Whose Violence?



Given the USA’s unique imperial status in today’s world, the reelection of George W. Bush inevitably has global as well as domestic implications, the direst of which is the readiness and indeed commitment on the part of all three wings of the U.S. Republican Party –  the military hawks, the free marketers and the social conservatives – to rely on the state’s monopoly of the means of violence to impose their version of social order. There were plenty of signs even before the end of the 20th century that the contradictions of imperialism and neoliberalism would increasingly incline capitalist states in this direction. But under the shadow of the events of 9/11, this was accelerated, with the US state’s trajectory being especially marked towards an order which far from being very democratic is increasingly authoritarian at its core.


It must not be forgotten, however, that the 21st century not only opened with the victory of the Right marked by George W. Bush’s inauguration in January 2001: the new global justice movement’s remarkable ascendance on the Left reached its peak at the same time. The first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil also took place in January 2001, and was quickly followed by the massive protests in Quebec City in April and in Genoa in July, which carried forward the spirit of the galvanizing protest at World Trade Organization’s ill-fated ministerial meeting in Seattle in November 1999, followed by those at the spring meeting of the World Bank and IMF in Washington, D.C., in April 2000]; the World Economic Forum’s gathering in Melbourne on September 11, 2000 and the  Prague meeting of the Bank and Fund a week later. This movement had begun to fill the vacuum created by the failures not only of the Communist regimes and parties, but also of Social Democratic parties and governments which, in the face of the crisis of the welfare state, had all too often stoked the disenchantment with electoral politics by embracing capitalist globalization themselves. Into this political vacuum stepped not only reactionary religious fundamentalisms and a racist populist new right, but also the forces in every country that fuelled the new global justice movement.


September 11th, it was immediately said, changed everything. However true or not this may be, it certainly brought home to Americans in a horrible manner that the contradictions of ruling the world are great. And these contradictions were soon measured in the effects that the US state terrorism that was unleashed in response to Sept 11th soon brought about in parts of the world very far from New York and Washington, above all in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the violent responses that this in turn generated. In this context, one might have expected that both 9/11 and the imperial ‘war on terrorism’ would at least have changed the loose manner in which violence as an adjective had been appended to the global justice movement and its ‘anti-globalization’ protests. When the whole world was witness to passenger airplanes being deployed to destroy office towers in New York, and to military airplanes being deployed to rain bombs on Afghanistan and Iraq, it put in a rather surreal light the police seizure in Quebec City of a toy catapult designed to throw teddy bears over a security fence as a ‘violent weapon’.


Those activists in Quebec City and Genoa who in the months before 9/11 engaged in practices oriented to breaking through the police lines and fences behind which the rich and powerful gathered, or who threw a rock at a McDonald’s window along the route of a protest march, or who managed to get so far as to toss paint at a politician or CEO, were clearly engaged in a form of politics that is fundamentally of a different order in terms of intent, in terms of the material employed, and in terms of effects, than the practice of armed conflict by or against a state. Indeed, the very charge of disturbing the peace leveled against people sitting down together to block intersections should have been brought into question by September 11th. Yet, with 9/11 and declaration of the war on terrorism coming so soon after the protests in Quebec City and Genoa, one immediate effect was that rather than these distinctions becoming clearer, they were further obscured.


Those agencies concerned with ‘state security’ were tempted to meld the role they were playing in relation to constraining or repressing such protests with the new roles that would be defined for them after 9/11 in the war on terrorism. And the mass fears that watching the events of Sept 11th induced in the population at large were further aggravated by those unscrupulous right-wing politicians and journalists who never overlook an opportunity to smear the Left. To take but just one example close to home, by September 18th we could read the following in the National Post: ‘Like terrorists, the anti-globalization movement is disdainful of democratic institutions… Terrorism, if not so heinous as what we witnessed last week, has always been part of the protesters’ game plan.’


