Monday, August 6, 2012

Nonviolence and Pacifism

Nonviolence and pacifism are often pitted against one another, even though pacifism was once considered the activist term to distinguish it from nonresistance. Now, pacifism is thrown under the bus, even by vigorous advocates of nonviolence. For instance, Gene Sharp clarifies that nonviolent action is action that is nonviolent, as opposed to pacifism (Sharp, 2005, p. 41), some of whose proponents might see nonviolent action as much too coercive (Sharp, 1990, p. 149). In many definitions, pacifism is almost pejoratively defined as rejecting violence on moral grounds without a concern for sociopolitical conditions 1, while nonviolence focuses on political change without violence. Although, one might be nonviolent in one situation but not in another. Arab arguments for nonviolence have strongly differentiated it from pacifism, which is associated with abandoning “a concern with redressing social grievances, and a commitment to changing unjust social structures” (Crow & Grant, 2009, pp. 34-35).
Still others go further, equating pacifism and nonviolence but arguing that they are ineffective and impose patriarchal morals on the poor. Nonviolent advocates and pacifists, these critics say, ignore the vital role of violent militants in supposedly nonviolent movements, probably because nonviolence is usually proposed by privileged white people who expect poor people of color to suffer through injustice while waiting for the fabled critical mass (Gelderloos, 2007, p. 23).

Criticisms of nonviolence and pacifism are extremely important, and do indeed exist, especially of domesticated liberal nonviolence. In some ways American nonviolence hasn’t really evolved since the 1960s and remains predominantly symbolic: bumper-sticker signs, marching, and petitioning the powers for permits to petition the powers, etc. Symbolic acts are necessary, but they could simultaneously function as rituals and as subversive disruptions, such as when the Plowshares Movement burned draft cards with homemade napalm and hammered millions of dollars of damage into, and poured blood over, nuclear warheads while quoting biblical prophets.
Even so, taking some of the above criticisms seriously is a bit difficult 2. Nonviolence does sometimes support the state, but violence doesn’t fare any better. And, ironically, arguing that nonviolence is racist actually sounds a little racist. These arguments assume that Indian independence and American civil rights mainly worked because they faced Christian nations with moral consciences (Apsey, 1990, p. 27); they wouldn’t have succeeded if they opposed repressive dictators, presumably black or brown dictators. Setting aside ignorance about British massacres and American segregation, I wonder how critics explain the nonviolent ousting of Pinochet in Chile, cultural resistance against the Roman empire (ibid, p. 27), nonviolence among the revenge-oriented Pashtuns (Flinders, 1990, p. 190), and resistance to the Nazis in Norway, Holland (Schwarcz, 1990), Denmark, and the Rosenstraße protests in Berlin (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 20), just to name a very few. Not to mention that nonviolent campaigns are twice as successful as violent ones (ibid, p. 7) partly because they do motivate diverse mass participation (ibid, pp. 30, 39, 192). Maybe critical mass isn’t so fabled after all.

Furthermore, violent wings of nonviolent movements may actually prohibit success, with 50% leading to civil war within ten years, compared to 27% of movements that didn’t have armed campaigns (ibid, p. 218). Radical responses do sometimes coexist, and sometimes make easy distinction difficult (ibid, p. 12) such as in People Power in the Philippines, but it was only after the nonviolent mass movement emerged that major change occurred in overthrowing the U.S.-backed dictator (ibid, p. 169). Additionally, while the first Palestinian intifada didn’t end the Israeli occupation or halt settlement construction, the uprising “achieved more than had decades of armed attacks” (King, 2009, p. 146). Supposedly, extremist coalitions make modern oppositionists appear more attractive, but the opposite is historically more likely: armed groups cause regimes to violently unify against the threat without distinguishing between nonviolent and violent campaigns (ibid, p. 43). Dividing the regime’s support base contributes to success, and nonviolence has the strategic advantage, contra the belief that it’s tactically inferior. Violent campaigns are physically prohibitive and have a harder time recruiting women and the elderly (ibid, p. 35), making it inherently hierarchical. Nonviolent action has less physical, informational, and moral barriers (ibid, p. 34).

