Saturday, June 02, 2007

Violence and Gandhi's Blunders

I do not, as I once did, maintain an ideological commitment to non-violence. I do believe that (non-violent) civil disobedience can be a useful tactic in opposing illegitimate authority, rejecting empire, preserving one's rights and dignity, and so forth. But it is only one tactic. There are others, and success depends on how a multitude of tactics are employed by a multitude of actors.

In his book Endgame and in his talks Derrick Jensen goes to great lengths to point out the fundamental flaws of maintaining an unwavering "commitment" to non-violence in the current climate of State and Corporate Aggression. He describes how "non-violent" protesters at the WTO thing in Seattle in 1999 actually fought, physically, with other protesters who were willing to up the stakes and destroy corporate "property". Jensen even mentions how these "peaceful" types---who presumably had agreed in advance with the authorities on where and how many could march, how many would get arrested and so forth---how they actually assisted the police in hauling in those who sensed that engaging state/corporate violence with love and kindness wasn't going to get anyone anywhere.

At a certain point, refusing violence as a tactic ceases to be about one's own spiritual health; it becomes, instead, an unwillingness to protect others under fire. Someone once said that no ideology is so good that it is worth committing cruel acts for. Fair point. I think a refusal to prevent cruel acts is in itself cruel. And if you need to get physical, to step away from the armchair and the computer, in order to prevent acts of cruelty, then by all means do it.

Sure: one man's cruelty is another man's profit, moral authority is a tricky issue, and perhaps at least some of what I am suggesting here might sound like it validates the worst crimes of, say, the Bush Administration. But don't misunderestimate me.

For years my own rejection of violence was centered on the idea that I did not want to become that which I despise, that which is destructive, that which my values stand in opposition to. So much did I believe in universal justice and "the rule of law" that I even said that, given the chance, I would not assasinate someone like Hitler. Not even a universally accepted archetype of pure evil like Hitler could get me to take on his tactics, I thought.

Well, I don't anymore. The people controlling and destroying the world want nothing more than for their opponents to always and ideologically stop short of preventing the destruction by any means necessary. I want to be clear that I am not advocating violence. But---and I credit Jensen for arguing this point powerfully enough to get me to reconsider extremely deeply held views---I think an honest look at useful versus useless tactics might get us thinking differently about violence.

It's 1936 or so, and there we are, with the IEDs, standing just outside Adolf Hitler's house. But we don't ignite them, because to do so might just encourage more state repression. You know what Jensen says he would say to a guy like Hitler if he had the chance to meet him? "Bang. You're dead." I love it.

I'm not pro-gun. I don't think we all ought to arm ourselves to fight the State by dressing up in black and using walkie-talkies and throwing molotov cocktails at business fatcats when they step out of their limousines. I'm against violence. I don't allow it to manifest in my daily personal interactions. Still, I think we're not being honest if we don't even discuss provoking the same degree of state repression and violence for ourselves that (for example) the US government and military---along with their proxies, hired guns, and political and corporate allies---dispense to others in our name every second of every day throughout the world.

I wonder if a sustained campaign of property destruction and violence (or the threat of it) against planet-raping elites would be more or less effective than the sustained campaign of "consciousness raising" and occassional rally attendance many of us have presumably taken part in.

It's not just some rights and freedoms we risk losing by not fighting back by any means necessary, but the planet itself as a giver of whatever it takes for this generation and the next to survive on a practical level.

From Endgame: "Those in power are responsible for their choices, and I am responsible for mine. But I need to emphasize that I’m not responsible for the way my choices have been framed."

And this: "Defensive rights always trump offensive rights. My right to freedom always trumps your right to exploit me, and if you do try to exploit me, I have the right to stop you, even at some expense to you." ...to which I would add: not only the right, but the responsibility, even at some expense to me.

Jensen says over and over again, and he's right, that the violence will not stop because we ask nicely. It won't stop if we organize 15 million people to march peacefully against war on the same day throughout the world (remember that one? I was there). It won't happen because we write a lot of intelligent stuff and "get it out there".

I'm not giving planet-raping elites any more credit than their willingness to do harm merits. No one needs moral or philosophical (much less political) authority to push back. When you're literally gasping for air you don't seek out authority for access to something breathable. You don't ask permission for water (or human breastmilk) to not be poisonous, or for children to not be slaughtered for profit, or to prevent everything in the non-human world to rapidly---rapidly---disappear (read: get ground up).

