. Diversity of Tactics is Not a Compromise – it’s Praxis! | Ceasefire Magazine

Ideas | Diversity of Tactics is Not a Compromise – it’s Praxis!

The dichotomy between violence and non-violence is not a moral or logical one, but rather is rooted in differences of power that can be challenged and transformed through diversity of tactics, argues Nora Ziegler.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, July 19, 2021 10:27 - 0 Comments


‘Non-Violence’ (The Knotted Gun) by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, at the United Nations Headquarters. (Photo: Al_HikesAZ, licensed under Creative Commons – CC BY-NC 2.0)

Discussions of violence and non-violence often begin by first trying to define those terms and then asking what justifies the use of violence or non-violence as a strategy in social and political movements. However, this approach assumes that an abstract distinction between violence and non-violence is decisive for whether a political action or strategy is justified. In other words, it is already assumed that either violence or non-violence is more effective or legitimate than the other, and this assumption influences how we define both terms.

Unless we reserve the term ‘violence’ for only the most horrendous of acts, and use ‘non-violence’ to denote only the most passive and ineffective kinds of protest, I don’t think we can assume from the outset that one is more legitimate or effective than the other. And if we do define violence or non-violence in this way, then I don’t think the question has much relevance for social movements.

Instead, I’d like to turn this question around and begin with a different assumption: that, however we define these terms, both violence and non-violence have a place in social movements.

As such, the violence/non-violence distinction does not have to be a moral or practical one but instead relates to differences of/in power within social movements. This would mean that the question of whether violence or non-violence are justified depends on the specific context of each action, and specifically on the relations of power within which this action is unfolding.

Interestingly, both violent and non-violent resistance have in the past been justified as strategies for disrupting structural violence. On one side, it is argued that only non-violence is able to break out of a cycle of “reciprocal cruelty and vengeance”[1]. On the other, it has been argued that non-violent activism reproduces the very inequalities of oppressive relationships it purports to challenge, and that these can be overcome only through the reciprocity inherent in violent resistance. I am here particularly thinking of Fanon’s argument that violent struggle “rids the colonized of their inferiority complex”[2].

I suggest that both arguments are true. Their apparent contradiction is not one of logic but rather rooted in the contradictory nature of power itself. On the one hand, I agree with Foucault and Butler that there is no innocent position outside of oppressive systems: People depend on and reproduce power-relations for their social existence and survival. For example, I am a union organiser and in order to improve conditions in my workplace, I also reproduce the system of wage labour that exploits workers.

On the other hand, power is exercised and experienced unequally. It creates divisions between people whose lives are valued, cared for and protected, and those who are locked away, persecuted, exploited, killed and silenced. Power creates opposing interests and perspectives that cannot be reconciled without a transformation of oppressive institutions.

The consciousness of the oppressed is not the same as — or inferior to, or the mirror opposite of — the consciousness of the oppressor. It is radically different: it negates not only the oppressor but the oppressor-oppressed relationship itself. The contradictory nature of power is that it is both totalising and divisive. It oppresses both by including and excluding.

To break out of the cycle of violence, then, you have to already be within this cycle. Refusing to participate in structural violence can be thought of as a disruptive act of non-violence. If one is already invested, and participating, in systemic violence, such non-violence will not be easy or passive. It will involve sacrifice, sustained effort and (un-)learning. It can involve acts of defiance, such as occupying arms factories or disrupting immigration raids. It can also involve quitting a job or sharing one’s home with people excluded from housing. Such non-violences acknowledge complicity with oppression. They are acts of dissent and differentiation.

It is sometimes asserted that violent resistance reproduces the violence of the oppressor. However, the violence of the oppressed could never match that of the oppressor. The biblical principle of “an eye for an eye” presumes a situation of equality where one person’s loss is equal to another’s. This, of course, is not our reality. Asserting the right to reciprocate against oppressive violence is to assert, and act out, an equality that has been denied. Violent resistance, therefore, exposes and challenges the inequality of structural violence. The right to violent resistance is given by the situation of inequality itself.

This can involve armed struggle, of course, but also many acts that are not commonly seen as violent, such as going on strike or demanding accountability for crimes. Another example of violent resistance in this sense is migration, and the demand for migrant and refugee rights. Migration can be thought of as a way of asserting the right to move and settle in another country, even though these rights are not – or are only reluctantly – granted. Where migration violates unjust boundaries, it can be seen as a form of violent and legitimate resistance.

Because of the contradictory nature of power, people will find themselves in both the position of oppressor and oppressed at different times and depending on particular situations. This means that many people will use both violent and non-violent practices at different times in order to resist oppression. However, the totalising and exclusionary tendencies of power are polarized in such a way that there are large groups of people who will almost only have recourse to violence, and groups who mostly enjoy the privilege of non-violence. I argue that this is precisely the situation that must be transformed through a diversity of tactics that recognizes the interdependence of violence and non-violence. Diversity of tactics is a praxis that does not eliminate but depolarizes and decentralizes the contradictory nature of power.

Both violence and non-violence can radically transform oppression. By asserting equality, violence (as I have conceptualized it here) exposes and subverts a person or system’s power to exclude. It challenges the monopolies of violence held by these systems and their agents such as sexual predators, landlords, police and employers. By asserting difference and dissent, non-violence can subvert and challenge a person or system’s claim to universality.

The aim of activism is not to keep oppressed people in a space of difference, and neither is it to simply integrate people into oppressive structures. Instead, the aim is to transform those structures. This is done by continuously challenging and subverting both the totalising and the exclusionary tendencies of power. The degree to which individuals and groups can carry out either task depends on their relationship to oppressive structures. I suggest that the resistance by people excluded by these structures in any particular situation can be characterised as “violent” because it involves using the hegemonic discourse to demand a “piece of the pie”[3]. The resistance of those who are complicit with oppressive structures can be characterised as non-violent because it involves a refusal of the hegemonic discourse.

Sure, if lots of people in the UK took up arms they’d be effective, but imagine if they all quit their jobs or stopped participating in elections. How can we justify violence in instances where non-violence is just as effective and potentially more so? Conversely, how can someone non-violently resist if they have no job to put down, no ballot to spoil, and the system does not recognize their life as valuable? People occupy unique and mobile positions within intersecting systems of power, and so the strategies of resistance that they can use vary. However, their strategies are united in the challenge they pose to oppression. Since the contradiction between violence and non-violence is rooted in oppression, our diversity of tactics is the praxis that can transform this oppression.

[1] Adin Ballou “Christian Non-Resistance”, Chapter 1.
[2] Frantz Fanon 1961 “The Wretched of the Earth”, Chapter 1 ‘On Violence’.
[3] Leon De Kock 1992 “Interview With Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa”.

Nora Ziegler

Nora Ziegler is an anarchist activist and writer. She is a member of the London Catholic Worker, a union organiser with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and teaches Sociology at the Free University of Brighton. She has been involved in direct action against arms trade and militarism.

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