The moral barrier implies that hard and fast lines between nonviolence and pacifism might be fuzzier. One of the best parts of criticisms of pacifism and nonviolence (aside from surfacing latent discriminatory and ineffective tendencies within some modes) is showing that the two are not worlds apart. To be sure, pacifists can be haughty moralists who wouldn’t flick a fly, or blow up Danish railways to resist the Nazis, but nonviolent activists can also sound like world-weary martyrs who smugly lament their pragmatism, but such is life. The difference between the two is often implicitly framed around morality and empiricism: pacifism supposedly responds solely out of religious dogma while nonviolence pays attention to context. However, strategy can’t escape ethical judgments: arguing for nonviolent tactics puts a value-claim on effectiveness first, or on the possibility of violence at some point. Exclusively privileging faithfulness or effectiveness is a dangerous game, because one can result in pious inaction while the other can result in justifying the same tactics employed by the regime. Perhaps some pacifists are simply remaining faithful to effectiveness. After all, religion and morality are evolved parts of the human condition, with roots in ritual and empathy 3.

I’m not able to dispel all the divisions that exist between pacifism and nonviolence. I’m not really even interested in doing so. Both words have been used to refer to a moral ethos and to strategic resistance.
During the Nuremberg trials, Herman Göring explained that outlawing pacifism helped capture power for the Nazis, because if you denounce pacifists as unpatriotic and therefore a threat to security, more people flock to the leaders. I call myself a pacifist partly because I like the word better. Etymologically, pacifism is one who makes peace. At a certain time, I preferred nonviolence over pacifism, probably because of the overused complaint that it sounds like passivism. But now I resonate more with the word pacifism because it has a deeper cadence and rhythm, almost a complicated narrative flavor, and it speaks to what it is rather than what it is not. Still, I like the linguistic via negativa of the word nonviolence. Whichever word is used, I will reject both unless they are an embodied praxis engaging economic, social, and political life. Unless they refer to “an all-out war against poverty,” against the “spiritual and physical homicide” of racism, and a “true revolution of values” against “the spiritual death” of war. On this point, I am in solidarity with the critics.

At the very least we can say that both nonviolence and pacifism should attempt to understand and redirect violence. Maybe we should shelf the tired terms for a spell and speak of life-giving or death-dealing acts, which could hopefully reframe exhausting debates about property destruction. Purist definitions ignore the fact that it’s not possible to act and remain perfectly pure (Deming, 1990, p. 95). Pacifism is not at odds with physical force, with the force of physicality such as sit-ins, strikes, human chains, and roadblocks. Pacifism, or nonviolence, is the art of presence, which is collective action and organized movements that evade restrictive control by exploring potentiality and new open spaces (Bayat, 2009, pp. 48-49). We strategically place our political bodies in the body politic. “But what would you do if someone’s raping your sister or mother or girlfriend?” Apparently, one can insert any female at this point, pun intended. “Well, what would you do?” You pull the offender off her! Nonviolence is not a legalistic course of action implemented in moments of tension; it is a way of engaging with people and the world. Nonviolence, or pacifism, is relationship, and you can’t have a relationship with someone while they’re raping your best friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s aunt.

If we shelf these cumbersome concepts, we could also talk about satyagraha and the commensurability of ends and mean. Satyagraha, or grappling with the force of truth, means that aggression and energy aren’t repressed but are instead converted and transfigured. Because we must come to grips with the anger and rage within ourselves. In this case, nonviolence is violence transformed; it is “transviolence, where the power of passions like anger, hatred, and fear is reshaped into a potent fighting force” (Flinders, 1990, p. 189). After all, violence is a form of communication; it intends to say something. However, violence may be the only communicative act that has predictable effects on the other party without any need to understand them (Graeber, 2011, p. 48). Anarchist David Graeber thinks this is violence’s most characteristic trait: “its capacity to impose very simple social relations that involve little or no imaginative identification” (ibid, p. 49). He suggests that violence is “the trump card of the stupid, since it is that form of stupidity to which it is most difficult to come up with an intelligent response” (Graeber, 2011, p. 49).

