Non-Violence in #Occupy and Occupation

The #Occupy movement has created a semantic hybridity which post-modernists are sure to love – “Occupation” now has an ambiguous double sense in that it can refer to the Occupation of Palestine, or the Occupation protests in America, Europe, and the rest of the world. A question which is relevant to all of these situations is: What are the right tactics to resist oppression?

Non-violence is at this point a condition for first world resistance. Any resistance in North America or Europe which resorts to violence immediately is outside the realm of considerability and support for the gross mainstream of western societies – and that support is essential to the growth and strength of any protest movement here. Moreover, non-violence is effective because one of the only weapons the state can use against the #occupy movement is the police – and the police are not ideologically in our context meant to be a tool of political force. So, when they get used as such, it’s obvious that they are acting outside the realm of legitimacy that they have in the public’s eyes. However, if the protests become violent, then the mainstream ideology allows the police to attack and oppress the protestors without most people batting an eyelid.

However, it’s important to remember that these arguments for non-violence only make it into a tactic, not a principle. Other arguments, or rather slogans, such as “violence is always wrong” try to make the case for non-violence as a principle. But this case is much more difficult to make, and I find that in most cases if you see people advocating non-violence as a principle this is more like a religious belief than an analytical claim with evidence and supporting reasons that meet an appropriate burden of proof.

The non-violence of first world protests rests on an assumption that things have not yet degraded to the point of a conflict – we don’t yet believe in class struggle, or at least, we don’t believe that we can see it – or that it can be seen at this point by enough workers to bring the revolution into effect. Many marxists, Zizek being perhaps the most famous, don’t even believe in class struggle in the classical sense any longer. If we did believe in class struggle in the sense that the proles are in conflict with the bourgeois, and we believed in Marxist revolution, it would actually make sense to use violence because as George Sorel argues, violence can clarify situations – violence makes explicit the war which was already there but you couldn’t see.

To advocate non-violence as a principle means to advocate for its use in a conflict situation as the only means of resistance. Empirically, there are surely situations where non-violent resistance is tactically effective in a genuine conflict – certainly the low-intensity resistance (but not strictly non-violent) of the first intifada is widely recognized to have been more effective than the full on armed struggle of the 2nd intifada. But now it might be things are swaying in the other direction. The Palestinian Authority, which has defended rock-throwing in the past, has taken a stand against rock-throwing and told Palestinians that this highly symbolic form of resistance must end. I hope this choice is being made on an empirical basis about effectivity, and not simply another collaborationist concession which will fail to improve the PA’s bargaining situation – which is so weak anyway that no amount of fiddling will truly improve it to the point that a fair settlement could be achieved.

Violence is, of course, an action which intends to hurt another person or community. But it is not only that – it is also a form of communication. Not in the sense that it “sends a message” (this is probably the biggest misconception about the symbolic role of violence), but in the sense that it modifies the symbolic realm habited by the individuals and groups on either end of the attack. De-colonizing violence can be effective not because it tells the colonizer to “go home” (this could be said much more easily in a letter), but because it alters the symbolic situation in which the colonizer lives to the point where the choice that has the right meaning is the decision to withdraw, or the decision to grant concessions to the colonized people.

In this sense, violence and non-violence are very similar in their structure – both forms of political action attempt to alter the social fabric, to create events which change the way the causes relevant to the resistors are talked about, to change the solution which feels right from one to another. The fundamental difference is not between violence and non-violence at all – the difference is in the situation, and whether the situation by its nature demands non-violence or whether violence or non violence are both potential tactics. In first world situations, where stability is taken for granted (although it could be taken for granted in a dishonest way, this isn’t the point), non-violence is a condition for resistance because of the ideological structure which legitimizes the police, but in conflict situations where stability can’t be taken for granted, like the case of military occupation, the tactic of violence can not be ruled out in advance.

There may be moral arguments against the use of violence for political purposes, but such cases are actually quite difficult to make – especially if we consent to the use of force by the police and army to enforce a status quo. One might ask why is it alright to use violence to enforce a situation, but not to change it? My conclusion is simply this: that the legitimacy of the use of political violence cannot be determined in advance by first principles, it must be decided given the particularities of the situation, taking into account the reasonable foreknowledge of the effects of actions, and without decieving oneself about either the immorality or inherent glory in different tactics – tactics are not glorious in themselves, they are, and will only ever be, tactics.

