MLK and non-violent protest

by John Quiggin on October 19, 2011

Yesterday in DC, the Martin Luther King memorial was officially inaugurated. I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch celebrating the event afterwards, where the speakers were veterans of the civil rights movement Andrew Young, John Dingell, and Harris Wofford. Video here

There were some interesting recollections of Dr King and his struggles, but not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the events of today, particularly the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the speakers made the point that the Tahrir Square occupiers had been inspired by the example and ideas of Martin Luther King.

Now, of course, the circle has been closed with the example of Tahrir inspiring #OWS. There has been more direct inspiration too. When I visited the Washington occupation in McPherson Square to drop off some magazines for their library, I picked up a reproduction of a comic-book format publication of the civil rights movement (cover price, 10 cents!), describing the struggle and particular the careful preparation given to ensure a non-violent response, even in the face of violent provocation.

And that brings me to the question I want to discuss, one that is as relevant today as in the civil rights era.  When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice? My answer, with Martin Luther King is: Never, or almost never.[1]

In large measure, my reasoning is consequentialist. Violence directed against established authority rarely works, and hardly ever produces enduring gains. Most revolutions fail, and most successful revolutions produce a new tyranny, often worse than the old, followed eventually by a return to the status quo ante.

Symbolic violence is almost invariably ineffectual or counterproductive, precisely because it derives whatever force it has from the implicit or explicit threat of revolution, which most people rightly view with fear and horror. Since symbolic violence the only kind of violence that is likely to arise in the context of the current #OWS protests, it’s important that it should be avoided as far as possible, and condemned, without qualification or excuse by reference to police violence, when it does occur.

 But those aren’t the only arguments. Symbolic violence involves essentially random harm to people or destruction of goods or productive capacity. Even where a case can be made that the targets are in some sense deserving, random and capricious punishment is always unjust. And the obvious enjoyment that so many of those who engage in symbolic violence take in the activity is morally indefensible.

Violence on a scale sufficient to effect political change is bound to lead to the deaths of innocent people, both directly and indirectly.

Directly, the immediate victims of political violence are likely to be working people – police or soldiers (often conscripts). Once deadly violence has been adopted as an instrument, whether by a state, a nationalist movement or political organization, the class of ‘legitimate’ targets expands steadily, to include alleged propagandists, collaborators and so on, and then to would-be neutrals. Moreover the tolerance for “collateral damage” invariably increases over time.

Typically, these direct deaths are only the beginning – retaliation from the other side, especially from a state against a revolutionary movement, is usually far more deadly. Attempts to disclaim moral responsibility for the predictable outcomes of a resort to war or violence (see, for example, Norman Geras on the Iraq war), are dishonest and dishonorable.

A further important point is that the belief that injustice is immovable is often wrong. The advocates of the Iraq War argued that Saddam’s regime was immovable, and that the inevitable death and suffering associated with an invasion would be less than that from leaving the regime in power for decades to come. The Arab Spring has shown that claim to be, at best, highly questionable.

How far does this argument go? Not to the point of denying a right of self-defence against an attacker who is trying to kill or maim you, or (with more qualifications) to defend others against such attacks. Or to the point of disallowing resistance to slavery by whatever means necessary.

I don’t have a final position on this, beyond saying that the presumption against violence ought to be much stronger than it has generally been. Following on from the marathon Pinker thread, I hope and believe that understanding of the futility of violence has increased over time, if only because the lessons of the first half of last century were so hard to ignore.

fn1. I hope it goes without saying that war in pursuit of “legitimate national interests”, as opposed to self defence is almost always foolish and never justified. Even in the US, this lesson seems to be coming home, among the people if not the elites.

 

 

PS: I wanted to mention, but omitted, that an unequivocal commitment to non-violence makes it easier to isolate and identify agents provocateurs (like the appalling Patrick Howley), and hooligans like the rioters in Rome ( a mixture of self-styled anarchists and rightwing soccer thugs according to the NYT).

{ 172 comments }

1

Watson Ladd 10.19.11 at 2:28 am

What about the Deacons for Defense and Justice? And if we are going to talk about the Civil Rights Movement then let’s talk about sending the National Guard in to Topeka Kansas. The Civil Rights Movement was not imaginable without the federal government being willing to employ great amounts of power to ensure the enforcement of federal laws in the South. So long as the federal government was willing to use violence (Reconstruction and the post 1965 period) to enforce racial equality racial equality existed. When the federal government retreated, it ended.

2

David Kaib 10.19.11 at 2:39 am

I don’t have much to add, because I think this is largely persuasive. I do think that our culture tends to vastly overstate the utility of force, and vastly underestimate the collateral consequences. It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around the power of novel nonviolent protests, even as OWS seems to be opening space in our political discourse for conversations that were almost unthinkable a month ago.

Also, I haven’t read it yet, but I recently added this book to my to-read list that addresses some of these very questions: Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth.

I hope it goes without saying that war in pursuit of “legitimate national interests”, as opposed to self defence is almost always foolish and never justified. Even in the US, this lesson seems to be coming home.

I do wish this was true, but I doubt it. There are too many voices that jump to defend wars and lesser military actions because they are initiated by a Democrat. (That is a separate question than whether, once they arguments are skeptically assessed, such actions are justified – my point is that even asking the questions is itself often opposed).

3

Aulus Gellius 10.19.11 at 3:08 am

“How far does this argument go? Not to the point of denying a right of self-defence against an attacker who is trying to kill or maim you, or (with more qualifications) to defend others against such attacks.”

I think you’re downplaying how much is actually covered by these exceptions. I mean, are we limiting your position to cases of “manifest and apparently immovable injustice” that don’t involve killing or maiming? If so, there’s not much left. Maybe (more likely) the distinction you’re going for is that it’s acceptable to defend against attacks in the moment, while the attack is actually going on, but when the attackers withdraw to plot their next move, you have to stop fighting? That seems defensible, but I think there’ll be a lot of tough cases for that kind of strategy.

4

Tony Lynch 10.19.11 at 3:09 am

Is there an important difference between moral and political violence here? I mean, I think I agree with you about political violence. But not so sure about moral violence.

I mean: I used to be, as a child, an inveterate hair puller of my sister. One day my Mum said: “See how you like it!” And did just that to me. It worked. Was this violence “justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice?”

5

Aulus Gellius 10.19.11 at 3:15 am

I also think Watson Ladd makes some good points: more generally, you can’t treat the nonviolent civil rights protests as if they existed in isolation, without the presence of groups more willing to use violence.

Oh, and going back to my previous point, I think (though I’m far from an expert) that many of the non-non-violent civil rights groups agreed (at least in theory) with the letter of your rules for violence: it was only to be used in defense. (There’s a great Malcolm X quote about being in favor of non-violence, but only *reciprocal* non-violence.) One thing that made the non-violent protesters so remarkable was that they were committed to suffering violent physical attacks by police and mobs without resistance — so they actually went a bit farther than you seem willing to.

6

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.11 at 3:46 am

There’s nothing more stupidly argued than an Internet conversation about nonviolence. All you have to do is mention pacifism and the Conor Foleys of the world will condescendingly dismiss you. So any attempt to have a general discussion quickly founders as people try to out-macho each other, or at least signal their brave, cool pragmatism through all the exceptions they’d make to whatever non-violence they’re proposing.

So I don’t see the point in generalizing it at all. All that we really need to say is that it would be stupid and immoral for either the Occupy protestors to use violence, or for the U.S. to use state violence in yet another war. Although I can confidently predict that the media would howl in indignation at the first and cheer on the second.

7

Aaron 10.19.11 at 3:56 am

My brave, cool pragmatism tells me to say that nonviolence is in very nearly every case more effective than violence in achieving its ends. I completely agree that it would be both stupid and immoral for the OWS people to use violence or for the US to engage in yet another war. But even if you’re not the kind of person who’s opposed to killing people in principle, the fact remains that there are a vast number of nonviolent means with which you can pursue your goals, without risking the deaths of innocents.

8

Meredith 10.19.11 at 5:02 am

Just to note that non-violence, at least of the MLK variety, involves a great deal more than passive resistance practiced because of a pragmatic assessment of the greater force at the disposal of one’s opponents. In fact, thinking in terms of people as “opponents” isn’t the MLK way. (See “Hate the sin but love the sinner.”) See MLK’s talks/sermons on love — even loving Bull Connor, for instance. The MLK practice of non-violence — an action, not simply a passive if disciplined response — was (and is) part of a larger set of practices and a larger vision.

As for Watson Ladd’s observations about the role of state violence (or the threat thereof) in advancing the civil rights movement. He’s got a point, but I would stress that the federal government, until the days of Brown, and thereafter many state governments (especially but not exclusively in the south) more often exercised their violence against, not on behalf of, civil rights actors (at marches, sit-ins, voter registration drives, not to mention withholding protection from blacks in the face of lynching and many other forms of violence and intimidation…) . That the federal government and eventually recalcitrant state governments became more their protectors was due in no small measure to the moral effectiveness of not simply non-violent resistance but the larger project of which that resistance was only a part.

Btw, we too easily forget how long it took to achieve any visible success (and will continue to take). Leaving aside the earliest days (from the constitution’s 3/5 compromise to the abolition movement to the Civil War, then Reconstruction and then Jim Crow), leaving aside the Sojourner Truth’s, Booker T. Washington’s and W.E.B. duBois’, the groundwork being laid in the 30’s (with collaboration with the very very left), all the issues about black soldiers in WWII, the continued pressure from activists (including Republicans as well as Democratics) — well, it takes a long time and a lot of patient, hard work to produce a little progress. The tortoise and the hare (or so we can hope), when once the race is done.

9

glenn 10.19.11 at 5:04 am

The only caveat I would add – and admit to splitting hairs – is the case of hunger strikes. Of course it’s violence agianst one’s self, but I’ve always been surprised how effective, on the whole, hunger strikes seem to be.

10

Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.19.11 at 5:10 am

John,

I hope you don’t mind if I exploit your subject as an occasion to publicize my bibliography on noviolence (‘socio-political conflict resolution and nonviolence’), which is introduced by way of a discussion of the nonviolent theory and praxis exemplified by KOR, the Workers’ Defense Committee (later: Komitet Samoobrony Społecznej KOR/Social Self-Defense Committee, KSS-‘KOR’) in Poland that played a direct “service” role in the emergence of Solidarity (or Solidarność, the first non-Communist party-controlled trade union in the Warsaw Pact countries) in 1980. The post and bibliography (available for download as a Word doc.) are here: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2011/09/socio-political-conflict-resolution-nonviolence-a-select-bibliography-and-historical-exemplum.html

David @ 2: I quote from the Chenoweth and Stephan volume in the Postscript.

11

Ellis Goldberg 10.19.11 at 5:45 am

If the choice is between “armed struggle” and “non-violence” I would be generally in agreement but that seems simplistic. Many Egyptians believe that the spontaneous destruction of more than 150 police stations across the country also played a role in the collapse of the state on the evening of January 28 (the first day of mass demonstrations but before a million people had occupied Tahrir). Perhaps better cases are what’s going on in Syria where the protest movement remains massive and nonviolent despite the murder of more than 3000 people and the events at Maspero in Cairo last weekend when 27 people were killed by army vehicles and guns. In both cases the protesters have sought to engage in peaceful protest and had no arms but have on occasion used their fists, rocks, and even molotov cocktails in response to the brutality of the state. I remain bemused by the desire of Americans–including the truly heroic leaders of the civil rights movement with whom you met–to believe that they played some role in the choice of tactics by the Egyptian revolutionaries. I think people who lived through the low-intensity civil war of the 1990s, the unbridled use of violence by both the Islamists and the government then and at other times, and viewed the American invasion of Iraq nightly on television had more than enough reasons of their own to avoid trying to wreak massive and thoughtless violence on their own society.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 6:06 am

Only violence, or anticipation of violence.

You can go to that ‘free speech zone’ behind the warehouses and protest till you all turn blue, and why would I care at all if I wasn’t afraid that it’ll eventually turn into something more serious, much more unpleasant – and that means: violent.

13

shah8 10.19.11 at 6:12 am

Nonviolence presupposes a moral audience, or at least capable of suasion.

That pretty much means that nonviolence is dependent on a fluid connection between the group and its audience. There must be accessible broadcast media microphones and reasonably secure communications from planners to doers.

Generally, as a tool, nonviolence only works to snap economically or politically untenable situations. Otherwise, the empowered simply silences, or if need be, slaughters. While there is an understanding about how the British were exhausted after WWII, people tend to underestimate the extent central bureaucrats were fed up with Jim Crow and all the redundancy and general bullshit. They also tend to underestimate the low geopolitical tolerance for conspicuous displays of inhumanity towards blacks in the days of the Soviet Union and the end of colonialism (with not yet dysfunctional African states with abundant natural resources). Lastly, the labor mobility of the Civil Rights Era made it much more possible for people to invest in controversial movements.

As far as the OWS stuff? Not important. What’s important are general strikes and denials of travel and communications.

Revolutions don’t happen because people want them to happen. Revolutions happen because it *must* happen. Pretty much all of them has to do with removing crazy stubborn and incompetent/destructive rentiers (and the power base that supports them) from power. They usually turn horrifically violent because as soon as any breathing space occurs in the pace of activities, the conservatives rush back in power and try to overturn everything and generally let everyone know we gotta do things the hard way.

14

PaulB 10.19.11 at 6:16 am

Here’s Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock in 1964 explaining why Umkhonto we Sizwe was formed to conduct a campaign of sabotage, departing from the ANC’s policy of non-violence: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nelson_Mandela's_statement_from_the_dock_at_the_Rivonia_Trial

15

Alex Gregory 10.19.11 at 6:50 am

As Aulus Gellius says at #3, the exception you want to allow for seems to let a lot in. Think of animal rights protestors, for instance. They may well think that in protesting violently they are exercising the right you allow, to defend others from the threat of death. The same point is less obvious for OWS, but I think still true: they are aiming to change the political system in ways that will prevent great harms to many people.

I should add that I certainly don’t endorse the use of violence in these cases. But I do think the reasoning offered here is less clear cut than you allow.

16

Chris Bertram 10.19.11 at 7:32 am

John, note that you start out consequentialist but import a bunch of apparently deontological considerations into your calculations pretty quickly: the injustice of arbitrary punishments, the innocent being victims etc.

I agree that strategies based on aggressive violence by minorities are stupid and counterproductive, but most large-scale conflicts don’t work that way. What happens instead is that “we” (the revolting party) refuse to accept the authority of those who claim they have it and set about doing what we feel we’re entitled to do (occupy the factory and start operating it as a co-op, etc) , against their declared aim of stopping us. Sometimes when they use force to reassert themselves, we resist passively, but at other times self-defence comes in. Since from their pov, they have a legitimate monopoly on violence, this self-defence is coded as violent resistance. And they we’re into the whole “you started it, no you did” scenario, complete with competing press releases.

As we as you step into a game where the rules are: we’ll do what we’re entitled to do but we’ll defend ourselves if they attack us, then we get past non-violence pretty quickly. Inevitably so, I think, and, sometimes, justifiably.

