Violence and Responsibility

Since the environment today, which obliges the masses to live in misery, is maintained by violence, we advocate and prepare for violence.
—Errico Malatesta

There is no such thing as non-violence.
—Étienne Balibar

If one gives a little thought to the theme of violence, the first thing one notices is a proliferation of ambiguities, paradoxes, and uncertainties. Yet what’s even more striking is the number of people who believe the theme can be treated dogmatically, dragging in moral absolutes, religious nostrums, ahistorical appeals to the authority of great gurus, etc. For them, the issue is already decided, and with these people, no true debate is possible. The best thing would be to let them go along on their way, their consciences obviously at peace. One’s attitude towards violence often seems to have much to do with personal temperament, anyway. But these individuals rarely are content to have “solved” the “problem” of violence in their own minds; they insist on inserting themselves into popular struggles and imposing their point of view, struggles that by their very nature often contain a disruptive, confrontational, and—why not?—violent aspect. And so it seems necessary, again and again, to treat the question of violence in social struggles, although it may ultimately be something of an abstract exercise. Denouncing or encouraging “violence” does little to change the underlying character of these struggles, which in certain conditions can erupt like a force of nature. But for those of us with the luxury, or inclination, to reflect on such questions, there can be value in clarifying and finding our bearings in a system whose core is in fact murderous brutality—brutality that touches any number of victims in their everyday lives.

There are those who have made it their mission to oppose all systemic violence. Without seeking personal fame or status, they fight for a world based on free agreement and association, mutual aid and solidarity. They oppose all hierarchies and forms of oppression, and so seek to eliminate coercive violence in human relations (and in our relations with nature), as far as this is possible. It may be safe to say that an intimate abhorrence for violence is what motivates many to contest the dominant order. Here enter the ambiguities, however: to oppose, to eliminate something is its own kind of violence. Revolutionaries wish to destroy the violent systems of domination not with words only, or because they read some book, or because they are interested in selling their ideas or making careers—but because they feel this domination in their inmost core. This means that the impulse to erase violent coercion is taken seriously, and invested with real energy and vigor—sometimes, and from a certain perspective, it may even take on the appearance of “violence.” When one is under attack, is there any blame in defending oneself?

Empire is undergoing a profound crisis, as we know. An economic crisis, certainly, but also a much more far-reaching crisis of legitimacy. Radicals and rebels, as well as “self-described anarchists,” have never accepted the legitimacy of this system. Now, emerging from the global resistances, riots, and (incomplete) revolutions of 2011, we are faced with an obviously unique opportunity to degrade the established order as much as possible, while pushing events towards something new and liberatory. This may very well be the last moment in our lives when capitalism can be steered onto the road towards defeat. It is sheer foolishness to think that now, of all times, we are going to contain our anger, be polite, and let the more comfortable tell us how to resist. Our movements are going to be as loud, lively, and raucous as we can make them—and as dangerous for the powers that be.

Yes, there will be mistakes, excesses, outbursts that perhaps do more strategic harm than good, but these we will calmly absorb, without forgetting who our comrades are or why they act as they do. “I prefer spontaneous mistakes to truth imposed.” The way to deal with these will not be with self-righteous moralizing, denunciations, cheap law-and-order rhetoric, the parading of sanctimonious pacifism, and the blind worship of so-called universal principles (which, as we’ve seen, are not in fact applied universally). The important thing is to never lose sight of the true enemy and the real vehicles of violence in today’s world: the privileged classes, the institutions of the state and private property, the norms that impose gender and racial domination, etc. In any case, given the intensity of the assault on the ordinary, the oppressed and the disenfranchised that is underway at the present time, the level of response hardly provokes concern for its “excessiveness.” Quite the contrary, the remarkable thing is the timidity, hesitation and overall weakness that can be observed in many terrains of struggle. Resistance will have to become much more massive, relentless and determined before any worries about passing the limits of simple humaneness can arise.

