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.