The Failure of Nonviolence

Rebellions give people practice in learning that they can stand up for themselves, and it shows them a further horizon. Within that, there’s going to be conflict about what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s helpful and what’s harmful. But those decisions can’t be handed down from above.

AntiNote: More and more people are beginning to notice and remark upon the rapidly intensifying nature of state authority in the United States, typified by the militarization of local police forces but also noticeable in related areas of the penal and immigration systems. Phrases like ‘prison-industrial complex,’ ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ and ‘the carceral state’ are finding their way into mainstream discourse. More familiar terms like ‘political prisoners’ and ‘show trial’ appear to have regained some of the resonance they had lost through years of overuse or their near-exclusive application only to Other contexts.

Perhaps it is just a matter of my own perception, but I find it is becoming more common to encounter news stories and public figures—not to mention friends and family—looking askance at manifestations of state authority that in the past were, for most people, an unremarkable feature of an unremarkable status quo.

Of course, the authorities aren’t doing themselves any favors. The media is still hesitant to use appropriately critical terminology, but we are being ever more frequently confronted with concrete instances of obvious and frankly appalling overreach, misconduct, abuse, and illegality of authorities, from high profile police killings of unarmed black men to refugee internment camps to cruel experimental executions.

People are beginning to draw parallels and make unfavorable comparisons to historical systems of authority that we have been taught to despise and condemn out of hand. The Gulag. The Stasi. Jim Crow. It is no longer necessarily a violation of Godwin’s Law to refer to brownshirts.

This is a sign that many people are not merely calling into question previously accepted (or, more likely, ignored) aspects of the system—like solitary confinement, child prisoners, forced deportations, and the War on Drugs, to say nothing of surveillance—but also its fundamental underpinnings: most famously capitalism, but also prisons and borders as such, or the state monopoly on violence.

We are living in a crucial time. The American state’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people is in decline at the same time that its capacity for violence against these same people is increasing. Of course this is true of many states, currently, and has been true of the United States for longer than many of us more privileged (read: white) Americans may realize. But as dissent increases and also becomes increasingly dangerous, there needs to be a clear-eyed and open discussion about what to do when we inevitably come face to face with the terrible power we would try to dismantle.

Peter Gelderloos is not satisfied with the current boundaries of this discussion. In an interview with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West last fall, he explained why. Á propos of the current debate about ‘proper’ responses to state violence that was sparked by the police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ‘riots’ that continue, Antidote presents the second in our series of authorized Smiley and West transcripts. Enjoy!


Source: Twitter
Source: Twitter

Tavis Smiley: Our guest is Peter Gelderloos. He served six months in a federal prison for his protest [of the School of the Americas in 2001], and subsequently wrote the texts How Nonviolence Protects the State and The Failure of Nonviolence. He joins us from Barcelona, Spain, where he continues his activism.

Peter, good to have you on Smiley and West.

Peter Gelderloos: Thanks for having me.

Cornel West: Brother Peter, I salute your courage and your willingness to sacrifice so much in the name of justice. I know you’re in Spain; it has a very rich tradition, especially there in Barcelona, of workers’ councils—a very rich tradition of everyday people gaining control over their work conditions. But why do you think in the United States we tend to be so reluctant to talk explicitly about empire and about class?

PG: I think one of the reasons is that there were really strong struggles in the U.S. in the sixties and seventies, like other countries around the world—but in the U.S. they were so fully defeated. A lot of the people who participated are either dead or they’re in prison; or they got co-opted, they got bought off: they’re working for universities, for NGOs, they went into government. So for a variety of reasons they just don’t talk about that defeat.

For people who are struggling for a better world, sometimes our history of defeat is the only thing that we have. And that’s important because of all the lessons that it offers to us, and because it shows that people haven’t always passively accepted this present system and the world that we inhabit.

