Friday, 3 October 2014

Handbags and tear-gas - profit versus the moral right to protest in Hong Kong

Two current events remind us to reassert the moral right to revolt.

First, from England, where the ghosts from the Conservative (Tory) Party past announce:

"From the dark cloud falls an acid rain that eats into liberty…"

In such purple prose did the Iron Lady plan to describe the UK miners’ strike of 1984-85, in a Tory Party conference speech abandoned after the Brighton bombing. The Guardian newspaper reports today that Thatcher felt "the enemies of freedom and democracy itself" (the Left) were behind "calculated chaos planned for the mining industry". (Note: ordinary Brits might not have had either jobs or fuel, but it was the chaos for the mining industry that was the worry).

The second event to get you thinking is the worry that Hong Kong protests may cost retailers HK$2bn says ANZ bank.

Yes, thousands of young folk have braved the displeasure of the world’s biggest authoritarian state in historic pro-democracy protests.

Credit: Mario Madrona - Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
But a key concern, according to BBC news, is the lack of shopping: "Sales of luxury goods, cosmetic products, and consumer durables are definitely hard hit’" according to (of course, of course) a banker.

These responses to protest are separated by a quarter century but united by a strong thread of logic (and handbags): the right to profit triumphs over the right to protest.

Both say that the right to profit – which in this view is naturally and always about the public good – is morally superior to the ‘right’ to disruptive types of protest.

In this view, there is no such ‘right’ to protest, because for groups of people to get together to disagree with how they are ruled might stop someone else from making money; as that is the original and natural right, anything that prevents it must be wrong.

No surprise here: all governments hate protests

They disrupt, cost the economy, give ‘the markets’ the jitters, hand power to trigger-happy riot police. And they are deeply embarrassing. The symbolic power of a good protest is that it lets everyone see how thin is the veneer of legitimacy on which public authority is exercised. Suddenly everyone can see that the emperor is stark-bollock-naked.

The Hong Kong banker and his ideological mother share a moral economic logic: the right to profit over all else – in particular over the right of the hoi polloi to protest. We have got so used to hearing this kind of tripe, which so easily takes over our airwaves to the great shame of the BBC, that it is easy to forget that there is a live and real alternative moral economic logic.

Rather more pressingly than the needs of industry or luxury brand retailing, food rioters and food rights activists of recent years give a very different view of the right – the necessity – to protest. Their moral economy is both more enduring and more relevant to a time of grotesquely rising inequalities and volatilities.

This is that people must be able to protest when their governments fail to protect them against crises of subsistence. In particular, our research shows that even though they fear the rubber bullets and the tear gas, people are still likely to protest when their governments protect the rights of powerful elites to profit over the right of everyone to eat. But only if they think they are right to.

We should not be too surprised that the moral economic logic of Thatcher is the dominant logic of the day in the UK with its ├╝ber-elite ruling class, and also in Hong Kong, with its breathtaking record of crony capitalism. The successful infection of this thinking might be why the UK population increasingly eats from charitable food banks rather than taking to the streets as they might have done a couple of hundred years ago.
Credit: Jessica Watkins - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

We must stand guard against the handbags, constantly reminding ourselves that the right to profit is the undisguised right of politically connected elites to, as they did the British trades unions, shut us up for good.

"Food Rights or Food Riots? Moral and political economies of 21st century hunger", the final report from the Food Riots and Food Rights project will be published in late October.

For information about launch events and outputs, please contact Nick Benequista, and for for any other information, please contact Devangana Kalita.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. 

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