The Occupy movements that have spread across the world over the last few months have many features that are appealing from an anarchist perspective, or at least from this particular anarchist’s perspective. For example, the movement’s embrace of open discussion and non-hierarchical structures is a big draw, especially when compared to the unions and other traditional organisations of the left, where anarchists have to fight tooth and nail to create any space for debate – not even to win arguments about our principles, but just to open up the possibility of having arguments and voicing different perspectives, rather than just loyally and quietly building for the Next Big Event, which is always imagined as involving the rank and file standing around quietly listening to endless speeches from the leadership. As an alternative to that model, the Occupy protests have certainly been a welcome relief. But they’re not unproblematic, and one of the biggest points of difference between many occupiers and many anarchists – certainly not the only point of difference, or the most important, but a big issue all the same – has been the movement’s embrace of pacifist ideology.
There are many situations that don’t require the use of violence. At the moment, my main political priority is trying to build support for the public sector strikes at the end of the month, and the tactics I’ll use for that will mostly be ones like talking to people and giving them flyers, as opposed to hitting them or throwing bricks at them. But, ultimately, the state has a clear interest in stopping effective direct action, whether violent or non-violent, and the police have no attachment to the principle of non-violence. This isn’t an abstract point: over here, the state’s violence was manifested in the violent arrests of student protesters by undercover snatch squads, not to mention the much-publicised threats of rubber bullets, but it’s been displayed even more plainly with the eviction of the original Occupy Wall Street site in New York. And these are just the big dramatic examples: there are always plenty more, like the use of force against non-violent protesters at Guildhall. As long as the state exists, the choice of violence or non-violence is an illusion: at some point, if the state doesn’t like what you’re doing, it will use force against you, at which point you either fight back, or you passively accept what the police are doing, and let the violence of the bullies win the day.
People who believe in non-violence as a principle usually believe in it for good, humane reasons, and they’re not the enemy, unless they actively try to prevent others from taking effective action. Certainly, those who make a personal choice to avoid using violence, but don’t try to force their decisions on other people, should be shown the same respect and tolerance they show to others. As I’ve said, there are many situations where the use of violence is unhelpful, and the militarised guerrilla ideology of a small band of Che-style freedom fighters liberating everyone else by fighting the state is completely incompatible with anarchist principles and should be rejected entirely – no matter how much it’s dressed up in inspiring rhetoric, there’s no getting around the fact that you can’t blow up a social relationship. Or, as Gilles Dauve put it, “Power does not come from the barrel of a gun any more than it comes from a ballot box. No revolution is peaceful, but the military dimension is not the central one… A communist revolution will never resemble a slaughter: not from any non-violent principle, but because it will be a revolution only by subverting more than by actually destroying the professional military.”
But, having said all this, the ideology of non-violence is still one that can only function in very specific conditions. When the state sends its thugs to evict an occupation, there is only the choice of fighting back or allowing the state’s violence to rule the day. And it isn’t just committed revolutionaries who see a need for violence: the riots that shook many English cities in August showed that there are a lot of people out there who feel a burning desire to attack the world around them, whether we like it or not. I’m certainly not claiming that the rioters were principled anarchists: clearly they weren’t, and a lot of their actions were ugly and indefensible. But we can’t deny that their rage and appetite for violence exists, so if we don’t want to see more muggings and burnt-out homes, then we urgently need to find ways of reaching these people and turning their violence in a constructive class direction, because the absence of revolutionary class violence just guarantees that we’ll carry on seeing more anti-social, individualistic violence.
Throwing Out the Master’s Tools: a case study in the contradictions of non-violent ideology.
Having said all this, I’d like to take a moment to examine the arguments that are put forward for non-violence, taking Rebecca Solnit’s piece “Throwing Out the Master’s Tools…” as an example. Her first argument is that “violence is conventional”, which isn’t an argument: starting sentences with capital letters is also pretty conventional, and I don’t intend on giving that habit up any time soon. She assumes that the use of violence automatically undermines “moral authority”, which is problematic on at least two levels: first, because the moral high ground alone has never been enough to bring about change, effective tactics are what bring about change, and secondly because most people aren’t pacifists and believe that the use of violence is absolutely compatible with moral authority. The contradictions in Solnit’s argument become hilariously apparent when she cites a “young Marine veteran” as an example of a good, moral, non-violent protester: apparently carrying a weapon and fighting as part of the most advanced military force on the planet isn’t violent enough to undermine your moral authority, but kicking off in response to police brutality is. If pacifists truly believe that the use of violence makes a cause unpopular and unworthy of respect, they should think about the number of people who’ve bought a poppy over the last few weeks, and then reconsider their views.
