Strife Feature | Escalation in Action: An Addendum to ‘Clausewitz On Campus’

By M.L.R. Smith


The entrance of King’s College London Strand Campus, where the violence took place on the 5th of March (Credit Image: RoarNews)


Last December Strife published an article, ‘Clausewitz On Campus’, by me on the militarisation of the university environment. The article pointed to the increasingly violent rhetoric on campus and the manner in which this was, in some instances, manifesting itself in actual cases of physical violence. The piece sought to conceptualise the contested domain of free speech within higher education as a form of war, using Carl von Clausewitz’s theories to illustrate how the culture war on campus could be interpreted with a degree of analytical detachment.

The commentary charted how the so-called culture wars were unfolding ostensibly within American higher education. The article expounded upon the increasing tensions that are clearly observable in the U.S., but it did not anticipate that King’s College itself would come to feature so prominently in the growing culture wars on this side of the Atlantic. On Monday, 5 March 2018, an event organised by the KCL Libertarian Society, involving a debate between Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute and YouTube commentator Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad) was violently disrupted by masked ‘antifa’ protestors, who forced their way into the lecture hall, assaulting students and staff, as well as engaging in threatening behaviour that included the throwing of smoke bombs and flares outside the venue. According to reports a number of security guards sustained injuries.

This piece is, therefore, an addendum to the original article. It aims to elaborate on what these events tell us about how this conflict is evolving and where ultimately it might lead. In particular, it seeks to enlarge upon Clausewitz’s understanding of escalation in war: namely, the irresistible momentum that is created, once contesting forces engage, which begin to push their way towards maximum exertion. It also dwells upon the moral responsibilities incumbent on students and academics who are committed to a pluralistic academy, dedicated to the exchange of ideas, free from censorship, self-censorship, physical intimidation, and threats.


Civility or surrender?

‘Clausewitz On Campus’ assessed how some conservative and classical liberal thinkers were seeking to meet the frequently violent challenges of anti-free speech activists by seeking to escalate their response, not through counter-force but by intensifying their willingness to take on their adversaries by laughing at them through jokes and satire. The article sought to conclude on a conciliatory note, hoping that the prospect of jokes and humour as an accompaniment to political discourse offered the prospect of containing any spiral towards physical confrontation.

After events like those at KCL in early March, and other protests elsewhere, I am not so sure that such qualified optimism is warranted. Moreover, it seems that some free-speech advocates, who may once have held that arguing through evidence, facts, reason, and logic would be enough, are losing confidence in the idea that simply demonstrating one’s ability to debate better than one’s opponents is sufficient even to get their voice heard.

Writing in the National Review, the conservative journalist David French argues that the religious zeal of the intersectionalist warriors  ‘steamrolls right over the lukewarm, leaving them converted or cowed’. Yet, ‘the answer’, he believes, ‘isn’t to steamroll back… but rather to respond with calm conviction’. He sees the maintenance of civility as a key weapon in the free-speech arsenal. ‘Civility is anything but surrender’, French declared. ‘In fact, I’d argue that in the long run it’s the path to ideological expansion, not retreat. It’s the path to becoming a reliable, trustworthy communicator. It’s the best way to get a hearing outside your tribe, and it still leaves room for righteous, necessary anger – while choosing its targets carefully’.

Civility in public conversation has, of course, everything to recommend itself. It is premised, nonetheless, on the willingness of the other side to listen and to respond with equal courtesy. That is the essence of the free-speech compact: we might disagree profoundly, but I will listen to you respectfully, and reply accordingly after hearing you out. You will do the same when I am talking. And, who knows, maybe one – or both – of us will modify our thinking as a result, because we both understand that firm though our convictions might be, neither of us is in the possession of the ultimate truth.

A problem arises, however, when one side, convinced of holding the ultimate truth, seeks to shut the other down and prevent people from having their voice heard altogether. This may occur through ‘no platforming’, a hecklers veto, or physical intervention and threats of force to stop events or bully venues into curtailing their support for speaking engagements. When this happens, the pact breaks down. Civility and honour count for nothing. The choices are stark. Either you are converted, cowed, or you escalate, and seek to steam roll back.


