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

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

Problem Two with Pacifism and Nonviolence: Nonviolence and pacifism as a Religion

Nonviolence fundamentalists do not deal well with the criticisms of their ideology and seem unphased by logical and practical critiques. Ward Churchill argues that it is delusional, racist, and suicidal to maintain that pacifism is always the most effective and most ethical approach. [1] He maintains that dogmatic pacifists (nonviolence fundamentalists) tend to deal with criticisms of their ideology by simply holding fast to their beliefs and reiterating pacifist principles. [2]

Pacifism and nonviolence originate from and share deep-seated ties to major religions. [3]

Derrick Jensen describes how pacifists put their self conception of moral purity above stopping injustice. [4] When he advocates for the use force in the fight to stop the destruction of the plant, liberal environmental activists and peace and justice activists often react with what Jensen calls the “Gandhi shield.” The Gandhi shield à la Jensen consists of repeating Gandhi’s name and invoking an inaccurate history to support dogmatic pacifism.

Peter Gelderloos in Nonviolence Protects the State dedicates a chapter to how nonviolence is deluded. This appears to be a trend noticed by many who must deal with the cult of dogmatic pacifism. Nonviolence fundamentalists are often caught up with principles, rather than focusing on what is needed to be effective. [5]

Nonviolence fundamentalists often base their worldview on a good-versus-evil dichotomy, and believe that they are good and positive for being peaceful and the state is bad and negative for using violence. This dichotomy results in a social conflict being framed as a morality play, with no material outcome. [6] I can see why some find the violence/nonviolence binary appealing; it’s straightforward but it doesn’t help us understand or act in the complex reality we all live in, especially if fighting for a better world.

Derrick Jensen states that for many pacifists, morality is abstracted from circumstance, meaning that direct violence is always wrong, under any circumstances, even if it might stop even more violence. [7] Does this mean the Jews that took up arms at the Nazi death camps were evil and wrong? Of course not. [8]

Problem Three with Pacifism and Nonviolence: Privileged and the Politics of the Comfort Zone

In Nonviolence Protects the State, Peter Gelderloos describes how nonviolence fundamentalists do not deal with oppression because of their often privileged position, and argues that nonviolence is often rooted in racist, statist, and patriarchal ideologies. Jeriah Bowser describes the typical “privileged pacifist”, who criticises those using violence and often does not see their own privilege. [9] Churchill describes the hypocrisy of pacifists supporting armed movements in colonized countries but being absolutely committed to nonviolence in the West. [10] It is not the place of pacifists or anyone in the West to tell oppressed people in colonial or neocolonial countries how to resist the oppression they face. [11]

Ward Churchill states that if you’re comfortable compared to others in your culture, this is a privileged position in society:

There is not a petition campaign that you can construct that is going to cause the power and the status quo to dissipate. There is not a legal action that you can take; you can’t go into the court of the conqueror and have the conqueror announce the conquest illegitimate and told to be repealed; you cannot vote in an alternative, you cannot hold a prayer vigil, you cannot burn the right scented candle at the prayer vigil, you cannot have the right folk song, you cannot have the right fashion statement, you cannot adopt a different diet, build a better bike path. You have to say it squarely: the fact that this power, this force, this entity, this monstrosity called the state maintains itself by physical force, and can be countered only in terms that it itself dictates and therefore understands.

It will not be a painless process, but, hey, newsflash: It’s not a process that is painless now. If you feel a relative absence of pain, that is testimony only to your position of privilege within the Statist structure. Those who are on the receiving end, whether they are in Iraq, they are in Palestine, they are in Haiti, they are in American Indian reserves inside the United States, whether they are in the migrant stream or the inner city, those who are “othered” and of color, in particular but poor more generally, known the difference between the painlessness of acquiescence on the one hand and the painfulness of maintaining the existing order on the other. Ultimately, there is no alternative that has found itself in reform there is only an alternative that founds itself — not in that fanciful word of revolution—- but in the devolution, that is to say the dismantlement of Empire from the Inside out. [12]

Problem Four with Pacifism and Nonviolence: Nonviolence Fundamentalists Complicity with the State

Another problem related to the last critique is nonviolence fundamentalists’ complicity with the state, when existing power structures aren’t challenged and the nonviolent activists “play the role of dissent,” which ultimately empowers and legitimises the state. Churchill describes how pacifism pretends to be revolutionary, with the “rules of the game” having been already agreed by both sides – demonstrations of “resistance” to state policies will be permitted as long as they don’t interfere with the actual implementation of those policies. [13]

Of course, not all nonviolence is so false, but the majority of pacifistic resistance could be described as a “performance.” The outcome is never in any doubt.

