How Does Non-Violence Work?

photo by twirlingsardines

by Lester Macgurdy

I’ve made a point to ask Cccupy Portland members this titular question and most of the time the person asked had no idea. On the other hand, regardless of what was usually a complete lack of understanding, a great reliance and support of non-violence was still professed. This is the “I know nothing about it but I strongly support it” syndrome upon which American political ideals seem to generally be based.

It’s wonderful that we have such a large group of people committed to non-violently changing our world. But it’s not enough to just have support without understanding. We are at war, whether blood is being shed or not. How can we even know whether we’re winning or losing if we don’t understand the principles of non-violent warfare?

If we’re going succeed in ending the oppression of the current global oligarchy that has captured our government, we have to break the deeply ingrained habit of obeying principles without understanding. We have to not only act, but we have to know why and how we are acting. The powers that influence public perception in our society (media, education, government, business) have perfected an omnipresent system. They create public perception regarding proper behavior and to force us to act behaviorally based upon those manufactured perceptions. We can’t fall into the familiar rut of mindless behavior. We have to be intelligent.

We, all of us, no matter how brilliant and ruggedly individualistic we believe ourselves to be, are the product of our universal system of behavior modification and social control. That vast system has captured our schools, media, religions, families, science, etc. Institutions in our society that we grant the greatest degree of trust and legitimacy are guilty of poisoning of the well of our own values and understanding. Because of this, we can rest upon no assumptions, and must take nothing as a given. We have to question everything, including the interior landmarks of our own intellectual landscape by which we navigate. We must question authority, and the authority residing in each of our minds is ultimately ourselves. No matter how great our peers consider an idea to be, we must refuse to adopt it until we ourselves understand it.

Why are we engaged in non-violent resistance? We do it because life has become unlivable. We resist because our children and grandchildren will be slaves, just as we are, if we don’t. We resist because our oceans and our heavens are becoming toxic and deadly. We resist because we’ve been made the servants of a monstrous and inhumane corporate god that sees the entire world and everything in it as food upon which to feast. We resist because, quite simply, the only thing that awaits us if we don’t, is slavery and death.

This is no small task. We have entered the most dangerous period in all of modern society. We have a globe littered with enough warheads to kill us all a thousand times over, either from radiation, weaponized bacteria and viruses, or chemicals. We are in a period of extreme and uncontrolled economic collapse–which always leads to warfare and inhumanity on a mass scale–and we’re in a period in which there is no power to maintain global control. As a globe, we are in political and economic free-fall and the dangers that lie ahead, if we can’t avert it, can scarcely be comprehended.

Knowing all these factors to be in play, we don’t engage in non-violence because we are too cowardly to do otherwise, or because we are given a trivial fight in which death would be too drastic. We don’t engage in non-violence because it’s “safe” or because it’s “moral,” nor because it provides us a temporary emotional high. We engage in non-violence because resistance to this oppressive global regime is necessary and because through non-violence we can win. We couldn’t succeed through violent revolution. We aren’t opposed by tyrants armed with light arms. Even if we all armed ourselves with AK-47’s, we still wouldn’t make much of a stand against a thousand hydrogen bombs.

Fortunately, non-violence has been taught to us in schools, popular entertainment, etc. because the ruling powers consider non-violence to be a powerless tactic. Since it has been deemed powerless and ineffective, we have been allowed to engage in marginal “non-violent” resistance, and we have been given examples of dirty hippies screwing in the mud at music festivals as examples of such resistance. The American state, near the zenith of its global power at the end of WW2, developed this perception of non-violence. In the prior American age of wealth, which we are now seeing collapse into a shallow grave which it dug for itself, the flow of capital seemed inexhaustible, and therefore non-violence was deemed powerless. At that point, American government and civil society were essentially drunk on wealth that they assumed would be eternal. In our 234 year history as a Nation, 209 years have been at war. We are a culture that esteems violent warfare as the way to resolve political/economic problems. Things have changed.

There is nothing cowardly or nonsensical about non-violence. Just because we are non-violent doesn’t mean that we don’t require courage, strength of character, and conviction to succeed. We are still engaged in resistance to force government-corporate power to obey. Non-violence doesn’t work because the opposing force eventually “repents of their sin” and comes to embrace the beautiful principles that we embody. Expecting the oppressor to have a conscience or any understanding of right and wrong, or good and evil, is hopelessly naïve.

