Saturday, February 19, 2011

How Violence Protects the State

Recently, due to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution there has been a lot of discussion on the question of violence versus non-violence. Because of this discussion of the use of various tactics Gelderloos' book "How non-violence protects the state" has been brought up as an antidote to those who view non-violence or pacifism as the sole legitimate tactic.

It might seem than that such a text would be useful. However, the argument provided by Gelderloos, aside from declaring that violence is sometimes a legitimate tactic, fails to explain to us the dynamics which should guide our thinking about the use of violence.

Generally non-violent approaches are preferable to violent ones for a host of reasons. These include the ability to maintain the "moral high-ground" which can be extremely useful from a PR perspective. They are less likely to carry as heavy a legal burden as non-violent actions. It also has to be remembered that extremely violent revolutions tend to socialise violence, which itself creates long standing difficulties and cycles of violence in a population that was hoping for a positive transformation.

Gelderloos does not view violence with the respect of one who understands its potential ramifications but instead tends to ignore the dangers.

We are advocates of a diversity of tactics, meaning effective combinations drawn from a full range of tactics that might lead to liberation from all the components of this oppressive system: white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and the state. We believe that tactics should be chosen to fit the particular situation, not drawn from a preconceived moral code. We also tend to believe that means are reflected in the ends, and would not want to act in a way that invariably would lead to dictatorship or some other form of society that does not respect life and freedom.

I agree fully with the sentiment expressed within this paragraph. However, the critical question at issue is the word "effective" and how we are to determine such.

While he continually vacillates using ideas such as the diversity of tactics, he clearly views non-violence as fundamentally inferior as a tactic. The list of chapter titles gives a taste of the extent to which Gelderloos does so: nonviolence is ineffective, nonviolence is racist, nonviolence is statist, nonviolence is patriarchal, nonviolence is tactically and strategically inferior, and nonviolence is deluded.

At odds with science

That Gelderloos understands much about the dynamics of violence is dubious. He makes the following assertion unsupported by any evidence whatsoever:

It is vague, meaningless, and ultimately untrue to say that violence always produces certain psychological patterns and social relationships.

Unfortunately science is not on Gelderloos' side here. The impacts of violence are physiological, real and do obtain remarkably consistent patterns and impacts on social relationships. The socialisation of hierarchy is in fact deeply rooted in violence and our pyscho-chemical relationships to it, altering everything from our gene expression to causing actual changes in brain structure [1]. Such a loose and dismissive wave of the hand is not at all consistent with a realistic and careful analysis of the role of violence.

From moralism to moralism

Instead of such a careful analysis of violence Gelderloos attempts to avoid the moralism of the pacifists by substituting a new moral precept.

In other words, the concept of hierarchy has most of the analytical and moral precision that the concept of violence lacks. Therefore, to truly succeed, a liberation struggle must use any means necessary that are consistent with building a world free of coercive hierarchies.

The irony here is that violence in itself has shown an historical tendency to push organisations towards the hierarchical. The number of examples is huge, ranging from the Russian revolution, the Spanish civil war to the Republican paramilitaries in Ireland. One might very reasonably claim that this violence could not have been avoided, and I myself would be deeply sympathetic to this view. However I suggest a causal relationship between violence and hierarchy, leading - not deterministically or inevitably - but tendentially from the former to the later.

Who is the revolutionary subject?

Even if they were, who cares if the middle and upper classes are alienated by violence?

While this is not Gelderloos' quote, it is from the book and he evidently identifies with it. I think this quote nicely pulls to the fore one of the deep problems in his analysis. The agent of positive change is not clearly understood. A class analysis where middle class is grouped with upper class and working class is the true agent of change leaves us as some minority group - perhaps 1/3 of the population which is supposed to take on an majority. The position implicitly supports a social war of the minority using violence.

A sensible approach to how activism should deal with violence very much needs to worry about whether the middle classes are alienated. If violence must be used to succeed than ways of stopping that alienation must be discovered. Otherwise the majority will back the state and one will be waging an inevitably failing guerrilla war against not only the state, but also the population.

An analysis with no explanatory power

Throughout the book he attempts to show that non-violence leads to capitulation. However his attempt is really quite unconvincing since in almost every case there was a mix of violent and non-violent tactics and in no cases have we achieved full unqualified revolutionary success. Indeed that such a thing would be possible seems dubious. Instead he merely asserts that the failures are due to the dominance of non-violence and shows that the states elevation of such figures as Gandhi is evidence that they prefer it.

The claim of a pacifist victory in capping the nuclear arms race is somewhat bizarre. Once again, the movement was not exclusively nonviolent; it included groups that carried out a number of bombings and other acts of sabotage or guerrilla warfare. And, again, the victory is a dubious one. The much-ignored nonproliferation treaties only came after the arms race had already been won, with the US as undisputed nuclear hegemon in possession of more nuclear weapons than was even practical or useful. And it seems clear that proliferation continues as needed, currently in the form of tactical nuke development and a new wave of proposed nuclear power facilities. Really, the entire issue seems to have been settled more as a matter of internal policy within the government than as a conflict between a social movement and a government.

First, the claim that this was an internal matter and not a consequence of social movements is absurd. The cost, difficulty and subsequent retreat from making nuclear power plants in the US because of social movements is well documented [2]. Secondly if it used both violent and non-violent tactics how can we attribute to the failure to non-violence?

What we need is some theory of the dynamics with some explanatory power so we can state clearly a thesis regardings when it is likely to work and when it is likely to fail. A book which seeks to have an explanation of violence is hardly worth anything but the simple platitude that absolute pacifism is unwarranted if it can not supply such an analysis.

