I am reading Todd May’s Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction (Polity, 2015) to push my thinking along. May’s definition of nonviolence is somewhat odd: “political, economic, or social activity, that challenges or resists a current political, economic, or social arrangement while respecting the dignity (in the sense defined above) of its participants, adversaries, and others” (59).
The oddity is the emphasis on dignity, which is the result of May’s understanding violence as actions that do not grant to the subject of that violence the ability to live an unimpeded life. He recognizes that his definition of dignity is essentially Kantian—except that it does not ground the right to be treated with dignity in one’s status as a “rational being” and does not ground the recognition of that right in some kind of rational deduction toward a categorical imperative. Rather, it would seem, treating others with dignity is an ethical choice, not particularly grounded in anything beyond the choice. He does differentiate between “pragmatic” and “principled” nonviolence, where the pragmatists adopts the stance of treating all with dignity because actions guided by that rule are more likely to prove effective in resisting current arrangements. The principled position is not guided by questions about tactics and effectiveness, but takes an absolute stance. Dignity means recognizing that every person has the right to live the life s/he chooses (Kantian autonomy, which entails never being a means to another person’s ends). The principled position is very close to pacifism, although not absolutely identical because it could still be situational (admitting some situations in which violence in necessary or justified—such as self-defense) in ways that pacifism is not.
I guess I am still a moralist (in the ways that Bernard Williams uses that term) because I am not terribly concerned with the dignity of certain opponents. (Williams thinks politics is poisoned once it gets “moralized” because then I do not accept the legitimacy of my opponents’ position. Democracy requires the notion of a “loyal opposition.” Otherwise, I will not cede power to my opponents when they win an election. We are semi-close to that position in the US today. We don’t keep the winners from taking office, but we do–in the Senate during Obama’s tenure and in my home state of North Carolina right now–work to prevent those office holders from exercising power.)
I am a moralist insofar as I believe that people who use privilege to their own advantage and to the hurt of the less privileged do not earn my respect or deep worry about not interfering with the ways they choose to live their lives. But I don’t think I am just, in May’s terms, a pragmatic believer in nonviolence. I think the taking of life—or the use of physical violence to coerce, intimidate, or threaten—is impermissible because causing suffering is to be avoided and arrogating to oneself the right to inflict suffering is never justified. This raises the very tough question of punishment. Something very deep in me revolts against all forms of punishment. In that sense I share Williams’ deep suspicion of moralism, of the self-righteous condemnation of others. Yet I don’t have any compunction about depriving others of their ability to inflict suffering. I do judge them morally—and think various ways (short of punishment?) of halting their immoral actions are justified. Is there a way to divide punishment from such deprivation of means? Not sure there is, but it seems to me a different thing to take away the money and power that allows senators to take away health care from millions than it is to send them to prison, to cause them direct harm.
That’s the trouble with philosophy. It sends you off into these kinds of debates that slice thinner and thinner the conceptual loaf. Over-scrupulosity seems to me endemic on the left—that’s what generated political correctness in the first place. It also generates the sometimes justified charges of hypocrisy against leftists. Their stated principles, because so exacting, don’t jive with how they actually live their lives.
So back to the rough ground. May takes from sociologists Erica Chenowith and Maria Stephan a definition of “campaign” that pushes toward my thoughts (in the last post) about a “Movement.” A campaign is “a series of observable, continual acts in pursuit of a political objective” (60). One-offs, May concludes, barely count as non-violent resistance. Sending a letter to your senator is certainly a non-violent act, but not one of very much significance, and not clearly an act of resistance. It seems as if non-violence only gets its point, only rises to a true challenge, when it actually places itself in a place of risk. The non-violent actors have to be doing something that (at least) tempts the powers that be to shut down their actions. In short, it has to be disruptive in some fairly dramatic way—and it has to contain the potential to continue this disruption in the name of an articulated objective. Otherwise, I am arguing, it will change nothing.
In short, the left is going to have to decide on what basis (what outrage) it is going to resist the current administration and is going to have to devise a set of sustainable and disruptive non-violent actions for its resistance to be effective. Shutting down various government functions will not, I think, do the trick. The Republicans don’t like government so are hardly going to be stirred by disrupting its activities.
The obvious alternative is to disrupt economic functioning. Either widespread boycotts or something like a general strike are the best bets here. Specific actions against specific companies are very hard to sustain these days. It is a measure of how much power has been accumulated by corporations that tactics that worked forty years ago (most notably strikes, but also work to rule and sit-downs) are pretty much non-starters now. And the upping of security measures that make both business places and government offices fortresses in our day also precludes the kind of guerilla theater tactics used by 60s radicals like the Berrigans. Massive organization on the scale of the civil rights movement is needed if there is to be any chance of success. And the nonviolent actions will have to be conducted on public streets. Marches (that have dutifully gotten their permits) will not cut it.
So I am back to the hard work, the grunt work, of building a movement (that can then launch a campaign). Anything less grand is simply way too easy to ignore.
The other alternative, of course, is to go the constitutional route—to depend on elections and the courts. My next post will consider that possibility.