Her next point is that “violence is weak”, but again, that’s no surprise: we are weak right now. If we were the establishment, things would be very different. Solnit claims that “We have another kind of power, though the term nonviolence only defines what it is not; some call our power people power. It works. It’s powerful. It’s changed and it’s changing the world”, and neatly side-steps having to give any actual examples that might be discussed to see if they support the pacifist case. She then distinguishes between property destruction she likes and property destruction she doesn’t like using the incredibly insulting device of comparing the Black Bloc to an abusive husband, although she doesn’t explain who the abused wife is in this bizarre scenario: are anarchists abusing the police, or multinational corporations? Solnit believes that “we are already winning”, a claim I’m not entirely convinced by: certainly, looking at the eviction of Zuccotti Park, “victory” is not the word that comes to mind. She also states that “violence is authoritarian”; presumably, this must be contrasted to other, non-authoritarian tactics, such as telling other people how they can and can’t resist, and just letting the police do what they want. Tellingly, she admits that she doesn’t have a problem with the use of violence by Zapatistas, Syrians or Tibetans; racism is a very serious charge and shouldn’t be thrown around lightly, but the double standard where people from other cultures can’t be expected to live up to the same high moral values as people in the West is very noticeable. I’ll leave it to someone else to explain why violence is conventional, weak, authoritarian and generally a bad thing when used by someone in the US but not by someone in Syria, because I don’t claim to understand that bit of reasoning myself. Solnit criticises the events that happened in the evening after the Oakland general strike, which I don’t have much of a problem with: not having been there myself, I don’t know what happened, but I’m willing to believe that some tactically unsound actions may have been taken. Criticising badly-thought-out actions is legitimate and necessary; trying to draw up general moral principles about what to do in all situations is just unhelpful. Solnit attacks the CrimethInc piece “Dear Occupiers: A Letter From Anarchists”, stating that “most anarchists I know would disagree with almost everything” in it. Most anarchists I know would probably consider it to be among the best things they’ve done; “most anarchists I know” is a self-selecting category, and likely to consist largely of people who I want to spend time with because they agree with me about a lot of things. Solnit asks people to explain how “non-violence/people power is privilege”, which I can do by pointing to one very obvious example: as mentioned above, Solnit herself believes that violence is fine for a citizen of Syria or Mexico, but not for a citizen of the US. That’s not me saying that non-violence is for the privileged, it’s an advocate of non-violence saying it. She claims that “One way to be impossible to sabotage is to be clearly committed to tactics that the state can’t coopt”, but peaceful tactics don’t make you immune to state sabotage: the electricians marching to join last week’s student demo were doing so peacefully, but that didn’t stop them from getting kettled.
Solnit then finally cites some examples of successful non-violent protest: apparently the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999, also known as “The Battle of Seattle”, were an example of successful non-violence, which is news to me. She also mentions an anti-war protest in 2003, apparently not noticing the problem with using an anti-war protest against a war that went ahead anyway as an example of “what actually works”. She challenges the reader to name any examples of “violence achieving anything in our recent history”; I’m not an expert on the US, but it’s certainly the case that the most high-profile victory for the working class in the last three decades in the UK is the Poll Tax, a campaign that included a bloody great riot, and the attack on Millbank was very successful in breathing new life into the corpse of student activism. Solnit next explains that it’s not true that privileged people oppose violence, adding that “I have for a quarter century walked through police lines like they were tall grass; people of color face far more dire consequences.” Make of that glaring contradiction what you will. Anyone seriously taken in by her equation of militants with “white youth” should take a look at the Black Orchid Collective’s excellent pamphlet “Between the Zeal of the Young and the Patience of the Old”, which examines a recent, inspiring, racially diverse, and violent uprising against police brutality in Seattle. Or, alternatively, just listen to some classic Ice T, or maybe some Death Grips if your tastes are more contemporary?
Solnit insists that “Sometimes the police can be swayed. Not by violence, though”, which is demonstrably untrue: as this video from Egypt shows, violence is a very effective way to stop the police from doing things. She rounds off the article with a survey of examples of “people power”, giving examples as diverse as the Civil Rights Movement, South Africa, the Zapatistas and Egypt. Considering that the success of the Civil Rights Movement was due to the US establishment’s fear of the kind of mass violence that erupted in Watts, Newark and Detroit; the movement against apartheid was kick-started by the violent uprising in Soweto and the ANC’s military wing only stopped carrying out armed attacks in 1990; the Zapatistas’ full name is the Zapatista ARMY of National Liberation; and activists from Cairo have actually written a letter of solidarity to US protesters to remind them that “those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces: by the government’s own admission, 99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down. Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks”; on closer inspection, pretty much all the evidence would appear to support the case that, while the success of a social movement certainly can’t just be reduced to its willingness to use violence, violence is almost certain to be a component of any effective movement. Violence and “people power” aren’t opposites that can never exist together, they’re two parts of the same process.