The fact that people of my generation and subsequent generations grow up not even realizing that those struggles existed—or are not learning the appropriate lessons from them—puts us at a huge disadvantage. It distances us from the reality of struggle, and it means that we constantly have to reinvent the wheel.

I think that nonviolence is a perfect example of that historical amnesia; it’s much too simple an answer for the very complex lessons that have come from past struggles.

It’s not that there aren’t ongoing struggles in the U.S. today; we’ve seen that with the responses to the police murder of Oscar Grant or the Trayvon Martin verdict. We’ve seen it in the Occupy Movement.

But on the one hand, people have to constantly reinvent the wheel and learn all over again what tactics are necessary in order to seize space and start transforming it; and on the other hand, the media is especially tightly controlled in the U.S., and people who do stand up have to face being constantly maligned, having their causes distorted, and also having a barrage of opportunities to cash in on what they’ve done: to get nice jobs, to become politicians, or start working with an NGO and take a less risky path of struggle.

TS: I want to circle back to The Failure of Nonviolence, specifically, in just a second. First, though, let me stay with this line of thought that you and Dr. West have pursued.

My question is, how do you convince people in this society—we know the society that we’re talking about—how do you convince people in this moment to care about a future, Peter, that they might not ever see?

PG: It’s not just about a distant, improbable future but about things in our everyday lives right here and right now. It’s about making things better where we stand. It’s about seizing empty lots and turning them into gardens, like people did in Los Angeles a few years back. It’s about protecting neighborhoods from police violence and from problems of drugs and addiction. It’s about seizing vacant housing and fixing it up and living in it without having to pay rent to anyone. There’s all sorts of aspects of struggle that take place right here and right now, and that make things better for us.

TS: Let me go back now to these books that we referenced at the top. I want to go back and give you a chance to unpack what is meant by these titles. When you write a book called How Nonviolence Protects the State, and you write another book called The Failure of Nonviolence, what’s the message you’re trying to get out about nonviolence, specifically? Because those who believe, say, in Kingian nonviolence, when they hear of a book called The Failure of Nonviolence, I think it might prick up their ears.

“We need to accept that conflict is actually a good thing within our social movements.”

PG: Yeah. Basically, these books—both of them in different historical moments, because the first one was written about eight years ago—analyze how nonviolence functions within movements for social change to make sure that those movements will continuously be co-opted, to make sure that they don’t go beyond the barriers that have been set up to acceptable change under government, under capitalism.

The Failure of Nonviolence, the most recent book, focuses on what nonviolence looks like today. And nonviolence today, while it may make a lot of brief references to Martin Luther King or to Gandhi—both of whom participated in complex struggles that included nonviolent elements as well as more combative elements—the actual face of nonviolence today has changed a lot.

It’s reflected a lot more by the method of nonviolence espoused by Gene Sharp, which is associated with the so-called Color Revolutions of the last years. These were basically mass movements that flooded the streets, flooded the squares, and used a very lowest-common-denominator discourse. Each movement had a single-word slogan and a color that they identified with, and they basically created a crisis in governance.

Now, a crisis in governance is not enough to create an actual social transformation, because it doesn’t change who has power. It simply means that those in power need to change their masks. They need to offer up another false solution, and that’s what’s happened in every single one of these Color Revolutions. I could just as easily have called this book The Success of Nonviolence, because if you look at all the successes of nonviolent social movements over the last twenty years, that’s the maximum of what they’ve accomplished: a cosmetic change in which those in power shift around but the same fundamental problems continue. And then they go on to hail these changes as a victory.

TS: So if nonviolence worked for Gandhi, and it worked for King, what’s bankrupt about nonviolence as we know it today? I hear your critique, I’m just trying to figure out what’s missing. For those who believe in nonviolent struggles, for those who practice it in the contemporary setting, what’s missing?

PG: Well, first of all I think we need to question the idea that nonviolence “worked” for King and for Gandhi. Because both of those were at best partial victories. Institutionalized racism continues, perhaps stronger than before, in the United States. India shifted from being a colony to a neo-colony. It’s still exploited by a lot of the same powers; it has a political system inherited from colonialism.

