PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, August 11, 2011

from Lawrence, this Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: Demonstrations

This Sunday: meet at Finnegans, suggest start at 6:30pm and short essay. + Carlos reminder
Dear Friends,

Thanks to the efforts of Diana, this Sunday we are meeting at Finnegans pub (details below). Thank
you Diana.

In the past, the silly season used to bring us UFO's, crop circles, and the occasional photos of
some scantily dress actress on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Today, for the summer season, we have mindless rioting in London, political theatrics in Spain
because some people decided to make the movida a semi permanent affair in the city centre, and to
cap it all, we have the stock markets experiencing more convulsions than the dying horses of the
Light Brigade in the Crimea. Ah! The good old and long days of summer when journalists invented the
news and politicians gave their mouths a rest.

So it is quite opportune that this Sunday we are discussing Demonstrations. As I write in my short
essay, in and of themselves demonstrations are not such a big deal, but for the political
philosopher demonstrations are the proverbial canary down the mine shaft. The question is: is the
canary suffocating or is it being slowly killed?

In the meantime since certain things never change, Diana tells me that at 22:00pm on Sunday there is
a football match so I suggest we meet at 6:30pm to make sure we vacate the pub by 9pm.

Finnegans Irish pub
Plaza Salesas, 9

Finally, don't forget that Carlos is still looking for speakers for his Philosophy group.
Take care and see you Sunday,

