Lessons from the Crackdown

Despite the recent series of brutal and highly coordinated military-style police crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street encampments across the country, protestors, activists, students, and workers have boldly geared up for a new round of what promise to be furious political battles. Tuesday night at UC Berkeley over 10,000 strong showed up for a general assembly, which overwhelmingly voted in favor of establishing a tent encampment in Sproul Plaza; over 500 students and comrades at UC Davis occupied Mrak hall; on Wednesday over 100 people were arrested after briefly occupying a Bank of America in downtown San Francisco; another general strike in Oakland is in the works for this Saturday the 19th; and in NYC, despite being pushed out of Zuccotti Park in a quasi legal manner, occupiers are planning their next move.


As the movement regroups and prepares for a new round of actions, it will be important for the Left to continue to address an issue taking center stage in the mainstream media: the issue of so-called “non-violence.”  “Non-violence” has even threatened the unity of OWS encampments and movements themselves.


The Weimar and Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt pointed out that the great oppositions of political concepts – such as friend/enemy, war/peace, legitimacy/illegitimacy, violence/nonviolence- risk being emptied of their specific content, and thus their precise meaning and significance, once the actual historico-political struggles that they described no longer exist. The locus classicus of this situation was, for Schmitt, the breakdown of the modern European inter-state system, which existed, more or less, from 1648 to 1914, or from Westphalia to WWI. In this period war and its attendant concepts of violence were problems defined solely by the imperatives of the sovereign and geo-politically symmetrical nation states that comprised the modern inter-state system. When this system broke down, and as the claim to the sovereign power to wage war was enervated, the geo-political terrain was neutralized, in Schmitt’s terminology. His theorization is hardly less applicable today: as everyone knows, there are very few states with the sovereign power to wage war.


As a result of this evolution, previously objective concepts become purely subjective, or discretionary. It is then difficult to say for certain what constitutes war and what doesn’t: was the “intervention” in Libya a war, or just a “humanitarian police operation”? Are militarized opponents of the US legitimate enemies, or merely “enemy-combatants” without legal standing in international courts? Recall that the US has not, in fact, declared war since WWII.


It is not too much of a stretch to apply Schmitt’s observations to the problems that have emerged surrounding the issue of violence/nonviolence in the occupy movement. The protestors and occupiers—who, constitutional rights to one side, are supposed to lack the legitimate basis from which to resist the onslaught of the state and capital—get labeled “violent” or “nonviolent” according to the paralogisms of the media-spectacle and the cynical machinations of power-elites. There is no firm, coherent basis to the charges. In this clouded atmosphere, nonviolence has emerged as a highly effective rhetorical tool, employed by the 1% and their noise machines, as part of a crude and cynical rhetoric of legitimation.


For instance, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has on numerous occasions spoken of the need to remove “violent” elements from the occupation, facilely and ignorantly equating these elements with “anarchists.” As though the entire political movement loosely defined by anarchism could be reduced to one single scary word: Violence! And what is this violence she is pointing to: a few smashed up bank windows and graffiti on a Whole Foods store. How does this so-called violence compare to the brutality, torture, and murder perpetrated almost daily by Bay Area cops? But, it doesn’t matter! In the hands of the elite, the rhetoric of violence/nonviolence is mobilized in an ad hoc manner that hardly rises above the level of name-calling.


Readers familiar with events that took place at UC Berkeley last Wednesday will recall the absurd spectacle of UC Chancellor Birgeneau, an empty-headed corporate stooge if there ever was one, referring to students locking arms in attempt to resist a police onslaught as violent! On the other hand, the UC police chief, responding to accusations of police brutality in what was one of the largest UC police mobilizations in history, in which students and professors were dragged to the ground by their hair, punched in the face, and beaten by riot cops, can be heard explaining to the public that when cops use their batons in a jabbing motion, as opposed to a swinging motion, they are not, in fact, being “violent.” The absurdity of all of this hardly needs explaining.


What is truly disconcerting, however, is that this demagoguery and rhetoric of violence/nonviolence has threatened the unity of the movement itself. There have been reports of anarchists being bullied out of occupy encampments, jeered-at and told to take off their masks, and in some cases, in a bizarre twist, even threatened with physical violence for not committing themselves to the utterly vacuous liberal ideology that protestors who vigorously defend themselves from police brutality, or smash a Bank of America window- hardly, I would add, something that rubs against the grain of the general Zeitgeist of the present- are “violent” and therefore a threat to the movement.


