Kettling and the Fear of Revolution

by | 23 Mar 2012

… what are you laughing at? Change the name and you are the subject of the story” (Horace, Satires and Epistles. London: Penguin 2005: 5)

In November 2010, British students staged a series of demonstrations in several cities of the UK and Northern Ireland. Organised by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), thousands marched against spending cuts to further education and an increase of the cap on tuition fees by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. The 2010 protests have marked something of a turning point in modern British history: the political protest was back. After the 2003 anti-Iraq war protest in London which attracted almost a million people, the 2010 protests showed once more that it is the political protest that shapes the world for the better. But if these protests made dissensus visible, and posited it at the heart of British politics, they also gave police an opportunity to widely use a scare tactic, ensuring that protest against the status quo is effective. The tactic is called ‘kettling’, which so easily turns a legitimate protest into a ‘violent disorder’.

Though kettling may at first seem a new tactic of ‘total policing’, it is in fact a more complex spatial strategy. To get closer to an understanding of kettling we need to unpick its political logic in relation to neoliberalism. I shall argue that kettling aims to achieve two seemingly relational results: to control and incite the crowd in order to produce ‘good’ social effects by agents of neoliberal governance, and displace dissent and resistance in order to defuse the fear of revolution.

Firstly, kettling aims to control the crowd in a specific site. The protesters are held in tightly confined spaces without time limit and thus become the subject of police brutality at its most devious: anybody can be crushed by horse, or hit with batons to the head. Legitimising police violence, kettling is designed to limit the disruption in the interests of ‘public safety’. Punishing protesters without charge or trial, kettling is, in short, designed to silence the crowd in the interest of ‘public security’. The containment process can last until the crowd loses its moral energy. It makes people feel utterly helpless, hopeless, and ‘discharge’ their anger until it overflows into acts of criminal damage. After all, ‘managers of the event’ know very well that anger is an affect that seeks action above and beyond words. If the first aim of kettling concerns the specific day where the protest takes place, the long run aim is to dissuade protesters from demonstrating in the future. In this sense, kettling criminalises the right to protest, which is against the Geneva conventions.

Aiming to control the crowd, kettling also attempts to incite the crowd. By creating difficult and unpleasant conditions (sub-zero or warm temperatures without food, water, toilets, or freedom of movement) and by preventing people from leaving the demonstration, the police aims to provoke the crowd into action. What appears to be targeted is the possibility of a violent act to the police. The logic which underwrites this is rather simple: by provoking the crowd, violence is inflamed by kettling itself. The exercise of kettling is therefore incitatory in that it creates the threat in order to deal with the threat. In colonizing the imaginary of the protester, kettling strives to make this imaginary real. Thus the crowd is addressed affectively as it is rendered controllable and manageable for the stable unity of the order. What is at work here is a mutation of control/neoliberal governance as a referent object: the affective subject of ‘action’ is rendered governable and manageable.

A crucial ideological operation of kettling in this respect is its repression or the moral castigation of all radicalism as ‘bad’ or ‘violent’. This strategy is based on the assumption that the protesters can be divided into two basic categories: ‘peaceful’ legitimate protesters and violent illegitimate ‘anarchists’, which include radical student groups, left wing groups, and initiatives like UK Uncut. At this stage, the media play a central role in shaping ‘public opinion’. ‘Anarchists’ are frequently labelled as ‘violent minority’ and ‘anti-capitalists’ by the sympathetic media. Thus they must be separated and marginalised from the crowd, for kettling builds upon the distinction between an inside and an outside. Inside the kettle, order reigns. Outside the kettle, disorder lurks around the corner. Managing disorder, the main aim is take robust action against aggressive ‘trouble-makers’ and deal with them as quickly as possible. What becomes vital, therefore, is anticipating the ‘crowd-effect’ to be created in the context of the demonstration as a whole. Control and the knowledge of the crowd must be total so that ‘a becoming of the crowd’ can be controlled. Put differently, kettling aims to pre-empt or prevent a revolutionary crowd forming.

