Is Property Damage Non-Violent?

Is Property Damage Non-Violent?
Featured image by Republica.

A friend asked me if I thought property destruction was a non-violent tactic. After all, property isn’t people. These are just things, and while things can have immense value, their destruction in principle bears little resemblance to taking up arms. Yet, people seem think of it as a form of violence, or violent protest. Why? I think that in exploring that question, we can gain a new appreciation of what non-violent resistance is about, and how society perceives certain forms of non-violent action. The reality is that people’s perception of property damage as violence is deeply tied to people’s perception of justice with regards to property, and it’s the responsibility of an activist to pursue actions and tactics that minimize both percieved and real injustice while maximizing their chances of success.

In order to understand why people perceive property damage to be violent, we must examine violence and its role in our society. Retributive violence (as opposed to deterrent or utilitarian violence) is a norm and a value perpetuated by society at large. The history of the human pursuit of justice is one long struggle to see misfortune befall the evil and luck find its way to the good after an injustice has been perpetrated. Where the gods fail to ensure this outcome, we intervene with imprisonment, seizure of property, torture, and murder. We are not particularly good at ensuring that there is parity, proportionality, equality, and equity in our pursuit of justice. This is not simply a weakness of the state, or of governments, but of people.

Torture, murder, imprisonment, and other acts are considered horrendous crimes to commit against another person, and a necessary part of the process of justifying violence is the removal of a person’s intrinsic humanity. Suffering, which is normally seen as the singular bane of humanity, is deliberately inflicted on those we can see as inhuman. It is easy to see how denying a person’s humanity becomes license to visit unimaginable suffering on others in the retributive justice model. There are people who feel that the worst excesses of our prison system are justified against the pettiest criminals, simply because they must necessarily lack the requisite humanity that immunize the rest of humanity from the deliberate imposition of suffering. The dominant model of retributive violence equates punishment with suffering, lack of humanity with justifiable violence, and retributive violence with justice.

It is precisely this conflation of justice with violence that makes all acts perceived as unjust seem violent, even when they completely fail to attack the humanity of a person, or when a person’s humanity isn’t the target of an action. It is in this framework that non-violent destruction of property is evaluated. Attacking someone’s property is considered a method of justice. The state dissolves and seizes property regularly as a method of punishment. When the state does this, it is often accompanied by violence or the threat of violence. So as a society, we bind up the idea of a person’s right to property with the notion of their status as a human being. In order to extract justice in the retributive model, the person’s humanity must be compromised, and this opens them up to violence. To destroy a person’s property is to punish them, and to punish them is to rob them of humanity, and to rob them of their humanity is to excuse and call for violence against them. This is why the destruction of property is seen as an inherently violent act in our society.

So should an activist should feel free to commit to property destruction as a tactic? After all, it’s a perception of violence, and not true violence. But violence is not the sole consideration in non-violence. Non-violence is selected for tactical, as well as moral considerations. And there are moral considerations beyond the false dichotomy of violence or non-violence.

For those unconcerned with morality, there are practical reasons why a non-violent movement has an obligation to maintain a high ethical standard. Evaluate this plausible scenario: Picketers, or a subset of picketers from a larger group, begin to set cars on fire, or break shop windows, during a protest of banks and their perpetuation of inequality. The perception of them as behaving violently is inextricable from the sense that they have perpetrated an injustice: They have caused misfortune to befall someone who is not normally considered to deserve it. After all, the picketing seemed to target banks, the signs and chants all indicated that banks were the target of ire, and so the destruction of shop windows seems essentially random. Yet, these are no agent-provocateurs, but genuine idealists who believe that small-business owners perpetuate inequality as well. The news covers this, and people become disillusioned with the protesters. Some who were planning on joining the protest, don’t see how it aligns with their values and they stay home. Local business owners begin applying pressure to police and politicians to put an end to these protests that threaten their businesses.

Negative press coverage of a movement is inevitable, but paradoxically, one of the more powerful ways to use the media is to keep an issue alive in the public consciousness long enough to attract support. The problem here is that potential supporters who might have otherwise been willing to join in action will stay home. Those are people you need in the streets, not at home. Participation is critical to any movement. Much like in armies, strength comes in numbers, not the ideological and moral perfection of those numbers. For example, during the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Army chose to whip deserters, not to shoot them. They also whipped soldiers for most infractions. The reason this punishment was preferred was that a whipped soldier could still fight in the fields the next day, and numbers were needed more than perfectly obedient soldiers. Otherwise they could have shot them, as many militaries have done through history.