17

gordon 10.19.11 at 7:47 am

How does Prof. Quiggin enjoy many of the institutions and rights he currently possesses without the violence of the past? I’m thinking primarily of the English Civil War and the French Revolution.

What sort of world would this non-violent attitude give us? There would have been no unification of Germany or of Italy. Turkish territory would still extend to the Danube. Spain would still be the colonial Power governing most of Central and a lot of South America. The US would still be part of the British Empire. Vietnam and Laos would still be French. China would still be ruled by a Manchu Emperor.

Frankly, I don’t get it. Maybe Prof. Quiggin wants to draw a line at some point in time and say, in effect, “violence in pursuit of rights and self-determination was OK before that date, but not OK after it”. I don’t know how you would establish such a date.

18

Phil 10.19.11 at 8:53 am

Most revolutions fail, and most successful revolutions produce a new tyranny, often worse than the old, followed eventually by a return to the status quo ante.

At most that’s a prudentialist argument for would-be revolutionaries – “if you’re trying to start a revolution, be very, very careful what you’re getting into; this kind of thing very rarely works”. It says nothing about ‘violence’ (it would have been helpful to have violence defined upfront, btw).

What else have we got? “Killing innocent people is wrong”; “enjoying hurting anyone is wrong”; “if you fight them they’ll predictably hit back”; “cops are workers too”. Two moral truisms, another prudentialist argument (“careful what you’re getting into”) and an obfuscation (individual cops are workers, and their work is to maintain order).

Peace is better than war, all things being equal. Non-violence is better than violence, all things being equal. Any political actor who is also a moral being will think very hard about this before choosing violent tactics – and any political actor who isn’t a moral being shouldn’t be trusted to hold a placard, let alone a weapon. You seem to be looking for a much stronger argument than this, but I don’t think you’ve found it.

19

J. Otto Pohl 10.19.11 at 9:13 am

Other than the Mennonites in the USSR whose goal was emigration not overturning the Bolshevik Revolution I can not think of any purely pacifist movements that were successful. This movement in the 1920s was partially successful. Even here it should be noted that during the Civil War (1918-1921) there were armed Mennonite “self protection” units in Ukraine. In almost every other case there is at least the threat of violent force articulated as part of the greater struggle. Previous commentators have mentioned this with regards to the US South, South Africa, and British India.

In the 20th century violent resistance was almost always a response to violence by colonial occupiers. Non violent protests were frequently met with extreme state violence by the regime in power and complete indifference by the outside world. Nobody paid any attention to the Palestinians at all until the 1970s when the PFLP began to hijack planes. Absent outside attention non-violent resistance is almost never effective. The earlier Mennonite example I mentioned caught the interest and support of governments and activists in Germany, Canada, the US, Lithuania, Latvia, and Paraguay. Without German support it is doubtful that the USSR would have allowed 20,000 Mennonites to emigrate during the 1920s. If you stage a protest and nobody notices you it does very little to put pressure on anybody.

Absent violent resistance it is impossible to imagine the French ever leaving Algeria, the Portuguese leaving Angola, or the end of White minority rule in Rhodesia. It is even more difficult to imagine anybody outside the Arab nations caring or even being aware that Palestinians even exist. I suppose it feels good for American academic leftists to denounce violence in a universal Mennonite fashion. But, since they are not themselves in engaged in suffering violence as were the Russian Mennonites it does not carry the same moral authority. Instead it comes off as a deliberate dismisal of the huge disparity in power and levels of violence between repressive states and armed resistance movements.

20

soru 10.19.11 at 9:18 am

When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice?

I go with a class theory of violence.

Someone who is, or could be, involved in a successful strike is a member of the working class. Someone who is involved in a successful attempt at peaceful persuasion, including protest, is a member of the middle class. And someone who successfully plans, performs and executes one or more politically significant act of violence is, by definition, a member of the ruling class, the aristocracy.

Violent contests for power within the aristocracy only lead to progress by the occasional random coincidence. Generally the way to bet is the new rulers will be less skilled at ruling that the old, and so, in addition to the direct consequences of the conflict, there is an additional negative sum effect. See most of the 20C for specifics.

Obviously there is class mobility between generations, but if you look at the family history of those who are first to try violence within otherwise middle or working class movements, you very frequently find some form of titleholder.

The tricky case here, is subsistence farmers, for whom none of the above are going to work. You can’t win a strike if you eat what you make., or an argument if you never went to school. Given that, a case can be made for Peasant’s Revolt style violence that fails at a military level, makes things worse in the short term, but is remembered as a possible consequence of excess or failure.

Not obviously applicable to Wall Street, though.

21

Jack Strocchi 10.19.11 at 9:39 am

gordon @ #15 said:

How does Prof. Quiggin enjoy many of the institutions and rights he currently possesses without the violence of the past? I’m thinking primarily of the English Civil War and the French Revolution. What sort of world would this non-violent attitude give us?

Violent revolutionaries in general have been much better than spinning their administrations than actually administering them. They are vastly over-rated as a means of effecting worthwhile political change.

Conservative reformation beats obstructive reaction and destructive revolution hands down.

As I understand it the Magna Carta was a more or less peaceable settlement between barons and king. That seemed to work out pretty well for quite a while.

More generally, the spectacular success of the (generally) civil British political culture greatly strengthens the case for peaceful reform against violent revolt. And it validates the general principle of conservative reform, with freedom broadening down through the several strata, by successive precedent. Gandhi is the pardigmatic example of the way in which non-violent protest can secure lasting progress in constitutional order.

The Japanese social revolution (cunningly branded the Meji Restoration) was noticeably peaceable and very successful until disgruntled officers tried to muscle in on the act, with dreams of conquest. Things went downhill rapidly after that.

Not sure that the French Revolution would be my first example of the success of political violence in establishing a stable and democratic constitutional order. How many republics and empires have they gone through since Robespierre?

And was it really necessary for the American revolutionaries to come to blows with the British Empire for 40 years in order to secure the traditional rights of Englishmen? Australia and Canada managed to pull off the trick with nothing more exciting than an extended committee meeting chaired by a man with a beard. Meanwhile the slavery issue festered on in the US for another 50 years, during which time even the Russian Tsar managed to free his serfs without too much fuss or bother.

And don’t get me started on the Russian revolutionaries…

22

John Quiggin 10.19.11 at 9:45 am

@Chris, the consequentialist part of the post is short because it doesn’t (I think) need to be long. I then move on to the deontological bit because I find that lots of people don’t accept consequentialist arguments.

@Gordon: Both the English Civil War and the French Revolution fit the pattern I described – a brief period of success, a new dictatorship, restoration of the ancien regime. The French Revolution gave us the Napeolonic wars and the Age of Metternich – France didn’t achieve democracy for another century. As to the possible non-existence of Germany as a unified state, maybe you need to look again at the history of C20 before suggesting that would have been an unthinkable disaster.

@Otto “Absent violent resistance it is impossible to imagine the French ever leaving Algeria, the Portuguese leaving Angola, or the end of White minority rule in Rhodesia.” And yet colonial governments everywhere are gone, with or without violent resistance. Your example of Portugal illustrates the point. The Portuguese weren’t forced out of Angola by armed struggled, they left when the dictatorship collapsed at home. But, thanks to the existence of armed groups, Angola suffered decades of civil war thereafter, none of which achieved anything.

23

Andrew F. 10.19.11 at 9:46 am

I agree with just about all of John’s post.

As to when violence is justified outside of self-defense in a domestic context, I’d propose the following conditions:

(1) The absence of a legitimate democratic process whereby change may be effected;
(2) The existence of severe and unrelenting violations of human rights;
(3) The existence of severe and unrelenting harm to human welfare;
(4) A reasonable likelihood of success;
(5) An ability to exercise reasonable control over the violence.

24

Jack Strocchi 10.19.11 at 9:48 am

J. Otto Pohl @ #17 said:

Other than the Mennonites in the USSR whose goal was emigration not overturning the Bolshevik Revolution I can not think of any purely pacifist movements that were successful.

Gandhi?

25

J. Otto Pohl 10.19.11 at 9:52 am

The Portuguese government collapsed in large part because of the decades long wars in Africa. Had there been no wars it is doubtful that any Portuguese government would have given up the colonies. They considered them to be integral parts of Portugal.

26

ajay 10.19.11 at 9:54 am

Other than the Mennonites in the USSR whose goal was emigration not overturning the Bolshevik Revolution I can not think of any purely pacifist movements that were successful.

The abolition movement. Arguably, the women’s suffrage movement too, unless you count damage to property. The revolutions of 1989 in Czechoslovakia, Hungary etc. (Not, alas, Romania.)

27

Chris Bertram 10.19.11 at 10:13 am

John. I think it very odd to discuss the English and French revolutions in this context. Take the French case. Did anyone sit down and think, “we should overthrow the unjust monarchy by violent means?” Basically no. There was a fiscal crisis of the French state followed by an attempt by the nobility to reassert their traditional rights, an attempt that backfired once the Estates General were assembled. After that, things just spun out of the control of the various actors in a cycle of action and reaction.

Essentially, you seem to be arguing against some kind of caricature Leninism here. But the violence in actual revolutions isn’t mostly a result of the deliberate choice of a violent strategy by an elite group, but is something that happens once authority breaks down and people get sucked into the necessity of self-defence. Even in the Russian case (where Lenin was certainly prepared to use force) there’s not all that much in the way of violence as part of the October coup. That comes later when the Bolsheviks were faced with the White Armies and the Archangel intervention, at which point non-violence just isn’t a choice they could have opted for even if they wanted to.

28

John Quiggin 10.19.11 at 10:17 am

To be clear, Otto, are you claiming that in the absence of the colonial wars Portugal would still be a dictatorship? Or that a democratic Portugal would have continued to fight these wars?

Don’t you think that the dictatorship would have fallen in due course anyway, as did similar regimes in Spain and Greece, and that the new government would have seen the colonies as a burden in every sense, and granted them independence, as did the British.

29

John Quiggin 10.19.11 at 10:20 am

Chris, I’m not suggesting that there is a way to rerun history so that these disasters (the French and Russian revolutions, or, for that matter, the Great War) didn’t occur. Just that we should recognise them as disasters, and seek to draw lessons for the future.

30

gordon 10.19.11 at 10:28 am

Thank you Chris Bertram (at 27). What seems to be happening here is that Prof. Quiggin and some others are trying to say that violence to achieve good outcomes in the past wasn’t necessary because good things (like collapse of oppressive regimes, acquisition of civil rights and self-determination) would have happened anyway if you only waited long enough.

That is obviously historically unknowable, unless you have access to a portal into several alternative universes. What we do know is that the civil rights, democratic governments, legal equality and other things we value are owed to past convulsions which included violence. Knowing that, we should be careful about saying violence is never justified unless we definitely prefer living on our knees to dying on our feet.

31

J. Otto Pohl 10.19.11 at 10:43 am

I am saying that actual collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship and the actual independence of Angola came about in large part because of the exhaustive wars in Africa for decades. The British only gave up their African coloniesin part because of violent resistance or the threat of it. The most famous example is the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. But, even where the independence movements were peaceful like in Ghana it was not guaranteed that it would remain so in the face of colonial obstructionism. There is also the fact that WWII exhausted the UK in the same manner that the colonial wars exhausted Portugal. Had the violence of WWII been avoided the British would have probably stayed in Africa a lot longer than they did.

In 1935, Geoffrey Gorer wrote, “For at least a century they must almost certainly be under the guidance of foreigners…A free Africa is today an unrealisable dream.” The violence between 1935 and 1957 had a lot to do with the British moving away from this attitude.

32

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 11:32 am

So, the French revolution was a disaster? I thought it was too early to tell.

33

gordon 10.19.11 at 11:37 am

Prof. Quiggin (at 22) says that both the English Civil War and the French Revolution resulted in return to the status quo ante after a shortish period. In both cases, that is just wrong. And if anybody thinks that they can prove that modern British or French political (and probably economic) institutions would exist without those two violent episodes, he/she is having themselves on. As far as the unification of Germany is concerned, maybe the remark “…look again at the history of C20 before suggesting that would have been an unthinkable disaster” is just flippant, but if serious it would mean that Prof. Q. can accurately know the consequences of a non-unified Germany from, say, 1870 to the present. In fact, nobody can know that. It is unknowable.

Historical “ifs” are always fun, no doubt, but they aren’t serious. We study history seriously in large part to understand why things are the way they are. When people start to say “Things would be better if X had happened instead of Y” we are immediately on very thin ice. We can never really know that because there is no way of testing it. And if we go out even further on the ice and say “It is always preferable for X to happen instead of Y” we are taking an untestable guess and elevating it into a rule of action. I don’t know what that sort of proceeding should be called, but one word might be “silly”; another might be “dangerous”.

34

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 11:41 am

Stupid French, they should’ve followed the good advice and eat cake.

35

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 11:46 am

…and those Russians – if only they were smart enough to stick with Kerensky and keep fighting WWI for a few more years.

36

ajay 10.19.11 at 11:53 am

We study history seriously in large part to understand why things are the way they are. When people start to say “Things would be better if X had happened instead of Y” we are immediately on very thin ice.

This is inconsistent. If you are trying to understand why things are the way they are, you are trying to come up with statements of the form “Y exists today because X happened in the past.” And it’s not then a huge leap to go for a statement like “if X had not happened in the past, Y would not exist today.”
If all you’re coming up with is “Y exists today, and X happened in the past, but maybe if X hadn’t happened Y would exist anyway, I don’t know” then you aren’t really adding much to the sum of human knowledge.

37

Salient 10.19.11 at 11:53 am

It’s a commonplace to point out that nonviolence (in the narrow aggressive sense that the word is normally used, not as a synonym with ‘not violent’) aims to provoke enough violence from your opponents to horrify their more lukewarm supporters. Nonviolence is, carefully and precisely but also aggressively, picking a fight. (If this seems critical of nonviolence, let me emphasize it’s not. I could go on and on about how picking a fight is usually the most effective thing you can do, and it’s almost always far far more effective if you can pull a Cool Hand Luke and not reciprocate.)

Arguably, the women’s suffrage movement too, unless you count damage to property.

But doesn’t ignoring damage to property throw out almost all of the violence that normally occurs in a non-nonviolent protest? A protest is violent if it damages people, sure, but also if it damages property in not-easily-revocable and costly ways.

38

John Quiggin 10.19.11 at 11:55 am

The argument from historical unknowability seems to me to be about the weakest you can possibly make. I turn it over to The Onion
http://www.theonion.com/articles/historians-politely-remind-nation-to-check-whats-h,26183/

“In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues,” Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. “And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not.”

“It’s actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen,” Collins continued. “Did the thing we’re thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it.”

In addition, Collins carefully explained that if a past decision proved to be favorable—if, for example, it led to increased employment, caused fewer deaths, or made lots of people feel good inside— then the nation should consider following through with the same decision now.

39

John Quiggin 10.19.11 at 11:57 am

HV@35, it looks as if we have found at least one instance of the use of violence of which you disapprove. That’s some kind of progress, I guess. It is of course true that the Great War caused the rise of both Leninism and Nazism, and that Kerensky’s decision to keep fighting was an essential part of that process.

