Reframing the Debate on Political Violence

American political discourse is led on a leash by the corporate media. Dissenting voices fight an uphill battle just to be heard. When these voices finally can be heard it is only when they are de-contextualized and “spun” to achieve the political ends of the corporate media.

This is why independent media is so crucial. But however important our own media may be, many issues require more than just space on a page. When this is the case, political discourse takes to the streets… so to speak. Anarchists, often identified in the media as the most subversive and agitated political faction in the political fray, can be found either advocating the “discourse in the streets” or actively engaging in it. Groups like the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front are now notorious for a number of (ongoing!) direct actions. They have earned contemporary anarchists the reputation of being not only treacherous but also very violent. But who exactly are these black-masked bomb-throwers? What exactly is the connection between their ideology and violence?

To lift any meaning out of these questions we need to adjust the frame of the debate. If we limit ourselves to the media’s definition of violence and caricature of anarchists we lose the crucial significance of both violence and political discourse. The painful irony about the mainstream media is that by monopolizing the pejorative uses of the term ‘violence’ (and misapplying the term to things like property destruction. It is terrible to make this mistake because it takes away the graveness of violence against real living creatures) it also maintains the state monopoly on the action of violence.  The ELF and ALF are now being described as the largest domestic threat to national security although their actions have claimed absolutely no injuries. On the other hand, the army is violent to people, the police are violent to people, jails are violent to people. Any unauthorized action of property destruction is made to seem like the most heinous of crimes yet most Americans still sleep soundly within their system predicated on real violence to real people. We pay taxes to keep the violence from stopping.

Anarchists advocating property destruction (commonly referred to as “direct action”) do not believe violence and only violence can achieve their political ends. Unlike pacifism, which states that the only legitimate means to achieve any ends is by non-violence, the direct action camp try to broaden the horizons of the endeavor. Changing society is a complex process and most engaged anarchists generally agree that a diversity of tactics is needed. In fact, an accurate mantra of anarchist philosophy is that “there is no one right way.” Anarchists usually try to re-frame this argument so that it is a discussion of tactical effectiveness (a combination of the impression it creates on the people who witness and participate in them, the media spin that will influence  public opinion, the act in itself, and other things). Unlike the military-industrial complex anarchists will also not treat violence as an end in itself. The questions they ask are: Will this or that action have the intended effect both in the short run and the long run? Are the means ethically and logically consistent with the ends we would like to create?

To anarchists, pacifism is a position founded on privilege and inconsistency. They argue that pacifists are never the party with the most to lose in a serious situation. Likewise, there is a point in which any pacifist will resort to violence, be it actively or tacitly. They present confounding situations to which pacifists have not yet come up with a satisfactory reply.

For instance, regarding animal liberation : if a group breaks a window of a laboratory to free test animals, aren’t they preventing the violence (by exercising ‘violence’) to the animals? If a vulnerable indigenous group struggles against land seizure by multinational companies and other imperialists would tribal members be acting immorally if they fought back? It would be difficult to say that indigenous violence against bulldozers is morally wrong. It may be the only effective method at their disposal.

This all is reminiscent of an old Buddhist parable (from the Jataka Tales) about how the Buddha in a previous life met a boatman who the Buddha in his infinite wisdom knew would someday murder a large number of people. Without much in the way of a second thought the Buddha killed the boatman then and there. The Buddha decided to take the bad karma of killing the man upon himself in order to save the people in the future. He also felt compassion for the would-be murderer and wanted to save him the bad karma of killing all the people. The conclusion that the Buddha and most anarchists come to is that while a peaceful solution can sometimes be found to work well, violence is not morally wrong and is often more effective than non-violence.

So hopefully this has been helpful in understanding an anarchist position on violence. Despite the government crackdown on “domestic terrorism” it is clear that property damage is a tactic whose applications will continue to be in the news. May your new-found insight into the anarchist psyche help you in better analyzing the world around you.

One response to “Reframing the Debate on Political Violence

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