Nine Principles for Action (from The Leaderless Revolution)
Here is a short list of principles that may guide action, along with a few practical examples. The principles are by no means exclusive, nor comprehensive: mere pointers, not instructions.
- Excavate your convictions
This is perhaps the hardest step, and I have the least useful to say about it (apart from Gandhi’s and Claudette Colvin’s examples, cited earlier). This must be an individual discovery of what you care most about. And this is the most fundamental point: do not let others tell you what to care about. This can only be a leaderless revolution, if it is to succeed. Make up your own mind. Examine your own reactions. This is difficult in the banality yet ubiquity of contemporary culture, with its cacophony of voices and opinion. Space for contemplation is all too rare. But here’s one suggestion which is doubtless revealing of my own dyspeptic disposition: what makes you angry? What never fails to irritate you for its stupidity and injustice? That may be the thing you should take up arms against. It was for me, and anger puts fuel in the tank.
- Who’s got the money, who’s got the gun?
Before taking action, assess the landscape. This simple axiom will point to the main sources of influence, and obstacles. Thanks to the Internet, it is now possible to discover pretty rapidly who has a stake in any given situation, and thus who might alter it. When revolt against the dictatorial rule of Colonel Gadhaffi broke out in Libya in February 2011, information on which companies were doing business with his regime was available in detail, triggering immediate pressure for these companies and individuals to disengage. The same week that the revolt broke out several major oil companies announced their refusal to do business with the regime, under pressure from their own investors organized by a campaign group, the Genocide Intervention Network. The Sunlight Foundation published a chart of the lobbyists, including former congressmen, who were paid by Gadhaffi to promote his interests. The Director of the London School of Economics was forced to resign just days after the revolt began when it was revealed that his university had received substantial funds from the regime to train its élites. One welcome consequence of the vast mesh of connections that now comprises the globalized world is that even distant situations may be affected by actors close to home, who may be susceptible to pressure. Find them, use it.
- Act as if the means are the end
In the summer of 1968, Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia, crushing the “Prague spring” of growing political freedom. Massively outgunned by the Soviet tank columns, the Czechoslovak army gave way. Demonstrators attacked the tanks in city squares with stones and petrol bombs. The Soviet troops responded with machine gun fire. One protesting student set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Thousands were arrested; many to be imprisoned for long sentences. The leader who had encouraged the liberalisation, Alexander Dubček, was forced to capitulate, under duress signing an agreement with Moscow to reverse the reforms. Czechoslovakia endured more than another twenty years of communism before democracy at last dawned.
That summer of ‘68, thousands of Czechoslovak students had travelled abroad to work. The invasion left them stranded. Among them was P. who spent the summer picking fruit in Kent. The Soviet invasion gave him a terrible choice: should he stay in Britain, or return to Communist dictatorship? Compounding his dilemma, he had nowhere to stay. A story appeared the The Times newspaper reporting on the predicament of the stranded students: an organization was quickly set up to find them shelter.
My parents read the story and decided to offer refuge to a Czechoslovak student. P. arrived shortly afterward. Though my parents that summer were caring for three children under four (my brother and I are twins, my sister only twenty-three months older), and had more than enough on their plate, they gave P. a bed. He stayed for several weeks while considering what to do. After much agonising, he eventually decided to stay in England. By chance, he had hitched a lift from a professor at Warwick University. That professor liked P. and offered him a place on his course. P.’s studies were duly arranged and he completed his degree, frequently spending his holidays at our house in South London. He went on to become an expert in fish storage, the father of two children and now lives in Scotland.
Thirty years later my parents gave refuge once more, this time to a Zimbabwean escaping the repressive rule of Robert Mugabe. Now they were living in a smaller flat, their children long having flown the nest. My father recalled that it wasn’t as simple as giving P. a room back in 1968. Asylum laws in Britain are now strictly enforced: my father was required regularly to report to the local police station that Ngoni was indeed staying with them and had not absconded. Finding study opportunities and work was also harder, though not impossible. (Universities and other such educational institutions are today themselves required to check the legal status of their foreign students, and report any non-compliance thus, in effect, making them arms of the state.)