As far as I can tell, Graeber is mostly referring to the structural and repressive violence of state regimes than to the revolutionary violence of the poor, which often seems to be the main target of critique by liberal proponents of nonviolence (Myers, 1994, p. 243), who are actually few and far between. I empathize with some violent liberation movements, with Frantz Fanon’s anguished pleas to understand the “‘knowledge of the practice of action’” (Deming, 1990, p. 97). “First World” activists and peacebuilders run the risk of looking down our condescending noses at the violent actions of the oppressed without ever experiencing constant domination. However, militarized revolutions almost always reproduce the cycle which they sought to overthrow, because they are dependent on the same worldviewing and the same resources, like the international arms trade, in order to resist empire. The result is more deaths and another suppressive regime. As Audre Lorde said, “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine transformation” (Lorde & Clarke, 2007, p. 112-3). For instance, the first Palestinian intifada was predominantly a concerted and mobilized nonviolent revolution, and it paved the way for the Oslo Peace Accords. However, in the aftermath of Oslo’s failure, the second violent intifada began, in which suicide bombings drastically increased. Ten years later, the situation on the ground is far worse with a massive concrete wall, intensified movement restrictions, and accelerated settlement construction. As Ched Myers reminds us: “The romantic myth of the guerilla fighter armed with only an AK-47 and a heart full of revolutionary love is just that—a romantic myth” (Myers, 1994, p. 243).

“First World” activists must tread carefully when suggesting strategic responses to oppression they do not suffer, especially if they can’t distinguish between Israeli soldiers with automatic guns and Palestinian kids with rocks. But polite silence is not solidarity (ibid, p. 239); imperialistic intervention and wholesale acquiescence are both dead-ends. However, once we know and have witnessed we are called by the event to respond, whether in action or feigned ignorance. In a way, we have a stake simply by now being present. Allies should offer insights, advice, and experience, which are all embedded in valuations of the world. But ultimately, we should balance voicing concerns and making suggestions with leaving the final decision to people whose lives are irrevocably intertwined with persecution, even if we disagree with the ultimate decision.

We also need to strike a life-saving balance between self-assertion and respect for others (Deming, 1990, p. 104). This evolved instinct bypasses the aforementioned domesticated nonviolence that mostly appeals to humanistic consciences, thus providing a lot of fodder for legitimate criticism. Radical action troubles conscience and resorts to power (ibid, p. 100). Nonviolence is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or maybe a chimera of the two. Apparently, the only animals capable of love are those who maintain this equilibrium (ibid, p. 104). Maybe Jesus of Nazareth was right when he said we love others as we love ourselves, or as we assert our own lives. Radical action might encompass the love of neighbors and love of enemies.