Such is the difference between #occupy and an Occupation.


15 thoughts on “Non-Violence in #Occupy and Occupation

  1. Virtually without exception, when an organization or an individual decides to advance their cause through the use of violence, they give their opponents legitimacy in using all the heavy tools of the state in suppressing them. That is probably especially true when it comes to domestic movements focused on social justice. There is a public recognition that expressing a viewpoint is something that should at least be tolerated within democracies; when you progress to using violence, you generally lose the grudging willingness of the public to at least let you speak.

  2. That might be virtually without exception in your experience, but your heavy handed assertions don’t pan out if you broaden your outlook sufficiently. Fateh’s “victory” in ’68, the IRA’s armed campaign, the ANC’s armed campaign – lots of violent movements strengthened the causes they pursued by raising awareness (i.e. the PFLP’s explicit understanding of terrorism as propeganda), and raising support (i.e. popular catholic mobilization behind the IRA, especially in the USA, powerful Arab support for Fateh as the one group which appeared to be able to stand up against Israel after nothing but defeats by the “real” Arab armies).

    We live in democracies, but for those who live under occupation there is no democracy (i.e. Abbas’ term has ended more than a year ago, and still no elections – but even if there were, he has very little control to protect his subjects from the violence of the occupation).

  3. Milan, I think the comment you made is largely a repetition of the point I made at the beginning of the 2nd paragraph of the post:

    “Non-violence is at this point a condition for first world resistance. Any resistance in North America or Europe which resorts to violence immediately is outside the realm of considerability and support for the gross mainstream of western societies – ”

    If your comment was meant to be specific to first world situations, or democracies, then not only do I agree with it, it’s part of the argument I’ve tried to advance here.

  4. The increasingly confrontational tactics of various OWS offshoots risks not only “distracting” voters from the message behind the movement, but risks tainting the message itself and generating a backlash. Peaceful OWS protestors can disavow the violence and vandalism in Oakland all they like, but I’m afraid most Americans have so little patience for public disorder that their willingness to distinguish between the peaceful heart of OWS and its combative fringes will wear very thin very quickly. That’s why I’d bet my lunch money that public support for OWS erodes over the next few weeks.

    Americans disagree sharply about a whole array of issues, but we expect to work out our disagreements in a civilised fashion, with a minimum of social disturbance. To assemble peaceably is a basic American right and a venerable tradition. To get together and aggressively antagonise other people peaceably assembled because you’ve decided they’re the enemy is not.

    As long as the Occupy movement remains without acknowledged leaders who can credibly distance it from the worst behaviour of its least reasonable affiliates, the movement will increasingly come to be defined by its most egregious episodes. And if the sort of bad behaviour we’ve seen in Oakland and Washington doesn’t soon come to an end, OWS could easily end up more albatross than asset to the left.

  5. It is a downer. Running camps in a peaceful way, where nobody gets hurt due to accidents, their own choices, or conflicts with authority figures is almost impossible. And yet, all the opponents of the core ideas of the ‘occupy’ movement will use any disturbance or violence as an argument against those core ideas.

    It doesn’t follow that not being able to run perfectly safe an unproblematic camps means that your ideas are wrong, but it is easy to imply that argument effectively on television.

  6. The polls I’ve read suggest that, despite some efforts to discredit the movement, most Canadians support the occupy protests.

  7. Do you know the specific poll questions? ‘Support’ can mean a lot of things, ranging from ‘I support their right to express their opinion’ to ‘I actually think we should implement the societal changes they advocate’.

  8. You can look through the internet’s repository of old news stories as easily as anyone.

    However, one comment I’d make is that I’m not interested in trying to develop “the correct” perspective on the occupy movement. This is the movement that is happening right now, so the relevant questions for me are how can it be supported and how can it be improved, not is it worthwhile, or is it realistic, or will it succeed. All questions are ideologically weighted, and I think in the current situation it’s dutifully required to ask questions in a way that stands in solidarity with the movement, rather than in a way that supports the “common sense critical perspective” that the elites are all too ready to sell us in an attempt to make the 99% seem marginal, and the 1% mainstream and normal.

