The Nonviolent 99

Where does the Occupy movement stand in relation to other liberation movements of the past three centuries?

Contributed by Dustin Howes Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University
March 15, 2012
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The Occupy Movement has renewed one of the long-standing debates among people concerned with making the world more just: What is the proper role of violence in human liberation? Beginning with the post-Enlightenment Age of Revolutions up through today’s so-called “more radical” elements of the anarchist and environmental movements, people have long held that some measure of violence is necessary to destroy the present order and prepare the way for something better. Recommendations for violence range from beginning an all out war of the masses against corrupt and unjust governments, to using violence as a means of defending protestors against the police and the army, to spearheading small-scale actions that only the widest definition of violence registers, such as the destruction of corporate property. Violence is understood as a useful means for obtaining freedom for a wide variety of reasons. For instance, violence can draw attention and rally people to one’s cause, offer a powerful symbolic challenge to the extant authorities and, quite literally, initiate the demolition of the current system.

Much has already been written to refute the usefulness of violence for the Occupy Movement,[i] but less has been said about Occupy’s relationship to previous and ongoing liberation movements. Although Occupy has already shown itself to be unique in important ways, we might also think about the movement through the lens of two related, but distinguishable, liberation traditions. The liberation tradition that began with the American and French Revolutions suggests that violence and co-opting the violent means of those currently in control is the best route to freedom. The liberation tradition that began with the mid-nineteenth century abolitionists involves exercising political power through nonviolence in permanent opposition to authority that is economically and politically privileged.

Although communists and other advocates of violent revolution often associate nonviolence with bourgeois timidity, the historical fact is that the idea that violence is necessary for the pursuit of human freedom was born in the bourgeois revolutions in America and France. Jefferson, Paine, Lafayette, Robespierre and Bolivar may have disagreed about when and how much violence to use, but they all agreed that some measure of violence was necessary for founding republics and overthrowing the aristocracy. Socialist revolutionaries applied these ideas to the bourgeois orders. Like their bourgeois forebears, Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Bakunin and Kropotkin, disagreed about when and how to use violence. In a split mirroring the differences between libertarians like Jefferson and ardent federalists like Hamilton, anarchists and communists disputed whether or not a strong centralized government could be used for good. Marx eventually led the expulsion of the anarchists from the International, in part with a campaign that called into question Bakunin’s masculinity by associating his unwillingness to endorse the violence of the state with a gay relationship.[ii] However, the bourgeois idea that violence was necessary to overthrow an old order and institute a new order and that violence was an expression of and a precursor to human freedom was adopted by all of the pro-violence socialists.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the American and British abolitionist movement pioneered an idea they called “nonresistance” – a term that the Unitarian minister Adin Ballou immediately saw was lacking because the activity actually involved the “highest” resistance to injustice.[iii] What was intended by the term, as William Lloyd Garrison understood it, was that the abolitionists would pursue human liberation with equal vigor but different methods than their forefathers – who after all had enshrined slavery in the U.S. Constitution with the 3/5ths clause.[iv] Through a wide variety of techniques, including the creation of the Underground Railroad to assist and encourage runaways, boycotts of slave-made products, demonstrations, international conventions and the formation of political parties, abolitionists around the world set about dismantling an institution. These techniques were taken up by a second nonviolent movement born of the abolitionist cause: the struggle for women’s rights.

A recent empirical study of revolutions in the twentieth century shows that nonviolent political revolutions tend to be more successful in overthrowing autocrats and generally lead to more democratic governments after the revolution.[v] But even this impressive evidence misses the longer historical trajectory of liberation movements. In only one case in all of recorded history has a violent slave rebellion successfully led to freedom, the remarkable Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint Louverture at end of the eighteenth century.[vi] There has never been a large-scale violent revolution by women against a male-run government. Yet the abolitionist and women’s movements have achieved extraordinary success. How is this possible? Through educating people and organizing mass political action over the course of many decades. For time immemorial people, including many women and slaves themselves, understood slavery to be natural and beneficial and the status of women to be naturally and inevitably second class. In addition, vicious and endemic violence is part and parcel of patriarchal orders and slave systems. Indeed, men and slave owners have invariably reacted to feminists and abolitionists with violence. Yet through the mobilization of nonviolent power, abolitionists ended legally sanctioned slavery in every country in the world.[vii] They did this in the face of the most lucrative slave system the world has ever known. Although there is still much work to do, feminists have gained political and economic rights for millions of women around the world. Indeed, feminism holds out the hope of liberating half of humanity.

