Category Archives: philosophy of the everyday

Michael Neumann on the meager record of nonviolence as a tactic for social movements

Below I’ve reproduced a chunk of Michael Neumann’s book The Case Against Israel where he discusses the meager record of nonviolence as a tactic for social movements. (FYI: If you read one book on the P-I conflict, make it this one.)

He raises this in the context of defending the Palestinians’ use of violence to resist the Israeli settlements. Still, it’s a good general treatment of nonviolence as a tactic. It is of interest, for example, to the debate between revolutionary socialism versus social-democratic “socialism by ballot.”

In brief, Neumann looks at the “nonviolent trinity” of Gandhi, MLK, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, arguing that, contrary to popular perception, non-violence (or at least non-violence alone) didn’t win the day. Ergo, the historical record doesn’t support the tactic.

[From pp. 130-34]

“No one can say with certainty that…a strategy [of nonviolence] would not work, especially if the Palestinians were prepared to die in large numbers to effect it. But do the Palestinians, or anyone else, have rational grounds for supposing it would work? Such expectations would have to be based on past experience, and the past is not accommodating. Non-violence has never “worked” in any politically relevant sense of the word, and there is no reason to suppose it ever will. It has never, largely on its own strength, achieved the political objectives of those who employed it.”

“There are supposedly three major examples of successful nonviolence: Gandhi’s independence movement, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the South African campaign against apartheid. None of them performed as advertised.”

“Gandhi’s nonviolence couldn’t have been successful, because there was nothing he would have called a success. Gandhi’s priorities may have shifted over time: he said that, if he changed his mind from one week to the next, it was because he had learned something in between. But it seems fair to say that he wanted independence from British rule, a united India, and nonviolence itself, an end to civil or ethnic strife on the Indian subcontinent. What he got was India 1947: partition, and one of the most horrifying outbursts of bloodshed and cruelty in the whole bloody, cruel history of the postwar world. These consequences alone would be sufficient to count his project as a tragic failure.”

“What of independence itself? Historians might argue about its causes, but I doubt any of them would attribute it primarily to Gandhi’s campaign. The British began contemplating—admittedly with varying degrees of sincerity—some measure of autonomy for India before Gandhi did anything, as early as 1917. A.J.P. Taylor says that after World War I, the British were beginning to find India a liability, because India was once again producing its own cotton and buying cheap textiles from Japan. Later, India’s strategic importance, while valued by many, became questioned by some who saw the oil of the Middle East and the Suez Canal as far more important. By the end of the Second World War, Britain’s will to hold onto its empire had pretty well crumbled, for reasons having little or nothing to do with nonviolence.”

“But this is the least important of the reasons why Gandhi cannot be said to have won independence for India. It was not his saintliness or the disruption he caused that impressed the British. What impressed them was that the country seemed (and was) about to erupt. The colonial authorities could see no way to stop it. A big factor was the terrorism—and this need not be a term of condemnation—quite regularly employed against the British. It was not enough to do much harm, but more than enough to warn them that India was becoming more trouble than it was worth. All things considered, the well-founded fear of violence had far more effect on British resolve that Gandhi ever did. He may have been a brilliant and creative political thinker, but he was not a victor.”

“How about the U.S. civil rights movement? It would be difficult and ungenerous to argue that it was unsuccessful, outrageous to claim that it was anything but a long and dangerous struggle. But when that is conceded, the fact remains that Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement was practically a federal government project. Its roots may have run deep, but its impetus came from the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and from the subsequent attempts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students who braved a hell to accomplish this goal are well remembered. Sometimes forgotten is U.S. government’s almost spectacular determination to see that the federal law was respected. Eisenhower sent, not the FBI, not a bunch of lawyers, but one of the best and proudest units of the United States Army, the 101st Airborne, to keep order in Little Rock and to see that the “federalized” Arkansas national guard stayed on the right side of the dispute. Though there was never any hint of an impending battle between federal and state military forces, the message couldn’t have been any clearer: we, the federal government, are prepared to do whatever it takes to enforce our will.”

