Avoiding the Excesses of Violence and Pacifism

We anarchists are usually very good at being edgy, and edginess is one of the personality traits that probably attracted many of us to anarchism. Anarchists, like any fringe movement, need to counter-signal against the political mainstream in order to remain relevant. These two things are not necessarily bad; an edgy predisposition enables you more easily see through the lies most people believe, and counter-signaling is necessary to distinguish a marginal movement from the mainstream, to signal to one’s fellow anarchists where one stands, and to reinforce radical critiques of the status quo.

However, sometimes in our efforts to counter-signal against centrists, we let our edginess get the better of us and start embracing ideas that are hostile to the very core of the most appealing and fundamental aspects of anarchism. A recent example of this is Black Cat’s “Pacifism and the Pacifistic: a Tale of the Politically Dead.” The author argues that while most anarchists are not explicit pacifists, too many are possessed by a pathology of pacifism that makes us too hesitant to engage in violent forms of resistance. Black Cat tells a story of an anti-police brutality protest in which most of the crowd refused to force their way into a building past cops. They argue this example of reluctance is a sign of this pacifistic pathology that inhibits the effectiveness of anarchist movements. Too many anarchists, they claim, have not gotten rid of the “cop in your head” that tells us that we must follow the edicts of authority. Finally, they conclude with a strong argument that pacifism does not acknowledge that “all politics is violence.”

There are three problems with Black Cat’s article. First, they seem to implicitly rely on the false claim that individuals are usually obligated to violently resist authority. Second, their analysis in their example confuses a collective action problem all movements—both violent and non-violent—face with a pacifistic impulse as such. Finally, and of most concern, they think that in rejecting pacifism, it is necessary to embrace a radically illiberal Schmittean view that politics as violence is desirable.

The first problem is that Black Cat seems to jump from the correct and obvious point nearly all anarchists accept — that we are permitted to violently resist political authorities — to the much stronger and more often incorrect claim that any individual is obligated to violently resist authority. I might be misreading them here, but those two points do not follow from each other. The former point is a simple upshot of accepting philosophical anarchism and rejecting pacifism. Philosophical anarchism is the claim that there is no legitimate political authority nor obligation on the part of citizens to follow the law as such. If you accept philosophical anarchism, then you think there is a moral parity between government agents and non-state agents. Nothing about government agents is morally special that we should treat them any differently from non-state agents. If you reject pacifism, you believe that there are times when one may justifiably use violence to defend oneself or others. For example, if you justifiably believe someone is imminently attempting to murder you or someone you know, you may kill them in defense. These two views together entail that one may violently resist state agents out of self-defense or defense for others. The fact that they are state agents changes nothing about the right to self-defense.

Nothing about that argument, however, implies that anyone has a duty to do violence under most (or even any) circumstances. To be clear, I think there are very limited circumstances where such a duty does exist. Suppose I walk down the street and I see a cop about to shoot a defenseless kid, and I justifiably believe the only way I can stop the murder is to kill the cop. In this case, I am likely obligated to do so for reasons similar (though not identical) to why I’m obligated to save a child drowning in a pool. However, when the context is a violent expressive political protest, it is odd to say anyone has any similar obligation. In the case of a cop holding the gun to a defenseless kid, 1) the danger to the kid imminent and 2) my individual action will determine the outcome. If I do not act, I am nearly certain a person will be murdered almost immediately as a direct result of my inaction. In the case of expressive violence at a protest, the danger is very real but is not imminent in the same way, nor can any individual action stop it.

To be clear, I do think protestors are permitted to violently break down the doors and resist the cops. The state clearly does not have just ownership over the property on which they are protesting and the moral obligation to obey the cops does not exist. They are especially permitted if it can be reasonably determined that such forms of resistance are the best way of reducing some injustice the state is committing, such as police brutality against communities of color.  However, no individual is morally obligated to do so. There are many prudential reasons why an individual would not want to participate in such a protest. They would risk the full violence of the state, both in potentially being arrested and jailed and in the risk bodily injury by cops who are typically much better armed and can call for backup to overwhelm the crowd relatively quickly. Being arrested might result in them losing their jobs and not being able to feed their families—even if wearing a black mask helps mitigate that risk. Just for the purposes of a single expressive protest, nobody should be obligated to incur such huge risks.

It might be consequentially better if protestors did incur those costs more often. I doubt this because political action, both nominally violent and non-violent, often carries hidden downstream costs that are hard to detect. Regardless, it is clearly outside the scope of this argument to empirically determine when and where it is prudent to engage in violence. Whatever one’s views on such issues, it does not follow that there is an obligation to do so.

One might object by saying that we do have an obligation to resist injustice. That may be true, but such an argument does not entail a duty to participate in violent resistance. This argument fails for similar reasons that arguments that there is a duty to vote fail (beyond the fact that voting is ineffective). Even if we do have a general obligation to resist injustice, we can discharge that duty through any number of means that are not explicitly violent. One might engage in mutual aid, work at a food kitchen to feed the homeless, participate in agorism to make the state irrelevant, protest peacefully, or even write articles criticizing and spreading awareness of injustice. The reasons for not participating in violence are often very prudential and valid: one might justifiably think they are not physically fit enough to violently resist, participating in violence might undermine one of their other ways of combating injustice (eg., losing a job at a charity), or the costs of engaging in violence might just be too high. We must be pluralists about our praxis and to pretend the only way to resist injustice is to beat up a cop is simple-minded.