About 4% of the general population displays sociopathic or psychopathic personality disorder. The poor ones go to jail, the rich ones go to Congress. Sociopaths and psychopaths don’t understand remorse, compassion, or any of the other loftier logical processes of the human species, they only understand self-interest. Trying to change the heart of a sociopath is, to be blunt, stupid. Corporations are required by law to display a psychopathic personality disorder, and our government is, for the most part, just a revolving door between the public sector and corporate boardrooms. Our opponents in government and business are as remorseless and inhumane as any malignant power structure to ever infect humanity. We aren’t opposing a group of decent people that have “lost their way.” We are staring into the heart of darkness and challenging pure evil.

We aren’t after the heart or soul of government and corporations, we’re after their obedience. Non-violence isn’t so nonsensical as to rely upon stirring up noble sentiments in the opposing Power. The only sentiment we want out of it is fear. We want Power to tremble in blind terror over the consequences of its failure to comply. We want to trap the government-corporate complex like a rat in a cage and force it to obey on the threat that we’ll euthanize it if it doesn’t. Non-violence isn’t the act of groveling, hat in hand, in the hope that our destitution will cause that utterly psychotic power structure to pity us and grant us trivial concessions. Power isn’t opposed by weakness, power is opposed by power. The only way to force government to obey is by seizing the power to convince it that its self-interest is in obedience to the people. We don’t need tanks and nuclear weapons to do this, all we need to do is refuse to obey. By refusal to obey, we kick its pillars of support from underneath it and force it into a choice- total surrender or extinction. We produce the real wealth of the nation, and we’re the ones that keep the trains running. We police the streets and we educate the children. We fight the foreign wars and we grow the crops that feed us all. The powerlessness of the people is an illusion.

Non-violence works by a very simple principle, and understanding that principle is essential to formulating any pragmatic strategy. Non-violence works on the principle of depleting the enemy’s resources while demonstrating to the people that resistance is not futile. Non-violence is a war of attrition measured in dollars rather than bodies. Gandhi successfully resisted British colonialism because the British Empire was bankrupted by World War Two and was unable to continue funding the colonization of India in the face of widespread non-violent resistance to British rule.

An essential element of non-violence is non-cooperation. Cooperation with the opposing power is at odds with the objectives of non-violent resistance. Cooperation decreases the expenditure that power must make in order to put down the resistance, and therefore works for the benefit, and against the objectives, of that non-violent resistance. Any non-violent resistance has to reject cooperation as much as it rejects violence. If it embraces cooperation, then it might as well embrace violence.

When faced with organized opposition, the first impulse of Power is to crush it with violence. The State has granted itself the exclusive right to violence, and public perception is much more lenient when the State engages in it, in contrast with the public reaction when the opposition does. However, each time the State engages in brutality, it loses more of the hearts and minds of the people that it governs. It adds numbers to the resistance. The most effective method that the State uses to oppose non-violent resistance is through demonizing the resistance via a concerted campaign of propaganda. This is why an importance of understanding non-violence is imperative to its success. If we don’t understand how non-violence works, then we’ll be swayed by reports in the media that cast us in a negative light because of our successes.

While the overall strategy of non-violent resistance by a population is simple, so is the response by the opposing power structures. They will attempt to turn our own financial successes into public relations failures. When they deplete their resources fighting us, they will make a talking point of the negative effects to the public caused by that depletion of resources. If law enforcement makes a priority of utilizing their manpower to suppress Occupy, the police will also claim that crime is a result of manpower being diverted to the oppression of the Occupy movement (as happened in Portland when the police blamed a rape on the Occupy encampment tying up police resources). If we create a safe, egalitarian environment in which people attend marches with their families to participate, the police will claim we are using children as human shields, as Portland Police Bureau did on the night of December 3rd. There are many more examples of government and business resorting to this tactic of attempting to turn our successes into public relations failures. In fact, the majority of the media coverage of Occupy since its inception has been nothing but the implementation of this tactic.

