This week Channel 4 showed a terrific documentary about Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who hurled herself under the king’s horse 100 years ago.
Wilding was an educated woman, a teacher, but had been driven by the hopelessness of her situation to take terrible risks. She joined the suffrage movement, and used peaceful protest to gain a voice; but the power of the state pushed back hard against the suffrage movement with intimidation, propaganda, violence, and a tsunami of negative media coverage.
Peaceful protest achieved nothing, but the suffragettes knew they had right on their side, and raised the game: they chained themselves to railings in protest, but before being cut free the police beat and sexually assaulted the women. The suffragettes went on hunger strike, and were so brutally force-fed by security officials that many of them suffered digestive and psychological problems for their entire lives.
And eventually they reached the conclusion that you can’t make a moral appeal to those with power, because those with power don’t have morals. So they decided to hit the elite where it hurt: in their pockets. If material things were all that the elite cared for, the suffragettes would strike there. They started a campaign of destruction, and in one year committed arson to the value of £40 million.
Even then the elite gave no ground. In fact, the thing that actually got the vote for women was the First World War, when women had to work in factories and farms to replace the men who died. Women got the vote by gaining economic relevance. Moral pressure built before the war, and the war created an economic imperative. That’s what led us to today, when under the law there is equality for all citizens, regardless gender, race or sexuality.
Or is there?
On the face of it there’s no group we can point to and say “they’re oppressed” in quite the same way. It’s pretty easy to spot and define a woman, and easy to legislate against inequality for a race. But there remains a whole invisible swathe of society which is, every day, disenfranchised and robbed of hope by the engines of power, just as much as women were in 1913.
Emily Davison was driven to an extreme act by a number of things. She was educated, a teacher, but unable to earn a living. She had been arrested, and in that age it meant you could never get a job again. She was powerless in a society which was governed entirely by an elite gentry, with the worst social mobility in Europe. She could never afford a home. She could never afford to marry. She could never break free of the bonds holding her down. And there was a vast, glaringly obvious gulf between the tiny group with money and power, and people like her.
Without a job, without hope, without power, without any means to change her circumstances, she had nothing left to lose.
Honestly: doesn’t she sound like 20 million ordinary people in Britain today?
I don’t believe Emily Davison meant to die. Evidence suggests she was trying to pin a “Votes for Women” banner to the king’s horse and badly misjudged it, killing herself and risking the life of the innocent jockey and horse. By the time she stepped onto the track at Epsom she was, by today’s standards, an extremist. She, along with hundreds of other suffragettes, had crossed the barrier from peaceful protest to something more direct so often that they no longer had any compunction about taking drastic, dangerous, destructive actions.
Don’t assume I’m comparing her to the brutal, horrific, utterly unconscionable murder of Lee Rigby, the soldier murdered on a London street by lunatics with cleavers. I’m not. What I am saying is this: after years of peaceful protest and petitions, suffragettes decided that asking, begging and demanding change wasn’t getting them anywhere. They decided to start striking at property. They committed millions of pounds worth of arson attacks, usually against targets they believed to be representative of (or owned by) the elite that was robbing them of hope.
In the Channel 4 film, Claire Balding suggested that once you’ve taken that step into direct action, it’s increasingly easy to do it. Once you’ve seen a factory burned down in the name of what’s morally just, it’s hard to forget it and return to normal. Emily Davison saw arson many times, and probably committed it too. Having crossed that line so often, she had no problem taking direct action.
I think Balding hit on something there. She’s right. I worry that it’s only a matter of time before somebody decides that The One Percent™ simply aren’t listening to 38 Degrees or Change.org or the Government’s own e-petitions website.
It’s only a matter of time before there is direct action by somebody the media can’t label as “them”. Somebody who isn’t “other”. Somebody who isn’t “radicalised” by an outside agent.
It will be somebody like the young white guy who lives next door to you; the guy with £20,000 of university debt, living in his parents’ spare room at the age of 30, with no job, driven into slave-labour by government ideology, ridiculed and reviled by the press, his health auctioned off, his future leased to Monsanto and his town centre hollowed out by Amazon. He protested peacefully against Iraq and was ignored. He’s petitioned against the NHS being sold off, and was ignored. He’s tried doing things the way government wants him to, and has been screwed over, fucked up, reviled and ignored. He’s online and he’s smart and he’s politically aware with a very small p indeed; and knows that corporations are part of the feral capitalism that’s evading tax and ruining his nation’s economy.
So one day he smashes a Starbuck’s window. A small act. But he’s crossed a line.
He knows that his elected representatives are too busy acting like Dave Hartnett, lining their pockets rather than taking care of the public. So the next week he goes out and vandalises a tax office.
Somebody else reads about it on Twitter, and decides that he too will take direct action. And another, and another. A thousand Starbucks windows are smashed. Somebody will go one further, and set fire to the Tesco that gutted his town, took his job, and has not a scintilla of social responsibility.
The media will react as the media does: there will be moral panic and, as a result, there will be mass publicity for direct action, and a week later somebody else will decide that they are also bone-tired of being treated like Untermenschen. They’ll realise Amazon’s HQ contains a hell of a lot of paper, and they’ll burn it to the ground.
And once this line is crossed, we’re in real trouble. Because there won’t be visible protestors chaining themselves to railings in Trafalgar Square, waiting for the riot squad. Instead there will be ten million invisible men and women sat at home making independent decisions to strike back. Yes, there will be arrests. But there were arrests in 1913 too, and it didn’t stop suffragettes from continuing: they had no other outlet, and the line had been crossed.
There will be no “leadership” telling people to destroy, to burn, to strike out at the forces that belittle and impoverish them. Instead there will be educated, debt-burdened, futureless individuals researching tax evasion and inequality and the evisceration of worker’s rights; and then making their own decisions about what to smash.
These people won’t be planning it online, they’ll just be reading the news. No amount of snooping will spot patterns or identify ringleaders, because there won’t be any ringleaders. There won’t be imams radicalising people. They won’t have different coloured skin. They won’t live on council estates. The people who take these actions will be anyone with too much education and too little hope. Completely independently, they’ll see that the world is fucked up, and that now there’s a way to lash out.
I worry. I really do. Because global governments are playing a very dangerous game in their race to the bottom. They’re ignoring the plight of those at the sharp end of neocapitalism, just as the government of Henry Campbell-Bannerman ignored the plight of women. In 1913 the press was tightly controlled, there was no internet, and still there was £40 million of arson attacks. And in 1913 it was comparatively easy defuse the situation with a single law: give women the vote.
But today there is no single piece of legislation that could disarm the ticking time-bomb we’re all sat on. Nobody from the mainstream political establishment is even discussing the crisis growing right under their feet. They’re blind to it because it’s not sticking up and waving signs: it’s 99% of the world’s population quietly seething at home. Anybody with a brain and a laptop can quickly find out how badly they’re being screwed over, and how deaf the elites are to their cries.
It’s genuinely frightening. I worry. I really do.
It seems to me that governments are playing fast and loose with the fabric of society. By protecting the elite and the status quo, governments are endangering the elites and the status quo in ways that are hard to predict, hard to control, and hard to put back in the box.
Hard, that is, unless you know the story of Emily Davison.