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There’s a really good discussion going on at AUFS about strategies of non-violence, specifically in regard to the Occupy Wall Street protests. As many of the esteemed commenters over there seem to find themselves, I myself am utterly perplexed.

On the one hand, you have the dominant ideology of non-violence: peaceful protests tend to stoke the sympathy of the nation’s population at large, especially when the forces in power tend to overcompensate with their responses (e.g., police engaging in brutal crackdowns, banks publicly lobbying for mass arrests, arresting people who are trying to close their BoA accounts, etc.). The end goal of this strategy seems to be an idealized Ghandi’s Law: symbolic protest will eventually convince the gods to divest themselves of their power, and then egalitarianism will ensue. To me, this is structured more like an underpants gnomes business plan than anything else: 1) Protest non-violently, 2)…?, 3) Egalitarianism (and let’s not even go into how little Ghandi himself actually affected the caste system in India)! This decidedly passivist stance actually expects those with a stranglehold on power to voluntarily dissolve their position and redistribute their means, something that should come off as completely asinine when fully fleshed out. Just because they may believe in Jesus doesn’t mean they’re going to act like him.

On the other hand, you have the subversive approach of violent resistance. Obviously, what this has going for it is immediate change, for better or worse. Unfortunately, it should be just as obvious that violent responses to police crackdowns will only end up in the universal denunciation of the movement (as a commenter pointed out: remember what it’s like when a cop gets shot by a drug dealer, the entire force over-dedicates itself to indignant retribution, and this is generally applauded), and symbolic violence against property, wealth, etc. has a rather long history in this country as being labeled “terrorism” (the Weather Underground being the best example, and DDoSing the most recent) and quickly disregarded by the masses. In other words, never underestimate the power of middle-American ideology to sweep the nation against a perceived threat.

The natural tendency at this point would be to say, “okay, in this context violence will never get us anywhere, but symbolic non-violence has at least a small chance of becoming effective via the ubiquity of media, so let’s do that!” Being a good academic, I was struck by a point made by Brad Johnson in the AUFS thread: this is perverse atonement logic fully incarnated. If your symbolic strategy is to use the violence directed at yourself with non-violence and “forgiveness” (the cheap kind) in order to stoke the sympathy of both the police (so they’ll break rank) and the populous (so they’ll support you), then you’re effectively propitiating divine anger in the hope of eternal reward. The reason this logic is both perverse (as in evil) and disanalogous (as in unfit for the players in question) should be obvious enough on the face of it. What does this mean for political strategy? I don’t know exactly, but I do think it means we should avoid perverse actions (like the latter) just as much as unhelpful ones (like attacking cops).

Of course there’s always this…