This tactic by the power structure attempts to reach two objectives: decreasing the support of the population for Occupy, and convincing persons within Occupy that our tactics are alienating the public. This creates subversion from within, usually with the subversives being well-intentioned participants that are completely unaware that they are manipulated into aiding the enemy. These “useful idiots” of the opposition become alarmed at what’s printed in the media and propose engaging in capitulation to counter that perception.

It’s an act of extreme naïveté to believe that, by our actions, we can control this negative propaganda being churned out by the press. The more power we seize, the more negative the reporting will become. Actions with the intent of winning over corporate media by good behavior, such as clean-up details, park restoration funds, police liaisons tasked with providing intelligence to law enforcement, and all manner of wonderful sounding methods can go beyond uselessness and be counter-revolutionary. These attempts to appease a press that has no desire to be appeased just shift the economic burden from government and business and onto our shoulders.

This doesn’t mean that the unintentional subversives among us are suggesting capitulation should be dismissed out of hand. They are proceeding from an understanding that does, in its essence, have a great deal of validity; they have just prescribed the wrong cure though they correctly identified the disease. Non-violent resistance is highly dependent upon public perception, and the negative perception in the press needs to be countered. However, this perception created by the press cannot be countered by capitulation. To counter this negative propaganda, we must create an organ of propaganda ourselves. Occupy must directly reach the public to create the perception that we desire. Dissemination of information is essential. We cannot remain true to our objectives and maintain the support of the public without developing this capacity. Lacking the capacity to directly reach the populace just leaves us at the mercy of the enemy. If we launched an action to save animals from euthanasia, the press would claim that it’s because we are tossing them into wood-chippers. We must counter this.

Non-violence works, if we have the courage to engage in true resistance. However, we all need to become informed about the mechanics of non-violence or we’ll be our own worst enemy, making gains on Monday and erasing them on Tuesday. We need to approach non-violence as we would approach an apprenticeship in a trade. We’ve got a lot of learning to do before any of us are journeyman, and the world depends upon our willingness and ability to learn. If we can manage to rise above the hurdles placed before us and within us, then we can win this fight for the future of the human species. If not, then God help us.

  10 comments for “How Does Non-Violence Work?

  1. Anonymous
    January 28, 2012 at 6:48 PM

    Can you provide some examples of exclusively non-violent tactics working? The traditional examples of MLK Jr and Ghandi don’t work when examined closely. Both movements were accompanied by riots and militants, and it’s arguable that they had more of an impact in terms of creating concessions from those in power.

    For another perspective, here’s an interesting take on the question of violence –

    • Bill Peterson
      January 30, 2012 at 10:37 AM

      Tunisia, Egypt
      The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia
      Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers
      Non-violent mass demonstrations are what finally got Milošević out of power in Serbia
      Also the non-violent women’s movement brought the end to 14 years of civil war in Liberia
      This list is not exhaustive but it should be enough to counter your point

  2. Anonymous
    January 30, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Except that Tunisia and Egypt were anything but non-violent. And you ignore that Milosevic’s departure was brought about in large part by violence committed by the State through the course of the NATO bombing campaign. I’m not familiar enough with the women’s movement in Liberia to comment on it, but I will note that the suffragette movement in the United States also employed a diversity of tactics, including widespread property destruction, to demonstrate that there would be no social peace as long as they were oppressed. The success of militant resistance is clear, Egypt being an obvious example. What was non-violent about burning down the police stations and fighting in the streets with the military? And yet, dogmatic pacifists continue to insist that they alone have the answer. Through revisionism, they’ll take credit for ending the Vietnam war, ignoring the primary role of the Vietnamese people themselves, engaged in violent resistance.

    Non-violence is a tactic, not a strategy. It makes sense in some situations, not in others. Of course violence should never be glorified or trivialized, but neither should it be condemned. Moral arguments against violence have little sway. Context does matter. Would anyone condemn the slave who kills his master? Violence used to resist is not the same as violence used to oppress.

