On Civil Disobedience, Violence and Gradualism

January 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Man’s freedom, Camus pointed out, “is nothing else but a chance to be better” – and “the only way to deal with an un-free world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion”. 

— Zygmunt Bauman, on Albert Camus

[…] the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” […] 

The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

— Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Letter From Birmingham Jail”, 1963)

King is no good anyway.

— Herbert Hoover, FBI director (FBI memo, 1962)


The question of gradualism in politics (in electoral politics known as “lesser evilism”, or LOTE) has been discussed by many: whether it’s more advantageous to work within the electoral system (or any organized, state-sanctioned system) to enact reform, or to ignore it, focusing one’s energies elsewhere. I won’t pretend this is a simple question because I don’t think it is, but I have a brief opinion on the matter. There are two main positions one can take that I see:

1) Working within the system is the most effective way enact policy changes, which, though incremental and often piecemeal, have some concrete effects on the lives of large numbers of people

2) The system is so corrupt and self-perpetuating, and the thinking permeating it so insular and doctrinal, that hoping to transform it from the inside is hopeless and a waste of energy — divestment is the answer

Let me say that I do not agree with the rather facile, bumper-sticker logic which dictates that “voting doesn’t matter”, leaving it at that. As a simple empirical matter, it’s easy to demonstrate that this is false, though there is much truth to it. Also, whether one is pursuing long-term or short-term goals is important. Simply divesting from electoral politics in order to withdraw one’s support for a broader system which rewards fraud and failure, increases the power of the “plutonomy” and prosecutes endless wars across the globe — without offering alternative structures or actions — is in my opinion unlikely to have much impact. I would simply call it neutral non-participation. The question of measuring (as much as that’s possible) the effects of one’s actions is crucial, and if it is shown that simple divestment by individuals following their own consciences does nothing to stop the bombs or the continuing ravages of upward income redistribution, then it can’t in my mind be considered a moral position — although it may be principled. As an individual, conscious decision to refuse to participate in evil, it is noble, but if it remains a single, isolated incident the results will be minimal. A broad, organized divestment campaign might be different, however.

Position 1) implies that “politics” is something only to be measured by state-sanctioned, organized elections, an activity to be exercised only punctually, at regular intervals, when it is authorized. This to me is the more pernicious and harmful view, as it narrows considerably the scope of what “politics” is, leaving anything outside of these events, which have become total farces handled by the public relations industry, as “a-political” — which is, of course, absurd. Whatever the truth is, it’s obvious that empowering outside voices, who have not been corrupted by the interests which feed our self-perpetuating political institutions (whether or not they are of use to the greater public), is absolutely vital to sustaining an honest discourse.

First of all, let us dispense with the misleading dichotomy between civil disobedience and illegality; civil disobedience — acts protesting the State when its policies are deemed unjust — is often by definition illegal, and indeed the fact that such acts are illegal is often an integral part of the strategy. Such a dichotomy implies that there are two forms of civil disobedience: one passive and peaceful, the other aggressive and “violent” — the underlying assumption being that one is more respectable, responsible and effective than the other. Such a simplistic view is dishonest and inaccurate, reducing the complexities of the situations faced by real human beings when confronted with real power by insidiously removing the societal and political contexts in which people act, and erasing any relations of structural domination which might exist. It is a view which normalizes violence when it emanates from entities sanctioned by the State — as if somehow protests in which citizens are attacked and injured are not “violent” (following one of the doctrinal usages of the word). It is in an imaginary world, where there is perfect equality and little arbitrary domination of one group over another, not the real one, that such a categorical rejection of violence or provocation is coherent. It is here that we see caricatures presented of the imaginary King and Gandhi, rendered harmless and passive through a false reading of their words, turning them into abstractions fit for popular consumption, more palatable — and here that we see the a-historical and bland exhortations demanding to locate the “Palestinian Gandhi” (hint: search the prisons).

The idea of a law which must not in any case be transgressed and be obeyed without question stems from a naïve conception of justice: a systematic and faithful codification of generally recognized moral codes. This is not necessarily what the law is, however let us assume for a moment that it is. It is an open debate whether or not there is an innate, genetically endowed set of morals which all humans possess, but it’s clear that across societies there are some very basic taboos and interdictions, which might be an indication of such a moral system. If this is the case, are we to believe that the particular system of case law in vigor in the U.S and elsewhere is wholly extrapolated from and built upon this very fundamental, yet barely understood, moral system? Clearly this can’t be the case, so it must be admitted that the law is an imperfect approximation of such a thing — and if it is an imperfect approximation, especially when it is administered by fallible individuals, then it cannot be held up as an inviolable, flawless institution. A more accurate interpretation could simply be: a common set of rules to be applied to all without distinction, principles to which all agree to submit, no matter how flawed, the goal of creating a faithful and accurate codification of innate moral principles being a misguided and impossible task.

In Resistance to Civil Government Henry David Thoreau writes:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.

