I appreciate the politeness with which you to entreat me to renounce either my commitment to the democratic state form or my commitment to nonviolent stakeholder politics and change, but I fear I must decline. I am committed to both, and I believe that it is those who find these commitments incompatible who are wrongheaded and confused.
Excerpted from a response to critique against Dale’s defense of the need for a democratized state, against those who say that defending the state is defending violence.
“Violence precedes the emergence of the state. And I am far denying the obvious fact that many (even most) states historically do indeed engage in systematic exploitation and offensive warmaking. The radical left critique of states that function as nothing but the institutional legitimation of violence for elite-incumbent classes is a powerful one with which I strongly agree as it applies to many historical states or historical episodes.
But I simply do not agree that states are exhaustively or even essentially characterized by violence or that their abolition would eliminate violence from human affairs.
I think these are profoundly mistaken views, widespread though they are. I think that democratization is the historical struggle through which states are rendered ever less violent.
Democratization rendering states less violent happens when elections make possible peaceful transitions among leaders. It happens when civil rights and juries and court appointed defense attorneys render ever wider more equitable recourse to courts for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes. It happens when taxation is yoked to representation government is made accountable to the consent of the governed. It happens when checks and balances render parts of government compete for positional advantage not through corruption but through the policing of corruption within governance. It happens when social democratic states provide the security of general welfare, basic income, healthcare, education, access to reliable information to ensure that everybody can engage in everyday commerce on consensual terms. It happens when public goods and common goods are accountably administered by democratic states in the name of the common good to circumvent the violence of their exploitation or mismanagement for the parochial benefit of minorites. The examples can be multiplied, but I am illustrating the initially counter-intuitive principle I am advocating.
The truth is that no state, even totalitarian ones, has sufficient means of violence to subdue entire populations in every aspect of their lives to the will of their rulers. Violence CANNOT be the essential characteristic of even the most tyrannical states, and countervailing strains of civitas, consensual accountable equitable participatory governance, are always discernible.
Again, my point is not to deny but to decry the violence of undemocratic states. But in my view the democratization of the state is indispensable to nonviolent revolution. Fantasies of smashing the state rely on a mistaken identification of the state form with violence, and always amount to the facilitation of violence on the part of merciless muscled moneyed minorities who will go ahead and legitimize their abuses as the cost of whatever measure of order they maintain. In democratic states order and consent are one and the same (and exceptions threaten the legitimacy of that order) and the permanent vulnerability of the state form to corruption, abuse, violence confronts the vigilence of an empowered population to which that state is beholden for its funding and maintenance at every layer.”
Another exchange makes the same points in a more structured way. As Dale’s vital message bears repeating, we excerpt again:
“I deny the facile formulation of “support” you are implying. Does one “support” gravity in recognizing it? Does one “support” the murderer who deploys a scalpel in advocating the usefulness of a scalpel in surgery?
When you leap on my apparent concession that “state structures distribute violence” you fail to see that for me the phrase might just as well be that “state structures distribute nonviolence.” That the furniture of state has been an instrument of violence is obvious, I have never said otherwise, indeed I say so incessantly. But what matters to me is that this obviousness not be mistaken for a mis-identification of the state WITH violence, since the state is indispensable to nonviolent politics.
EVERY fact, every value, every norm, every custom, every infrastructural affordance is susceptible to violent misuse, is susceptible to futural refiguration as a violence where now it might not seem to be, the furniture of governance included.
Again, it would be nonsensical to deny either the conspicuous history of war, expropriation, enslavement, tyranny organized through the state form, or the permanent susceptibility to violence, corruption, injustice in every facet of governance devoted to the contrary.
But (I say it again and again and again), violence both precedes and exceeds the state, and the state form is indispensable to the struggle to overcome, circumvent and heal violence, even as it is true that historical states have enabled and exacerbated violence, even as the furniture of states are permanently susceptible to violence and violent misuse. My whole point, stated at the outset and repeated over and over and over and over again, is that democratization of the state is the struggle to provide alternatives to violence, to overcome violence, to circumvent violence, to provide recourse for the violated, to facilitate the open negotiation of the terms on which violence is legible as such.
