Protective Use of Force: The Problems with Pacifism and Nonviolence, Part Three

This is the fourteenth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

     by Adam Herriott / Deep Green Resistance UK

Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them. Once you study and really get a good understanding of the way the system…works, then you see, without a doubt, that the civil rights movement never had a chance of succeeding.

—Assata Shakur, founding member of the Black Liberation Army

Problem five with Pacifism and Nonviolence: No Real Threat to the State

Pacifists of the past have suffered greatly for their convictions. However, modern pacifists in rich nations seem to be thinking “What sort of politics might I engage in which will both allow me to posture as a progressive and allow me to avoid incurring harm to myself?” [1] Lierre Keith describes how civil disobedience used to be the practice of using passive bodies to shut something down, whereas now we see mostly symbolic actions. Civil disobedience was originally developed to obstruct a destructive action or process, to put bodies in the way of a harm that is happening. Nonviolent resistance can be a very effective political technique, but in many cases it has been watered down to a bizarre symbolic act across most of the left.

Some pacifists seem to look at protest as a catharsis to relieve the guilt they experience due to their privilege. This leads to a theater of pseudoresistance where the time, place, and form of resistance is booked with the police. A few arrests are made, which is often a form of nonviolent machismo worn as a badge of honour. [2]

Why do nonviolence fundamentalists preach their ideology primarily to social change groups instead of to the military, police, capitalists and other violent and oppressive groups? Why don’t they insist that these groups—those who use violence in the worst, most organized fashion—disarm first? Often, it seems they target the groups that are already nonviolent with a set of rules that further restricts their already limited power.

There is also some question around the strategic and tactical advantages of nonviolence. Peter Gelderloos dedicates a chapter to this in Nonviolence Protects the State where he critiques the four types of pacifist strategy: the morality play, the lobbying approach, the creation of alternatives, and generalized disobedience. [3]

When pacifism and nonviolence are your primary tactics, it’s often impossible to negotiate the terms of struggle with the state. [4] Those in power will only use their time and resources on campaigns and groups that they view as a threat, and will tolerate or even support harmless activities. [5].This is a much-needed pressure valve to stop campaign groups becoming militant or effective. It also supports the pretense that democracy is alive and well. Think how violently repressive the British state was in Ireland and India to crush resistance movements. This only radicalised the population more. Now the repression is much more subtle.

Reformism can actually strengthen the oppressive systems we face. It seeks to change a harmful system, while attempting to make the conditions more tolerable for the population. Systems only change when power is destroyed or fundamentally redistributed. In many cases, reformist work may actually be counterproductive. [6]

Democracy is generally held up as the ideal social structure. Gelderloos argues that in reality, the difference between democracy and dictatorship is often smaller than you would think, or even fictitious. In practice, any difference is based on ritual. The two forms of government are interchangeable, and when a government goes from a dictatorship to democracy, many of the same people stay in charge. Wolff makes a similar point that a modern industrial democracy is no different than a dictatorship“it is only superstition and the myth of legitimacy that invests the judge, the policeman, or the official with an exclusive right to the exercise of certain kinds of force.”

Gelderloos makes a further point that nonviolence revolution is technically anti-democratic as it requires a small minority to go against the will of the masses, at least initially. [7]

Gelderloos describes Gene Sharp’s book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, not as a strategy but as a template to be reproduced, and many have tried. He observes that this approach has created success on its own terms but that this has occurred in a vacuum, with the absence of competing methods of social change. [8]

For example, Gelderloos identifies the number of issues with the Colour Revolutions:

If nonviolent regime change is best suited to achieving democracy, how can it be that the same method also tramples basic democratic principles like due process? If it is democratic to oust fraudulently elected dictators using mass protests and obstruction, but a “de facto coup” to oust an unpopular, corrupt but elected and impeachable president using those same methods, what is the line between dictatorship and democracy? If due process can be twisted or stacked by dictators, but respect for due process is the elemental characteristic of democracy, then are mass protest and disobedience fundamentally democratic or anti-democratic?

Gelderloos describes how the Colour Revolutions also lacked social critique and instead focused on a simple message of opposition. The strategic decisions came from the top of the movement and needed the support of the elite. The military and police had already been convinced to support the “revolution” from the start. This results in the nonviolent protesters being spectators in their own movement. It’s telling that each Colour Revolution resulted in a government that wanted a close relationship with the West rather than Russia. [9]

The outcome of a nonviolent revolution is hard to predict. For example, look at the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and a number of other countries. The first two resulted in a relatively non-violent transition to “democratic” governments. Libya, however, is unstable and violent with a struggling parliament after its civil war. The uprising in Syria resulted in a civil war and the worst refugee crisis, still ongoing, since the second world war.

Some nonviolence fundamentalists argue that to be successful, a campaign needs to champion a cause that everyone supports. [10] Unfortunately that doesn’t appear possible in most industrialised countries. Most of their citizens think they are happy and comfortable with their lifestyle and don’t want to give it up.

Problem Six with Pacifism and Nonviolence: Nonviolence Increases Repression

One of the complaints that nonviolence fundamentalists have about using force is that is will cause the state to repress the movement more than if nonviolence is used.

The state will use physical force to defend itself against unwanted threats to its existence. Any real threat, using force or nonviolent direct action will provoke a response. Why would the immoral state act morally in an instance when nonviolence is used? [11]

Repression always increases as movements become larger, stronger or more effective. Generally, governments take advantage of weakness or limited resistance to increase repression. In relation to repression, governments are proactive, not reactive, and will take advantage of peaceful social resistance to intensify their implementation of social control compared to when there is militant resistance. In this regard, European countries with radical movements that use combative tactics such as Greece, Spain and France can be contrasted with countries with less resistance and high levels of pacifism and surveillance, such as the UK and Holland. [12]

So that concludes the list. I do not necessarily agree with every point, but I think they raise important questions that have not been satisfactorily dealt with by nonviolence advocates.

This is the fourteenth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

Endnotes

  1. Pacifism as Pathology, Ward Churchill, 1998, page 61
  2. Mike Ryan write about the Canadian peace movement in Pacifism as Pathology, page 139/40, takku.net/mediagallery/mediaobjects/orig/f/f_ward_churchill_-_pacifism_as_pathology.pdf
  3. Nonviolence Protects the State, Peter Gelderloos, 2005, page 55-75
  4. Pacifism as Pathology, page 47
  5. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, Mark Boyle, 2015, page 137
  6. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, page 9
  7. Failure of Nonviolence, Peter Gelderloos, 2013, page 106
  8. Failure of Nonviolence, page 98
  9. Failure of Nonviolence, page 98-104
  10. Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanise Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World, Srdja Popovic, Matthew Miller, 2015
  11. Pacifism as Pathology, page 59
  12. Failure of Nonviolence, page 288-9

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