On Violence in Politics

“Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln” — Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832)

The handicapped are the model citizens of tomorrow. That sounds like the very worst of what many Americans would consider to be a conservative viewpoint.  Cold, meritless, individualistic, and unfeeling — it is the perfect caricature of what many liberals assume to be the very worst of the American right.

It would surprise many to discover that this sentiment comes from across the Atlantic, and is found in a popular anti-capitalist tract entitled The Coming Insurrection.  The work is notable not for its socialism — though many readers would instantly describe it as leftist — but for its piercing and direct condemnation of the welfare state.  Attempts to control and hold in stasis the vast majority of society to make it fit the welfare state in France has utterly failed.  Instead, the book contends, the state has created a series of automatons.

No longer needing to work to provide essentials such as food, people work to provide outlets for production.  So that means a series of iPods, blogs, books, anything to assert the individual as something distinct.  Work is meaningless, no longer a trade but a method of continuing to feed the daily search for meaning.  Workers cope not by being productive, but by being mindlessly mobile, moving effortlessly between jobs and within networks to preserve some sense of self-identity.

So what are the solutions, sayeth the book?  Find friends, form communes, get organized, create spheres where as little “work” can be done as possible, train others to be self-sufficient, and spread the model elsewhere.  In short, refuse to participate in the economic and social order.

Once this is done, the model becomes much more defensive.  The book advises planning for self-defense, disrupting authorities, and eventually advising the following:  “Take up arms.  Do everything possible to make their use unnecessary.  Against the army, the only victory is political.”  Though the authors refuse to accept the militarization of their movement, they are not apart from resisting violently to achieve their political aims:

There is no such thing as a peaceful insurrection.  Weapons are necessary; it’s a question of doing everything possible to make using them unnecessary.  An insurrection is more about taking up arms and maintaining an “armed presence” than it is about armed struggle.  We need to distinguish clearly between being armed and the use of arms.  Weapons are a constant in revolutionary situations, but their use is infrequent and rarely decisive at key turning points: August 10th 1792, March 18th 1871, October 1917.  When power is in the gutter, it’s enough to walk over it.

The authors do more than just assert.  They explain in terms that would be familiar with any American devotee to the Second Amendment:

Because of the distance that separates us from them, weapons have taken on a kind of double character of fascination and disgust that can be overcome only by handling them.  An authentic pacifism cannot mean refusing weapons, but only refusing to use them.  Pacifism without being able to fire a shot is nothing but the theoretical formulation of impotence.  Such a priori pacifism is a kind of preventative disarmament, a pure police operation.  In reality, the question of pacifism is serious only for those who have the ability to open fire.  In this case, pacifism becomes a sign of power, since it’s only in an extreme position of strength that we are freed from the need to fire.

In other words, an armed society is a polite society, non? For those of you squeamish about the prospects of this on the left, is there anything in this “polite society” that would make you squeamish when it comes from the right?

***

What is remarkable about The Coming Insurrection is that its description of Western Civilization is something you would read straight out of any conservative book-of-the-month club:

Today the West is the GI who dashes into Fallujah on an M1 Abrams tank, listening to heavy metal at top volume.  It’s the tourist lost on the Mongolian plains, mocked by all, who clutches his credit card as his only lifeline.  It’s the CEO who swears by the game Go.  It’s the young girl who looks for happiness in clothes, guys, and moisturizing creams.  It’s the Swiss human rights activist who travels to the four corners of the earth to show solidarity with all the world’s rebels — provided they’ve been defeated.  It’s the Spaniard who could care less about political freedom now that he’s been granted sexual freedom.  It’s the art lover who wants us to be awestruck before the “modern genius” of a century of artists, from surrealism to Viennese actionism, all competing to see who could best spit in the face of civilization.  It’s the cyberneticist who’s found a realistic theory of consciousness in Buddhism and the quantum physicist who’s hoping that dabbling in Hindu metaphysics will inspire new scientific discoveries.