There are some difficulties here, primarily that there is no guarantee that “what I think right” must necessarily be recognized as ethical behavior by everyone — every tyrant and hoodlum has always found ways to justify his actions, appealing to the greater good to which some unfortunate innocent bystanders must be sacrificed. Appealing to one’s own “conscience” can also result in atrocities if the conscience in question is convinced of its own righteousness and finds itself at the command of significant power — and ultimately, power is the important issue. If the law is not to be a codification of ethical standards, then its ostensible purpose is to revoke the special privileges of the powerful, while defending the powerless, so that it might be the one domain in which some semblance of equality exists. Reality, however, demonstrates that, instead of acting as a check on the powerful, the law has often been bent into a tool of subjugation by those in a position to use it to their advantage. Laws, in other words, have often been used to shore up the privileges of those who drafted them — which should really not be such a surprise. The questions then of how much sovereignty an individual has when faced with what she sees are unjust laws, how much legitimacy to give them and whether or not to submit to them become pertinent.

Raul Hilberg documented how during the Nazi holocaust the legal profession was an integral, vital part of implementing brutal state policy:

Lawyers were everywhere and their influence was pervasive. Again and again, there was a need for legal justification. When the number two Nazi, Herman Goring, suggested in the course of a discussion at the end of 1938 that German travelers could always kick Jewish passengers out of a crowded compartment on a train, the Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, replied: “I would not say that. I do not believe in this. There has to be a law.”

In the cliché-thickened, mind-numbing swamp of U.S. political discourse, we see much talk of “returning to our roots” as a nation through strict adherence to the Constitution — as if it were a magical document the spells contained wherein would cure the country’s deepest ills; the wisdom of the “Founding Fathers”, who, if we would let them whisper to us through the ages, would enable us to “take back the country” to a magical era when all was right. Such mythologies, while containing a kernel of truth, like the mythologies built around King and Gandhi, stray rather far from reality.

Richard Seymour states the idea in a more condensed form:

I would just ask the reader simply to be positively disposed toward the thesis that, in the last analysis, the law is congealed class power.

Regarding history, perception of past events can be dramatized or skewed in order to conform to a particular narrative, being useful for illustrating certain principles but which weren’t necessarily animating the people participating in them. We should be careful to not impose an overarching narrative, or pattern on well-known historical events, which are sometimes more random and purposeless than they might seem in retrospect, simply in an effort to make them more understandable to us, or to bolster our own opinions or ideologies.

As I wrote about Aaron Swartz (and Bradley Manning), the general idea is that those who engage in civil disobedience act as precursors, the rest of the population benefiting from these acts by heightened awareness, or when the causes advanced become socially acceptable, normalized. In light of David Graeber’s statement, “Direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free”, acts of civil disobedience are only radical in that they operate in a space and time outside of the present — in other words, acting out a possible future in which their demands have already become a reality. Or, as Albert Camus would say“I rebel, therefore we exist.”

Freddie deBoer writes:

Martin Luther King was adamantly opposed to gradualism, and as Ned Resnikoff pointed out, those events of resistance represent the rejection of the political process due to the urgency of profound oppression. […] To ask for change in the face of injustice and suffering is to be called naive and sanctimonious; to advocate resistance that transcends voting once every four years is to be called a traitor. Yet the man who we celebrate today, and the events referenced by the very president who is defended in those terms, speak to the profound poverty of conscience that resides in the doctrine of the lesser evil.

Who would tell Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines and the slaves who revolted in Haïti, sparking a revolution that would even ignite fears in the U.S. of a possible spreading insurrection among slaves, that they should wait for a more propitious moment to make their demands known? John Brown (see Thoreau on John Brown) that his harsh tactics in his efforts to abolish chattel slavery weren’t gentle enough to win over public opinion? Draft card burners that they should find a better way to voice their discontent while the U.S. was systematically destroying South Vietnam, Cambodia and parts of Laos? Freedom Riders that they should have waited until southern whites, and their police collaborators, were more amenable to reconsidering their ideas on race? The Algerian National Liberation Front that they should have insisted on sitting down and negotiating with their colonizers and torturers? The Stonewall rioters they should cooperate and really just find better ways to channel their energies? Who would tell these people to temper their demands to accommodate the public’s sense of decency?

King spoke in 1968:

One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, “Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out.”

Barack Obama mentioned “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” in his recent inauguration speech. One could note the irony of Obama, the head of state presiding over the most prodigious expansion of covert and clandestine warfare in recent memory, as well as a record number of deportations of undocumented immigrants, an aggressive campaign against governmental transparency and dissent — a member of the very organization a main function of which is to maintain the status quo — approvingly referencing events which were explicitly challenges to the status quo. Far from being an abnormal display of hypocrisy, it is routine for a public figure to pay rhetorical homage to such liberating events once they are distanced enough into the past to be inoffensive and harmless, unable to spark any present action. Thus, one pays lip service to a revolutionary spirit while simultaneously implementing policies which are perfectly at odds with it, or counterrevolutionary. As such quotes become commonplace, taken out of context and repeated ad nauseum every time a speaker or writer wishes to ostentatiously encapsulate his philosophy with radical boiler plate, there is the risk that the sentiments expressed are transformed into rhetorical flourish, and the real fervor which animated them is reduced to trite formulas.

“Speaking truth to power”, while an admirable notion in its own right, suffers from the fatal flaw of presupposing that “power” is unaware of the truth — a refrain echoing the typical liberal conceit that a simple lack of information is at the root of injustice, that all that needs to be done is to understand and explain the problem correctly to those in a position to remedy it. While there is always something to be gained from studying and understanding the reasons for various ills plaguing humanity, what is needed at times is a not a careful, cogent argument, but simply an act, or a healthy dose of unmitigated rage.


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