We serve no good purpose by openly informing violent state/corporate criminals that their offences will never be met with counterforce. It just doesn't make any sense. The gas-guzzling, hyper-consumerist jerk-offs of America and the rest of the world would do well to take note when open season is declared not just on their political representatives, but on their ecocidal civil works, shit-house media propoganda dispensers, and corporate flagships as well. That might get them to poke their heads up from American Idol for a sec.

What I'm noticing is that my allies are really fewer and further between than I would like to admit. Upping the stakes and making sacrifices definitely means taking an honest look at tactics, physical tactics. There's no reason to be nice and I think people who for whatever reason won't get physical need to be supporting like crazy those who will. In this sense I support the insurgency against US and allied forces in Iraq. I wish no harm to those American troops. I think they should just leave. Now. But if they won't, well, I support efforts to force them out. Unfortunately.

Unwillingness to make sacrifices to do the killing is one thing, but the state violence will continue unless more people make sacrifices to prevent it. Cindy Sheehan's recent conclusion seems to be that such sacrifices are basically unthinkable for a population that doesn't really give a damn.

The following list may be well-known to some. I have just discovered it myself. Shortly before his assasination Gandhi gave this list of "Seven Blunders" that lead to passive violence to his grandson Arun, who added the eighth.
1. Wealth Without Work
2. Pleasure Without Conscience
3. Knowledge Without Character
4. Commerce Without Morality
5. Science Without Humanity
6. Worship Without Sacrifice
7. Politics Without Principles
8. Rights Without Responsibilities
And I have one of my own:
9. Turning the other cheek twice.
Please add your own in the comments section.

11 comments:

richie said...

Keir (richie from Mickey Z's place)

Dropping by to acknowledge your invitation to review and reflect. The closest I recently came to challenge the challenged is a booming statement I bellowed in a bar when my yank was cranked. Prior to a recent trip to my home in Florida, a party of 5 males at an airport hotel bar were engaging in tall table arm wrestling. Their noise level around closing time before the 10 or so assembled grew increasingly belidgerent as their lastest round of shots went crashing to the floor. The barmaid and security guard, all 5'3" of her began to clean the mess up while requesting their behavioral cooperation. The tallest and loudest of the urban cowboys retorted, ..."uuhhhh look out ... she's got mace, a radio and maybe a gun......" My neck-vein trigger popped at that moment and I pointed my gloved index-finger at the bloke and shouted ....."Shut your mouth f****r... she's the law and a lady! I'm not into your b--sh*t anymore!..... Silence......I told my two 30-something bar-buddies to remain silent...let the moment subside and follow me out, only if more than one of them followed me into the lobby. One did...seeking understanding for the actions of his compatriot. He had the ballz to ask me what triggered my response. I turned, looked him in his Calloway-insignia golf shirt and said..." he disrespected someone who was there to keep your buddy's a** out of jail .. and he slip-tongued a stupid reference to a gun...I don't take sh*t like that lightly...!" Silence...then his mumble mumble.. I continued my journey to the elevator. My point - I turned my cheek once when the drink glasses went crashing. The second time, my cheeks were aflame. The third time - I had cooled slightly and decided to take my 6'2" 298# sorry-a** to bed, still stoked if further escalation developed. End of story! Moral?! #9 Measure the environment and your odds for survival before the first strike! See you back at Mickey's place in Asroria, NY. richie

Frances said...

Right on, Keir. These are questions I have been asking myself lately as well. What a dilema.
Crafty sabotage is something I would like to see more of. Rather than set cars on fire which only adds more pollution to the local environment and may endanger someones health...why not sand in the crankcase, water in the gas tank. Spray paint the wind screens etc. Hack the websites. Hack the radio air waves of crowd control police and troops, get em so confused they cant do their job. Taking out a dam somewhere not too close to a large city might have an excellent and long lasting effect (would that be concidered violent sabotage?)
Advanced sabotage requires team work, fore thought, organization, intelligence (i.e. knowledge of what the enemy is up to), secrecy, loyalty. It can effectively take down a whole city for a day, non-violently. But it does usually require a well organized trustworthy team.
Maybe part of the appeal of violence is that anyone with a weapon and the desire to use it can create an immediate disturbance. But is that effect long lasting and does it have the desired end result?
Maybe I am being overly romantic about this...I admit I do like clever non-violent bank heists.
I strongly believe violence only begets violence and that more creative ways of instigating change are available. A healthy future depends on it.
Great story Richie.