Fighting fire with fire?

Voices on the conservative/classical liberal spectrum are coming to exhibit exasperation at the forcible shutting down of speaking events, the banning or exclusion of speakers, and the growing atmosphere of intimidation and threats that are being directed their way. Arguing against David French, Milo Yiannopoulos has stated: ‘Being nice and polite and playing by the rules has become a strategic disadvantage. I don’t think it has worked for us. I think it is holding us back. I think it is ineffective’. While eschewing any remedy through violence, he maintained: ‘I think it is time to fight fire with fire. I think it is time for us to respond in kind to these people. I think it is time for us to do to them what they have spent the last thirty, forty years doing to us’.

What ‘fighting fire with fire’ might entail will be examined further below. For the moment, it is necessary to reiterate the remorseless strategic logic inherent in this increasingly volatile situation, namely, that physical force eventually begets physical force. Bursting into a lecture hall, roughing up the speakers and shouting down presenters is not an act of free speech – an attempt at persuasion – it is an act of force, aimed, as Clausewitz averred, to compel our opponent to fulfil our will. That is to say, it is intended to defeat an adversary, and shut them up for good.


Free-speech and escalation?

The analogy Clausewitz provided to illustrate how the dynamic develops is that of a pair of wrestlers: ‘Each tries through physical force to compel the other to do his will: his immediate aim is to throw his opponent, in order to make him incapable of further resistance’. Thus, individual increments in force from one side will bring an equal and opposite increase in effort from the other. Applying this logic to the culture wars over free speech, it is easy to see where this leads. If the argument is that certain forms of speech constitute ‘violence’, which should be suppressed through actual violence, then all this does is to legitimate a similar reaction in kind. This is the strategic logic of escalation.

In a liberal-democratic society it should be clear, therefore, that respect for free speech is, in fact, the safety valve that prevents escalation. Once that respect is eroded, either by groups determined to prevent the other from speaking, or worse, by the state itself through legislated speech codes or the suppression of political dissent, then polarisation occurs and a process of escalation and counter-escalation is likely to take root.

Here we can return to the violent events at KCL on 5 March, because we can see what the sequence of escalation begins to look like. For all the claims by the groups behind the violent disruption to have shut down the event (which was interrupted but was continued at another location), it is clear that the confrontation did not proceed as they may have hoped. Members of the audience resisted verbally, and ultimately physically, with one intruder being wrestled to the ground (remember Clausewitz), while the ‘antifa’ flag was taken off the protestors, and is now proudly displayed by Sargon of Akkad on his YouTube channel. Meanwhile, King’s security staff physically ejected ‘antifa’ trespassers who had tried to vault over the security barriers in the Strand.


Self-defence as escalation?

Evidently, ‘antifa’ disruptors encountered more resistance to their activities at KCL than they seem to have experienced elsewhere. Symbolically, it didn’t go their way at all, with Sargon himself making it clear about what he thought of the proceedings with a post, entitled the ‘The Battle of King’s College London’, which displayed video footage of the violence: ‘As you can see antifa burst into the event. They pushed me around. They pushed other people around. And then we defended ourselves to victory by punching the crap out of one or two of them’. He went on: ‘I actually did try reasoning with them on stage [which can be heard on the audio of the video]… And, honestly, if they attack you, I recommend you defend yourself as vigorously as you feel necessary. Don’t let these thugs get away with intimidating you or being violent to you. You have every right to defend yourself’.