All tactics must serve specific purposes that fit the campaign as a whole. The duty of most campaigns is to impose costs on an adversary, and not simply to impose costs on anything resembling the adversary. If any kind of property destruction is to take place, it should impose direct costs on the target. Alternatively, it should apply leverage to those that do business with the target and make the injustice perpetrated by the adversary possible. But, in the example above, shop owners are often the reluctant victims of banks, not their willing benefactors.

Two purists aligned ideologically in every way are worth nothing. Two hundred people aligned along a single cause but with nothing else in common is what can be modestly called, “A start.” Any movement employing tactics that causes people to leave it should reconsider those tactics before persisting to use them. People and their sensibilities are an important factor, and much like the Continental Army, the army you are given is the army you must work with. The case of the local business owners pressuring authorities to put a stop to your movement is an example of reverse leverage. Instead of levering your target’s benefactors in a way that convinces them to abandon your adversary, movements sometimes unintentionally lever other interests in a way that harms the movement.

This example outlines the realistic dimensions of human behavior and why property destruction is something that must be carefully considered before using. Artillery serves a specific purpose, tanks another, infrantry yet another. In non-violent movements, picketing serves one kind of strategy, striking another, sit-ins, yet another. Property destruction is one tool in the arsenal, and should be employed judiciously.

For instance, striking drivers cause produce to rot in the trucks and loading bays, causing their employer to lose money. This is property destruction, though the workers cause the destruction by inaction rather than action. It is extremely difficult to see how this isn’t a worthy tactic despite being an indisputable form of property damage. It targets a specific adversary, and it does not inadvertently lever the community against you. On the other hand, consider a truck driver strike during an epidemic where life-saving drugs are sorely needed by the community at large. To not deliver the drugs would be seen as a gross injustice, and even a form of violence. Viscerally, it is difficult for even the most hardened skeptic of property rights to pretend it isn’t.

This brings us to the moral dimension of property destruction. Property is a construct, and one that we routinely build around singular entities, despite its true nature being more broad. A supply of vaccines may belong to the pharmacy of a hospital on paper, but realistically, those vaccines belong to the community the hospital serves. Cars usually have one name on the title, but realistically, cars belong to entire families. Communities served by commerce essentially own the resources of commerce, even when laws and papers say otherwise. To the extent that the community at large is harmed by the destruction of property, the tactic should be avoided.

There is an element of proportionality, as well. Obviously, detonating a nuclear weapon in a major city is disproportional to the cause of LGBT equal employment rights even if is elaborately and miraculously designed to kill no one. When it is a matter of life and death (as in Black Lives Matter), the tactic has a reasonable chance of working, and the impact of the destruction on the community is minimal- then, property not only can be destroyed, but there is a moral imperative: It must be destroyed to preserve the lives of others. However, all of those elements must be satisfied. Lives may be on the line, but if the tactic stands no chance of working or is counterproductive, then the moral imperative runs in the reverse: Property must not be destroyed. Sometimes, this is a difficult call. It can be hard to truly understand the chances of success or failure. But it isn’t an optional consideration, from both moral and practical perspectives.

Ultimately what is found in practice is that property destruction is a symptom of an undisciplined or frustrated movement. It is often born out of a sense of urgency, or the need to “do something.” But doing anything and doing nothing useful have the same outcome most of the time. This is much like rallies whose primary purpose is as a gathering of like-minded people, rather than a purposeful act of resistance, or a planning session. But an active, mobile, and healthy resistance movement is goal-oriented, rather than emotionally driven. Morale is important, but anger and frustration burn hot and fast, leaving a movement without the kind of long-term stamina that is necessary to accomplish things over a sustained period of time.

These are the complex features that represent the moral and practical landscape around property destruction. Violating property rights will always be seen as a form of violence in our current framework for justice. It is a tool like any other, and a refusal to use tools responsibly can have undesired consequences. It should not drive people away from your movement, and it should not lever uninvolved institutions in the community against you. Property must always be evaluated in a broader context than on-paper ownership. Property destruction should also observe moral and practical proportionality. More often than not when property is destroyed, it is counter-productive as a matter of practice, because these principles are not considered or observed. In the end, the question of property-destruction is not really one of whether it is violent or non-violent, but is really two different questions: Useful or detrimental? Moral or immoral?


