Nonviolence Versus Capitalism


Brian Martin 

London:
War Resisters’ International, 2001 


Review
By Camy Matthay 

Brian
Martin’s book Nonviolence
Versus Capitalism
is a cogent argument for the value of using
nonviolent action as strategy for moving beyond capitalism. Though
Martin knows that some people adhere to nonviolent strategy on moral
grounds, Martin is saying that even if one lacks these convictions,
that it is still possible to support a path based on nonviolence
for pragmatic reasons alone. 

Martin’s
reasoning is based on the grounds that the most prominent alternatives
to capitalism that were pursued in the l900s—namely state socialism
and social electoralism—were tried and they consistently failed.
Furthermore, since socialist alternatives rely on the power of the
state, these strategies differ very little from capitalism in their
ultimate dependence on violence for control of society. One form
of domination would simply replace a previous form. Under these
conditions of social control, would it mean anything then if the
commissars of the new order claimed their system was more enlightened? 

Nonviolent
strategy—if only by default—deserves a chance. It is the
most promising method of moving beyond capitalism to a more humane
social and economic system and has the great merit of integrating
the ends with the means. 

To
dismantle the capitalist system, Martin points out that we need
to understand how capitalism keeps itself in business and we need
to have some grasp—however tenuous—of where we are going,
of what is going to be better. Thus, if the goal is a world with
far less suffering, it is imperative that we refine our dreams for
a nonviolent future in concrete terms. 

In
light of this, Martin presents descriptions of four alternative
systems that are explicitly constructed on non-violent foundations.
His examples include: (1) Sarvoydaya, the Gandhian ideal of self-sufficient
village democracy (a lifestyle being practiced by over six million
people in India and Sri Lanka), (2) an anarchistic model of decentralized
direct collective control over all the affairs of life and relationship,
(3) voluntaryism —a spin off of libertarianism that is based
on cooperative relationships in a market economy, and (4) demarchy—a
sociopolitical model that presents a non-coercive and localized
solution to the participation dilemma associated with direct democracy. 

Martin
evaluates these alternatives against conditions he believes a cooperative,
egalitarian, nonviolent society should fulfill. These conditions
or principles are: cooperation; altruism; satisfying work; inclusivity
(i.e., “the system should be designed and run by the people
themselves, not by authorities or experts”); and nonviolence. 

The
most valuable part of Nonviolence Versus Capitalism may be
the suggestions Martin offers on how to assess the anti-capitalistic
merits of campaigns involved with environmental issues, worker’s
rights, etc. Though Martin admits that a campaign might be extremely
important even though it doesn’t directly oppose capitalism,
his method of assessment, which he condenses into a few sobering
questions, is for a specific anti-capitalistic purpose and as such
has tremendous value to those who are interested in determining
whether or not a strategy merely tweaks the status quo by subtractive
and additive reforms, or promotes revolutionary changes that would
effectively challenge the underpinnings of capitalism. 

A
strike for higher pay, he points out, can be valuable to exploited
workers, but it does not challenge the asymmetry of power in the
relationship between employers and workers. A strategy aimed to
give workers control over what they produce and what they would
charge for their labor, however, is quite different since it challenges,
among other things, the legitimacy of hierarchical relations. 

In
a similar critique of nonviolent strategy, Martin points out how
“withdrawal of consent as a nonviolent tactic can be used to
change relationships to means of production, but revolutionary change
is not just a matter of withdrawing consent from a particular factory
owner, but of withdrawing consent from ownership itself.” 

It
is worth noting that although factory owners, corporate directors,
CEOs, etc., may be the master thieves, they are nonetheless not
the capitalist machine. We are all both guests and hosts in the
market-economy hotel. Expending energy to modify the behavior of
those in the penthouse has proven to be generally useless. Identifying
and killing those who dominate and exploit is a “clear the
slate” strategy that presents troubling problems not the least
of which is the fact that it attracts extremists who, under some
illusion of being in possession of the “true way,” practice
a kind of despotic self-righteousness. Lastly, bombing the top floor
of the hotel is tantamount to collective suicide. 

What
is really going to matter in the years ahead is how carefully the
hotel is dismantled and if the number of people effectively challenging
the legitimacy of capitalism can reach a tipping point. 

Martin
does not underestimate the difficulties associated with challenging
intricately distributed systems of domination; he is aware that
technocratic societies produce a surfeit of disinformation and info-tainment.
He also understands how—beyond the mystifications of consumerism—capitalism
is sustained by belief systems including property, entitlement,
individualism, and everyday behaviors including status enhancement,
the pursuit of autonomy, and selfishness. 

Again,
in the struggle against capitalism, Martin emphasizes that what
is going to matter is numbers, i.e., enough people who are enchanted
with the possibility of a more humane social reality to be true
to the task of developing local initiatives where important questions
can be collectively addressed questions such as: “How would
I really like to live?” “In what kind of society (or non-society)
would I feel most comfortable?” “In what kind of system
can individuals live up to themselves?” 

Nonviolence,
Martin reminded me, is a method of waging conflict. It is not mere
passive resistance, far more than a precautionary principal, and
no more neutral than a gun. 

Martin’s
book has given me hope, and he has earned my infinite respect, in
that his book models the faith in human rationality that I believe
would be a principle feature of a post-capitalistic world…. A
world that has removed all removable injustices, extended civil
associations beyond coercive institutions and states, and accepted
the necessity to defend a biocentric ethic that takes Life more
seriously than individual gain