And, of course, apologists for the Great War, like Niall Ferguson, give arguments identical to those used above, as to why it was all for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

40

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 12:03 pm

Hey, I don’t approve or disapprove anything; what’s the point. It is what it is. Sometimes revolutions happen, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes I even get a free lunch, but not very often.

41

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.11 at 12:18 pm

Well, this discussion turned out to be just as stupid as I thought it would be. When you seriously have to quote the Onion…

Once again: no matter how thrilling it might be for people here to imagine themselves as speaking for anti-colonialist revolutionaries, or Malcolm X, or for the French or Russian revolutions, you aren’t. In the current world situation there is nothing justifying mass violence. If that situation changes, you’ll probably have plenty of time to have another pointless, over-generalized argument about it.

42

Phil 10.19.11 at 12:19 pm

I once got into a long argument with a Libertarian who insisted that the English Revolution and the Glorious Revolution were the same thing, or that the Civil Wars were only over when the Bill of Rights was signed, or something or other. Obviously I think the English Revolution (a) was a lot more radical than that and (b) failed. However, that doesn’t mean I can let this pass:

Both the English Civil War and the French Revolution fit the pattern I described – a brief period of success, a new dictatorship, restoration of the ancien regime

In the OP the claim was actually slightly stronger: a new tyranny, often worse than the old, followed eventually by a return to the status quo ante.

Is the argument that the Revolution and the Civil Wars had no effect at all – that the absolute monarchy of Charles Stuart, if left unchallenged (or challenged only through non-violent means), would have led in due course to the London bourgeoisie bringing in William of Orange? Or that a Stuart would have signed the Bill of Rights? Because, either way, that is one hell of a counter-factual.

And please, say something about what you mean by violence. Is destruction of property included? Is any kind of unwanted physical contact included, or does there have to be the intent to cause injury? What about the credible threat of violence? These are much deeper waters than you seem to believe.

43

Barry 10.19.11 at 12:32 pm

David Kaib: “There are too many voices that jump to defend wars and lesser military actions because they are initiated by a Democrat.”

Are there actually many who publicly opposed the Iraq War, but supported the war in Libya?

44

Bill Benzon 10.19.11 at 12:44 pm

FWIW, that deluded ideologue Steve Pinker seems to think that nonviolence is a more effective tactic for insurrection than violence. It therefore follows, by the Pinker-must-be-wrong principle, that violence is to be preffered to nonviolence.

I’ve not read Pinker’s book (The Better Angels of Our Nature), but John Horgan discusses it with him on blogginheads.tv. There’s a brief segment where they talk about how nonviolence as a tactic (e.g. as Gandhi advocated) is more effective than violence. In particular, Pinker mentions a study (the Chenowith work you all are citing) that showed that nonviolence insurrections succeeded about 2/3s to 3/4s of the time while the violent ones only succeeded about a quarter to a third of the time.

45

John Quiggin 10.19.11 at 12:48 pm

“And please, say something about what you mean by violence. Is destruction of property included?” (emphasis in original)

But I did say something about this. I avoided the word “property” because I wanted to focus specifically on “destruction of goods or productive capacity”, and not on non-violent breaches of property rights, but I made it clear that such destruction (eg smashing windows, burning cars etc) is almost always wrong, since it is violent in nature, and likely to provoke a violent response, without being serious enough to be effective.

46

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 12:51 pm

In the current world situation there is nothing justifying mass violence.

But when these things happen, ‘justifying’ is never a part of the event. Sure, someone is likely to take advantage of the event, and the aftermaths may turn out the same or different, better (by some criteria) or worse. But the even itself is not a controlled experiment, it’s an act of god, force of nature.

Are stadium stampedes justified? And yet they do happen, when circumstances lead to it.

47

Tim Wilkinson 10.19.11 at 1:07 pm

Are there actually many who publicly opposed the Iraq War, but supported the war in Libya?

There are certainly many who supported the war in Libya while by then opposing the one in Iraq. All answers here will of course be carefully cross-checked against earlier remarks relating to Libya.

nonviolent insurrections succeeded about 2/3s to 3/4s of the time while the violent ones only succeeded about a quarter to a third of the time

One obvious confounding factor would the the strength of opposition. Easier insurrections are more likely to be non-violent.

48

SamChevre 10.19.11 at 1:26 pm

I’m distinctly in agreement with the point.

However, I have difficulty taking seriously the position that a group backed by the US army is in any useful sense non-violent.

49

soru 10.19.11 at 1:28 pm

Easier insurrections are more likely to be non-violent.

Surely an enemy that can actually be defeated by on average less effective tactics like insurrection is thereby demonstrated to be weaker?

Certainly, the places where that tactic was successful post-1950 (Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan (1980s), a few cases in Africa, etc.) are kind of notably small, poor and not particularly recent.

50

novakant 10.19.11 at 1:32 pm

Just to present one clear cut case in which political violence was justified: If in 1939 Hitler hadn’t left the Bürgerbräukeller early and Elser’s bomb had killed him, the world would have been a better place. Nobody knows what would have happened, but I find it impossible to imagine the results would have been worse than what actually happened.

51

soru 10.19.11 at 1:35 pm

Political violence: not provably worse than accidentally stepping on a butterfly.

52

ajay 10.19.11 at 1:55 pm

I find it impossible to imagine the results would have been worse than what actually happened

Really? I can very easily imagine one way that the results could have been worse. The Germans could have won.

53

Phil 10.19.11 at 2:02 pm

JQ – you did mention “destruction of goods or productive capacity” as one form that “symbolic violence” can take (my bad for not noticing). However, you didn’t state that property damage is “likely to provoke a violent response, without being serious enough to be effective”. You did say that “Symbolic violence is almost invariably ineffectual or counterproductive”, but didn’t make the link to “provok[ing] a violent response” – and, in any case, stating that X (i) often involves Y and (ii) is counter-productive doesn’t tell us much about Y. (Drowning often involves immersion in water and is fatal.)

54

Gepap 10.19.11 at 2:26 pm

“In large measure, my reasoning is consequentialist. Violence directed against established authority rarely works, and hardly ever produces enduring gains. Most revolutions fail, and most successful revolutions produce a new tyranny, often worse than the old, followed eventually by a return to the status quo ante.”

Whether the following regime is just a different form of tyranny or an eventual return to the status quo is definitely debatable, as is the notion of the efficacy of internal revolution. For example, was the violent removal of the Ceausescu regime in 1989 lead to either a tyranny or a return to the status quo? What about the forcible removal of the genocidal Hutu regime in Rwanda? The follow-up regime has hardly been democratic, but it is not at all comparable, is it? I know these are just two recent examples, but I am sure in 5500 years of recorded history we can find more.

The biggest problem I see in this argument is the notion that you can change almost (if not all) regimes peacefully. I don’t think this is a historically valid statement. Sometimes different groups and classes of people have such divergent values that peaceful agreement is simply impossible. You aren’t going to get a committed fascist and a committed communist to agree on some interal policy course that could chart an acceptable middle ground. You could argue that everyone should become a committed Liberal democrat, but that isn’t a historical argument, but a values argument. You might argue that the outcomes from a Liberal democratic society are demonstrably superior if you place your highest priority on values such as stability, material wealth, and utilitarian welfare, but if your primary values are say faith, or honor, or hierarchy then Liberal democracy isn’t for you.

One example for me is the end of Slavery in the United States. I do not think that that system could have ended peacefully. It was not just an economic system in the antebellum South, it was part of the whole social and moral system of the South. Ending slavery was ending the Antebellum South. Very few systems sign their own death warrants, I can only think of Apartheid South Africa as one, but then of course you did have violence being used against that regime, near universal international condemnation, and the system was that of a minority oppressing a vast majority. The system survived so long only because the majority of black South African didn’t fight back. In a sense, it was better for the whites to end Apartheid peacefully or risk an eventual destruction at the hands of the majority. This was not the case in the American South, were whites were still the majority in 1860.

55

Adrian Kelleher 10.19.11 at 2:28 pm

@JQ

Some hypothetical cases to test propositions on the morality of revolutionary violence:

1) Getting sucked in. Suppose someone has already launched a revolution against a moderate to severely unjust system and that matters either hang in the balance or the revolution looks like succeeding. The moral calculation is clearly altered in this case, even though the moral qualities of the combatants are not. If it is moral to support the revolt in this case but not to launch the revolt in the first place, then it is claimed that it is moral to support an immoral cause.

Suppose the (already launched) revolution looks certain to succeed and rests moreover on political foundations of sufficient robustness and democracy to produce a more just order in future. Support surely then becomes a moral imperative, even if the sacrifice involved in the revolt cannot be justified in terms of the injustices overcome.

2) Defense. Is it just to fight to defend the status quo? Suppose somebody lives under a perfectly just system that comes under attack from moderately unjust adversaries. Is it just to fight to defend it? If so, then the non-violence argument against revolution for justice collapses into ‘well they started it’. Is the moral calculation the same no matter if the government looks certain to win, if the matter hangs in the balance or if the insurgents seem certain to win? These are not straightforward questions; if matters lean the rebels’ way, piling in against them merely prolongs the agony.

3) Ending the misery. Suppose a moderately unjust system comes under attack and the revolt looks certain to fail but matters have become so bitter that the revolutionaries will need to be ground down through every village and patch of woodland they hold. Is it the moral to fight for the unjust government in order to ensure a decisive and swift end?

4) Ideological content. What if a goverment espouses a dangerous ideology but its crimes are not severe (yet)? This was the case with Nazi Germany prior to the Sudetenland crisis. In any new case the benefit of hindsight will not be available, yet the possibility of truly nasty ideologies fulfilling their potential for violence will remain even if a state’s conduct remains restrained. The same argument applies to regimes that engage in extremes of cruelty even if the numbers of victims are small.

5) Pre-emption. Suppose you strongly suspect a dangerous but popular faction is about to launch a civil war against an unpopular and unjust system. If they get their oar in first, they’ll be in pole position to determine the final settlement. Is it then justifiable to attack first even if it would be unjustifiable otherwise?

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, however the murkiness of the issues should be apparent. How much violence would have been justifiable in opposing Mussolini’s takeover in Italy once it became he was about to seize power, and why? Any complete answer must take account of the limited information available to Italians at that time, yet the truth is obvious in retrospect.

All that said, I’m in agreement with the basic point: that even justified revolts are often not worth it and that it is a tragic fact that war is for many revolutionaries as much an attractive lifestyle choice as it is a political act. Few forms of self-actualisation are so exhilarating, I’m sure.

Even so, we’ve gone from a situation prior to 2008, where nearly everyone, explicitly or implicitly, subscribed to Fukuyama’s idea of liberal democratic convergence, to the current point where a huge gulf separates the smug, willfully blind perspective of the administrative and political elites on the one hand and the evidence-averse world of the doom-mongers on the other, with the intervening ground being almost deserted. The “evidence-based policy” (to use a Blairite phrase) approach of the global consensus is nonetheless full of holes resulting mainly from national politicians’ lack of perspective on a global world. Caught down in the weeds of detail, they fail to comprehend that locally optimal solutions amount to guaranteed disaster internationally.

This has been most obvious recently in the case of austerity, but is equally true of labour and environmental standards and so on. Even the capital markets suffer from it; just as divided as the politicians, they tear the sick patient apart instead of nursing him back to health so he can pay his debts.

Even though I have no plans for violent insurrection, I’d claim that there are easily enough injustices either imaginable in the near future or present in the world today to make the correct course inobvious. The picture globally is far from clear. Projected conditions in the mid 21st century read like an object lesson in the causes of war. Are we in the same position as the Italians of the 1920s, letting our chance for freedom and justice slip through our fingers? It would be bitter if we were to continue to partipate in and support a system implying manifest injustice for billions only to be overcome by disaster in any case.

56

Adrian Kelleher 10.19.11 at 2:36 pm

Only thing specifically intended @JQ above was that Ferguson argued against British involvement in WWI, which I then forgot to mention. Urgh.

57

Argy 10.19.11 at 2:38 pm

I have 3 problems with all the notes:

Violence is largely an emotive response and not a reasoned one. Some people throw rocks at protests because they take great joy at it, others however are genuinely angry over something, like a wage cut, their future insecurity, the deterioration of their right. So my first critic is that as an action fueled by feelings, violence is often unavoidable and moral culpability should be traced on the events that preceded this outburst and not on the outburst itself. At the point that violence manifests itself (and I am talking about large scale here, not an individual killing his wife) it’s usually not a choice but a result of crowd psychology and uncontrolled anger.

I feel nonviolent movements succeed mostly based on the implicit threat of violence from more radical elements in the movement that could become dominant if their demands are not satisfied and the smart use of provoking violence from their opponents in order to cause moral outrage. Unions couldn’t achieve so much without the implicit threat that they may violently revolt against a government if some of their demands are not satisfied and without disrupting enough services to pose a dilemma on a government of accepting a significant economic cost or utilize violence against them.

Third, the Greek junta only fell after two violent event went awry (the Polytechnic revolt and the Cyprus coup). The toll Portugal paid in its colonialist wars was a factor in the overthrowing of its dictatorship. Saying that these countries would still be a dictatorship is not something we could prove, but it’s very likely their dictatorships would be longer lasting. But even if they did, similar to the French Revolution, the violent events that took place helped shape the political landscape and framework after the dictatorships/monarchies fell. I don’t think the Greek colonels would have been so firmly punished if it wasn’t for the violent uprisings against them, something which the Spanish case highlights. France was 10 times the monster the Greek dictators were, but his cooperators got off lightly compared to the Colonels. And the post dictatorship politics got moved forcibly to the left due to the Left’s violent resistance throughout that historical period, while the Spanish didn’t. So the consequentialist argument is not that obvious for me in those examples.

58

Peter K. 10.19.11 at 2:45 pm

“A further important point is that the belief that injustice is immovable is often wrong. The advocates of the Iraq War argued that Saddam’s regime was immovable, and that the inevitable death and suffering associated with an invasion would be less than that from leaving the regime in power for decades to come. The Arab Spring has shown that claim to be, at best, highly questionable.”

What evidence is there for this? It’s more likely the case that the downfall of Saddam Hussein helped spur the Arab Spring. People who wanted to leave Saddam Hussein in power argued that war would make the region worse off. Is it worse off? It seems logical to me that if Saddam Hussein was still in power the Arab Awakening never would have happened.

I see more consistency with people who were against Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, then those who pick and choose. But maybe consistency is a hobgoblin of little minds.

If your country has decent elections and your society is relatively free obviously violence isn’t the way to go. See MLK and Mandela, etc.

Sometimes nonviolence doesn’t work very well though, ask the Palestinians or Aung San Suu Kyi. (although with the Palestinians you could say violence hasn’t worked either.) Better if you can get a powerful nation-state on your side as the Libyans and Iraqi Kurds did.

59

Consumatopia 10.19.11 at 3:12 pm

Tahrir Square’s lesson to me is that the strict division we have between violence and nonviolence in the West might be somewhat culturally dependent. If you want to call Tahrir Square nonviolent or in any way MLK-ish, well, fine, but that means you got a nonviolent protest inspired by MLK that involved rock-throwing street battles.

