What nonviolence is, and is not

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The nonviolent People Power Revolution of 1986, Philippines

The events in Charlottesville have reignited a long-standing debate about the use of force to create social change. There is an immense amount of rage, and impatience. Violence is becoming more accepted as a legitimate way forward. I see it every day on my Facebook- that’s in fact why I wrote this post.

To begin with, I have no deep moral opposition to violence to achieve liberation. I acknowledge a diversity of tactics is useful and that people will disagree on the way forward. However, the advocates of armed resistance have been characterizing nonviolent resistance in an unfair, narrow manner that I’m sure would tick them off if it were applied to their ideas. So this post aims to call attention to the basics- what nonviolence is, what it is not, and to rescue the practice from the strawman heap and put it in its full complexity.

So here are six theses on nonviolence.

Nonviolence is not the same as pacifism. Pacifism is a very long and complex tradition, but in common parlance it has been equated with being peaceful above all else, and not resisting force. One can be a pacifist and practice nonviolent action, but many practitioners are not morally opposed to violence. Nonviolence can be a pragmatic choice, which it is for me.

Nonviolence is not passive. In October 2000, hundreds of thousands of people flooded Belgrade from all over Serbia, intent on overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic. Vastly outnumbered, security forces stepped aside and the people seized the federal parliament building. Paired with mass strikes and grassroots organizing, Milosevic stepped aside, doing what a brutal NATO bombing campaign had been unable to. The Bulldozer Revolution, named because activists brought heavy machinery to break up checkpoints and barricades, was nonviolent. Nobody would call the actions of the Serbian people passive. They took the initiative, dictated terms of surrender, and defeated a regime that had survived violent attacks from the world’s most advanced militaries. Most of them had no moral opposition to violence. They used nonviolence because it worked.

Nonviolence can be, and often is, radical. A misleading line has been drawn connecting nonviolence (a very large, complex idea) to current methods of achieving social change. Nonviolence equals the status quo, the status quo is no change, nonviolence doesn’t work, Q.E.D. But rallies and Change.org petitions are a very small subset of nonviolent action, and it disingenuous to narrow the definition that much.

Gene Sharp lists 198 methods of nonviolent action, in a flyer that is circulated at certain activist events. I first saw it in Occupy in 2011. Other lists exist, Sharp’s is unusually exhaustive. But we can see that symbolic actions like petitions are a small part of the overall range of activity. The strike is fundamentally a nonviolent action- while it may involve violence in some cases, it is about using economic rather than physical weapons to seize political and social power. The difference between a Charge.org petition and hartal, a type of total general strike used in South Asia, is vast.

As Mark Kurlansky points out in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Ideanonviolence is such a radical concept that there is no English word for it. We simply define it by what it is not rather than what it is. Mahatma Gandhi invented the term satyagraha in part because in order to advocate for nonviolence, one has to create a new mental framework.

Nonviolence is not just an appeal to an enemy’s conscience. This Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) quote has been circulating recently.

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You can here the excerpt of this speech in the Black Power Mixtape here (video).

The thing is, as intuitive as that sounds, appealing to the conscience of one’s opponents is a very small part of nonviolent action. Gene Sharp admits that this strategy usually does not work:

Nonviolent struggle produces change in four ways. The first mechanism is the least likely, though it has occurred. When members of the opponent group are emotionally moved by the suffering of repression imposed on courageous nonviolent resisters or are rationally persuaded that the resisters’ cause is just, they may come to accept the resisters’ aims. This mechanism is called conversion. Though cases of conversion in nonviolent action do sometimes happen, they are rare, and in most conflicts this does not occur at all or at least not on a significant scale. (From Dictatorship to Democracyp. 35) (emphasis mine)

Put simply, the fact that nonviolent action proponents admit this straight up indicates that nonviolence is not just about converting enemies. Because that doesn’t work.

Nonviolence is effective. In 2012, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan published a book, Why Civil Resistance Works, which is perhaps the most detailed study of both violent and nonviolent campaigns in the modern era. Their conclusions are clear:

For more than a century, from 1900 to 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. By attracting impressive support from citizens, whose activism takes the form of protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation, these efforts help separate regimes from their main sources of power and produce remarkable results, even in Iran, Burma, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories . . .

