Category: Dustin Howes

Dustin Howes (2)

I have been debating most of today as to whether I should publish this email exchange between me and Dustin from about 12 days ago.  And now have decided to do so.

In response to the New Year’s letter that Dustin sent to a group of his friends and family members, I wrote the following note to him on January 10th.

Dear Dustin:
Thank you very much for your letter.  I am going to be presumptuous here and respond in ways to which I am not entitled.  But I thought you might be interested in my response to what you have to say.
My first thought was “what does happiness have to do with it”?  And that led me to these thoughts.  It seems to me that what you want for yourself is the full experience of having lived (even with the awful cards you have been dealt) and (this second part is crucial) of being able to record that experience.  You are a writer.  (Yes, you are a father, a teacher, an academic, etc. as well.) But you are most decidedly a writer.  Experience doesn’t really count for you unless you can record it as well.  You have always lived as someone who intends to drink life to the dregs.  And what defines your current will to live, to keep living even under these conditions, is your ability to still reflect upon, still record in words, your experiences.  As long as you can do that, you are alive.  And why would you not want to be alive?  No reason at all.
Of course, the ongoing relationship with your children is also primary.  What is presumptuous here is my speaking for your motives.  But, as I said, I thought you might find my reaction something to chew on–while you can ignore it completely if it is off base.
I am assuming there is physical fear.  Certainly, in your shoes, I would be feeling a lot of physical fear.  But what I admire is your mental courage, your determination to be true to your capacities for thought, reflection, for (essentially) consciousness.  You are determined to be fully present to your life, to see it straight, and to record what you see.  That strikes me as the right way to be in your circumstances–and as tremendously admirable because so hard to do.  May the force be with you.  And do call on me–as you call on your various friends and family–to do what we can to make you remain true to your hard and admirable choice.
With love,
To which Dustin replied a few hours later:

The thought  “what does happiness have to do with it”?   has for some reason had me smiling on and off all day


Dustin Howes

I learned early this morning that Dustin Howes has died.  Dustin had been fighting ALS these past three plus years–with his characteristic energy and zest for life.  Somehow, while very ill, he completed Freedom without Violence, while also writing extensively about his illness and keeping up a voluminous email correspondence with his friends (who were legion).  No one who knew him could forget Dustin’s broad smile and his way of striding into a room as if its walls would have to burst to contain all his energy.  He gave himself without reserve to all the things he loved.  And he cared passionately about creating a better world than the one we currently inhabit.  His continual mediation on the problem of violence and his desire to craft, in his terms, “a credible pacifism” have influenced my thinking and my politics profoundly.  I am sure there are many others who would say the same.  He was looking forward to continuing the dialogue we had been conducting on this blog–just one sign of how he was engaged intellectually to the very end.  He was equally dedicated to maintaining his ties to family and friends. All the instruments agree; it is a sad day.

Seeing the History of Human Freedom (Dustin Howes’s Second Post)

Here is Dustin Howes’s second post:

In this post I will address the historical arguments John forwards in his posts Defending Freedom and Collective Self-Rule.

Anthony Parel once remarked that Gandhi had been “taken over by nonviolence,” a striking point about our inability to see the full measure of his political thought. Similarly, nonviolence has been overtaken by the Indian Independence movement and the American Civil rights movement, obscuring our ability to see the full measure of its historical significance. I discuss both but place them in the context of larger trends. To do otherwise distorts our understanding of how political power has been exercised more generally. My argument in the book is that it has largely obscured the struggles that have gained freedom for many millions of people.

The three pillars of the nonviolent movement for freedom over the last two centuries are the abolitionist, women’s rights, and prodemocracy movements. The worldwide abolitionist movement was almost entirely nonviolent and indeed central to innovating the concept of what was then called nonresistance. I discuss the two important exceptions of the Haitian revolution and the American Civil War, but the organized efforts of committed, creative, relentless nonviolent activists is what brought an end to the most lucrative slave system in the history of the world. These activists succeeded in making slavery a signature moral evil and for the first time in history making it illegal everywhere. The women’s rights movement was born from women participating in abolition. With similar techniques and new innovations, feminists continue a worldwide struggle that achieved astonishing results. Without a single violent revolution, the women’s movement has already advanced freedom for more people than all the violent revolutions combined. Finally, prodemocracy, people power movements have toppled some of the most brutal regimes of the past century. The Velvet revolutions and the Arab Spring are perhaps the most prominent examples, but from Bosnia to Chile to the Philippines to South Africa nonviolence has spread democracy more effectively than violence. A potential fourth pillar is the labor movement, which I discuss extensively but has a complicated relationship to violence and nonviolence.

John asks if the organizations of voluntary collective self-rule that are the lifeblood of power require states that nourish them or at least allow them to exist. The answer is clearly no. In fact, they can form in the face of the most brutal attempts to stomp them out. They also transcend state boundaries and transform states. Regimes, laws, structures, armies, have all proven to be malleable to nonviolence, which is just to say the exercise of power by people without violence.