Invoking the concept of self-defence in response to events like the ‘Battle of King’s College London’, with the very title of the video itself espousing the logic of war, represents one obvious way in which escalation is taking place: the use of physical resistance to repel violence being directed towards oneself. Self-defence, though, is unlikely to be the only method of escalation for those on the pro-free speech/conservative/classical liberal spectrum, and could presage any number of non-physical forms of resistance based principally on copying – or adapting – the tactics of those that they oppose. This might encompass more systematic campaigns to expose the origins of those groups and individuals involved in the counter-free speech movement (an activity known as ‘doxing’ in the online world) or the more organised ‘trolling’ of such organisations.  It might also embrace other tactics such as resort to legal actions or the reporting of left-wing opponents for ‘hate-speech’. There might be any number of other methods. At the harder end of the spectrum ‘fighting fire with fire’ might see the evolution of counter-demonstrations and disruption tactics. The free-speech movement, of course, is in danger of being caught in a bind. If it adopts tactics that seek to close down opposing systems of thought, no matter how much they have been provoked, it risks undermining the premises of their own argument about the primacy of freedom of expression.


Returning the serve?

Other elements along the political spectrum, however, might feel less compunction towards adopting the methods of their enemies, from whom, in effect, they seek to learn, especially if their tactics are seen to be successful. For strategic theorists this is another observable phenomenon. In this regard, we might come to discern a variant in the escalation dynamic. Rather than the somewhat involuntary process of escalation that Clausewitzian theory enunciates, one might see the development of a process known as ‘Returning the serve’. This is a form of strategic interaction identified by University of Nottingham criminologist, Lyndsey Harris (a former War Studies graduate), in her analysis of the operation of loyalist paramilitary organisations during the Northern Ireland conflict.

Towards the latter part of the conflict, loyalist paramilitaries would respond to particular Irish Republican military acts with a specific action of their own (often of greater ferocity). The explicit intention was to counter the original action – ‘return the serve’. This is not so much a reflexive slide into escalation, more a conscious attempt at political signalling: ‘If you do this to our side, we will hit your side back… much harder’. Needless to say, retaliation as a form of escalation has been a feature of many wars in the past. In Northern Ireland it certainly became a murderous reality. The statistics show that in the final years of the conflict, roughly between 1989 and 1994, the loyalist paramilitaries were outgunning all the Irish Republican groups by a ratio of about 3 to 2, forcing the Irish Republican movement itself into an ever more constrained strategic position; one factor, it might be contended, that led it into a ceasefire and peace negotiations a few years later.

The Northern Ireland case is a salutary illustration of escalation and strategic signalling: an example not to be repeated, one hopes, under any circumstances. But we should be under no illusions about where the escalatory cycle can lead if individuals and authorities do not assume responsibility for what is currently happening on our campuses and in society at large. There are commentators who have argued that an actual ‘war’ of sorts over culture and society in the West has been going on for years – since September 2001, if not for a number of years before that. Many books and commentaries have appeared on that topic already. It is an interesting proposition, but not the direct concern of this article. Nevertheless, the point is that to have violence seep directly into the university environment is an ugly development and a disastrous prospect should it spread. Should this occur, radicalisation towards the extremes is the only likely result, which benefits no one apart from those who want to see society polarised. And that cannot end well. As Clausewitz knew, once passions are inflamed further escalation is never far away.


A question of responsibility

First and foremost, the principal responsibility for the deterioration of the atmosphere on campus resides squarely with those who seek to shut down the speech of others. This is an arbitrary and self-proclaimed arrogation of power to decide who can and who cannot be heard in the public square. It is a muscular and – if you wish to analyse it in this manner – a deeply masculinised assertion of power too (it is interesting to note the acute gender imbalance in the ‘antifa’ protest). Any person of a liberal conscience should resist those who would seek to assert such domination over others, and who thereby further seek to militarise the university campus more than they have done so already, let alone those whose actions endanger the safety of students and staff.

At one level, any ‘escalatory’ response should be to ensure the provision of adequate protection around speaking events if necessary. The firm but proportionate response of KCL’s security personnel to the events of 5 March is perhaps one, albeit minor, positive development in that regard. Equally, the College administration has the responsibility to ensure that any members of the KCL community who put the lives of others at risk are held fully accountable under College disciplinary rules; and that includes the prospect of expulsion and police investigation. Above all, it is incumbent upon students and academic staff to assert, uphold, and defend the foundational principle that should underpin any university worth its name in a liberal polity, that of freedom of thought and freedom of expression. That really would be a measured and worthy form of escalation.


