Defending Freedom

Let me return now to the second major contention of Dustin Howes’s book.  Recall that his argument is against 1) the idea that violence is an expression of freedom and 2) the insistence that violence is necessary for the defense of freedom.  It is this second topic I will address here.

Let me lay my cards on the table.  I am a wanna be pacifist–and Howes’s work [here and in his first book, Toward A Credible Pacifism (SUNY Press, 2009)], have done more to convince me that pacifism is a viable position than anything else I have read.  And yet . . . . I can’t quite get there.  In the new book, Howes has certainly put his finger exactly on the sore spot: the belief that violence is sometimes necessary and justified in response to oppression.

He has little difficulty, it seems to me, in showing how persistent that belief has been in the tradition.  One of his goals, then, it to take what has become common sense–something we take for granted as self-evidently true–and show it is not actually plausible.  His first tack is an ingenious historical argument, designed to show that the notion that violence much be deployed to defend freedom is absent in both the early Greek years and in the early Roman years.  In both cultures, freedom is not linked to necessary violence until rather late (with Pericles in the Greeks and toward the very end of the republican years with the Romans).  I am not conversant enough with these histories to judge Howes’s argument here, but it’s more important that he shows an alternative to our common sense view.  That alternative, particularly in the Roman case, is collective refusal by the plebes to participate as soldiers.  The plebes exercise power in the republic by withholding their assent to violence.  It is the creation of a standing army, with paid soldiers, that renders this plebian strategy ineffective.  Our contemporary anarchist David Graeber advocates a similar strategy today.  Graeber’s idea is that anarchists should live in the interstices of the current order, turning their back on it as they create the kinds of communities and lives they deem worthwhile.  Just ignore the state and the dominant forms of economic behavior–and live otherwise.  An attractive idea, albeit not one Howes appears interested in.

Howes’s second argument against using violence to defend freedom is that such use always proves counter-productive.  There are two basic ways in which violence is deployed in the name of freedom: either 1. by established states warding off some kind of perceived threat, from within or without, or 2. by revolutionaries who are fighting against some organized institutions deemed oppressive.  Howes contends that, in the first case, the state’s capacity for violence and its instruments for violence are enhanced by the fight–and such enhancement cannot (in the short or long run) increase citizens’ freedom.  State violence requires orgainzation and that means the centralization of power.  Increasing state power is not a formula for freedom.  And, notoriously, states use the vocabulary of “defending freedom” in all kinds of dubious instances with the end result of increasing their power, not of enhancing freedom.

So far, so good, unless the threat to the existing state really is worse than that state.  Was Britain wrong to fight the Nazis?  And were the results counter-productive when weighed against the alternative?

I don’t actually want to make too much of the Nazi argument here.  I am convinced that, as Randolph Bourne famously put it, “war is the health of the state,” and that a healthy state (in that paradoxically pathological sense) is not a good thing for its citizens.  Militarism is not a recipe for freedom–even as it is justified, in official propaganda, as deployed in defense of freedom.

It’s the second point–the one about revolutionaries–that gives me more pause.  Howes begins the book with his arguments against using revolutionary violence.  He claims the historical record shows that violent revolutions only open the way to more violence, with the French and Russian revolutions as his prime examples.  The problem is that the violence of oppressive realms will not come to an end, in many cases, without a violent uprising.  To take just two examples: how–and when–would slavery have come to an end in the American South without the Civil War?  And how are we to think about the wars against colonialism fought in Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya, and Latin America (not to mention the United States)?

Arguing counter-factuals is always a tricky business.  Would, in some kind of long run, African-Americans have been better off if the nation had waited for a peaceful end to slavery?  In the long run, as Keynes famously said, we are all dead.  How are we to measure the sufferings of those who remained enslaved because we were waiting for a peaceful solution?  Howes, surprisingly, does not talk about the end of apartheid in South Africa, surely the most dramatic victory of non-violence over established privilege/power of the past forty years.  But even there, the ANC had its violent wing, just as the civil rights movement was accompanied by race riots.  Would change have come as quickly without the instances of violence that accompanied the more non-violent activities of the movements?

Still, South Africa, with its peaceful transferral of power and its Truth and Reconciliation process, is our best example of a new order created non-violently. Whether that non-violent origin will allow it to escape some of the more terrible post-colonial fates witnessed in places like Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo remains to be seen.  And, of course, there are other factors in play, especially South Africa’s economic prosperity relative to most of the rest of Africa.

In short, history is messy.  I just don’t see my way to claiming that violence is always counter-productive–which is a way of saying that some existing states of affairs are so intolerable while being so entrenched that violent resistance to them is justified.  I think Terry Eagleton in his book on tragedy, entitled Sweet Violence, is the writer who most fully grasps this nettle.  Basically, Eagleton argues that history is tragic precisely because violence is necessary at times to break the hold of oppressive power–and the the tragedy is not just that violence must be deployed, but also that violence always leads to mixed results; it never ushers in utopia; it can always seem counter-productive because of its bad consequences.  But that doesn’t mean that suffering the status quo is a better alternative.  The choice is between two imperfections; that’s why the situation can be characterized as tragic.

I don’t want to subscribe to a tragic view of history.  For one thing, I hate the fatalism of such views, the conviction that every revolution must lead to a new something that is also radically flawed.  So I agree with Dustin that non-violent forms of change have a much, much better chance of leading to better outcomes.  I am only saying that I do think there are some circumstances where waiting for non-violent change to arrive is intolerable.

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