In calling for a General Election, Theresa May has claimed that her objective is to pave the way for “unity” rather than “division”. May’s implicit desire for bi-partisan support from a “British establishment that offered zero obstacles” was interpreted by the tabloids as an opportunity to scream for the ‘crushing’ of any (supposedly ‘elitist’) ‘remoaner’ who might wish to put forward a view dissenting from the bizarre and ill-conceived narrative that construes a hard brexit as a reassertion of imperial power, a return of sovereignty characterised by liberty from the “tyranny of foreign laws and regulations”, and the ignition of years of extensive prosperity.
This Stalinist rhetoric, employed in the absence of any meaningful critique, has rendered judges ‘Enemies of the people’ and, in this case, sought to expose “saboteurs” who wish to derail the “will of the people”. When considering the multiple meanings of “sabotage” – ranging from vandalism to obstruction – it is useful to acknowledge the important role obstruction has played in the history of political struggles against oppression.
The work of poet and political activist Arturo Giovannitti, who migrated to the US in 1904 and was involved in leading protests as a worker in the textile industry, reminds us that such sabotage constitutes a “conscious and willful act” performed to obtain redress and demand improvements in working conditions. It has nothing to do with violence, but aims, as he eloquently writes, to “put out of harm’s way the ogres of steel and fire that watch and multiply the treasures of King Capital”. The full range of disruption extends from “mischievous tampering” to the more unsettling prospect of challenging the status quo by “trespassing into the bourgeois sanctum”.
Such acts seek not only to expose the ways in which power imposes a unitary imagining of the nation, defined in terms of a singular narrative, but to do so in ways that incorporate a range of actions.
These include taking the mechanisms of the (problematic) assertion of parliamentary sovereignty that are central to this imposed vision and turning them against it, as Gina Miller has done through the judicial system. They also include small articulations, through both word and body, of precisely how these calls for ‘stability’ serve to obscure and deny the imperial rhetoric and colonial legacies that lie behind carefully delimited definitions of the borders of the nation and its subjects.
Furthermore, we can work towards fundamentally calling into question the ways in which the nation is imagined in aggressively narrow terms through and by all the institutions of both capital and the state.
Whatever form it takes, sabotage of this nature must necessarily deviate from apologetic handwringing and instead seek to “create its own ethics”: perhaps a lesson for Labour in the run-up to the election. In Giovannitti’s poem ‘The Cage’ [page 11], he contrasts the space of static stability with the disruptive, plural, noisy rush of life clamouring against its claustrophobic confines:
senility, dullness and dissolution
were all around the green iron cage,
and nothing was new and young and alive in the great room…
Throbbed and thundered and clamoured and roared
outside of the great greenish room
the terrible whirl of life,
and most pleasant was the hymn of its mighty polyphony
Reading his poetry in the current climate reinforces the importance of adopting and appropriating “sabotage” for the purposes of even minor acts of protest. We must turn the dangerous rhetoric of the tabloids in on itself by celebrating disruptive forces and critiquing those who clamour for a ‘stability’ which only serves those whose interests reside in the heavily guarded spaces of continuing injustice.
Emma Patchett is a Research Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg “Law as Culture” in Bonn, Germany.