I can’t see any situation where it makes sense for American OWS protestors to turn to any sort of violence, but in other contexts it seems to make sense to abandon a principle of nonviolence for one of non-escalation–don’t bring a gun or a knife to a rock fight.

60

Salient 10.19.11 at 3:16 pm

In the current world situation there is nothing justifying mass violence.

Well, disputing that concretely would put someone on an FBI/CIA watch list for the rest of their lives, but if “in the current world situation there is nothing justifying mass violence” then how do we justify the occupation of Iraq and the bombing of Libya? And speaking very hypothetically, could it be possible for the prospect of unending mass violence from a foreign state to justify mass violence, that is, could it be possible that at least some of the insurgents in Iraq have reasonable reasons to be fighting U.S. soldiers?

61

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.11 at 3:25 pm

“how do we justify the occupation of Iraq and the bombing of Libya? “

We don’t.

And “speaking very hypothetically” gets us straight to Godwin’s Law at only comment #50. If someone wants to make a case for Hitler Of The Week — or, I guess, for Imperialist Invasion That Must Be Resisted By Brave Guerrillas Who Certainly Won’t Shoot Anyone Afterwards Of The Week — then they can try to make it. They can certainly refer to the lessons of history if they want to. But let’s have it be an argument about what’s happening this week, because otherwise it’s straight to dullsville “you wouldn’t have resisted the Holocaust”.

62

Salient 10.19.11 at 3:28 pm

One thing that basically dovetails with JQ’s point (which I agree with) is that putting one’s body in the way of the normal course of affairs is disruptive, and in fact it’s usually more disruptive to operations than property damage. Sit-ins, stand-ins, teach-ins, marches down the street, etc, all impede the entity’s attempts to conduct its normal operations. (And the chance of attracting mass appeal and sympathy is inversely correlated with the extent to which this disruption affects other entities just as badly, so targeted disruptions are best.)

So it seems reasonable to assert that mass violence is never justified at least until “standing in the way” has been given as thorough and coordinated a try as is possible. That’s not automatically sufficient reason to be violent, but it’s a necessary condition.

63

Chris Bertram 10.19.11 at 3:29 pm

My point about the French Revolution was, inter alia, that the advice “don’t do X” (where X is “launch a violent revolution against an unjust regime”) is of limited usefulness for cases where no-one is trying to do X and no-one really understands they’ve done X until after the event (or until it is well underway and where going back and starting again is no longer an option).

If large-scale regime-change inevitably ends up involving mass violence (when things get out of control) and if non-violent mass resistance is more likely to tip a society into such a change than deliberately violent strategies would be (because violent strategies are less effective) then John’s tactical advice would have an interesting consequence.

64

Watson Ladd 10.19.11 at 3:50 pm

JQ on the French Revolution: How exactly is the Age of Metternich a return to the ancient regime? Jewish emancipation was an accomplished fact, the rule of law was normatively established across great swaths of Europe, monarchs were increasingly limited in what they could do, and the bourgeois was in power: the privileges of the aristocracy had been decisively eliminated and could not be restored by any means.

65

Dave 10.19.11 at 4:20 pm

OK, no violence, fine, but can I keep stealing?

66

novakant 10.19.11 at 4:55 pm

ajay: Worse than WW2 + Holocaust? That’s a tall order…

rich: Actually Godwin’s Law doesn’t say that any mention Hitler or the Nazis is a bad thing in itself, it criticizes the overuse of it in inappropriate contexts – not the case here.

67

ajay 10.19.11 at 5:10 pm

novakant: I’m a bit astonished that the suggestion “it would have been worse if the Nazis had won WW2″ is causing you so much trouble.

68

Abiye Teklemariam 10.19.11 at 5:19 pm

@23 I agree with your conditions but add one more, which I believe is very crucial: a roughly equal share of risk between the leaders of the movement and the other participants. I have been involved in a very rough political activism for the past six years. My observation is that almost always leaders who make a case for violent struggle acquit themselves of engaging in action with a justification that the extremely violent retaliation of the state would rob the movement of them(the leaders). Leaders of a non-violent struggle tend to be willing to share equal if not more risk because the risk, though high, is not as high as in violent struggle.

69

Craig 10.19.11 at 5:42 pm

I tend to side with John Quiggin on this issue. So I agree with his remarks above about the English Civil War and the French Revolution, that all things considered they conform better to Quiggin’s revolution skepticism than to the alternative of revolution enthusiasm.

Think too about the American Revolution. Even though there was no dictatorship established in its wake, imagine what would have happened without the revolution. On plausible assumptions the US would now be like… Canada. National health care and all that. Maybe. Of course it’s impossible to know for sure, but my point is that it is not obvious that all things considered even the American revolution was for the best.

But surely “Violent revolution = counterproductive” can’t be an exceptionless law of history. So can you revolution enthusiasts out there suggest other possible examples of violent revolutions that all things considered led to more good than bad?

Less grandiosely, what about political violence short of revolution that led to more good than bad? Anti-apartheid violence, maybe?

I’d be interested in hearing of examples.

70

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.11 at 5:51 pm

“And that brings me to the question I want to discuss, one that is as relevant today as in the civil rights era. When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice? My answer, with Martin Luther King is: Never, or almost never.[1]“

So novakant, since we’re discussing things that are relevant today, is Hitler around?

Because if not, then yes, I think that you’re overusing this in an inappropriate context. JQ admittedly made a guaranteed-to-fail thread by trying to make his question universal and timeless, thus leading to the certainly not tiresome, quite original rejoinder that what about Hitler. But that doesn’t mean people should just go for it.

71

hartal 10.19.11 at 6:54 pm

Bourdieu means something entirely different by ‘symbolic violence’. Roughly–the accepting by the oppressed of the very assumptions/classifications/schemata by which they are oppressed. Before King there was Gandhi and before Gandhi there was Mahavir. Someone tells me that the atheist Sam Harris has been speaking enthusiastically of the this belief system of non-violence.

72

UserGoogol 10.19.11 at 7:16 pm

Hitler started it. And I don’t say that to justify the use of self-defense, I say that to show that violence didn’t exactly work out well for Hitler. Even if Germany had faced only non-violent resistance, Hitler was still dragging Germany into a very messy bunch of quagmires by invading every country he could get his hands on. Hitler was making his life harder by spending so much of Germany’s resources on invading countries and exterminating races. It’s hard to say Hitler should have been non-violent since being a genocidal madman is so essential to Hitler’s personality that counterfactuals about a non-violent Hitler are rather far from reality, but he would have profited quite handily from toning down the violence.

73

Hidari 10.19.11 at 7:55 pm

If breaking Godwin’s Law was a capital offence, I would be in favour of the death penalty.

74

novakant 10.19.11 at 8:17 pm

#67

While there has been a debate between functionalists and intentionalists, I don’t think anyone has ever held the position that without Hitler things would have happened exactly in the same way except for the Germans winning in the end.

#70

The question of tyrannicide is certainly relevant today. Besides, if you have a look upthread you will see that people have mentioned all sorts of historical events and figures that in your eyes are not relevant today. If you don’t have anything against that then I don’t understand your special prohibition against the historical event I choose to mention.

75

soru 10.19.11 at 8:18 pm

Had that only been enforced in the 1930s, then the whole problem would have sorted itself out as soon as Hitler said the word ‘Ich’.

76

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 8:34 pm

Well, Kennedy got assassinated, but it didn’t save all those millions of Vietnamese peasants.

77

Tim Wilkinson 10.19.11 at 8:58 pm

Probably quite the opposite, in fact.

78

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 9:10 pm

Nah, he started very strong with that forced population transfer program of his. If he dodged that magic bullet and got re-elected, I bet he would’ve ended up nuking the damned commies in the north.

79

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.11 at 9:12 pm

“The question of tyrannicide is certainly relevant today. “

Novakant, really I’m surprised that you keep going with this. How is “the question of tyrannicide” today relevant to points about Hitler? Are any of the tyrants today as bad as Hitler?

Now Google the whole phrase “Hitler of the week”. Hmm, 38,000 hits. I wonder what those people could be talking about? Could it be that whenever the U.S. government wants to invade a country, they declare it to be a “question of tyrannicide”, and then somehow people in Libya are getting bombed? And the people who say that maybe we shouldn’t be dropping bombs on them are declared to be as bad as people who would have spared Hitler?

Whether you like it or not, your harmless little historical point isn’t harmless. It’s like someone cluelessly going on about some time when someone was tortured into revealing the location of a ticking bomb, whenever the subject of torture is brought up. That person is advocating torture, whether they think so or not. Just like you’re advocating aggressive war, whether you think so or not. It’s not my problem if you can’t figure that out, but it should be yours.

80

Tim Wilkinson 10.19.11 at 9:44 pm

Indeed; not that anyone ever was tortured into revealing the location of a ticking bomb in real life, of course.

81

Josh G. 10.19.11 at 10:41 pm

Non-violence only works when it is used to persuade others to commit violence on your behalf.
Dr. King wasn’t trying to convince the die-hard white Southern racists; regardless of what he might have said in public, he knew that was hopeless. What he was attempting to do, and successfully did, was to mobilize public opinion in the North to use the federal government to violently crush Southern resistance to racial equality. Without the intervention of federal armed forces (and I include the FBI in the category of armed forces), segregation could never have been put down.
Similarly, Gandhi wasn’t attempting to convince the British to leave India; he was attempting to convince the Americans to force the British to leave, by taking advantage of financial leverage, which is another form of violence.
The truth is that everything humans do is permeated with violence. It is an ineradicable part of who we are. Suggesting it be done away with is a foolish dream. The only question is who gets to use violence, under what circumstances, and against who it shall be aimed.

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Josh G. 10.19.11 at 10:44 pm

Craig: “Think too about the American Revolution. Even though there was no dictatorship established in its wake, imagine what would have happened without the revolution. On plausible assumptions the US would now be like… Canada. National health care and all that.

The problem is that Canada and the other Anglo settler colonies only received the fairly lenient status they did because of the example of the American Revolution. If the Revolution had failed, Canada would have been just another of the Empire’s milch cows: heavy taxes, prohibitions on domestic manufacture, no real political representation, and so forth. It certainly would have been nothing akin to a modern social democracy (which would probably not even exist in that timeline anywhere).

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gordon 10.19.11 at 11:12 pm

Ajay (at 36, commenting on my 33) says: “If you are trying to understand why things are the way they are, you are trying to come up with statements of the form “Y exists today because X happened in the past.” And it’s not then a huge leap to go for a statement like “if X had not happened in the past, Y would not exist today.””

That’s close, though I would be more likely to say “Y exists today because X was among the things that happened in the past”. There are interactions. But the point is really about being very careful with counterfactuals. If I satisfy myself that Y is probably a result of X happening earlier, or of some combination of events of which X is one, I’m basing that on what actually happened. I can find out about that, at least partially, so there are grounds for saying (as you note) “if X had not happened in the past, Y would [probably] not exist today.”

But there really is a huge leap in then going for the counterfactual and saying “If Z had happened instead of X, then P would have been the result”. That is where (at 33) I’m saying the thin ice is.

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John Quiggin 10.19.11 at 11:41 pm

Josh – this is one of those arguments that proves too much, similar to the claim that all behavior is egoistically motivated.

Granting your point, let’s use “non-direct violence” for what I would normally call “non-violence” and “direct violence” for what I would normally “violence”. The argument goes through unchanged.

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gordon 10.19.11 at 11:44 pm

Prof. Quiggin (at 38): “The argument from historical unknowability seems to me to be about the weakest you can possibly make”.

Prof. Q. seems to be using the Onion piece to indicate that we can learn from history, and to imply that I am arguing against that possibility.

I’m not saying that we can’t learn from history. What I am saying is that when we start taking counterfactuals (the “ifs” of history) seriously, we are on very thin ice – see my reply to ajay (at 83). That is not the same thing.

It seems to me that Prof. Quiggin’s position is about counterfactuals. He is saying that if eg. the English Civil War, or the French Revolution, or the American Revolution, or other violent events hadn’t happened, things would, on net, be better. I dispute that on the ground that Prof. Q. can’t prove it, and in fact can never prove it because nobody can know what the present would look like if these events hadn’t occurred. I concur partially with Phil (at 42) and entirely with Watson Ladd (at 64). I assert that substanial positive benefits have accrued from what did occur, costly in life and property though they were. I therefore learn from history that violent revolts are at least sometimes a Good Thing.

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Consumatopia 10.19.11 at 11:57 pm

Granting your point, let’s use “non-direct violence” for what I would normally call “non-violence” and “direct violence” for what I would normally “violence”. The argument goes through unchanged.

In the case of King, granting this justifies not only the “non-direct violence”, but also the “direct violence” that civil rights activists were counting on, e.g. federal troops desegregating schools. In the case of Egypt, this also justifies the action of Egyptian military units that considered siding with protesters.

More generally, if your claim is that good people should always only employ non-direct violence, but those non-direct violent acts depend on other good people employing or at least threatening to employ direct violence, that seems like a problem for your claim. Can you condemn violence when your plans indirectly rely on people sympathetic to you employing it against people less sympathetic with you?

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Watson Ladd 10.19.11 at 11:57 pm

Rich, Kimg Jong Il is probably as bad or worse. The conditions in the concentration camps that I’ve seen described by escapees are on par with Auschwitz. He’s responsible for the dire state of the North Korean economy, which is slowly starving many people in there. Of course he can flatten Seoul, which is a problem.

Craig, counterfactuals are problematic. The example of Charles I keeps later monarchs in line. The Glorious Revolution is of course the Dutch conquest of England, hardly a nonviolent event. Without Napoleon bringing law in his wake, the aristocracy could have clung to power for another century, as it did in Russia. We can’t say that the existence of reaction makes revolution unnecessary: such a reaction almost never wipes out the revolution. (1917 is probably the only example of a revolution being completely reversed I can think of)

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LFC 10.20.11 at 12:51 am

gordon @83

If I satisfy myself that Y is probably a result of X happening earlier, or of some combination of events of which X is one, I’m basing that on what actually happened. I can find out about that, at least partially, so there are grounds for saying (as you note) “if X had not happened in the past, Y would [probably] not exist today.”

But there really is a huge leap in then going for the counterfactual and saying “If Z had happened instead of X, then P would have been the result”. That is where (at 33) I’m saying the thin ice is.

To clarify what the comment’s wording might have left unclear, this is not a criticism of all counterfactuals but of a particular kind of counterfactual. “If X had not happened, Y probably would not have happened” is just as much a counterfactual statement as “If Z had happened, then Y probably would have happened.” Thus, for example, “if Princip had not shot the Archduke Ferdinand, WW1 probably would not have happened” is a counterfactual (see the relevant chapter in R.N. Lebow, Forbidden Fruit).

So when gordon @84 writes “What I am saying is that when we start taking counterfactuals (the “ifs” of history) seriously, we are on very thin ice,” what he (seems to) mean is “when we start taking a particular kind of counterfactual seriously, we are on very thin ice”.

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LFC 10.20.11 at 12:52 am

sorry, 2nd paragraph above shd also be part of the blockquote

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sg 10.20.11 at 1:04 am

John, my two quibbles with this would be 1) the suffragettes, who definitely used violence (towards property, themselves, and a couple of horses) to win their cause and 2) the history of the collapse of colonialism in Asia.

