The end of pacifism: limits to nonviolence as a strategy for transformation

Given a criminal regime determined to destroy the economy for any but the extraordinarily wealthy, committed to war even where defeat is certain, the threat thereof as a bullying tactic against other nations, and a race and class war against its own people that appears in infant mortality rates; in life expectancy rates; in a widening gap between rich and poor; in imprisonment rates; in a general brutality in our fascist police state; in the absence of any substantial difference between U.S. political parties except in a willingness to inspire violence for political ends when the other is in power; in the inability of alternative voices to be heard in a society where the vast majority of people are informed by corporate- and thus state-controlled media; and in politicians’ haste to appease the racist right while spurning the left, a sense of despair–even depression–seems rational.

That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

It is hard to avoid the feeling that state control is so complete that the ruling elite have somehow immunized themselves even from severe discrepancies between policy and reality that should surely spell their doom. It is as if the neoconservative hubris that “we create our own reality” has come true and that at least in a policymaking process where the only reality that matters is on Wall Street and inside the Beltway, the reality of billions of people who suffer the consequences of these decisions has become utterly irrelevant.

It is in such a bleak condition and in a condition where I am finally coming to grips with a realization that I am extremely unlikely ever to be employed again in a society that still functions ideologically from a myth of unlimited opportunity to dehumanize me as a parasitic piece of trash, to be blamed and therefore isolated for my own misfortune, while official sources minimize my own plight, that of nearly 20 million people who would be employed or only briefly unemployed if we had sustained the level of employment and labor force participation achieved at the end of the Clinton administration, and that of the 27.8 percent of the population who say they are seeking employment, that I come upon an article written by Peter Gelderloos for an anarchist publication. He points out that this series of recessions passing for an economic system functions to suppress social justice movements. He argues that democracy is only a flip-side of dictatorship and that change will never come through appeals to public opinion. He encourages us to look elsewhere for signs of change, to “posters, flyers, graffiti, demos, protest marches, and face to face conversations” that receive little attention in mainstream media. He urges us to commemorate even a history of uprisings that have mostly ended in defeat as proof that resistance is not only possible, but I would add, sufficiently significant as to draw out the military and police to enforce “order,” i.e. repression.

For all the wisdom in Gelderloos’ article, he does not shy from violence. He repeats the mistake of so many in failing to understand violence that compels obedience not through egalitarian appeals to reason but through sheer brute force as inherently authoritarian and therefore to be eschewed by any true anarchist. Still, in such dire circumstances, it is evident that pacifism fails as a defense.

Such a realization is not without difficulties. The human potential movement, a turning inward that led to a reinforcement of destructively individualistic values (see Adam Curtis’s “The Century of the Self” (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) series, broadcast on BBC channel 4 in 2002), sprang from a realization that the counterculture movement could not prevail against the violence which the most militarily powerful state in the world was willing to employ. It failed in a hope that if enough people liberated themselves as individuals, authority would become obsolete. As Gelderloos writes,

Many people becoming politically active today learn about past struggles through books and documentaries, not from commemorative vigils, protests and parades, posters, celebrations, and movement holidays. The revolutionary struggles in the ‘60s and ‘70s were defeated by effective government repression, by a large part of the movement selling out and opting for peaceful, civic politics and a cushy place within the system, and by others adopting increasingly authoritarian forms of organization, which predictably led to factionalism, power plays, and infighting. Unfortunately, today more people are choosing to reinvent the wheel rather than to engage honestly with the depth of this defeat.

The Black Panthers, an organization founded for community self-defense, seems a likely model for any modern uprising but itself collapsed under a withering establishment counterattack. I do not know the way forward; that our society so heavily stigmatizes unemployed and the poor serves to isolate us from each other. A misdirected white working class male venom against immigration and against opportunity for people of color and for women rather than against the elite who have imposed “free trade” and exported good-paying working class jobs makes it difficult to see right wing whites as potential allies. That makes it difficult to organize “commemorative vigils, protests and parades, posters, celebrations, and movement holidays,” let alone a modern-day Black Panther-inspired organization. But the ideas have appeal.