The West is a civilization that has survived all the prophecies of its collapse with a singular stratagem.  Just as the bourgeoisie had to deny itself as a class in order to permit the bourgeoisification of society as a whole, from the worker to the baron; just as capital had to sacrifice itself as a wage relation in order to impose itself as a social relation — becoming cultural capital and health capital in addition to finance capital; just as Christianity had to sacrifice itself as a religion in order to survive as an affective structure — as a vague injunction to humility, compassion, and weakness; so the West has sacrificed itslef as a particular civilization in order to impose itself as a universal culture. (emphasis original)

Particularities aside, there is no question that Western civilization has sacrificed itself as an imposition of mere culture, the pop variety or otherwise.  One of my more favorite books on the topic, George Wiegel’s The Cube and the Cathedral exemplifies this point rather well, the distinction being between the secular West and the Christian West respectively.

What’s even more remarkable about The Coming Insurrection isn’t its predisposition towards violence as a final expression of the political, but that so many of it’s descriptions and proscriptions are things you would read right out of the pages of any American countercultural perspective.  Government is invasive, the economy is unstable and perhaps detrimental to its citizens, self-sufficiency and withdrawal is the only remedy, and the final resort to arms is indeed the final answer.  Be ready… but above all be vigilant.

Such appeals aren’t found locally within either anarchist movements, militia movements, or even among “Tea Party” activists or their anti-war cousins on the left of America’s political spectrum.  To find a similar diagnosis about the ills of society echoed in the coffee shops of Paris, the streets of Athens, or the living rooms of America isn’t surprising.  Since the French Revolution, the West has been in the throes of some form of social revolution of one degree or another.  Count the years — 1789, 1815, 1848, 1871, 1914, 1939, 1968, 1989.

The inheritance of the French Revolution’s ideas in the West is violence.  What’s more, violence as a means of political change isn’t a radical idea.  It has been propagated, shared, used, abused, and been the principle means of resistance for thousands of years.  Consequently, the means to put down such violence has been simple: more violence.  Whether it is tribal leaders, Roman emperors, French emperors, dukes and kings, Mongol warlords or Muslim caliphs — violence has been the principle means of self-assertion.

The question is, what makes the American experiment so different?

***

I kept track of the recent brouhaha over Rep. Tom Perriello’s address being published online, which led letter writers and others not to the home of Tom Perriello, but that of his brother.  Apparently someone had the gall to slash the line to a propane tank (location of said tank was never really discovered or explained).  Call me crazy, but for someone to drive up my driveway, head out to my back porch, and cut the line to anything without my family noticing is about damn near impossible.

Perriello handled this just like a pro, and he used words anyone familiar with last year’s House of Delegates races would have understood immediately:

“My number one priority right now is ensuring the safety of my brother’s family, and I am grateful to law enforcement for their excellent work,” Perriello said in a statement. “While it is too early to say anything definitive regarding political motivations behind this act, it’s never too early for political leaders to condemn threats of violence, particularly as threats to other Members of Congress and their children escalate. And so I ask every member of House and Senate leadership to state unequivocally tonight that it is never OK to harm or threaten elected officials and their families with anything more than political retribution.

“Here in America,” (Perriello) added, “we settle our political differences at the ballot box.”

Dead on.  The “ballot box” message was taking direct aim at Catherine Crabill, a former GOP candidate for 99th House of Delegates against Democrat Albert Pollard.  The direct quote she gave was: “We have the chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box.”

What did Crabill mean by this?  Well… I’ll let her explain:

Now apart from the explanations, Crabill does make one salient point — independent from the vast experience of the rest of humanity, the American experiment was based on a bloody revolution that set the stage for the first peaceful transference of power in the modern age.  When John Adams and the Federalists handed over the presidency to Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans, there was none of the violence predicted.  Nor was there any of the violence repeated in Europe.  Of course, politics being what it is, an innocent remark (I have no question in my mind that Crabill was *not* endorsing a violent overthrow of the government) was swiftly turned into a flashpoint.

Regardless of the innocence of the remark, a handful of people are choosing to capitalize on it.  Acts of violence in the aftermath of the health care vote — not to mention the sentiments expressed on various social media sites — seemed to percolate from nowhere.  True, the outrage was implicit and should be heard.