Such claims were as absurd as they were mendacious. For what precisely had come to characterize this generation of left activists was the explicit eschewal, even among its most militant elements, of either armed revolutionary struggle or terrorism (along the lines of the Red Brigades or Weathermen) as a means of effecting change. In the current era, it is not among activists on the Left, but rather almost exclusively on the right that one finds violence adopted as a strategy and a life-style, as among those Christian fundamentalists or American militiamen or European neo-nazis who bomb abortion clinics, government buildings and refugee shelters. And the same must be said about the religious fanatics in the Middle and Far East, whether Muslim or Jewish or Hindu, whose self-identification as the scourge of the secular and religious Left is a central element in their political formation.


By contrast, David Graeber, a Yale university anthropologist, himself an anarchist, was largely correct in writing in New Left Review (Jan/Feb 2002) that, despite the way the media deployed the word violence ‘as a mantra’ to describe anti-globalization protests,


what really disturbs the powers-that-be is not the ‘violence’ of the movement but its relative lack of it; governments simply do not know how to deal with an openly revolutionary movement that refuses to fall into familiar patterns of armed resistance… Where once it seemed that the only alternatives to marching along with signs were either Ghandian non-violent civil disobedience or outright insurrection, groups like the Direct Action Network, Reclaim the Streets, Black Blocs or Tute Bianche have all, in their own ways, been trying to map out a completely new territory in between. They are attempting to invent what many call a ‘new language’ of civil disobedience, combining elements of street theatre, festival, and what can only be called non-violent warfare – non-violent in the sense adopted by, say, Back Bloc anarchists, in that it eschews any direct physical arm to human beings.   


The distinctive nature of this type of protest, and its contradictions and limitations in the current context, will be addressed in the final section of this pamphlet. It is first of all necessary, however, to put the question of political violence into some proper perspective.



Violence, Order and the Imperial State


Certainly, the various form of violence associated with state’s keeping order differ from those associated with the social forces making for change. A great 19th century writer – not Karl Marx but rather Mark Twain – once put this very well. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in the year of the first centenary of the French Revolution, had this to say about that truly historic occasion of violent change:


There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’, if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.


The kind of reasoning Twain employed regarding the two reigns of terror goes far to explain the overwhelming balance of world public opinion against the American- led ‘war on terrorism’ launched after 9/11, especially in the world’s poor countries, where most people still experience first hand what Twain meant by ‘lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, injury and heartbreak’. On the other hand, if the majority of the world’s population were unsympathetic, as they were, to the momentary terror wrought by the September 11th acts themselves, this may well have to do with their recognition of their purely symbolic and atavistic nature. These acts were not only immoral from the point of view of the innocent people they killed, but also, unlike the French Revolution, driven by a reactionary, almost feudal, impulse. They were in any case counterproductive as a response to global inequality and American imperialism. For again unlike the French Revolution which – whatever the horrors of the transitional terror – did after all overthrow the old regime, the inevitable outcome of the kind of political action that September 11th represented could only be that of stoking the self-righteous flames of imperial power, and fueling their spread. 


The concept of empire, which used to be quite unfashionable, has made a comeback in this context. Of course, the American empire is quite different from the old colonial empires. It would be a serious mistake to try to revive in the current context Hobson’s or Lenin’s notions of imperialism, connoting, among other things, a stage of capitalism marked by inter-imperial rivalry and war. Nor should we think that every intervention abroad by the US is driven by narrow domestic interests: on the contrary, it may be more accurate in some ways to see the Americans state today as burdened by the function, which it alone can play, of maintaining world order in today’s global capitalism.


Its claim to be the foremost democracy as well as the foremost military power underwrote the American state’s conferral upon itself the right to deploy its unparalleled means of violence around the world in the name of human rights, electoral democracy and market freedom.