Taking the long view, the last couple centuries show that nonviolence has achieved much more in the way of human liberation than violence. As impressive as the American and French Revolutions were, Jefferson, Paine, Lafayette and Robespierre contested the authority of a small number of white male aristocrats in order to secure the political and economic liberties of a larger number of white men – often for the purpose of allowing them to keep slaves and dominate native peoples. The Haitian Revolution freed the slaves of a single country from whites, but even this victory was somewhat pyrrhic as Louverture forced many former slaves back onto plantations in their new position as “cultivators.”[viii]

Violent revolutions were no doubt accompanied by important ideas, but it was left to others to actually fulfill the promise of those ideas with painstaking organizing, political mobilization and educational efforts. Take, for instance, the American Civil War. While many of the abolitionists who had previously been committed to nonviolence ended up supporting John Brown and then the Union cause, the results of the war were less clear. If the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth and Fourteen Amendments held great promise, in practice the violence unleashed by the war was understood by subsequent generations of racists in the South and Midwest as justifying further violence. The war also resulted in the split among abolitionists and women’s rights advocates over the use of the word “male” in the new amendments and – of direct relevance to the Occupy movement – the establishment of “rights” for corporations. It was left to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, mobilizing people with direct nonviolent action against the forces of violence, to revive the work of gaining real political and economic freedom for African Americans.

The plight of working people has been caught in the middle of this centuries long debate about violence. Many communist revolutions involved the violent overthrow of governments and many labor activists and socialists foreswore violence in favor of strikes and other forms of nonviolent resistance. The European revolutions of 1848 perhaps sit somewhere in between. We should also not overlook the fact that economic freedom is inseparable from political freedom when we consider abolition and feminism.

So where does the Occupy movement stand in relation to this history?

The invocation of the very phrase “the 99 percent” seems to favor the use of nonviolence over the use of violence. A claim to speak for and represent the interests of 99 percent of people sets the bar extremely high for Occupy. It is both a powerful meme and a challenge. It suggests that the movement will offer ideas, policies and models of governance that are so consistent with common sense and so broadly aim to serve the public good, that they will appeal to 99 percent of people in the United States (and around the world?). If this is to be more than a slogan, it requires drawing in everyone from the far left to ardent Tea Party activists and everyone from the very well to do to the homeless. It requires a monumental organizing and educational effort. 99 percent of people do not currently understand or find troublesome the idea that corporations hold many of the same rights and privileges they do. But it is a legal doctrine that undoubtedly, in fact, does harm in various ways and to various degrees the interests of 99 percent of the people in the United States. Occupy aims for an epochal change in our way of thinking about the role of corporations in democratic societies. It works for a day when the idea that for-profit corporations are wholly subservient to the public interest is as commonplace as our commitment to women’s rights and our moral repulsion to slavery.

Recently, governments have ramped up their suppression of the Occupy movement. Their lack of restraint is an opportunity, unless people are convinced such violence is justified. Police violence requires that the 99 percent believe their actions are legitimate and serve the common good. The primary justification for police violence that the 99 will find convincing is that Occupy started it by destroying property or threatening the police. Clear statements by General Assemblies regarding nonviolence and techniques for confronting fringe elements within the movement are critical in this regard.[ix]

Looking out for the interests of the 99 percent almost necessarily excludes the use of violence as a political tool. One would have to imagine that an Occupy vanguard could effectively use violence to convince 99 percent of the people of broad, common sense truths. But it is hard to see how breaking windows and provoking police educates people – and it is easy to see how even self-defense, while sometimes justified, is quickly transformed by authorities into an excuse.[x] The advocates of violence think headlines will help the cause, but the hard work of helping people understand the complex and often surreptitious ways in which their lives are affected by the oversized influence of corporations requires thoughtful, organized engagement and active resistance that exposes specific problems.[xi] In developing countries the dynamics of exploitation are often more obvious, where people are displaced and exploited by corporations in an egregious fashion with the assistance of police states. But these same factors make educating people and organizing for resistance in such places more difficult.