    • rothstei
      January 30, 2012 at 2:41 PM

      I agree: non-violence is a tactic, not a strategy. I think this sums it up precisely. Non-violence is very, very useful, to an extent. And then it becomes not useful. Egypt is a good example in this case. Unarmed mass gatherings are a powerful symbol, that have the media effect of showing that there is widespread support for a particular change or grievance. However, when the crowd is attacked, there is no reason to suffer abuse, injury, and murder while “turning the other cheek”. A crowd ought to defend itself, and it did so in Egypt, mightily. However, the people there also knew the limits to this. They set up their own security checkpoints to prevent violent police infiltrators from entering the crowd with weapons. They were able to see that allowing violence to take place in the middle of the crowd was a dangerous tactic perpetrated by the police to cause panic, distrust, and dissolution within the occupied square. It was important to have a non-violent safe haven, and keep the violence on the outside. This shows an understanding of violence/non-violence as a tactic to be wielded and controlled, not simply as an either/or strategy. What’s important, above all, is for the critical mass of individuals to maintain a semblance of control over events. This includes both maintaining non-violence in certain areas and times, and defending oneself in certain areas and times.

      I had a conversation with a friend on this topic about the widely-reported pepper spraying incident at UC Davis in November. He was of the opinion that those students had every right to defend themselves from the police when they were being pepper sprayed. I agree–no one can tell a person under such a violent chemical attack that they should not have the right to defend themselves. However, my argument was that because they sat there and took it, they came out much stronger, tactically. That image of an officer pepper spraying sitting students is one of the most powerful images to result from Occupy protests, and tells the entire story: citizens attempting to gather in a public space, and being brutalized for no reason by callus authorities and police officers, who are covered in armor and wield chemical weapons, and who will get away with it. Of course, did those students know at the time that they were posing for an tactically powerful photograph? Of course not. I would never encourage martyrdom as a specific strategy or tactic. And yet, given what happened, it was tactically more powerful than if they had defended themselves. So did they do the right thing? Who knows. Should people try to follow this as an example at protests in the future? I don’t know that, either. But I think the case shows that there is something very powerful in the image of non-violence, whether it is just martyrdom, or otherwise. It is odd that self-defense, for all the power such a phrase would imply, couldn’t equate to the same power in this instance.

      One last thing: I think we totally need to separate property destruction from violence in our conversations. Unfortunately, people both within the Occupy movement and those in the general public use these terms as interchangeable. That philosophical battle is going to need its own tactics in of itself. There’s no excuse for people thinking that broken windows justify baton blows. So how are we going to separate those? In understanding non-violence as a tactic and using it effectively, working on the media/ideological blockages to deploying that tactic are equally important.

    • lester
      January 31, 2012 at 1:11 AM

      “Non-violence is a tactic, not a strategy.”

      That depends upon your understanding of non-violent resistance. One of the main tactics of non-violence was stated by Lenin-“They have the guns and therefore we are for peace and for reformation through the ballot.” The question can be revisited once the distribution of arms is more equal.

      I personally think that it’s important to note that ““Power comes out of the barrel of a gun!” is an absurd ralling cry when the other side has all the guns”

      “Moral arguments against violence have little sway.”

      True. Moral arguments just indicate political incompetence.

    • Bill Peterson
      January 31, 2012 at 10:44 AM

      Your history is a little loose.

      In Serbia the NATO bombing campaign ended in June 1999 with Milosevic firmly in power. It was over a year later in October of 2000 that protests by hundreds of thousands of people drove Milosevic out.

      In Egypt there was a stand-off with the military but I don’t recall, and the timeline on wikipedia does not show any “fighting in the streets with the military.” Neither does it mention any burning down of police stations between the Jan25 ‘Day of Revolt’ and the Feb11 ‘Day of Departure.’ It does say that the regime opened some prisons and burned them down, maybe that’s what you’re thinking of. There were some minor clashes but you can’t seriously argue that it was the use of violence that drove Mubarak from power in Egypt, or Ben Ali in Tunisia for that matter. In Libya, yes, it was violence that drove Qaddafi out, but in Egypt and Tunisia, and in Serbia, it was non-violent mass movements that succeeded.

  3. mpeasee
    January 30, 2012 at 8:17 PM

    The occupy movement has me on an incredible learning curve concerning non-violence. As a person of color that does not agree that violence is a solution, but have taken self defense classes, believe as well that guns do not solve any of our problems we all suffer from, but willing to learn how to handle a gun, I think is wise.

    In agreement with the writer of this article that we all really need to learn about the tactics of nonviolence, ourselves, and the U.S.A.’s history. It makes me want to wince and knot into agony to confess that violence is legitimate in self-defense and nonviolence/violence are tactics that are wielded and controlled; not simply an either/or, in agreement with the earlier post.