This brings us to the main point in the logic of kettling: to normalise “social struggles” by disorienting and demoralising the revolutionary masses. The goal of kettling is to care for a ‘liberal life’ by neutralising threats to that life through some form of intervention: it is a fight to ‘hit’ the target before it takes actual shape. Kettling, therefore, holds together as a response to an ‘urgent threat’: how to govern catastrophic events in a world where neoliberalism is perpetually on the verge of collapse. To put it even more succinctly: kettling is introduced to protect the neoliberal order against the fear of revolution. The exercise of kettling is being done in a way that makes ‘total policing’ more confrontational or more political. In kettling, therefore, the ‘politicisation’ of the police proceeds in parallel with the ‘militarisation’ of the police. For the police, or total policing, protest is treated as a problem to be kettled, predetermining the political outcomes. Protest is, in other words, prevented from explaining its purpose to the public. The TUC march on November 30th in London, where more than two million public sector workers staged a nationwide strike, is a case in point. The march was subject to extraordinary police control and restriction, including the erection of a pre-emptive ‘ring of steel’. If a demonstration is a form of revolution, kettling is a form of counterrevolution. Kettling functions as a pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strategy that aims to empty out the emancipatory core of demonstration (revolution) in advance: anything potentially dangerous must be excluded. Since demonstration is seen as an ‘inconsistent’ element within the existing neoliberal order, kettling must prevent its massification. Thus the crowd must be continuously kettled so that their demands cannot reach the public, but rather remain regulated and controlled in its own particularity.

In this sense kettling is the materialisation of neoliberal security practices of the state. If the state of exception is an instance of neoliberalism, kettling is an instance of the state of exception. In neoliberalism, certain social practices are normalised and legitimised (kettling, police brutality), while practices which disrupt the existing order are criminalised. This is why kettling protesters, used extensively during the G20 protests in London three years ago, was upheld as lawful in the Court of Appeal. The European Court of Human Rights also ruled on 15 March 2012 that kettling was the ‘least intrusive and most effective’ tactic available to the police. These rulings show that the exercise of kettling is ideological in that it defends not only the legal and juridical, but also the moral and symbolic forms of neoliberalism. It is another way of suppressing political differences. It is another way of sustaining a liberal way of life.

In neoliberalism, the desired outcome is to stop a threat of revolution to the existing order. The referent object is always an event, a revolution, to come. By targeting the affectivity of the individual, neoliberalism is, in short, animated by fear and threats. It aims to be purely preemptive. After all, every new tactic of power is simply the outcome of a particular power struggle. Its inscription always follows the management of the catastrophic event. When the UK Court of Appeal ruled that kettling was lawful, it meant that neoliberal capitalist states would be more efficient and effective in response to the contingency of the crisis event than they now are. After all, laws cannot be politically neutral. In fact, I would argue the very opposite. Laws have become a politicised weapon of the counter-revolution. Whatever the jurisdiction, they are enacted in a highly tactical way in response to the fear of revolution. Which is why the liberal commitment to law is nothing else than the normalisation of violence. The effective normalisation of a neoliberal politics of fear, and the normalisation of violence it brings, should be seen as a far more sinister attack on revolutionary movements than an attempt to improve the natural foundation of ‘civilised’ contemporary society. Liberalism is not to be confused with the juridical problem of order. More than that, it is a regime of power that operates through complex and overlapping historical apparatuses. But if there is one defining singularity to its global strategy of pacification, then it is the biopolitics of fear itself. Today, more than ever before, the politics of fear resides in contemporary society and is woven into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life. It operates within a global imaginary of the catastrophic event. It establishes the overwhelming fear of revolution as the driving force of general culture.

Every regime and every legal tactic respond to the catastrophic event. Every law and every decision respond to the fear of revolution. In this sense kettling is intimately bound to the neoliberal politics of fear, just as fear is intimately bound to the active production of political subjectivities. Both set out who we are as people, what we are fighting against (revolution), and define what we are to become (neoliberal subjects as homo economicus). Since what is dangerous today (revolution) is seen as productive to the very life processes that sustain neoliberalism, the politics of fear is directly related to the vitality of existence on which the neoliberal order depends. As a consequence, it is the fear of revolution that appears to become the generative source of neoliberalism. It declares the contingency of the event/revolution to be the problem to be solved.

As an instance of the state of exception, kettling is a spatial imprint of a neoliberal order which is, it seems, now under siege and being pushed back. As the fear of revolution continues, however, it becomes increasingly violent. Given that liberalism’s struggle for survival knows no boundaries, it is safe to say that it would fight tooth and nail to stop or derail that defeat. In short, this will be a permanent struggle to delay catastrophe. But let’s not assume that liberalism’s permanent war completely forecloses the possibility of resistance and change. As Deleuze says: “There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”.

Ali Riza Taşkale is a doctoral student in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. Email:


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