But violence?

As a reaction to legislation?

In American politics?  American politics?

***

It’s often forgotten that the true genius of the American experiment and the Founding Fathers was the peaceful transfer of power between dissenting groups of citizens.  What formerly would have been determined between two warring armies would be settled between citizens of equal standing at periodic times prescribed by laws, not men.

It is also equally imperative that this is not the experience of much of the world.  Take for instance Argentina in 2001 following their capital collapse:

This is nothing you wouldn’t imagine being played out in multiple countries across the world. Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Greece, France, Spain, or even Argentina.

Now could you imagine this scene playing out here in America?  Of course not — you’d be ludicrous to suggest it so.  Condemned, even, for suggesting that such violence should be a part of our political discourse.

Yet this violence is a part of much of the political discourse of the world.  Take recent events in South Africa with songs such as “Kill the Boer” and the murder of white-supremacist Eugene Terreblanche.  Look at Krygyzstan where the properly elected government was overthrown in a minority-led coup backed by the Russians.  Look to Georgia, Chechnya, communist China, South Korean or Taiwanese politics, the streets of France, Colombia, separatist regions of Spain, Northern Ireland and the PIRA, the West Bank, Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda, the Congo, repression in Egypt and Algeria.

This is the experience of the vast majority of the world.

***

So why is America so unique and apart from the rest of the world?  Why is the American experience so comparatively — and I would dare say, remarkably — free from violence?  And who benefits from violence’s introduction?

There are three known forces for liberalism on this planet, the direct descendant of centuries of natural law theory and the principles of the Enlightenment merging into one sphere.

For the British, it was drawn slowly, from John of Salisbury’s discourses on natural law and positive law in his Policratus that approached the concept of equity, a balance between the rights of mankind and the power of the state.  This concept of rights granted by God that could never be abrogated by the state swung from the Magna Carta in the 14th century (which guaranteed the rights and privileges of nobles over the king of England) to the works of Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan. Eventually, they culminated into the theories of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, borrowing much but losing many of the earlier Aristotelian and Thomistic qualities traced down through Sydney, Grotius, Bellarmine, and others who kept the flame of liberty lit during the Renaissance and subsequent dark period during Reformation.

The second avenue was spearheaded by the French Revolution, or more accurately, guillotined into existence by the Terror.  By now, a throughly secularized Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette united the American experience to the works and musings of self-declared humanists such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Such visions of “noble savages” free from the bondage of government and strictures, morality and codes of behavior, would only usher in a new Age of Reason where the only gods would be P’s and Q’s.

Finally, there is that one experiment that broke free from both the continental and Anglicanized versions of liberalism, one that a younger Thomas Jefferson identified and readily championed in the Declaration of Independence.  For Americans, the British model of liberty was no liberty at all.  Enslavement was the term used to best describe the narrow field of free range that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 cordoned off.  Americans had tasted liberty, and free from continental theories of secular enlightenment they cobbled together a series of principles informed principally by the classically-trained patrician class ideals melded with a speculative enterprise and pasted to a religious backdrop.  Liberty would be the rule of law, and her opposite would be the rule of benevolent or tyrannical men.

These three forces for liberalism — British, French, and Americanism — all have their own champions.  Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France makes the argument for modern conservativism, namely that liberty is purchased with blood and conserved against the inexorable forces of nature and government.  For the French, her early champions would evolve from the philosophy of Rousseau to the art of Jacques Louis-David and the Napoleonic drama that wrapped Europe in conflict for nearly 20 years.  As for the Americans, an collection of somewhat contradictory yet mythologized Founding Fathers suffices to establish both a national epic and a philosophy of liberty; her literary champions including Paine, Henry, Rush, Jefferson, Wythe, Mason, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, and Monroe.

***

With the collapse of the British and French Empires respectively, the gift of Western civilization has rarely demonstrated itself to be a system of infrastructure, governance, and enlightenment.  Too often, the experience has been one of exploitation, subjugation, and dependency on foreign aid.  Where the British system has endured, it is primarily in regions of the globe that are predominantly English-speaking — Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, India, and so forth.