Further, even those achievements, the partial victories that each of those movements achieved, can’t be attributed solely to nonviolence. They came from movements that used a diversity of tactics. During the civil rights movement you had Martin Luther King, but you also had groups like the Deacons of Defense that practiced armed self defense against the violence of the Klan or the violence of the police. In fact, Martin Luther King used the Deacons of Defense a number of times to protect his marches and rallies. You also have the Black Panthers and a number of urban uprisings, for example the riots in Birmingham, that were really the direct trigger for the Civil Rights Act.

And then if you look at King’s political evolution, later in life he started talking about being in solidarity with the Vietnamese in their struggle against U.S. occupation; he started talking sympathetically with young black urban rioters.

The kind of nonviolence that we have today is this extreme denunciation of any form of social struggle that is illegal, that is combative, that is forceful, that doesn’t ask for permission and that doesn’t wait and play by the rules. It’s a nonviolence that has people cooperating with the mass media and with the police against fellow protesters, against follow activists and other people in the streets in order to eliminate all of those other forms of struggle.

There’s obviously room in a social struggle, in a social movement, for all different sorts of people: for people who prefer peaceful methods and for people who prefer direct action and self-defense. But those who prefer peaceful methods need to stop identifying with an exclusive nonviolence and acknowledge that all social movements are heterogeneous. All social movements are diverse, and they can’t control other people’s participation in a social movement. They should start looking towards how these different forms of participation can complement one another.

“Violence isn’t a meaningful category.”

CW: You know, in about a week we’re going to be together in New York City, a number of us, saluting the great Dorothy Day—who, as you know, was an anarchist, as was Bayard Ruston, as was Henry David Thoreau, as is Noam Chomsky. I’d like to reflect a bit on her. She seems to actually be a figure who recognized that reform was never enough and that even nonviolent attempts at reform would never be enough. But she also recognized that revolution—though desirable in terms of a fundamental transformation of a society done in a humane way—seemed to be so marginal, so unlikely. And therefore she’s caught on a tightrope between reform and revolution. What do you make of her dilemma?

PG: I don’t necessarily see a dilemma between reform and revolution—I think that we need to fight for revolution, for a total social transformation, even if it’s highly unlikely. If Dorothy Day recognized it as unlikely in her time, it’s even more unlikely in our time. But by shooting for the moon, that really is also one of the best chances of making things better in small ways right here and right now.

A lot of reforms, most reforms probably, are just a shuffling of the cards and a way to co-opt people’s energy and rejuvenate the system. But the few reforms that actually make life better—for example having an eight-hour workday, or healthcare, or bathroom breaks, or people being able to go into whatever bar or restaurant or public space they want regardless of their skin color—really those changes came about when people went for broke, tried to shoot the moon, and totally transformed society and upset the system so much that those in power had to offer something, they had to give away something, in order to keep from losing the whole game.

CW: I think you’re right about that. It’s just that especially among the younger generation, you know, how do you make a case that a commitment to moral integrity—even if the consequences are something far down the road—is worth opting for? We live in a short-term society, market-driven, obsessed with capital, obsessed with status, wealth, position, and stature. The idea of the life that you live, brother Peter—which I see as very similar to Dorothy Day and King, which is to say, ‘look, regardless of the consequences, this is the kind of person I want to be, and that means that I will be a revolutionary who tells the truth about the depths of exploitation and domination even if I’m pushed to the margins and even if it looks as if the one-dimensional society (to use the language of Herbert Marcuse) will co-opt the movement, will repress the movement, will somehow dilute the movement. I will attempt to preserve integrity.’ Can that case be made? Especially to the younger generation?

