The four main categories of action discussed here—legal remedies, direct action, withdrawal, and spirituality—can be taken up by either liberals or radicals. What defines all four of these categories as liberal or radical is how they are used. It’s the ultimate goal that will dictate their strategic use, and it’s the goal that’s either liberal or radical.
The main point of this chapter is that because of the historic dominance of liberalism, we’ve been handed a framework that truncates actions that could otherwise be effective. All four of these categories of action could play a role in dismantling civilization and creating a just and sustainable culture, but only if their strengths and liabilities are understood and acknowledged. That understanding will only come if we accept the insights of radicalism.
Remember that liberalism is a combination of idealism with individualism. For liberals, social reality is comprised of individuals, and it’s essentially an intellectual event. Oppression is not about concrete systems of power to liberals, but about ideas and attitudes. Hence, education and moral suasion are the order of the day.
This has stranded the left with tactics that range from ineffectual to ridiculous. Nobody cares if we light candles to stop global warming; asking nicely will not help. This kind of pleading also keeps us forever trapped in a posture of dependent children. If we’re good—compliant, quiet, well-behaved—if we follow the rules—someone in authority will listen and care. Meanwhile, power couldn’t care less. Power will only care when it is threatened. And none of the strategies currently acceptable on the left contain any threat, precisely because liberalism deeply misunderstands the nature of power.
Consider the array of “political actions” we are offered. First we have the legal strategies, the usual petitions, demonstrations, and lawsuits aimed at protecting what shreds of the world the system will allow. People have dedicated their lives to saving a species, a river, a place, someone or something that they are brave enough to love and that they love enough to protect. I am in no way insulting their commitment or sneering at their passion. But it isn’t working. The planet is dying. We do what we can; the planet keeps dying. We know the planet is dying but what else can we do? The avenues open to us, the petitions, the lawsuits, don’t challenge the basic processes of civilization, the destructive and extractive activities on which this way of life depends. That is the insight from which activists are kept, not just by power and its endless propaganda, but also by the subculture of the left.
Direct action, even nonviolent direct action, has also been derailed by liberalism. I was born the same year as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Twenty-five years later, I watched on TV as the people of Berlin pulled down that wall. Nonviolence is a form of resistance that works but it needs to be understood if it’s to be used effectively.
Gene Sharp is the foremost scholar on nonviolent action. His three volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action should be required reading for all activists as a basic primer on the nature of political struggle. He starts with the insight that
It is widely assumed that all social and political behavior must be clearly either violent or nonviolent. This simple dualism leads only to serious distortions of reality, however, one of the main ones being that some people call “nonviolent” anything they regard as good, and “violent” anything they dislike. A second gross distortion occurs when people totally erroneously equate cringing passivity with nonviolent action because in neither case is there the use of physical violence. Careful consideration of actual responses to social and political conflict requires that all responses to conflict situations be initially divided into those of action and those of inaction, and not divided according to their violence or lack of violence. In such a division nonviolent action assumes its correct place as one type of active response.57
Nonviolent direct action is a form of struggle which uses political, economic, or social leverage in an attempt to coerce the structures of power to change, up to and including complete abdication. Sharp continues,
Several writers have pointed to the general similarities of nonviolent action to military war. Nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war. It involves the matching of forces and the waging of “battles,” requires wise strategy and tactics, and demands of its “soldiers” courage, discipline, and sacrifice. This view of nonviolent action as a technique of active combat is diametrically opposed to the popular assumption that, at its strongest, nonviolent action relies on rational persuasion of the opponent, and that more commonly it consists simply of passive submission.58
If you are someone who embraces a nonviolent ethic, then you need to understand how the technique of nonviolent direct action works if you are going to employ it successfully. A radical analysis will lead you to the conclusion that justice will only be won by a struggle; oppression is not a mistake; and nice, reasoned requests will not make it stop. In the words of Frederick Douglass, who well knew, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and never will.” Once we understand that, the activist’s task becomes one of simple strategy: power must be forced, so how best to apply that force?
The left has often operated on the smug or sentimental belief that nonviolence works only by personal, moral example. It doesn’t. Having said that, there is a moral high ground that has historically been useful for nonviolent struggles. When actionists stick to nonviolence while being attacked by the police or military, there is often an upswell of sympathy amongst the general public. Sharp calls this phenomenon a form of “political jujitsu.” If you are building a mass movement, then nonviolent discipline is a good technique to employ for this reason alone. But we cannot lose sight of the nature of power and the nature of the struggle that is required to change it. Against power, only force will work. Progressives have repeatedly refused to understand that, from the abolitionists who thought that a pending spiritual transformation would end slavery, to Gandhi writing a letter to Hitler asking him to stop (and then being shocked when it didn’t work), to both whites and blacks in the civil rights movement who thought lunch counter sit-ins were too confrontational.
Right now, the culture of most of the left has declared any action but “nonviolence” off-limits for discussion. I put nonviolence in quotes because by and large the people who have embraced such nonviolence don’t actually understand the technique of nonviolent direct action. The correct name for them is pacifists, people who for moral or spiritual reasons have an “opposition to war or violence as a means of resolving disputes.” Of course, by that definition I’m a pacifist, as I’m against war and I also think violence is a bad way to settle disputes. But it isn’t disputes I’m concerned with here; it’s global systems of oppression, especially the arrangement called civilization, which is right now devouring the world. Meanwhile, I’ve heard the proponents of so-called nonviolence declare that speaking in anything besides “I-statements” is violent. Fine; I feel that that is ridiculous.
A personal commitment to the rejection of violence can be an honorable and thoughtful act. But if this commitment leads to an inability to face the realities of systems of power—their inherent violence, their intransigence, their sociopathic destruction of anyone and anything in their way—and what is involved in changing those systems, then the wholesale embrace of such pacifism will only impede our ability to win justice and save what’s left of our planet.
Systems of power are not swayed by moral exhortation. They don’t care how well-behaved you are, how much you believe in the power of healing, or how much you want the inner child of perpetrators and CEOs to feel the love they supposedly never got. Their inner children are sociopathic. And out in the real world, they will turn fire hoses and German shepherds on your actual children. Nonviolent actionists have been gunned down in cold blood, tortured, thrown in jail to rot. Any quick perusal of the history of political struggle will yield the harsh truth, the lesson learned from Bloody Sunday to Tiananmen Square: nonviolence does not work by persuasion, nor does it offer protection, and the left needs to give up its maudlin belief in both. Those are not the reasons to employ it.
Nonviolence works by facing the ruthless reality of oppression, identifying its linchpins, and using direct action to interrupt the flow of power and hopefully dislodge some portion of its foundation. Instead of weapons, the technique uses people, usually large numbers of people willing to have direct confrontations with power, which means they risk getting killed. The sooner the left faces the reality of that danger, the better prepared we will be to make strategic and tactical decisions, individually and collectively.