A Missed Opportunity for Civil Disobedience

9th April 2012 By Alexander Michie

‘Scum,’ ‘Crazed Marxist’, ‘Guerilla Toff’: Trenton Oldfield has been called a host of things this weekend; a disappointment would be my pejorative of choice.

What was, in truth, a supremely successful act of civil disobedience – garnering media attention the world over – was wasted on a crap website, which was confused and slightly bonkers.

The philosophy amounted to a patchwork anarchism, with a bizarre set of instructions for other would-be revolutionaries: overthrow the state by setting off fire alarms; overcharging taxi users; not replenishing toilet paper.

The act itself, however, was an impressive example of a sadly dying means of democracy: civil disobedience.

It took strategy, skill, and nerve to disrupt the race in such a manner, dealing with a notoriously fast tide, and the possibility of having his ‘head cut off’ according to the excitable commentator. Had his website and his cause been anywhere near as artful as his act, Trenton would have deserved commendation.

But what about the poor rowers and their months of preparation? Civil disobedience always has victims, be it the white person who doesn’t get a seat on the bus, or, the elite rower who doesn’t get to win the race. So was civil disobedience, in this case, justified?

The literature agrees that there are two main factors relevant to the legitimacy of civil disobedience: its inspiration and its action. Like I have already said, the action was superb: maximum publicity, minimal harm (Dr Woods’ collapse being due to rowing, not its disruption), only mildly illegal. What I will now consider is whether Trenton had enough motivation for the civil disobedience to be considered legitimate.

Emblazoned across Trenton’s website are the words, ‘ELITISM LEADS TO TYRANNY.’ His motivation was a belief that our state is tyrannical, and tyrannical because our society is elitist.

First, is our state tyrannical? The answer, unfortunately, has to be yes. Over the last ten years, the state has: shot an innocent man 8 times in the head; violently hit another innocent citizen over the head, causing cardiac arrest and death; and shot an unarmed suspected-drug dealer to death. These are just individual cases. Much more worryingly it has also attempted to legislate for the power to imprison innocent people for up to 90 days without trial; it has been complicit internationally in the arbitrary indefinite imprisonment of its citizens, and the torture of others.

Does this attack on civil liberties show signs of abating? No, in fact the government’s recent proposal bill on surveillance purportedly contains an unprecedented attack on civil liberties, with the state given powers to monitor and pry into all aspects of its citizens lives. It is expected that the London Olympics will permanently raise security and surveillance in the capital, as well as up to 50,000 security personal being deployed this summer (with 13,500 being soldiers – more than were ever in Afghanistan).

The second point, is this tyranny due to elitism? Possibly. Political elitism is when those who create the laws are from a different class to the vast majority of those who live under them. Consequently, the law tends to increasingly represent the interests of the minority over the majority. Our politicians unarguably come from an elite class representing a tiny percentage of the population: mostly Oxbridge-educated and privately-schooled. Furthermore, their opposition, the leaders of media and business, share the same demographic. Is this a problem? Well we have an increasingly elite and tyrannical state – correlation if not causation. Would politicians be less likely to endorse 90-day imprisonment without charge, or swinging cuts to welfare, if their friends and family had a chance of being on the wrong end of such laws? Most definitely.

There is nothing wrong with elite institutions, provided they aren’t elitist; gathering together the best and brightest to study hard is unquestionably a good thing. However, that 50% of such a student-body is made up of the mere 5% of those wealthy enough to pay for private education, is not. Furthermore, 90% of Oxford undergraduates are from households that are in the upper-half of income distribution, thus state-educated by choice as opposed to necessity.

The fault is not Oxbridge’s – by 18 the damage is done, and admission tutors’ choices are limited. What Britain needs first and foremost for any semblance of fairness, is an equal education system that promotes diversity and cohesion rather than segregation: male from female; rich from poor; Muslim from Christian.

As for the act itself: there are few more fitting ways to protest against elitism than at the Varsity boat race. I do feel empathy for the rowers, but infinitely more for the victims of state oppression, who are both more numerous, and more wronged. The more attention drawn to these two facts, the better. Shame Trenton Oldfield didn’t take more time over his crappy website.