Why #NoDAPL May Fail

Why #NoDAPL May Fail
Featured Image: Solidarity Rally in St. Paul, MN. Image Credit to Fibonacci Blue. CC 2.0

This disclaimer applies very strongly: None of the information in the following video which is being discussed has been vetted by me, personally. I encourage independent verification of any claims made therein. I have considered the source, and I have serious concerns about its accuracy. I hope to look more deeply into the video, but in the meantime, it serves a useful theoretical purpose even if it is completely wrong.

The first and most important thing about this video is that if any of the major claims are true, NoDAPL is doomed to fail. Bear in mind as this argument progresses that morality is a wholly separate consideration from success. There are numerous philosophical arguments that can be put forth to make this point,  but to save time:  Donald Trump won the presidency. Instead a movement lives and dies on a number of things, partipation being a major one affected here. For the purposes of this piece, everything about the video is assumed to be absolutely true. Violence, a lack of clear purpose, a non-indigenous protest movement, and paranoia are all lethal to any movement.

Violence and White People

Non-violence is often presumed to be the lesser, more moral cousin of the more effective method of violent resistance. The thinking goes, “non-violent resistance works only against people who have a conscience. Violence is the only option otherwise.” This is wrong, and morality has nothing to do with why it’s wrong. Violent resistance is impractical and precludes a number of pathways to success that are open to non-violence. This is a surprisingly controversial position to take, and so a longer, well-researched post with numerous citations will be presented to make this point. However, it is important to know that, by the numbers, violence achieves success far less that non-violence in most asymmetric power struggles.

Some of this goes to philosophical issues where the state is obligated in all instances to maintain a monopoly on violence, and this compels state behavior. But a lot more if it goes to the fact that violent resistance limits participation and hampers tactical innovation, which is highly dependent on participation. Movements must carefully consider their choice of tactics. Unnecessary violence and aggression limits sympathy to your cause, and the ability of the state or the powerful to make concessions or meet demands. This is a function of the desire to maintain a monopoly on violence, and the inability of a broad spectrum of the population to participate due to physical and moral limitations.

Complaints from the locals are extremely important and cannot be ignored. If the indigenous population is suddenly deeply unhappy with the manner many participants behave, this seriously undermines the protest movement. Garbage and human waste being buried at the campsite by mostly white people is a disgusting display that demonstrates a lack of commitment. All politics is local, goes the old saying, and in this case the platitude is true. A large subset of protesters overstaying their welcome is a quick way for a movement to fail. Bear in mind that not all of the Standing Rock Sioux are behind this movement, and that even a minority of Sioux being against the protest can cause friction with the section of the Standing Rock Sioux who are for it. Community comes first, and it is doubtful that the Standing Rock Sioux will allow themselves to be significantly divided on this issue if it is apparent that the protesters are essentially tourists. Much derision is cast at the politics of respectability, but by no measure is this lack of respect worth countenancing.

A Lack of Clear Purpose

Again, with the presumption that the video is absolutely 100% correct, the Sioux don’t have burial grounds in the way and draw their water from an alternate source. The government is involved to an extent, but this is fundamentally about a corporation that has limited obligations under any treaty. This is a problem for Sioux participation more than anything. If the Sioux collectively decide the fight isn’t worth it, then they will stop participating, and out-of-towners will not be able to sustain it. The stakes for the Sioux are actually incredibly low based on this claim, and what may be sustaining this protest is a combination of misunderstanding and a need for catharsis. Native Americans in this country have deep and abiding reasons for being angry with the American government and corporate opportunism, and the protest may essentially be about that, however, protest is not about catharsis.

A lack of purpose would also explain the tactical decision to leave the campsite to seek out confrontation. This is a problem because the only thing the protesters need to do in order to succeed is occupy their space for as long as possible. If they cannot occupy that space, then they must occupy spaces that are critical to the pipeline construction’s infrastructure: Roads that supply materials, and transport workers (preferably without antagonizing the workers). Creating confrontations in the hope of being “proactive” does not necessarily help. Every tactic must have an immediate purpose.


