The fetishizing of non-violence.


From Sidewalk Bubblegum.

Apart from a few environmental groups, it seems that the strategy of the Left has been all about non-violence. In fact, many on the Left have argued (and I was one of them, as you can see on this very blog) that using violence reduces one to the status of oppressor. Others argue that violence is spiritually harmful, that there’s no point in resisting because we can’t change anything, and that salvation can only come from the spiritual or mystical realm. People may also point to the success of non-violent strategies in the past.

All of this is well and good, but non-violence is only one kind of strategy, and it doesn’t always work. For that matter, violence does not always fail. Both are viable strategies and, depending on the context of the situation, they may both be warranted. To limit oneself to non-violence is arbitrary and therefore not a rational decision.

For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.
Nelson Mandela

Have there been non-violent movements that have succeeded? Of course. But there have also been violent movements that have succeeded, such as the Bolshevik Revolution, the ongoing Zapatista rebellion, the Viet Cong, the Spanish Civil War (before it was torn apart by the Communists), and the ongoing revolt against oil interests in Nigeria, to just name those. Many violent “eco-terrorist” operations have also been successful within their limited scope.

The Nigerian example is a good one because it started with a non-violence campaign (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) which failed when all its leaders were executed by the Nigerian military dictatorship. This failure was followed by the rise of a guerrilla group (Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force), which has significantly hampered oil production in the Niger Delta.

But people who reject violence will automatically reject any such examples because they have an a priori commitment that violence cannot “really solve” anything (again, I know, I was one of those people). When violent strategies are discussed, what they imagine is some kind of all-out war, which obviously cannot seriously be proposed in the case of fighting against the biggest and most technologically advanced army in the world.

The Zapatista are able to stand their ground despite extreme reprisals because they are fighting against a relatively small army that is not using its full force against them. The Viet Cong were able to fight the US Army because they were on their home turf, received weapons from the communists, and had the support of the population around them. A small-scale activist movement operating in the US has none of these mitigating factors.

But there are other violent tactics than guerrilla warfare, including expropriation, sabotage, and assassination. These three categories themselves include a wide variety of tactics (what do you expropriate and how? what do you sabotage? who do you assassinate). These tactics are more desirable because they minimize the chance of harming innocents and minimize risk to activists.

Many non-violent tactics are misused by leftist groups and are therefore a waste of energy and risks people’s lives for no clear reason. Protests and marches seem to be proposed as the solution to everything, but a protest in itself doesn’t accomplish any objective. Protests can serve as a show of force or as a non-violent tactic to draw State brutality, but they must be incorporated as part of a wider strategy.

Getting your face bashed in or getting arrested when you’re not sending any message and won’t get any sympathy for it only wastes suffering. The willingness to fight is a precious commodity for any movement, but it seems like leftists just love to squander it.

A tactic which is a favourite of the liberals (i.e. the soft right-wingers) is to change your consumption patterns: that if everyone buys different food, buys certified products, boycotts the evil megacorps, recycle the right way, victory will be achieved. But a strategy that requires the active participation of a majority of the population is a losing proposition from the get-go.

Of course it is a good thing for a person to deliberately and consciously change consumption patterns, but it won’t solve anything. Individual action, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot bring about systemic change.

These tactics, and other liberal tactics like using the legal system, pressuring the government for new laws, and otherwise working within the system to reform it, can all be useful if integrated within a larger strategy. But in themselves they cannot bring about social change. At best you end up with a movement co-opted by the capitalist establishment and aimed squarely at maintaining the status quo. The examples of this are legion.

Now I do want to address my former argument against violent activism: not doing so would make me a hypocrite. My argument was basically the following: the State can be defined as a monopoly on legitimate force, the people violently fighting against the State also believe they have a monopoly on legitimate force, therefore they are both equally evil.

But my argument made no sense logically: if it did, then any act of self-defense would be as bad as the initial aggression, which is clearly not the case. While it’s obvious that both acts cannot be justified, it cannot be proven logically that both acts are equally unjustified unless one adopts further premises.

There is, for example, the liberal belief that persuasion is always superior to violence, that opposing viewpoints are the result of a lack of education and debate, and that by convincing our opponents to correct their “error” (generally, by throwing facts at them), we can end social ills.

But this is a silly conceit. Social ills are not, by and large, the result of cognitive errors. People do not hold to aberrant political views (e.g. capitalist, authoritarian, misogynistic or racist positions) because they are mistaken. Like most liberal conceits, it completely ignores the social context we all live in, that these aberrant views are the result of, amongst other things, a systemic and sustained deformation of people’s values and motivations, and cognitive biases which are not easily changed (because they are part of the way our brain works). Mistakes have very little to do with it.

Adopting a stance of non-violence does make one feel superior, but it does not make one superior. It’s easy to preach non-violence when one has no way to effectively use violence anyway. And the overwhelming violence of the State makes it easy to make the simple-minded equation that violence=hierarchy and non-violent=anti-hierarchy. But the enemies of freedom and equality also often use non-violent methods (even the State itself occasionally deigns to do so, whenever it suits its objectives).

The stance of non-violence is ultimately a delusional one, because it assumes that all opposition, no matter how irrational or violent, can be met with persuasion. I already pointed out the bizarre nature of this belief in my debate on voluntaryism. This is as bizarre as believing that all personal problems can be solved by wishing hard enough. It just has no connection to reality.

Another area where people will argue incessantly is on the issue of self-defense. They will readily accept the just nature of personal self-defense against an immediate threat, but they do not accept self-defense against an institutional threat (such as the State or international capitalism). Neo-liberalism has conditioned many people to believe that “only individuals are real, institutions are not real” (I go into some detail about this here), and therefore they cannot conceive of using violence against institutional threats as “self-defense.”

Part of the problem is semantics: “self-defense” as a term depends on your conception of what constitutes “defense” and what constitutes its opposite, “aggression.” If you don’t believe that what a corporation does can ever qualify as “aggression” because corporations don’t really exist and only individuals do, then you obviously will not label any response to corporate aggression as “self-defense.” The only thing that qualifies as “self-defense” under that definition is an immediate response to an immediate event.

The problem here is that institutions usually assign actions across a wide number of people: there is not one person responsible for polluting a river, not one person responsible for criminal negligence that leads to the death of dozens of workers, not one person responsible for sustained patterns of discrimination and injustice. Fighting against these crimes does not involve fighting against individuals, but rather against institutions. What that means is the resources used by the institution to perpetrate its crimes are the primary targets, not individuals.

To kill individuals to prevent an institution from doing something is, most of the time, futile, because members of an institutions are usually interchangeable (unless their function is highly specialized). Killing ten cops, or even a hundred cops, will not in itself help stop the State, as there are plenty of other sociopaths ready to take the job.

8 thoughts on “The fetishizing of non-violence.

  1. L August 16, 2015 at 21:41 Reply

    I don’t like violence, but it can be a tool of bringing about change….The trick seems to be knowing how, when and in what amounts to use it and making sure it is part of a larger goal…Like you said, killing one police officer or (one rapist) doesn’t really do anything to alter the system of misogyny or police abuse on a large scale.

    If anything violence against members of institutions can actually strengthen them. In the midst of the conversation about police violence when those 2 cops were killed in New York, there was a lot of rhetoric about how criticism of the police is putting cops in danger and how the blacklivesmatter movement was to blame for the murder of these cops.

    • Francois Tremblay August 24, 2015 at 02:43 Reply

      Like I wrote, I think the solution is to target institutions, not individuals.

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