Las Abejas exemplifies this equilibrium and also helps reconcile nonviolence and pacifism. Las Abejas is a Christian pacifist civil society of indigenous Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, committed to nonviolent resistance against neoliberalism, imperialism, and militarism. Much of their advocacy centers on agricultural work, threatened by Mexican and international economic policies (Kovic, 2003, p. 67). The land is intimately related to their identity as indigenous people: it is “our life and our freedom” (Tavanti, 2003, p. 61). Las Abejas means “the bees” in Spanish, because “like the bees we want to build our houses together, to collectively work and enjoy the fruit of our work . . . We want to produce 'honey' but also to share with anyone who needs it” (Tavanti, 2003, p. 5). One member noted that bees are small insects that can disturb a sleeping cow with one sting (ibid, p. 5). The queen of this hive is the kingdom of God (Kovic, 2003, p. 70), or the queendom of God. Las Abejas represents the need for liberatory interepretations of religious traditions (Bayat, 2009, p. 50), because religions aren’t fixed (ibid, p. 44): they are like rivers, cascading in tributaries and undercurrents. After all, Jesus was an indigenous Galilean craftsman who instigated the prophetic renewal of Israelite tribal confederacy, challenging both domestic elites and foreign imperialism.
Las Abejas began in 1992 in response to a land dispute in which one man was killed and several others injured (Kovic, 2003, pp. 62-64). Five men were arrested without warrant and wrongly accused of the attack (ibid, p. 64). Las Abejas, who promoted nonviolent resolution to the dispute, organized 200 indigenous Tzotzil to march 41 kilometers and sit in front of San Cristobal’s cathedral to protest the unjust arrests; by the time they arrived, 5,000 people had joined (ibid, pp. 65-66). The five men were soon released (ibid, p. 66) 4. Five years later, a paramilitary group killed 45 members of Las Abejas who were praying in a chapel in Acteal, even as police officers stood 600 feet away and government authorities took five hours to respond. But Las Abejas, as they called for justice, also called for forgiveness and reconciliation. They believed that commitment to all three constituted their nonviolence.

This is a delicate constitution. For a month or so, friends of mine and I slept a night or two a week in the home of a nonviolent protest leader outside of Bethlehem in case of military night raids. Soldiers were often in communication with this leader and obviously knew where he lived. They once suggested that they come to his house for tea and discuss alternatives to weekly protests against the wall. He replied that they were not welcome now, because they had the power to come whenever they wanted. When the conflict was over, he said, they were welcome for tea, ahlan wa sahlan, but until then he would see them at the demonstrations. I’ve been called an anti-Semite for work I’ve done in the occupied territories, and for even calling them “occupied territories.” At the same time, an activist friend severely questioned my concern for Palestinians because I worked for a reconciliation group. To her, all such groups are projects of normalization that care nothing for justice, for home demolitions or night raids or checkpoints or arrests or settlements. And yet she accused me as we drove to the home of the nonviolent protest leader.

Transformation may begin with covenanting ourselves to the wreckage and gift of the beautiful risk of life. The Realist, however, throws in the cards and says, “This world is what we have and we must accept it,” which isn’t really realism as much as it is elitism. To recognize the violence of the world, and to recognize that our current ways of living exacerbate this, and then to suggest that we must continue this currency, is the most unrealistic thing imaginable. Knowing something doesn’t work and yet continually expecting it to work borders not only on unrealism but on stupidity. I think Freud said this is the definition of insanity.

1: However, Jessie Wallace Hughan argues for the possibility of pacifist resistance to military invasion (Hughan, 1990, p. 169).
2: Especially with responses like George Lakey’s, who notes that a much higher proportion of people of color have engaged in nonviolent action than white people (see also Myers, 1994, p. 239).
3: Of course, ritual, and therefore religion, has roots in scapegoating violence and destructive mimesis. Compelling theological work has noted how the Christian narrative of crucifixion and resurrection exposes this violence through solidarity with the scapegoated victim. However, ritual also evolves from play, and beneficial mimesis also forms culture.
4: As far as I know, few white people were involved.


Apsey, L. S. (1990). How transforming power has been used in the past by early Christians. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 27-28). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Bayat, A. (2009). No silence, no violence: A post-Islamist trajectory. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Crow, R. E. & Grant, P. (2009). Questions and controversies about nonviolent political struggle in the Middle East. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 31-42). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Deming, B. (1990). On revolution and equilibrium. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 94-104). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Flinders, T. (1990). The good fight—Badshah Khan, the frontier Gandhi. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 187-191). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Gelderloos, P. (2007). How nonviolence supports the state. Boston: South End Press.

Graeber, D. (2011). Revolutions in reverse: Essays on politics, violence, art, and the imagination. New York: Autonomedia.

