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Winning Without Fighting

The supreme art of war consists in subduing an enemy without fighting.

– Sun Tzu

As military and paramilitary forces (and the institutions they serve) continue to bombard and maim the people of the world – and as the death tolls in Gaza, Congo, Iraq, and other war zones, continue to rise – one cannot help but wonder whether the relatively voiceless, seemingly dis-empowered, people of the planet are really unable to do anything – beyond offering largely symbolic condemnations and demonstrations of solidarity – to halt these monstrosities.

The not just political, but physiological, fact of the matter, of course, is that, though the people of the world may not possess the coercive, violent power of the state (of the police and the military, for instance), there is another dimension of political power extant in the world – one that we already possess.

Rather than any coercive power (what the philosopher Spinoza referred to as potestas – the power to command and force others to obey), the “little people” of the world already possess non-coercive power – the power to command ourselves, to determine ourselves (what Spinoza referred to as potentia).

This non-coercive power, of course, is not un-problematic; it is itself limited, and can be deformed (by social norms, and coercive institutions – in short, by ideology) beyond recognition. Despite this problematicity, though, to some degree we enjoy this immanent, non-coercive power already (what can be thought of as “labor power”, among other notions, or as that which the poet Dylan Thomas referred to as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”). As such, the issue should not be whether we need to seize power, or not. The issue, rather, is how to employ this non-coercive power in a strategic manner – to bring about peace.

In light of this, it is worth considering the fact that Dylan Thomas’ generative metaphor (of the force that drives the flower) shares a number of qualities with the generative power embodied by the mythic Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter. One of the principal Greek deities, Demeter not only caused food to grow, she was the source of the force animating the life cycle itself in ancient Greek myth. And, just as she gave life, Demeter could also easily withdraw this vital force. For instance, when her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and abducted to the underworld (to cite the most well-known example) Demeter reacted with a radical passivity. By shutting down, by ceasing to cooperate, Demeter caused the world to wither, its grains and grasses to shrivel. And none of the gods could do anything but entreat her to revivify the world.

Analogous to Demeter’s radical passivity, by ceasing to cooperate, the people of the world could stop the global economic system – a system which the various war machines are dependent upon and cannot function without (they cannot, for instance, function without state aid, etc.). In other words, by withdrawing, by radical non-cooperation in general, and by means of a general strike in particular, the people of the world can stop the war machines of the world from inflicting their various harms.

Although any attempt to counter the coercive power of police and armies on their terms, on their terrain, would only lead to “fighting without winning,” a critical mass of people figuratively walking out of this system (shoplifting ourselves, so to speak), depriving the hegemonic, ecocidal political-economy of the energy it requires to function, could just as likely lead to winning without fighting.

How does Monday work for you?

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and teacher. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com

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Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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