“This message is an undercurrent throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Though Martin Luther King still had to overcome vicious, sometimes deadly resistance, he himself remarked that surprisingly few people were killed or seriously injured in the struggle. The surprise diminishes with the recollection that there was real federal muscle behind the nonviolent campaign. For a variety of motives, both virtuous and cynical, the U.S. government wanted the South to be integrated and to recognize black civil rights. Nonviolence achieved its ends largely because the violence of its opponents was severely constrained. In 1962, Kennedy federalized the National Guard and sent in combat troops to quell segregationist rioting in Oxford, Mississippi. Johnson did the same thing in 1965, after anti-civil rights violence in Alabama. While any political movement has allies and benefits from favorable circumstances, having the might of the U.S. government behind you goes far beyond the ordinary advantages accompanying political activity. The nonviolence of the U.S. civil rights movement sets an example only for those who have the overwhelming armed force of a government on their side.”

“As for South Africa, it is a minor miracle of wishful thinking that anyone could suppose nonviolence played a major role in the collapse of apartheid.”

“In the first place, the African National Congress was never a nonviolent movement but a movement that decided, on occasion and for practical reasons, to use nonviolent tactics. (The same could be said of the other anti-apartheid organizations.) Much like Sinn Fein and the IRA, it maintained from the 1960s an arms-length relationship with MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe), a military/guerilla organization. So there was never even a commitment to Gandhian nonviolence within the South African movements.”

“Secondly, violence was used extensively throughout the course of the anti-apartheid struggle. It can be argued that the violence was essentially defensive, but that’s not the point: nonviolence as a doctrine rejects the use of violence in self-defense. To say that blacks used violence in self-defense or as resistance to oppression is to say, I think, that they were justified. It is certainly not to say that they were nonviolent.”

“Third, violence played a major role in causing both the boycott of South Africa and the demise of apartheid. Albert Luthuli, then president of the ANC, called for an economic boycott in 1959; the ANC’s nonviolent resistance began in 1952. But the boycott only acquired some teeth starting in 1977, after the Soweto riots in 1976, and again in 1985-1986, after the township riots of 1984-1985. Though the emphasis in accounts of these riots is understandably on police repression, no one contests that black protestors committed many violent acts, including attacks on police stations.”

“Violence was telling in other ways. The armed forces associated with the ANC, though never very effective, worried the South African government after Angola and Mozambique ceased to function as buffer states: sooner or later, it was supposed, the black armies would become a serious problem. (This worry intensified with the strategic defeat of South African forces by Cuban units at Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, in 1988.) In addition, violence was widespread and crucial in eliminating police informers and political enemies, as well as coercing cooperation with collective actions. It included the practice of necklacing, with a tire set around the neck of the target and set on fire.”

“Though much of the violence was conducted by gangs and mobs, it was not for that fact any less important politically: on the contrary, it was precisely the disorganized character of the violence that made it so hard to contain. And history of the period indicates that the South African government fell not under the moral weight of dignified, passive suffering, but because the white rulers (and their friends in the West) felt that the situation was spiraling out of control. Economic problems were caused by the boycotts and the administration of apartheid was a factor, but the boycott and the administration costs were themselves, in large measure, a response to violent rather than nonviolent resistance.”

“In short, it is a myth to suppose that nonviolence brought all the victories it is supposed to have in its ledger. In fact it brought none of them.”

“How does this bear on the Israel-Palestine conflict? In that situation, success is far less likely than in the cases we have examined. Unlike Martin Luther King, the Palestinians are working against a state, not with one. Their opponents are far more ruthless than the British were in the twilight of empire. Unlike the Indians and South Africans, they do not vastly outnumber their oppressors. And neither the Boers nor the English ever had anything like the moral authority Israel enjoys in the hearts and minds of Americans, much less its enormous support network. Nonviolent protest might overcome Israel’s prestige in ten or twenty years, but the Palestinians might well suppose they do not have that long.”