For continental systems, the results have been far less stable.  It’s understandable given a premise in first things: the British prized stability; the French washed themselves in liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Haiti did not transport itself from despotism to liberty on a feather bed by any stretch.  The 1801 revolution’s gift of liberty made everyone equally poor, equally miserable, and equally brothers in death.  It is no fault of the Haitian people that their experiment with liberty would soon be duplicated in the fearsome “wars of Europe” the American Founders had been so keen to avoid.  Violence would sweep Europe time and time again, from the Napoleonic Wars through the Revolution of 1848, German Reunification, the “War to End All Wars” followed by a second World War, ending in the great struggle of -isms between Western capitalism and Western communism.

Violence, it would seem, was the birth of continental liberty.  Violence would be the French Revolution’s  heritage, the inheritance passed on to her defenders for decades in failure and blood, wedded and bound to her DNA and inseparable from its precepts.  No amount of modification could undo its nature.  No matter how soothing the frog’s words were, the scorpion still held true.

If stability was the British principle, and violent equality was the French gift, what then of the Americans?  Ultimately, all three revolutions ended up consuming her architects.  For the British, the end of the Napoleonic Wars ushered in the second Golden Age of Empire that climaxed in the 1870’s and expired after crushing German nationalism in two bloody and costly wars.  The French architects had a less glorious end — her heroes ultimately were led the the guillotine one by one until Napoleon established order upon the vice of license that had replaced liberty’s promise of virtue.

To the American Founders, their approach was a combination of method and exasperation.  On one hand, the incubators of leadership found in the plantation homes of Virginia, the merchant homes of Pennsylvania, and the law offices of Boston created a class of philosopher-kings unrivaled on the North American continent to this day (despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s pretensions as an ongoing constitutional convention, a well earned criticism).  On the other, the knowledge that the Articles of Confederation — though working for some — presented fundamental weaknesses in the ability of “these states united” to project any form of coherence (much less create favorable conditions in foreign markets for American goods or to respect American sovereignty) was the sole object of frustration for Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.

America’s Founding Fathers were presented with a dual problem, one that grew from the period between 1770 and 1787. British pretensions as protectors of liberty flew in the face of long held privileges the colonists knew were their rights as freeborn Englishmen.  Defending against an encroachment on their liberties — and not their mere whittling away in a sea of threat — was foremost in their minds.  Yet the great fear of democracy — direct participation of the masses —  hung low on the minds of the Founding Fathers, for what then would stop the American Republic from falling into the errors, wars, and dictators of the Roman Republic before her?  Or worse, a return to the mild-yet-aristocratic yoke of the British Empire?

The true solution would not be excavated until well after the Constitution was signed and passed.  It would take the “Revolution of 1800” — Jefferson’s Republicans besting Adams’ Federalists — to test the durability of the American experiment.  Here, at this moment, was a transfiguration unparalleled in history since Diocletian willingly gave up power and deposed himself to farm cabbages in a garden what became modern day Split, Croatia.  Only this time, Diocletian was being forced to do so by the election of peers…

There was no violence.
There were no riots.
There was no war.
There was only… peace.

What resulted was a nearly unbroken 26 year period of Republican rule that ultimately broke the Federalist Party.  After James Monroe’s skillful rebuilding of the nation in the wake of the War of 1812, Republicans themselves would factionalize into Whigs and Democrats, their names rarely changing (Whigs evolved into Republicans after their dissolution in the 1850s) yet their political opposition — though at times stringent — were ultimately two wings of the same, basic, Jeffersonian-based political philosophy.

But always — always — based on rules laid forth in the Constitution.  Call it an American sense of fair play, a pre-occupation with commerce, or the simple virtues of a moral people.  American government was so small anyhow that “public service” took on an entirely new meaning to the established classes who could afford to serve.

For Britain, security.  For France, equality.  For America, the rule of law.