If the Occupy movement can unfold the truth that the undue influence of corporations damages working people, middle management, the planet, small businesses and family farms, it will prevail. The great insight of the political theory of strategic nonviolence is that power does not come from people, or rely upon people but that it simply is people – acting in concert with one another.[xii] What this means is that a movement that aims to serve the interests of 99 percent of people does not need violence. This is the basic truth that those who criticize nonviolence, such as Peter Gelderloos and Ward Churchill, and those who romanticize and celebrate violence, such as Slavoj Zizek, fail to understand.[xiii] 99 percent of people cannot be conquered by way of the violence of the 1 percent of people if they understand their interests and are politically engaged, which is the very aim of the Occupy movement. What makes the 1 percent powerful are highly coordinated efforts both with one another to influence government and with some portion of the 99 who are swayed by certain ideas, threats and incentives. In a very direct way, fighting the 1 percent with violence is in fact fighting co-opted portions of the 99 with violence. The police are part of the 99 percent – just ask them how they have faired with slashed state and local budgets. Likewise, violence is not required for governing and restraining the 1 percent if 99 percent of people are made aware of their common interests. When people understand the fact that 1 percent of us are making off with our economic and planetary future, when the 1 percent is no longer able to sway some portion of the 99 percent, they simply will not be able to rule.

[i]See, for instance, George Lakey, "The More Violence, the Less Revolution," Waging Nonviolence, March 6 2012; Todd Gitlin, "Will Occupy Embrace Nonviolence?," The Nation, February 8 2012.

[ii]Hubert Kennedy, "Johann Baptist Von Schweitzer: The Queer Marx Loved to Hate," Journal of Homosexuality 29, no. 4 (1995): 90.

[iii]Ballou thought both the advocates of violence and non-resistance used the term “force” too loosely. Non-resistance was a “moral force,” or “moral power,” which was not only the right, but the duty, of every human being to practice in the face of injustice. “In this sense my very non-resistance becomes the highest form of resistance to evil” Adin Ballou, Christian Non-Resistance, ed. Lynn Gordon Hughes (Providence, R.I.: Blackstone Editions, 2003), 4.

[iv]At the first meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society Garrison says: “We have met together for the achievement of an enterprise, without which that of our fathers is incomplete; and which, for its magnitude, solemnity, and probable results upon the destiny of the world, as far transcends theirs as moral truth does physical force. … Their measures were physical resistance – the marshaling of arms – the hostile array – the mortal encounter. Ours shall be such only as the opposition of moral purity to moral corruption – the destruction of error by the potency of truth – the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love – the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance.” William Lloyd Garrison, "Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Convention," Selections from the Writings of W. L. Garrison 1852.

[v]Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works : The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[vi]For a sense of just how difficult it is to overthrow slave systems with violent revolution consider that slave rebellions in the later years of the Roman Republic involved tens of thousands, most famously led by Spartacus. In one instance, the Republic slaughtered upwards of 100,000 slaves to put down a rebellion. See Theresa Urbainczyk, Slave Revolts in Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 112. On the Haitian Revolution see Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World : The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004); Cyril Lionel Robert James, The Black Jacobins (New York,: The Dial press, 1938).

[vii]Although this makes enslaving people more difficult, it has not ended in practice. See Kevin Bales, Disposable People : New Slavery in the Global Economy, Rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[viii]Philippe R. Girard, The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon : Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804, Atlantic Crossings (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011), 19-20.

[ix]For one approach, see Tom Hastings, "Dealing with Agents Provocateurs," in Hastings on nonviolence (2011).

[x]See Rebecca Solnit, "Why the Media Love the Violence of Protesters and Not of Banks," The Nation, February 21 2012; Jason Motlagh, "Occupy Oakland Embraces Nonviolence, but Debate 'Black Bloc' Tactics," Time, November 8th 2012.

[xi]Direct nonviolent action to stop home foreclosures is one example, but there are many more. See Eric Stoner, "A Foreclosure Auction Show-Stopper," Waging Nonviolence, February 8 2012.

[xii]Dustin Ells Howes, Toward a Credible Pacifism: Violence and the Possibilities of Politics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), Chapter 5; Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970); Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston,: P. Sargent Publisher, 1973).

[xiii]Ward Churchill and Mike Ryan, Pacifism as Pathology (Edinburgh, Scotland ; Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007); Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2007); Slavoj Zizek, Violence : Six Sideways Reflections, 1st Picador ed., Big Ideas/Small Books (New York: Picador, 2008).