“The Palestinians will continue to choose, sometimes violence, sometimes nonviolence, most often a mixture of the two. They will presumably base their choices, as they have always done, on their assessment of the political realities. It is a sort of insolent naivete to suppose that, in their weakness, they should defy the lessons of history and cut off half their options. The notion that a people (in any sense of the word) can free itself literally by allowing their captors to walk all over them is in historical terms a fantasy.”

“In short, the Palestinians had to use violence of some sort: it might not work, but there was at least some historical precedent for it working. This, of course, does not license all types of violent resistance..”

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On Accusations of “Overthinking” (inaugural post)

I’m regularly accused of “overthinking” some matter. First, it isn’t immediately clear what the concept should mean. The charge typically occurs while in the process of interpretation. For instance, in the process of training for my last job, I pointed out to my instructor ambiguities in a test question preventing me from committing to an answer. The instructor urged me to stop “overthinking” the question, confident that this would help me to correctly interpret its meaning. On their faces, such bits of advice ask one to “brake” or “pull back” one’s energies in aim of some answer. Thinking in proper measure is cast as a kind of restraint.

A “plumbing” analogy immediately comes to mind. Think here not of a plumb to discern depth but to catch some prize spelled out in advance—say, a fishing pole. We might pull back the line on the advice that our prize rests in shallower levels—that we have “overdipped” the cast beyond the point at which the fish resides. By analogy, “overthinking” must be a way of overextending one’s intellectual powers beyond some figurative point where the desired answer can be expected to rest.

This suggests the dubious usefulness of charges of “overthinking”: The fishing example only makes sense because there exists a “touchstone” in view of all by which to judge the extension of the cast as too deep. The cast is not just too deep but too deep for x- or y-type fish to be found. (Or better, it is deeper than 50 feet, coupled with the understanding that the fish don’t live there.) In this way, “over”-doing anything always takes an object: One casts too deep for finding x-fish, or thinks too much for gleaning x-piece of information. Whoever knows that “too much” of something is being done has to know just what it is too much for. The charge of “overthinking” is unhelpful because the conclusion for which one is thinking too much to locate is precisely the answer he seeks but doesn’t yet have. If one can comprehend the advice at all, he is already in a position of not needing it.

Put in other terms, thinking seems unlike fishing in that, since we don’t know what we’re looking for in advance, we cannot know when the process of “restraining” our thoughts is complete. We don’t know when we have actually followed the advice. We don’t know when to stop putting the brakes on thought and just “coast.” But perhaps a defense is arguable: Perhaps it is possible to think less without knowing how much less to think—we could simply decrease this quantity continuously, and stop when the right answer is struck. We would recognize it as the right answer by the “click” of remembering something we know but had forgotten. Perhaps this, to stretch the analogy, is like plumbing for a fish whose type we don’t recall by are assured by our fishing “instructor” rests in the water somewhere; we have reason to think we can recognize the right fish (among all the wrong ones in the same pool) after we catch it. When told we have “overcast,” we simply pull the line up gradually until we catch something that the “click” of recognition confirms as the one we seek.

But most cases in which one is accused of “overthinking” are substantially unlike this. I was once accused of “overthinking” during a workplace discussion of abortion. In a case where one is rendering an opinion—let’s say, crafting what he thinks about the issue—there is likely no “remembering” a position on the topic which one had forgotten. (At best, one can experience an “aha!” moment wherein one in a sense “recognizes” that the answer he has come up with is one he had held all along, implied in other things he believes.) In such cases, “overthinking” an issue probably means pursuing opinions which are untimately not selected; perhaps I started out thinking along the right lines, but I keep analyzing in a way that leads away from the correct answer. (I start properly investigating a murder and then consider that an animal has been slaughtered at the scene instead. Of course, I will never guess the murderer’s name down this path of thought.) Maybe I even draw the right conclusion, but keep thinking anyway, unconfident that I have “dug deeply” enough.