The press is not your enemy. I’ll say this again, in case it is unclear, the press is not your enemy… unless you make it. Even in repressive regimes, state media is often not the enemy of people protesting. Pushing reporters out may been seen as serving a purpose of some kind, but it guarantees one thing: A media blackout. The contention that all press is good press is qualified, but it’s generally true. In all forms of asymmetric conflict, the weaker side relies on attrition, leverage, and the imposition of costs on the adversary. Part of this requires the outcry of the broadest possible section of the population, and their complicity in resistance. The inability to transmit meaningful information significantly hampers this. There is also an asymmetry in reaction. People in the population who oppose the protests will simply do nothing upon seeing negative press coverage, but by calling attention to the protests, people who are supportive will act to help the movement. In order for those people to take an interest, however, it must penetrate their daily lives as an issue of importance. The easiest, and possibly only,  way of doing this is through the media.

Again, the claims made here aren’t important for their absolute truth. The video and the argument presented here are a tool to frame theoretical issues around why protest movements often fail. If none of this is true, then the protest will continue and is likely to succeed. If any of the issues presented here are true, then the protest has a lower likelihood of success. It must be emphasized that this is not connected to the morality or righteousness of the cause. Non-righteous causes sometimes succeed. In fact, the absence of a burial ground is far less important to the probability of success than the Sioux’s belief that there is one. Perception often matters more than reality in this way. However if there is a significant sector of the indigenous population who does not believe this, then there is a problem, and one that isn’t helped by the lack of civility issue outlined above, where non-indigenous people are essentially treating the protest as a vacation. This claim, incidentally, is absolutely true, and it’s a damn shame.

How Trump Represents A New Normal

How Trump Represents A New Normal

In discussions of the 2016 election, I think people vacillate between two somewhat, though not absolutely, contradictory opinions: That the country is more racist and sexist than we thought, and that Clinton really won. Or at least that Clinton would have won in a country with more straightforward voting. Some would say fairer, but first past the post voting isn’t all that fair to begin with. There isn’t a problem with the two arguments in isolation, but they cloud some important considerations. The most important of which is that Trump represents a new normal.

First of all, too much is being made of Clinton’s popular vote lead, which is by percentage ~2.4%. Some people go by absolute number and compare them to previous vote numbers. This is totally statistically meaningless. Please bear in mind: Clinton was running against a reality television show star with zero competence and no experience. Her 2.4% lead must be interpreted in the light of that information. People compare Trump to Reagan, who was a B-list actor, but Reagan actually had real, non-trivial political experience before he was elected president. He had more or about the same political experience as Barack Obama when he was elected in 2004, depending on how you count it. Trump is the least competent person to fill the role in the 21st and 20th century bar none. Even if Hillary’s popular vote translated to an Electoral College win, Trump was competitive, and she beat him with an appallingly thin margin, considering who he is.

Going purely by popular vote totals, when Obama won in 2012, he was at ~4% against someone with experience as governor. He got 7% against a veteran, and a highly respected senator in 2008. For comparison, George W. Bush won a second term against Kerry in 2004 with a margin much closer to Clinton’s at ~3%. That level of support isn’t great, and at the time the left was rightly decrying the Republican claim that Bush now had a mandate.

By any standard, Trump’s performance, win or lose, was on par for any Republican presidential candidate in the United States in the past 16 years. It would be 20 years if Perot hadn’t split Dole’s vote in 1996 in a way that would make the Green party blush. Trump also trounced his more experienced Republican brethren. Trump did well. In terms of his performance during the election, he was extraordinarily competitive, considering who he is.

This is a new normal, and that’s a real problem for Clinton and the Democrats, regardless of whether they won the popular vote. Every analysis that specifically took into account the electoral college had Trump at a high chance of losing. Nate Silver is getting a lot of heat for being “wrong,” but his models are very good and the fact of the matter is that a 30% chance of winning (which was about where Silver pegged Trump before the elction) is better than your chances of rolling a specific number on a typical six-sided die.

All these numbers are fine, but what does this mean? It means that Democrats need figure out not just what happened, but what they can do about it. Part of that analysis needs to look very critically at the theory that Trump was propelled to power by a deeply racist country. That this country is deeply racist is absolutely true, though one must concede that “deeply” is a relative  term. That Trump was endorsed heavily by racists and homophobes is undeniable. But how relevant was it to this election? This is a difficult question to answer. The best kinds of statistics are impossible to obtain this late after the election, and asking voters if they’re racist is not a good way to survey the role of racism in the election.