Nonviolence fundamentalist also criticise those who call for the use of force or violence, but will ignore the state violence happening every day. [14]

Bill Meyer makes the point in his essay that, contrary to expectations:

Nonviolence encourages violence by the state and corporations. The ideology of nonviolence creates effects opposite to what it promises. As a result nonviolence ideologists cooperate in the ongoing destruction of the environment, in continued repression of powerless, and in U.S./corporate attacks on people in foreign nations.”

Anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos has serious issues with nonviolent activists working with the police by giving them information (snitching); removing masks, which is effectively snitching; using cameras to take photos of militants; and planning march routes in cooperation with the police. [15] Of course, there is a legitimate place for creating “family friendly” resistance spaces and marches, but resistance must extend well beyond this.

Gelderloos describes how nonviolence fundamentalists often operate as “peace police” to control protests. Examples include policing resistance to the I-69 in the US midwest in the 1990’s and 2000’s, protests against the police murder of Oscar Grant in 2009 in San Francisco, and the protest march against the police murder of homeless man Jack Collins in Portland in 2010. [16]

Derrick Jensen describes how nonviolent protesters have turned on Black Bloc Anarchists for smashing shop windows. [17] Ward Churchill describes how pacifists have reported militants to the police and have worked to tone down actions to make them more symbolic. [18] It’s important to ask why white support for the Black Panthers disappeared when they responded to violent state repression with armed resistance. [19]

Nonviolence fundamentalists are very open about working with the police to inform on militants that might “ruin” their protest. Srdja Popovic in Blueprint for a Revolution promotes taking pictures of anarchists and uploading them to social media. Marty Branagan in Global Warming, Militarism and Nonviolence: The Art of Active Resistance, suggests forging links with the police to try to get them to defect to the protest movement.

For me, I can see why there might be resistance to Black Bloc activities at a nonviolent protest as described in post seven. I can also completely understand why individuals want to use Black Bloc tactics at another ineffective protest. But what is appropriate very much depends on the circumstances of each protest event. The use of militant resistance at a nonviolent protest can dilute and disempower the message and reduce the movement building potential.

With regard to talking or working with the police: I think that trying to convince police to join resistance movements is a good thing to do where the opportunity presents itself, of course being aware that the police may simply be trying to gather information from you. It’s a fine line to walk, and not for everyone. I do not think it is acceptable to work (or suggest working) with the police to inform on other activists.

This is the thirteenth 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 84-86
  2. Pacifism as Pathology, page 83
  3. Pacifism as Pathology, page 83/4. Endgame Vol.1: The Problem of Civilization, Derrick Jensen, 2006, page 295 and 300
  4. Engame, page 298/9
  5. How Nonviolence Protects the State, Peter Gelderloos, 2007, chapter on nonviolence being deluded, Read online here
  6. Pacifism as Pathology, page 52
  7. Endgame, page 296
  8. Pacifism as Pathology, page 53
  9. Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, page 111, Read online here
  10. Pacifism as Pathology, page 70
  11. How Nonviolence Protects the State, page 22/23
  12. Pacifism as Pathology, page 27/8
  13. Pacifism as Pathology, page 71-3
  14. Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, page 40-5, Read online here
  15. Failure of Nonviolence, Peter Gelderloos, 2013, page 261-3
  16. Failure of Nonviolence, page 137/8 and page 126-9
  17. Engame, page 81-84
  18. Pacifism as Pathology, page 67
  19. Pacifism as Pathology, page 69

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