Violence inheres as a permanent susceptibility in the condition of human plurality. Quite apart from the fact that there can be no smashing of “The State” as such, since “The State” has always been a complex, dynamic, multilateral constellation of ritual and artifice, norm and form, it is crucial to grasp that the smashing of a particular state would not be an overcoming of violence even were it to succeed, since it would not be an overcoming of the plurality in which violence and nonviolence inhere in potentia. Nonviolence is a commitment and a struggle, but one cannot ever claim it as a secure accomplishment (although one can still distinguish the comparative violence of an unjust law or a perpetrator as against the comparative nonviolence of resistance to that injustice or a victim in suffering a violation).
You ask in what way am I nonviolent? Well, for one thing I am not in the habit of making immodest declarations of such accomplishments having had ample experience of my proneness to ignorance and error, and so I would prefer to declare myself earnestly committed to nonviolence and strongly opposed to those, especially those who deem themselves democrats, Democrats, or radicals of the left, who are not also so committed to non-violence. Still, I will add that I was literally trained in nonviolent civil disobedience by the King Center in Atlanta when I was a co-ordinator for Queer Nation Atlanta. I regularly teach the theory of nonviolent resistance and revolution, as well as rhetorical strategies for reconciliation, mediation, and peacemaking. And as I have said, I am committed to the ongoing democratization of the state. Part of this requires a commitment as well to arguing with those who would smash the state out of a hasty mis-identification of the state with the violences it has been historically instrumental to and remains structurally permanently susceptible to.
Those who foolishly pine to demolish rather than to democratize it are paranoiacally misapprehending essential, exhaustive, ubiquitous violence in even those comparatively democratic state forms which
1. provide for comparatively peaceful changes in leadership,
2. provide for comparative accountability of governance to the people governed,
3. provide for comparative amelioration of tendencies to corruption, violation, and abuse in the state form through separation, federation, and subsidiarity of their powers,
4. provide for comparative equity in recourse to law and its nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of interpersonal disputes or disputes of citizens with duly constituted authorities,
5. provide for comparative protection of minorities from majorities through the rite of rights culture,
6. provide the general welfare (education, healthcare, income) through which a scene of informed, nonduressed consent to the terms of everyday interpersonal commerce is comparatively secured, a scene of consent the substance of which is paid for by
7. the provisions of a comparatively progressive taxation
a. that circumvents anti-democratizing concentrations of wealth that skew communication of fact and merit and hence corrupt accountability of governance,
b. that yokes the maintenance of government to the people governed through the principle of no taxation without representation,
c. that creates no initial barrier to accomplishment but functions as an a posterior filter ensuring that to those to whom more is given more is required,
8. comparatively accountably administer common and public goods in the public interest and hence circumvents the structural violences involved in the externalization of social costs, the misappropriation of the common inheritance and commonwealth of civilization, the violation of the planetary resources on which we all depend for our survival and flourishing,
9. and provide comparatively open occasion for the ongoing contestation and collaboration over the terms on which violence is legible as such through the comparative championing of rights to free expression, press, and assembly, comparative generality of the franchise and right to run for elective office, comparative equity of recourse to law, comparative celebration of diversity secured through comparative equity of the scene of consent.
Needless to say, all these “comparatives” name for me sites of ongoing democratizing reform and struggle, while no doubt for others they function as alibis and rationalizations for complacency in the face of ongoing inequities, exploitation, abuses, and parochial privileges.
You ask, “Does nonviolence just mean opposition to nonstate violence and state violence deem[ed] illegitimate?” Well, depending on what you mean by “deemed” (by whom? as registered how? with what consequences to whom?), I think maybe my answer is “yes,” although it seems to me anybody who wants to put “just” before that “mean” there almost certainly is not grasping what I mean at all.”