Looking to demographics reveals that Trump’s support was very white, but most Republican candidates see similar demographic support. How is this new? It might identify substratum racial bias, but substratum racial bias isn’t new to this election. There was overt racism on the part of Trump supporters, but this really isn’t new either. Romney and McCain had the decency to condemn racist rhetoric, but it was an undeniable part of their runs for president.

The primary difference is that Trump  was more overt about his racism. Of course, all candidates are racist to some degree, even Obama, though not in the way that many of his critics on the right would argue, against whites. People treat being a racist as a binary switch, when the reality is that racism is a function of degree. This blog is racist. The only question is how racist it is. The question is therefore, was his racism the overriding factor in his large support base?

It certainly had some impact, and very obviously won him the support of organized white supremacists like the KKK and the Alt-Right. But the number of people in these groups isn’t that high. How much support overt racism brought him can only really be determined through prospective correlational studies that are impossible now. People arguing absolute knowledge that it was a major factor are often arguing from their own lens. Race was an important issue to them, but that doesn’t make it an important issue to the people who voted for Trump. This lack of concern for racism is, of course, a form of racism–but it’s a sign of unconscious bias or substratum racism, rather than an overt approval of racist rhetoric. In other words, the new normal Trump represents is not an increase in racism. That racism was always latent. That is the old normal.

Instead, let’s consider the issues most frequently raised during debates and policy discussions that were not related to the candidates’ character. Policing was not a frequently raised issue, but one that is highly pertinent to racial issues right now. Affirmative action, voting rights, and other salient issues took no priority. Instead most of what was discussed was related to economic issues. Even one of Trump’s most central racist policy ideas, the Wall, expresses a form of racism deeply tied to economic issues. It doesn’t matter that many Americans are wrong about Mexicans and the Chinese taking their jobs (automation is a bigger culprit), they perceive a cause of their economic woes to be immigration. But at its core, it’s based on economic concerns. The racism is of course inseparable, but it doesn’t abrogate other elements of the sentiment.

This is what makes the argument that race was THE major differential factor responsible for Trump’s success so dangerous: Not that it’s wrong, but that it’s right enough to get us to ignore other important issues and to maintain a simplistic view of the election. The worst part about such a simplistic view is that it focuses on the issue to which the Democrats are least adaptable: Racism. Democrats cannot end racism tomorrow. In fact it could be argued that any political party can only ultimately play a secondary role in the fight against racism. Democrats cannot find common ground with overt racists (or at least the left should refuse to allow it to do so.) This is terrain that is difficult to change. Meanwhile moving the party in a more populist economic direction, and appealing to Americans on economic issues, is entirely doable. This should be a pillar on which Democrats build a platform in large part  because it’s likely to be another major reason for Trump’s popular support. Many voters were clearly desperate enough to vote in an incompetent outsider based on a desire to shake up the system. There was a more competent left wing analogue in Sanders, and this is the new normal: Voters who are dissatisfied in inarticulate ways with the economic systems of our liberal democracy.

Trump does represent, at least on some level, a reaction to the opaque and troubling trends in the American economy. His lack of competence to cure them is immaterial, only the perception that he can sufficiently shake up the system for something to change. Racism certainly played its role in this election, but we cannot attribute the entirety of Trump’s success to it. Racism is also a more inherently difficult  problem to navigate and it is unlikely that electoral policy changes will have any direct impact. Certainly battling racism is a fight that must and will continue, but identifying and emphasizing the problem doesn’t actually solve it. It must be worked around as much as against, yet without compromise. This is no mean feat. The battles ahead will be difficult.

What Do You Know About Intelligence?

What Do You Know About Intelligence?

Where is Standing Rock? It seems like a simple question, right? To answer, you’ll go to Google Maps and type it in. Yet this is an extremely critical kind of intelligence routinely taken for granted, even occasionally by the professional intelligence agencies of nation-states: Open source intelligence (AKA OSINT, since the defense apparatus so loves alphabet soup.) A map, Wikipedia pages, the CIA World Fact Book, and even fliers on a bulletin board are sources of non-secret information. In the context of activism and politics, it is the most common kind of intelligence utilized, though it is very rarely called “intelligence.” Yet information collection, dissemination, and intelligence operations are rarely formalized among activists. There isn’t a wholesale denial of the utility of information, but it isn’t always felt that intelligence is as vital as it is.

