The Violence Question
By Dennis Loo (5/19/14)
War is the continuation of politics by other [violent] means. -- Clausewitz
There may be no other political question quite as fraught with emotion and confused as the violence question. As with any other social or physical phenomenon, the surface appearance of things tells only the smaller part of the story.
The main error that people who oppose violence make when discussing violence is that they disengage the issue of violence from the underlying causes of violence. They treat violence as if it’s entirely separate and apart from anything else, as if it’s something from out of the blue with no place or reason for its existence. Violence is not something unto itself. Like anything else, violence is profoundly intertwined with other things and cannot be understood in isolation from those factors. If we are to thoroughly understand it and eventually do away with it as a major social problem, we have to strip away the emotional baggage that accompanies it and look squarely at it to see what its roots are and why it persists. Violence is a symptom, not a cause, of more fundamental underlying factors.
If you want to understand war – the ultimate exercise of violence – you have to understand politics. As the famous war strategist Carl von Clausewitz put it succinctly, war is the continuation of politics, by other, violent, means.
If you separate war from politics then you will not understand that war is politics continued into the stage of undisguised, massive violence. War is not some arbitrary or capricious phenomenon that is only used when some people lose their minds or self-control. It is qualitatively different than what happens when an individual loses their temper and resorts to violence. War is something declared by governments and governments do not behave the way individuals do. War is an extremely conscious, thoroughly and comprehensively prepared for, and minutely maintained and sustained instrument of state policy. In the industrial age, war depends heavily not only on complex technological and logistical matters but requires the mass mobilization of public opinion, placing extraordinary strains both physical and psychological on those doing the fighting and the population in general, including the suffering due to war time disruption, mass casualties, destruction of infrastructure, economic strain, and the stress placed on soldiers ordered to kill others.
War is not something that if people would only “learn their lessons” from experience they would no longer engage in. War is the carrying out of political objectives by using openly massive violence when other forms of maneuvering and negotiations have failed or are not even resorted to. And just as there are unjust wars and just wars, violence is not something independent in nature from who is using it and why they are doing it. There is a huge difference, for example, between the violence of a rapist and the violence used by a woman who is fighting off a rapist.
This is a particularly salient example of the reason why violence cannot reasonably be discussed as if it were always and everywhere a bad thing. A woman’s right not to be raped is in direct contradiction to a rapist’s desire to rape a woman. You cannot stop a rapist in the act by appealing to his better conscience. You have to violently repel him. Fascists who are beating and killing those they hate such as black people or homosexuals or civil libertarians cannot be appealed to with logical arguments. In the movie Manhattan, Woody Allen tries to recruit others to meet a planned Nazi march with bats and bricks. In response to his appeal, someone at the cocktail party says that it would be better to meet the Nazis’ plans to march with a letter to The New York Times “because the pen is mightier than the sword.” Allen says in response to this: “You don’t understand. These are Nazis. Bats and bricks are what you need.”
Politics is not where our discussion of violence ends either. For politics itself is a concentrated expression of economics.
The state – aka the government - does not just tend to favor dominant economic interests (e.g., by being lobbied by big business interests and doing favors for them and for wealthy individuals). Capitalist corporations and capitalist states are bound inextricably up with one another. The state came into being in human history at the precise point when an economic surplus first appeared with the Agricultural Revolution. The first agrarian empires such as Ancient Egypt required a highly developed state apparatus. Any economic surplus would be distributed among the entire populace but for the existence of a group of men wielding and using weapons to keep the surplus in a relatively small number of hands.
“What’s the point of being rich, if you can’t keep others from taking it from you?” as the central character of the popular 1976 TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man put it in describing the role of the state, refuting his nephew’s disbelief at the idea that states engage in conscious plots to defend the wealthy.
If social resources are not being shared among the entire population, then some body that uses violence must exist to ensure that a disproportionate allocation of material resources remains so and is not divided among the populace by the public. During an electrical blackout or some other form of natural or human disaster, crowds of people declare a sale and relieve stores of their inventory. The only thing keeping people from carrying out this kind of grassroots redistribution of goods is the existence of the police and the military, the state’s coercive arms.
After Hurricane Katrina, individuals and gangs broke into stores in order to distribute life-saving water, food, and other necessities that the state was not providing. Mercenary soldiers from Blackwater attempted to prevent these grassroots relief efforts by shooting and killing some of them in order to protect the “sacredness” of private property against the emergency needs of the people to survive.
This is another aspect illustrating the fact that violence is not something that exists independently of other factors. As long as social classes exist that are defined by their differing access to and power over the means to life (the means of production), then states will continue to exist. The way to abolishing states and the way to abolishing violence must proceed then not by admonitions that violence is a bad idea and awful practice but by the progressive bridging of the differences between classes directed towards the eventual elimination of classes altogether.