I asked my parents why they had taken P. in. Neither could really remember, answering my question with vague responses like “We could” or “It felt like a good thing to do”. Now with my own small children, and exhausted by the tasks of their care, I marvel at my parents’ hospitality. Suddenly, my mother remembered something, “This might be relevant” she said, and recalled a piece of family history of which I had had no idea. My mother then told me that my grandparents – her parents - took in a Jewish girl from Germany during the war. My mother had been small at the time, and couldn’t now remember anything about the girl except a vague memory of her name.
Life is about means not ends. There is no utopia to be gained, there is no end-state that is static and eternal, once accomplished. This was one of the great lies of communism. Likewise, capitalism offers the great deception that thanks to its machinations everyone will be richer in the future, thus justifying gross inequality and humiliation today.
Instead it’s all here, and it’s all now. Nirvana tomorrow does not justify avoidable suffering now. We and our world are in constant motion, responding to each other without cease. This is one reason why Francis Fukuyama was wrong to declare The End of History with the triumph of liberal democracies after the collapse of communism. No fixed state of affairs lasts forever.
- Refer to the Cosmopolitan Criterion
This is a pretentious way of saying give consideration to the needs of others, but based upon what they say are their needs, not what we think their needs are. The so-called “Golden Rule” states that you should do to others as you would be done to. This rule is often lazily touted as a universal applicable in all circumstances. This rule is in fact dramatically wrong for it assumes that we know what they want or need. This logic, taken to its extreme, leads to the arrogant violence of the neo-conservatives who believe that they have the right to use force in the interests of those they are attacking, to kill people for their own good. The invasion of Iraq was clearly motivated by this logic: that the Iraqi people needed democracy, even at the cost of their own lives (we know of course that the reason was not to combat an imminent threat). 100,000 people and perhaps more died as a result. Instability was triggered that endures, with accompanying violence, to this day. Needless to say, those advocating the war never consulted those who would do the dying for their lofty goals, whether allied soldiers or Iraq’s civilians.
There is instead a much simpler way to decide what to do and how to calibrate your own action. Ask people what they want. They are usually more than willing to tell you.
With the Internet, ubiquitous mobile phones and Facebook, it is no longer credible to claim that we cannot find out what people “over there” are thinking. During the Arab revolutions of early 2011, pro-democracy protestors broadcast their tweets direct from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, their compelling 140-character messages shattering generations-old Western stereotypes of the Middle East and the “Arab street”. Websites like Global Voices now aggregate citizen reports from all over the world, but from close to the ground. And those voices are clear and fresh and urgent.
- Address those suffering the most
A few years ago, my wife and I travelled to northern Mali, to the southern reaches of the Sahara desert north of Timbuktu. We were on our honeymoon. We decided to take a camel tour with some Tuareg tribesmen; the trip appealed to our sense of adventure. The camels carried us far from Timbuktu into a romantic landscape of trackless desert wastes.
As night fell, we were brought to a Tuareg encampment. It turned out to be the tented home of our guide, a young Tuareg man who wore loose robes and a turban of deep blue cotton, wound around his head and neck, to protect him from the blasting rays of the sun. We slept under a vast and magnificent canopy of stars, our baggage stacked around us as a barricade against the camels, who had been known to tread upon sleeping humans.
We awoke to a clear and silent dawn, and wandered to the tents to join our guide and his family for breakfast. And here the romance began to shatter. The guide’s young wife sat with her baby under a rough screen. The previous evening, in the dark, their shelter had appeared as a robust canvas tent. But it turned out to be a patchwork of plastic and hessian sacks. The young woman and her baby were besieged incessantly by large swarms of flies, which would land in waves upon her and her sleeping baby’s face. The woman, clearly exhausted, perhaps by hunger or illness we could not tell, listlessly swatted the flies away, but they would settle nonetheless on the baby’s eyes and lips, in swarms so thick they appeared as a blanket on the poor child’s face.
