MLK and non-violent protest

Yesterday in DC, the Martin Luther King memorial was officially inaugurated. I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch celebrating the event afterwards, where the speakers were veterans of the civil rights movement Andrew Young, John Dingell, and Harris Wofford. Video here

There were some interesting recollections of Dr King and his struggles, but not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the events of today, particularly the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the speakers made the point that the Tahrir Square occupiers had been inspired by the example and ideas of Martin Luther King.

Now, of course, the circle has been closed with the example of Tahrir inspiring #OWS. There has been more direct inspiration too. When I visited the Washington occupation in McPherson Square to drop off some magazines for their library, I picked up a reproduction of a comic-book format publication of the civil rights movement (cover price, 10 cents!), describing the struggle and particular the careful preparation given to ensure a non-violent response, even in the face of violent provocation.

And that brings me to the question I want to discuss, one that is as relevant today as in the civil rights era.  When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice? My answer, with Martin Luther King is: Never, or almost never.[1]

In large measure, my reasoning is consequentialist. Violence directed against established authority rarely works, and hardly ever produces enduring gains. Most revolutions fail, and most successful revolutions produce a new tyranny, often worse than the old, followed eventually by a return to the status quo ante.

Symbolic violence is almost invariably ineffectual or counterproductive, precisely because it derives whatever force it has from the implicit or explicit threat of revolution, which most people rightly view with fear and horror. Since symbolic violence the only kind of violence that is likely to arise in the context of the current #OWS protests, it’s important that it should be avoided as far as possible, and condemned, without qualification or excuse by reference to police violence, when it does occur.

 But those aren’t the only arguments. Symbolic violence involves essentially random harm to people or destruction of goods or productive capacity. Even where a case can be made that the targets are in some sense deserving, random and capricious punishment is always unjust. And the obvious enjoyment that so many of those who engage in symbolic violence take in the activity is morally indefensible.

Violence on a scale sufficient to effect political change is bound to lead to the deaths of innocent people, both directly and indirectly.

Directly, the immediate victims of political violence are likely to be working people – police or soldiers (often conscripts). Once deadly violence has been adopted as an instrument, whether by a state, a nationalist movement or political organization, the class of ‘legitimate’ targets expands steadily, to include alleged propagandists, collaborators and so on, and then to would-be neutrals. Moreover the tolerance for “collateral damage” invariably increases over time.

Typically, these direct deaths are only the beginning – retaliation from the other side, especially from a state against a revolutionary movement, is usually far more deadly. Attempts to disclaim moral responsibility for the predictable outcomes of a resort to war or violence (see, for example, Norman Geras on the Iraq war), are dishonest and dishonorable.

A further important point is that the belief that injustice is immovable is often wrong. The advocates of the Iraq War argued that Saddam’s regime was immovable, and that the inevitable death and suffering associated with an invasion would be less than that from leaving the regime in power for decades to come. The Arab Spring has shown that claim to be, at best, highly questionable.

How far does this argument go? Not to the point of denying a right of self-defence against an attacker who is trying to kill or maim you, or (with more qualifications) to defend others against such attacks. Or to the point of disallowing resistance to slavery by whatever means necessary.

I don’t have a final position on this, beyond saying that the presumption against violence ought to be much stronger than it has generally been. Following on from the marathon Pinker thread, I hope and believe that understanding of the futility of violence has increased over time, if only because the lessons of the first half of last century were so hard to ignore.

fn1. I hope it goes without saying that war in pursuit of “legitimate national interests”, as opposed to self defence is almost always foolish and never justified. Even in the US, this lesson seems to be coming home.

 

 