Take for instance the police practice of “kettling.” Kettling is a form of encirclement, where picketers and protesters are isolated and contained within a narrow zone by a cordon of police, sometimes with a small controlled outlet. The idea is that protesters isolated for hours will “tire themselves out.” This encirclement is initiated with coordinated police movements and various established crowd-control techniques like baton charges. By understand the goals, techniques, and principles surrounding kettling, it should in principal be possible to create stratagems and tactics that can counteract this. One idea has involved technology that allows protesters to communicate rapidly to counteract and escape police maneuvers. This technology is entirely a function of the utilization of reconnaissance and intelligence. Incidentally, kettling follows and obeys many of the dynamics of battlefields before the invention of mechanized warfare, and studying formations and maneuvers of non-mechanized armies may prove instructive in countering kettling, baton charges, and other techniques simply by the judicious coordination of non-violent movement.

Or, in the case of NoDAPL, we can ask the question,  what banks are supporting the DAPL? This is again, open information. Suddenly, you don’t have to physically occupy space at Standing Rock to have an impact. You can use this information to impose costs on the project nationally. Understanding the business side of the operation is critical, and knowing where the debts lie, what is leveraged, and whose money is involved is not only possible, but essential. Leftists who refuse to learn about and understand modern finance, and dismiss it as “abstraction” are relinquishing a valuable weapon. Understand that civil resistance is rarely about physical stoppage. It is about utilizing the coercive effects of imposed costs on those who have the power to stop an action unilaterally. This is the shortest path to success.

What about infiltration, asset-development, and covert operations? These are much more difficult for non-violent resisters to pull off, but should not be precluded from all consideration. Often, the use by the authorities of agent-provocateurs can have devastating impacts on peaceful actions. Knowing and identifying agent-provocateurs does not necessarily require covert intelligence, but counter-intelligence methods can and should be employed to identify and neutralize them. Neutralization is often a euphemism for killing, but in non-violent resistance, neutralization of an agent-provocateur merely requires identification of the agent and the dissemination of that information. The possibility of infiltration should also be publicly left open, even if it is not a real possibility or desire. The reason is that it forces authorities and the powerful to expend effort to detect such infiltration. Paranoia and uncertainty in the adversary is something that should be actively cultivated to the extent that it does not jeopardize other goals.

Intelligence isn’t everything. In war, intelligence is considered vital, but not decisive. In other words, intelligence alone does not win wars. It is possible to overstate importance of intelligence in achieving an objective. However it may gradually become an accepted and effective practice for non-violent organizers to give intelligence-related tasks to specific dedicated team who are qualified and capable of understanding the many complex factors often involved in achieving a specific goal. This is especially critical when waging boycotts or other forms of economic warfare which may benefit from a deep understanding of financial systems. Most movements make intelligence everyone’s responsibility, which is not an altogether bad idea. However by making it no-one’s specific responsibility, there is a level of neglect that can easily be rectified.

In general, the lessons of this post are that intelligence management and assessment should be given attention, and that open-source intelligence is the most important form of intelligence. Intelligence can be used to maximize the effectiveness of specific tactics. The threat of intelligence can also be used to divide an adversary and impose internal costs to the adversary. Intelligence collection and use is also perfectly compatible with non-violent resistance. Even if you shouldn’t overestimate the importance of intelligence gathering activities, under no circumstances should they be neglected.

Why Talk So Much About War?

Why Talk So Much About War?

I begin this post with a series of personal admissions: I am not a badass. I am not tough, I am not built for speed, I can’t shoot worth a damn, I’ve never been so much as a Boy Scout, and the only weapon I’ve mastered is a chef’s knife. As much as I believe in self-improvement and the acquisition of new skills and abilities: I’m very much okay with all of this. I abhor violence, and consider it to be an option of extreme last resort. I’m fairly certain that faced with the option, I’d rather die than kill. I find I have a hard time hating people, even people who have certainly done wrong, and constantly struggle with the question of whether anger can serve a noble purpose. So if I’m no tough guy, what’s with the posturing? Why the belligerent metaphor? The answer is that it’s not a metaphor, war is an incredibly literal reality for anyone opposing the state regardless of their methods.

All resistance, all non-violent resistance, all violent resistance, all civil disobedience, all terrorism, all protests, all demonstrations, all underground publication, all anonymous leafleting, all strikes, and all boycotts have one thing in common: They are a form of asymmetric warfare. The list you just read is full of tactics and methods commonly associated with non-violent resistance in addition to unquestionably violent ones. The former is rarely characterized as a form of war. Yet all non-violent resistance has casualties, objectives, resource allocation, tactical innovation, and strength considerations. It is a weapon of the weak against the powerful. It is coercive, it threatens power structures, and it can end the reign of a leader just as surely as an assassin’s bullet or an invading army. What else would you call that?