Hughan, J. W. (1990). Pacifism and invasion. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 168-177). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

King, M. E. (2009). Palestinian civil resistance against the Israeli military occupation. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 131-155). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kovic, C. (2003). The struggle for liberation and reconciliation in Chiapas, Mexico: Las Abejas and the path of nonviolent resistance. Latin American Perspectives, 30, 58-79. Retrieved July 14th, 2012, from JSTOR.

Lorde, A. & Clarke, C (ed.). (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world
. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Schwarcz, E. (1990). Nonviolent resistance against the Nazis in Norway and Holland during World War II. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 184-187). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Sharp, G. (1990). Nonviolent action: An active technique of struggle. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 147-150). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

(2005) Waging nonviolent struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers.

Tavanti, M. (2003). Las Abejas: Pacifist resistance and syncretic identities in a globalizing Chiapas. New York: Routledge.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Nonviolence and Palestine

In 2008, I worked as a journalist and interim editor in Ramallah for the Palestine Monitor, a web-based news source committed to “exposing life under occupation.” I traveled throughout the West Bank, writing several articles about the village of Ni’lin, whose olive groves and roads are fractured due to the construction of the separation wall. I witnessed and engaged with villagers, as well as Israeli and international activists, nonviolently protesting the confiscation and devastation of their land. I attended the first demonstration at Ni’lin on the inaugural day of construction. Villages like Ni’lin have lost and are losing increasing amounts of land, including ancient and viable farmland, to the wall, mostly built deep into Palestinian territory.

We marched from the town center to the outskirts, where we could see three Israeli settlements reaching like white hands over the ashen hilltops. The military and police, accompanied by Caterpillar bulldozers, watched with finger-laden triggers as youth crawled in front of machinery and we gathered around as popular committee leaders spoke with soldiers.

The villagers assured the military that we were there nonviolently. But the squad commander barked an order and sound grenades began exploding at our feet and rubber-coated bullets spiraled through teargas clouds. Stone-throwing never seemed effective to me, but I struggled labeling it violence, especially as they bounced off tanks and kevlar. Either way, stones and M-16s are not easily comparable. Every protest I attended followed a similar chronology: the Israeli military always fired first, the crowd dispersed, and stones fell wildly.
Police and military repeatedly responded with teargas (including an apparatus that shot 16 at once), rubber-coated bullets, and live fire, most of which are supplied by the United States. At other demonstrations, the atmosphere was festive (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 36) with beating drums and cookware, whistles and chants. And yet each time we were disrupted by charging soldiers and sparks from sound grenades lighting ancient olive trees aflame.

I have heard some commentators praising Palestinians’ newfound application of nonviolence, almost surprised to see such a thing in the Middle East. This Orientalist view, often espoused by American political leaders, is not only hypocritical (because Israel and the U.S. are never encouraged to employ nonviolence) but is extremely ignorant of Palestinian history. Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in the so-called Holy Land as neighbors for centuries. But European partitioning of the Middle East ruptured the land like tectonic plates and a massive influx of Jewish immigrants arrived on Mediterranean waves, many propelled by Zionism. This ideology espoused labor and land acquisition by replacing Arab workers with Jewish workers and by purchasing Arab land which could then no longer be sold to Arabs (King, 2009, p. 151) [Footnote]. However, Palestinians strove to protect their life and land, from both exclusive Zionist policies and British control, through nonviolent tactics such as organizing delegations, boycotts, resignations, and strikes (ibid, pp. 131-132). Around 97% of the First intifada’s tactics were nonviolent (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 119). And over 70% of Palestinian youth oppose violence in the conflict against Israel.