I discuss the Civil War in the book, but to address John’s point directly. The idea that the alternative to war was ” waiting” for the slaves to be free is strange and ahistorical. The reason the South seceded is because abolitionists were succeeding. The underground railroad in combination with making the international slave trade illegal, put tremendous pressure on the Southern economy. The idea that the Civil War accelerated the end of slavery is certainly the conventional wisdom, but half a million people dead, abolition the world over without violence, and the horrors of the post reconstruction backlash should give us pause.

Without reiterating the details of the first two chapters, I feel compelled to underscore some of the main points when it comes to the history of slavery. The Haitian revolution is the only successful large scale slave rebellion in the history of the world. Even uprisings of tens of thousands of people had all failed. Freeing the slaves of one’s opponents in warfare is a common occurrence historically and the American Civil War is another example of that. But none of the previous examples were part of a movement to make slavery itself illegal. The idea of ending slavery and the political process of passing the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments ended slavery as much as the war. Both were unimaginable until abolitionists articulated and struggled for them.

Without reiterating the details of the argument I make in my first book, I want to underscore some of the main points as they link up with the new one. John asks if Britain “was wrong to fight the Nazis.” My argument is not that all violence is unjust. Nor do I argue that violence is always ineffective. Instead, I stipulate that violence can be just and politically effective. My argument is that nonviolence shows that violence is never necessary. This is a consequence of freedom and also means that violence, even if politically effective, cannot ultimately forward the particular cause of human freedom. If there is a tragic aspect to the history of freedom, it lies in the quixotic efforts to achieve freedom with violence because it appears violence is the only option. In fact, it never is. As John reminds us in another post, the Nazis were fighting for freedom too.

Self-Sufficiency (by Dustin Ells Howes)




Here’s is Dustin Howes’s first response to my thoughts on his book.  More to come, as I will also continue my posts on the book–and will respond to his comments when I feel moved to do so. (Dustin’s comments here connect to the post: Freedom without Violence). This first response seems to me not to call for any comments from me; it very clearly lays out a key argument of Dustin’s book and what is at stake:


The two figures I draw upon to understand the roots of the idea that violence expresses freedom are Pericles and Aristotle. Pericles argues in his famous funeral oration that Athenians are distinguished from others by their capacity for politics. The fact that they decide together what to do and know how to rule themselves makes Athenian men free. The highest expression of this freedom is the courage they display in warfare. When the Athenians lost the Peloponessian war, philosophers and women called the connection between freedom and violence into question. Aristotle is a nuanced reactionary to these critics, who attempts to resuscitate the freedom violence connection without celebrating empire for its own sake.

What I had not realized until John raised the issue is how this is baked into Aristotle’s definition of the polis. Aristotle says that what distinguishes a city-state from a family or a village is a word usually translated as self-sufficiency. To be clear, the “self” here cannot refer to the individual. Indeed, one way to interpret his argument is that freedom is only possible with the company of a certain number of people. Freedom and politics proper are collective. The only way to be free of dependency is to come together with others to exercise our uniquely human capacity for talking about and ruling with justice. This is contrasted with and requires the dependency of slaves and women, who are ruled by free men. The horizontal relationship  among a collective of equals is founded upon a vertical relationship between the free and enslaved largely defined by violence. As John mentions, most slaves were women and most were acquired in warfare.

Democratic freedom as collective self-sufficiency underwritten by violence that subdues the unfree is both familiar and unfamiliar in our time and the past century. Nationalism and socialism both assert a brand of collective freedom often expressed through violence. Independence and secessionist insurgencies all over the world assert that collective freedom requires a particular collective be unhampered by association with others.

Yet in the Anglo-American context, the idea of collective freedom is complicated by an individualistic understanding of self-sufficiency. In the book, I place the liberal individual squarely within a tradition that claims violence is only legitimate in the defense of freedom. Every individual has the ability to enforce the natural law, which reason tells us demands the preservation of life and liberty. The dynamic John describes where individuals find the actions of others frustrating and the potential for eliminating or dominating them liberating, is one liberals reject in theory. For thinkers like Locke for instance, any reasonable person will recognize the rights of others. However, not everyone is reasonable, some will take license (Locke refuses to call it liberty) and this is when violence becomes necessary. We might say that liberal individuals must defend liberty from those who mistakenly believe it can be expressed through violence.