PG: I think so. I think in the last years you’ve seen a lot more young people start to rebel, start to think for themselves. I think they’re paying a lot less attention to the mass media. All across the world now you see different movements like that. There is a student movement in the U.K. Some of the most marginalized youth in the U.S., immigrant youth and youth of color, have been rising up in response to police violence or the racism of immigration policy in the United States in the last few years. In Chile, there’s a huge student movement with students going on strike and taking over the streets. There has also been a strong student movement here in Spain, also with students going on strike and taking over the streets.

It always starts with a small group doing what they have to do regardless of the consequences, and sometimes that resonates with people, and a small drop becomes a big wave.

TS: Peter, I wonder whether your version of rebellion or revolution tolerates violence of any sort, and if so, under what conditions?

PG: My first criticism of nonviolence is that violence isn’t a meaningful category. I mean, in this one box, in this one word, we have things that governments do (like carpet-bombing cities or forcing entire populations into mass starvation or locking people up in solitary confinement for years on end, like Herman Wallace who just died after 41 years in solitary for a crime he didn’t commit) and we also have other kinds of activities that are described as violent, that include self-defense (for example, queer and trans people defending themselves from homophobic attackers in the streets). Or people who have been kicked out of their houses for not being able to pay the mortgage smashing the bank that did that to them. So we’re also talking about destruction of property.

People on the bottom of the social hierarchy are rising up against people on top, and those different activities—the activities of the powerful and those of the rest of us—follow completely different logics. And I don’t think they actually reproduce one another.

So I think that self-defense is completely legitimate; I think destroying the structures in our society that are poisoning us or exploiting us is completely legitimate. And what we do have, like for example the eight hour workday or women being able to participate as equals in society, or an end to at least legal segregation (if not other forms of institutionalized racism)—those didn’t come from people following the law and being only peaceful, although there were peaceful forms of participation in all those movements. They came from people fighting back.

And if we don’t recognize the tactics that gave us what little we have as legitimate—tactics like the strike, sabotage, defending ourselves from the police, from state surveillance, from armed racists—if we can’t recognize those things as legitimate, then we might as well just give up what little we still have that they haven’t been able to take from us.

CW: I think brother Tavis was making a distinction between rebellion and revolution—rebellion being the expression of the outrage of those who have been mistreated and abused; it’s not tied to a plan, it may not even be tied to a vision, it’s just a kind of cathartic expression that may generate concessions from the powers that be, as opposed to a much more revolutionary conception of structural transformation where people are tied to a certain vision of the world and organizations are attuned to that vision.

“If we take power over our own lives, they don’t have any power left.”

PG: I think often rebellions give rise to revolutions. Rebellions give people practice in learning that they can stand up for themselves and then it shows them a further horizon. Within that, of course, there’s going to be a lot of disagreement; there’s going to be a lot of conflict about what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s helpful and what’s harmful. But those decisions can’t be handed down from above. They certainly can’t be written in some book and imposed across an entire society. They need to happen through face to face conflict and criticism and engagement.

We need to accept that conflict is actually a good thing within our social movements, so that when other people do things that we find are harmful, we don’t freak out and run and denounce them to the press or to the police but we make those criticisms and we show a different, better way of doing things while moving forward and recognizing that none of us have the ultimate answers and we’re learning as we go.

TS: I think you’re right, Peter, about the fact that conflict is good. I don’t think there’s any disagreement there. I guess the question is where the line is between responding to your oppressors and becoming just like your oppressors. That was the rub for Gandhi and King—that you don’t want to become like those who oppressed you.

PG: I think that’s a really important consideration. As an anarchist, I approach that question differently than proponents of nonviolence tend to approach it. I don’t think rebelling or fighting back is what makes someone like their oppressor. I think it’s taking power and holding power over others.

Someone who defends themselves is not ‘oppressing’ the person that they’re defending themselves from. In fact, if that person is a bully—whether an institutional bully or just a bully on a personal level—by facing that resistance they’re actually getting an opportunity to learn, to correct their ways and to stop being this oppressive figure.