The strategy of tension

The state in fact uses violence not only to defend itself but also to legitimate its own violence and repression against the people by engaging in false-flag and provocateur actions. Recently activists have documented a large number of cases of provocateurs everywhere from the police in Toronto to Brendan Darby.

A much more careful analysis of how the state can use violence to legitimate repression is given by Victor Serge [4]. This text is essentially a real case study of a conflict with an immensely repressive state - the Russian czarist regime. In it Serge details the methods by which the state acted as provocateur to draw out militants and eliminate them.

These actual examples, over a wide span of history, show that the state is interested very often in inducing violent actions in order to justify repression against social movements.

This understanding that violence could justify repression was used on an epic scale in Europe in the strategy of tension [5]. Funding everything from assassinations to bombings - these actions helped to create a wedge between the general public and left groups in Italy and Turkey that was in fact quite successful.

How violence can overcome the state

The dynamics of violence with respect to the view of that violence's legitimacy as a class activity in light of actual balance of forces is must be central to a theory of violence. This is what is lacking in Gelderloos' work and what is required to understand how violence actually can be used as an effective weapon against the state.

What do I mean by this? The class as an actor in revolutionary change and its self-assertion of legitimacy, its claim on sovereignty and its willingness to dissolve, sweep aside and smash the remaining state is in fact what should be the core interest of revolutionaries. If violence is to be used it must in fact appear legitimate to the class.
As Abraham Guillen puts it quite well in his book on the Philosophy of the Urban Guerrilla [6]:

In revolutionary war any guerrilla action that needs explaining to the people is politically useless: it should be meaningful and convincing by itself. To kill an ordinary soldier in reprisal for the assassination of a guerrilla is to descend to the same political level as a reactionary army. Far better to create a martyr and thereby attract mass sympathy than to lose or neutralise popular support by senseless killings without an evident political goal. To be victorious in a people's war one has to act in conformity with the interests, sentiments and will of the people. A military victory is worthless if it fails to be politically convincing.

We see in almost every successful revolution in history that the state suffers a serious blow to its legitimacy. The public no longer view it as a legitimate authority. The ability of the security services to effectively act in the states interest erodes. If at this stage the public is able to construct counter-institutions which provide a new legitimate force we have the capacity for real revolution. It's critical that violence play its role subordinate to our understanding of the absolute requirement of carrying forward a legitimate claim to power of the working class themselves.

In the current climate, with the rise in the popularity of Gene Sharp's Albert Einstein Institute and his non-violent tactics designed to protect American imperial interests and the recent history of the colour revolutions we are indeed in need of a theory of revolutionary violence. Unfortunately, I think Gelderloos' book strikes quite far from the mark of such a theory.

[1] Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State
[2] Biological Consequences and Transgenerational Impact of Violence and Abuse
[3] Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978, by Thomas Raymond Wellock. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. xi, 333 pp.
[4] What everyone should know about repression
[5] Daniele Ganser, NATO's Secret Armies. Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe, Frank Cass, London, 2005.
[6] Philosophy of the Urban Guerilla, Abraham Guillen

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Alienation From Democracy

The protests against Mubarak that are occurring as I write, represent a momentous change. The overthrow of Ben Ali as dictator of Tunisia has lit a fire in the Arab world that shows every sign of spreading. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these events. At this point, irrespective of whether or not Mubarak is forced out by a popular revolution, the Middle East will never again be the same; the balance of power has irrevocably shifted.

The courage of the Egyptian people is to be greatly admired. Standing up to a notoriously violent police force which is well known for torturing political dissidents is inspiring.

However, beyond the undoubted courage of the protesters there is something which has struck me about the demonstrations which causes me to reflect upon failings that I've seen in movements in the west of which I've been a part.

The US State Department has made clear that they would like to see an "orderly transition" in Egypt. To them this means changing as little as possible and conducting a pantomime of democracy to install a minimally altered regime.

When two million Egyptian people were out in the streets calling for Mubarak to step down, and he was claiming that elections would be held at some appointed time in the future, the thought struck me: We have been alienated from democracy.

How can the great mass of the Egyptian people be demanding democracy from a dictator? The contradiction displayed by Mubarak dictating the terms of democracy shows the system for what it has become: a tool used by power to display its own legitimacy. If the people are to be sovereign, then they must display their sovereignty.

The anti-war movement in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, with its millions of protesters in the street in countries world-wide, came right up against a very similar wall. The protests in retrospect turned out to be no more than an appeal to authorities. The US and all its allies went ahead with it despite the unpopularity. The insistence that the war go ahead despite its unpopularity was a demonstration by our authorities of where sovereignty rests. Democracy was outside ourselves.

It hasn't always been like that. In Paris, on July 13th, 1789, in the tumult of grain hoarding by the government and fears of invasion by the Kings troops, crowds formed at the city hall. They formed a standing committee and took decisions to form a militia for 48,000 men for the defence of Paris against the King.

From this standing committee, delegates were sent to gain arms from the Hôtel des Invalides from which they obtained 30 to 40k rifles. Despite the fact that the Hôtel des Invalides was guarded by armed men, they were not inclined to fire on the people of Paris. They had demonstrated their legitimacy and taken democracy to be something exercised by themselves.

Furthermore, by organising popular committees and by arming themselves they had demonstrated their independence from the regime. Control of the streets passed to the people and the regime could not easily reassert its dominance. In fact it never did.

It is now that the Egyptian people could be served best by creating similar constituent assemblies (or "sections" as they were called in Paris) from which to make decisions about their own destiny. The lower ranking soldiers would be faced with a choice: to side with the people or to side with the regime. Given their stance over the last week, the prospects for their siding with the people are good.