Chenoweth and Stephan conclude that successful nonviolent resistance ushers in more durable and internally peaceful democracies, which are less likely to regress into civil war. Presenting a rich, evidentiary argument, they originally and systematically compare violent and nonviolent outcomes in different historical periods and geographical contexts, debunking the myth that violence occurs because of structural and environmental factors and that it is necessary to achieve certain political goals. Instead, the authors discover, violent insurgency is rarely justifiable on strategic grounds.

If nonviolence didn’t work, it would have died out a long time ago. Its continued presence is a testament to its ability to win victories for people, who may face enemies with significantly more guns and money.

Nonviolence sets a tactically superior battlefield. Nonviolence often uses similar language and concepts to violent action. In this case, a significant (and often unacknowledged) disadvantage that comes with violence is that it chooses a field of battle in which the enemy has every advantage. So you want to arm up and take on neo-Nazis? Then the police? The National Guard? Marines? Not only are all of these groups armed to the teeth, they all want to use violence. It’s what they’re good at. Choosing violence plays into their hands. You know what all these groups aren’t good at? Dealing with mass resistance. Strikes, boycotts, noncooperation. If they use violence in this context, it just creates more resistance. We already know this in practice- violence against communities in the War on Terror has created more opposition to U.S policy, not less.

Going forward, each activist has to make fundamental decisions. Part of making an educated decision is to see each option in its full depth. Advocates of armed struggle are tired of being mischaracterized and stereotyped, but can turn around and do the same things to advocates of civil resistance. This accomplishes nothing. And as both sides can agree, something must be accomplished, now and forever.

 

 

The Democrats and the death of SB 562

Over here in California, a considerable wave of excitement was building around SB 562, a bill that would can the current healthcare system in the state and replace it with a single-payer structure. For supporters, there was budding optimism. The current national framework created by the Affordable Care Act seems doomed, either through legislation or executive neglect. Polls indicated strong support, and though support dropped when the prospect of new taxes was raised, studies showed that implementation was probably not nearly as expensive as projected. The Democratic Party holds the governor’s office and has big majorities in both houses of the legislature. And single-payer had been passed twice during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration.

But it died this week when Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon shelved the bill. Activists I know are, as expected, absolutely livid. Part of the anger comes from how illogical SB 562’s death was. There was the means, motive, and opportunity to change things, but that didn’t happen. Political paralysis in a one-party state.

There are two ways to look at this. The first, pretty common among lifer Democrats, is that this was a bug in the system- SB 562 should have eventually become law, and there needs to be a couple small changes to make sure the next time (whenever that is) it succeeds.

The second is that this failure is a feature of the political system. A key piece of evidence is that single-payer has gotten through the obstacles that doomed it this time around, but in a different context:

Similar bills passed the legislature fairly easily in 2006 and 2008, only to be vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. At a time when premiums were rising and there were few other proposals out there, it was an easy vote for Democrats certain of the governor’s veto.

When legislators craft bills that are guaranteed to receive a veto, what they produce is more marketing than ideology. Republicans and their endless ACA repeals passed between 2010 and the end of the Obama administration were this- political theater. In the theater, the chains of pharmaceutical and insurance influence are invisible. It tells activists that the Democratic Party can be the vehicle of progressive action, even if that never happens when cards are on the table. The California Democrats haven’t lifted a finger on higher education affordability, the housing shortage, and healthcare. The main shift since Brown took office is from purely symbolic action to milquetoast half-measures, which are passed but don’t change the trajectory of any social problems.

The failure of SB 562 will make Rendon a convenient boogeyman. There will undoubtedly be a campaign to remove him from office, or his position of power in the Assembly. It will disguise the truth: that both major parties take cash from the only groups that lose out in single-payer.

The Democratic Party feeds on the dreams of its most active members- it is the fuel that makes everything else happen. SB 562 didn’t die immediately, preserving the idea that the future is within the Party, and that the important thing is the next election. More time, more money, and what was promised will be fulfilled.