79 thoughts on “MLK and non-violent protest

  1. The ‘Arab Spring’ of course, it is now plain, was a con-job from the beginning. The US threw Mubarak overboard, as they did the Shah, Suharto, Noriega, Saddam etc, when his usefulness was over. Egypt is now being steered to a new pro-US tyranny, with the US trained and financed military, every bit as corrupt as Mubarak, being prepared for the task. Even if there is a sham election, there will be massive Western interference by the NED and similar interferers from the US, and various other Western subversives plus the usual NGO culprits. A ‘colour revolution’ is certain, with vote-rigging if necessary. Same scenario in Tunisia, and Yemen and Bahrain remain bloodbaths as the US steadfastly supports brutal despotisms, aided and abetted by the Saudis and other Gulf tyrannies. And if Turkey doesn’t watch itself Erdogan will discover that annoying the Zionists can have dire consequences.
    No, I’d say the whole farce was a facade behind which the real work, the destruction of the Libyan, Syrian and Iranian regimes was to progress. This is Oded Yinon’s ‘Zionist Plan for the Middle East’ meeting Dick Cheney’s plans to seize control of the region’s hydrocarbon riches. The brutal NATO onslaught in Libya (50,000 dead, the UK actually running out of ‘ordinance’)has installed the same type of salafist murderers who have served the Empire with such enthusiasm before, in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and Algeria, so Libya’s hydrocarbons are once again made safe for looting by the West. The aggression against Syria has failed in its diabolical intent to foment civil war, so far, thanks to Russia and China drawing an overdue line against Western regime change. And Iran is being fitted up for a mob hit with propaganda so crudely unbelievable that only the reptiles of the Western MSM could peddle it without conscience or laughing out loud. I did enjoy the spectacle, surely one of the pinnacles of hypocrisy in all human history, of Hilary Clinton abusing the Iranians for their ‘use of violence’. Priceless!

  2. And that brings me to the question I want to discuss, one that is as relevant today as in the civil rights era.  When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice? My answer, with Martin Luther King is: Never, or almost never.[1]

    That kind of mirrors the libertarian question about when government involvement in some sphere of life (ie violence or the threat of violence) is justified. Never or almost never.

  3. Terje please explain the disdain for governments that seems to be the only thing that unites libertarians? Historically and philosophically, from whence comes this conviction that the state is necessarily against human progress?

    I am with Spinoza when he says that he does the best he can for the well-being of the state in order to derive for himself, the maximum of happiness and safety. Oh right, you libertarians value freedom, not safety and happiness.

  4. Governments, notionally, represent the popular will in democracies. Libertarian hatred of Government is simply their hatred of others (including one another and themselves) made manifest. There was an interesting doco on SBS last night which featured the libertarian deity Ayn Rand. Plainly a psychopath, poor dear, surrounded by dullard sycophants who imagined her to be a genius, she made little attempt to disguise her visceral contempt for others (including her tiny coteries of acolytes, I would imagine). She spouted a deal of puerile crap about freedom and will and the virtues of self-interest. Altruism came in for a kicking, and Rand opined that she was one with some dead Greek in believing that the world would end upon her death.
    Alas, we are still here, thirty years after Rand paid her debt to nature. Thesis disproved, I would say. Of course many others have come to the conclusion that death is the end for the individual, but not many have decided to, therefore, hold humanity in such active disdain. They go on working for human betterment if only for the sake of their children, let alone others’. Call it bias, but I find their toil in the face of annihilation, to ensure a better life for those who will be extant when they are dead, somewhat nobler than Rand’s nihilistic misanthropy.
    Poor old Ayn yearned to be loved, but, in rejecting altruism, real selfless love becomes a little difficult. The end of her love affair with a colleague brought an end to the gilded circle who surrounded her and who met in an adjacent phone-booth from time to time, to hone their contempt for the moochers. You’d almost pity the libertarians, wasting their one life on such pathetic ego-trips, if they were not so utterly pernicious and dangerous and were not their death-cult grown to be such a threat to humanity’s survival. After all, if the omniverse ceases to exist when you cash in your chips, why be concerned over non-events like ecological collapse and mass death?

  5. Julie: it’s a really silly, narrow, ahistorical definition of freedom.

    As for their precious non-coercion principle – haven’t seen any of them follow it – eating steak, wearing shoes made in sweatshops, working for oligopolistic enterprises. In short, hypocrites.

  6. Mulga I did see the doco. I thought it was brilliant. They managed to say so much with the images, that words were unnecessary – particularly the footage of Clinton flirting with three teenage girls.

    It was quite clear from the footage showing Ayn’s disordered eye movements and the tension in her body that there was something ‘wrong’; that she was a ‘troubled’ woman and nobody recognised how needy she was; they saw her as a hero! The power of the psychopath to fool people is truly awesome, but also, as a Russian her views must have been useful for those who wanted a symbol of the superiority of American capitalism.

    The doco makers also managed to show, without many words, that both of her former friends who were interviewed, had actually felt empathy for her and had acted altruistically toward her. Her manipulative and narcissistic tendencies were so obvious in the way she took her female friend’s lover for her own; but you know, she didn’t ‘force’ anybody and it was a ‘rational’ thing to do.

