This popular post was originally published February 24, 2011.
The ongoing union protests against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin have inspired comparisons to the Tea Party movement. Apparently, for some commentators, people at a capitol building holding signs is inherently “populist.” However, beyond the superficial similarity of people protesting, there is nothing these union demonstrations have in common with the Tea Party. Quite the contrary, the unrest in Wisconsin is the antithesis of everything the Tea Party stands for.
The Nation’s Johann Hari acknowledges this. Rather than compare the events in Wisconsin to the Tea Party movement, Hari plainly states the contrast.
Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country. The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay.
Hari believes the protests in Wisconsin mark the rise of this “progressive Tea Party”. He goes on to recount how it has been foreshadowed in the United Kingdom by a group called UK Uncut. As you consider Hari’s account, you will find it closely resembles the anti-capitalist uprising called for in The Coming Insurrection.
Hari’s description of UK Uncut’s activities centers around protests of private business, storefronts of the communication company Vodafone, whom the protesters insist owe millions in back-taxes. The narrative UK Uncut has spun, which Hari wholeheartedly advocates, is that endangered social services can continue to be funded at current levels if companies like Vodafone are forced to pay their taxes. Whether or not this is true, and whether or not Vodafone or others actually owe back-taxes, is the purview of bureaucrats and bean-counters. What is of more immediate concern is not UK Uncut’s particular claims, but the methods they justify with them.
People were urged to gather at 9:30 am on a Wednesday morning outside the Ritz hotel in central London… More than sixty people arrived, and they went to one of the busiest Vodafone stores—on Oxford Street, the city’s biggest shopping area—and sat down in front of it so nobody could get in.
The defining aspect of UK Uncut, and the so-called “progressive Tea Party” Hari pines for, is violence. Closing down stores, shutting down banks and offices, blocking traffic, and otherwise disrupting business are not rightful means of protest. They constitute a specific form of violence. Hari’s language proclaims this. Demand. Enraged. Surround. Force. Unlike the political campaign metaphors which the Left took literally in the wake of Gifford’s shooting in Tucson, these words are intended to be understood plainly.
The Coming Insurrection is defined within its text as “the local appropriation of power by the people, … the physical blocking of the economy and of the annihilation of police forces.” This is what Hari, and by extension the editorial staff at The Nation, are advocating.
… The Western left has been proud of its use of social media and blogging, but all too often this hasn’t amounted to much more than clicktivism… Is a big Facebook group going [achieve our goals]? No. Is an angry buzz on the blogosphere going to…? No. But what these protesters have done—putting all the online energy into the streets and straight into the national conversation—just might(…)
British liberals and left-wingers have been holding marches and protests for years and been roundly ignored. So why did UK Uncut suddenly gain such traction? Alex Higgins, another protester, explains, “It’s because we broke the frame that people expect protest to be confined to. Suddenly, protesters were somewhere they weren’t supposed to be—they were not in the predictable place where they are tolerated and regarded as harmless by the authorities. If UK Uncut had just consisted of a march on Whitehall [where government departments are located], where we listened to a few speakers and went home, nobody would have heard of it. But this time we went somewhere unanticipated. We disrupted something they really value: trade…”
Can this model be transferred to the United States?
This is what truly violent rhetoric looks like. That is to say, when someone tells you flat out they are going to intrude upon your liberty, disrupt your business, and impede your voluntary relationships with others, they are making a threat of violence. These are not metaphors referencing an election battle or a legislative debate. These are explicit calls for violent encroachment upon others in the name of literal class warfare.
As writer Rebecca Solnit says, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky…. Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency…”
There is a clear moral distinction between the Tea Party movement and the leftist revolutionaries now in the spotlight. The former seeks order. The later seeks chaos. The former demands what is theirs. The latter seizes what is others. The former respects the rights of all, including those with whom they disagree. The latter feels entitled to disrupt, force, break, block, and seize that which is not theirs.