In other words, we are not presented with a choice, one between clean hands and a pure soul, on the one hand, and violence on the other. What we face is a situation not of our own choosing—violence surrounds us, forms us, and makes us who we are. The social war is a reality, and to pretend to evade it is an illusion. Whether it is robot missiles pounding villages and exploding bodies in Pakistan; the mass rapes and the million or more corpses piled up in Iraq; the oil spills and nuclear meltdowns that poison the planet and extinguish life; the everyday cruelty that terrorizes queers, so-called “immigrants” (as though this state-invented category meant anything), and all the “outsiders” and “others”; the borders, prisons and police that isolate, separate, torture and destroy lives; men abusing their partners; the mass media assaulting minds and distorting sexuality; the deadening of the spirit and arbitrary regimentation experienced by young people trapped in schools; the selling of entire lives in the form of work for the profit of bosses, investors and corporations; the homelessness that creates whole populations treated as the superfluous of our society—these and so many more instances of the violence necessarily generated by this system, constitutive of this system that everyone perforce participates in to some degree, demonstrate that violence is inescapable, and not some mere option or tactic to be decided on in an intellectual discussion.

When one acknowledges that one is necessarily entangled in a violent situation, then the real questions of responsibility and judgement begin. Is it violent to wear a mask at a political demonstration, to break a bank window, or to demonize those who do, contributing to the totalitarian police atmosphere that surrounds us—an atmosphere that leads to people being spied on, persecuted, and imprisoned? Does the violence lie in defending space wrested from the oppressors, in writing graffiti—or in publishing articles, cashing in on a movement, or perhaps simply leading a narrow middle-class life while the government murders and spreads suffering to millions? “Politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same,” Hannah Arendt once remarked. To refrain from rebelling—actually rebelling, not just making a show of rebelling for cultural capital—is to support the status quo. We are adults and there is no evading the problems that face us, least of all by hiding behind pacifist rhetoric. The “non-violence” that does not make every possible effort to end the violence perpetrated daily by the powers that be, that instead attacks the rebels and the recalcitrants and becomes just another cop, is perhaps the worst, the most hypocritical and disgusting violence of all. “Non-violence” as a universal principle merely translates into violence in favor of the current system. The outrage directed at someone who vandalizes a symbol of capital shows that the outrage directed at “violence” was never genuine to begin with.

The individuals and institutions that rule this world have plunged us into extreme violence, and made a counter-violence unavoidable. Of course this does not mean that our violence is simply the mirror-image of theirs, or that rebellion is a dumb reflex or reaction to external forces. Nor is it a matter only of waiting until some manifest incident of horror moves us to act. Initiative and affirmation are as much a part of the project. Not to mention the spirit, motivations and vision that inform revolt are utterly alien to the will to power that crushes us in its grip.

Anarchists have no interest in a universal morality, in abstract ideals and daydreams. They do, however, maintain a certain ethics and sustain a certain responsibility. It is not enough to speak of disobedience, resistance and revolution without seeking out the practices that give these things reality. When someone like Chris Hedges, without the least interest in accuracy, lies about anarchists and helps build the “War on Terror”-style discourse that allows the state to target radicals and attempt to destroy lives—as it is doing with the Cleveland 4 prisoners (set up and arrested by the Feds on May Day), the arrestees at the recent NATO summit, the victims of the federal grand jury investigation in the Pacific Northwest—it is hard to see why anarchists shouldn’t put their principles into action and defend themselves against Chris Hedges by whatever means seem appropriate.

Hedges and his ilk claim to believe that passively allowing ourselves to be beaten, locked up, assaulted with chemical weapons etc. will mean victory in the end. How this is so, remains very murky even to the least critical mind. All experience, historical and otherwise, rather points to the conclusion that the privileged will never suddenly feel pangs of guilt, stop their attacks and abandon their privileges. Privileges, monopolies and oppressive institutions are torn down by force. The very act of creating something new entails the “violence” of change.

If Hedges believes suffering and martyrdom are the paths to overthrowing Wall Street and the rest of the system, he is of course welcome to try. We expect to see him on the front lines of the next street demonstration, offering his head to be bashed in by a cop’s baton and declaring that “victory.” Last year’s uprisings in North Africa and West Asia—complex, heterogeneous, and unfinished, but in Tunisia and Egypt at least, self-organized, leaderless upsurges that overthrew dictators—these uprisings that supposedly inspired the Occupy movement certainly did not proceed only by non-violent civil disobedience. In Egypt, police stations were burned to the ground, occupied spaces were defended with rocks, and agents of the regime—the torturers, snitches, and bullies that similarly keep things in place here in the US—were given the physical treatment they richly deserved.