Languages of the Unheard

A defence of the democratic function of militant protest in Stephen D’Arcy’s Languages of the Unheard provides rigorous and valuable arguments, argues William Alderson

Stephen D’Arcy, Languages of the Unheard (Zed Books 2014), 223pp.

The central idea of this excellent book is that militancy is an essential part of democracy, and not a threat to it. In order to argue this case, Stephen D’Arcy has constructed a consistent theoretical framework which enables both an assessment of different examples of militancy and the development of militant practice so that it can perform its democratic function more effectively. While some readers may find the book difficult at times, it is an example of how an academic approach can successfully define and guide practical experience, and anyone interested in organising militant activity should read and re-read this book until its principles are second nature.

D’Arcy starts by dismissing the claim that militancy can be judged on the basis of whether it is violent or not. He points out that the action of pushing someone to the ground can be regarded as necessary, proportionate or violent depending on whether it is to protect a child, in response to an attack or unprovoked. Indeed, calling an act ‘violent’ is automatically pejorative, since it inherently involves a value-judgement about it. Instead, it is necessary to find objective definitions of militancy in general and of scales of militancy in particular. D’Arcy starts by generating such definitions, and I doubt whether anyone would disagree with his results, such as that militancy is ‘grievance-motivated, adversarial, and confrontational collective action’ (p.26). What is more interesting is how he tackles those who object to militancy precisely because it is adversarial and confrontational, by relating their objections to the aspect of grievance-motivated collective action.

D’Arcy points out that there are different objections to militancy coming from ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ critics, and that there are weaknesses in the conventional responses to these objections. He uses the term ‘conservative’ ‘as a shorthand way to describe those whose objection to militancy is motivated by a concern about its impact on public order and the stability and durability of what they regard as the fragile institutions of modern democracy’ (p.36). He challenges this objection by pointing out that ‘the order contested by militants often guarantees the reproduction of unjust practices, relationships, and institutions’ (p.36), concluding that: ‘We ought to be more devoted to justice than to order. An unjust order should be opposed at every opportunity, and the disorder that accompanies such opposition should trouble us less than the fact that the prevailing order now blocks the path to justice’ (p.37).

Responses to the ‘liberal’ objection

More problematic is the ‘liberal’ objection because it ‘is a challenge from within movements that struggle for social and environmental justice, rather than a challenge emanating from adversaries of these struggles’ (pp.37-8). This objection is that ‘militancy is undemocratic because it is coercive. It resorts to forceful pressure, when the democratic ideal demands that we use reason-guided discussion to resolve our conflicts’ (p.37). D’Arcy maintains that there are three forms of response to this objection.

The first response is the amoralist one, that the end justifies the means. Claiming that this was argued by Leon Trotsky, D’Arcy sums it up as the view that ‘morality enters the picture when one is deciding whether to engage in political action or to disengage from it. But political action itself is a domain where moral considerations are fundamentally misplaced’ (pp.43-4). D’Arcy criticises this view on the grounds that it ‘makes some sense as a self-interpretation for political strategists, in their capacity as dispensers of strategic advice. But it is quite unconvincing as an excuse to exempt oneself from replying to moral objections to the use of militant tactics in social movement activism’ (p.45).

The second response is the consequentialist one, which he sums up as the ‘right thing to do is always to act so as to maximise the goodness of anticipated actions, that is, the balance of benefits over harms’ (p.46), and he quotes Friedrich Engels as an example of this response. D’Arcy criticises this position on the grounds that ‘activists are committed not only to securing beneficial outcomes, but also doing so in a way that they can accept as consistent with what most matters to them’ (p.48). Prioritising the anticipated benefit of the greatest number over ‘the core values of militant protesters themselves,’ (p.49) accepts a need to violate their integrity.

The third response is the pluralistic one, which D’Arcy describes as:

‘the view that a broad spectrum of tactics ought to be regarded as permissible in principle for use in resistance, and that the choice of which of these tactics to deploy in particular cases should be seen as an individual decision, taken by specific persons, affinity groups, or organizations, without any of them trying to dictate to others what they should or should not do tactically, or publicly criticizing their tactical choices after the fact’ (p.50).

He bases this on a combination of the views of Peter Gelderloos and Daniel Graeber. D’Arcy criticises this position on the grounds that it offers activists a ‘get-out-of-accountability-free card’ (p.56), by accepting that ‘people do not owe a justification for their actions to others, whether these others are fellow activists, third parties affected by the action, or simply reasonable members of the public’ (p.56).

D’Arcy’s response to these issues is what he calls ‘the democratic standard’, based on four principles relating to opportunity, agency, autonomy and accountability. At the root of these principles is Karl Marx’s idea of the self-emancipation of the working class, and the need, therefore, for militancy to develop and encourage this. In brief, according to these principles, militant action should be judged by its ability: to increase opportunities for resolution through reason-guided public discussion; to encourage the most directly involved people to take the lead; to enhance the power of people to govern themselves; and to be defensible in terms of democratic values of common decency and the common good (pp.6-7 and 57-73). The value of this approach is profound, and the latter part of D’Arcy’s book illustrates how these principles can be applied to the analysis of particular types of militant action.

Applying democratic militancy

There are three highly significant benefits in using these proposed principles. Firstly, they shift the emphasis away from the activists themselves and towards their relationship with the society within which they are acting. The purity of the activists’ political position and activity has to be tempered by an objective assessment of their impact on people around them. Secondly, they integrate means and ends and break the artificial separation between them. Actions which take these principles into account will lead to better and more sustainable results because they are based on a consistent approach and morality. Thirdly, they offer a scalar basis for judgement, rather than a bipolar one. As a result, categorical approval or condemnation is replaced by a more practical and flexible assessment of precisely how actions have been unsuccessful, and how they could be improved.

I have only a very few regrets about this book, and all of these relate to the application of D’Arcy’s ideas to more complex issues of militant action. One which he could easily have addressed is the question of militancy and the agent provocateur. In the section on black blocs, he hints at their susceptibility to infiltration and manipulation, but neither at this time, nor in the sections on riots and sabotage, does he discuss this issue and its impact on choices of militant action.

A form of militancy which is not discussed at all is the boycott. Since it involves more than one community, as an act of both solidarity and opposition, there are interesting questions as regards the principles of agency, autonomy and accountability. This leads on to curiosity about how the principles might be applied to the militancy of the ANC and PLO and their support in other countries. Lastly, D’Arcy’s discussion of the Arab Spring does not extend to mention of Syria, which is understandable, given that the complexities of the issues would unbalance his book, but I think that, in failing to discuss Libya, he has missed an opportunity to show how his principles offer an excellent explanation of why genuine and successful militancy is wrecked by external military intervention.

In the end, perhaps these questions need not be addressed by D’Arcy. He has provided us with the tools to do it ourselves, and I think that there is the potential for a very fruitful and constructive debate about all forms of militancy on the basis of his analysis.