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Monday, September 17, 2012

Nonviolent Revolution As the Democratization of the State

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, a reader thinks I am talking nonsense:
Nonviolent statism is a contradiction in terms. Please ditch one or the other.
I disagree with you.

Understand what I am saying: I am very familiar with your objections, of course. I understand where you are coming from. I am very aware that it is commonplace to define the state as that institution that has a monopoly on the "legitimate" use of force and that this is often taken to justify the identification of state with violence (even when it is quite obvious that enormous amounts of what happens through government has nothing at all to do with violence on any plausible description).

I am aware that my viewpoint is a minority viewpoint, in fact I will go so far as to say that I know of no political theorist who characterizes this issue in quite the way I do. (But Hannah Arendt, Claude Lefort, Chantal Mouffe, and a host of scholarship about and experience with radical nonviolent civil rights, queer, feminist, environmentalist activism has contributed to my perspective here.) Nonetheless, I do believe what I do and for reasons I think are good ones. Even if I cannot persuade you of my position, I propose it is one that deserves consideration among the more usual alternatives.

Violence precedes the emergence of the state and violence exceeds the existence of the state. I begin here because this recognition matters enough to be a point of departure for thinking the political. It is an axiom closely connected in my view to Hannah Arendt's starting point: "Plurality is the law of the earth."

I am far from denying the obvious fact that many (even most) states historically do indeed engage in systematic exploitation and offensive war-making. This is why the radical left critique of states that function as nothing but the institutional legitimation of violence for elite-incumbent classes -- or critique states to the extent that they are functioning this way -- is a powerful one with which I strongly agree as it applies to many historical (in a sense of the historical that includes the present) states or episodes or particular tendencies.

But I simply do not agree that states are exhaustively or even essentially characterized by violence or that their abolition would eliminate violence from human affairs. To smash the state is always (whatever else it may be) to smash the space of democratization, and spontaneist fantasies declaring contracts nonviolent by fiat whatever misinformation or duress articulates their terms, or dreaming of a consensus beyond the law arising out of an unrestrained angelic human nature, or promising to unleash a techno-transcendental superabundance that circumvents the impasse of stakeholder politics offer no living, abiding alternatives to the interminable democratizing struggles addressed through or addressed to governments toward sustainable equity-in-diversity.

I think these are profoundly mistaken views, widespread though they are. Of course, self-identified anarchists are comparatively rare, but the advocacy of "smaller government" without a supplementary characterization of good government amounts to anarchism in substance and this political viewpoint is far from rare, as is the cynical belief that there is a necessary tradeoff between order and violence that essentially accepts the premise of anarchism but regards anti-statist activism as unrealistic anyway.

I propose the contrary proposition that democratization is the historical struggle through which states are rendered ever less violent.

Democratization rendering states less violent happens when elections make possible peaceful transitions among leaders. Democratization rendering states less violent happens when civil rights and juries and court appointed defense attorneys provide ever wider more equitable recourse to courts for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes. Democratization rendering states less violent happens when taxation is yoked to representation making government directly accountable to the consent of the governed. Democratization rendering states less violent happens when checks and balances make branches and layers of government compete for positional advantage not through corruption but through the policing of corruption within governance. Democratization rendering states less violent happens when social democratic states provide the security of general welfare, basic income, healthcare, education, access to reliable information all to better ensure that everybody can engage in everyday commerce on legibly informed non-duressed consensual terms. Democratization rendering states less violent happens when public goods and common goods are accountably administered by democratic governance in the name of the common good to circumvent the violence of their exploitation or mismanagement for the parochial benefit of minorities. The examples can be multiplied, but I am illustrating what some fellow radical democrats would seem to regard as an initially or apparently counter-intuitive principle I am advocating.

Abraham Lincoln famously said that "The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves in their separate, and individual capacities." Although this formulation has had a vital life in the history of progressive struggles for equity-in-diversity, my own point is a different one. It is not only through instituted governments that people accomplish goods collectively of which they are incapable or in which they are frustrated individually. Hence it is necessary to make a more specific case for the collective work of good democratic government in particular. In my view, democratic government facilitates the nonviolent adjudication of disputes and enables people to have a say in the public decisions that affect them (including disputes over what constitutes violence, over what constitutes the public, over what constitutes such a say, and over the terms of the administration of government), through periodic election of accountable representatives, through equal recourse to laws, through the maintenance of individual rites/rights cultures and civil protections of the rights of minorities against majorities, through the maintenance of a legible scene of informed, nonduressed consent to the terms of everyday commerce through the provision of general welfare, and through the sustainable, equitable administration of public and common goods otherwise vulnerable to violation and exploitation by incumbent-elites.

As I say, violence both precedes and exceeds "the" state-form. The truth is that no state, even totalitarian ones, has sufficient means of violence to subdue entire populations in every aspect of their lives to the will of their rulers. Violence CANNOT be the essential characteristic of even the most tyrannical states, and countervailing strains of civitas, consensual accountable equitable participatory governance, are always discernible.