 

 

 

The centre cannot hold: Yeats and 2017 disintegration

William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” the year after World War I. It’s better known for the line “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” which definitely captures 20th century war and progress. I was re-reading it, and felt that parts of it, in particular the first stanza, hit way too close to home in 2017.

Here is the full poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Resistance: if not now, when?

CNN reported a few hours ago the following:

Senate Democrats are weighing whether to avoid an all-out war to block President Donald Trump’s upcoming Supreme Court pick, instead considering delaying that battle for a future nomination that could shift the ideological balance of the court, sources say.

Democrats privately discussed their tactics during a closed-door retreat in West Virginia last week. And a number of Democrats are trying to persuade liberal firebrands to essentially let Republicans confirm Trump’s pick after a vigorous confirmation process — since Trump is likely to name a conservative to replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

After a full year of Republicans blocking any Supreme Court nominee, the Democratic minority is considering doing none of that, in order to preserve the filibuster for some fight down the line.

This is all deeply troubling whether you are moderate, liberal, or leftist. The idea that this is different because Scalia is a conservative justice is absurd, considering that Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are well over 75 at this point. Deciding to cement the 5-4 split for an indefinite amount of time (years? decades?) while mass protests are already far beyond small concessions certainly shows the side of the Democratic Party that explains their inability to defeat the most unelectable person in living memory last November.

It’s the underlying sentiment, though, that bothers me. Politician or protester, it is a dangerous assumption to think that there are further opportunities down the road. A few uncomfortable truths establishment liberals aren’t going to tell you, but are on the table:

  • Republicans control all of Congress, the Presidency, and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships.
State legislature party control, post-2016 elections (NCSL)
  • This includes almost all the key swing states that Clinton lost (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida). These states also had competitive Senate elections, which are also state-wide and have the same voting infrastructure as presidential elections.
  • It is clear that voter suppression was a huge factor in races at all levels in 2016, and states that wish to increase such efforts are not going to face Justice Department scrutiny anymore.
  • Thus, 2018 and especially 2020 could very well be, in the absence of strong resistance, basically unwinnable for anyone not right-wing- independent, Democratic, or otherwise.

The idea that everyone should wait out Trump’s first term, which was a big idea on Jan. 20, is pretty much dead by now. It’s clear that nobody really knows what the US political structure will be in Nov. 2020.

So we reach the familiar Hillel quote:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

The resistance has already begun. Don’t assume the future will be what you want or need it to be. Fascism of any type and degree has never respected democracy, and used it as a weapon to silence opposition. If you don’t like what’s being implemented now, stopping its enactment is a far better idea than waiting for some point down the line when it can all be repealed.

Steve Bannon and the green card smokescreen

We know about two things Trump senior advisor Steve Bannon has done in the past few days:

  1. Overruled a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interpretation of the travel/refugee ban executive order that, saying that green card holders were also subject.

2. Get a seat on the National Security Council (NSC) while removing the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

#2 is unprecedented, a power grab by an advisor with no relevant experience. It’s a clear signal that Trump would rather displaced senior leadership than learn from it.

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but I think the two are linked. The travel ban has been such a media focus that the NSC issue has mostly been noticed by watchdogs tracking post-9/11 changes to homeland security. The insistence by Bannon that the ban apply to permanent residents has made this issue so explosive. If only refugees or temporary visa holders were targeted, these protests would not be nearly as large. But the EO seemed primed for maximum chaos- it was both broad and vague.

It remains to be seen how long the rest of the executive branch will stand by while a half dozen rookie advisors take their authority away.

Austerity destroys progress

So we enter the final week of the Obama Administration. The 2016 election saw key components of the Obama coalition either not turn up or defect to Donald Trump. Mixed with a very underwhelming response to GOP voter suppression by Democrats, Republicans won both the presidency and several easily winnable midwest Senate seats. Whatever the outgoing President was, in symbol or ideology, there is a good chance that much of his planned legacy will be overturned.