This global deployment, even when the interventions were legitimated and sometimes invited by international human rights advocates and agencies – from the first Gulf War to the war on Yugoslavia over Kosovo in the 1990s – did not, of course, necessarily lead to the spread of human rights and liberal democracy, although it certainly did lead to greater economic inequality. There was a staggering amount of self-delusion in the view of the Bush administration that America is hated by the terrorists because ‘we elect our leaders’. (This was a self-delusion only matched in the immediate aftermath of September 11th by the apparently widespread credibility in the Muslim world given to the absurd rumour that Jews were forewarned from going to the World Trade Towers that day). Bin Laden, we may be sure, could not have cared less whether Americans elect their governments or not. Nor do as many people in the world give much credence to the USA‘s democratic pretensions as liberal human rights advocates care to think. The dubiousness about the war on terrorism among so much of the world’s population stems no doubt partly from this, especially in light of the long-standing role played by the American imperium in the world-wide suppression of progressive forces, often in the name of spreading democracy and human rights. One aspect of this was its cynical sponsoring of reactionary religious fundamentalism as a tool against the secular Left in that part of the world on which it has now made war.


September 11th was ‘blowback’ from this – with such vengeance as could only have been stoked up over half a century. The term was first coined in Washington, D.C., in 1954, when CIA and Pentagon bureaucrats mulled over the possible consequences of their decision to overthrow of the left-nationalist Mossadeq government in Iran, and today as then strategic imperial visions at play in Afghanistan and Iraq are also about oil. But they are not only about oil. They still have much to do with what was still geo-strategically unsettled after the ‘liberation’ of Central Europe and end of the Cold War. Apart from the countries of Eastern Europe absorbed into NATO and the EU, the countries that have since the break-up of the Soviet Union been patronisingly called the ‘stans’ in the State Department and the Pentagon have been finally prised from the Russian sphere of influence. With the new American bases established in post-Soviet Central Asia, American military bases now circle the world from Japan to the China‘s western border. The building of the National Missile Defence ‘Shield’ is also part of this offensive strategy, with enormous implications for the militarization of space. And, according to a New York Times report (March 7, 2002) Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has been seriously entertaining the use of conventional nuclear weapons as a contingency, even against non-nuclear states, while insisting on nuclear non-proliferation for others.


The US‘s inability to secure UN support in the run-up to the second Bush war on Iraq was certainly a significant indicator of the problems of legitimacy to which its explicit imperial posture increasingly give rise. But those who try to hold on to the Pearsonian nostrum that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could only legitimately have been prosecuted under its auspices would do well to recall what Stephen Lewis, Canada’s Ambassador to the UN at the time, had to say about the first Bush war on Iraq in an interview published in the World Policy Journal in the summer of 1991: 


The United Nations served as an imprimatur for a policy that the United States wanted to follow and either persuaded or coerced everybody else to support. The Security Council thus played fast and loose with the provisions of the UN Charter… In some respects… [this] may have been the UN’s most desolate hour. It certainly unnerved a lot of developing countries, which were privately outraged by what was going on but felt utterly impotent to do anything – a demonstration of the enormous power of US power and influence when it is unleashed.


If the UN’s initial position vis a vis the second Bush war on Iraq in 2002 suggested that power and influence at the UN was becoming more tenuous, the Security Council’s vote in the spring of 2004 to endorse (with French and German support) the puppet Allawi government established under the American occupation also suggested that US power and influence at the UN was by no means yet a thing of the past.  Moreover, the ‘coalition of the willing’ against terrorism the US had set about building after 9/11 had effects far beyond Afghanistan and Iraq. It served to legitimate and sustain other states’ repression of the separatist along with other dissident domestic groups. Less well known than the free hand given to the Russians in Chechnya was the free hand being given to the Chinese Communist-capitalist elite to act against the Muslim separatists in their westernmost province without fear that this will be used by the Americans against them in their ongoing negotiations over the terms of integration into the capitalist world economy.  Consistency need not be a principle of imperial strategy, and this was never more evident than in the stunningly quick about face the USA has made since yesteryear’s war on Yugoslavia, when the justification for that war was the right of self-determination in the old Communist world for every ethno-nationalist group that demanded it.     