If you don’t have an ethic of anti-authoritarianism or of equality and sharing and mutual aid, then when you win in a struggle you have the opportunity to turn yourself into a new authority. The typical example is the Russian Revolution, where the Bolsheviks took power and then became the new authorities—possibly even worse than the ones that came before them. But this wasn’t because they took the path of armed struggle. The Bolsheviks always had an authoritarian ideology. From the beginning, they were promising to inaugurate a dictatorship and that’s exactly what they did.

But there were also many other people, other kinds of socialists and anarchists participating in that revolution who did so from an ethic of self-organization rather than imposed solutions by government, and an ethic of equality and anti-authoritarianism. And where revolutions that had those ethics have succeeded (albeit for a brief amount of time before they’ve been crushed), people didn’t set up new authorities. People didn’t start imprisoning their opponents or oppressing people.

Then you have the cases of the Color Revolutions, which were completely nonviolent: the leaders of those nonviolent Color Revolutions were the opposition parties that went into government and became the new rulers and started engaging in the same kinds of corruption and brutality as the governments before them.

CW: But that’s always been the challenge. On the one hand I resonate very deeply with your anarchist vision and sensibility because you have a healthy suspicion of institutionalized power, be it in the private sector or the public sector, and you can see the corruption, you can see oligarchy, you can see plutocracy at work.

But that is a critique, that’s more a resistance and in some ways only defensive. But when we come to the constructive moment, how do you set up an institutional arrangement when you have deep suspicion of institutional power? How do you convince people on the constructive side that as an anarchist you can actually create something new that is sustaining, as opposed to the corruption that seems to seep in?

PG: That’s a really good question. I guess it depends on what your definition of ‘institutional’ is. But we’ll just skip definitions and go right to the heart of the matter. A set, rigid institution that people aren’t really allowed to change—or at the very least they’re dissuaded from changing it—is completely different from a practice of self-organization in which the people who are directly affected are the ones creating the solutions, whether that’s in the workplace, whether that’s in the neighborhood.

Organization at the workplace and the neighborhood level is imminently practical. It’s something that has a long history, and something that is shown to work because, contrary to the ideology of authority, those who are best placed to make decisions are not those on top in the distant halls of power. They’re the ones who are on the ground who have the most information and can collectively make the best decisions.

In the recent social uprisings in Argentina, for example, people took over their factories and they started self-organizing them. And a lot of those are still going on. If they fell apart it’s not because that form of self-organization didn’t work, it’s because the police kicked them out or prices rose and people had to emigrate in search of other things because of precarity in the economic system.

Also, here in Barcelona, in the 2011 plaza occupation movement that was a major precursor to the Occupy Movement in the U.S., neighborhood assemblies sprung up all over the place. These were places where people met directly with their neighbors and started organizing solutions for the very real problems that they faced.

I think there’s a lot less awareness of these different constructive solutions, but even though we’re constantly trained to be suspicious of any kind of horizontal solution—which is to say we’re trained to be suspicious of ourselves and of our own capacity to take care of ourselves; we’re constantly infantilized by government—these different experiences of self-organization have a very broad, rich history and a very good track record.

But people need to trust in them, meaning they need to trust in themselves. And they need to fight for it, because these things are constantly illegalized. The neighborhood assembly, for example: we meet in a public plaza, and at any time the police could come in and say that we don’t have permission to use it, because the space is under institutional control and we don’t ask anyone for permission. So we are only able to keep meeting there because we fight to hold on to that space. The minute that we stop fighting, we lose it, and the illusion returns that self-organization is impossible.

It’s not impossible; it’s being actively suppressed by those in power. Because if we take power over our own lives, they don’t have any power left.

TS: Peter, it’s been a delight to have you on the program. We’ve enjoyed the conversation immensely. Thank you for your time, sir.

PG: Thank you so much for having me.

CW: We salute you, brother!

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