There are at least two certain truths in political philosophy. The first is that power, today's
political power, is held in the hands of a few people. Indeed what makes power so sought after and
so useful is its scarcity. Not everyone can be powerful.
The second certainty is that those who hold political power do not necessarily do so for the benefit
of other members of society, but rather for the protection and distribution of scarce resources. In
today's jargon this would be economic wealth.
If power was there for the benefit of everyone then economic wealth would be more fairly
distributed. In fact the evidence is overwhelming that economic wealth is not fairly distributed.
So those like Hobbes who say that life was a brutal affair were, of course, right. However, his
solution of a social contract was a good try but unworkable. The idea that we could somehow agree to
a contract to exchange our primeval powers for collective protection is just a non starter. Firstly,
why should someone with power give it up? And secondly, given that a contract must be entered into
freely and have the competence to do so wouldn't it mean that we all have to intentionally agree to
the contract. On the one hand this is not practical and on the other the analogy is very weak if not
unless. I mean, how can our ancestors tie us to a contract, unless we agreed to be bound by it?
Compare this with historical treaties which are made between states and nations.
It is only through cooperation and respect of the individual that we can only give rise to fairness
or equitable exercise of political power. Locke's idea of natural rights makes more sense since we
don't have to do anything or agree to anything to qualify and enjoy these rights. Moreover, we can
justify these rights based on reason and not the distribution of brute force. Indeed, rights give us
something which we did not have in the primeval state, but a contract at the very best keeps us in a
similar state as we were before.
Rights, especially personal rights, imply personal freedom and free expression of opinion. Rights
also mean we respect others.
But even though political cooperation, maybe in the form of modern democracies, are the best
possible option we might have, cooperation still concentrates power in the hands of a few people.
The equally ultra modern idea of giving more power to regional governments does not necessarily
solve any problems. Unless regions derive their wealth locally and not from a central collective
source, the competition to access resources has not changed. Only the number of participants has
changed, now there are more groups with some power who can claim a right to the collective wealth,
and not necessarily better management of power. Maybe Hobbes had a point when he advocated a single
powerful sovereign.
Whatever else we can say, it is here that demonstrations are relevant and important political
activism. Demonstrations are important for two general reasons. Firstly they represent the extreme
of political freedom of expression and secondly they serve as a barometer of the political health of
a society.
In a way demonstrations are a throw back to the primeval instinct of group force. In nature group
force is quite common: primates use it, lions use it, and so do wolves to mention just a few examples.
Moreover, demonstrations are at the extreme end of the right of free expression. The right of free
expression also implies the freedom to share our ideas with others. However, demonstrations are also
one step away from civil disobedience, and eventually, rioting.
Demonstrations in effect create a situation where a balance has to be found between freedom of
expression and protecting society from possible violent individuals. This is evidently true and does
not need to be proved. However, this situation itself creates a challenge to those entrusted with
political power and a mandate to use physical force.
The fist principle that affects the authorities is that physical force is only to be used in a
defensive capacity. Just because someone might be breaking the law, it does not automatically follow
that the authorities can use unbridled force against them. Indeed the principle of proportionality
is an accepted rule in democratic countries.
An important aspect of demonstrations which makes them important in philosophy is rather their
weakness. Any game or strategy based on cooperation is subject to cheating, or to put it in other
words, taken advantage of or exploited. This is partly because cooperation depends on trust, and
trust is always about future actions. And the future is of course unpredictable.
Thus a demonstration can easily be hijacked by pure criminal groups or militant groups who have no
regard for the cooperative setup.
However, the opus operandi of demonstrations, and any political activism based on cooperation, is
proportionality. This very versatile principle does not only affect those in charge of law and order
but also the judiciary, elected officials, every other citizen, and in our context, the
demonstrators. Whilst the authorities have to employ proportionate force when it is a measure of the
last resort, demonstrators have to use proportionate actions in pursuing their cause.
Of course, proportionate force, does not mean no force at all by the authorities. But rather the
authorities have a duty to isolate those who have abused their right to participate in a
demonstration, and to protect those who are exercising their political right to protest. Indeed, it
is a thin line that exists between protecting law abiding individuals and punishing wrong doers. But
this is the real challenge that those who hold power have to face; and the thin line itself can
easily be breached through incompetence or malfeasance.
For example, even when there is a prima facie case of breaking the law, for example occupying a
street, the principle of proportionality still applies. And as I have already said, breaking the law
does not automatically mean the use of force or unbridled force. Thus there is a material difference
between inconveniencing traffic and impending the ambulance services from reaching people in need of
But I do not believe that demonstrations in a democratic process are any better in changing the
political environment or addressing injustices than say a free press, NGOs, lobbying and other
political activism. Indeed one would not expect any difference in effectiveness amongst the
different options in a democracy, since all options ought to carry equal weight in the democratic.
Whilst for the political activist demonstrations are an important means of freedom of expression, I
would argue that for the political philosopher, or political scientist if you wish, it is there
character as a political barometer that really makes demonstrations politically and philosophically
valuable and indispensable.
First and foremost demonstrations are about the political freedom of expression. And the ability to
demonstrate is a direct measure of political freedom of expression. In other words, the default
policy ought to be in favour of facilitating a demonstration, and the onus is on those who want to
prohibit the demonstration to provide that this creates a danger to society.
For example, some might argue that some groups are all about inciting violence, discrimination and
racism, but of course any civilised country or society should have safeguards against this form of
activism. But incitement is different from political opinion no matter how unpalatable it is.
Another typical approach is to label demonstrators as criminal elements when it is obvious that the
event had been infiltrated by disruptive people. But in any case, calling people criminals does not
tell us anything about what is happening in society. Never mind that it is not for prime ministers
or presidents to decide who is a criminal or not, but for the judiciary to perform due process of
the law. But if it is true that the streets are -were- occupied by criminals, thugs, or malcontents
then surely that is prima facie evidence that those mandated to exercise power have failed
spectacularly and the mechanism to keep the peace and protect people has collapsed and is dysfunctional.
Indeed, Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth in their paid-for paper, Austerity and Anarchy:
Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009, say that " From the end of the Weimar Republic
in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended
to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability."* Although the
background might be complex, here we seem to have a study that at least validates the idea of going
beyond sticking labels to rioters, never mind demonstrators.
On the other hand, those who argue that 200 people shouldn't be allowed to protest because they
disrupt the city, but 200,000 people are ok, are playing a very dangerous game. First of all, this
sort of thinking indicates a degree of intolerance which in a democracy is unacceptable, but more
importantly argument by numbers in politics is an argument for discrimination and racism. Thus,
intolerance, either in not allowing demonstrations or censoring the activities of demonstrators, not
to mention manipulation of the press, is evidence of, at the very least, misuse of power and as a
norm an abuse of power. On a more technical aspect this is a slippery slop argument, or Reductio Ad
Absurdum, that if 200 people are irrelevant then we can get rid of these people; if one race is only
made up of 2m people compared to our race of 130m people then we can get rid of the 2m after all
they are an insignificant number of people and we cannot change our plans simply to accommodate such
a small number of people! Unfortunately, some politicians just insist in airing their stupidity in
An absence of legitimate demonstrations is probably indicative of an intolerant society or
dictatorship. Anyway, very few countries are that perfect that no one needs to demonstrate about
something from time to time.
It is quite possible that some might not appreciate the value of demonstrations as a political
barometer and mistake the demonstration for the storm. Killing the messenger never solved any
problems and failure to deal with the causes of political storms never prevented any storms from
taking place.
However, the bottom line about demonstrations is that those who dismiss demonstrations and
demonstrators as being nut cases at the fringes of society ought to be careful and be warned. In the
twentieth century those people who were dismissed as nut cases in fancy brown shirts ended up being
responsible for the second world war.
Take care
*Ponticelli, Jacopo and Voth, Hans-Joachim, Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in
Europe, 1919-2009 (July 31, 2011). Available at SSRN: in Social
Science Electronic Publishing, (paid for article)
from Lawrence, this Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: Demonstrations

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