Put succinctly, states exist because of the existence of classes and classes exist because social wealth and the means of making social resources – both material and non-material wealth/resources - are divided inequitably. States’ use of violence is wholly bound up with the fundamental clash between classes, a conflict that cannot be resolved peacefully because what benefits one class directly injures the other. In case that sounds too abstract, consider the following examples:
When workers attempt to organize for better working conditions, the state deploys police to monitor, disrupt, infiltrate, and repress workers’ ability to organize and promote their plans. If the capitalist class did not have the police to protect their interests, then the majority of people in society - who are not the capitalist class - could readily realign economic and political power because they are a) far larger than the very tiny number of capitalists, and b) workers could organize and win over the vast majority of the population to their side in the absence of the literal blows to their people by the police.
Capitalist profits are derived through the exploitation of human labor. As such, what fuels the capitalist class is diametrically opposed to what workers need: at least a decent income and social support in order to live, raise a family, be educated, live in a toxic free and stable environment, have medical insurance and care, be protected against unduly hazardous working conditions and premature and unnecessary death and suffering, and so on. The driving logic of capitalism is for the capitalist class to constantly try to find means to render the working class more insecure and more desperate so that wages and so on can be further reduced, a permanent class of under-employed and unemployed is maintained, leaving workers bereft of the means to live other than to work for much less than their labor is worth. Capitalists’ profits directly benefit from the dispossession and subjugation of the working class and their profits are increased through the immiseration of others. This is not something that can be dispensed with as an individual capitalist’s choice but something that capitalism must do if the system remains the capitalist system. This is why resolving the conflict between the capitalist class and working class is something that cannot be obtained through peaceful negotiations but ultimately determined in part by the use of force.
Consider what was done to Occupy Wall Street by the US government at the city, state, and federal level. Within the space of a two week period, city police, ordered by city mayors who meet directly with Obama’s Department of Homeland Security that coordinated and directed these police raids nationally, violently evicted the main Occupy encampments around the country. This was in spite of the fact that Occupy camps were explicitly non-violent and their only threat to the capitalist system was that basically they had handmade signs decrying the inequities and injustices of this system and would engage in peaceful political protest actions to do the same. Despite their non-violent peaceful methods and program, this system could not allow these encampments to continue because the camps were too graphic a reminder on a daily basis to others that this system logic and working nature was unjust and intolerable. In the fall of 2011 a few months before Occupy's violent evictions, GOP pollster Frank Luntz admitted during a session that he conducted for Republican governors that "I'm frightened to death" of the Occupy Movement. "They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism."
Note what he didn't say; he didn't say that people voting for the Democrats or third party candidates scares him to death. Instead he's scared to death of the movement that is taking on capitalism, precisely because it was and is changing public opinion and shifting the balance of opinion against the capitalists and their parties the Democrats and Republicans and changing the overall political atmosphere.
When Occupy was a prominent feature in daily and weekly news, a majority of Americans in numerous polls indicated that they supported the goals of Occupy. Consider what it tells you about the fundamental predatory nature of and precarious hold on power that capitalism has that authorities felt compelled to sweep away Occupy and ensure that it does not reappear in the open and in a sustained way. Consider what that tells you about how vulnerable and fragile the capitalists’ hold is over public opinion that they cannot tolerate some ragtag looking campers of mostly middle class, working class, and homeless people sporting handwritten signs. They had to destroy the Occupy encampments because if they allowed them to continue they knew that its message would spread even further and make capitalism's dominance even more precarious.
Note what authorities did not do. They did not invite Occupy representatives to have a civil debate with those in power over what capitalism is and what it should do. They did not have a debate about whether capitalism was a good, environmentally sustainable, and just system. They maligned Occupy from the beginning, first by trying to ignore it and deride it, then trying to crush it with police violence, which backfired on them. When Occupy then grew like a mushroom and became part of the political landscape and everyday conversations, authorities tried to co-opt it and plotted to destroy it, sending undercover police agents into its ranks to spy upon and disrupt it. Finally, unable to stop it from continuing to grow, they violently and systematically dispersed the Occupy encampments and have put up fences and posted police to make sure that Occupy did not come back. If authorities are all-powerful and people are all inherently selfish and lovers-to-death of capitalism, then how come this relatively innocent and utterly peaceful movement could not be allowed to continue? If the American people are such dyed-in-the-wool philistines, then how come a majority of New Yorkers and a majority of Americans nationally told pollsters they supported Occupy's goals for a more equitable society? If dissent is impossible in this American Dreamland, then how come GOP pollster Frank Luntz confessed that he was "frightened to death" by Occupy?