Colonialism in Asia didn’t just fall apart because of peaceful demonstrations. Not only were their violent insurrections (in Vietnam, for example) but those countries that did throw off colonial oppression were aided by world war 2, which brought a hiatus to Dutch, French and English colonial rule in Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Those countries that didn’t directly rise up against colonial rule were emboldened by the Japanese lesson and their colonial rulers weakened. It’s impossible to say what would have happened if the Japanese hadn’t gone to war, but it also seems certain that the war hastened the decolonization of Asia.

You also can’t say there was a return to the status quo ante: post-colonial regimes in Asia run the gamut of possible forms, and the region is, in general, much more successful than post-colonial Africa.

(And let’s not discount as well the importance of violent resistance to colonialism in Asia in the first place: China, Thailand and Japan were never colonized, and none of those countries avoided colonization entirely through peaceful means).

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ckc (not kc) 10.20.11 at 1:10 am

The problem is that Canada and the other Anglo settler colonies only received the fairly lenient status they did because of the example of the American Revolution. If the Revolution had failed, Canada would have been just another of the Empire’s milch cows: heavy taxes, prohibitions on domestic manufacture, no real political representation, and so forth. It certainly would have been nothing akin to a modern social democracy (which would probably not even exist in that timeline anywhere).

If the Revolution had failed, the US would have universal health care.

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Meredith 10.20.11 at 1:44 am

JoshG@81: “Dr. King wasn’t trying to convince the die-hard white Southern racists; regardless of what he might have said in public, he knew that was hopeless. What he was attempting to do, and successfully did, was to mobilize public opinion in the North to use the federal government to violently crush Southern resistance to racial equality.”

Do you have evidence of Dr. King’s “true motives,” of “[w]hat he was attempting to do,” “regardless of what he might have said in public?” Or of Ghandi’s motives as you present them?

Maybe all you mean to say is that King’s or Ghandi’s motives and theories aside, neither would have succeeded without the participation as well of forces of “violence.” Others here have made that basic argument, and they may well be right. Hard to say since a thoroughgoing experiment in pacifism has never been made (and perhaps never will or could be).

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Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 2:19 am

“Dr. King wasn’t trying to convince the die-hard white Southern racists; regardless of what he might have said in public, he knew that was hopeless.”

On the inauguration of an MLK memorial, let’s honor him by assuming that he was a cynical, lying user of violence, because after all we can’t imagine anything else.

This thread continues to meet my expectations.

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Meredith 10.20.11 at 3:51 am

Rich Puchhalsky, this thread hasn’t met my expectations only because I never expected MLK could be so ignored as he has been here. Agree or disagree, but don’t disregard what someone actually said and did. Especially, if you’ll pardon the expression, what “a great man” said and did.

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Salient 10.20.11 at 3:53 am

This thread continues to meet my expectations.

Shucks. I tried so hard (in #62) to make up for earlier sloppiness (in #37), and only bothered specifically because your upset motivated me.

Organized targeted disruption works. It works on its own terms. It has worked in environmental campaigns. It has worked in anti-nuclear-reactor campaigns. It has worked in anti-industrial-negative-externality campaigns. It sort of worked in anti-ROTC campaigns (better than anything more violent would have; but ok, that one was a lost cause after 9/11).

In general and unless there’s really unusual mitigating factors, there’s neither a need nor an excuse for drawing blood that is not one’s own until organized targeted disruption has been violently suppressed.

This commonplace that nonviolent methods only work if someone else is willing to hold the gun should be vigorously challenged (someone could argue “everything is violence because to succeed at anything you have to rely on police officers that will enforce enough law and order to prevent people from murdering you and everyone you know” and there is a sense in which they are right and also a sense in which they are being obtuse).

To follow up on my (sort of silly) example, nobody ever came by to save Cool Hand Luke, especially not the law… I had this in mind (from IMDB, spoiler alert, if that kind of thing still applies to a movie from 1967):

After Luke says something that Dragline takes as a challenge to his authority, Dragline arranges for he and Luke to have a boxing match. Being much larger, Dragline simply pounds Luke into a pulp, but Luke will not give up, or stay down on the ground. What begins as a boxing match with enthusiastic prisoners and guards watching slowly turns into a sad spectacle. Prisoners begin to plead with Luke to lay down and refuse to get back up, and eventually Dragline himself pleads with Luke to simply stop fighting back, but Luke will not stop. The prisoners begin to walk away, unable to watch the sad scene any longer. Dragline himself wants the fight to end, and at one point has to catch the beaten and exhausted Luke from falling down, carrying him across his shoulder and gently setting him on the ground, only to have Luke use what little strength he has left to tap Dragline with one last punch. Finally, even Dragline cannot continue. The only men who are still entertained and watching are the guards and the warden.

…I’m bad about being oblique.

Hard to say since a thoroughgoing experiment in pacifism has never been made

…there was at least one. It was on a massive scale, relative to the size of the local population, it was sustained long-term with intensity, it won, and it did not win because it provoked the sympathies of people willing to be violent on others’ behalf. (Personal favorite. Pardon my waxing poetic for a bit.)

No gun-bearing army of the state took action to defend the life, livelihood, or security of Rosa Parks. No sheriff, no FBI agent, not a single member of the National Guard. The law didn’t intervene on her behalf. The law fined her $14. The police officer who arrested her couldn’t even articulate why. Neither she, nor any agent operating on her behalf, committed an act of violence (even under the increasingly expansive definition of violence that we’ve been sorting out).

The fight-picking threat that Rosa Parks helped to instigate, organize, and sustain — that rose up all around her, not spontaneously, but through careful coordination, what Bruce Wilder et al might call institution-building — was the unparalleled disruption of nearly forty thousand lost customers. For more than a year. Upwards of ten million unsold bus tickets, more than a million dollars of lost revenue, utterly shattered city transportation infrastructure without so much as scratching a nick of paint off a bus.

There is nothing more pacifist than forty thousand people acting in concert to systematically deplete and destroy the revenue of an entity that is treating them unjustly. (It helped that those individuals constituted the principal customers of that entity, mostly because the means for disruption were clearer.) If you want to disrupt an entity, put your bodies between them and their sources of revenue, and it won’t take long to see who’s more likely to face the barrel of the gun of the officer of the law. (Well, okay, the times I’ve actually done this didn’t exactly meet with guns in response, and it wasn’t nearly so effective, in part because the group had far smaller numbers and far fewer resources, and also in part because there wasn’t any direct means for disruption available… but probably mostly because we kind of sucked at it and/or were not sufficiently committed to it.)

And if the argument in reply is merely “but it’s inevitably violent because if they try to kill you all then the FBI and National Guard will have to step in and stop them,” then, ok, there’s really no disputing that on the level at which it is meant… but isn’t that true of every conceivable avenue of resistance or protest?

…ok, that’s as much energy as I have available to expend in fixing my earlier sloppiness/laziness. That’s all I’ve got, Rich. :)

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Consumatopia 10.20.11 at 4:34 am

And if the argument in reply is merely “but it’s inevitably violent because if they try to kill you all then the FBI and National Guard will have to step in and stop them,” then, ok, there’s really no disputing that on the level at which it is meant… but isn’t that true of every conceivable avenue of resistance or protest?

As I see it, the point of the “nonviolence depends on violence” argument is not to condemn nonviolence, but to defend violence. If every conceivable avenue of resistance or protest depends on something like the FBI or National Guard existing and being prepared to resort to arms, then the existence of something like the FBI or National Guard is justified. The point is not to invalidate any form of civil resistance or protest, but to validate law enforcement.

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Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 5:45 am

I wasn’t complaining about your comments specifically, Salient; it’s more of a general sense that I’ve seen this conversation many times before, and it always ends badly.

“This commonplace that nonviolent methods only work if someone else is willing to hold the gun should be vigorously challenged (someone could argue “everything is violence because to succeed at anything you have to rely on police officers that will enforce enough law and order to prevent people from murdering you and everyone you know” and there is a sense in which they are right and also a sense in which they are being obtuse).”

I’d vote for “a sense in which they are being obtuse”. Any human society, even anarchist societies, relies on violence for some form of final sanction against people doing disapproved-of things. Even imaginary societies consisting wholly of committed pacifists would, I’d think, have people around to use violence to haul a crazy spree killer off to be restrained somewhere. This “validates law enforcement”, as Consumatopia writes, only if you think that every society has law enforcement. Clearly many of them don’t.

If you instead want to restrict the discussion to contemporary, Western societies, or something like that, then it’s still obtuse. Those societies have a force of public opinion. Public opinion leads to laws getting passed, and laws lead to, yes, law enforcement. It’s silly to say that a campaign intended to change public opinion and eventually law is “violent” by definition.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.20.11 at 5:56 am

On the inauguration of an MLK memorial, let’s honor him by assuming that he was a cynical, lying user of violence, because after all we can’t imagine anything else.

Oh please. Is it not obvious that the only reason for official canonization of that guy is that he was harmless and, in fact, useful for the establishment, channeling popular anger into useless parades.

Why doesn’t anybody inaugurate a freaking memorial and honor someone who really made a difference by scaring the shit out of the Kennedy brothers, LBJ, Tricky Dick, and, of course, their boss, J Edgar Hoover.

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Salient 10.20.11 at 7:49 am

Why doesn’t anybody inaugurate a freaking memorial and honor someone who really made a difference by scaring the shit out of the Kennedy brothers, LBJ, Tricky Dick, and, of course, their boss, J Edgar Hoover.

I had forgotten what really top-quality trolling looks like. :)

Anyhow, why doesn’t anybody? They just did.

It’s obvious that the only reason for official canonization of ‘that guy’ King is that he was harmful and, in fact, dangerous to the establishment, channeling popular anger into increasingly broad and integrated coordinated assaults on capital infrastructure. Nixon, Thurman, Parks and King discovered a means for implementing economically disruptive tactics coordinated across disparate geography. If you think ‘civil disobedience’ consists principally of useless parades and not disablement of the enemy’s infrastructure–backed by shows of physical force and potential for escalation–well, you’re free to blithely mock what you perceive, and I’m free to try and set you straight, I guess. Hoover knew who to fear: the FBI spent their capital disabling King, at least as much as Malcolm X, and were increasingly frantic about it almost right up to the moment of his death… and hopefully we’ll all get to know more about how and why if we can survive to 1/31/2027.

Seriously. Christmas didn’t get put square on the winter solstice because the Pagans were so pious, dude. Mayday didn’t get enshrined because labor unions were so conciliatory. And in effect MLK, Jr. Day is a second Mayday — it was labor unions that pushed for the holiday’s creation/recognition (…and implementation uniformly on Mondays, for a long weekend…) and who collected millions of petition signatures (a bit more impressive in pre-Internet days).

King was a civil rights icon on the cusp of becoming a worker’s rights hero, there’s no reason to contribute to the endless dismissive whitewashing of that part of his history. Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with the blithe self-styling to blow off Malcolm X’s demise as ‘chickens coming home to roost’?

Celebrating “scaring the shit” out of Hoover as something that “really made a difference” is … well, high-quality provocative stuff, let’s go with that… and not merely because Hoover was scared of his shadow. What difference does that fear really make, hurt feelings, increased apprehension of loud noises in the night?

Malcolm X was at his most dangerous post-March ’64 — when the Nation of Islam was all but hunting him down as a traitor, and he was abandoning separatist initiatives to adopt a strategic disruption strategy focused on universal rights (and surprisingly strongly tied to strategic voting). There was a brief moment when Malcolm X and MLK, Jr crossed paths before diverging, King toward mitigating resentments among the working-class to better enable them as a political force, Malcolm X toward mobilizing a cohesive black community as a political force. And then they were both killed, in stupid and terrible ways, by assassins who were horrified to see what each of them had become.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.20.11 at 8:31 am

top-quality trolling

Fair enough: too strong, I apologize. But still… Of course the establishment everywhere prefer their opponents to practice nonviolence, and they make heroes out of its advocates and practitioners, with memorials and honors and all that; that’s natural. And doesn’t it tell you something? They wouldn’t honor someone who refused to bomb a Vietnamese village.

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ajay 10.20.11 at 9:49 am

And let’s not discount as well the importance of violent resistance to colonialism in Asia in the first place: China, Thailand and Japan were never colonized

China certainly was – if by “colonised” you mean “invaded, subjugated and occupied by foreigners”. Who do you think the Qing and Yuan dynasties were?

And doesn’t it tell you something? They wouldn’t honor someone who refused to bomb a Vietnamese village.
]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Thompson,_Jr.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Colburn

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Andrew F. 10.20.11 at 9:59 am

There are a few comments above about the extent to which political violence is frequently unplanned, the implication being that the application of consequentialist reasoning to such violence is inapt.

But the unplanned nature does not prevent us from assessing the consequences of the violence and then using that assessment in a consequentialist analysis of intended political violence. While the thread above amounts to a ransacking of history in some ways, thus far the examples largely sustain John’s point in the post that political violence rarely works – and especially in cases where democratic avenues of change are available.

Abiye Teklemariam @68: @23 I agree with your conditions but add one more, which I believe is very crucial: a roughly equal share of risk between the leaders of the movement and the other participants. I have been involved in a very rough political activism for the past six years. My observation is that almost always leaders who make a case for violent struggle acquit themselves of engaging in action with a justification that the extremely violent retaliation of the state would rob the movement of them(the leaders). Leaders of a non-violent struggle tend to be willing to share equal if not more risk because the risk, though high, is not as high as in violent struggle.

I think that’s an interesting condition, as it may also reduce (if only somewhat) the chance that an organization, though justified by the conditions at 23 in using violence, would be manipulated by the leadership for the purely personal ends of power. Still, depending on how much risk we’d want the leadership to take, the cost may be placing command and control in more jeopardy than is prudent.

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Andrew F. 10.20.11 at 10:01 am

Apologies, the penultimate paragraph should be in italics, as it is a quote from Abiye’s comment at 68.

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John Quiggin 10.20.11 at 10:15 am

@Rich P – While there is a grimly predictable aspect to threads like this, I think some progress has been made. Lots of people on the left have casually held assumptions about the desirability/necessity/inevitability of various forms of revolutionary violence. For anyone reading the thread the fact that those defending that view have been reduced to trolling of the Henri V variety (complete with a “just joking” non-retraction retraction when the going got a bit too hot) may help a little bit to disabuse them of their assumptions on this point. And while not many readers here are likely to support the war policies of the US government, the post has been widely linked in places where such beliefs are prevalent.

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bob mcmanus 10.20.11 at 11:32 am

104: J & R, you have not yet convinced me that you have prevented violent revolution with your blog posts and your condemnation of previous desperate masses driven to irrational behavior. I don’t quite understand what you are about, but I think you are just throwing guilt in the wrong directions without providing any real hope.

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bob mcmanus 10.20.11 at 11:48 am

US Wage Data 2010

Productivity up 5%, wages down 0.1%, inequality way up

You got nothing but sanctimony.

