Thursday, May 09, 2013

Talking about political violence

Eric Loomis thinks "the left" in the United States has a gun fetish, as he explains in The Left's Gun Fetish LG&M 04/14/2013.

But apart from a reference to groups of hardcore anarchists in New York, Seattle and Oakland and a thoroughly unsystematic Facebook survey, he doesn't really tell us who these folks are. This particular piece strikes me less as a comment relating to contemporary issues of political violence than as a lazy statement of safe conventional wisdom. I mention it here because it seems discordant for someone to be warning "the left" to not get violent when we've got the NRA preaching the need for everyone to have a gun to protect themselves against all the other people with guns and also to maybe overthrow the gubment one of these days.

It's become absolutely routine for conservatives to argue for unlimited gun proliferation on the grounds that it's our ultimate protection against tyranny. Most of the political groups in the US right now who are known for the advocacy or committing of violence for political goals are rightwingers, as Dave Neiwert has been patiently reporting for years. (See his recent Orcinus posts, Right-Wingers Use Boston Bombing to Paper Over Their Own Extremist Terror 04/23/2013 and Ho Hum. Another Right-Wing Terrorist, Another Media Yawn 05/07/2013.)

Loomis is reacting to a column by Arun Gupta, Revolution Is a Warm Gun: Rethinking the Left's Positions on Violence and Gun Control Truthout 04/13/2013, in which he also expresses a conventional condemnation of self-described leftists posturing about violence. Both of them take for granted that there is some significant group of people on "the left" who oppose regulations to limit domestic arms proliferation. But I don't recall seeing any such significant group show up in polls on the subject. Gupta even writes, "Because, most leftists, myself included, agree with the principle Tony [a former acquaintance of his] advocated, which is political violence - meaning collective self-defense - is a necessary though not sufficient means of securing freedom from a violent state."

Say what? Most Americans would say they agree "the principle" of the Declaration of Independence, too, but that doesn't mean they think it's time to start shootin' redcoats.

These kinds of discussions routinely turn out to be sterile, deal in abstractions (see Gupta's statement I just quoted), and too easily become a statement of personal purity rather than saying anything useful or meaningful about real-world political violence.

From Loomis:

The moral case for using violence in complex and contingent upon the situation. We can all think of cases where violent resistance was not only justified and necessary. There is some history of success against a colonial power whose real interests and will to fight to death in a place far from the home country may be limited. Within the United States however, it's a total disaster. We might make an argument that the Black Panthers were justified in embracing violent self-defense. Urban African-Americans in the 1960s were completely ignored by the state, received almost no social services, and most importantly suffered from massive and sustained police violence. The same goes for Native Americans in the cities; AIM began in Minneapolis as a reaction to police brutality.

But the reality was that threatening violence was a complete disaster. It not only led to the state suppression of these movements. It led to a tremendous amount of violence and death from intra-movement conflicts. Resisting violence "by any means necessary" might have meant the white state, but Malcolm also came out of a movement more than happy to use any means necessary to eliminate dissenters in its own ranks, including Malcolm himself. The Weather Underground was a complete failure. In Germany, the Baader-Meinhof gang were sociopaths who did nothing good for society.
Safe, mildly informative and pretty much irrelevant to the topic of political violence.

I've written here at various times about the Panthers, the Weather Underground and the "Baader-Meinhof gang" (the Rote Armee Fraktion/RAF). The experience of the Black Panthers could stand as a dramatic example of how unrealistic it would be in advanced countries to organize and executive an armed insurrection in opposition to the dominant power groups in society. The revolutions in the former Warsaw Pact nations of eastern Europe and more recently in Egypt were "revolution by implosion," to use Joschka Fischer's description of the former.

But even if one regards those groups' advocacy of violence as completely reprehensible, it doesn't mean we should try to erase their real history because of it. It would be hard to disentangle the specific effect of the Black Panthers from the larger civil rights and Black Power movement at the time of their greatest influence. But they did have a major influence in making the real problem of police abuses in urban black communities broadly recognized and gave many young urban blacks and sense of empowerment and the confidence for political engagement that they weren't getting anywhere else. One can argue that it wasn't worth the cost. But it shouldn't be photoshopped out of the picture either.

The Weather Underground (WUO) didn't build a movement or produce any major turning point in politics. What limited appeal they had was largely due to their Bonnie-and-Clyde outlaw image. But as Tom Hayden has observed, the WUO's bombing of bathrooms in public buildings and similar actions by others did add to the domestic costs of the Vietnam War that the Nixon Administration faced, though he didn't endorse those actions. As he put to Jules Witcover in the latter's book The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America (1997), "If you look at it amorally as a historian would, you'd have to say they had some effect."

It's hard to say what political decisions the RAF may have influenced in Germany other than ones directly focused on apprehending them. But simply dismissing them as "sociopaths" doesn't tell us much, either. It would be more meaningful to describe the RAF, especially its so-called First Generation, as a cult, and their leader Andreas Baader may actually have been a sociopath, as cult leaders so often are.

Both the WUO and the RAF operated on a Guevarist "foco" assumption that just conducting a violent campaign against the government and the capitalist establishment would lead supporters to come to them and support their actions. Any conventional political organizing was very limited. In both cases, their time and energy wound up being devoted to planning operations, training for them, and staying out of the hands of the law. They "foco" strategy failed, and there was no shortage of people at the time saying it was unworkable. But that doesn't mean they were completely demented, either. There were political strategies at work, however ill-conceived they may have been.

I would add to what Loomis and Gupta say that nothing attracts informers and provocateurs like groups trying to organize violent actions. The FBI has been understandably criticized in recent year for cooking up their own terror plots and then busting them because of cases in which they encouraged someone who had not been involved in a terror plot before to participate in one the FBI cooked up.

(See also my earlier posts, Was the antiwar movement against the Vietnam War counterproductive? 08/14/2007 and Tom Hayden on the Weather Underground's "revolutionary violence" 05/11/2009)

With mass-casualty events now effectively accepted as a recurring feature of American life, whether from "politicals" or from heavily-armed people who just want to kill, moralism about the subject without realism isn't very helpful.

Also, it would be helpful if people like Gupta were perhaps a bit more mindful about offering up Sean-Hannity-ready quotes like, "This is the contradiction at the heart of the left's relation to guns. Despite its peaceful character, the left is unwilling to abandon the idea of violence." The FOX News script practically writes itself: "On the leftwing, pro-Obama Truthout website, Arun Gupta, a co-founder of The Occupied Wall Street Journal writes, 'the left is unwilling to abandon the idea of violence'!"


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