Just as violence cannot sensibly be discussed and analyzed separate from politics, politics in turn cannot be properly grasped minus the underlying economic battle that politics concentrate. Violence and its highest expression, war, are products fundamentally of economic interests locked in battle. The reason why negotiations for peace are usually (though not always) a cover to maneuver for advantage prior to, during, or in the aftermath of warfare, is because the economic interests that are at stake are a zero sum game: what suits one adversary directly disadvantages the other. That is why they cannot reach a compromise about it, particularly when you are dealing with capitalist forces that necessarily must expand or die and can only do so at the expense of rival capitalists and the resistance of the workers and middle class people harmed by capitalists’ plans.
This is why the 20th Century saw the first two world wars: capitalism had grown to its imperialist/monopoly capitalist stage in numerous powerful capitalist nations. Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, these rich nations had already divided up the world among themselves with each having some portion of the world’s colonies under their control (e.g., various European countries controlled whole regions and continents such as the Middle East, Africa, South America, Asia). Further expansion into “cheap” labor markets and resources to plunder meant therefore that they had to wage war against rival imperialist nations who already held or similarly coveted these colonial warrens. This meant world war in the 20th Century, the first times in history for there to be world war, because these were imperialist rivals fighting literally over the whole globe. In the course of these wars tens of millions of people were slaughtered.
This is precisely the same thing that happens when rival mafia families go to war with each other over city turf. They have meetings in which they try to settle these disputes over who gets what parts of the city to exploit with drugs, prostitution, gambling, and so on, but these meetings between the rival mafia heads inevitably end up sooner or later in massive bloodshed. Except on the global level, imperialists dwarf the bloodletting that mafia wars produce. (When asked how he prepared for his role as the Godfather Marlon Brando answered: “It’s simple. The Godfather is a capitalist.”)
If negotiations have broken down, for example, because two countries cannot agree over a disputed territory or over how to allocate economic spoils, then they go to war with each other to settle the matter through force. It isn’t, in other words, for the sake of using violence to make money just by waging the war that countries go to war. War profiteering is not a primary reason for wars, even though some war materials’ makers do make big profits from wars. It’s because they cannot agree through non-violent means how resources of immense value - far in excess of what the merchants of war make for selling guns and ammunition - shall be distributed and the only remaining way to settle it is through brute force.
There is another dimension to this that needs to be highlighted: violence exists on a continuum. Violence is the far end of the continuum called compulsion or coercion. On the mildest end of this continuum is what parents do with their young children: they force their kids to go to bed by a certain time and they force them to eat their vegetables. We do not call this violence; we call it parenting. We could not be good parents without using compulsion at least some of the time and on a consistent basis as part of what good parents do constantly.
Similarly, the very nature of social life dictates that compulsion is a constant and inescapable feature of social life because at any given time a group cannot operate based on what different disagreeing individuals might want for the group but must operate based on a common plan. If we are to remain in groups at all, ranging in size from two individuals to as large as the whole planet’s population, then unanimity is almost always impossible. Even in couples, disagreement between the two individuals is a common condition. The disagreement is usually non-antagonistic in nature but it is a disagreement nonetheless that can only be settled through either compromise or with one person going along with what the other one wants as their joint activity.
The godfather of neoliberalism, Frederick Hayek, argued as the foundation for his notion of liberty that someone is free insofar as they are able to determine their own course of action without being subject to the will of others:
The question of how many courses of action are open to a person is, of course, very important. But it is a different question from that of how far in acting he can follow his own plans and intentions, to what extent the pattern of his conduct is of his own design, directed toward ends for which he has been persistently striving rather than toward necessities created by others in order to make him do what they want. Whether he is free or not does not depend on the range of choice but on whether he can expect to shape his course of action in accordance with his present intentions, or whether somebody else has power so to manipulate the conditions as to make him act according to that person’s will rather than his own.
What is missing from Hayek’s theory is the fact that the primary necessities and obligations for human existence are not mainly a result of other persons’ will over individuals. Instead, most necessities for human existence are outgrowths of a) the exigencies of social life and b) the objective features of the environment relative to humans. If, for example, all human life except for one sole surviving individual were to be extinguished on earth, that sole survivor would still be subject to objective necessities even though no one else was around to exercise their “will” anymore over the lone survivor.
Social life’s exigencies compel us to co-operate with each other. This is so not only because we depend upon each other in a multitude of ways, for example, being nurtured and learning how to be a human being as we are being raised, learning language(s) and how to do things, and being taught how to get along with others (e.g., learning to say thank you and please and sharing with others), but because if we don’t co-operate with each other as our primary form of interaction, then group life and survival itself would be impossible.