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Phil 10.20.11 at 12:25 pm

JQ – before you declare victory on the grounds that other people are making themselves look silly, is there any chance of you stating what you consider violence to be and why you think it should always and everywhere be avoided? (Unless that’s not your view, in which case what is?) I should say here that I have absolutely no problem with saying that violence is a bad thing in itself, or that it’s a dangerous tactic to try and use. But these are prudential arguments, and (more to the point) are more or less universally agreed. I assumed from the OP, not least from its tone, that you were saying something a bit more controversial.

Here’s an edited excerpt from my book, on very much this question:

Many movement participants were actively involved in violence in the form of ‘militant anti-fascism’. Indeed, one effect of the mass mobilisations of 1977 was, at least temporarily, to drive the neo-fascists off the streets … In this context, physical force was viewed neutrally or with approval, as an appropriate means to a commendable end. Much of the diffuse violence of the youth movement, as well as the more organised violence of the small armed groups which grew up after 1977, can be understood in these terms; as well as neo-fascists, targets included heroin pushers and sweatshop employers. Ethically, this amounts to saying that it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence.

The point being that this belief isn’t unique to wouldbe revolutionaries; we all hold it, unless we’re absolute pacifists. I don’t think the OP is arguing for absolute pacifism.

many movement participants [also] saw themselves as victims, actual or potential, of disproportionate levels of violence: as victims of street violence, police shootings or drug addiction. The movements argued that these socially legitimated forms of violence should be named and criticised as such, and taken into account when the violence of the movement was in question.

Point here being that violence always has a context, and it’s very often a violent context. You suggest that the rioter who hits a cop is using illegitimate violence against an ordinary worker; what was the cop who hit him first doing?

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Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 12:56 pm

“The point being that this belief isn’t unique to wouldbe revolutionaries; we all hold it, unless we’re absolute pacifists.”

It’s a standard element of these arguments that “pacifism” just means UnGood and “absolute pacifism” means DoublePlusUnGood. The antecedent of “this belief” is apparently “that it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence.” Do we really all hold this belief?

Bog-standard non-absolute-pacifist, non-wouldbe-revolutionaries out there — which group do you think should be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence? Let’s put aside “gay people should be beaten up if they look gay” or “women should be assaulted if they dress too revealingly”. People here will probably want to go for a safely upper-middle-class version. So what is it, vigilante fans? Anyone non-revolutionary want to go for “bankers should restrain themselves financially out of fear of being lynched”? If your answer is that “criminals should fear violence if they commit crimes”, why should this be an informal constraint?

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John Quiggin 10.20.11 at 1:03 pm

Phil, I’m primarily a consequentialist/prudentialist, so I’ll stick to that part of the argument.

Focusing on the final question, a rioter who hits a cop back generally sets the movement back as well, while a demonstrator who persists with non-violence in the face of police violence is likely to be far more effective. Obviously, this has been true of OWS, and was true of MLK.

On the negative side, the Italian groups you mention are a pretty good illustration, as does the contrast between, say, the Black Panthers and MLK. As we’ve discussed before, it’s important to understand them in context. Nevertheless, the fact remains that their actions did far more harm than good. The para you quote from your book illustrates a point made in the OP about the gradual extension of the range of “legitimate” targets. And of course, the process went well beyond the targets you mention to encompass, for example, civil servants, public defenders and so on. Finally, it’s worth mention that this process often ends up in outright gangsterism (eg Black Panthers and Sinn Fein).

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Consumatopia 10.20.11 at 1:34 pm

Any human society, even anarchist societies, relies on violence for some form of final sanction against people doing disapproved-of things. Even imaginary societies consisting wholly of committed pacifists would, I’d think, have people around to use violence to haul a crazy spree killer off to be restrained somewhere. This “validates law enforcement”, as Consumatopia writes, only if you think that every society has law enforcement. Clearly many of them don’t.

Well, it validates violent norm enforcement, then. The point being that the success of nonviolent methods depends on the willingness of others sympathetic to you to employ violent methods. It is better that they don’t actually employ violence, but the potential that they might acts as a constraint on the targets of nonviolent resistance.

So nonviolent methods might be the most prudent solution in most or nearly all cases BUT the success of those methods is dependent on people who don’t believe that.

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soru 10.20.11 at 1:41 pm

A reasonable rule of thumb is that if you are unhappy with the level of violence in society, and want to increase it (Miyamoto Musashi, some of the more romantic elements of the IRA, etc.), then you should use tactics more violent than you perceive your environment to be.

Plausibly you will succeed.

Vice versa logically follows. As does the point that if your specific problem is not with the current level of violence, but something else, including the possibility of things getting worse (say the streets becoming overrun with neofascists, Nazi Germany invading, etc.), then actions that are at that ‘normal’ level of violence will likely be necessary.

Because, by definition, that’s the way that the society you live in gets things done .

And if you want to ensure you spread confusion and bad tactical choices, or you feel the level of debate is too productive, it is certainly appropriate to go around redefining the meanings of generally understood words in easy-to-parody ways.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.20.11 at 1:41 pm

The Panthers did far more harm than good, and that’s the fact? Oh well, this one is right there with that other fact about the French revolution being a disaster.

Here’s what Angela Davis has to say. The key phrase in her response is, I believe: “I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all”…

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Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 1:56 pm

“Well, it validates violent norm enforcement, then. The point being that the success of nonviolent methods depends on the willingness of others sympathetic to you to employ violent methods.”

No it doesn’t. Most norm enforcement is done quite non-violently, because any society that has to jump right to the final sanction in order to get norms enforced is highly dysfunctional. What you’re doing is a version of the standard (and stupid) U.S.-libertarian argument that taxes are theft because if you don’t pay your taxes, MEN WITH GUNS will show up and make you pay them. And yes, if you persistently don’t pay your taxes for long enough and ignore every warning, and then physically resist when your wages are garnished or your assets impounded or whatever, then eventually this will happen. The same thing will happen if you resist any important norm in any determined fashion in any society. But only people who are determined to use nonviolence have this tediously pointed out to them over and over as if it means something.

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Henry 10.20.11 at 2:03 pm

Harry’s old post on the Vidal Sassoon treatment suggests a different set of priorities – the prudential issue for Harry (unless I am misreading him, which is entirely possible), seems to be that beating up fascists is liable to get you arrested these days.

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Watson Ladd 10.20.11 at 2:06 pm

Rich, there are norms and there are laws. In modern society they are distinct. No matter how many norms we violate we are safe because it is the violation of laws that brings sanctions. The law does not enforce a uniform mode of life upon us all, as a quick trip to your local gay neighborhood will confirm, or local immigrant neighborhood of whatever stripe.

To people who say the bus boycott was violent: wasn’t this people choosing to not spend their money in certain ways? Is the bus company entitled to a profit no matter what services it provides? That’s like saying New Yorkers commit violence against Einstein’s Bagels by refusing to eat those round pieces of bread.

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Consumatopia 10.20.11 at 2:15 pm

But only people who are determined to use nonviolence have this tediously pointed out to them over and over as if it means something.

No, the problem is not using nonviolence–that’s good. The problem is condemning violence–or at least condemning it categorically. If nonviolent methods depend on the possibility of violence as a backstop, then you can’t categorically condemn violence.

And the libertarians are correct that taxes depend on violence. They are wrong to ignore that private property also depends on violence.

117

soru 10.20.11 at 2:25 pm

Even given the temperature already implicit in the system, is it really that hard to form a principled objection to someone burning a house down?

Also, Samurai name-remembering failure above – I mean Mishima, not Musashi.

118

Phil 10.20.11 at 2:37 pm

“that it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence.” Do we really all hold this belief?

If somebody says to me that neo-fascists have decided not to march through my town for fear of getting beaten up, I’m not going to denounce this as an outrageous denial of freedom of speech. (I would oppose the march being officially banned, however.)

119

Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 2:48 pm

So MLK should not have categorically condemned violence because after he was shot, the state imprisoned his assassin, and therefore his efforts depended on violence as a backstop.

Let’s take this to its conclusion. If you live in a society with a state monopoly on legitimate violence and a system of laws, then all laws are backed by violence. If you live in a society without a state and/or without laws, then norms are backed by violence. So the only possible way in which you can do anything nonviolent in connection with politics, according to this idea, is by living in a society with laws and carefully not advocating anything that would change or support the law. If only the Civil Rights Movement had been divorced from civil rights law, then it could have Consumatopia’s permission to categorically condemn violence.

Let’s make this #1 in “Rules For Pacifists”, a little game that is played whenever people on the Internet gather to discuss what those silly pacifists must really believe. Supporting legal change is violence.

120

Phil 10.20.11 at 2:53 pm

the fact remains that their actions did far more harm than good

I don’t know whether they did or not. I don’t know how you can possibly make that claim, except from an a priori assumption that “violence” always does more harm than good.

The para you quote from your book illustrates a point made in the OP about the gradual extension of the range of “legitimate” targets.

No, it really doesn’t. Activists in the movement used varying degrees of force against people they identified as their enemies – sweatshop employers, heroin pushers, neo-fascists. No extension, gradual or otherwise – as soon as the movement knew what it was it knew who its enemies were.

And of course, the process went well beyond the targets you mention to encompass, for example, civil servants, public defenders and so on.

Again, not really. I’m talking about a mass movement which began in 1975-6 and peaked in 1977-8. You seem to be talking about the Red Brigades, who had been active since 1970 and carried out their first assassination in 1976. These are totally different dynamics, not to mention different groups of people.

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Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 2:57 pm

“If somebody says to me that neo-fascists have decided not to march through my town for fear of getting beaten up, I’m not going to denounce this as an outrageous denial of freedom of speech.”

Ah, and you’ve generalized this to “The point being that this belief isn’t unique to wouldbe revolutionaries; we all hold it, unless we’re absolute pacifists.” I guess that everyone in the ACLU is an absolute pacifist. Or that everyone who thinks it would be stupid for people to threaten the neo-fascists with getting beaten up, and that it only makes the fascists look like martyrs to their possible supporters, is an absolute pacifist. Or that unwillingness to denounce something as an outrageous denial of freedom of speech means that one ethically supports “it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence.”

There is no intellectual content in that beyond “absolute pacifists == everyone who doesn’t think like me == DoublePlusUnGood.”

122

Phil 10.20.11 at 3:00 pm

It’s a standard element of these arguments that “pacifism” just means UnGood and “absolute pacifism” means DoublePlusUnGood.

Not really, no. When I say “absolute pacifism” I just mean “nobody should use force, ever”. I don’t think it’s a very common position, if only because of the whole “property rights/men with guns” thing.

To be fair, there is an intermediate position which is a bit easier to hold consistently, which goes something like “nobody should use unlawful force, ever”; that may be where JQ is starting from. It does involve condemning a lot of Suffragettes and giving a lot of riot police a free pass, though.

123

Phil 10.20.11 at 3:03 pm

Ah, and you’ve generalized this to “The point being that this belief isn’t unique to wouldbe revolutionaries; we all hold it, unless we’re absolute pacifists.”

Not sure that I did, but never mind. In any case, you’ve generalised it even further to include lots of things that I didn’t say, but which do have the great merit of making my argument look silly. Well done. You win the thread.

124

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.20.11 at 3:18 pm

Rich, you can be a pacifist, absolute or otherwise, all you want; there’s nothing ungood about it, and nobody cares. More power to ya. This is not the issue.

125

Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 3:23 pm

Phil, when you wrote “Ethically, this amounts to saying that it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence,” and then pretended that this was a common-sense statement agreed to by almost everyone, you made your own argument look silly. I didn’t really do it for you.

In fact, “Ethically, this amounts to saying that it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence” is agreed to by almost no one as an ethical principle. That bland “certain groups” is doing a lot of work.

126

Phil 10.20.11 at 3:29 pm

Rich, your attention to what I’ve actually said is appreciated, but you aren’t going to persuade me to engage with your comments by telling me I’m arguing in bad faith.

127

Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 3:39 pm

Bad faith? I don’t think that you’re arguing in bad faith; I think that you have a legitimately silly argument. Let me go back a sentence:

“Much of the diffuse violence of the youth movement, as well as the more organised violence of the small armed groups which grew up after 1977, can be understood in these terms; as well as neo-fascists, targets included heroin pushers and sweatshop employers. “

All right, I’m not a pacifist, and I think it was stupid, counterproductive, and unethical for members of the youth movement to beat up heroin pushers and sweatshop employers. What’s more, I’d guess that a vast majority of non-pacifists would agree with me. Not because they think that only police can commit legitimate violence, but because most people think it’s stupid, counterproductive, and unethical for people to go around beating up anyone who looks like an enemy.

Your whole argument, such as it is, depends on characterizing “Hey, don’t hit that guy” as absolute pacifism, or as something else that can safely be dismissed as the viewpoint of a tiny minority.

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ajay 10.20.11 at 4:08 pm

it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence

Well, Rich, I don’t think that is a contentious statement; the contentious bit is the unspoken implication that it’s OK for informal groups to decide who should be constrained.

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Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 4:20 pm

It’s not a contentious statement? In what universe is “let’s not follow the rule of law” uncontentious?

Or is the “unspoken implication” that we commonly accept this as long as the right people in society do it? That we give a wink-and-a-nod to police suppressing striking workers, gay-bashers beating up a Pride march, etc? Sorry, still contentious. No one seriously proposes this as an ethical principle. When people in contemporary society do it, they take great pains to deny that they’re doing it through various propaganda vehicles, precisely because it is contentious.

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Phil 10.20.11 at 4:28 pm

I don’t think that you’re arguing in bad faith

Don’t tell me I’m “pretending”, then.

Your whole argument, such as it is, depends on characterizing “Hey, don’t hit that guy” as absolute pacifism

No. It depends on characterising “nobody should ever hit any guy, or threaten to hit any guy, in any circumstances” as absolute pacifism, which I think it basically is – although of course I did acknowledge the more moderate “legal violence only” option.

I’m not a pacifist, and I think it was stupid, counterproductive, and unethical for members of the youth movement to beat up heroin pushers and sweatshop employers

You’re OK with the neo-fascists, then? As far as I can see there are only three coherent options:

1. There are no situations in which physical force is an appropriate means to a commendable end.
2. There are some situations in which physical force is an appropriate means to a commendable end.
3. As 2., but only if the physical force is used within the law.

I think there are difficulties with all of them, but I find 2. is the best match to my intuitions. YIMV.

131

Consumatopia 10.20.11 at 4:43 pm

Honestly, I don’t really see a lot of daylight between “Any human society, even anarchist societies, relies on violence for some form of final sanction against people doing disapproved-of things” and “it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence”.

Let’s take this to its conclusion. If you live in a society with a state monopoly on legitimate violence and a system of laws, then all laws are backed by violence. If you live in a society without a state and/or without laws, then norms are backed by violence.

Those statements correctly describe my views.

So the only possible way in which you can do anything nonviolent in connection with politics, according to this idea, is by living in a society with laws and carefully not advocating anything that would change or support the law.

No, nothing like this can be concluded from anything I said. What I said @116 directly contradicts this. You can and probably should use nonviolent methods in connection with politics. You can do this because you believe it to be strategically prudent, or because you believe nonviolence is part of your personal calling or vocation.

What you cannot do is categorically condemn violence without categorically condemning society. If your nonviolent methods depend on the possibility of other people engaging in violence, then violence cannot be completely wrong. You’ve said that you aren’t a pacifist so I guess we agree on this.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.20.11 at 5:16 pm

Yeah, well said, Consumatopia, excellent.