But in practice, the figure of the self-sufficient individual is so wedded to his enforcement powers, that it is hard to imagine his identity without them. The sources informing the figure I have in mind are many, it may not even be one figure, and is almost exclusively masculine. The individual in the state of nature cultivating and defending his property, the republican militia man defending his free state, the frontiersman who survives with his wits and his musket, the cowboy who draws fast but only when needed, the cop who is tough but fair, the homeowner who stands ready to defend his family. The line between violence as expressing freedom and violence as defending freedom is blurry in these archetypes. Some also blur the line between individual and collective self-sufficiency. The militia man is part of a militia, the cop represents the state. In just war theory, states themselves become liberal individuals in relation to other states. Historically, certainly in the American context, rugged individualism and the free state have been set against the dependency and unreasonableness of savages, women, slaves and foreigners. So self-sufficiency does a tremendous amount of work here.

Our first response from the perspective of nonviolence might be to challenge the very notion of self-sufficiency and point to the undeniable interdependence of human beings. The purveyors of violence may wish to stand alone but they will need the help of others, and in particular, find that how others respond to their violence will largely determine its impact. This holds true for the violence of peoples or individuals.

But even while emphasizing our interdependence, advocates of nonviolence are keen to offer a quite different vision of self-sufficiency. Gandhi in particular argues that every single individual is capable of creative nonviolence and self-rule. Self-sufficiency and swaraj involve confronting violence and having the discipline to refrain from violence but encompass a great deal more as well. The spinning wheel as the symbol of independence and the centrality of home spun cloth to the movement are the most prominent examples but the entire system of cottage industries Gandhi sought to promote was inflected with the idea that individuals, villages, and nations ought to be self-sufficient.

Gandhi challenges the presumption that human need stands opposed to freedom. The labors of the ashram could be performed in conjunction with politics. He would sometimes spin while hosting prominent dignitaries. His public experiments with the mortification of his body and his glorification of self-sacrifice  stand in a complicated relationship to socialism and feminism. But on this particular issue of self-sufficiency, he shares much in common with certain versions of both. He collapses public and private, individual and collective self-rule, and the labor of the household and political action. Self-sufficiency stands in stark contrast with Aristotelian patriarchy and liberal individualism. He offers a vision of freedom where interdependence is acknowledged and valued while the capacity of individuals to provide for themselves is emphasized equally. This raises issues of political organization that I will address in other responses.  (BY Dustin Ells Howes)


Anyone who thinks about violence has to, at some point, attempt to come to terms with sacrifice.  The staged killing of a victim (whether animal or human) is part of just about every known religion.  So here is a violence deliberately chosen and carefully scripted.  What it its logic?  Why has it been seen as necessary and/or beneficial in so many cultures?

I have hardly got good answers here.  Everything I have read on sacrifice–from Mauss to Bataille to Girard–has puzzled me.  I only want to say two thing here.

Like Waldo everywhere present but never center stage, the notion of self-sacrifice lurks throughout Howes’s book. (There is an index entry on self-sacrifice, so Howes clearly knows this is an element of his whole position.)  Here’s one instance: “[F]ollowing the moral law may require self sacrifice.  Given that others often fail to practice self rule, the immediate consequences of doing so may be physically harmful to the person who acts according to their duty.  Gandhi was more clear about how this public demonstration of self-sacrifice might affect others. By holding fast to the truth and refraining from destroying or attacking others, the satyagrahi would offer a model of self-rule and moderation that might change others” (185).  This passage points toward both of the  things I want to say.

First, I think we reach here the nub of the resistance to pacifism.  Why should I submit myself, sacrifice myself, to the violent other?  Do we really believe the rape victim should sacrifice herself instead of acting in self-defense?

But let me hasten to add that this is not some kind of reductio.  Just the opposite.  It indicates how profound and radical pacifism is.  The logic of self-defense is congruent with the logic of much violence: i.e. some people, because of their behavior, deserve to be physically harmed or otherwise restrained/punished for their actions.  In forgoing this logic, pacifism is revealed to be “beyond good and evil.”  It is not concerned with separating out the worthy from the unworthy, those who are to be shielded from violence and those who are to be subject to it.  Pacifism refuses to legitimate any violence.  And in the name of that all-inclusive vision, and in the attempt to bring about a world of non-violence, it accepts that victimage may be imposed on the pacifists.

So I do not think you can have a full-bore pacifism without accepting the terrible, yet sublime, consequence of self-sacrifice.  Instead of violently attacking the other, the pacifist accepts the violence inflicted upon her by the other.  This seems close to insane–and makes pacifism a path that appeals to very few.

But the pacifist can hope that her actions are exemplary, are an illustration of a different way to live with others.  She may not live to see that new day, but her voluntary acceptance of victimage might enable that new day to dawn.

