On Nonviolence

Came across this old thing from John Berger a few days ago. Characteristically sharp. The whole thing is great (and short), but this bit stayed with me:

It is in the nature of a demonstration to provoke violence upon itself. Its provocation may also be violent. But in the end it is bound to suffer more than it inflicts. This is a tactical truth and an historical one. The historical role of demonstrations is to show the injustice, cruelty, irrationality of the existing State authority. Demonstrations are protests of innocence.

But the innocence is of two kinds, which can only be treated as though they were one at a symbolic level. For the purposes of political analysis and the planning of revolutionary action, they must be separated. There is an innocence to be defended and an innocence which must finally be lost: an innocence which derives from justice, and an innocence which is the consequence of a lack of experience.

Events in Greece, Iceland, Paris (this is good analysis on Iceland) bring back the question of violence for a predominantly nonviolent U.S. activist culture. But this can only feel like an unprecedented challenge if one forgets Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq — and this is just a few currently active sites — all involve popular armed struggle against violent occupation. If there is a widespread attitude that oppositional politics in the ‘first world’ West have a special mandate not to be violent, whether this is conceived in moral or pragmatic terms, then the U.S. is its center. With ‘unrest’ in Europe, which attacks property, which occasionally throws things at police, a set of class, racial, and cultural distinctions has at least been frayed. Governments seem to be capitalizing on the specter of more serious violence in order to establish the uprisings as ‘riots’ and justify preemptive suppression. They even go so far as to incite violence against themselves. All established practice in the U.S. The most convincing rationale for nonviolence is that the state wants it; violence from any side makes it stronger.

It’s difficult, however, to see how this situation could be permanent. Police and nonviolent demonstrators maintain a precarious equilibrium — the demonstrators reject all violence against people and most against property; the police threaten absolute and crushing violence if any of those edicts are bent. More and more often, the police cross the line at the barest provocation. And if demonstrators never crossed the line, they wouldn’t amount to much more than a parade group, celebrating their right to exist and thereby legitimating their permissive, enlightened government. There are all sorts of good practical reasons for a general policy of nonviolence for activists in most Western nations and many others. But they come down to the ideological fact that violence is morally unacceptable to ‘mainstream liberals’ — whoever they are — and can be relied upon to instantly discredit anyone who uses it without the permission of the state.  Violence can’t ‘work’ in this climate — even to otherwise sympathetic parties it always appears as an excess or at best a mistake.

Zizek’s distinction (warning: extreme bullshit) between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ violence is rephrased in all its essentials by the Joker in The Dark Knight: ‘objective’ violence is “all part of the plan,” ‘subjective’ violence is noticed, identified, attributed to specific agents and subjected to legal and ethical judgment.  But their oft-cited separation is precisely the ideological effect of mass media, not a ‘rigorous’ analytic tool; that most of us in the hypermediated first world get stuck experiencing ‘the system’ and its consequences as ‘ontologically’ distinct phenomena we struggle vainly to establish a relationship between is a symptom of our subjection.

The mainstream PR version of the move to suck everyone into an equivalent sense of ‘responsibility’ for the planet encourages identification with ‘the system,’ bad or good. Solutions then fall neatly within established boundaries, generally involving lots of self-abnegation, the advertising of ‘awareness,’ and the beefing up of NGOs. Its structural ally, often deployed by capitalists (and which Zizek chides ‘terrorists’ for in the video), defers all individual responsibility to ‘the system,’ and reads individual actions as inevitable consequences of ‘the economy’ or ‘heavy pressure from private interests and stakeholders.’ Both rely on the appropriation of the reified product of theoretical activity, the hard-won complexity of its limited, incomplete understanding of the world reduced to an image on a T-shirt. Thus the capitalist elect can avoid accountability and the seizure of their power by invoking ‘socialist’ arguments.

A universal refusal of violence has a debilitating effect on our ability to judge non-Western or even simply non-bourgeois oppositional activity in an adult way, and supplies ideologists with an easy weapon. But this problem is it itself an ideologeme — to try to discern whether it’s ‘really true’ is the question of whether to legitimate it. Attempts by leftist philosophers to theorize more appropriate universal attitudes toward violence — what I can only understand as attempts to integrate recent popular violence into some sort of spiritual substitute for an official Left party policy that doesn’t and can’t currently exist — seem, whatever their position, beside the point and even counterproductive. The proper role of a ‘utopian’ ethics in a structurally unjust class society seems an insoluble problem from within the undemocratic models of academic philosophy, even more obviously so from within the mass media debating societies that on occasion serve as theoria‘s sanctioned parody.


5 Responses to “On Nonviolence”

  1. great posts…

    here’s antedeluvian ole christopher caudwell on the question:


  2. […] This was brought to mind by American Stranger’s post on non-violence. […]

  3. traxus4420 Says:

    hey, thanks for the link.

    glad to see you’re posting again as well; sadly haven’t had time for comments till recently.

    there’s something here about the need for a neutral ground and a plane more objective than objects that maybe i’ll say something about in a while (maybe something like what laruelle is getting at with the ‘philosophical decision’ bit, but haven’t read enough to know how exactly he approaches it b/c the jargon is annoying like a monty python character)…

  4. All this reminds me of the need to return to Georges Sorel’s *Reflections on Violence* (1908) as a way of thinking through the political implications of violence in a capitalist civil society.


  5. traxus4420 Says:

    thanks again kinohi (do you have a backlog of comment obligations you’re now making good on?). what aspect of sorel are you thinking of? i only know him through secondary sources, and the whole idea of political myths seems to me the problem with how people like zizek and badiou understand political violence, lending itself to a very sketchy avant-gardist, cult of modernism kind of thing.

    good short critique of the badiouian version here:


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