March 03, 2003
What Is Called Violence

[This is largely in response to Keston's Short Critique of Pacifism. I am making a new post rather than a comment since in part I hope to use this as a sort of informal poll on a specific question (at the end of this post). All links open new window]

Keston's critique is a concise and articulate distillation of a long and long-elaborated debate. I admire it for that, and I should say that I also agree with its central beliefs. It has two lacunae worth talking about, which I hope will lead from its abstract clarity to a pragmatic discussion of direct action tactics.

The first lacuna: it's not really a critique of pacifism...

since it doesn't make the case for violence (or whatever you'd like to term non-pacific action). It makes the case for systemic change rather than the inverted appeasement of incremental change -- put another way, it poses the necessity of a revolutionary rather than liberal consciousness, and leaves little ground between the two. But nowhere in Keston's argument does he establish that systemic change must be counter to pacifist ideals.

This actually turns out to be a lesser lacuna (or "lacunita") in the argument: the Socratic sucker sez, as always, "What about Ghandi" and the interlocutor quickly draws a distinction between strategies which might work for an imperial client state, and strategies required for systemic change of the empire itself. (The question "What about a general strike?" is more powerful -- perhaps it will wait for a latter post).

Even given a conceptual defense of violent means, the greater (or "big kahuna") lacuna of Keston's critique is the extent to which it lacks an affective account of violence. If we're going to do, uh, non-non-violent things to realize ourselves as subjects of history -- in the streets of New York and San Francisco and Cambridge, England -- we're going to experience these acts (and their repercussions) as subjects; they won't happen simply because history calls them into being. Dialectics is a descriptive, not a prescriptive practice.

Something like the beginnings of an affective account can be found in the Vaneigem epigram (which itself stands as an even more concise summary of Keston's argument) "Let ten people meet who are resolved on the lightning of violence rather than the agony of survival; from this moment, despair ends and tactics begin" (download the entire book as a word document: Revolution of Everyday Life). This organizes the violent act as neither function nor symptom, but has space for both -- as it must. When dialectics describes history, after all, in includes equally the actor who smashes a window out of inchoate anger and the actor who smashes a window to protest the window owner's labor practices.

With all this in mind, I am curious about Circulars participants' ideas on the debate within direct action communities over what is generally referred to as "diversity of tactics." The debate starts with whether any kind of physical non-passive act is a) morally acceptable, and/or b) pragmatically useful. What acts would you condone? Is there a difference for you between what you would condone and what you could imagine doing?

The most vigorously argued terrain often concerns the line between violence against property and violence against people. If you support the former but not the latter, where do you draw the line? Consider for example the case of throwing a rock through a Starbuck's window when there are patrons inside. Or throwing a rock through a window of an office building's lobby when there are frightened employees upstairs. Or spray-painting a wall that a minimum-wage worker will have to clean.

Extensive, not-always articulate debate can be found on both the infoshop and indymedia sites. I am curious to extend the debate to this site, to see what the activist poetics community makes of this issue...and whether the discussion might lead toward practice, not in the grand future, but at the next marches, demos, and actions.

-- power to the workers' councils, etc.

Posted by Joshua Clover at March 03, 2003 05:16 PM

"Let ten people meet who are resolved on the lightning of violence rather than the agony of survival; from this moment, despair ends and tactics begin"

These 10 people took flight lessons in the US a few years ago, and later boarded planes in Boston and DC. To their own end, they were immensely successful. I don't think Keston was discussing breaking a few windows at the Starbucks. And this post, Josh, I read as bait. Instead of suggesting a debate as an academic exercise I believe you should first tell people where you yourself stand on the issue. After all, Vaneigem also writes, "I will not renounce my share of violence." This is an issue, in today's environment, people should be cautious about discussing online.

Posted by: daniel bouchard on March 13, 2003 08:20 AM

fair enough (except the "bait" part -- what exactly do you think I'm baiting you into, Dan?): having marched with pacifists and with those distinctly something else, and having participated in the debate within the direct action community for a good while, it is something I remain deeply conflicted about. I guess an honest answer would include that a) I support wholeheartedly the necessity of at least imagining systemic change, whether or not I think it's "possible"; b) I believe that systemic change, should it ever happen, will not happen without violence; c) revolutionary moments in history (up through the quite recent past) have consistently come out of instances that you or I might identify as "riots," when crowds without strategic political objectives realize that they are suddenly of a size and force that state apparatus can't immediately manage; and that d) I myself feel very weird and uncomfortable about doing things that I can clearly conceive of as harming another person's body, and differently uncomfortable about supposing the necessity that someone else do them on my behalf.

I am desperately interested in profound arguments against violence. To point out that it is employed as a means by people whose ends are unacceptable to you (or me) is perhaps a place to start from; I'm not sure it makes an argument, as such. But really I'm interested in any discussion which seeks to navigate the gap between ideals of systemic change and the practice of bringing it about.

Posted by: Joshua Clover on March 13, 2003 12:37 PM


Boy you guys really are deep.

How about talking a little normal so we "un-educated" folks can understand you.

Actually, don't bother. I read all this hog wash and think it is exactly that. BS...

It is easy to say "Fight the capitalist" or "Fight the evil war mongers".

