Review: "How Non-Violence Protects the State" by Peter Gelderloos

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February 3, 2008 by cosmoakacitizensmith

Seattle 1999, at the so-called birth of the so-called Global Justice Movement. As church groups, unions, NGOs, anarchists and a whole host of others mobilise against the iniquities of the global trade system, strange collisions occur.

Some anarchists spray paint Starbucks, or trash McDonalds, or swarm cops to try and prevent the arrest of a fellow traveller. But then suddenly, a different breed of activist comes forward. Shouting “Non-violence! Non-violence!” like a mantra, he or she steps into the fray to try and prevent these kind of actions from going off. In some cases, they even enable the cops to nab someone who may not have even been caught had it not been for their intervention. It seemed strange and unsettling, especially in the face of earlier police torture tactics and the eventual claim in the mass media that the mobilisation was marred by a small, violent minority of protesters. But debates about violence and non-violence bore me stoopid, so I thought nothing more about it.

Peter Gelderloos’ book, How Non-Violence Protects the State, is like a splash of freezing water across your face when you’re asleep. It’s closely argued with precision logic. It completely unsettles you, and forces you to rise to the challenge of unseating its new place in your now topsy-turvey world view. Or not. It’s that scary.

As he points out, most of us become non-violent activists by default. We don’t like war, or environmental injustice, so we protest peacefully. But then someone suggests maybe defending a squatted social centre that is about to be illegally trashed by bailiffs, or smashing up a digger that is going to dig a hole for an environmentally devasting pipeline, and it throws everything in the air.

The book deconstructs non-violence as a dangerous myth, one that is completely ineffective at best and at worst, far from just a harmless pastime. It reinforces all the stuff we don’t like, (patriarchy, state power, etc), and strangles the real impulse for radical social change.

You can trot out figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King all you like. But, says Gelderloos, the gains the movements led by these men made did not just come from non-violence. And anyway, the gains that non-violent movements like these did make were all compromises with the existing power structure, and as such were failures.

But before you go and reach for an AK47 and shoot up the Confederation of British Industry, you need to check out the other side of his arguments. He’s not advocating armed revolution. Not just yet, anyway. He’s suggesting we look towards what he calls a “diversity of tactics,” one that recognises the facile non-debate surrounding what is violent and what is not.

I’m not going to explain it all for you here, buy the book and see what the man has to say.

How Non-Violence Protects the State is well-argued and well-referenced. It’s difficult to find flaws in its logic. But it sometimes reads like a howl a frustration that can come from time to time with the activist mindset. There are moments when Gelderloos can’t quite seem to disguise his contempt for the inhabitants of a world that doesn’t work in the way he thinks it should:

Poor people are more likely to be to be undereducated, kept in an environment that discourages the development of their vocabularies and their analytical skills. The overeducation of people from wealthy backgrounds turns them into trained monkeys; they are intensively trained to use analysis to defend or improve the the existing system, while being incurably skeptical and derisive toward revolutionary ideas or suggestions that the current system is rotten to the core.

p. 87

I think that pretty much encompasses all of us. But I always find it doesn’t do well to underestimate people, particularly people who don’t think like I do. Most people aren’t anarchists. Most people don’t even know what anarchism is. Isn’t it the Sex Pistols, no rules, chaos, do what you want…?

Sadly, no. Most of us are worried about jobs that drive us up the wall, (or lack of jobs), housing, crap healthcare, families and so on. What are we saying to these people? That they’re not up to taking on board our high-falluting ideas?

It’s just a small step away from there to letting our frustration get the better of us and getting, well, not exactly trigger happy, but doing actions that may be more of a cry of disappointment than a step in the right direction of a better world. At the risk of sounding like a US military strategist, we need to think a lot more about winning hearts and minds with what we actually want to see in place of what we have. I can understand Gelderloos’ frustration with the corporate control of the media and other aspects of life, and how it makes this an nigh-on impossible task.

But who said it was gonna be easy?

Activism, particularly, activism that embraces the “diversity of tactics” which Gelderloos talks about, can have an illicit, glamorous appeal. Like I said, although I find it hard to fault the main thrust of the arguments in this book, I would suggest that they shouldn’t let us forget that changing the world can be a lot more about the boring stuff.

Careful, now.

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