Sure, the state claims the monopoly on violence, but the claim is not metaphysical, as Rich seems to believe. No divine right of the king, even if the king is elected.

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Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 5:59 pm

All three of the last three comments were nonsense, and they were all the same kind of nonsense. The freshman bull session, Internet academic bit so characteristic of CT in which you divide everyone who doesn’t think like you into categories of your choosing so that they can be ignored.

Phil divides people into absolute pacifists, people who think that there are “some situations in which physical force is an appropriate means to a commendable end”, and rule-of-law absolutists, then says that #2 is the best match to his intuitions. Of course, there are many, many people in category #2 who think that Phil’s “Ethically, this amounts to saying that it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence” is amazingly stupid, but this must mean that they are either absolute-pacifist idealists or doctrinaire legalists.

Conservatopia thinks that “What you cannot do is categorically condemn violence without categorically condemning society.” Note that he’s already agreed that this means *any* society, one with laws or one without; he’s not just talking about U.S. society. So, since no one can live outside of some society, that means that no one can categorically condemn society, and therefore no one can categorically condemn violence. Isn’t it all so simple when put like that? All of the people who thought that they were categorically condemning violence, in the easy-to-understand sense in which people normally understand it … they were speaking a logical impossibility.

Henri seems to think that I believe in a divine right of kings. Now there’s a new one. But yeah, I guess that if saying youth shouldn’t go around beating up heroin pushers makes you an absolute pacifist, it also makes you a metaphysical believer in Rule of Law.

134

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.20.11 at 6:09 pm

If not metaphysical belief in Rule of Law, then what is the reason to believe that, regardless of the circumstances, youth shouldn’t go around beating up heroin pushers?

135

Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 6:17 pm

There are many, many possible reasons, Henri. How about “because casually initiated violence against people who look like group enemies is always stupid. Especially when justified by a belief, like Phil’s, that by beating up this person you’re enacting an ethical constraint on a group, it’s not only stupid but immoral”?

And note that “regardless of the circumstances” is the same abstract BS that I criticized at the start of the thread. In fact, we know the circumstances of Phil’s example. Trying to decide on a purely abstract basis whether violence is always right or always wrong regardless of the circumstances is a recipe for deciding that violence is right in your particular circumstance, because people use violence sometimes are macho, while people who never do are crazy pacifists.

136

bob mcmanus 10.20.11 at 6:26 pm

The freshman bull session, Internet academic bit so characteristic of CT in which you divide everyone who doesn’t think like you into categories of your choosing so that they can be ignored.

Like this whole thread, excluding my comments of course.

My position is that this argument is real-time, necessary and coming soon to a warzone near you. Leaving aside Libya and Syria, here’s today’s news:

What Should the Greeks Do?

Or rather as Rich and John would put it, “What Should the Greeks Not Do?” probably anything that will improve their lives and hopes, except perhaps emigration and abandonment of their weak and vulnerable.

Whatever. My own position is that, unlike the oh so pure, gentle, and righteous, I will not tell the Greeks what to do or what not to do, nor judge the people in the streets afterwards for the consequences. I am not there, and don’t share the stakes. I wasn’t at the Bastille or Winter Palace either.

137

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.20.11 at 6:28 pm

Well, it sounds like you’re arguing that it’s wrong under any circumstances.

Why does it have to be “casually initiated” and against “people who look like” something? It could very well be a question of life and death for the people living in the neighborhood.

138

Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 7:02 pm

I’m sure that the Greeks will be heartened by your non-judgement, Bob. As they bleed in the streets afterwards, they’ll say to each other, “Wow, that police repression was harsh. But one more critical blog post would have been the final straw that crushed my spirit forever. Let’s give thanks that are people in the world, like bob mcmanus, who do now judge us!”

Now let me see what the first thing I wrote is. Here it is: “So I don’t see the point in generalizing it at all. All that we really need to say is that it would be stupid and immoral for either the Occupy protestors to use violence, or for the U.S. to use state violence in yet another war.” I’m a person in OWS (broadly; I’m in one of the local Occupy groups), and I’m a citizen of the U.S. So I don’t think that I’m lecturing anyone in some distant part of the world. Your thing about how people suggesting nonviolence means that they want people to do nothing sounds all brave and macho, though.

139

Rich Puchalsky 10.20.11 at 7:03 pm

Er, final sentence of first para should end “do not judge us”.

140

Consumatopia 10.20.11 at 7:24 pm

Of course, there are many, many people in category #2 who think that Phil’s “Ethically, this amounts to saying that it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence”

No, that quote simply describes all the situations in category 2 that fall outside category 3: that there are some situations in which physical force should be employed even outside formal law. You may disagree about which “certain groups” should be constrained, but the only alternative is that informal violence be deployed randomly.

So, since no one can live outside of some society, that means that no one can categorically condemn society, and therefore no one can categorically condemn violence.

No, you certainly can categorically condemn all possible human societies. If you simply don’t care what happens in this world, and you just want to act according to your moral code so you get to Heaven, then I guess it’s fairly easy to categorically condemn all possible human societies. But I don’t think that’s the intention of most of those who categorically condemn violence, and it’s certainly no reason for the rest of us to pay them either attention or respect.

I also note that the signal to noise ratio of this thread is inversely correlated with the frequency of your posts. 90% of the words in your posts are dedicated to misstating what someone else said.

You say you’re against generalizing, but the generalization started with JQ’s original post. Basically, you’re not a pacifist, but you wish you were because that’s cooler, so you’re going to yell at other people who aren’t pacifists, even when their position (no OWS violence, no US interventionism) is the same as yours.

You’re getting exactly the internet discussion you deserve. And I apologize, because everyone else deserved better.

141

Phil 10.20.11 at 7:28 pm

Of course, there are many, many people in category #2 who think that Phil’s “Ethically, this amounts to saying that it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence” is amazingly stupid

On what grounds? Serious question. You’re saying it’s possible to believe that

“There are some situations in which physical force is an appropriate means to a commendable end.”

and to believe this without confining those situations to whatever’s legal in a given time and place, but not to believe that

“it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence”

- indeed, to believe that the second proposition is “amazingly stupid”. What’s the problem with it? I’m sincerely puzzled. (Is it the word ‘groups’? Are you over-reading ‘certain groups’ to mean ‘groups on a pre-defined list’? What?)

142

rhino 10.20.11 at 11:38 pm

@109

Even more effective would be a cop grabbed from his horse, stripped of his weapons and then escorted to the back end of the protest and sent on his way.

143

Rich Puchalsky 10.21.11 at 12:27 am

Phil, you can’t see what’s amazingly stupid about “Hey, there’s a neo-fascist! Neo-fascists should feel constrained by violence from appearing in our town, so let’s beat him up”? I mean, sure, lots of people believe that if you see a member of a group you don’t like, you should beat them up, but it takes a rare person to elevate this to an ethical principle. You really don’t see any difference between this and “Hey, there’s a neo-fascist in the process of beating someone up! Let’s intervene and beat him up instead even though that’s possibly illegal because otherwise the person he’s hitting will get hurt.”

Violence against people for presumed group crimes, and constraining groups through informal terrorism — excuse me, “violence or the threat of violence” — have a long and colorful history in the U.S. A history connected to MLK, strangely enough. Of course you can say that you didn’t mean *those* groups of people, but you were the one who presented it as an ethical principle that most people shared.

144

mike 10.21.11 at 1:16 am

“My brave, cool pragmatism tells me to say that nonviolence is in very nearly every case more effective than violence in achieving its ends.”

I just find it impossible to understand statements like this. If you want to espouse nonviolence from an intellectual perspective, that’s fine. The argument doesn’t hold, but at least it’s not dishonest or hypocritical. But to seriously advocate nonviolence as a “pragmatic” method of accomplishing change is simply dishonest. The reality is that it has never worked anywhere, at least nowhere that I can think of, and I know my history very well. Every single revolution in human history, every successful activist movement that I can think of has been successful only because it was supported by violence. I guess those who advocate nonviolence have never heard of the American Revolution, or the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, or the Chinese Revolution, or the fight to end slavery, or anything else. Or I guess that they despise the millions and millions of people who so bravely fought and died to secure us our rights and freedom. They insult and disparage these people, those who died in the Civil War and all the others.

What infuriates more than anything though is that the cowards (my word for pacifists) make it sound like they are doing something noble. What is noble about allowing innocent people to die by the millions, to allow children to die because they can’t afford health care, to allow children to be thrown into prisons to be turned into sex objects because they possessed a joint. I just don’t see the point. This isn’t noble, it’s cruel and heartless. And it displays a profound ignorance of what is happening in this country and who is responsible. The Democrats and Republicans are extremely nasty, violent people. They got where they are by the use of violence, and they maintain their supremacy by the use of violence. They are gangsters, without any sense of moral or ethics whatsoever. They will not give up power and trillions of dollars until they are forced to. To suggest that they will do so is not idealistic, it’s stupid and cowardly. Everyone will disagree, of course. But the question remains: what are you willing to give up to see things change? Your life? Because that’s what it took in the past, and nothing has changed.

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John Quiggin 10.21.11 at 1:51 am

“I guess those who advocate nonviolence have never heard of the American Revolution, or the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, or the Chinese Revolution”

So, as you say, many millions dead , and what are the achievements:

American: an imperfect democracy similar to that in Britain, but maybe a small net positive, at least if you weren’t a slave
France: The Terror, Napoleon, and a 100-year wait for anything resembling democracy
Russia: Stalin and the purges, to instal gangster capitalism under Putin/Medvedev
China: Mao and the Great Leap Forward, to instal some faceless capitalist dictator whose name I can’t bring to mind right now

Let’s hear it for revolutionary violence!

146

Phil 10.21.11 at 8:36 am

Rich, could you please calm down and answer the question. What is the difference between

“There are some situations in which physical force is an appropriate means to a commendable end” (which you endorse)

and

“it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence” (which you think is crazy)

Because I can’t get a cigarette paper between them.

147

gordon 10.21.11 at 10:19 am

OK, one last time, Prof. Quiggin (at 145).

France, Russia and China are still better off today than they were under the Bourbons (vintage 1788), the Romanovs (vintage 1914) and the Manchus (vintage 1910). I will leave it to Americans to defend their own current status against where they were in 1775.

I notice the English are missing from your list, as are the S. American republics, Israel, SE Asian republics, and lots of other relevant places (I’m too tired to attempt a fuller list).

And I enter a plea that, if you respond, you don’t tell us about where all these places might, could, should, or ought to be now if various imaginary events had happened in the intervening time. I know you like speculative fiction, but it’s not relevant here.

God only knows why I bother.

148

Phil 10.21.11 at 10:47 am

There is, it has to be said, quite a high standard of basic healthcare in what used to be Batista’s Cuba, quite a high literacy rate in what used to be Tsarist Russia and very little footbinding in what used to be Imperial China.

149

ajay 10.21.11 at 10:52 am

France, Russia and China are still better off today than they were under the Bourbons (vintage 1788), the Romanovs (vintage 1914) and the Manchus (vintage 1910).

Good grief. Look, it’s not a good argument for the French Revolution to say that the Average Frenchman is healthier and wealthier now than he was in 1788. It’s an incredibly stupid argument. The average German is healthier and wealthier now than he was in 1616; doesn’t mean that the Thirty Years War was a good thing.

150

Rich Puchalsky 10.21.11 at 11:42 am

Phil, “There are some situations in which physical force is an appropriate means to a commendable end” is so vague as to allow of nearly any interpretation. As such, it can’t be contradicted except by someone who rejects all physical force, or who rejects all illegal physical force if you assume that it refers to your case 2. For instance, many people think that illegal physical force might be commendable if it is in the immediate defense of someone being attacked.

“It is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence” is quite different. Here you’re constraining people specifically because of their group membership, and the violence has a specific purpose, that of constraint. None of my examples failed to answer the question — this is the exact logic of the gay-basher who doesn’t want to see a Pride march in town, so he beats up anyone who appears to be gay as a warning. Or of the white person in the early 20th century U.S. who lynches black people who may or may not have committed a crime in order to keep other black people in their place.

151

Peter T 10.21.11 at 12:45 pm

John here is in the same corner as libertarians. I picture the average libertarian sitting in his house, by a government-built road, supplied by government with water, sewerage, electricity, advocating over a government-supplied communications net on a government-developed system the virtues of minimal government. His arguments may have merit, but they are surely not based on real-life examples. JQ lives on land acquired by violence, and is the beneficiary of some centuries of skilfully-applied naval and mercantile violence, to give just two examples. Cherry-picking history – and getting a lot of it arguably very wrong – does not contradict this. So both are like millionaires who insist that riches don’t make for happiness – they might be right, but they cannot claim to have tried it.

I would add that I think the utility of force has declined markedly over the last century, and that it is unlikely to pay politically at this time in western societies. But that’s a contingent judgement, not a sweeping a-historical assertion that everything will always turn out right is we avoid violence.

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Phil 10.21.11 at 3:26 pm

“It is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence” is quite different. Here you’re constraining people specifically because of their group membership, and the violence has a specific purpose, that of constraint.

As I suggested earlier, I think you’re over-reading “group”. The basic set of situations I’m talking about is one in which one group of people finds what another group is doing particularly objectionable and uses force to stop them. I’m saying that, although there are many cases in which I wouldn’t approve of the tactic and many more in which I wouldn’t approve of the goal, nevertheless there are some cases in which I think this would be both appropriate and commendable – even if the law took a different view. I’m also suggesting that I’m not unusual in this.

153

john c. halasz 10.21.11 at 4:05 pm

154

ajay 10.21.11 at 4:12 pm

JQ lives on land acquired by violence, and is the beneficiary of some centuries of skilfully-applied naval and mercantile violence, to give just two examples.

The first is true of, essentially, everyone in the world, as is the second…

155

Rich Puchalsky 10.21.11 at 4:45 pm

“I’m saying that, although there are many cases in which I wouldn’t approve of the tactic and many more in which I wouldn’t approve of the goal, nevertheless there are some cases in which I think this would be both appropriate and commendable – even if the law took a different view. I’m also suggesting that I’m not unusual in this.”

I think that you’re quite unusual in rationalizing it as an ethical principle. The situation in which “one group of people finds what another group is doing particularly objectionable and uses force to stop them” is the basis for ethnic cleansing, aggressive war, and apartheid. There is quite a lot of political theory — nearly all of liberal and conservative and political theory, for instance — that has as its base the unethical quality of groups of people informally using force against groups of other people. Even most socialist political theory basically says that it’s only OK when the socialist state, or the revolutionary vanguard, does it, based on their grasp of whatever theory is held to.

So it may be common in the sense that most people can think of a case of one group of people who they’d like to beat up and who think that is admirable and commendable. But most people are encouraged to think that this is wrong, not that this is an ethical principle that they should embrace on the basis that everyone does it.

156

Salient 10.21.11 at 4:55 pm

But to seriously advocate nonviolence as a “pragmatic” method of accomplishing change is simply dishonest. The reality is that it has never worked anywhere, at least nowhere that I can think of, and I know my history very well.

