Monday, July 16, 2007

What's So Great About Violence?

Sunday night I read the first chapter of Peter Gelderloos' How Nonviolence Protects The State. Provocative title, huh? I thought so too. It's just out by South End Press, and I put in for my review copy the moment I got their postcard.

So far, my reaction is disappointment, amusement, and annoyance, but I'll try to keep an open mind. Perhaps chapter two, Nonviolence is Racist, will win me over.

The argument of chapter one, Nonviolence is Ineffective, rests on two prongs. The first is that the various wins generally associated with nonviolence — India's overthrow of colonialism, the civil rights movement, the non-nuclear proliferation movement, etcetera — weren't actually wins at all. They were all tactical capitulations to power that were spun as wins by the hegemonic victors.

Gelderloos dispenses with the civil rights movement, for example, in just four paragraphs.

The second is that nonviolence was not the only current within these examples, and whatever victories these movements did enjoy may be attributed to whatever more militant (read violent) tactics that may have been employed.

Writing this powerfully facile is best attempted by the very young. As near as I can tell, Gelderloos is about twenty-five. I found his affinity group photo from the Nov. 18, 2001 School of the America's action that put him in prison for six months, and he was 19 then. Since then he's shaved his head and become an anarchist. He's started the Signalfire site, and has developed an impressive activist resume.

His SOA stint led him to prison organizing, and for that alone I am grateful, since the attrocity of America's prisons seem to exist in some sort of magical twilight realm of which liberals everywhere are blithely unaware.

Yet, his book thus far just pisses me off. He moves way too fast from the position that working for change without building for power is useless to the notion that more violence is just the thing our movement needs.
Put simply, unless a movement is a threat, it cannot change a system based on centralized coercion and violence, and if that movement does not realize and exercize the power that makes it a threat, it cannot destroy such a system. ... The elite cannot be persuaded by appeals to their conscience.
So far so good. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree. But his evidence for the ineffectiveness of nonviolence and the salubriousness of its opposite, at least in the first chapter, is weak.

He makes the mistake of thinking in binaries, which causes him to dismiss King as an ineffective sellout and to embrace the Weathermen as bold revolutionary tacticians. He also makes the elementary mistake of confusing nonviolence with the absence of militance. Nobody who is familiar with, for example, the history of the Freedom Riders would make such a claim.

At some point (I'm thinking French Resistance here) we may have no choice but to form underground cells and fight fascism with violence. But we're a long way from that moment. At present, the state has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and, as we saw here during WTO, violent tactics from a small romantic cult on the extreme left mostly just provide legitimation for the deployment of state violence against us all.

So let's not get ahead of ourselves, OK?


Mark said...

The guy may have a point about nonviolence not working. The CDC says 118 million antidepressants were sold in 2005, the biggest selling drug.LINK
With so many people on drugs as medicine, how far off is medication for the disgruntled. Who is going to stop it?
As a psych patient all you have is nonviolence , because if you are violent thats a symptom of your illness that must be treated.

Mark said...

They say depression is anger turned inwards, so stay angry.

Dr. Wes Browning said...

Violence doesn't even generally work for the state! Look at Iraq! Look at the drug war!

Or look at the Civil Rights movement from the other side. The dogs, the billy clubs, and the ax handles didn't win that one for the state!

k.villa said...

can't wait to hear why nonviolence is racist from a 25 year-old (i'm guessing) white boy. please keep us posted on chapter 2.

Anonymous said...

There are many misunderstandings about power. To equate power and the ability to create change with violence is a falacy. It seems that the author is trying to equate power with the ability to raise emotions. Raising emotions usually only causes fatigue, not true and lasting change.