Keir said...

Thanks Richie and Frances for dropping by and contributing. Anyone else got something to add?

michael greenwell said...

i have to hello to add.

and i agree with you.

also in jensens book he also said he heard something about "raising a caring and loving child is the most radical thing you can do"

jason said...

I think a refusal to prevent cruel acts is in itself cruel.

Well, I would argue that the logic of this sentence is fully inline with nonviolent thinking actually, except to add that: engaging in a cruel act in order to prevent a cruel act, is itself cruel; although it's difficult to tell what you have in mind here -- property destruction or murder? That is, are you arguing that property destruction is not violent (or cruel), or that murder is sometimes a justifiable response to cruelty?

I think an honest look at useful versus useless tactics might get us thinking differently about violence.

Right, but this ignores the fact that the nonviolent objection to violent tactics is not a tactical decision but a moral one. Proving that violence is useful won't matter to someone who morally objects to violence; you'd have to convince them that violent acts are not always wrong, not that they are sometimes useful.

Jensen says over and over again, and he's right, that the violence will not stop because we ask nicely.

I think it's important here to distinguish between nonviolent radicals and nonviolent liberals. The so-called nonviolence of members of the Democratic party is indeed nauseating, and fully supports the continuation of the power structure through "legal" protests and "peaceful" lobbying of government officials. But I don't know of any nonviolent anarchists who are interested in asking nicely. Rather, they oppose the state at every turn, realizing that the state (and its cruelty) will always exist as long as people support its existence (and feel that they need it). In other words, you can blow up all the dams you want, but as long as the majority of humanity finds them necessary (along with the other environmentally destructive institutions of civilization), more dams will be built in their place and the perpetrators will continue to be locked up as terrorists (as the ridiculous D.M. sentencing yesterday painfully illustrates). I realize that you perceive this kind of violent tactic as a supplement to the need for a mass movement of noncooperation with capitalism, but I merely wish to illustrate that nonviolent anarchists have no interest in asking nicely.

I think people who for whatever reason won't get physical need to be supporting like crazy those who will.

In the case of nonviolent anarchists, you're essentially asking them to forsake one part of their morality (nonviolence) in order to support another (anarchism or anti-capitalism). But more to the point, most nonviolent anarchists see the two (nonviolence and anarchism) as inexorably linked, because they see violence as anathema to anarchy -- that is, they see murder as antithetical to anarchism because it is a kind of imposition of one's power over another (or rule on a personal scale).

"non-violent" protesters at the WTO thing in Seattle in 1999 actually fought, physically, with other protesters who were willing to up the stakes and destroy corporate "property".

Such actions are hypocritical, to say the least, but the hypocritical actions of a few do not invalidate an entire moral philosophy.

Gandhi gave this list of "Seven Blunders" ... Turning the other cheek twice.

I understand your frustration, but Gandhi also said that he would gladly choose violence over inaction. He loathed inaction, he loathed passive resistance, and I'm sure he would loathe many of the liberal organizations that claim to have taken up nonviolence in his name.

Keir said...

Jason: much to think about here. You said "Proving that violence is useful won't matter to someone who morally objects to violence; you'd have to convince them that violent acts are not always wrong, not that they are sometimes useful."

I'm starting to think that moral objections to violence are like moral objections to gravity. I thought I clarified this point in the main post: we don't need to discuss the morality of protecting a child from slaughter or starvation, or of preventing a corporation from poisoning drinking water. And if there is no morality issue, we are then in the sphere of tactics, and again: asking nicely doesn't work. I don't follow your dichotomy between radicals and liberals, I'm not sure it's that clear-cut.

The condition of Sisyphus is eternal, rebellion is a way of life. Dams may be built to replace those that were destroyed, and the new ones may be blown up in their place. (Note to gov't spooks: we're talking metaphorical dams for the moment, m'kay?) Forever.

Thanks for that clarification about Gandhi, it's a good point. On property damage vs. harming people expect a post sometime soon.

jason said...

we don't need to discuss the morality of protecting a child from slaughter or starvation, or of preventing a corporation from poisoning drinking water.