On the other hand, perhaps Black Cat is not saying a duty to participate in violent protest exists. Perhaps I am weak manning them and they simply think it would be preferable for people to be more cavalier about violence more often. Perhaps so, but then it seems clear that such excerpts as “We need to not just reject pacifism with our words, we need to also reject it with our actions. We have given up pacifism, and now we must give up being pacifistic” are worded far too strongly.

The second problem is that Black Cat’s analysis of their example seems off-base. The protestors’ hesitance seems more a result of the collective action problem all political movements face regardless of how violent they are. It is not necessarily an example of an implicit fear of “the cop in your head” or having some unconscious pacifistic impulse. To be clear, I was not at the protest in question and perhaps there were other things said that Black Cat can use to strengthen their argument. However, from what was written it seems just as likely that the protestors’ hesitance flowed from the fact that violently resisting was just too individually costly. The only way it would have succeeded is if everybody, or at least a majority, would have violently resisted the cops as a group, but if each individual did so without the others also violently resisting they would have lost. Black Cat themselves made this point rather explicitly. Further, even if everyone there thought they were permitted to engage in violent resistance, there might have been reasonable disagreement as to how prudent it would have been under those circumstances. It seems just as likely that this particular protest is just another example of a classic prisoner’s dilemma stemming from the incentives of the situation as it was that people implicitly thought violent resistance was somehow wrong.

Whatever was going on in that particular example, these type of collective action problems are a separate problem from the problem of people being too pacifistic. Both pacifists and non-pacifists can agree they have no duty to follow the law, they just disagree about whether they may actively use violence while violating the law. Non-violent political actors are also subject to severe risks when they passively refuse to follow the law. A pacifist who conscientiously refuses to pay taxes or who refuses to participate in obligatory military service might be imprisoned. A peaceful protest movement or sit-in that refuses to disperse when the cops demand it might face brutality from the cops and the threat of arrest. Think about Thoreau’s imprisonment, the famous picture of the man from the Tiananmen Square protest, the countless pacifists arrested for “draft dodging,” or any number of examples of non-violent protests from the American civil rights movement. The pacifist only rejects that they are permitted to actively participate in violence when they defy the law, they usually do not believe they must follow the law as such due to the “cop in their head.” There are better and worse ways of solving this collective action problem, and because non-pacifist movements have more options on the table they might fare better at solving it in certain circumstances. However, it is an independent problem from whether one thinks violent resistance is permissible or not.

The final and most important problem with the piece is Black Cat’s contention that “All politics, including anarchist politics, is organized violence.” This is where it becomes clear that the contrarian counter-signaling has undermined a consistent commitment to anarchism. Black Cat argues all politics is violence because the only way to hold a society together is to either convince everyone of shared principles or materially incentivize them to comply with a given societal structure. Any degree of material incentive must involve the threat of some sort of implicit threat of violence, whether it be threats of violence to follow the law or the threat of violent self-defense.

However, this is not true. One of the key insights from liberalism worth preserving is that even if people might reasonably disagree on a set of comprehensive principles of justice, they might be able to generate enough of an overlapping consensus on a narrower set of secondary, freestanding principles from their very different philosophical backgrounds and traditions so that social cooperation is possible without the need to constantly rely on violence for social interaction.  As Jason Lee Byas puts it, there is a “natural harmony of real interests” between individuals in any just society. Even where rational argumentation for one’s principles fails, sentimental education to make people take the livelihoods of others seriously even where there is deep and persistent disagreement is a powerful tool to encourage social cooperation without needing to resort to threats of violence.

Black Cat might respond by saying that such tools as rational argumentation, a reasonable overlapping consensus, and sentimental education are not enough. They might think that I am being too idealistic and there still need to be threats of violence to encourage social cooperation. They probably are right that some degree of violence and threats thereof are necessary to maintain social cooperation. Even market anarchism still has security agents to violently defend its clients, after all, it just does not have a monopoly on such violence. I disagree with the pacifist claim that violence can be eliminated. However, it is worth noting we have more options on the table than resorting to political violence the minute rational argumentation fails. What makes such a society so appealing is precisely that it is less violent, it replaces the sheer threat of force from a monopolistic state with more consensual forms of governance. Violence should be a last resort, even where necessary. We should strive for institutions that reduce its necessity as much as possible.

Even if it is true that “all politics is violence,” so much the worse for politics. The whole purpose of anarchism–and the aspiration of liberalism that it rarely if ever lives up to–is to abolish politics as violence, or at least restrict the control it has over our lives. Even if violence is necessary, we should strive to reduce it as much as possible and get more and more spheres of social cooperation where the threat of violence is not the controlling force. To embrace and glorify violence simply to rationalize certain forms of resistance is how social anarchists slip into becoming tankies, and anarcho-capitalists slip into becoming fascists. We must not glorify violence, both for the sake of allowing a less violent society to emerge and for our own sakes, for the pathology of glorifying violence is the exact pathology upon which authoritarians are parasitic. This is not to say we become pacifists or lie to ourselves by pretending we never will or do engage in violence, this is what is so frustrating about statist liberal euphemisms on violence. We can and should cultivate the virtue of peace without falling for the vice of authoritarian violence nor the vice of naïve pacifism.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory