The philosophical significance of UKUncut

When activists under the banner of UK Uncut protest outside high-street shops on Saturday 18th December they will be doing something of great political importance. But they will also be demonstrating and articulating something of immense philosophical significance.

We republish this outstanding analysis posted in OK in December at the start of the movement against fat cat tax avoidance as the BBC reports CS gas was used against UKUncut demonstrators after a supporter was arrested for "damaging" a shop door of Boots by pushing a leaflet under it. A brilliant account by Ellie Mae O'Hagan is on the New Left Project.

 

When activists under the banner of UK Uncut protest outside high-street shops tomorrow they will be doing something of great political importance. But they will also be demonstrating and articulating something of immense philosophical significance. The political mainstream - journalists, commentators and Parliamentarians - is trying to ignore this. Certainly they are confounded by it. For with UK Uncut what that mainstream thought impossible has come to pass: ethics and ideology are once more at the forefront of political contest in Britain.

The demand that corporations cease exploiting the tax loopholes government created for them is ethical in a precise way. It addresses itself to the quality of the actions of Philip Green and others like him. It finds those actions at odds with the principle that ‘we are all in this together’. It then publicly declares those actions unjust. The purity, simplicity and accuracy of all this confounds the political mainstream. Confronted by it they systematically mobilise the argument that since tax avoiders are doing nothing illegal, there is therefore nothing to be said against them. That was the line pursued by Tom Harris MP when he debated with Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass, on The Today Programme after the first Top Shop demonstration. It was repeated by Gavin Esler on Newsnight as part of a challenge put to Daniel Garvin of UK Uncut and again by Sarah Montague, on Today, questioning Murray Williams, also of UK Uncut. The frequency with which this line appears suggests it is either an organised ‘talking point’ or simply indicative of a shared outlook - an ideology. 

Consider for a moment the real implications of the proposition that no act can justly be criticized unless it is against the law. The implication is that law is a full and total expression of moral values. Only totalitarians think that. Everybody else recognises that, while certainly informed by morality, the function of the law is to provide a framework within which civil society can function and can debate the rights and wrongs of actions. And it would be a cold and brittle society that relied on the law for the expression and support of all values, and that could not tolerate citizens sorting things out between themselves. Just as in sport we recognize that something can be within the rules yet still condemned as unsporting, so too most people recognize that behaviour can be wrong even when it isn’t actually illegal.

In fact only one social group regularly seeks to justify actions simply by insisting that they don’t break the formal rules. And that group is the one that rules us. MPs justified themselves in the expenses scandal by protesting that they hadn’t broken a rule; maybe they didn’t need to claim for a second house but doing so was allowed and therefore no wrong was perpetrated. Bankers may have wrecked a financial system while accruing vast personal fortunes but so long as nothing they did broke a rule they think themselves the victims. And our former Prime Minister thought that the only thing needed to justify a reckless war was someone to ensure it wasn’t strictly illegal. In refuting this self-justifying logic UK Uncut exposes the moral vacuity of our contemporary establishment.

It also exposes a fundamental error of ruling political theory. A second criticism routinely made of UK Uncut is that if they think there is something wrong in tax rules then they should protest only through Parliament. It is somewhat surprising to hear this kind of argument today, especially from Labour MPs who, if they had any awareness of their own history and tradition, would know instinctively that, fundamental as it is, there is more to politics than Parliament. Rights and protections for workers, women, ethnic and sexual minorities were won through general forms of public protest. Furthermore, these required not only the force of law but continued action in civil society promoting and affirming the culture that could sustain them. That included directly challenging persons and institutions in society at large that sought to marginalize and contain minorities. To put it plainly, Rosa Parkes refused to go to the back of the bus. She didn’t sit there and compose a polite letter to her Congressman. Racism is kept at bay not only by the law but by decent people standing up to racists wherever they are. The harm caused by greed and excessive self-interest can be prevented only if decent citizens, instead of relying on politicians, themselves stand up against it.

But the point is larger even than this. Parliament is not the central and not the only power in the nation. Imagining that it was, was one of the most fundamental errors made by New Labour and its sympathisers. They thought that they could end inequality just by passing a law to ban it. They thought that they could improve people’s diets, literacy or savings behavior through regulations and more agencies. It seemed not to occur to them that the purveyors of bad food, junk culture and excessive loans might also be powerful forces and that they might need to be contended with directly.

The activists in UK Uncut clearly understand what many do not: that power in society does not only flow vertically but also horizontally, and that some of the most important of social relations are transversal. Media corporations, polluting industries and greedy banks take actions that affect us directly. In challenging or resisting those effects why dilute energies by diverting them through the Whitehall bureaucracy? Government matters. Of course it does. But seeking to inform our fellow citizens directly matters just as much. And challenging excessive power, wherever it takes form, matters even more. 

The way UK Uncut is organised reflects this more sophisticated political theory. Political parties have atrophied as every branch has been tightly managed from the centre. The self-declared ‘army of citizen volunteers’ mobilized under the banner of UK uncut is structured but not controlled. Groups are able to adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Communication between them isn’t filtered through a central directorate. Through online means everybody can speak to everybody else, which also means that everybody can learn from listening to everyone else. That - and not the coalition in Whitehall - is the new politics.

All of this did not come from nowhere. It has roots in the radical tradition not only of the UK but of Europe and the rest of the world. Today’s activists are in touch with and learn from their colleagues all over the globe. There are also precedents in the achievements of the Citizens Organizing Foundation, which has been effective in organising campaigns to put pressure directly on local interests and powers. The ideas shaping movements such as UK Uncut also have formal intellectual expression in currents of contemporary continental philosophy that draw from Marxism and post-Marxism but also from science and complexity theory, yet which resist being contained by any of these. Such philosophy is a tool in politics not the driving force.

That all of this is now expressing itself on the streets indicates the coming-of-age of a range of political, cultural and intellectual tendencies that have long been in ferment. It also indicates the emergence of a generation which knows that it needs to call to account Thatcher's children, too many of whom have grown up with nothing in the way of a philosophical, ethical or political compass and now find themselves adrift. Faced by a challenge from young people who believe in something, our political and media mainstream is confounded. It is also scared. And it should be. 

About the author

Alan Finlayson is Professor of Political and Social Theory at the University of East Anglia. His research is particularly concerned with the theory and practice of democratic politics, the study of political ideologies and also with political rhetoric. As part of a project supported by The Leverhulme Trust he has developed the website www.britishpoliticalspeech.org and is working to promote the theory, analysis and improved practice of political speech, oratory and argument in the UK.