We face necessities because, to put this succinctly, we do not now—and never have—lived in the Garden of Eden. Food, water, shelter and reproduction are some of the necessities that are met by and through social groups. Try, for example, reproducing without someone else of the opposite sex. Gravity is another example of a necessity that exists regardless of anyone’s desires. If I declare that I refuse to recognize gravity, does this mean that I can now fly? Suppose I declare that my plans do not include my ever having to work for anything and that I do not recognize work as a necessity. I may have a right to do so, at least according to Monsieur Hayek, and doing so shows how much “liberty” I have, but should I?
Hayek pits individuals against groups, but individuals and groups are actually interrelated and interpenetrating expressions of the same dynamic process. We might even say that individuals and groups have an organic relationship to each other. Individuals, to begin with, can only exist because of groups. Not only is this true in the literal sense of an individual’s birth via a group of two, a female and a male, it is also true throughout the life processes of all individuals. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 36)
Those who have been told for most or all of their life that humans are naturally greedy, selfish, and competitive have a hard time seeing this. Yet the evidence is clear that humans are social creatures if you get past neoliberal propaganda. Even competition requires as its foundation that there be co-operation first and foremost or else competition could not occur because there would be no ground rules and no agreement to compete under those rules. If people didn’t co-operate in competition then they would dispute to the nth degree who won and no one would honor the winners because to honor winners you have to agree on the rules of the competition and defer to the winners.
Another foolish and dangerous erroneous idea of the neoliberals is the notion that objective reality does not exist and, in the case of postmodernists/relativists, that all “truths” of various individual perspectives are equally true.
If you are interested in the best ideas and plans prevailing in any given situation, then you are a) committed to group action, and b) committed to the idea that there is such a thing as truth. Why is this so? To begin with, if you do not care whether the best ideas and plans prevail and only care about what you as an individual do, then you aren’t interested in what the group does. Secondly, if you want the best ideas and plans to win out, then you also believe that an objective reality exists by which one can measure whether something is right, or approximately right, or at least on the right path. If you do not believe in these things, then all opinions and plans are equal because there is no independent criterion by which to measure whether one idea or plan is better than another. (GDS, p. 40)
In situations where objective reality has been spurned in the name of the relativist principle that there is no such thing as truth independent of group or individual interest, you inevitably get the phenomenon of things like “ethnic cleansing” when opposing groups are equally convinced that they are absolutely right and their adversaries are absolutely wrong. Some people wonder why there is such an escalation in the violent rhetoric of certain clashing political perspectives (e.g., between the Republicans and the Democrats and between the Christian versus Muslim fundamentalists) and the corresponding violent acts spawned by the violent and virulent rhetoric, but relatively few see the sources of this in the radical rejection of objective reality. Life really comes down to understanding the interpenetration between freedom and necessity that is a more general case of the interpenetration between persuasion and coercion.
Coercion and freedom from coercion are coexisting opposites: no freedoms exist without some level of compulsion attached to them. Hayek’s stance makes as much sense as this: “I would like to jump into the air so as to be free of gravity without the nuisance of having to deal with the restraint of the ground.” You cannot jump into the air, however, without having the resistance of the ground to push against. Jumping into the air has no meaning and isn’t possible without the constraint of gravity. Necessity and freedom, in other words, make up antipodes of the same inescapable process. It is a process that will never cease. Necessities impose themselves on us regardless of whether we want to recognize them and regardless of who alerts us to their existence. The depiction of necessity as something that people arbitrarily impose on others does not conform to actuality.
Necessity and freedom are inseparable from each other just as sound and silence are opposite and necessary elements of the same process. Sound without silence is impossible, and vice versa. Light only has meaning in relation to darkness, and vice versa. Try to imagine what sound would be like if there were no silences in between the sounds. You cannot, because such a condition would be impossible. The letters you are reading on this page only exist and only make sense because of the white spaces in between the letters. If there were no white spaces then the page would be entirely black and impossible to read. Up has no meaning unless there is correspondingly a down. In has no meaning unless there is a corresponding out. The individual and the group are inseparable from each other since they are different aspects and expressions of the same dynamic or dialectic.
Coercion will never disappear in the sense that power over others will never entirely disappear as long as there are social groups. Social groups exist because there are a multitude of mutual expectations and obligations within the groups. …
Coercion in the sense of a government can and will someday disappear, but only after social classes are gone and there is no longer any division of labor and resources resulting in some being excluded from what others have in abundance. But even after government passes away, everyone will still be subject to the will of others. It is impossible, for one thing, to have unanimity, and where there is disagreement, some people’s opinions and preferences must perforce be subordinated to the opinion that holds the day, if people are to remain in groups at all.