This idea was not born from the mind that writes this blog, which isn’t clever enough to have conceived of it. It is based on published research and informed scholarship¹. It was not invented here. Militaries, increasingly finding themselves in police roles occupying the land of an unwilling populace, are coming to slow, gradual realization of this fact, and this is apparent in the manuals published by armed forces², though their primary priority and focus at this time is violent resistance. Political scientists and those who study the dynamics of war and peace have found that it is meaningful and useful to characterize non-violent resistance as asymmetric warfare³. There are non-violent analogues to violent means, and often times the state is sufficiently violent towards dissidents that issues of defensive and offensive posturing, and territory controlled, are sometimes the only meaningful way to describe events.

This blog, from its conception, has always been committed to non-violence, and its symbol has been a unlit bomb with a rose on the side. However it is not yet well understood, even among some veterans of leftist activism, that warfare is an appropriate framework for non-violent methods. Some doubtless do understand this since again, this framing does not originate here. However the broader left must come to the realization, and quickly, that it is convenient to use this framework. This is because numerous tactics, strategies, and philosophies of war have been developed over the course of human history, and within that vast body of old knowledge, new non-violent weapons, tactics, and methods can be rapidly developed and outpace the means and methods of the powerful.

At this point, some may read this and grow weary. War was a fine idea, but this sounds like peace, like weakness, like lying down and waiting for the next genocide. (Though the preceding link confusingly conflates certain non-violent or mixed status events with violent ones.) There are elements of the American left slowly starting to resemble the right in certain values, structures, and beliefs. This goes beyond the common criticism of tactic choice, and goes to a creeping trend in a philosophy that has attempted to keep up with tactic choice. This trend, which I fear may be too late to stop, is born out of fear and desperation.

I cannot offer encouragement to those who wish to engage in violence, I cannot offer them advice, and worst of all, I cannot offer them hope. There is rarely hope in violent resistance. I have learned this over the course of my life as a person of Palestinian descent. I have constantly been frustrated by the use of violence on the part of Palestinians, even as I understand the pain and heartbreak that inspires it. This violence leaves me bitter and resentful of its perpetrators even as I feel their justified anguish over demolished homes, broken bodies, dead family, and shattered dreams. It is not because I believe that violent resistance necessarily diminishes the rights of the resisters, or the inherent correctness of their cause. Instead, it is because I very sincerely believe, with every fiber of my being, that violent resistance is not optimal.

Why I believe it is less effective is not the mere fantasy of a moralizing coward. Though my bravery has not been tested, and though I suspect myself a true coward at my core, it is not my heart that tells me this, but my mind. Over the years I’ve watched causes falter and die in violence. Worse than the violence is the victory, twisting people into vengeful paranoid ugly shapes on the inside as residual blood-lust sours the fruits of their liberation⁴. My instincts would be confirmed as I studied the relative successes and failures of violent and non-violent resistance. But, there was always doubt in my mind, and a desire to find a real answer to the question: Is violence effective? The answer was complicated and difficult to understand, until I realized I was asking the wrong question. The question all along was, “Compared to what?” Once I asked that question, I realized that I had my answer. Non-violence is more effective. The ways in which it is an improvement on spilling blood is for another time. However, understand that this blog and its writer are committed to methods and means of non-violence. Our war is inevitable, but our monstrosity is not.

This post, and to some extent this blog, owes a debt of gratitude to Mindy Clegg. She inspired research that ultimately made possible much of the theoretical underpinning that sustains this endeavor.

1. See the excellent work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan on this subject.  For a case study in particular, see Stephan M., Mundy J. A Battlefield Transformed: From Guerrilla Resistance to Mass Nonviolent Struggle in the Western Sahara. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies. Spring 2006. Vol. 8, Iss. 3. pp. 1-32. [PDF]
2. Such as the now very well known, and highly regarded despite its flaws, US Army publication FM3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. Sometimes referred to as COIN-FM.
3. Supra, (1).
4. Sagan S., Denny S. Re-Education In Unliberated Vietnam: Loneliness, Suffering, and Death. The Indochina Newsletter. October-November 1982. [Link to text]