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Friday, June 28, 2013

Is Violence Necessary For Democracy?

The New York Review of Books has recently reprinted a piece written by Hannah Arendt in 1969 in which she justified short-term violence as a necessary act within a liberal democracy:

Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, it promotes neither History nor Revolution, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention.

It is interesting to reflect on Arendt’s words now that ‘The Street’ has erupted everywhere from the Middle East and Turkey to Brazil. Arendt, as captivated by the events of The Sixties as anyone else, idealizes the popular movements of the time; but is naïve in calling them ‘violent’.  What is happening in Syria is violent, not the March on Washington.  While the supposed revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia are violent than Syria, the future is unclear.  Once the suppressive lid has been taken off long-frustrated ethnic and religious ambitions, popular eruptions become far more violent than anyone schooled in a  democratic and participatory environment can possibly imagine.

In other words, the protests of France in 1968 and those of the United States during the worst periods of the Vietnam War, were expectedly mild.  With the exception of Kent State, there were few casualties and certainly no massacres like there were in Mexico, Thailand, and Indonesia.  ‘Non-violent’ violence is restricted only to mature democratic countries where protest is tolerated.  Protesters make their point, government concedes some points, and the rest is referred to the legislative process.

Where repression has been the rule, as in the Middle East, true violence is likely to erupt, especially when compounded be sectarian or ethnic differences. The protests in France and the US in the Sixties may have been shockingly ‘violent’ compared to the sedate, conservative Fifties, but were nothing like the street protests in the Middle East where general social grievances are exacerbated by communal tensions.  When  thousands initially poured out spontaneously in the streets of Cairo  to defy the dictatorial regime of Mubarak, the protests were relatively peaceful; but when the longstanding and deep-seated ethnic and sectarian hatreds came to the fore, there was no possible outcome but violence.

The combination of a repressive regime used to absolute power, authority, and obedience; and years of suppressed ethnic pride and sectarian belief is a heady, explosive mix. France and the United States circa 1968 were evolved democracies in need of adjustment and realignment.  What is happening in the Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil is entirely different.  They are emerging democracies with little experience of non-violent protest within a liberal context.

Arendt understood the nature of violence, and although she believed that violence used for short-term gains was a tool of democracy, she knew that there were many implicit dangers:

Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.

Arendt could not possibly have envisioned the violence of today.  Even the street protests of Cairo, certain to become more common and more murderous, are mild compared to the orchestrated, amoral, and resolute disruptions of society carried out by al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  They are street protests taken to their logical extreme.  Extremist organizations, dissatisfied with the status quo, feeling marginalized and disaffected, and seeing no other recourse for the expression of their demands, become brutally and inhumanely violent.

Arendt cites one of the causes of street protests of the Sixties – the dulling, dehumanizing nature of bureaucracies:

Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

This may still be true to a degree in Western Europe and America.  In the United States, there are pockets of disaffection and alienation where people often illogically resent Big Government.  The Federal Government no longer rules the South through the draconian measures of Reconstruction or the deployment of federal troops during the Civil Rights era, but what is seen as its Kafka-esque bureaucratic creep and co-option of individual rights and liberties is even more threatening. The enemy has no leader, no tyrant, no oppressor.  Its evil intents are diffuse, indistinct, and corrosive.

As Arendt presciently noted, “The rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless, we have tyranny without a tyrant”.  The recent disclosures of massive government surveillance and an intrusion of individual privacy on a monumental scale consolidate this point of view.  The fact that government was spying on all of us was less troubling for the particular information it was gathering, but for the scary fact that it all was secret. How could we trust government any longer when it was acquiring the terrifying characteristics of the Soviet Union?

So in America there may be acts of civil protest in the future, but it is doubtful that we shall see them any time soon. Against whom should one protest?  The President? The Congress? The CIA and FBI?  Hard to tell, for modern bureaucracies are organic entities with lives of their own, amoeba-like creatures which are always changing, adapting, and shifting, all within a secretive, underground world.

The Occupy Movement came and went because the frustrations of the protesters were not real but academic. Railing against the One Percent was theoretical because the middle class demonstrators were well-off. There was no personal, felt political or economic frustration driving passions; only idealism and youthful ideas of equality.  In America the power of the government is increasing and the influence of the corporate sector unlimited.  The concerted action of an involved and organized citizenry is nothing compared to these forces of order and conservatism. Protests are stifled before they even begin.

In other countries, however, the conditions are ripe not only for violence but for total anarchy. Why should the Middle East be any different from the former Yugoslavia? Yet the Balkans are child’s play compared to the frightening constellation of powers arrayed in the Arab World. There is no such thing as national conflict. Every conflict is regional.  Nothing happens in the Middle East without the involvement of Iran, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan…The list goes on. The most fearsome aspect of this regional unrest is that it is happening on two levels.  The first is at the level of regimes and governments who jockey for power and influence, who provide arms, money, and influence.  The second is ‘The Street’, now coalescing into ethnic and sectarian camps which know no national borders.  A Shiite is a Shiite whether in Iran or Syria, and allegiances, protests, and armed conflict are part of a new type of violent order.

So in reading the Hannah Arendt of the late 60s one is both struck by her naïveté and her insight.  She thought that semi-violent protest could and should be a tool for democratic reform; but was worried about where such anti-social actions could lead. Unfortunately both predictions have come true.  We in America have been coopted by an all-encompassing, invasive government and a powerful corporate sector.  Even if we wanted to revolt, we would have a hard time figuring out where to start; but we don’t, most of us, want to disrupt our pleasant bourgeois life.  It simply isn't worth it.  In other countries, however, people are putting their lives on the line.  While these violent protests are certainly venal in their origin – land, resources, wealth, power are always what political disputes are about – people are dying for their causes.  Not here.

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