Moreover, the larger implication of the post-9/11  ‘you-are-with-us-or-against-us’ stance of the United States was to require all the world’s states to restructure their coercive apparatus to fit America‘s strategic concerns. This would seem to reinforce the earlier requirement set by the imperium that they restructure their economic apparatus to fit with an American-led neoliberal globalization of capitalism. The trouble for the American empire as it inclines in this strategic direction is that very few of the world’s ‘non-core’ states today are going to be able to be reconstructed along the lines of post-war Japan and Germany, even if (indeed especially if) they are occupied by the US military, and even if they are penetrated rather than marginalized by globalization. The possibilities of ‘blowback’ are great, as exemplified not only in Iraq but also in a country like Pakistan, whose state which has played a crucial geo-strategic role for the empire in the current conjuncture. This is a country where 85-90% of the state budget is devoted to paying interest on the debt and for the military and coercive apparatus, leaving almost nothing for anything else. Little wonder, with no public educational system to speak of, that the poor in Pakistan – who do not vote for fundamentalist parties in any great numbers – have nevertheless been sending their boys to the religious madrasas, where they will be fed as well as indoctrinated in fundamentalism. And little wonder the imperium has been worried about such even such a compliant state losing control of its nuclear arsenal. The consequences are incalculable precisely because the imperium, even if it has military bases everywhere, cannot rule except with and through such states. As Ellen Wood wrote in the 2002 Socialist Register:


The very detachment of economic domination from political rule that makes it possible for capital to extend its reach beyond the capacity of any other imperial power in history is also the source of a fundamental weakness… National states implement and enforce the global economy, and they remain the most effective means of intervening in it. This means that the state is also the point at which global capital is most vulnerable, both as a target of opposition in the dominant economies and as a lever of resistance elsewhere. It also means that now more than ever, much depends on the particular class forces embodied in the state, and that now more than ever, there is scope, as well as need, for class struggle.


This has enormous implications for the Left everywhere today, with one of the most important questions being to what extent the new coercive domestic practices and legal measures adopted under the banner of the war against terrorism will foreclose the scope for struggle…



Strategic Questions for the Global Justice Movement


The mass protests that developed in recent years have been intended to be raucus and, if possible, disruptive. It is that character that made them different from set-piece march along a route pre-agreed with the authorities. Most of the demonstrators come with nothing more illegal, let alone violent, intended than marching without a permit, occupying public spaces adjacent to the meeting places of the assembled elites, and engaging in the remarkably creative street theatre for which these demonstrations have become justly famous. The ‘diversity of tactics’ approach adopted at these demonstrations (and especially elaborately preplanned in Quebec City) to allow people to choose to stay away from a confrontation with the police at the security fence, explicitly made allowances for those who come to the demonstration with such a confrontation in mind. To be sure, confrontations with the police at such demonstrations were already, even before September the 11th, leading a good many people involved in these protests to question the ‘diversity of tactics’ approach, and lack of accountability to the whole of those who undertake the most militant tactics. Those who want to engage in a classic strategy of civil disobedience have sometimes felt that they are effectively prevented from doing by those who come with the intent of physically challenging police lines. For the police truncheons and tear gas inevitably descend indiscriminately and push everyone off the streets. The image of generalized violence among those who watched the protests on television or read the sensationalized accounts in the papers also led many people inside the anti-globalization movement to question the diversity of tactics approach and to demand a serious discussion of which tactics are in fact most productive of building greater popular support for the movement against globalization.


But it is still true that the confrontations led by groups like the Black Bloc were minimally violent in comparison with anything remotely resembling terrorism, and actually resembled much more the pushing and shoving at a militant picket line during a strike where the police have a large presence. Moreover, most of those tear-gassed, assaulted by the police and even arrested at such demonstrations intended nothing but peaceful protest but in the face of what seems an overbearing and unjustified police blockage and interference, and only often joined in the pushing and shoving or resist arrest when they refuse to clear an area as instructed. Some of them then went off a join a better-prepared and more militant group for the next demonstration.  Even to the extent that global justice activists were inspired by certain struggles where violence is a strategic element, from the Zapatista uprising in Mexico to the ‘Cremate Monsanto’ campaign in India, it nevertheless remained the case that this movement could only be seen, in any historical and comparative perspective, as very far away indeed from anything that might fairly be designated as terrorism let alone armed struggle. Even among the anarchist elements on the movement, the stress lay rather on inventing, through their street protest preparations, a form of direct democracy based on small consensus finding meetings rather than voting. This is seen to presage the participatory democracy at a local level that often constitutes the foundation of an alternative vision to the freedom of capital movements and export competitiveness that is the essence of globalization.