But Brian Stefans said something else in his prior post;

"state orchestrated violence, like other forms of violence, is inherently indefensible since it creates victims"

What none of you seem to want to recognize (or admit) is that Saddam Hussein’s government IS THE STATE in Iraq. It is the one creating the victims and unlike here in this "capitalism" that you seem to hate so much, they can not speak out against it.

If they do, they end up being gassed or just disappear.

Your ideals while noble just are not realistic. Until everyone feels the way you do, there will always be people that will endeavor to make you the cattle.

I suggest instead of hating the people that protect your right to protest, you try thanking them.

God Bless America…

PS. Did you guys know I have started getting hate mail since posting here? So much for pacifism!

Posted by: Paul Hart on March 16, 2003 05:23 PM

While I agree with Mr. Clover for the most part about how Keston never really establishes the incompatibility of "systemic change with pacifist ideals," I have been struck, after reading much left debate, by the incommensurability of these ideals.

I too, have a conflicted relationship to the left's call for a "diversity of tactics."

On the one hand, we have any number of arguments for and against the use of violence on strictly practical/tactical grounds. The crucial question concerning violence then seems to become, by whom and against whom? And, when?

Michael Albert's pragmatic argument is timely:

"Itís really quite simple. The state has a monopoly of violence. What that means is that there is no way for the public, particularly in developed First World societies, to compete on the field of violence with their governments. That ought to be obvious. Our strong suit is information, facts, justice, disobedience and especially numbers. Their strong suit is lying and especially exerting military power. A contest of escalating violence is a contest we are doomed to lose. A contest in which numbers, commitment, and increasingly militant nonviolent activism confronts state power is a contest we can win."

Unfortunately, Albert doesn't seem to recognize that strikes are fundamentally, violent. Directly or indirectly. They are designed to keep the system from functioning.

After the recent UPS labor dispute, many claimed that the striking workers were preventing blood supplies and organ transplants from reaching needy recipients. The government employs this rationale every time it attacks organized labor for "the sake of the public good."

On the other hand, we're confronted by a rich legacy of nonviolent resistance which is basically religious in character--a Gandhian articulation of ahimsa, Buddhism, Latin American liberation theology, MLK's conversion to nonviolent resistance after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott etc. Or theoretically in the work of someone like Rene Girard.

Though I have tremendous respect for these forms of resistance, the historical examples seem to emphasize that nonviolent action is effective at promoting systemic reform but not, as of yet, systemic change.

There are situations one can imagine where a "fundamentalist pacifism" would seem to be blatantly immoral. It would be unbelievably immoral if say, for example, one saw a woman being raped in an alley and did nothing while, in typical Buddhist fashion, feeling simultaneous compassion for the attacker and the victim.

I think there would be other nonviolent methods of intervention in that case, but then I wonder where the line can be drawn between resistance and taking the life of the attacker. And if this distinction can only by made by appealing to some revealed notion of the sanctity of human life.

I am persuaded by the Marxist argument that war is a cyclical feature of actually-existing capitalism, and that a general strike would necessarily involve harsh reprisals by the state. In which case, the issue of violence would become primarily a matter of self-defense. Even the "bourgeois" constitution guarantees the right to respond with deadly force to protect life and property. In a revolutionary situation, where workers occupy their places of work, I wonder if this question of violence wouldn't ultimately become a moot point.

Posted by: elephantry on May 27, 2003 08:34 PM


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Posted by: Stop Smoking Quit Smoking Smoke Away on January 17, 2004 12:57 PM

Being able to understand that basic idea opens up a vast amount of power that can be used and abused, and we're going to look at a few of the better ways to deal with it in this article.

Posted by: Annanias on January 18, 2004 08:11 PM

A variable leads a simple life, full of activity but quite short (measured in nanoseconds, usually). It all begins when the program finds a variable declaration, and a variable is born into the world of the executing program. There are two possible places where the variable might live, but we will venture into that a little later.

Posted by: Brian on January 18, 2004 08:12 PM

Let's take a moment to reexamine that. What we've done here is create two variables. The first variable is in the Heap, and we're storing data in it. That's the obvious one. But the second variable is a pointer to the first one, and it exists on the Stack. This variable is the one that's really called favoriteNumber, and it's the one we're working with. It is important to remember that there are now two parts to our simple variable, one of which exists in each world. This kind of division is common is C, but omnipresent in Cocoa. When you start making objects, Cocoa makes them all in the Heap because the Stack isn't big enough to hold them. In Cocoa, you deal with objects through pointers everywhere and are actually forbidden from dealing with them directly.

Posted by: Gartheride on January 18, 2004 08:12 PM

Note the new asterisks whenever we reference favoriteNumber, except for that new line right before the return.

Posted by: Eleanor on January 18, 2004 08:12 PM

We can see an example of this in our code we've written so far. In each function's block, we declare variables that hold our data. When each function ends, the variables within are disposed of, and the space they were using is given back to the computer to use. The variables live in the blocks of conditionals and loops we write, but they don't cascade into functions we call, because those aren't sub-blocks, but different sections of code entirely. Every variable we've written has a well-defined lifetime of one function.

Posted by: Newton on January 18, 2004 08:13 PM