    Our government has a long history of brutality, I think of the 400 yrs. of African slavery, repression of all women, exploitation of the poor, racism, murder of our non-violent leaders of the 60’s, constant support of South Africa against Soweto youth uprise in in the 70’s and Mandela’s jailing, and Philadelphia police bomb MOVE with C14 that destroyed 65 homes and killed 11 in 1985, not to mention the deaths by police here in PDX. When threatened the State will use violence, deadly if necessary. We should all practice and learn as much as we can about nonviolence, but not be dogmatic about it.

    One more thing, I think that the OWS movement needs to be aware that nonviolence is pretty “out-there” for many working class folks, lifestyle campaigns are a big turn off too, such as gun control, vegan-vegetarianism, anti-smoking, anti-obesity, etc…some view it as moralizing and preachy.

  4. Gina
    January 30, 2012 at 10:59 PM

    Nonviolent resistance is what is done despite any violence brought on by an aggressor. It is a ‘soul force’ that seeks non- harm as a means to humanize the aggressor and to reduce as much harm as possible, to all involved in the conflict. Seeking transformation of the other is always the hope, but never guaranteed. Nonetheless, nonviolence is enacted whether the other transforms or not, as it is in their best interest to do so. It is a moral imperative.

    Nonviolence is radical. It is difficult, and it is in complete opposition to everything we think we know about conflict and adversity. The conquerors, the colonizers, and those who have much to gain by espousing violent victory, mind you, have written our history. It is not naïve to believe in nonviolence, it is naïve to accept a history narrative that is devoid of truth, and a diversity of perspectives.

    I wonder how many know that Denmark was successful in getting the German occupation to leave during WWII through nonviolent resistance? Don’t know about that? It wouldn’t be the first time….

  5. Anonymous
    January 30, 2012 at 11:38 PM

    Gina, saying the same thing over and over again doesn’t make it more convincing except in your own head. You can’t respond directly to any of the points made, because for you pacifism is based in faith. I’d argue that there’s an implicit violence in refusing to do everything necessary to end oppression and exploitation. Perhaps your privilege allows you the luxury of waiting for the day when our oppressors realize the error of their ways. For others, the situation is much more urgent.

    And the use of the Danish resistance is more than a little disingenuous. They engaged in wide spread sabotage and property destruction, which has been deemed violence by dogmatic pacifists. And maybe they have a point. I would view it as such if someone burned down my house. You can’t have it both ways.

  6. Gina
    January 31, 2012 at 11:41 AM

    What many do not seem to understand about the philosophy of nonviolence is that for those who believe in it, it is a life giving path, and so much more than a simply tactic or strategy. I don’t have to make this philosophy “true” for anyone else but for me, as it is my truth, and what is your truth is yours. People can argue the topic of nonviolence till one is blue in the face, but this is pointless, because for those who believe in radical nonviolence, have deep seated values which can never be argued on a basis of tactics or strategy alone.

    Faith is an expression of openness. Transformation for the better will never be possible if one never provides opportunities for such. To not have faith, is to fall into a pit of destructive cynicism, which in reality is a form of egoism. To be so closed as to assume one knows everything about the other is to assume too much. Therefore another attribute of nonviolence is humility.

    Additionally, pacifism is a type of nonviolent philosophy, not the only one. The nonviolent philosophy I know and believe in is hardly passive, and requires a great deal of action. Your comment also doesn’t address the issue of concealed historical narratives written and controlled by those who write history with might. There are many cultures through out the world who have resolved conflicts without violence. There are many who choose not to. The path of violence or nonviolence is a choice, even if the decision to do so is difficult.

    Finally, nonviolence should also always be framed within a context and or moment in conflict. There may be times when a conflict has escalated too much, making nonviolent de-escalation very difficult if not impossible. The criticism of course, is that if this happens, non-violent de-escalation tactics were either not utilized in the beginning of the conflict or utilized too late too late. In every great conflict that has resulted in war or massive violence it can be traced back to an inept usage of positive conflict resolution skills. War does not happen because violence is inevitable, it occurs because most are unfamiliar or skilled din the art of peacemaking.

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