No. I listed examples upthread, and as much as I love talking up Rosa Parks and the MIA, I’m not going to just sit here and repeat myself. Another example? How about probably more than ninety percent of the union-management contracts ever agreed upon? A more specific example? The early-2000s graduate student strike at the University of Wisconsin. Another example? Divestment and sanctions against South Africa. (Decades of violence didn’t get the ANC anywhere, and arguably the Defiance Campaign did more to hasten divestment and sanctions than violent protest ever did.) In the case of South Africa, there were multiple occasions where protester militant violence set back progress toward the end of apartheid. Another example? The Palm Beach protests that helped get Bush elected in 2000.

Nonviolent civil disobedience is almost always more effective disruption than violence, even if we assume the violence goes unpunished, even if we assume the violence is somehow unnoticed by anyone whose sympathies would change toward the recipient of the violence. This is true in almost every case that doesn’t come to blows. In asserting that lots of revolutions required violence, you’re ignoring that something like 99.99999999999999999% of the disputes one engages in aren’t revolutions.

So. Well. Hmm. In general and unless there’s really unusual mitigating factors, violence is not justifiable at least until attempts at organized targeted nonviolent disruption have been violently suppressed.

157

john c. halasz 10.21.11 at 5:51 pm

@156:

In the South Africa case, the Cubans fighting the SADF to a draw in Angola and thus effectively defeating the Apartheid regime’s forward “defence” strategy, was a major factor in the regime’s deciding to enter negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. Situations are often more complicated and ambiguous than prior normative generalizations and prescriptions would allow. After all, Gandhi’s non-violent campaign for Indian independence didn’t prevent the massive violence with the partition of India, (the effects of which still persist nowadays).

158

Phil 10.21.11 at 7:09 pm

I’m not commending it as an ethical principle. I’m saying it’s a position which is very nearly universally held (and acknowledging that I hold it myself), and suggesting that ignoring this makes for incoherence and/or bad faith. From the passage I quoted earlier on:

What was unacceptable about the movements was that they used violence; what was unacceptable about the violence of the movements was that it was carried out by the movements. The PCI’s critique of ‘violence’ and ‘intolerance’ can be understood as a form of scapegoating, loading the movements (and the Autonomists, above all) with all that was unruly and troubling about physical force tactics while associating the PCI itself with ‘firmness’ and ‘discipline’

Coming back to my starting point, I don’t believe it’s feasible to denounce ‘violence’ as a category – or even ‘political violence’ – unless you’re opposed to every possible example of that category, which very few people are. You can observe that violence is a bad thing which often has bad consequences and should be seen as a bad choice, and I’ll agree. But the OP seems to be aiming for something much more categorical than that, and I don’t think it can be done.

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Phil 10.21.11 at 7:18 pm

How about probably more than ninety percent of the union-management contracts ever agreed upon?

The institutionalisation of union power would never have happened without violence, and – more interestingly – the domestication of violence: the redefinition of some things which were previously seen as violent (and hence criminal) as legitimate assertions of workers’ power. Pulling out my favourite quote from Charles Tilly:

during the nineteenth century workers, employers and governments engaged in a continuing struggle; its general outcome was not only the legalisation of some sort of strike activity but also the creation of shared understandings concerning the actions that constituted a strike. … It is not simply that legislators made some forms of the strike legal and other forms of the strike illegal. That happened, too. But in the process the antagonists created – in practice as well as in theory – a sharper distinction between the strike and other forms of action with which it had previously often been associated: sabotage, slowdown, absenteeism, the demonstration. A narrowed, contained strike entered the repertoire of workers’ collective action.

200 years ago the mere withdrawal of labour was seen as an act of violence, or at any rate as an act of insubordination which could legitimately be suppressed with violence. To go from the peace of the master/slave relationship to the peace of the union/management relationship may necessitate passing through a stage of violence.

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Phil 10.21.11 at 7:31 pm

One final point (sorry for the multiple comments).

So it may be common in the sense that most people can think of a case of one group of people who they’d like to beat up and who think that is admirable and commendable.

This is not and has never been what I’m saying. I’ve been very specific about this: I’m talking about situations where “one group of people finds what another group is doing particularly objectionable and uses force to stop them”, or (to put it another way) “it is appropriate for certain groups to be informally constrained by violence or the threat of violence”. I’m talking quite precisely about the instrumental use of violence to constrain people’s behaviour, where other means of doing so are inadequate or unavailable. If you’re not against that in every case, you’ve got no disagreement with me.

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Salient 10.21.11 at 9:48 pm

200 years ago the mere withdrawal of labour was seen as an act of violence, or at any rate as an act of insubordination which could legitimately be suppressed with violence.

Exactly, coordinated disruption was violently suppressed, so my precondition was met,^1^ and in response violence may have been legitimate,^2^ at least until coordinated disruption could be restored and employed without the prospect of further violent suppression.

^1^If pressed I’d put forth other necessary conditions too, but let’s not worry about that because I’m almost certain they’d also be met in this case.

^2^the clause “where and when it is/was proportional” should probably always be appended to a statement of the form “violence is/was legitimate”

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gordon 10.21.11 at 10:51 pm

I know I said “one last time”, but since ajay (at 149) says my argument is incredibly stupid I feel I need to defend my few remaining marbles.

Ajay says “…it’s not a good argument for the French Revolution to say that the Average Frenchman is healthier and wealthier now than he was in 1788″.

On the contrary, it’s an excellent argument, because the road from there to here runs through the French Revolution, and runs nowhere else.

Ajay is at liberty to create an imaginary narrative of what might or could or should or ought to have happened instead of the French Revolution, if he wants to. He could write it so that the history of France since 1788 is less bloody than it was; maybe he could write it so the two World Wars of the last century never happened either. It might be a paean to human reasonableness and forbearance. Maybe he could publish his narrative as an inspirational novel of alternative history, a sort of Utopia of might-have-beens. He could write it so that the Average Frenchman of 2011 is portrayed as much healthier and wealthier than the real Average Frenchman of today really is. But that narrative, no matter how entertainingly ajay writes it, doesn’t prove a thing; it remains speculative fiction.

As far as the facts are concerned, the Average Frenchman does indeed owe his current status to the French Revolution, and in a greater or lesser degree to the whole of the rest of the history of France – and of the rest of the world, too, to some extent. And the same applies to the Thirty Years’ War in respect of the Average German.

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John Quiggin 10.21.11 at 11:02 pm

And, since Godwin’s Law has already been broken (or for pedants, verified), let’s not forget that Gordon’s argument works just as well to illustrate the beneficent effects of Hitler, along with every other event in history.

Of course that also includes Gandhi, MLK and every instance of non-violence ever observed, successful or otherwise.

For that matter, the argument extends to this post and its comments thread, at least assuming the rate of economic growth has been positive over the past two days.

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Tim Wilkinson 10.21.11 at 11:26 pm

Yes – to spell it out: “a good argument for the French Revolution” means “a good argument that the French Revolution was better than the alternative”. Whether the French Revolution was better than the alternative is an essentially counterfactual question.

The general question is, is it prudent to use violence. That question, applied in the prospective case, involves comparing (at least) two possible courses of events, and decidiing which is probably better/best. Applied to the evaluative case of a past action, one of those courses of events may be known in detail (if one is willing to treat actual events as the best or representative case of the use of violence from the initial position), while the other has to be guessed at.

It is messy but still the only way of answering that question. Though I don’t suppose one should try to reconstruct an entire subsequent alternative history – you would want to discount the certainty of various outcomes over time, I suppose (otherwise it is of course too early to say.)

The alternative is not to answer the question, but instead a different one – for example, ‘was the French revolution on the causal path to the current state of France and of the French people?’ to which the answer is obviously yes, but equally obviously doesn’t allow us top draw any concsluion about whether the use of violence is a good idea.

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gordon 10.21.11 at 11:26 pm

Ah, I see I’m finally getting the message across. Yes, Prof. Quiggin (at 163), that’s right; we’re where we are because of what happened in the past. And there’s no path from the past (pick any date) to the present except the historical one. Would we all be better off now if eg. old Adolf had fallen under a bus as a teenager? Maybe, but we’ll never, ever know. What would have been the full consequences of such an accident? Again, we’ll never know.

But don’t let me stop you and ajay and anybody else who’s interested from making up stories. Maybe one of the historical outcomes of this thread will be a sudden upsurge in alternative history manuscripts submitted to the world’s publishers!

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John Quiggin 10.21.11 at 11:31 pm

Wow!

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gordon 10.22.11 at 12:12 am

I fear that Tim Wilkinson (at 164) is on the verge of concluding that we can draw no lessons from history. I don’t think that’s right. Look at Salient’s use of the Rosa Parks story (at 95). Knowing about Rosa Parks helps us with what Tim Wilkinson calls “the prospective case”; what we can do now to make things better in the future. It shows us that non-violent resistance can be effective.

Salient uses this example to conclude (at 156): “In general and unless there’s really unusual mitigating factors, violence is not justifiable at least until attempts at organized targeted nonviolent disruption have been violently suppressed”. I think that’s a reasonable conclusion about present action based in part on the lessons of history.

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Rich Puchalsky 10.22.11 at 1:22 am

“Coming back to my starting point, I don’t believe it’s feasible to denounce ‘violence’ as a category – or even ‘political violence’ – unless you’re opposed to every possible example of that category, which very few people are. “

And I think that is nonsensical, for the same reason that I thought Consumatopia’s earlier comments were. When people denounce violence as MLK or Gandhi did, they’re not making a philosophical proof, or striving for the utmost consistency according to the scheme that you think they should use. Logic-chopping to state that they have to be wrong unless they accept your line of thought is banal and silly.

“This is not and has never been what I’m saying. I’ve been very specific about this: I’m talking about situations where “one group of people finds what another group is doing particularly objectionable and uses force to stop them” [...]“

Your description reduces to mine, because people are notoriously bad at accurately describing the behavior of groups they don’t like. White people in the south of the U.S. in the early 20th century were quite sure that they had to use ” the instrumental use of violence to constrain [black] people’s behavior”, and that “other means of doing so are inadequate or unavailable”. That doesn’t mean it was true; it means that they believed it to be true.

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shah8 10.22.11 at 4:47 am

This is such a fundamentally stupid thread, so I changed my mind about commenting again.

First of all, almost all revolutions happen in the context of extreme, systemic violence–whether that be the state or otherwise. Other than the Samuel Adams and the Simon Bolivars of the world, most revolution are envelopes of irrationality. To say that a Haitian slave should not resort to force when given a real opportunity is to be inhumane. There are no norms of nonviolence that applies to a slave. It’s totally different when it comes to MLK in the US or Gandhi in India or whoever. Black people did exist in a context where violence against them must be rationalized in the Jim Crow South. Nonviolence works great at exposing the flimsy rationales for what they were. Violence at Hayes Pond also played a role in establishing some notion that it’s okay for black people to protect themselves with force.

Pretending that people generally have a choice whether or not to engage in political violence serves the purpose of blaming the powerless for being the victim. If the average foot soldier in a mexican narcotics operation is generally someone forcibly recruited for the cause, then where does Hizbollah rank in offensiveness? I mean, isn’t this general attitude about nonviolence with the underpinning logic of privilege why we have terrorist attacks? Conflict is part of the nature of human communities, and managing such thing seriously and appropriately usually means accepting that violence must happen if more civilized approach to resolution are normed out of practicality.

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Phil 10.22.11 at 9:54 am

When people denounce violence as MLK or Gandhi did, they’re not making a philosophical proof, or striving for the utmost consistency according to the scheme that you think they should use

Well, I’m not arguing with Gandhi, I’m arguing with JQ. And, as I’ve said more than once, if we’re looking at a prudentialist argument – “violence harms people, often harms the wrong people, often has bad unintended consequences and shouldn’t be engaged in lightly” – then I’d agree wholeheartedly. So would almost everyone else in the world: a statement that uncontroversial wouldn’t need a post devoted to it, unless somebody had been conspicuously maintaining the opposite. (Is anyone saying that #OWS needs to bring the hammer down on the Man with all speed? It’s escaped my notice if so.) But it seems to me that JQ is, precisely, making global and highly controversial statements about ‘violence’ at all times and in all places, even if they are supported by highly uncontroversial prudentialist arguments. (I have to say, there is an air of the Two-Step of Terrific Triviality about this thread.)

Your description reduces to mine

Not if you’re arguing in good faith. My point is (and always has been) that, although there are such things as lynch mobs, there is also such a thing as a situation where one group of people [quite genuinely] finds what another group is doing particularly objectionable and uses extra-legal force to stop them [and no more]. And, unless you’re opposed to this happening under any circumstances, you’re not opposed to “political violence” tout court.

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Tim Wilkinson 10.23.11 at 3:10 pm

gordion @167 – It shows us that non-violent resistance can be effective.

Because (or: which is to say) we have good reason to think that without said resistance the effect would not have occurred. There are complications, for example to do with preemption, but counterfactual claims of that kind are essential to the idea of causation. They become particularly important if we’re interested in some kind of maximisation or optimisation rather than mere satisficing. (Especially when what actually happened is used as the standard of what was to be achieved all along. Could a better outcome than was actually reached have been arrived at if violence had been used?)

I’m only on the verge of concluding that we can draw no lessons from history on the assumption that such simple counterfactual assumptions can’t or shouldn’t be made. But I think they can and may.

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gordon 10.24.11 at 1:56 am

Tim Wilkinson (at 171), I’m not exactly sure what you’re concerned about, but I’ll pile in anyway!

Here is a counterfactual claim: “If, instead of storming the Bastille in July 1789, the Parisians had held a nonviolent sit-in, the French of 2011 would be better off than they now are”. To my mind, that can never be tested and is just fantasy. Argument about its truth is wasted breath. Equally, the consequences of the “zero case”, of the Parisians doing nothing unusual on 14.7.89, can never be known. By the way, it’s not just about violence/non-violence; a claim that the French of 2011 would be better off if the Parisians had been even more violent than they were sounds just as pointless to me.

That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to argue about historical causation, but I think the arguments are evidentiary, not counterfactual. A revisionist historian might, for example, challenge the role of violence in the F.R. by trying to prove that there was a lot less violence than was previously thought. Or he might try to prove that the violent episodes were essentially irrelevant to producing the Revolution’s outcomes. He would have to produce historical evidence for those kinds of assertions, of course; there would an awful lot of proving to be done and a lot of contradictory evidence to be dealt with. It would be a long book but not, in principle, impossible.

Drawing lessons from history is always about what you call “the prospective case” – what we can and should do now. So we can look back and find examples of various kinds of actions and try to estimate what their results (or the results of analagous actions) would be if we took them now. That is hard, of course; no historical action can ever be really reproduced in the present, and circumstances are always different. But at least we can use history to rule out some assertions, eg. “non-violent protest is never effective” (see Salient and Rosa Parks). We can also use history to conclude “violence is sometimes necessary”, because there is violence in our history, and we believe that we are better off now than we were in the past. So, unless my revisionist historian of para. 3 turns up and has a big success, violence was an inescapable part of getting here.

I don’t know if that’s getting anywhere near your concerns, but it’s certainly an interesting topic.

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