Shocked, my wife and I drank our tea and ate our bread in silence. The guide’s father joined us. Talking to his son, he would with horrible frequency emit an awful hacking cough. As he coughed, he doubled over in pain, his throat broadcasting the most frightening sounds of collecting phlegm and blood, which he would periodically spit onto the sand by the fire. He clearly had tuberculosis or some other serious respiratory disease. He was desperately thin, and appeared enfeebled to the point of death.
Conversing in broken French with the guide, we asked what was wrong. The young man answered that he didn’t know. The old man had never seen a doctor. But, the guide said, he had some drugs. He spoke to the old man who pulled out a half-used packet of paracetamol, its use-by date long past. Perhaps, ventured the young man, we could give any drugs we might have. Of course we obliged and ended up handing over perhaps a couple of hundred dollars to the guide, in excessive payment for the trip. The old man had noticed my spectacles and exclaimed in delight when I handed them to him to try. I gave him these too (I had a spare pair).
We were appalled and upset by this encounter with desperate poverty. We were glad to return from the camel trip. After leaving Mali (to be honest, with some relief), we have not however had any further contact with the guide or his family. We give some money to charity on a regular basis, but it is not in truth very much, and certainly not enough to occasion us any significant limits on our own consumption.
How should one respond to suffering? Consider two contrasting answers to this question. In a recent book, the philosopher Peter Singer uses an example to illustrate our obligation to others, including those far away who may be unknown to us. A small girl is drowning in a lake in front of you and you are the only person who can rescue the child. You are however wearing expensive $400 shoes which will be ruined if you dive in to rescue the girl. Singer believes, of course, that the answer to such a dilemma is clear and accepted by almost everyone: you must dive in to save the child, but ruin the shoes.
Singer argues that in reality the crisis of the drowning child is presented to us constantly. Every minute, eighteen children die of hunger and preventable disease: 27,000 every day. It costs moreover far less that $400 to save them. Just as if the child were drowning directly in front of us, the moral imperative is clear and precise: we must act, even if there is a cost to ourselves, albeit a small one. Using calculations by economist Jeffrey Sachs and others, Singer suggests that if everyone in the rich world gave a mere one percent of their income, poverty and preventable disease in the world could be effectively eradicated. Singer has set up a website where individuals can make such pledges. Singer reportedly donates 25% of his own income to charity.
At the other end of the moral spectrum, nineteenth century German über-anarchist Max Stirner believed that the idea of morality is basically absurd and manufactured by those who cloak their selfish purposes in pseudo-universal principles which have no other origin. There is no such thing as society (as Margaret Thatcher too once famously observed). It is instead the individual and their own desires which matter. Thus, the individual is required to do nothing but follow their own wishes to the fullest, wherever this may lead. To do anything else is to act falsely and to invite falseness from others in response, thus risking an order – or rather disorder – based on dishonest and manufactured ideas.
Stirner’s ideas imply that we have no obligation to dive in to save the child in Singer’s thought experiment. Almost everyone would find this appalling. Yet, as Singer has observed, this is what we consistently do. Very few individuals give even one percent of their income to those worse-off than them. Several thousand people have made such pledges at Singer’s website, but of course this is but a tiny drop in the bucket. Most rich governments have failed to fulfill their own oft-repeated pledges to commit 0.7% of their GDP to development aid. The funds required to meet the UN’s “Millennium Development Goals”, established in 2000 as achievable targets to reduce poverty and disease, have not been provided, not by the G8, G20, and UN General Assembly, which have on repeated occasions, promised all efforts to do so.
So what’s the flaw with Singer’s reasoning? Why are we unconvinced to help the distant poor? Are we inherently selfish, more Max Stirner than Peter Singer? It is easy for a moralist to say that the needs of a Somali woman dying in childbirth should be as compelling to us as if she were our sister. But, as Singer has disappointingly discovered, such reasoning has little lasting impact.
If a child drowns before us, how tiny would be the minority who refused to act because they didn’t want to get their expensive shoes wet, and what would the majority do to that person once they found out? Somehow we need to find a way to stimulate the emotional connection that evokes compassion, an emotion that, unlike moral rules, seems shared among humanity (with some sociopathic exceptions). How is compassion between people generated? One clear and straightforward answer presents itself: the encounter.