Even respectable Left-media reports on the OWS movement reflexively resort to this crude dichotomy, identifying protestors as either “peaceful,” and therefore legitimate, or “violent” and therefore not. Chris Hedges, an outspoken supporter of the movement and a reasonably good journalist, is a case in point. In his column from yesterday, he offers a vigorous denunciation of the American capitalist-imperialist system. But then, advancing his own completely ahistorical understanding of the process through which the security apparatuses of the state begin to internally dissolve and switch sides, he advances the following argument, which relies on a complete non sequitur: “The process of defection among the ruling class and security forces is slow and often imperceptible. These defections are advanced through a rigid adherence to nonviolence [sic], a refusal to respond to police provocation and a verbal respect for the blue-uniformed police, no matter how awful they can be while wading into a crowd and using batons as battering rams against human bodies.”


Huh? Aside from failing to provide an accurate description of how this process has actually unfolded historically- in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc.- there is absolutely no logical reason why the henchman of the powerful will begin to switch sides only if they see protestors endlessly enduring punishing cop brutality. One could just as well say, and much more plausibly, that cops, soldiers, and sailors will be inspired by revolutionaries scoring there own victories, refusing to sit back passively, and showing the ruthless security apparatuses of the state that they’re prepared to fight for victory by any means necessary. But there’s no logical connection either way.


It is understandable that Americans have such a strange fixation with non-violence. Every schoolchild grows up hearing about Gandhi and Dr. King and peaceful protest. For many, images of Dr. King speaking at the Washington monument represent the high water mark of American protest politics. These historical images, worthy in and of themselves of course, have infected the consciousness of many American political movements, and hampered the Left, forcing it to abide by an old, completely ahistorical American political myth, that non-violent protest is the sine qua non of protest movements, or a panacea applicable to all political situations. This plays right into the hands of the media-spectacle and the interests of the power-elite. The inherently unstable and imprecise definition of violence makes it possible for almost any behavior to be called violent, and, conversely, for any obviously violent act perpetrated by the state to be declared nonviolent. Again, witness Berkeley: it is apparently sometimes violent to hold hands.


It is essential that the Left not get caught up in the rhetorical snares that the spectacle-media-sphere attempts to cast around those who dare to interfere with the logic of capital accumulation. In order to avoid this, it is necessary to mobilize a ruthless critique of the rhetoric of violence/nonviolence. I’ll contribute a few points- by no means exhaustive- to this critique.


First, as Mike King and others have pointed out, the belief that so-called non-violence works and that it is the legitimating feature of a protest, is part of a delusion that afflicts the more privileged- which often means more white- members of the occupy movement. I myself have fallen prey to this in the past. “Protest non-violently and everything will be ok. Remember Dr. King and all he accomplished. If you work with the system it will bend to your needs.” This is all part of the ideology of a privileged though often well intentioned group of people who simply don’t have to deal with the violence that ensures the domestic order of the US-led capitalist-imperialist machine. Are the unemployed, homeless, under-paid and overworked, imprisoned, and dispossessed masses not subject to brutal levels of violence on a daily basis? Is the American capitalist system not propped up by imperialist adventures that tally their casualties in the millions? Indeed, have the nonviolent protest movements of the past actually brought to fruition a free and equal society? Adhering blindly to the rhetoric of violence/nonviolence is a de facto denial of the brutality suffered by literally billions throughout history, and it unfortunately does little to bring about historical justice.


Second, there is a fundamental misrecognition of the role of the state in a capitalist society at work in the ideology of nonviolence. The state, as Marx once said, is the bourgeoisie’s internal committee for the handling of its own affairs. One of the biggest affairs to be handled in a capitalist society is, of course, the fundamentally unjust and unequal class-relationship between capital and labor. Capital, by its very nature, relies on this unequal relationship; and history, by all accounts, has shown that the owners of capital, and its managers and representatives within the state, will consistently apply the most brutal levels of force to maintain this class relationship. What could be clearer than the fact that this power will not be relinquished without a fight?


Finally, non-violence could never be more than one tactic amongst a variety of tactics for the Left to employ in pursuit of broader strategic goals. In American protest politics, however, it often appears as an end in itself. This is a fallacy, which mistakes means for ends, and it needs to be rooted out aggressively as a hindrance to the ultimate goal, which, for revolutionaries, is the end of an oppressive, class-based, racist, sexist, violent system that has its roots deep in the capitalist mode of production. This is where the real violence is, and it is the collective desire to see this system confined to the dustbin of history- not the adherence to an empty ideology, come what may- that is the true litmus test for any revolutionary struggle.

Patrick Madden lives in Oakland and can be contacted atpatrickjmadden@hotmail.com