What I will remember about the eight years of Obama is the same in America as in other countries. Progressive politics cannot exist in a climate of austerity. The two are mutually exclusive, and failing to oppose and undo austerity will doom progress on economic issues.

On the domestic front, politics was dominated by the budget sequester, cuts to welfare programs, a complete lack of methodical spending on infrastructure, and harsh austerity at the state and municipal levels. Some of this austerity is now decades old, such as freezes on cash payments to families, but most of the action on these issues was towards regression.

Now, the traditional defense is that Obama wanted to reverse austerity, but conservative opposition in Congress prevented that. But I think many people are now looking back and thinking of how much more could have been done at the executive level, but was not. Obama only had two years of a Democratic Congress, but he had six years of a Democratic Senate. He couldn’t be impeached until early 2015. So there was a space for radical action, with the understanding that improving things for working people would translate into political support given time, but that wasn’t in the cards. Obama, and the Democratic Party, are too institutionalized to reverse austerity. They take too much cash from the banks and corporations that benefit from privatization and deregulation. I didn’t expect the kind of economics that showed up in first drafts of Democratic policy proposals. The GOP obstruction defense is a smokescreen, distracting from the shortcomings of Democratic leadership.

And as we have seen in other countries, opposing austerity works. The 2015 UK election saw Labour act much like the Democrats- supporting a less-ghastly version of austerity than the opponents. Their destruction in Scotland by the SNP came because the latter actually talked about social spending rather than budget deficits and cuts. This middle place- not going whole hog for austerity but also not opposing it- has no political base. No party can hold onto power with it, because their results aren’t good enough to keep support, and they’re vulnerable to conservatives outflanking them. Donald Trump’s anti-austerity points on trade left the Democrats surrounded. In the end, that flank was enough to swing several states to Trump, and cause Democratic Senate candidates to underperform and lose in places like Wisconsin and Indiana.

There is no such thing as a progressive austerity. And in the end, what will we fondly remember Obama for, thirty years later? What is his legacy as a progressive? As a president?

T+5: A Time Long Thought Past

(these posts will be dated based on days since the 2016 Election. Tuesday, Nov 8 is T-0.)

It is a huge mistake to think that the election marked the birth of a new era in American politics. In the past two years there have been arson attacks on black churches (including one at the beginning of November in Mississippi). Police violence against protesters in particular, and people of color in general have never died down. But the election is still an important line of demarcation.

This series, the Trump Era (TE), is devoted to how the climate is changing. In particular, how the election has provided a de facto justification for white supremacy. The Obama administration had many incidents of vigilante and police violence against unarmed civilians. But the administration did establish that such things were not okay, and there should be consequences to violating the human rights of others.

Since Tuesday, friends of mine have been arrested. One was beaten up by police. Two men have been arrested and charged with attempted murder after a shooting on the Morrison Bridge in Portland. Swastika graffiti is ever-present: schools, religious buildings, dorms, sidewalks. Given that the Trump campaign has often encouraged harassment and the use of force against dissent, these situations can always escalate. And communities should be prepared for that.

Of course, there are still people alive who remember a time when national leaders were proudly fascist. The hope for a progressive era- in which society continues to improve from the nadir near World War II, may now be increasingly naive. Things can always go backwards. The core of Trump supporters once had superior status and power to people of color. They lost this, and to regain this they necessarily have to take the country back in time. When someone says they “want their country back” they mean so in a possessive sense. This means marginalization and regression.

David Neiwert published a book in 2009, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American RightIts thesis is that conservative media and politicians were moving supporters in a dangerous direction. Opponents were not only wrong, but an existential threat to the American way of life. Vigilante attacks are a symptom that eliminationism is becoming an increasingly mainstream ideology. Donald Trump will be the first modern eliminationist President.

“Wait and see” or “giving him a chance” is a white privileged luxury. For people of color, the costs of being unprepared are total. Liberals who castigated Trump for a year and a half are hypocritical if they stop now. In this situation, unity means submission, since the Trumpists have preached us vs. them.

Trump will not  become president until January 20, 2017. But his era has already begun in full. His supporters will not wait for legal sanction. They will attack because they can. And communities must consider to what degree to they respond.