Missing in the reasoning of Singer is any sense of what Stirner by contrast believed necessary, intrinsic and inevitable – engagement. Stirner firmly rejected any a priori assumption of what such engagement might produce, least of all that it should result in an obligation to render help to others. But it makes sense that engagement produces a different kind of reaction, and a different conversation, than mere knowledge. It is clearly not enough to know that people “out there” are suffering. But locate oneself next to that suffering, as my wife and I found in the Malian desert, and the reaction becomes entirely different, even though the facts and our knowledge of them remain exactly the same.
Thus nineteenth century Stirner may paradoxically provide a truer guide to action in the connected 21st century than contemporary philosophers who, with great humanity, urge that we accept the obligation to rescue the drowning child. For it is engagement – or rather its absence – that may precisely explain why the Singers, and the proponents of the UN Millennium Development Goals, or the 0.7% goal, or the Bonos or Angelinas have failed to convince those who have so much to hand over even a little bit, and make a huge life-saving difference, to the billions who have so desperately little.
And from this, one conclusion stands out. States, borders and indeed institutions in general must by their very nature limit our engagement with one another; they channel, frame, render detached and sometimes obstruct the vast mêlée of human interaction. And by limiting that engagement, somewhere along the way our compassion is eviscerated. The requirement for engagement, as demanded too by the cosmopolitan criterion (above), is reinforced.
The 21st century offers engagement at levels unprecedented in human history. As Kwame Anthony Appiah observes in his elegant study, “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers”, a stroller along New York’s Fifth Avenue will pass more nationalities in half an hour than an ancient Roman would have met in a lifetime. The multi-hued society of America, Britain, Europe and more or less everywhere, increasingly, offers commensurately varied chances for encounters with the hitherto-distant Other, be they Somali, Kyrgyz, Malay or Tongan. Abroad is more and more located right here. At least four hundred million people now live in countries not of their birth. And these are just the first generation immigrants; add a second and third generation and the proportion grows much higher. Over two million of London’s seven and a half million inhabitants were born overseas. Heterogeneity will become routine. Whether we like it or not, we shall have to engage.
The sharp and unprecedented increases in immigration in almost all developed countries, driving commensurate increases in ethnic diversity, have triggered anguished debates in Europe and the US. In Switzerland, a popular referendum affirmed a ban on mosque construction, though there are very few mosques already. In the Netherlands, the 2010 general election saw a significant swing to the far right anti-immigration party of Gert Wilders. In the US, Arizona enacted a law allowing police to stop anyone merely on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant.
And at first sight, it appears that fears of the effect of an influx of outsiders on established stable societies are well-placed. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has found that the more mixed a society, the lower its indices of “social capital” – trust, altruism, associations, active cooperation – and the higher its indices of social fragmentation – crime, for instance. But crucially, he found that these reductions in social solidarity and “social capital” were short term effects. At first, it appears, local societies “hunker down”; trust declines, even within members of the same race or ethnic group. People retreat into privacy.
However, in the longer run, the outcomes are more positive. New forms of association and social solidarity emerge. In more hybrid societies, there is more creativity – as measured, for instance, by the number of Nobel prizes. Immigration is associated with more rapid economic growth, although short term effects should not be overlooked, particularly on the lowest paid who tend to feel first the effects of more intensified competition for jobs from immigrants. The evidence suggests that immigration from the global South to the global North greatly enhances development in the South, partly because of the flow of remittances from new immigrants to their families “back home” but also because of the transfer of technology and new ideas through immigrant networks. This effect is reportedly so powerful that it may offset the “brain drain” costs to the southern countries sending the migrants. Putnam cites evidence of yet greater positive effect, including a World Bank study that estimates that increasing annual northward immigration by only three percentage points might produce net benefits greater than meeting all national (US) targets for development assistance plus cancelling all Third World debt plus abolishing all barriers to Third World trade.
A further reason to address those suffering the most is simply this: here, you can make the most difference.
- Consult and negotiate
When I was responsible for sanctions policy on Iraq at the UK Mission to the United Nations, we were often approached by campaigning NGOs who wanted us to alter our policies, and lift or amend sanctions in order to end the humanitarian suffering in Iraq. They were of course right, but that didn’t mean that they were effective.
