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The violence of nonviolent protest

Non-Violence
Violence
Statue of Mandela

Nelson Mandela once said: 'There is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.' Ted Eytan under a Creative Commons Licence

It is a spectacle that is becoming all too familiar. Captured on the ubiquitous smartphone, intimidated protesters scurry away from a scene of unprovoked police violence. ‘This is a peaceful protest,’ they declare – words uttered as much in anxious defence as they are in defiance of the batons, rubber bullets, pepper spray and teargas that come their way.1

Admirable as the words seem, the protesters are mistaken: by way of its fundamentalist approach to nonviolence, protest today is anything but peaceful.

When activists remind police of their right to assemble without being assaulted with impunity, they are correct to ask: ‘If we’re not being violent, why are you?’

Correct, that is, up to a point. While I don’t doubt the integrity of people who fight for the betterment of others, few ponder an uncomfortable possibility: when nonviolent methods prove ineffectual, time and again, at preventing industrial-scale systemic violence, those who dogmatically persist with them may inadvertently be acting more violently than a balaclava-clad revolutionary.

Progress and normality

Let me explain. Violence and nonviolence are urbane concepts. If the abstract ethics of nonviolence were imposed on the natural world, ecological systems would collapse and we’d all be dead within weeks. Much of what passes as progress and normality is actually imbued with a hyper-violence that most of us remain blissfully unaware of. For the sake of cheap furniture, games consoles and fizzy drinks, we have reduced complex woodlands to lumber yards; people to cogs in the machine; animals to generic product; oceans to depleted fish farms; and paradise into parking lots.

The eradication of the political wolf has diminished our potential to combat merciless systemic violence

Which of us considers the act of buying factory-farmed meat – produced from animals reared in concentration camps – to be more violent than destroying the property of those who produce it? Who amongst us thinks that the industrial-scale processes causing the sixth mass extinction of species are as violent as forcefully attacking the headquarters of those most responsible for it? Few, if any. Yet the violence the corporate-state coalition – who control the narrative and own the monopoly on violence – inflicts upon the great web of life is astronomical in comparison to anything victims and activists could dream of doing in response.

The modern mind does not like such talk. Violence is bad – all violence – or so we have been led to believe. From most angles it appears a laudable belief. But there is one angle that we keep missing. And in our current climate, it is a crucial one.

This is not an argument for mindless violence. It is an argument against mindless nonviolence. It should be obvious that tackling the major social and ecological injustices of our age in ways that are legal and nonviolent is the first port of call. Which of us wants more violence in a world already riddled by it? What we must understand, however, is that in persisting with ineffectual tactics we are failing those we seek to help. Inasmuch as it is ineffective, nonviolent protest – in spite of its best intentions – cannot help but end up as yet more violence, albeit concealed, removed and sanitized. Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela (who led a militant sabotage campaign against the apartheid government) once said: ‘For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.’

Diversity in action

Instead of acrimony and division over tactical issues, what activists and protest movements need more than anything right now is unity – and importantly, a unity that is founded upon an acceptance of diversity. While big business is admirably single-minded in converting the splendour and majesty of the world into cash, those who want a fairer, more ecologically harmonious world often find themselves split over how best to achieve it.

We need only look to the natural world for evidence of the importance of diversity in contemporary activism. George Monbiot has done more than anyone to highlight how crucial wolves are to the health of our ecological landscapes. For, as conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold once said, just as ‘a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer’.2 He recognized, sooner than most, that the fierceness of the wolf has its own unique place amongst the diverse cast of creatures that share its environment: the gentleness of the doe; the beaver’s enterprise; the salmon’s indomitable will; the heron’s grace; and the fox’s cunning. These animals – opposed in nature as they may be – strike a balance with one another, but only if they are allowed to express their nature, and to give what it is they are here to give.

Movements for ecological and social justice would do well to observe nature’s example. The political landscape needs rewilding just as much as our ecological landscapes. The eradication of the political wolf has diminished our potential to combat merciless systemic violence. Our ecological crisis became critical a long time ago, and is only getting worse. Around 21,000 people a day are dying for the want of food that changes in political policies could provide, given the will.3 Billions of animals are sentenced to cruel existences in prisons, for a crime no worse than being born into a world of human supremacy. Our efforts of the past 20 years – well intentioned, creative and determined as they are – have simply not succeeded. We have a responsibility to be honest with ourselves about this.

Emma Goldman once said that ‘if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal’. The same could be said of nonviolence

Activism – that phenomenon whose role is to hold power to account when democratic processes clearly fail – is becoming so ineffectual it is now almost irrelevant. Look at the largest protests of the last decade. Despite millions peacefully protesting, we went and created havoc in Iraq. Look at Occupy. The largest mobilization and politicization of people since the 1980s, yet what did it achieve? It may have raised awareness of the huge disparity in wealth that is inevitable with capitalism, but what use is awareness-raising if it does not lead to meaningful change?

The ‘colour revolutions’ in central and eastern Europe worked to some extent, but only within their own very narrow terms. Nonviolent campaigns to stop factory farming or ecocide have gone on for as long as these injustices have existed – yet still they exist. While many good people are doing everything they feel they can, most are straitjacketed by cultural narratives around violence and nonviolence that are so simplistic it beggars belief. Emma Goldman once said that ‘if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal’. The same could be said of nonviolence. The fact that it is the Establishment’s preferred form of protest speaks volumes.

Upgrading the 3 ‘r’s

Unless we address the major ecological and social challenges of our age with an honest approach – no matter how unpalatable the truth may be – our best efforts will be in vain. The Machine, owned and run by the Establishment for its own ends, must be resisted and revolted against, before it kills us all. The three ‘r’s of the climate-change generation need a serious upgrade. Instead of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, I suggest we keep the following in mind: ‘resist, revolt, rewild.’

This isn’t to say that violence is always a safe bet for success or that there aren’t times when it has been used just as atrociously as the Establishment wields it. Yet, just as there are times when nonviolent means are appropriate, there will also be times when it is not. It is in these moments when we must decide how far we are willing to go in order to protect what needs protecting. And if we are not willing to go that far – perhaps it simply is not in our nature to do so – then how will we judge those who are willing? Do we condemn, or do we support? We live in a time of tough choices, when there is often no prescriptively right or wrong solution. Wise discernment is as important as it always has been.

If much of the beauty of the world is to be not only preserved but enhanced, we might do well to concern ourselves a little less about our protests being peaceful, and a little more about our actions being effective.

Mark Boyle’s latest book, Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi (New Society Publishers) is out now.

  1. nin.tl/occupy-police-brutality.

  2. Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac and Sketches Here and There, OUP 1968.

  3. poverty.com