***

Today, the Jeffersonian “empire of liberty” is beset on every side with the challenges of picking up a mantle it did not want but cannot refuse.  Western civilization, that fiction created by the British to justify their place in the sun, has turned to the United States in crisis after crisis over the past 100 years.  When Britain chose the social welfare state over empire during the Cold War, the inheritance of the Mother Country was turned over to the American daughter.

Yet like all empires, the infections of other values from differing cultures on one’s own society becomes endemic, and in no way preventable.  Sometimes the additions are good, many times the additions are quite traumatic for the host.  History dictates that they inevitably end with a core state at the end that is more cosmopolitan, with a tiny fragment yearning for the days of imperial glory lost.  Britain and France have imparted their values on the world, just as Germany, Japan, China, Russia, Turkey, Arabia, Mongolia, Rome, Carthage, Assyria, Sumeria, and countless others have done.

America stands alone in this history, both in her republicanism and in her commercial dominance.  It is tempting, then, for this young republic (and we are terribly young) to find ways to inoculate itself from the impacts of empire.  As inheritors of the British Empire, our first instincts during the Cold War were to adapt to the British model.  Conservatives became the new calling card in the 1960s as a reaction to the liberalism-turned-progressivism that prospered from FDR to LBJ.

Endowed now with this new calling card, conservatives reaped the whirlwind.  The last quarter of the American Century was undeniably a triumph for conservative ethics.  Literacy rates skyrocketed, the Soviet Union disappeared, a gridlocked Congress ensured continuous rules for free enterprise, American military dominance encapsulated the globe, and American economic power reached her height.

Yet under this surface, progressives still held their calling card.  French ideals never lurked very far underneath, and as the rationale for American dominance (and not just supremacy) of the globe receded, so too did the temptations of the British welfare state.

Equality became a virtue.

Just as the Americans adapted to the inheritance of Britain with conservativism, so too is America adapting to the role of global dominance with by questioning norms.  No longer satisfied with conserving the status quo, issues such as income disparity, living wage laws, the lives of the wealthy and privileged, images of Las Vegas or Miami dance in our heads, a population distanced from production and eased into consumption.  National debt spirals.  Food becomes a bit harder to come by.  Credit disappears, yet the elites seem to prance by.  Social services such as education, Medicare, welfare are cut while honest jobs disappear.  Evictions, wild rumors, a ruling class that ceases to care or cannot wrap their minds around the problem.  A lack of national spirit to resolve, but a growing national spirit to tear down the old and put up the new.

Now booklets entitled The Coming Insurrection begin to float around our schools and bookstores.

In short, we are adapting ourselves to qualities of the French Revolution, in order to meet some of the very same challenges the French Monarchy struggled to deal with after two failed wars.  Our society, it seems, is inoculating itself.  Just as the reaction to empire was British conservativism, the reaction to (for lack of a better phrase) bourgeois excess will inevitably be French styles of social unrest.

In short, violence.

***

So why go through this exercise? It’s important to realize that the American experiment is both of those things: uniquely American, and indeed an experiment.  America is not destined to live forever; she must be preserved, fought for, but above all else she must respect her own virtues.  As Americans, we in turn must respect the institutions that have brought us prosperity and peace for over 200 years.

Violence is politics is incurably common.  Yet in America we’ve managed to avoid all of these things, precisely because we do respect the virtue of law.  Rules are rules, fair play is the nature of business, and once it’s all over we go back to our lives.

I do wonder though, whether the direct attachment of government to so many aspects of our lives makes this problem worse over time.  As government continues to provide services, and as those services are withdrawn, do we not create the very same problems we are witnessing in Greece today?  Or Argentina?  Or Spain?  Or France?

I would argue this:  America is an exceptional nation.  As such, we innately reject violence as a means of political expression unless at the utmost end of practical need.  This is not some immutable law, nor is it even a system of morals — it is an ethical code that must be observed to survive, and once ignored, will not survive.

The question ultimately is whether the American experiment can endure, or is exceptional enough, to meet the challenges of austerity without the visceral rash of violence the French example produces?  One thing is for certain — the more of the French notion of liberty we introduce and include in our American variety, the more certain violence becomes an acceptable answer among an ever-growing minority.

(crossposted to BearingDrift.com)

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