    I wonder if Terje and his band of freedom loving individuals have any qualms about characterising this woman as a ‘philosopher’ and lauding her contribution to humanity?

  7. Julie, Rand was, in my opinion, a psychopath, and her ‘philosophy’ appeals in particular to the greedy rich, particularly the nouveau riche ‘entrepreneurs’ who imagine that their business success indicates their superiority to the rabble. Unfortunately, success in business is more often due to financial manipulation and other forms of finagling, that most would abjure because they have scruples, moral and ethical. The successful entrepreneur or business leader, most of whom are, in my opinion, more or less florid psychopaths, feel no such compunctions, being only interested in their own greed and hypertrophied egos. They were and are perfectly suited to a cult like Randian libertarianism predicated as it is on absolute contempt for the rest of humanity.

  8. Pr Q, an interesting and thoughtful discussion. What are your opinions about Ciaron O’Reilly and the ANZUS/Jabiluka/Pitstop Ploughshares’ activities? Would you count their actions as “symbolic violence” or something different? I’m not so sure; it did not appear random or capricious, but was certainly symbolic (and somewhat effective).

  9. Mulga – hmm, perhaps, imo moreover severely limited ability to see and acknowledge broader social and historical factor in any individual instance of success. A particularly annoying and damaging manifestation of the well-observed psychological phenomenon of people taking credit when they succeed at games of chance.

  10. Returning to JQ’s post, I can agree that the bar on violence ought to be very high. But I would not put it as high here as he does. The examples cited hardly show much understanding of the role implicit and explicit violence has played in winning a more just order – or of the role of overt violence in maintaining injustice. In particular, the assertion that “most successful revolutions produce a new tyranny, often worse than the old, followed eventually by a return to the status quo ante.” is cavalier almost beyond belief – a staple of Whig history that simply does not bear examination. It does not even apply to Britain unless your history is straight from Macaulay (successful violent revolutions in 1640-45 and 1688, violent suppression of the peripheries for most of the next century, reform driven by fear of violent revolution after 1815, liberation of Ireland by violent revolution 1920….). Time for a few serious history classes?

  11. Julie Thomas :
    Terje please explain the disdain for governments that seems to be the only thing that unites libertarians? Historically and philosophically, from whence comes this conviction that the state is necessarily against human progress?

    Government equals violence and coercion. The legal right to use violence and coercion is what sets government apart from every other social institution. Government brings nothing to the equation that could not be done by other institutions except for violence and coercion. In general society and human relations are healthier when there is less violence and less coercion. So we should have a limited small government. The minimum necessary for law and order and no more. Libertarians believe that voluntary action is a far better organising principle for society. The concept really isn’t that hard. Libertarians also have consequentialist arguments based on the empirical evidence that government involvement, in spite of good intentions, frequently leads to inferior outcomes or undesirable consequences.

    I don’t hate anybody. Occasionally I might get cranky with somebody but I lack the emotional energy for anything like sustained hatred. I might disagree passionately with some people regarding some things but it’s not personal. If you love violence as an organising principle for society I think that is sad but I’m not going to hate you. I’m more likely to pity you.

  12. Dan, every human achievement is built on the work of generations of others, now a-moulderin’ in their graves. And our very existence depends on the co-operation and toil of myriad others currently extant. To live as an island, if only in one’s own deranged ego phantasies, simply makes no sense, whatsoever.

  13. There seems to be some disconnect between ideal ‘libertarians’, who are made to sound like anarchists,( a much more benign type in my opinion), and really existing libertarians, who have no real problem with violence, so long as it is largely privatised to the likes of Xe (former Blackwater) and mobilised strictly to keep the rabble in line and protect the rich libertarian’s property. State violence in pursuit of global empire seems not to trouble most really existing libertarians, either.

  14. Mulga – in the USA the vast majority of libertarians opposed the Iraq war. Libertarian figures like congressman Ron Paul voted against the war. The US Libertarian Party was opposed. The website antiwar.com is libertarian. And I personally opposed the war on this very blog at the time. In short you are talking sh!t.

  15. This is kinda like trying to extrapolate an individuals demand curve…

    Of course you can’t condone acts of violence but when there is a systemic failure which leads to a revolution it’s understandable.

    Funny world isn’t it.

  16. @Julie back at #3 — Does much of people’s happiness really come from the government? Of course we’d be unhappy without some protection from coercion by other people, but libertarians don’t disagree with that. The government has one idea of ‘safety’, but you may have another — for instance you can’t sell unpasteurised milk. If you do, the state will fine you, and if you don’t pay the fine they will send you to prison, using as much force as is required to get you there.