Direct action protests are hardly entirely new and have often proved effective, as the marches by the unemployed and the occupations of factories and streets in the 1930s and 1940s proved. Looking back, what is now considered more legitimate – the firing by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the unemployed marchers in Regina or the vociferous protest that led to putting unemployment insurance legislation on the agenda? And does anyone give much credit today to the charges of lawlessness that thundered over Windsor when autoworkers commandeered over 1000 cars on the streets of that city in the famous 1945 blockade that led to union security legislation? The effectiveness of the mass anti-globalization demonstrations has been clear from the way meetings of the global elites have been put on the defensive, and now proclaim their abiding concern with addressing world poverty every time they get together.


In any case, there is much more to the global justice movement than is visible at the large protest demonstrations. The protests, as Naomi Klein put it in the 2002 volume of the Socialist Register, ‘are not demonstrations of one movement, but rather convergences of many smaller ones, each with its sights trained on a specific multinational corporation (like Nike), a particular industry (like agribusiness) or a new trade initiative (like the Free Trade Area of the Americas), or in defence of indigenous self-determination (like the Zapatistas)… Rather than a single movement, what is emerging is thousands of movements intricately linked to one another, much as ‘hotlinks’ connect their websites on the Internet.’ To this could be added groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty whose radical egalitarian goals and tactics of direct action have become symbols of admiration for (and led such groups to attach themselves to) the anti-globalization movement and its protest demonstrations. The greatest success of this movement of movements has been its diverse transnational political subculture of activists, with each group still conducting their own specific campaigns, research, advocacy and related direct actions. This in turn has given critical researchers and writers against globalization a sense that they not only are heard, but also have a broad political base, and thus led them to redouble their efforts.  This decentred movement often made it seem as if the agents of globalization, be they states, corporations or international organizations, were being ‘swarmed’ from a thousand directions.


In terms of moving forward, the hardest problem the global justice movement faced even before 9/11 was not at all its alleged orientation to violence at its demonstrations, but rather figuring out how to go beyond protest. What was already impelling the organization of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January 2001 was exactly this. Laying out alternatives as well as showing off the various movements’ wares (in terms of what they have done on their home ground) was the order of the day at the remarkable second Forum there in 2002 and the third in Mumbai in 2003, and the regional social forums that have mushroomed in their wake. There has been considerable recognition that there can be no effective change unless and until well-organized new political forces emerge in each country that have the capacity, not just to protest vociferously, but to effect a democratic reconstitution of state power, turn it against today’s state-constituted global American empire and initiate cooperative international strategies among states that will allow for coherent and cooperative local development.


In this respect, one of the promising aspects of the anti-globalization and anti-war protests today, compared with the anti-war protests of the 1960s, has been that many of the groups associated with them have increasingly designated themselves as anti-capitalist, and have given some positive direction to what that entails by their decentralized and participatory visions of different social order. Even if the most visible and energizing characteristic of the global justice movement has remained its protests at the international economic and financial gatherings which foster capitalist globalization (seen most recently again in the 50,000 people protesting at the APEC meeting in Santiago, Chile in November 2004), there has also been a growing sense that such protest is not enough either. If the Internet has been an asset in unleashing the capacity to organize dissent and resistance on the global stage, it has proved no substitute for the hard work of class formation and political organization that the Landless Movement in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Chiapas had to engage in on their own ground. The Internet was also indispensable in bringing together the hundreds of thousands activists and researchers at world and regional social forums to discuss the various meanings of ‘another world is possible’, but it is no substitute for building in each country new parties, post-communist and post-social democratic, capable of developing new structures of popular democracy as a prelude to and an effect of competing for state power. As Naomi Klein admitted:


There is no question that the communications culture that reigns on the Net is better at speed and volume than it is at synthesis. It is capable of getting tens of thousands of people to meet on the same street corner, placards in hand, but it is far less adept at helping those same people to agree on what they are really asking for before they get to the barricades – or after they leave. Perhaps that’s why a certain repetitive quality has set in at these large demonstrations; from smashing McDonald’s windows to giant puppets, they can begin to look like McProtests. The Net made them possible, but its not proving particularly helpful in taking them to a new stage…. Now the police have subscribed to all the e-mail lists and have used the supposed threat posed by anarchists as giant fundraising schemes, allowing them to buy up all manner of new toys, from surveillance equipment to water cannons. More substantively… the movement, no manner how decentralized, [is] in grave danger of seeming remote, cut off from the issues that affect people’s daily lives.    


On my way to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2002, I stopped in Santiago, Chile to give another keynote address, this time at a labour summer school. I met there two brothers whose parents were involved in the MIR movement of armed struggle in the early 1970s and who had escaped to Cuba after the Pinochet coup against Allende and the mass murder of the Chilean Left that ensued. They returned to Chile as young men, having rejected their parents’ armed struggle politics, with a determined orientation, very much in tune with the new generation of activists in the North, towards working with people in their neighborhood associations as much as in their workplaces on a broad agenda of social, ecological and cultural as well as economic issues to begin anew the difficult process of class formation and political organization. As we traveled from Santiago to Porto Alegre together I asked them to give me one concrete example of the kind of organizing on the ground they were doing to bring this about. The example they gave me certainly qualifies as direct action. It involved organizing workers in the construction sector where trade unions and collective bargaining have been completely wiped out, and where all workers are casual and contract labour. They led an occupation by the workers on a building site where an Italian multinational construction company was developing the largest planetarium in Latin America. But when the police massed outside to break the occupation, the Italian engineers on the project, locked up inside but sympathetic to the protest, insisted that the Minister of Interior negotiate with the workers. A 72-hour cell-phone negotiation ensued, ending in a collective agreement, with minimum wages and standards specified.


This is the kind of direct action that may well come more and more onto the agenda of activists in Europe and North America. As the new generation on the Left seeks to ground its protest against the global structures of oppression and exploitation, it already engages itself more and more with addressing, including through direct action – whether through homeless squats or factory occupations – the immediate troubles facing people in their own societies. If this kind of activity, which is part and parcel of beginning anew the long-term process of class formation and political organization, is going to be repressed by the state as violent, indeed as terrorist, activity we are in for some very ugly times. 


But for the present, despite all the justifiable concerns that post 9/11 anti-terrorist legislation and state action has raised, there still remains today considerable space for struggle. The repression of protest, while serious, has yet to exceed that which occurred in some earlier conjunctures in liberal democratic states over the past century.  So far at least, the attempt to paint, in rhetoric and legislation, the protest activities of the current generation of antiwar and social justice movement activists as violent, let alone terrorist, has not worked. And in the face of the imperial state terror in Iraq that grows more and more heinous and obvious by the day, the more difficult it will be to make this credible. To be sure, it is possible that exasperation with the lack of electoral alternatives – and with the limits of protest as both the coercive apparatus and the media learn how to contain and frustrate its impact – will lead a few people to consider taking up again bombings or kidnappings along the lines of the Weathermen and Red Brigades in the 1970s. While such a reaction to war on the home front in the USA is quite imaginable under the second Bush administration, it would unfortunately only further fan the flames of repression and reaction. But this would entail a break with what the social justice movement has been all about. Far more characteristic of that movement will be the invention of new modes of protest that in creative, coherent and accountable ways will connect with the needs and interests of more and more people. It is likely as well that activists will increasingly devote more thought and energy to long-term political organization and education at every level, recognizing that within the space that is still open for struggle, this is necessary to build anew such democratic and socialist political forces as are capable of transforming each of the states that are presently the lynch-pins of global imperialism and capitalism.



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