18 October 2020


Proper non-violence understands that violence is justified but believes that it is unwise. Non-violence means facing violence without returning it; retreating from confrontation is not non-violent action, it is passivity.

Too many people think that nonviolence means a white liberal quietism which drapes itself in a vague and false moral claim to reflect the logic of the Civil Rights Movement. Claiming nonviolence as an absolute value rather than as a considered tactic reflects a combination of ignorance and moral laziness.

Non-violence is vitally important because violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly; is existence changes your destination.

There are a lot of ways that things could go in which we will need a lot of white bodies on the street facing guns. We need bourgeois white people like me standing at the front, braving the bullets.

2017 doesn’t make me confident that enough of us will step up, but it does give me hope.

Case #1 for nonviolence: it is working for BLM

The re-acceleration of street protest and reporting on it which emerged after the street execution of George Floyd has produced dynamics similar to protests of the Civil Rights Movement.

That the movement has been primarily and overwhelmingly nonviolent only underlines how the few outbreaks of vandalism (most notably the capture and burning of the Minneapolis Third Precinct police station) demonstrates that there is a huge capacity for popular violence which has been held in check.

That police in cities across the country have demonstrated repeatedly that they will engage in increasingly frantic brutality in response to nonviolent street protest has conclusively proved what anti-police advocates have been saying all along.

And the result has been that now clear majorities now favor vigorous reform in a way which was politically inconceivable just a year ago, and even more incredibly police abolition is on the table as something which popularly credible people are advocating and which opponents need to actively argue against. This is a huge victory, and the contrast of nonviolence was integral in demonstrating the reality of police culture and conduct.

White liberals’ clarity here is not what it should be, but it is improving every day; a turn toward broader violence in response to police violence would reverse that trend.

Case #2 for nonviolence: it is working against far right street demonstrators

In 2017, far right street actions tried to provoke street violence in order to feed their story about their strength and the ordinary conservatives to support them against the violent leftist hordes. Instead, overwhelmingly nonviolent counterprotest got bigger and bigger while those far right gangs fell apart over their inability to deliver sufficient thrills and glory to their members. The mess at the “Unite The Right” rally did not unite the right; massive popular turnout in nonviolent counterprotest against them which followed at San Francisco, then even moreso in Boston, embarrassed them and made them look silly and weak, breaking the far right street movements’ momentum until their resurgence this year.

These kinds of confrontations are happening again this year, but again the mass of nonviolent counterprotest has made far right would-be brownshirts look silly and weak. Instead of looking like brave badasses facing down the scary antifa thugs of their authoritarian fantasies, their exemplar is scrawny, panicked Kyle Rittenhouse flailing around wildly.

We have too many fascist true believers who accept their story but they have not been able to swell their numbers or persuade the inattentive white middle as they had imagined.

There are always going to be liberals who are King’s White Moderates who will find that any shadow of evidence of “violence” (which is usually only vandalism) allows them to rationalize their rejection of any action at all. One object of non-violence is to limit their ranks by keeping the facts off their side.

Case #3 for non-violence: what if things get very bad?

The hard test is the moment to come in the wake of the election. There are a lot of people on the right who are hungry for a shooting civil war against a “violent takeover by the radical left”.

Anti-left liberals will be tempted to side with the right against the left if they can be persuaded that we are violent. And yeah, some of them are going to be suckered no matter what we do.

But the longer the interval in which it is clear that the far right are bringing guns and blood while the left are not, the more it will erode the credibility of the far right. We don’t just need it to be true that they are the ones who shoot first; we need it to last long enough that it is clear even to people who are not paying attention that they shot first. If we can hold that line, the far right will lack popular support ... which translates into an unwillingness for the US military to fire on US civilians.

It is our best chance for avoiding an authoritarian death spiral.

And if that fails — either through a failure to step up, or us getting stepped on — the calculus changes.

Up to that point, the ideal response would be a massive and entirely nonviolent movement. There is no getting that ideal, but it is useful to aspire to it. An overwhelmingly nonviolent movement is more plausible and still very good.

But after that point, if we move from the fascist ascendancy we have now to the fascist control we fear, then the only way to dislodge fascist power is through violent action.

That said, even in that eventuality, while we would need violence to win that war, the more active nonviolence there is in the resistance the better the peace we can hope for when we win. Nonviolence will always need recruits.

Update: A commentary on the kind of people who we are talking about:

I’m getting really tired of the wise serene pacifist trope in fiction. Every committed pacifist, prison abolitionist, antiwar activist, etc I’ve ever met in real life has been vibrating with compressed rage at all times. Do you know what it’s like to believe deeply in your heart that doing harm to others is wrong and the goal of society should be to alleviate suffering for all people and live in the United States of America? IT’S NOT FUN. Show Us The Pissed-Off Pacifists.

Dude there might be a word for the emotion that is forged when someone’s deep abiding love and compassion for all people and living things welds itself into decades of built-up foaming fury at how those people been treated their whole life by those in power to create a sort of alloyed super-commitment to a set of ethical principles but i promise you “tranquility” is not that fucking word

I will pile up some resources here:

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