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Book Review - How Nonviolence Protects the State

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How Nonviolence Protects the State
How Nonviolence Protects the State
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In How Nonviolence Protects the State (2007 South End Press), Peter Gelderloos takes up where Ward Churchill's 1985 Pacifism as Pathology leaves off -- expanding on Churchill's basic premises (see my review of Pacifism as Pathology last week) with more recent historical examples. Like Churchill, Gelderloos bemoans the determination of nonviolence proponents to impose their ideological views across the entire progressive movement. He blames this mainly on The Nation magazine and other "alternative" media outlets, which falsely frame the debate as a question of "nonviolent" vs. "violent" political change tactics. What Churchill, Gelderloos, Jensen and others actually propose is an organizing approach that incorporates a diversity of tactics.

Gelderloos divides his book into seven chapters, each debunking a specific myth about nonviolence:

Chapter 1 Nonviolence is ineffective -- Here Gelderloos exposes the falsified history of supposedly successful nonviolent resistance movements. On close examination, none of the examples commonly promoted by nonviolent proponents is either exclusively nonviolent or successful. In the case of Gandhi's nonviolent campaign in India, Gelderloos points out that the Mahatma was elevated to fame by the British press, who chose to focus on his acts of civil disobedience, rather than the hundreds of freedom fighters alongside him who were planting bombs and assassinating British officials and native civil servants. Gelderloos also points out that India (and Pakistan) remain deeply oppressed and exploited countries. That their "independence" in 1947 merely transferred them from direct colonial to neo-colonial rule (economic domination enforced by the World Bank and IMF).

Gelderloos describes a parallel process occurring in the case of Martin Luther King, highlighting that the mainstream media never reported on the Birmingham civil rights marches that degenerated into riots -- but which were always the real trigger for both local and federal law changes. Among numerous other examples, he contrasts the millions of peaceful demonstrators worldwide who were unable to stop the 2003 US invasion of Iraq -- with the single 2004 train bombing that led the Spanish government to withdraw their troops from the "coalition of the willing."

Chapter 2 Nonviolence is racist --  In this chapter, Gelderloos agrees with Churchill that the vast majority of dogmatic nonviolent proponents are privileged middle class whites, for whom the full repression of the capitalist state is never a genuine fear. He cites the example of black looting (usually for food and basic necessities) being condemned as violent, whereas actions in which white activists cut a chain fence to trespass on a military based are embraced as "nonviolent" and acceptable. Similar condemnation of third world autonomy movements is extremely common among white progressives. As an example, Gelderloos highlights the near universal condemnation of both the Iraq and Afghan insurgency against US occupation. He also points out that by refusing to engage in violent resistance themselves, US antiwar activists essentially abandon Iraqi and Afghan insurgents to battle the US military industrial complex on their own.

Chapter 3 Nonviolence is statist (i.e. serves the state) -- Nonviolent activists share the fundamental view that the state (via police, FBI, CIA and military) should hold the monopoly on violence. In addition to frequently calling on the police to protect their privileged status, in moments of conflict, they always line up with state authority. Among other examples, Gelderloos describes the Poor Peoples March at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, where Mayor Bloomberg handed out badges to protestors willing to commit to nonviolent protest, and where the police manhandled and arrested protestors (without badges) who were either black, covered their faces or refused to submit to arbitrary searches. Not only did the nonviolent marchers fail to come to their defense, but they essentially blamed the arrestees for the police decision to target them.

Chapter 4 Nonviolence is patriarchal (i.e. supports male oppression of women and sexual minorities) -- Gelderloos points out (with examples) that both the mainstream and alternative media refuse to acknowledge the extreme sexism and homophobia of Martin Luther King. He also describes how the nonviolent movement only permits women to use violence to defend themselves in individual cases of attempted rape, and not in situations of ongoing domestic violence. Or against the gradual systemic violence -- for example the harmful corporate-produced chemicals in their breast milk -- that is irreparably damaging their children's health.

Chapter 5 Nonviolence is tactically and strategically inferior -- Gelderloos demonstrates that the nonviolent movement is totally focused on short term tactics and unable to show how any of these tactics will achieve their long term goals. When confronted with their inability to achieve goals, nonviolent advocates typically come back with the pat response: "Political change takes a long time and may not come in our lifetime."

Gelderloo bemoans the millions of dollars wasted on grassroots lobbying, which is almost never effective. Even when Congress meets your demands on paper, they always backtrack. Gelderloos gives the example of the School of the Americas campaign, which sucked up years of organizing and nonviolent protests When enough pressure built up, the Pentagon simply closed the SOA and reopened it under a new name. He asks how many social centers, free clinics, prison reform groups, etc. -- with the potential to produce real change -- could have been built with this wasted money.

He also compares specific tactics that have a goal of disrupting "business as usual." Does it make more sense to blockade a bridge for a few hours by forming a human chain -- or putting it out of commission for six months by blowing it up?

Chapter 6 Nonviolence is deluded -- Gelderloos uses this chapter to outline the extreme contradictions in the views embraced by nonviolent advocates. He points out that they support state violence all the time, simply by paying taxes (at present many support the NATO attacks on Libya). Privileged activists need to understand what the rest of the world has known all along: neutrality isn't possible. The question is which violence scares us the most and which side we will stand on.

Chapter 7 The alternative: possibilities for revolutionary activism -- Gelderloos finishes with his vision of strategies that are most likely to succeed in dismantling centralized state and corporate structures. In doing so, he stresses that localized groups will need to self-organize and decide on strategy, based on peoples' strengths. He envisions a loose confederation of local autonomous groups that will form non-corporate structures (free clinics, cooperatives, farmers markets, etc) to meet local needs. While he sees no need to convert everyone to anarchism, he emphasizes the need to be continually on guard against cooptation by the Institutional Left -- by ensuring decisions are made based on circumstances, not arbitrary ideology.

He also stresses the absolute necessity for these groups to learn self defense -- to ensure if they occupy a building to create a free clinic the police can't take it away from them.

A PDF of Gelderloos' book can be downloaded free at -- but without the extensive endnotes. If you want the endnotes, you have to buy it. Even so, Gelderloos, a true anarchist, gives suggestions at his PDF site on how to pirate the endnotes if you can't afford the book.

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I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)
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