In general, I avoided meeting these campaigners, well aware that I would be subjected to a rhetorical finger-wagging session. It was difficult for campaigners to find out who was dealing with Iraq in our mission, and we didn’t make it easy for them (it’s still very difficult, even though now the mission has the inevitable official website, as opaque as the smoked glass at the mission’s entrance). Only rarely did the campaigners manage to identify me, and persuade me to meet them.
Such meetings were tedious and predictable. Invariably, the campaigners would march into my office, then lecture me about the immorality of what my government was doing, demanding change – but rarely specifying in any detail what that change should be: just change! Discussion would be tense and confrontational; the meetings would end with much relief, for me at least. I sensed too that the objective for the campaigners was often the fact of the meeting which they could now parade as effective action on their part: the meeting alone amounting to a victory. Of course, it was not.
No doubt such lobbying made them feel better. But the effect on me was to make me more determined to avoid such future encounters. Thanks to the superficiality of the campaigners’ arguments, I was able easily to dismiss them. They forgot that I worked on Iraq full-time every day, and was steeped in the arguments and data to justify and defend our policies.
Two academics from Notre Dame University in Indiana used a different approach. They approached the individual officials involved in the British and US governments, asking to collect information about our policies. They were polite and patient. They came to meet me several times. After several meetings, they offered a detailed set of proposals to change our policy, ideas that addressed our concerns to limit Iraq’s potential to rearm while minimising the potential negative humanitarian effects of sanctions. The US State Department held a discussion meeting with many officials concerned to meet the academics and hear their proposals. Eventually, their ideas were adopted as British-American policy and led to a major amendment of sanctions policy, that was put into place in 2002.
It was too late, and such a policy should have been enacted from the beginning of comprehensive sanctions on Iraq in 1990. But the point is clear.
Negotiation should ideally be direct, not through intermediaries. When my wife and I bought our apartment in New York City, we were represented in the negotiations by our real estate agent and eventually by a lawyer. The negotiations quickly deteriorated. Every move by the seller was scrutinized for deviousness, every motive and communication was immediately placed under suspicion. When the seller sought to delay the sale after we had agreed a price, this was seized upon as a sign of “bad faith”. Lawyers reported antagonistic exchanges. As stalemate beckoned, we proposed a meeting with the sellers. Tense and anticipating a conflict, we arrived at the apartment, to find – needless to say – a perfectly affable couple who merely wanted to stay in the apartment for a few weeks before their new home was ready. For them the alternative was taking their small children to live in a hotel.
- “Big Picture, Small Deeds”
The innovation company !WhatIf? offers this maxim as a way to overcome the inertia that too often stymies change. !Whatif? trains employees in how to be innovative but found that sometimes, their trainees would still fail to implement the techniques they had learned. It was simply too overwhelming to change the prevailing culture of their everyday workplace. To counter this problem, !Whatif? proposed a simple philosophy: keep in mind the overall change you wish to achieve, but act a little every day to make it reality.
Though transposed to the corporate world, this technique echoes the “small steps” proposed by Mahatma Gandhi to achieve profound and enduring change. There is an ancient Chinese proverb to the same effect (the Internet tells me): “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than a great leap forward then stumble backwards”, sage advice that Mao Tse-Tung clearly ignored in forcing China’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1960’sthat forced peasants from their land and led to the starvation and death of perhaps more than thirty million. Perhaps recognising this catastrophe, Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping proposed a more pragmatic method of change: “crossing the river by feeling the stones”.
This metaphor is both more compelling and offers a more pragmatic approach: stones are palpable, material, solid. The steps of any strategy should be concrete; not rhetorical but practical. Internet campaigns clearly fail this criterion; volunteering at a local school does not. Mahatma Gandhi distilled the epic struggle against British colonial rule into a simple act that anyone could practice: making salt.
And the goal must be epic. The spirit soars at the momentous challenge, not the banal. Break that challenge down into small, practical, daily tasks, and get to work. Though the steps toward it may be humble, find a goal that is great: end poverty, prevent war, save the planet. Locate your objective, grasp your flag, then march deliberately toward the enemy. If you do so with courage and conviction, others will surely follow.