No, but isn't it important that we discuss the morality of how we protect the child from starvation -- assuming that there is more than one option, which, in all but the most extreme hypothetically-constructed cases, there most certainly is? Nonviolence is based on a moral ideal that proposes that nonviolent solutions to conflict are always preferrable to violent ones insofar as they are effective solutions, because, among other things, nonviolence is inclusive (in that it allows the possibility for continued communication, by keeping both sides alive) whereas violence is exclusive (because it terminates communication, by imposing one's will on another).

It essentially poses the following question: if there is a nonviolent way to prevent the child from starving, don't we have the moral responsibility to seek it out, instead of frustratingly resorting to brutal means? This doesn't mean that we abandon the child to starve to death if we can't find a nonviolent solution, but rather that, before we decide to match brutality with brutality, we better be damned sure that a nonviolent solution doesn't exist, and that our failure to find a nonviolent solution is not merely the result of our own lack of creative vision or frustration.

asking nicely doesn't work

I think even a cursory glance at our anthropological history shows that there are a countless number of nonviolent means for resolving conflict that have nothing to do with "asking nicely." The difference I tried to illustrate between anarchists and liberals is that the liberal method of lobbying the government is indeed something like "asking nicely" (although it is usually only effective when backed by the coercive power of political clout, which is anything but nice), while the anarchist methods of direct action and non-cooperation are nothing like "asking nicely."

Keir said...

isn't it important that we discuss the morality of how we protect the child from starvation

No. The child doesn't care. It's not important to discuss. It's important to do.

if there is a nonviolent way to prevent the child from starving, don't we have the moral responsibility to seek it out, instead of frustratingly resorting to brutal means?

Jason, I think you're turning around the argument to suit a nonviolent bias. Try reformulating the question like this: "If there is a way to prevent the child from starving, don't we have the moral responsibility to prevent it instaed of frustratingly seeking out exclusively nonviolent means?"

I agree with what you say about nonviolent conflict resolution. I already wrote (first paragraph of the main post) that "success depends on how a multitude of tactics are employed by a multitude of actors." I am not going to physically engage invading US/UK forces in Iraq . . . but I do support the local struggle to force the Americans and British out. How many left/liberal people will go that far? For whatever (little) it's worth, so-called insurgents (for example) deserve our unequivocal moral support.

JOS said...

Great new look, Keir. Lots of good reading here as well. Sorry I haven't been by in a while...hopefully I will have some time to come back and catch up.

JOS

Suyi E said...

I sympathize with your feelings towards those sell outs who would turn in black blocs that are attacking property but I think you've confused a critique of liberal non-violence with a one of radical non-violence.

"I think we're not being honest if we don't even discuss provoking the same degree of state repression and violence for ourselves that (for example) the US government and military---along with their proxies, hired guns, and political and corporate allies---dispense to others in our name every second of every day throughout the world."

You are right, they aren't being honest. But these are liberals we are talking about, not revolutionaries. Like Albert says it's like they are scared of winning, can't even imagine it in fact, and that's why the state is quite happy to make arrangements with them and play along. But when a non-violent movement is revolutionary (and yes the civil rights movement and the '60s countercultural movement were revolutionary) the state won't hesitate to visit violence on them, and even withdraw its forces from abroad to quell the threat at home.

Anyway, I hope you'll check out what I consider a good theory of what a revolutionary non-violence movement will look like (I recommend Social Defence, Social Change)...

Jody McAllister said...

Hi, I just stumbled across this site and thought I'd comment on what I read, from a critical perspective.

There's alot of rhetoric here, but not much useful information. You seem to be saying, in short, that sometimes using violence to an end is justified. Not many people would disagree with that. But you've given no historical examples, and one hypothetical example (murdering Hitler in 1936) that isn't instructive at all. (I see no point in trying to engage in such a hypothetical discussion.)

I think a refusal to prevent cruel acts is in itself cruel. And if you need to get physical, to step away from the armchair and the computer, in order to prevent acts of cruelty, then by all means do it.

Again, not a controversial statement. I would agree with this. So would Bush, Hitler, Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, and my grandmother.

More to the point - the use of violence or force is illegitimate, unless it can prove itself to be legitimate. That requires a heavy burden of proof, and when you're trying to justify something like outright murder, there can be no higher burden.

Beyond this it's useless to generalize and we should turn to specific examples.