On violence

The first thing to understand about violence, from any anarchist or vegetarian ecofeminist perspective, is that it is an instrument of coercion and therefore of domination. Its use is to be avoided not only on moral grounds but because it functionally contradicts what anarchism and vegetarian ecofeminism are about.

However, violence needs to be understood much more broadly than the physical sort most often associated with the term:

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged.[1]

Further, vegans, animal liberation activists, and vegetarian ecofeminists understand our exploitation of non-human animals as violence against creatures entitled, just as humans are, to moral autonomy. Vegetarian ecofeminists and animal liberation activists connect this violence with our treatment of each other, including of the structural sort defined above, and with our treatment of the environment; these links, we say, are inextricable from each other.[2]

But there is the problem of our present reality. To acquiesce to the status quo is complicity with that violence, and while activists who advocate nonviolence insist that their stance is not complicit with this violence,[3] the simple fact is that their stance and their tactics work so gradually and require so many iterations of protest and elite concession,[4] that they in effect are complicit with this violence not only by allowing it to continue but by failing to resist violent structures of  oppression themselves[5] that have been embedded in our system of social organization since the Neolithic.[6] Because the economically and politically powerful are committed to the preservation of their status and position within society[7] and have police and military forces at their disposal which they have repeatedly used and continue to use to suppress protest, it is difficult to imagine how these structures might be dislodged without violence. Which is to suggest that anything short of violent revolution is in fact complicity.

An anarchist or animal liberation revolution thus would seem both imperative and to be a contradiction not unlike the contradiction recognized by Michael Bakunin in Karl Marx’s notion that the state could be used to dismantle itself, establishing an egalitarian society.[8] So I recently wrote that “if employed, violence must be proportionate to the threat [of imminent physical danger to the audience or other human or nonhuman beings] and strictly directed at and limited to averting that threat.” I also noted parenthetically that “this formulation in no way immunizes the politically or economically powerful from whatever means are necessary to avert the lethal or injurious consequences of social inequality.”[9]

It’s probably important to see those words in context. I was writing in response to left-wing violence being deployed against conservative speakers that I feel is entirely unjustifiable.[10] But the truth is that I am fudging, attempting to turn a contradiction into a paradox. I have no answer for how to get the guns out of soldiers’ hands once a violent revolution is complete. I am still wrestling with the problem that violent revolution historically replaces one set of elite thugs with another—and the Russian Revolution is an instructive example.[11] And it probably is not enough to suggest that we take this one step at a time, dislodging violent elites first, then dealing with the aftermath when we come to it: To do so would effectively repeat Marx’s mistake; at the very least, we must be very careful in justifying the means by their intended ends.

But the rise of Donald Trump demonstrates the insufficiency of nonviolence as gains achieved through decades of protest now may be reversed within the next four or eight years and as it is clear that a large segment of the voting population that supported Trump continues to reject that progress. We need a solution.

  1. [1]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), p. 7.
  2. [2]Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella, II, eds. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (New York: Lantern, 2004); Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.
  3. [3]Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella, II, eds. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (New York: Lantern, 2004).
  4. [4]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  5. [5]Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella, II, eds. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (New York: Lantern, 2004).
  6. [6]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/03/06/we-have-found-enemy-and-he-us-and-our-system-social-organization
  7. [7]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  8. [8]Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (Montréal: Black Rose, 1993).
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Cornel West advocates abandoning the Democratic Party,” (Supposedly) Daily Bullshit, April 28, 2017, https://parts-unknown.org/reading/2017/04/28/cornel-west-advocates-abandoning-the-democratic-party-daily-bullshit-april-26-2017/
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Cornel West advocates abandoning the Democratic Party,” (Supposedly) Daily Bullshit, April 28, 2017, https://parts-unknown.org/reading/2017/04/28/cornel-west-advocates-abandoning-the-democratic-party-daily-bullshit-april-26-2017/
  11. [11]Emma Goldman, “There Is No Communism in Russia,” in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, ed. Alix Kates Shulman, 3rd ed. (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 1998), 405-420.

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David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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