- Use Non-Violence
Alexander Berkman was an anarchist who passionately detested the widespread exploitation and abuse of workers in industrial America of the late nineteenth century. An immigrant from Russia, he was influenced by anarchist thinkers and groups in New York City, where he became a close friend of the famous anarchist Emma Goldman. As retailed by Goldman in her autobiography, My Life, and Berkman in his (Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist), both were deeply affected by the Haymarket affair or massacre,.
On 4 May 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, at a rally in support of striking workers, an unknown person threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the gathering. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. In the trial that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder despite paltry evidence against them. Four were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison. The judge declared, “Not because you have caused the Haymarket bomb, but because you are Anarchists, you are on trial”. To this day, debate continues about the true identity of the bomber.
It is clear from both Goldman’s and Berkman’s memoirs that they were radicalized by what they saw as a profound injustice. Both came to believe that only dramatic, and if necessary violent, acts – the attentat - would galvanize the working population to rise up against a deeply unjust system. The opportunity for such an act was soon to present itself.
In June 1892, workers at a steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, were locked out after pay negotiations failed between the Carnegie Steel Company and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. The result was one of the first organized strikes in American labor history. Andrew Carnegie had placed his factories, and indeed later his industrial empire, under the control of Henry Clay Frick. Carnegie publicly supported the rights of workers to join unions and employ collective bargaining. Privately, however, he encouraged Frick to break the strike, and with it, the union.
Frick locked the union workers out and placed barbed wire fences, searchlights and watchtowers around the factory. He hired non-union workers to take the strikers’ jobs and get the factory going again, but they were unable to break through the union’s picket lines. So Frick hired three hundred armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to break the picket lines. When the Pinkerton guards arrived at the factory on the morning of 6 July, a gunfight broke out. Nine union workers and seven guards were killed during the fight, which lasted twelve hours.
There was widespread outrage at Frick’s actions and the violent attack of the “Pinkertons”. Berkman and Goldman decided to assassinate Frick. This was the opportunity for the violent attentat to rouse the working class to revolt. There was no viler capitalist than Frick: for a while he was known as “America’s most hated man”. In his memoir, Berkman recounts his romantic fascination with the extreme act:
“Could anything be nobler than to die for a grand, a sublime Cause (sic)? Why, the very life of a true revolutionist has no other purpose, no significance whatever, save to sacrifice it on the altar of the beloved People.”
Berkman’s execution of the plan however was amateurish. His plan was to assassinate Frick and commit suicide afterward; Goldman’s rôle was to explain Berkman’s motives after his death. First, Berkman tried to make a bomb, but he failed. Berkman and Goldman then pooled their meagre savings to buy a handgun, and a suit for Berkman to wear for the assassination attempt.
On 23 July 1892, Berkman entered Frick’s office armed with a gun and a sharpened steel file. Frick dived under a chair and began to yell. Berkman shot Frick three times, then grappled with him and stabbed him in the leg. Others in the office came to Frick’s rescue and beat Berkman unconscious. He was convicted of attempted murder and given a twenty-two-year prison sentence. Frick survived the attack.
As he later related in his prison memoir, Berkman encountered a Homestead striker soon after his imprisonment. Berkman immediately romanticizes the man as the embodiment of the workers’ struggle. He is enthralled to meet an actual striker, a true-blooded member of the working classes. Here at last Berkman would find his vindication. But the meeting produces nothing but bitter disappointment. The striker decries Berkman’s assassination attempt. “We are law-abiding people”, he says, adding that the workers don’t want anything to do with the “anachrists” as he misnames them.
Other workers on whose behalf Berkman attempted the attentat were not impressed either. There was no worker uprising as a result of Berkman’s effort; his attack was widely condemned, including by unions, workers and even other anarchists. Negative publicity from the attempted assassination resulted in the collapse of the Homestead strike. 2,500 men lost their jobs, and most of the workers who stayed had their wages halved.