Conclusion: a warning from history

There is no doubt that we are in a curious epoch in the affairs of modern higher education. The decline of viewpoint diversity and the threat to the free exchange of ideas jeopardises the very essence of what makes the concept of a university an enlightened project: one that is tolerant, pluralistic and dedicated to the expansion of knowledge and human progress, and where the only criteria for judgement is based on facts, evidence, and reason. That the modern university in Britain and the United States is becoming a theatre where such foundational values are violently contested is remarkable.

This article has expanded upon a number of themes related to the concept of escalation to illustrate how and why the culture wars might evolve in this phase where we are witnessing an increasing recourse to violence by those who wish to escalate their struggle in order to close down avenues for debate. As ever, the hope is that reason and moderation prevail. Yet, values once held to be core and which have sustained the modern university, and the liberal society as a whole, are under challenge. The future appears likely to be characterised by more confrontation and more escalation. We should, though, make no mistake about where the path of escalation can take us, which can be to a very dark place indeed.

Historical analogies tend to be misleading, and students of our subject should be wary and reject direct comparisons. Analogies can however offer insights, illustrations, and warnings. The closest parallel to our current condition that might suggest itself in terms of where we are heading is the period of instability that Italy experienced from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. This was a period that saw the descent of Italian politics into a confused miasma of fear, radicalisation, and violence that came to be known as the Anni di Piombo – the years of lead or, more prosaically, the years of the bullet. For many years I taught the Anni di Piombo era in Italy to third year undergraduates. In the years to come I hope that I will not be teaching a version of the Anni di Piombo about my own country.


M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory and Head of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He specialises in the nature of dissent and the strategies of non-state actors. He is author of ‘Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement’ (Routledge, 1995) and, most recently, with David Martin Jones he is author of ‘Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age’ (Palgrave/Macmillan 2014), and ‘The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles and Paradoxes’ (Columbia University Press, 2015).

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4 thoughts on “Strife Feature | Escalation in Action: An Addendum to ‘Clausewitz On Campus’”

  1. Obviously Clausewitz is right about the tendency to escalation, but he’s an odd choice of writer to focus on when discussing ‘culture wars’, or indeed most non-state asymmetrical warfare. If Antifa were really seeking maximum escalation they would be stabbing lots of people the way Islamic State terrorists do. Antifa, like many insurgent groups operating within a functioning State, pay a lot of attention to winning the moral level of war – their violence is purposely limited, they want a reaction greater than their own violence in order to morally justify their violence to the target audience and further the mooted goal of Anarcho-Communism. US theorists of insurgency warfare such as I think John Boyd & William S Lind have had a lot of useful analysis in this field.

  2. I’m not sure that is perfectly correct. Antifa is not directing its action against the state. Why should it? Thus far the state is behaving in ways that are quite congenial to Antifa. There’ve been no hard investigations of them. Their members are not hounded, charged, and jailed. They already justify their violence as a fair and proportionate response to ‘violent speech’ and that’s a gambit with which thus far the establishment has been pleased to go along. That’s why we have people locked up on account of hate speech legislation and ‘problematic’ speakers are barred from enter the country lest they stir up division amongst ‘communities’. The state does not wish to fight words with words, it wants some people to STFU. Antifa wants the same thing. It’s revolutionary look is basically a fashion statement; practically speaking, the group is violently pro status quo—which is fascistic, in fact. What the article is invoking, IMHO, is not the spectre of insurgency, certainly not with Antifa in the titular role, but civil war. I find that more and more plausible, even likely. For a lot of normal people free speech is a ditch in which they’re prepared to die for the preservation of their posterity. I think people should read Edmund Burke and maybe ponder a society comprised of ‘little platoons’. It’s no wonder why he used a military metaphor in that phrase, methinks.

    1. I agree Antifa violence is mostly not directed against the State, and they often seek State support or acquiescence in their actions. But their political goals are directed towards gaining control of the State in order to implement their preferred vision of society, ie Anarcho-Communism.

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