman’s case in her essay tells us more than a historical happening. Through Berkman’s failed assassination, Goldman tells us of the necessity of owning our political actions that are violent and being able to justify them. Even more it tells us that political violence is conditional. Conditioned by the ownership of our acts and its justifications. She seems therefore to be telling us that political violence needs to be owned and justified to be called by that name. By her definition the UK Uncut, we may say, engage in political violence. But what about those window breakers, graffiti scribblers, ammonia throwers, anarchists or not, can we say that they don’t engage in political violence?  We can safely say that they don’t directly own up to their actions. They don’t directly speak to us with, rather they leave the sound of a cracked window and the smell of ammonia to disrupt our sense of this world, to somehow engage our senses and thoughts and turn us into accomplices to their political actions. Lack of ownership, lack of individual or group verbal declaration of their acts may not necessarily turn their actions into mere violence as opposed to political violence. The physical destruction of buildings transmits their discontent with the symbols of capital accumulation and inequity. Even if  I am finding it hard, really hard to join them behind their covered faces and black hoodies, I am too old for all this (my justification) or maybe I am not young enough to hear the sounds of cracked windows (my ears have begun to fail me) but can still understand their call to joint ownership and their justification.

But it is not ownership and justification that separates political violence from any other form of violence. As the heading quote from Arendt suggests, disruption of everydayness may as well be one of the conditions of political violence. If this is the case we can perhaps suggest that the TUC demonstration, the UK Uncut and those who damage buildings may have indeed managed to disrupt1Arendt in On Violence (1970) Kat 32 from shopping for fresh marshmallows in Fortnum & Mason. And if she was bewildered by the propagation of these protestations, unable to comprehend the demands or discontent, then perhaps she may be able to understand them better in a form of a song which I warmly dedicate to her here.

Political violence we may say has its own conditions: ownership, justification, disruption. The selective quotes from Goldman and Arendt tell me so.  If we imagine that this is the case, that political violence is conditioned by ownership, justification and disruption then we may also be able to say that it has become ordinary. That it is inclusive of a variety of acts including acts of orderly marching, and peaceful sit-ins in Trafalgar square. And if it is imagined to be so ordinary it may allow us to say that we all, all those that participated on the March 26th 2011 activities (either by being there or by having the day present in our hearts), to a greater or lesser extent may have contributed to political violence and we have done so as one. We may not want to go and support this proposition. But if we do, if we do for the sake of our integrity as an anti-cut movement, we may also need to consider what Arendt wrote some time ago.

Arendt writes in On Violence (1970) that, ‘…the danger of violence, even it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic’ (1970, 80).  This quote may translate as a soft call to awareness, even foresight: ‘be aware that political violence no matter how justified it may be, no matter how consciously peaceful it may be, it can through repetition and over time turn into terror’. And terror may in turn zap away anything life affirming that we may have gained so far. Terror may take away the music, the laughter the sharing and even the anger. Terror may even turn us into victims, and Wendy Brown said a lot about this in States of Injury (1995). We may be far away from there but we will never know how close. The journey to the impossible may need us to think otherwise, may require from us to ‘have done with violence’ or, to think of political violence anew. But it may also require us to stop blinking our eyes to political violence, and that takes practice.

Dr Elena Loizidou is Senior Lecturer in Law, Birkbeck, University of London


Arendt, H (1970) On Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace& Company)

Brown, W (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Goldman, E  (1969) ‘The Psychology of Political Violence’ in Emma Goldman Anarchism and other Essays (New York: Dover Publications)

Goldman, E (1970) Living  My Life vol 1 (New York: Dover Publications)

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    Arendt in On Violence (1970)


  1. I agree broadly with what you have said- and the ghandi quote that “[about violence] the good it does is only temporary, while the evil it does is permanent” also seems very relevant, but i do have a few criticisms.

    Firstly, shouldn’t you make a distinction between property damage and violence against people. I was among the black bloc for a while on saturday, and while I happily supported the broken windows and paint bombs, i disagreed with attacking the police- not only because it quite quickly leads down the typical anarchist road of just having a brawl with the police, but because violence towards people leaves a lasting impression- and windows can always be repaired. Thus, your paragraph about Berkman is, while relevant to the issue of violence, not strictly speaking relevant to saturday. This blog post by the brighton UKUncut people makes an interestign point- that, as i myself saw, the anarchists had no desire to hurt anyone working in those shops, but simply to make a statement.