In 1910, Frick purchased an entire city block in New York at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street to construct a huge mansion, to serve as his home and to house his enormous collection of art and artefacts. A heavy, stone building, built to a massive size, “the Frick”, as it is widely known, contains many magnificent objects and paintings. One of them is Holbein’s exquisite portrait of Sir Thomas More, who is famed for his principled refusal to recant his Catholic faith after the English monarch, King Henry VIII, had broken with Rome, and established the Church of England, in order to divorce his wife. More is also known as the author of Utopia, the fictional depiction of a perfect society.
There is no memorial to Alexander Berkman.
If not violence, then what? All too often, the debate is framed as violence or nothing; pacifism as mere inactivity. As the world contemplated how to respond to Colonel Gadhaffi’s brutal repression of unrest in Libya, media commentators dwelt on the debate over the imposition of No Fly Zones or other forms of military intervention, ignoring the many various non-military but nonetheless coercive measures available: these were complicated, and thus ill suited to the Punch and Judy requirements of soundbite debate[iv]. The whole framing of such debates suggests that violence is strong, the absence of violence weak. Pacifism is invariably portrayed as a kind of “do nothing” philosophy.
Non-violence resolves this problem. Non-violent methods are not doing nothing. Instead, they are forceful methods that can be highly effective but avoid injury and bloodshed, while gaining moral authority from the rejection of violence.
To get down to specifics, non-violent action can take many different forms (and on this, I recommend the work of Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth). In his influential and concise essay, “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, Gene Sharp lists no fewer than 198 different non-violent methods, but here are three:
Boycott – The word boycott entered the English language thanks to Captain Charles Boycott, the land agent of an absentee landlord in Ireland. In 1880, harvests had been poor so the landlord offered his tenants a ten percent reduction in their rents. The tenants demanded a twenty five percent reduction, but were refused. Boycott then attempted to evict eleven tenants from the land. The Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell proposed that ostracism was more powerful than violence: greedy landlords and land agents like Boycott should be made pariahs. Despite the short-term economic hardship they incurred, Boycott’s workers stopped work in the fields and stables, as well as in his house. Local businessmen stopped trading with him, and the local postman refused to deliver mail. Boycott soon found himself isolated, and unable to hire anyone to harvest the crops. Eventually fifty outsiders volunteered to do the work, but they had to be escorted by 1,000 policemen and soldiers, despite the fact that local leaders had said that there would be no violence, and none in fact materialized. This protection ended up costing far more than the harvest was worth. After the harvest, the "boycott" was successfully continued.
Gandhi organized a boycott of British goods. In Montgomery, Alabama, African-Americans boycotted segregated buses. The National Negro Convention boycotted slave-produced goods in 1830. Today boycotts are even easier to organize, thanks to the Internet. The Dutch bank ING was forced to cancel bonuses for its senior staff after thousands of its customers threatened to withdraw their deposits, and thus risk a run on the bank. A Facebook and Twitter boycott campaign erupted after news emerged that the chief executive was to be awarded a £1 million bonus despite the bank having received €10bn in state aid to keep afloat, had frozen pensions and given staff only a one percent pay rise. Dutch politicians later voted for a 100% retrospective tax on all bonuses paid to executives at institutions that had received state aid as a result of the financial crisis.
Isolate - The withdrawal of social approval for individuals is distressing to those subjected to it. Public shaming is an underutilized tool. To politicians and public figures who bask in public attention, its denial can be painful indeed.
In New York City, a group of women were fed up with the harassment they routinely faced on public subways or the street, ranging from unwelcome sexual comments to groping and stalking. Frustrated with cultural attitudes that suggested such abuse was an inevitable price of being a woman, they founded a group to fight back, called “I holla back” (www.ihollaback.org). Emily May founded Hollaback with friends five years ago. Today it has chapters in six American cities, along with others in Britain, Canada and Australia. The group has recently developed an iPhone application to allow women immediately to log and report such incidents, and, if possible, photograph the perpetrators. The aim is to produce a comprehensive picture – and identify “hotspots” – of such harassment, citywide and even nationwide. Reports will be forwarded to police for action, including particular zones of repeated activity. But there are obvious obstacles for the police to press convictions – they cannot solve the problem alone. By identifying and exhibiting the photographs of perpetrators, the group also hopes to shame the men who carry out the abuse, and create new cultural attitudes to replace the old: to render harassment socially unacceptable.