  9. But what if the movement doesn’t effectively serve the political aims you (and even the movement itself) see as desirable?

    In that case, uncritical solidarity would be counterproductive.

  10. How much time have you spent at occupy encampments, speaking with people there?

    Solidarity is always to somewhat uncritical, because solidarity means taking sides.

  11. Spending time with a group of people doesn’t necessarily help you judge what political effect they are having in the wider world. Just as you cannot assess the impact of the Republican Party by attending their national convention, spending time in ‘Occupy’ sites doesn’t necessarily help you to understand the overall political impact of the movement.

    Siding with ideas is more important than siding with specific people. Indeed, siding excessively with specific people risks undermining one’s effectiveness in promoting good ideas.

  12. Understanding the overall political impact of a movement doesn’t necessarily do anything to help that movement, or any movement, or any ideas, move forward.

    A popular movement, or a people’s revolt, is less about a specific set of ideas and more about a demand that the structures of power be changed. To me, the ideas are plenty coherent enough – 99% against the 1% (you and I are in the 1% by privilege if not by income, by the way), undo the power of finance and big business, and non-violent decolonization. The occupy camp was expressed best by my first nations friend Gary, who said this is a place where people with causes can come and they will be listened to. What you’re doing – trying to understand the movement at its most abstract, general level, this is actually the opposite of the movement – which is about creating real human ties and relationships between people who are passionate about causes of justice.

  13. “siding excessively with specific people risks undermining one’s effectiveness in promoting good ideas.”

    I hardly think the #occupy movement is “specific people” – it seems to be the broadest base popular movement that’s ever existed in a country where I lived. Supporting it doesn’t mean you hold any specific political ideology – it just means you are against the power of the banks, and against the way the system works for the benefit of the few rather than the many. Pretty much any decent political position falls into those broad categories. The only serious critiques of #occupy are tactical considerations, not the terms of the broad and overall values held by the movement. And, because there is no explicit agreement on specific issues that are controversial, siding with #occupy against the police does not pin you down in any particular camp, and undo your effectiveness at “promoting good ideas”.

    I actually think the big realization that’s happening is that the big political movement that we need is not a movement of ideas, but a movement of bodies and cooperation. Compared to getting people involved, coming up with decent ideas is the easy part. Promoting them is impossible if we play the existing political game – but very possible if the movement proceeds as a popular revolt rather than entering into the political systems that exist.

    #Occupy may be the truest Ghandi-style resistance movement that has existed since the decolonization of India.

  14. This article is right-on:

    “The goal of Occupy Wall Street, as I understand it, is to challenge the system that incentivizes the abuse and exploitation of the 99 percent by the 1 percent, who run the country and manipulate its every function to cater to their greed.”

    “the question for Occupy of tactics and strategy has to revolve around what poses the greatest threat to that system.

    Violence and vandalism do not threaten the system.”

    “a central feature of the Occupy movement: image is everything. More specifically, the ability to attract broad swaths of the American population to the cause is everything. The lack of demands; the 99 percent meme; the movement’s sense of humor; the willingness to claim and own anarchists, hippies, trade unionists, sympathetic rich people etc. – these have all helped the movement grow to a national force in early November from a few hundred activists in mid-September. The exertion of pressure on the system to change requires huge numbers of supporters, occupiers, protesters, sympathetic organizations and favorable polls. Vandalism and violence alienate the public just as successfully as nonviolent civil disobedience (of the sort that goes punished by authoritarian violence) attracts it.”

    “Nonviolence is more radical, in any case. During the civil rights movement, people linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome” while dogs trained to kill attacked them. It is difficult to see how smashing windows is more courageous, more moral, more effective or more radical. There is an admirable emphasis in the ideology of nonviolence on self-purification, which is a radicalizing force – channeling rage into discipline focuses a movement on its targets, while channeling it into riots focuses a mob on its own immediate gratification. ”

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