    The state uses the threat of violence to stop people enjoying relatively harmless drugs, and to stop people who would be good, peaceful citizens coming to this country. In the past they’d use violence to stop homosexual sex.

  17. Paradoxically, advocates of non-violent protest can also play a role in causing deaths; deaths of their own followers. That too is a kind of collateral damage.

    Though most well socialised civilian people appear to be relatively timid, non-violent and compliant most of the time, they have enough repressed anger and innate aggression to react violently when pushed too far for too long. Regimes who push too far find this out sooner or later.

  18. I recall the effect on me when i first read about the iterative prisoner’s dilemma. One of the commentators on the (surprising to many) tit-for-tat results pointed out that there have been some very outstanding examples of the application of these principles. King was one of the examples given as was Gandhi. I’d read much on Gandhi and had found him inspiring but i’d not read much on King so off i went to see what his inspiration was and whether he was moved to his solution by pragmatism.

    What i discovered altered the way i saw Christianity – until then i had assumed that Jesus had brought nothing new to human knowledge having only reiterated much of what great thinkers of his era had already provided. I came to the conclusion that Jesus had solved (or found, learned the solution for) the problem of tit-for-tat and that in this and only this he had departed from the code of Jewish Law – because Jewish Law demands an eye for an eye.

    King was a Christian – through-and-through.

    I’m not Christian but i recognise that non-violent protest and to “turn the other cheek” is the only viable solution for confrontation between approximately equal parties. Of course total annihilation is the best solution if you are the stronger and if you can be sure of a thorough job.

    I also recognised at that time that because neither Muslims nor Jews would ever adopt the solution for the dilemma (it being decidedly Christian), we’d never see a solution to the “problem of Israel”. They will be stuck in tit-for-tat forever. The Israelis do have a lot of games theorists though so maybe there is hope yet.

    Martin Luther King – what a truly inspiring human being.

    Would that there be many many more like him.

    pop

  19. TerjeP :

    Julie Thomas :Terje please explain the disdain for governments that seems to be the only thing that unites libertarians? Historically and philosophically, from whence comes this conviction that the state is necessarily against human progress?

    Government equals violence and coercion. The legal right to use violence and coercion is what sets government apart from every other social institution. Government brings nothing to the equation that could not be done by other institutions except for violence and coercion. In general society and human relations are healthier when there is less violence and less coercion. So we should have a limited small government. The minimum necessary for law and order and no more. Libertarians believe that voluntary action is a far better organising principle for society. The concept really isn’t that hard. Libertarians also have consequentialist arguments based on the empirical evidence that government involvement, in spite of good intentions, frequently leads to inferior outcomes or undesirable consequences.
    I don’t hate anybody. Occasionally I might get cranky with somebody but I lack the emotional energy for anything like sustained hatred. I might disagree passionately with some people regarding some things but it’s not personal. If you love violence as an organising principle for society I think that is sad but I’m not going to hate you. I’m more likely to pity you.

    So, in your ideal Libertarian society assuming that if minimal laws were to prevent violence and other social harmful behaviour such as selling drugs etc.

    Would business owners’ “volunteer” give pay increase to reward the improvements of workers?

    Assuming that investors’ exist because funds are needed to start up a business or invest in large projects, would they “volunteer” to allow executives to give workers pay rise to cope with inflation even if it will harm their return of investment?

    Would landlords and food providers “volunteer” to not inflate their prices because they know that wage level of the average worker will not rise?

    Would universities, hospitals and transport service etc (providing public transport does not exist because minimum government interference in the economy), “volunteer” to provide services to the young generations that have no required skills/age to work and pay for the services if government do not give a loan to the young generations or provide public services?

    Would landlords and food provides “volunteer” to give pensioners, disabled people free goods and services because of their inability to work?

    Would the government have money to spend to assist all the people mentioned above if no tax were implemented in the society?

    Did your ideal Libertarian society ever existed in the past or current?

  20. My wife said something to me the other day that brought all this into perspective for me.

    She was talking about militant feminists at the time and she said they have this outlook where they live in a world where all the power is owned by men. They don’t want these men to have power over them, so therefore they want to take that power off them.

    Subtly but importantly.. completely misguided.