    Which brings me onto my second point. I may be reading this wrong, but you don’t seem to refer to the idea of propaganda through deed. You mention that they don’t speak to us. However, the main problem we (i dont commit the damage, but i’ll vigorously defend it) have is that the argument is one sided- as witnessed by the fact that no paper even gave a hint of supporting or even explaining the violence. MLK may have been derogatory when he called a riot “the language of the unheard”, but the point still stands- we have made our arguments ( if we’re talking about anarchism) over 150 years. You can go and see our attacks on globalisation and capitalism. But fundamentally, we won’t be listened to, or considered unless we make a statement- actions speak louder than words.

    also, as an aside, could you exercise the ammonia comment- it did come from the police, and nothing has been heard of it since then – so it seems remarkably like rubbish.

    You seem to touch on this, but there is also the fundamental issue in the media. For obvious reasons rioters can’t write pro-riot arguments, and i’m not expecting a whitechapel anarchist group-like article, but the continued british reaction to always condemn and attack the violence seems baffling. As many have written before, riots are fun- which explains why many get caught up in them. Perhaps this is not only british- for example, in greece in 2008 and mai 68 the same things happened- everyone reacted against the violence. In some ways this seems counterproductive- for example, how do those in the anti-cuts movement think we can stop the cuts (and that would require bringing down the government)without a riot or series of them? I can understand why union leaders can’t come out and say “great!” to the violence, but the continued vilification and separation of rioters seems quiet stupid. Those in the papers often call us “idiots” and “vandals”. I wonder what they would do if they were losing their job, or being continually attacked in the media and by government as civil servants are? It still stuns me that most people think they can make value judgements from 3 seconds of carefully edited and manipulated tv- actually, the documentary on the poll tax riots – “the battle of trafalgar”- fantastically attacks this stupid point of view- by continually pointing out that “what you will see is edited”.

    sorry for all the spelling mistakes- and that i went off track towards the end. Anyway, its a very interesting article, and i agree that we need to carefully and incisively analyse political violence or property damage to actually understand, justify or even condemn it.

  2. Thank you for the comments Guy. Just a clarification, I use the Berkman failed attempted assassination more as a way of showing the the condition of justification of political acts that will be deemed violent. In that sense property violence justified in the way you do will fall within this category. You are absolutely right that the ammonia story may be propaganda. I have no evidence apart from what I read. I did not smell any ammonia myself, but if it is true, I can justify it. My whole point was not to create a hierarchy of political violence if we decide to engage with it, and be upfront that if we engage in political contestation, violence is part and parcel of it. So I think we are not in disagreement. Your comments distinction between property/people violence are very thoughtful and informative and thank you very much for this.

  3. This invitation to think violence ‘anew’ is very timely. Over the last years, and now in relation to the anti-cuts protests, the question of violence has been frequently taken lightly in certain circles. Sometimes is just an assumption of the discourse of resistance. In other occasions simply cannot be put into question.

    Elena’s reading of Arendt points to one of the cruxes of politics: when the means of political action overrun and destroy its objectives -when struggles for democracy, freedom, human rights, equality or justice, are betrayed and put to rest by appealing precisely to the opposite these ideals stand for. The history of political violence in the 20th century is very telling: the socialist revolutions that ended up in totalitarianism and state terror, and the democracies like that of the US that played the historical role of an empire of destruction and exploitation.

    The reflection on violence in contemporary Britain cannot avoid comparing the use of violence in London with the non-violent revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. If people fighting in Africa against 20 and 40 years old dictatorships do not justify violence, why would it be necessary to embrace violent tactics in order to oppose the cuts in Britain?

    The question of violence also requires -in the context of a dominant Eurocentric culture- to look at other traditions in which non-violence is the right strategy for social change. The tactics of non-violent resistance of Gandhi and Martin Luther King are not taken seriously when discussing violence with Marx, Benjamin or Derrida. Nor by activists who do not draw in practice the consequences of the thinking of Gandhi, or simply put aside the ideas of MLK.

    And yet, violence is the option of a minority within those opposing the cuts. It is the preferred way of expression of some groups of students- but not of the unions, nor of the vast majority of those who protest against the economic policy of the government of Cameron.


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