In a more international context, a white farmer in newly-independent Zimbabwe once told me that the economic and political isolation of white minority-dominated Rhodesia may not have undermined the economy sufficiently to force the Rhodesian government to give up its apartheid practices. We could survive economically, she told me, but once we were under international sanctions, she said, we knew one thing with certainty - that white minority rule could not last forever.
Sabotage – This method is to be used only in the most extreme circumstances of gross injustice and repression, when other non-violent methods have failed. A recent illustration of the inherent risks and ambiguous consequences of sabotage, even of the non-violent kind, is the story of the “Stuxnet” computer worm, which appears to have been deliberately designed to interfere with Iran’s nuclear programme. The worm was highly sophisticated, suggesting that states (perhaps the United States) were behind its creation. Concealing itself in the operating system of computers that control industrial mechanisms, Stuxnet reportedly works by speeding up the gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium so that the centrifuges are damaged or destroyed. All the while, the control systems continue to indicate that everything is normal. The effects of Stuxnet are not clear, and Iran has admitted to only limited damage from the virus. Illustrating the dangers of using such techniques however, there is now debate that the way has been cleared for others to use similar devices – which are effectively sabotage, albeit by the most modern methods. In effect, a new front has been opened in conflict, with few rules to govern it. As one journalist put it: “we have crossed a threshold and there is no turning back”. There are now belated calls for new international agreements to prohibit such cyberwarfare, while others comment that enforcement of such rules would in any case be all but impossible, given the intrinsic anonymity and complexity of the web. If you are going to use these tools, it would be wise to be sure that they cannot then be turned against you. Hence the requirement to use non-violent sabotage only in extremis.
But for all the drawbacks of sabotage, it has one signal and perhaps over-riding virtue: it doesn’t kill people.
In Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire an old man is in a library contemplating wartime photographs of dead children. He is very elderly and perhaps dying. He thinks to himself, “My heroes are no longer warriors and kings, but the things of peace…But so far no one has succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is it about peace that its inspiration is not enduring? Why is its story so hard to tell?”.
- Kill the King
Chess may be useless as a metaphor for international relations but it carries one very important lesson. The only point of the game is to take the opponent’s king. All other moves, and elegant plays with bishop or pawns, are but preliminary to this object. Do not be satisfied with process, but only with results. A campaign to end genocide, richly adorned with expensive video and glamorous celebrities, is worth nothing if it doesn’t save a single life. Don’t campaign for others to perform the action required to achieve change: do it yourself. Sending a text message or signing an Internet petition is likely to achieve nothing, given that so little went into it.
The measure of any political action is not how many hits you get on the campaign website, how many followers you may have on Twitter, or supporters on your Facebook page. The measure is effects in the real world on the thing you are trying to change: are there fewer nuclear weapons, has the dictator been overthrown, is one child saved from starvation?
Alexander the Great always aimed his forces at his enemy’s strongest point. When that fell, the enemy collapsed. Kill the King!
Individually, these principles are unexceptionable. Who can object to non-violent, step-by-step action, negotiated with those affected, and designed to address those in most suffering? But taken together, these principles in fact amount to a radically different form of political action from the contemporary cultural model which seems by contrast to amount to very little: vote for the government, maybe campaign a little to ask others to do things you want, and, if you’re directly concerned, perhaps lobby government. The principles suggested above offer a rather more vigorous, directed, but above all effective, indeed transformative, course of action. This is perhaps why there is such establishment hostility to these methods, and indeed the word “anarchism”, including the very peaceful and collaborative form proposed here: the employment of these methods will actually change things, including by changing the way that things change. Those who benefit from the current status quo don’t want you to know that.
One person following these principles will not cause a global revolution, though it may revolutionize their own lives. But the action of one may stimulate others. And if many adopt these principles, a revolution, a leaderless revolution, will eventually become manifest.