Compare this to Hayek:
[Freedom] meant always the possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not act in specific ways. (GDS, pp. 40-41)
State violence in particular arose simultaneously with the origin of states themselves. It did so because states specifically arose to deal with the emergence of an economic surplus. Prior to the development of an economic surplus there was no need for states to exist as bodies of specially armed men to enforce the unequal distribution of social resources since there was just enough to go around for everyone. Once a surplus was available, the only way to keep that surplus from being equally or roughly equally distributed to everyone is to have a body of armed men under state authority to prevent such a distribution of society’s goods. Private property, in other words, also arose along with the appearance of states.
This is why force is the midwife of change, as Marx put it. No change can occur, nor can the status quo be maintained, without the use of some level of force. Those who fear or condemn the use of revolutionary force in the course of a revolution overlook the fact that the status quo can only continue through the extensive and exceedingly brutal use of endemic state violence. Over nine million children in the world die every year from readily preventable causes such as lack of access to clean water (they die of diarrhea, etc.). That’s 25,000 unnecessary children’s deaths every single day!
If the police and military were to lay down their arms tomorrow, the redistribution of social resources would be dizzying in its rapidity. Those who rule now and who monopolize so much of the society’s collective resources know this all too well, which is why they do not hesitate to employ and can only continue in power by employing enormous amounts of state violence.
Their continuing ability to do this, however, is premised on their continuing to hold a monopoly over the legitimate means of violence, which is why they devote so many resources to manipulating public opinion to make their use of violence appear to be legitimate and necessary. The operative word in that phrase from Max Weber is “legitimate.” When larger and larger ranks of the people come to see through the capitalist state’s mystification of its rule to its real essence, when more and more people can see through both the lies and the true nature of the state’s use of force, the state’s ability to keep the capitalist class in power and the capitalist system in power is in profound jeopardy.
Which brings us back to the beginning: violence is the continuation of politics by other means. It needs to be understood in that way, as bound up with and as a continuation of politics, and not as something separate and apart from politics. Those who use violence can only continue to get their way if their true political objectives are obscured and their use of violence is met with acquiescence. That is why the main weapon in taking on those who use violence to get their political and economic objectives accomplished is to politically expose them so that the people who suffer from this can act appropriately against this.
Uncovering the real nature of political struggle comes down to this: distinguishing between the vision and real consequences of those who want to monopolize the socially derived (through human collective labor and creativity) and socially maintained resources for themselves alone and who treat those social resources and environmental resources as their private property versus those who regard the social derived resources as a public resource to be shared and safeguarded in the public interest.
One or the other side must prevail in this battle because they have mutually exclusive objectives. That is why the settling of that fundamental clash cannot take place through amicable negotiations and can only be settled in the final analysis through force with the victory of one side or the other in the course of a revolutionary crisis that involves an insurrection by millions of people in the midst of a major convulsive crisis of the system. Prior to, during, and in the aftermath of such a struggle, the main form of political struggle is in the realm of persuasion and the use of ideas, but at some point in the course of such a revolutionary crisis that political struggle will have to include the use of force against the state.
As put by the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA):
In a country like the U.S., the revolutionary overthrow of this system can only be achieved once there is a major, qualitative change in the nature of the objective situation, such that society as a whole is in the grip of a profound crisis, owing fundamentally to the nature and workings of the system itself, and along with that there is the emergence of a revolutionary people, numbering in the millions and millions, conscious of the need for revolutionary change and determined to fight for it. In this struggle for revolutionary change, the revolutionary people and those who lead them will be confronted by the violent repressive force of the machinery of the state which embodies and enforces the existing system of exploitation and oppression; and in order for the revolutionary struggle to succeed, it will need to meet and defeat that violent repressive force of the old, exploitative and oppressive order.
If you reject the idea of violence where necessary and appropriate on principle, then you are refusing to recognize the fact that the status quo is bound up with excruciating levels of endemic, second by second, hour-by-hour, and daily violence that grinds people up constantly and includes the literal destruction of the planet through the ordinary workings of the capitalist system and its logic.
 Even when people “lose their temper” and do things that they later on in a calmer state of mind they express regret for doing, when they “lost their temper” they were acting out and acting upon attitudes that they hold that are the root cause of their acting out in anger. If they did not have those attitudes then they could not act out violently based upon those attitudes.
 Frederick Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  1978, p. 13.
 Hayek, p. 12.