Some reservations about non-violent resistence

Like many people, I have a vague if unexamined sense that non-violent resistence is somehow the “best” political strategy — even if it doesn’t work under all circumstances, it would in any case be somehow better or preferable to use non-violent resistence. In light of the white-washing of Nelson Mandela that’s currently underway, though, I started wondering about a couple things. Above all, I started to become suspicious of the very fact that mainstream political leaders are so eager to praise Mandela as a non-violent resistence leader.

It’s easy to see why the powers that be would be willing to embrace non-violence as a strategy for their opponents. I don’t think it’s a simple matter of effectiveness — after all, the state is very good at fighting violence with violence. Rather, the strategy of non-violent resistence seems to implicitly presuppose the basic legitimacy of the existing order. Those who are in charge of it are being asked to change their ways, but they or their peers will still presumably be in charge. Indeed, responding favorably to non-violent demands can be a great way of shoring up the legitimacy of the existing order by showing generosity of spirit and an openness to reform.

I also wonder if part of the appeal of non-violent resistence for Western audiences doesn’t come from Christian ideology that views suffering as redemptive. When watching the Occupy protests unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the Rolling Stones line: “I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse.” Several people I talked to went to the Occupy encampment specifically in order to get arrested, and I could never really make sense of that. It’s as though suffering for the cause has some type of automatic, quasi-magical effect on public opinion, which will recognize the protestors as righteous and grant their request.

These two dynamics feed into each other, so that the violence of the powers that be is actually necessary to the movement — which again implicitly legitimates the power structure even as it is taking clearly illegitimate actions. We need to go through the whole cycle: you guys beat us up, then we nobly bear it, and then we all really grow as people and change our ways, together. At least until the next time we have a request that you’re not immediately willing to grant, and then we do it all over again. It all starts to sound eerily like the dynamics of an abusive relationship.

None of this is to say that non-violent resistence is a bad thing or shouldn’t be used. But isn’t it strange how the great non-violent resisters wind up being taken up as legitimating symbols for the systems that oppressed them? We recognize the irony that Jesus becomes part of the ideology of the Roman Empire or that Martin Luther King emerges as a symbol of America’s ever-closer approach to perfection — but maybe there’s a deeper, harsher irony at work.

11 thoughts on “Some reservations about non-violent resistence

  1. Several people I talked to went to the Occupy encampment specifically in order to get arrested, and I could never really make sense of that. It’s as though suffering for the cause has some type of automatic, quasi-magical effect on public opinion, which will recognize the protestors as righteous and grant their request.

    At a “critical” animal studies conference, a speaker once told the audience that if they aren’t in jail, they aren’t doing enough. It wasn’t immediately clear to me how being in jail and—given current policing of animal and environmental activists—being deemed a terrorist would any way help the cause or, more importantly, help animals. I also wondered why his talk wasn’t being Skyped in from a federal prison.

  2. Thanks for these helpful reflections. You are probably aware of it, but if not, you might appreciate Peter Gelderloos’ book, How Nonviolence Protects the State.
    Over a decade of work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I got very tired of Christians from the U.S. and elsewhere preaching nonviolence to Palestinians. This not only reflected ignorance that Palestinians have used and continue to use numerous nonviolent tactics in their resistance against the Israeli colonial system. It also tended to reflect an unwarranted optimism in the efficacy of nonviolent action.

  3. It sounds like Dan Barber’s stuff on the logic of conversion would be useful here.

    I guess I don’t understand the ways “non-violent” vs. “violent” gets set up in situations such as black resistance to apartheid. For me, whichever tactics get deployed they are all violating, in some way, the operative logic of the state. And that force of black resistance (as Frank Wilderson likes to call it) is always a threat to a white supremacist state. So to me, trying to split hairs between what is “non-violent” and what is “violent” always seems like a way white supremacist move to control the narrative and make it work according to the logic of conversion: “I once was violent, but now I’ve moved beyond that and am non-violent,” basically becoming the proper kind of figure of transformation that shores up this Christian imperialism, etc, etc.

    Also, here’s a great interview with Frank Wilderson (especially at around 27 minutes) who was in the ANC and talking about his perspective on Mandela’s turn post-prison to “partnership” with white folks and the ways that undercut a lot of the work the ANC was doing. (

  4. Non-violence is more than a technique. It also changes lives, as my few days in Montgomery, AL, in 1965 did mine. No, I am not committed to passive resistance. Yes, I have resisted non-violently since Montgomery. Explaining that is not important (unless you see that as your calling)–only doing it. One need not be perfect to do it.

  5. I was looking at a video of Stokely Carmichael talking about how MLK and the non-violent civil rights movement were virtuous, but that their actions were predicated on a false assumption, that white America had a conscience. But he didn’t say what this implies, that if white America doesn’t have a conscience, radical militancy is also doomed as a tactic to achieve emancipation, because the state will simply crush it, which it did and continues to do.

    People often say that the non-violent protest movement could only work in conjunction with pressure from more radical movements. But what if this is backwards, and the reality is that the ostensible accomplishment of democratic inclusion won by non-violent protests allowed whites to salve their consciences so that the state could do its dirty work of crushing authentic black liberation with impunity? So, turning things around, it was the case that the brutal state violence against blacks could only work in conjunction with the non-violent protest movement.

  6. My interest in non-violence has nothing to do with it’s effectiveness. However, that does not mean i think violence is particularly effective either. In fact, violence may be very effective at achieving short term goals. What I am scared of is what I perceive as the insidious nature of violence. Violence spreads and replicates itself. It engenders escalation and further violence. Now again, this seems that I am saying non-violence will not do this, which I am not sure about either. Non-violence perhaps does not challenge systematic injustice enough. Yet I cannot focus primarily on effectiveness prior to acting, what I feel I have to choose is what I feel is right. Thus the choice between non-violence, and what I think we could say are various levels of violence, is to me not a quantifiable one, or perhaps what I mean is not one that i can objectively make. Violence, as a method of resistance, scares me. Because I worry that the only means it gives me to end conflict is ultimate violence, eradication of the opposition, totally. However, I am just as uncomfortable judging any form of resistance from a distance. If I am not entrenched in the struggle, if my person and what i love are not on the line, how do I know what those involved are experiencing. All I can say is, I do not feel right choosing violence. I will not moralize anothers choice, but I cannot choose it and have now many times chosen not to. I am afraid of what it would engender in me and in my opposition.

  7. I think that most people who have more than “a vague if unexamined sense that non-violent resistence is somehow the “best” political strategy” understand how messy this all is and it seems most of the comments above are from people who would defend ‘non-violent resistence’ but in very different terms than you have set out.

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