Again, my point is not to deny but to decry the violence of undemocratic states. But in my view the democratization of the state is indispensable to nonviolent revolution. Fantasies of smashing the state rely on a mistaken identification of the state form with violence, and always amount to the facilitation of violence on the part of merciless muscled moneyed minorities who will go ahead and legitimize their abuses as the cost of whatever measure of order they maintain. In democratic states order and consent are one and the same (and exceptions threaten the legitimacy of that order) and the permanent vulnerability of the state form to corruption, abuse, violence confronts the vigilence of an empowered population to which that state is beholden for its funding and maintenance at every layer.

I appreciate the politeness with which you to entreat me to renounce either my commitment to good democratic government or my commitment to nonviolent stakeholder politics and change, but I fear I must decline. I am indeed committed to both, I believe that the commitment to each bolsters the commitment to the other, and I believe that it is those who find these commitments incompatible who are wrongheaded and confused.


aepxc said...

Excellent post. The way I see it, removing motivations for violence relies on two things – making sure the people actually have enough to lose, and making sure that they are all but guaranteed to lose it if they are caught attacking others. The latter requires power to be equal but not identical. Equal because power asymmetries allow the powerful to abuse the disempowered consequence-free. Not identical because identical capabilities leave room for drawn-out and indecisive conflicts. The anti-state arguments get the first part right, but the second part wrong. The minimisation of violence relies on a rock-paper-scissors dynamic, not on everyone having the same size of rock. A well-democratised state (primitively: citizens obey laws, laws are set by legislators, legislators are hired and fired by citizens) is, as you rightly argue, the best way of achieving this that we know at present.

Summerspeaker said...

Violence haunts even the most seemingly peaceful state institutions. Try this: Go into any government office and violate social or spatial propriety. Sing loudly, hold an impromptu dance party, brandish a sign, spray paint a wall, smoke a joint, take off your clothes, or what have you. Wait for the cops to show up, then disobey their orders. Feel violence upon your body.

The omnipresent threat of state violence disciplines my actions minute by minute. For some - perhaps even many/most - state power takes a more productive role, generating and proliferating the ideologies that justify obedience and elide the brutality of its enforcement. But not all of us have been so successfully conditioned. A sizable minority of the United States population, at the absolute least, behaves primarily out of terror. Even being generous, the contemporary U.S. state functions as bloody tyranny of the majority. Considering that most eligible folks don't vote, that's surely too rosy a picture.

Unless you somehow propose to change the basic dynamic of obedience or torture, I don't see how democratization will turn the state nonviolent (though it could make it less violent). If you support arresting anyone - ever - you don't believe in strict nonviolence. (That's not necessarily a bad thing. While appreciate strict nonviolence as an ideal, I don't advocate or practice it.)

Democracy by itself means little to me. I wouldn't care if a majority of the folks Taos support my friend's incarceration there. Queers especially have every reason to fear the kind of democracy that lets people vote violence upon our bodies.

Anonymous said...

But why the commitment to nonviolence?

I think I understand and agree with your argument for a more democratic state, which could potentially result in a more just distribution of violence or perhaps even could serve to minimize it, but the claim of nonviolence seems to me like a classically idealist position which both undermines and excludes individuals and groups who engage in any of the possible (and perhaps necessarily) violent processes of social change. If anything, the claim to nonviolence seems nothing more than a rhetorical category within which 'legitimate' actions can take place, while undesirable practices are excluded and even foreclosed as 'violent'.

It seems to me that the nonviolent/violent distinction only serves to oversimplify the very complex and overlapping systems of violence within which we all are implicated in very material and social ways, both in struggle and in everyday life. Why not simply argue for what acts to democratize rather than what is subjectively 'nonviolent'?


Dale Carrico said...

Violence haunts even the most seemingly peaceful state institutions.

If everything is violence nothing is.

Dale Carrico said...

But why the commitment to nonviolence?

Is this the part where you affirm a commitment to violence?

It seems to me that the nonviolent/violent distinction only serves to oversimplify the very complex and overlapping systems of violence within which we all are implicated in very material and social ways, both in struggle and in everyday life.

Certainly this can be true. In other writings of mine on violence I have pointed out that one can describe as an epistemic violence the circumscription through which certain acts can be legible as violence in the first place. This means that democracy and nonviolence co-construct one another in my view, not that one properly assumes or stabilizes the other -- I have already pointed out even in these schematic comments that democracy doesn't only provide alternatives for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes -- but that what counts as violence is one of the disputes. I disagree that even canonical Kingian nonviolence is naive or idealist in the way that worries you. I find King and Fanon very closely allies -- even if the postage versions of each treat them as antitheses -- about which I say a little bit more, for example, here.

Dale Carrico said...