    I always thought the idea “Peak Oil Poet” just talked about was THE central part of Jesus’ teaching… earth changing stuff. I first had this inkling when my english teacher told me the central theme of ‘1984’ was how important it was to have power over other people. She was such a bitch.

    But I never ‘really’ understood it. It really is very simple game theory. If I want self-determination.. power over myself.. I must make it abundantly clear that I will not take power from other people. Otherwise we devolve into an arms race. I also must make it abundantly clear I will not give up power over myself. Otherwise we end up with a dictator.

    You have a real responsibility to not be a bully nor to be bullied.

    The same idea is central to democracy. Basically, I will have my opinions and not give up on them, but I will agree to go along with the majority even if I do not like what they say. That said, I will still do everything I can to persuade them short of taking their power to make their own decisions from them. ie. I will not kill them, I will not lie to them.

    It is a gentlemen’s agreement and it is a house of cards, it is not perfect or even stable, but it works.

    In a perfect world I would actually extend John’s non-physical-violence to non-anykindof-violence – basically anything which wrests someone’s power from them is a kind of violent act. This is probably difficult to achieve. In this world, I just try to use violence only in immediate defence of someone’s life. I have never had to do this, I hope I never will.

  21. TerjeP :

    And that brings me to the question I want to discuss, one that is as relevant today as in the civil rights era.  When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice? My answer, with Martin Luther King is: Never, or almost never.[1]

    That kind of mirrors the libertarian question about when government involvement in some sphere of life (ie violence or the threat of violence) is justified. Never or almost never.

    Yep, roads are totally evil and intrusive. And public libraries. Close them all. Schools as well. If you can’t pay for it, bad luck! Free vaccination. Another intrusive evil.

  22. …my point being:

    Libertarians have enjoyed the luxury of publicly funded projects and programs for decades, but refuse to acknowledge just how much they underpin the functioning of a modern, technology society.

    Public sanitation? Investments in port facilities? And that little thing called “da interwebz” that grew out of government funding (academic and military in the US).

    There is a delicious irony in libertarian posters and bloggers decrying the role of government on a platform built by government.

    Most amusing 🙂

    And don’t get me started on Ryan and her cult of personality… Remember, it was the right-wing libertarians who opposed vaccination and fluoridation in the US during the 1950s.

    They all saw it as part of a communist/socialist plot. Just like they see climate change as well.

  23. Terje, it is this belief that government necessarily equals coercion and violence that I would like explained. What is the basis for this belief? Who are the philosophers you read who have considered the nature of government and the relationship between government and the people? Hayek’s arguments just do not cut the mustard in this area. His ‘consequentist’ arguments are not at all convincing. Fundamnetally, his undertanding of ‘human nature’ or psychology was flawed. His assumptions about these things are contradicted by the latest scientific knowledge and therefore his arguments are not valid. Can you not see that if the foundation of his argument – his premises – are faulty then his conclusions are suspect?

    Have you ever read any of the ‘real’ enlightenment philosophers or any Chinese philosophy? Can you point to any historical evidence that shows that governments will always tend toward totalitarianism? Surely in these days of such plenty in terms of the availability of knowledge, one has an obligation to consider a wide range of ideas, and consider alternative possibilities, rather than being so certain that one has found the truth. I am not saying that you haven’t read widely and cross culturally but I see no evidence of any ‘philosophy’ the underpins your assumptions, other than that of Hayek and Rand and these people are just not up to it.

    For example, Rand defines the concepts of violence and coercion in a particular way and she was ostensibly very much against them, and yet, in her personal life she was violent and coercive. She also manipulated people and used them for her own ends, The psychological effects of this type of ‘underhanded’ exploitation can be as harmful as actual violence. Emotional abuse of children can be just as damaging as physical abuse. It can ‘cause’ death via suicide, just as physical violence can ‘cause’ death.

    It is simplistic and possibly arrogant – or just silly? – to believe that you can assess ‘undesirable consequences’ and ‘inferior outcomes’. I think it is quite clear that I would have a different idea about these things. Spinoza said, to see the truth, one needs to have no opinion either for or against anything. This and other ideas he had about human nature, are consistent with current knowledge of the way the human brain works and that is one of the reasons that I value Spinoza’s ideas more than I value Hayek’s.

    I do not think that you hate or self-hate. I do think it would be a good thing for the world and yourself, if you could free yourself from the bonds of your existing brain chemistry. Do some brain exercises that will develop your ability to appreciate complexity and uncertainty.

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