The tricky business of violence against the state (or other systems of power) is really defined by two questions: When is violence acceptable and justifiable on principle, and when is it the best tactic to achieve your goal? There are times when violence is both justifiable and strategically useful. However, there are also times when it can be justified, but would be a major tactical error that risks (among other things) bringing the full force of the state down on both those directly and indirectly involved in it, setting back the potential for positive outcomes — especially considering most people are not currently positioned to win a, direct, all out, violent battle against all unjust institutions of violence
An absolute pacifist (believing violence is always and everywhere unjustifiable, even in cases of self-defense) could never logically be a proponent of violence. However, other than a person with that sort of belief, it’s safe to say that we’re all proponents of violence at times. Even those who say violence or force is only acceptable in self-defense are only making a claim about when it is justifiable.
This is also true for those who consider themselves a “law-and-order” person. This archetype is at best confused. They feign a principled aversion to violence, and claim the police are the thin blue line between order on the one hand and violence and chaos on the other, but neglect to mention how maintaining their version of order means using violence on principle — and, practically speaking, it means using lots of it.
In any case, someone who claims a certain circumstance justifies violence on principle is also saddling themselves with the burden of explaining why, and rightfully so. The person who has violence or force used against them never has to justify first why it shouldn’t be used against them.
Anyone with a reasonable moral compass can navigate the basics of when violence is justifiable on principle. And, there are a variety of reasonable conclusions one might come to, on a theoretical level, if they rely on any of the number of established moral theories — from the non-aggression principle favored by libertarians, to the issue of proportionality of much concern to legal philosophy.
No matter how you deliberate the moral justifications, however, at some point, we all have to leave that question and get on to the tougher business of deciding whether violence in a given circumstance would be a tactical error. And, of course, that starts with the consideration of what ultimate goal the violence is supposedly in service of.
To use a recent example, those of us who feel that some (or most) of the material destruction and resistance to police accompanying the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder are justified, are now faced with the heavy lifting required for the second question of violence. And, luckily, we don’t have to always rely on distant history for all the answers to our questions. Certain events and their outcomes have already proven what goals violence can help achieve.
If the goal is driving awareness and getting messages heard loud and clear, then certain communities and groups — sick and tired of the structures of policing (and the crimes and injustice perpetrated by them) — have demonstrated violence can work. When it comes to general opinion, most people tuned into current events certainly aren’t questioning why people are angry about recent tragedies and the structures that enabled them,and even find themselves agreeing with specific instances of destruction. As for elite opinion, the message of resistance and unrest has been sent to the tables and boardrooms of authority around the world loud and clear — they aren’t discussing if there is a message, a problem, or unrest, but what to do about it. In some recent cases, the immediate search for accountability in the face of police violence (even if ultimately symbolic and inconsequential) indicates justifiable public outcry is something both anticipated and feared.
So, sometimes violence can work. The problem starts when violence is looked at as the always-and-everywhere tactic for achieving any goal. I’ve been in discussions with many who have gone so far as to claim that violence against the state, or just in general, is now the only option worth pursuing to render positive outcomes. They say if we want to see change, then we need to put our foot down on the violence gas pedal and not let up.
This is where serious meditation on violence is needed. The lack of it means the potential for mistakes skyrockets for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact there’s an already-established player on the field of violence ready to engage in it at a moment’s notice, and at this point in time they are more prepared for action than most of the population can hope to be.
In the U.S. and many other Western countries, the state’s entrenched monopoly on violence won’t be broken by bottom-up violent acts any time soon, despite fantasies and wishful thinking that have convinced some otherwise. Completely beating the state at a game it is very comfortable playing to totally replace it with more just arrangements simply isn’t in the cards we hold today. This is not always true, but it is true so long as most people don’t want to see the state removed from its position of power, and benefit from the current arrangements to some degree. Sometimes when it comes to the decision between non-violent tactics that drive reform or violence that drives revolution, those who truly want to see practical changes that will positively impact people’s lives in the short run are better off dealing with reform for the time being, and revolution in the longer run.
I know how many will react to this statement, and I sympathize with the sentiment as much as I wish the circumstances were different. Often, a call for non-violence and an appetite for comparatively smaller changes can feel like a half-hearted compromise, and there is good reason for this skepticism. It is true that institutions of power themselves are the source of most problems of oppression and unjustifiable violence in the world, and that improving certain aspects of their existence and the arrangement doesn’t change their overall impact on society
However, non-violent reforms aren’t useless when we consider short run gains that, in the meantime, encourage and bring about small wins and positive changes using the current structures and avenues available. It is possible to push for positive changes that will make differences in people’s communities and lives in this lifetime, and simultaneously build toward a more just society in the long term. And, this is preferable if the alternative is a violent flash in the pan that takes us one step forward with short term awareness and consciousness followed by one or two back with a clamp of violence the state will necessarily tighten.
Ultimately, no one person or movement can be relied upon for all the answers to both questions of violence, and that’s a good thing. Which roads we use to travel toward a more just society should be the subject of constant debate and discussion in communities and groups — a bottom-up process where no authority takes the reins and asks us to charge into battle at their side based on our trust in them or their slogans alone.
Opinions on what the goals are, when violence is justifiable on principle, and if it’s reasonably expected to achieve those goals need to change as the evidence, circumstances, and the consciousness of individuals change. Sometimes that will mean the answer to a certain problem is violence, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes that will mean reforming an institution, sometimes it will mean destroying it.
There’s no escaping the tricky business of violence and the careful thinking it requires. Trying to avoid tough discussions by deciding violence is always and everywhere justifiable, and will do just nicely to achieve a given set of goals in almost every circumstance (or always feeling the contrary), is a mistake of militancy and one-dimensional thinking that will hinder opportunities to bring about better outcomes for the very people one claims to want to help, or the circumstances they wish to improve.