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When is a 'popular protest' popular?

About the author

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. He is a professor in the department of philosophy at St Andrews University and a scholar at the American Entreprise Institute. His home on the web is

‘Thirty years ago,’ writes Adam Lent, ‘the industrialised world was swept by a wave of youthful movement activity that encompassed women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights, anti–racism, radical social reform and revolution. Today a worldwide movement demands all these things once again in the new context of globalisation.’

I studied those sentences for some time before grasping what they really mean. In Lent’s view of the world, today’s favoured left–wing causes animated the street revolutions of the 1960s, and these same causes have now been translated into a worldwide protest movement against global capitalism, as promoted by the World Trade Organization (WTO). And I sense here the same wishful thinking that I witnessed in May 1968 in the streets of Paris. The soixante–huitards believed that, because they were united against the ‘bourgeoisie’, they were united in their goals. And because they were united in their goals, their goals formed a unity. They were wrong on both counts.

First, the enemy was a fiction. The ‘bourgeoisie’ was invented precisely for the purpose of unifying the sources of social discontent. Without this literary fiction, to which almost every French intellectual from Molière to Foucault has contributed some decorative touch, the revolution of 1968 would have appeared for what it was, as a carnival of transgressions.

To be united against a fiction is not to possess any real unity of political purpose. On the contrary, it is to lose sight of the fact that political unity comes through negotiation, compromise and law. It comes about when people ‘agree to differ’. This agreement to differ is the essence of constitutional government, and the real source of political unity in Western societies.

The bourgeoisie was re–imagined in 1968, precisely in order to replace negotiation and compromise with a shared anger. And shared anger, being nourished in imagination, does not survive the moment of reality. This fact has been proven again and again by the revolutionary movements of the 20th century, each of which, on achieving power, has been destroyed by internal conflict, leaving the worst in charge.

Secondly, the goals were neither unified nor internally consistent. The situationists embraced this happily, in a spirit of Rimbaudian je m’enfoutisme. But theirs was an opt–out philosophy, both paresseux and parasite. The official causes – not those causes that Lent, with hindsight or blindsight, imports back to a period which I suspect he did not live through, but those causes which were most fervently proclaimed – were blatantly contradictory. Freedom of the individual, but also destruction of the judiciary; liberation from the ‘structures’, but also state control of economic life; no more private property, but nevertheless each person with his private and protected space.

The contradictory nature of those demands has been so clearly demonstrated by recent history that it is perhaps not necessary to find the proof of it in the writings of the Austrian economists and the English and American Burkeans. But that is incidental to the main point that I want to make.

The fact is that 1968 was not a movement of the masses. It was a movement of the ‘protesting classes’: intellectuals, state functionaries, students, trade union leaders, and others for whom the language of protest harmonised with their preferred form of life and who really, when all is said and done, ran little risk in giving voice to it. The few workers who joined in were quickly disgusted by the violence and the absurdism, as well as by the contempt for law and property. (I vividly remember the appalled response of a striking worker from the Renault car factory, on seeing a gang of students set light to a car – that car might have been his!)

It is in the nature of the protesting classes that they are moved more by ideas than by real and threatened interests. That, I believe, is why they count as ‘pro–active’ in Tim Jordan‘s sense. Their activity is directed towards the future, but a future hazily and carelessly described, like Marx’s ‘full communism’. After all, to describe it carefully would lead to hesitation. And what is left of revolution when you hesitate?

A want of principle

The precious moment of doubt – that is what is missing from so many protest movements. Lent is right to see the new global protests as the successors of the sixties. For the element of doubt is missing from both of them. Environmental protection for the undeveloped world – great! Development for the undeveloped world – great! But how do you protect the environment and also develop it? Nobody really knows. And the protests themselves are so clearly directed at a fictional enemy that one can almost see the WTO dummy swaying in the sky before those balaclava–ed faces.

Let’s face it, if we are really to consider global protest movements in their entirety, we should include those, such as al–Qaida, which regard the protesting classes with the same contempt as they regard other by–products of the Western political process. But, al–Qaida’s list of grievances won’t include women’s liberation, gay rights or anti–racism.

Not that the protestors at Seattle and elsewhere don’t have a point. But it is precisely their future–directed, intellectualised posture that detaches them from the people whom they claim to represent. Normal people don’t know about the future; but they do know about their present interests, about their customs and habits, and their legitimate expectations. And when they protest, it is not in the spirit of the protesting classes, who want to re–arrange the world, but in order to protect a perceived interest, a way of life, a pattern of hope, love and decency that is theirs and which shapes their identity.

That is what the indigenous peoples mentioned by Jordan are seeking: restoration of what they have lost. Jordan calls this posture ‘pro–active’, by way of surreptitiously praising it. But the protests of the indigenous are directed to the past (that is what the word ‘indigenous’ implies). And, come to think of it, why were those people who marched through London on 22 September not the indigenous British, also laying claim to about–to–be–stolen rights? Just because their cause was not one of which Jordan approves?

Mass protests by ordinary people, which do not originate in the grievances of the protesting classes, are rare. I have witnessed only two in my lifetime: that of the French people protesting against Mitterrand’s proposals to nationalise the Church schools, which brought half a million peaceful demonstrators on to the streets of Paris, and that recently catalysed by the Countryside Alliance, which did the same to the streets of London.

Although such protests are comparatively rare, they include more people than can be mustered on behalf of the ‘left–wing’ causes mentioned by Lent. Unlike Jordan, I believe the terms ‘left–wing’ and ‘right–wing’ to be useful, and see no real improvement in his division of causes into the ‘pro–active’ and the ‘re–active’. Equally useful is the distinction between the ‘progressive’ and the ‘conservative’ mentality. Such labels are useful because they identify contrasting – and equally necessary – human types.

The movement represented by the Countryside Alliance is a movement of people most of whom vote Conservative. But they vote Conservative for a perfectly respectable reason, namely, that they are conservative. They are attached to things as they are, and suspicious of change; they value inherited freedoms, and are prepared to fight when those freedoms are taken away. The small farmers of the Indian subcontinent, the African Bushmen, the people of the Amazon, the nomads of the sub–Sahara and the persecuted Christians of Somalia are the same. And those indigenous people have far more in common with the indigenous English, Welsh and Scots who marched through London on 22 September than they have with the protestors at Seattle.

But this is where I suspect an evasiveness, even a lack of scruple, in the vision of protest movements put before us by Jordan and Lent. The three movements which Lent mentions (women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights, anti–racism) have all benefited from the support of civil liberties organisations, who have argued vigorously and effectively that moral disapproval is never a sufficient ground for outlawing something, without proof of harm to other citizens.

Lent and Jordan endorse those movements. But is that only because they approve of them? In that case, they are not really endorsing the principle behind campaigns for civil liberties, but on the contrary rejecting it, by extending liberty no further than the edge of moral approval. I cannot help remarking on the silence with which civil liberties organisations have greeted the heartfelt plea that we fox–hunters have made for their support. It tends to confirm what we always suspected, that they were advocates of liberty, but only for the things of which people on the left approve. Which means that they are not really advocates of liberty.

People on the left disapprove of fox–hunting, for reasons that we don’t need to examine. So here is the test case for people such as Lent and Jordan: will you fight as vehemently for our right to hunt foxes as you are prepared to fight for gay rights? If not, why not?

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