But in such cases, unlike the testing example, there is hardly that “touchstone” of truth in effect; there is no authority who knows the rights and wrongs of abortion in the same independent, uncontroversially understood way that my instructor knows what he himself means when he uses a certain phrase. Unlike test question #7, there is not ‘The’ answer to the question of abortion to which resides somewhere in prior, prearticulated fashion and to which my mind can be said to be “aiming” at even before it is made up. Far less which could be used to verify or disprove my views on abortion after I formulate them. My accuser has no such authority to invoke to prove that I am “overthinking” the issue; she has only her ability to argue to case to my satisfaction. Once she convinces me of her side of things, if she can, I am free to match it with own thoughts and see that I had been “overthinking” indeed. Of course, I could always accept that I am “overthinking” on her authority—just give up the debate and take her word for it. (Unlikely for anyone prone to “overthinking.”) But I could not know that I am “overthinking” in advance of formulating the “right” opinion for myself.

The point is all the more relevant to cases where “stop overthinking” is given as a guide not for some particular, present train of thought but as broad advice for living: Any Simpsons fan can recall a time Marge lectured Lisa for “thinking too much.” By this she was criticizing not any one behavior but a personality style, an approach to questions in general. Even if I could take my accuser’s word that I’m “overthinking” in a particular instance, she will not be around for all the future instances she hopes I will follow her advice. These cases will require varying “degrees of thought” to yield the right answers just as one needs to extend a measuring tape varying lengths to assay a variety of distances. Considering an issue is, as “considering” would suggest, about trial and error—throwing up hypotheses and reflecting on them until one “sticks.” I only know that the wrong ones are wrong—that is, that I was “overthinking” to entertain them—by considering them at first. So I have to “overthink” to think properly at all, and I can’t know I am overthinking until after, and from the perspective of, having done so in the first place.

But worse than its poor utility as a piece of advice, “overthinking” seems incoherent even as a concept. That screwy talk of “decreasing quantities of thought” until we can mentally “coast” to the correct answer should have already suggested this. Yes, one can plumb for fish in deeper levels of water and then switch to shallow. But thinking is disanalogous to fishing: In the business of “aiming” for an answer, one can think along other lines, pursue different conclusions than one is presently after—but it isn’t clear how these are in any way “under” the others; it is unclear how reorienting our thoughts along lines other than we started is a case of doing “less” of anything. (No map advises a left turn by demanding the driver restrain oneself from turning right, or that he turn right like before but less right this time.) If, by comparison, I were to ask you how you feel about Earl, and you give me your thoughts on Earl A. the county librarian whereas I was intending Earl B. the county Mayor, it would be odd and misleading to accuse you of “overthinking” my question. Even if you were dead wrong for assuming I meant the other Earl—let’s say we are at a ceremony to honor the Mayor’s years of service, and I call on you to give a few remarks accordingly—it isn’t clear how you have “overdone” anything by this. The idea of the librarian is not set “deeper” than that of the Mayor; in transposing the two, one does not “go beyond” and “above” the latter to apprehend the former.

Perhaps the analogy can be salvaged: For instance, my teacher might have meant that I should interpret the question less literally (or colloquially, etc.). “Literalness” and “colloquiality” are descriptions that would seem to admit of degrees: If I ask you to “grab me a lid from the counter, and please interpret my request as colloquially as possible”—I can hardly complain if you hand me a ballcap (for which “lid” is slang) instead of the top to my cooking pot. In this way, interpreting a question in figurative terms can be said to be doing less of something than interpreting it in highly literal terms.

But even so, this ‘something’ is hardly “thinking” per se. Neither “thinking in literal terms” nor “thinking in colloquial terms” are synonyms for “thinking”-proper; thus overdoing one is not synonymous with overdoing the other. At stake here are degrees but not degrees of thought; in thinking less literally about a term one is not thinking less—but still, only differently. This reiterates the dubious worth of “overthinking” as a directive or piece of advice: If the “over” aspect of my “overthinking” is always code for overdoing some very specific aspect of the thinking, then being warned against it will not tell me in terms of which particular dimension (literalness, colloquiality, or whichever) to “restrain” myself—any more than being told to “stop driving too much” will get me to slow my speed, turn down the radio, or reduce effort toward any other specific aspect of the driving.