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.
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).