I write about this because even though Simon trotted out “Selma, Gdansk, Robben Island,” it was a sophisticated formulation of an oftentimes hackneyed argument. Most of the time, it seems that people use the nonviolence incantation as a way to lazily dismiss contemporary attempts at agitation for change, or to hold people to an impossibly high standard. But Simon, perhaps as a credit to his extensive experience with the press, understood it in terms of the battle of images.
In his own words,
“When the very demand is an end to wanton and brutalizing overpolicing, a riot and all the imagery that a riot conjures is in fact the most useless thing in the great arsenal of civil disobedience and rebellion…
....as if the imagery of violent civil unrest has ever done anything in this country other than push middle Americans into the arms of fearful, authoritarian repression”
But let’s move on to our peace zombies: historical figures or moments that are constantly brought back from the dead to serve arguments about nonviolent civil disobedience. Typically these zombies include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Mohandas Gandhi. Selma, Gdansk, Robben Island, is a bit of a sophisticated turn. Yet while the accomplishments of each of these cases are important, they have since been scaled back, overturned, or simply driven behind closed doors.
As with all conflicts, violent or nonviolent, it’s difficult to say that there is a definite end. It’s hard to actually pinpoint concrete signs of success when these old struggles are playing themselves out today. Moreover, extant inequalities and prejudices have a tendency to corrode new institutions and laws that may once have been touted as successes. The Voting Rights Act did not end the struggle for civil rights in the US, it merely changed the nature of the battlefield. The same could certainly be said for the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution--and they can be traced directly back to the violence of the American Civil War.
The Civil War brings me to another point about the use of peace zombies. By cherry-picking his evidence, all Simon has done is created a pretty picture that ignores plenty of examples of similar “successes” brought about by organized campaigns of violence. Over 600,000 US soldiers were killed in a conflict that gave Americans the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Amendments. What’s more, in a perverse sort of way, there would be no Martin Luther King, there would be no defaulting in the “bank of justice”, were it not for the promises etched in blood by this prior conflict. Violent and nonviolent movements do not happen in their respective vacuums. They are constantly building upon and playing off of each other.
For example: It might be easy to counterpose nonviolent philosophy against violent philosophy through the figures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Many people seem quite comfortable teaching Civil Rights history in this way. However, I believe such a conceptual move is fatally simplistic. Both men worked at the same time to end white supremacy in the US. They clashed, but they also synergized through these clashes to polarize blacks and whites, to force the question of the color line onto the national stage. When it came to making race a national issue, something that every American could no longer ignore, both men benefited from each other’s presence.
Ultimately, violent and nonviolent movements constantly contaminate each other in this so-called “laboratory of history”. We cannot “play the scientist” and isolate these variables to make independent claims about violence versus nonviolence, when so often these movements actually grow up together through their confrontations. When people enact the fiction of separating nonviolent from violent struggle, they distort history in such a way as to make political movements seem like isolated phenomena rather than a cumulative, collective endeavor.
There is more to this than distorting political history. The nonviolent reform versus violent revolution debate sits at a crossroad of issues that culminate in deciding how best to strategically dissent with the state. The violence camp seeks to destabilize the state’s hegemonic claim on the legitimate use of physical force because it is the backbone of its authority over civilians. Law, for instance, would be nothing without the capacity for enforcement and punishment. The nonviolence camp seeks to exacerbate the contradiction inherent in a modern state that presumes to rule through beneficence and law but depends on violence to enforce this authority. Nonviolent agitators do so by forcing the state into situations in which the use of violence is completely at odds with its presumption of benevolence. Yet both sides rest on the principle that the state monopolizes the means of violence and its legitimation.
The only way to break the stalemate between violence and nonviolence is to invalidate the dichotomy itself. I can’t do justice to such a project in the format of this essay. But I do want to suggest that it is possible. Take discussions of the Civil War. I understand that charting the actions of states require very different considerations of circumstance than charting the actions of social movements. Yet I take it as a testament to how much we are willing to naturalize the association between state and violence when we do not criticize figures like Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis for being unable to settle their disagreements peacefully. If we expect blacks to agitate for equality nonviolently, then should we not hold the highest political offices to those same standards?
Let me put it another way. How is it that schools can encourage children to embrace nonviolent principles when discussing black civil rights, when at the same time, scoff at political appeasement as a strategy to contain Nazi Germany? How is it that we can simultaneously celebrate brutality carried out in the name of the United States government, and condemn those who employ violent methods to oppose it?
The cloak of nationalism is never far behind where race and violence is concerned. The state is consistently excused for using physical force to achieve its ends because justified or not, it is usually seen as an inevitable consequence of nation-state rule. What’s more is that commentators (Simon included) make the equal and opposite mistake of over-generalizing what violence against the state actually looks like. Simon likens advocates of violent resistance to “facsimiles” of Malcolm X, glossing over important contextual distinctions between a man whose authority was informed by the organizational discipline of the Nation of Islam, and the frenzy of the Baltimore Uprisers. Disciplined violence against the state is not the same as undisciplined violence.
Yet the deeper question is this: is nonviolent reform ultimately plausible when said reformers define the state in terms of its monopoly on the means of legitimating and executing violence? Toward the ends of their lives, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. both came to see the struggle for equality not just in terms of the United States, but as a global issue that involved the dealings of the US with the international community. In the case of Dr. King, it was this paradigm that pushed the Johnson administration beyond what it could tolerate. The ethos of nonviolence is radically antithetical to the coercive foundations of the modern nation-state, and in this sense, those who believe in nonviolent reform of the state (as opposed to violent revolution to overthrow the state) call for a deeply contradictory vision of change.
There is only so much “nonviolent reform” a state can tolerate until it is forced to invalidate itself, when its authority is premised on the possibility of using overwhelming force. Viewed through this lens, it is violent revolution that appears to be the more conservative measure, because rather than repudiating the apparatus of violence upon which statehood is ultimately based, it merely reconstitutes the power structure under a different ruling class.
Nation-states founded through nonviolent movements face equally paradoxical issues. India may have been inaugurated by a non-violent transfer of power from the British Crown to the Indian Congress, but it has since found itself unable to draw from nonviolent methods to resolve conflicts over territorial sovereignty with Pakistan, or prevent brutal crackdowns. Justice remains elusive in this fifty-year-old democracy that continues to struggle with corruption. Perhaps it is not the method of agitation, violent or nonviolent, that is our major problem. Perhaps what we ought to question is the validity of the nation-state itself.