The omnipresent threat of state violence disciplines

As I said, violence both precedes and exceeds the state. If you concede this but then continue to preface violence with state in this way it looks to me like you are indulging in a theoretical fetish that functions to simplify what isn't simple the better to congratulate yourself on a superior radicalism that isn't. I am sure with your anti-academician bias you are well aware of such tendencies. Hell, you probably think I am exhibit A of that very sort of thing!

Dale Carrico said...

Democracy by itself means little to me. I wouldn't care if a majority of the folks Taos support my friend's incarceration there.

I have said that democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them. There are many implementations of this notion. Some involve majority decision making but certainly not all of them do. I consider rights that protect minorities FROM majorities an expression of democratization, too, after all. If you say that you don't care about people having a say in the public decisions that affect them, I don't believe you. I just don't.

Summerspeaker said...

If everything is violence nothing is.

I made no such claim. I wasn't even talking about discursive or epistemic violence - as academics are fond of doing these days - but rather how state institutions rely on the police to enforce social and spatial norms. The appearance of peace stems from the threat of imprisonment, torture, and execution. I gave concrete examples that affect people I know and love. Your response simply ignores my argument.

Anonymous said...

Again, I feel as though we very much agree politically, but have rather large differences semiotically and linguistically. My experience in u.s. social movements over the last decade and a half have largely (and rather unfortunately) been deeply affected by a divisive and foreclosing language of nonviolence which has only served to divide movements into good and bad partitions, into legitimate and illegitimate binaries. For example, one doesn't have to look too far to see how the demonization of anarchists within occupy from portions of the left has created an environment within which repression against them finds justification, and that has largely occurred within the discourse of nonviolence.

I want to reiterate that I feel our political views are not so far apart, but I also feel it's important to assert that the language of nonviolence is too often instrumentalized in the interest of dividing movements and it makes me deeply question whether its a useful framework for approaching these important questions.


Dale Carrico said...

i -- points well taken.

Summer -- you see jackbooted thugs where they aren't. This is not the virtue you seem to think it is. Among other things this self-congratulatory error of yours dulls the force of recognitions where jackbooted thugs actually are.

You can say I'm ignoring your point again, but the real problem here is that you are wrong. I now suspect you are gearing up for a Big Finish in which surprise surprise my own disagreement with you will be shown to represent the aforementioned "demonization" of anarchists that is the really and for true violence we should be worried about making me The Biggest Big Baddie of all despite my commitment to most of the concrete outcomes you claim to cherish, and so all this will end up being all about poor you yet again whereupon all the party people can party on as before and pretend they are smashing the state and conjuring utopia into spontaneous being while the reformists you defame go on to push for change in the world on the heatbreaking costly compromised terms on which it is actually usually possible in a world shared by an ineradicable diversity of stakeholders. It is a joyless ritual, I must say, but I applaud your stamina in re-enacting it so relentlessly.

Summerspeaker said...

By that I can only assume that you consider the violence of state in enforcing social and spatial norms legitimate. Jackbooted thugs or not, the cops practice force against disobedience bodies. In the hegemonic discourse - which you appear to support - the government's supposed popular mandate and rationality justify this violence. Regardless of whether it's justified, it sure as hell ain't nonviolent.

Dale Carrico said...

To "i" -- just to be clear that my "points taken" response was not intended dismissively but to register my shared sense that we are largely in agreement, let me just elaborate a little more and say that while of course any radical doctrine or revolutionary tradition can be misrepresented (especially by those who find it threatening) or misapplied, for myself, I find that the more I actually know about the practical and intellectual resources of nonviolent resistance and the politics/ rhetoric of reconciliation, not to mention its accomplishments, the more impressed I am by it. That said, nothing's perfect, and nobody knows enough to know all the answers or even to know if they did. But you know all that already.

Dale Carrico said...

"Summer" -- your definition of the nonviolent seems to me a vacuity, and to identify it with the disavowal of history and politics altogether, and thankfully such is not, nor ever will be, a prevalent nor even remotely relevant usage of the term. People are different from one another, and the ineradicable potential for violence inheres in that condition of plurality itself as does the possibility for its contingent overcoming and forgiveness/ restitution. Politics. Either we administer our common resources and solve our shared problems and engage in interpersonal commerce and reconcile our differences through sustainable accountable institutions dedicated to equity-in-diversity in a legible scene of consent -- or we fail. You opt for pre-emptive failure and declare this perspective righteous. Either the state is an instrument of exploitation and violence or an instrument of consent and equity-in-diversity. That is the struggle of the democratization against the anti-democratization of the institutional order that co-incides with the ongoing administration and reconciliation through and in resistance to that institutional order. Again, a certain amount of walking and chewing gum at the same time is necessary to do democracy. It seems to me that you have found your way to a lovely poem that looks good to you when you recite it to yourself in the mirror, which you think of as politics when it isn't really of any use to anybody or to most of the progressive outcomes you claim to cherish, but I wish you luck in your world-shattering crusade against all architecture and a few pronouns.