Which brings me to my second point.  Sacrifice is meaningless if not publicly staged, if not visible.  There must be spectators.  This is true both practically and theoretically.  Practically, it means that non-violent social movements will only succeed when their stoic acceptance of violence inflicted by their opponents is broadcast to the body politic as a whole.  Protest is theatrical and rhetorical.  It is aimed toward winning hearts and minds, at converting those who currently have not chosen sides.  The protesters say two things: one, come join us, and two, we occupy the moral high ground vis a vis our opponents. (I think it is almost always “the moral high ground”; protests work very differently–and usually not non-violently–when it is a question of advancing or defending particular interests, not moral principles).  If a regime can succeed in keeping the protestors out of the media, out of general sight, the protests do not have much chance of succeeding.

Theoretically, this theatrical nature of sacrifice connects up to ritual and to tragedy (understood here as the plays put on during the Greek Dionysian festivals).  This may connect as well to public executions and to lynchings.  The point is about public displays of violence–where the violence is scripted, mostly contained to a few chosen victims, and allows for some kind of participation by the congregated public.  Here’s where I lose the thread.  The persistence and near-universality of such public stagings of violence is obvious.  How to explain their omnipresence baffles me.  Just why have they proved so necessary to social cohesion?

Self-sacrifice, it seems to me, would stand as an attempt to intervene in not just generalized violence but also in particularized sacrifice.  Self-sacrifice is an attempt to rewrite the scripts of such rituals.  Self-sacrifice seems to require publicity in exactly the same way that sacrifice does.  But if sacrifice constitutes a public through its shared animosity toward the victim, self-sacrifice tries to constitute a public based on a repudiation of the dividing line between us, the outraged innocents taking vengeance, and them, the unworthy ones who have called forth our righteous wrath.

Women and Violence

“I’m interested in many of the ideas you explore but must complain that you’ve dismissed all of feminism in less than a full sentence. Of course dependence is viewed as a disaster for women. Of course it is. This is one of the core issues faced by women in patriarchy–the extent to which women are dis-empowered by their dependence on men. I’m forced to ask who it is who doesn’t see women’s dependence (and concomitantly, their frustration) as disastrous. Men?

I’m referring to this:

“Dependence is not usually seen as a disaster for women—and women are historically much less prone to violence than men.”

The notion that “women are historically much less prone to violence than men” is nearly as equally problematic. Which women? When? Where? Women like HRC, advocating hawkishly for the war in Iraq?

But I am interested in this notion that violence is an expression of freedom.”

These paragraphs in quotations are a comment from Randi Davenport.  So let me try to respond.

I was trying to say that women have traditionally been viewed as more dependent, not that they are essentially or correctly viewed as dependent.

More than that, however, I was trying to say that rage against dependence has been more tied to masculine pathologies because being dependent was usually seen as more shameful for men.

The next step in the argument is to say that autonomy is a good thing–but it is also not possible to achieve fully.  So people must find some way to come to grips with the failure to achieve full self-sufficiency.  Violence has often been, I am saying, the way people have responded to their vulnerability to and dependence on others.  And that violence has been connected to a heightened emphasis on self-sufficiency for “being a man.”

So, as Randi pushes me to acknowledge, when women begin to demand more autonomy, we can expect that they will also become more violent (if my argument is in the right ballpark).  Certainly, when we think of domestic and sexual violence as ways that men have exerted power over women, as ways that men have tried to keep women dependent, then women exercising violence against those men would seem a perfect case of the “necessary violence against oppression” that I talked about in my earlier post for today.

But Dustin’s goal is to find ways we can exercise and express freedom without violence.  Are there other ways, then, to experience our dependence on others, ways that don’t involve lashing out against them?  To ask that question leads, it seems to me, to considering what kinds of dependence, what kinds of non-autonomy, are simply insufferable, not to be tolerated?  A tough question.  How to come to terms with our neediness, with our weaknesses?

Feminism (I think here especially of Adrienne Rich’s essays on anger) often tried to claim for women a right to rage and violence, a right that had been exclusively held by men.  A feminist like Rich found that expressing anger was liberating.

But I wonder if that becomes another case where women’s behavior is thinkable, allowable, only if it conforms to predominantly male standards.  Again, the question is whether there is another way to occupy dependence–and maybe feminism can be about exploring those alternatives to traditional male patterns.

Two things occur to me here.  The first is that I have never seen it as very liberating for women to be able to become soldiers.  That doesn’t seem like a right very worth having.  Is becoming like men the only path to freedom?  Especially when the fact that men are responsible for most of the world’s violence is taken into account?

The second is the double bind that bedeviled Hilary Clinton this past election.  If she isn’t a hawk about Syria etc., then she is “too weak” to be leader of the free world (to use an anachronistic phrase).  But when she talks tough, she seems to people a “nasty woman,” unfeminine because not being the nurturing type we want our women to be.

So, yes, it is unfair to ask women to save the world from male pathologies.  But I can’t really endorse women just assuming those pathologies.  That hardly seems like liberation.  To return to Dustin then: the quest is for non-violent expressions of freedom, and the disentanglement of freedom from fantasies of self-sufficiency and sovereignty.

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.