I’ve also heard criticisms that Palestinian nonviolence lacks a central leader like Gandhi or King who can rally the troops. But this obscures the fact that prominent leaders have existed (King, 2009, pp. 135-140), many of whom have been imprisoned or deported. During the First intifada, high-ranking Palestinian leaders lived in exile from the daily toil of occupation. Instead, popular committees cultivated a movement of leaders, some more visible than others. Interestingly, the Communist Party, often associated with a revolutionary vanguard capturing the state, publically advocated for nonviolent tactics and “popular organizing of small, locally-governed institutions,” believing that these could transform social structures as a prerequisite for national independence (ibid, p. 134). Decentralized power guaranteed the movement’s survival: as members were jailed new ones stepped in their shoes (ibid, p. 134). At one point, popular committees, often initiated and run by women (ibid, p. 140), numbered around 45,000, a groundswell that emerged into a concerted civil society from which the intifada forcefully streamed (ibid, pp. 133-134). Parallel institutions, a classic nonviolent tactic of intervention (Sharp, 2005, pp. 19, 460), made the occupied territories ungovernable as Palestinians governed themselves (ibid, p. 142). For instance, the small village of Beit Sahour, where I’ve spent most of my time in Palestine, organized some 12,000 people into 36 committees, diversified along class and gender lines (ibid, p. 140). Direct democracy and nonviolence are not an import to the Middle East.

I know someone who has hoped to make a career out of working in Palestine. During a conversation about the then-imminent Palestinian bid for statehood, he quipped that, if the request succeeded, he might be out of a job before he even gets started. He probably meant it sardonically, but the implication was that a Palestinian state is the answer, as if abject poverty, political infighting, Muslim-Christian hostility, ecological devastation, and IDF-mimicking police forces would suddenly vanish in the wake of a salvific state. So far, nation-state frameworks have resulted in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. After the PA’s institution, women were mostly excluded from decision-making even though they had been leaders of popular committees (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 137). Perhaps state-focused organizing is the best tactical option considering that all four nonviolent secessionist campaigns since 1900 have failed (ibid, p. 73). While Palestinian self-determination isn’t strictly secession, the West Bank is certainly contiguous with Israel through economic dependency, security collaboration, and Israel’s resource control. Land is continually pulled from beneath Palestinians’ feet like a carpet, and Israel’s monopolization of water sources may decide the conflict for everyone.

However, nonviolent resistance has an advantage in territorial campaigns like self-determination and anti-occupation (ibid, p. 7). The consensus on nonviolence during the First intifada fell apart in the third year after enough leaders were deported or imprisoned (ibid, p. 145), making a decentralized movement of leaders extremely urgent. Perhaps the greatest possibility lies in the resurrection and sustainability of popular committees. They already play an important role in the intifada against the wall (King, 2009, p. 149), and have been effective in Budrus, Bil’in, and initially in Ni’lin. Popular committees could connect with grassroots Israeli movements, like Israeli-Bedouin agricultural partnerships in the Negev, or movements like Arba Imahot (Hermann, 2009, p. 262). Maybe people would hear voices like Martin Buber who, instead of initially fighting for a Jewish state, called for an Arab-Jewish confederation in the land.

The section of the wall through Ni’lin is now complete, but the protests continue.

Footnote: In my mind, this makes Chenoweth and Stephan’s claim that Israel is a rare example of a democracy following a violent insurgency (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 219) highly problematic, especially because 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes during this period. These land acquisitions are still occurring.


Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hermann, T. (2009). Winning the mainstream: Arba imahot, the four mothers movement in
Israel. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 253-264). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

King, M. E. (2009). Palestinian civil resistance against the Israeli military occupation. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 131-155). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sharp, G. (2005). Waging nonviolent struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Nonviolence and Democracy

Apparently, nonviolence and democracy are strongly connected. In fact, nonviolent resistance campaigns are much more likely than violent ones to pave the way for “democratic regimes” (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 10). Even failed nonviolent campaigns are more likely than successful violent revolutions to establish something democratic (ibid, p. 202). Nonviolent campaigns are often successful because they elicit diverse mass participation (ibid, pp. 30, 61), an obvious condition for democratic governance. This is certainly evident in the Muslim Pashtun movement and nonviolent army (Raqib, 2009, pp. 109, 113), popular committees during the first Palestinian intifada (Stephan, 2009, p. 315), Golani Druze resistance against Israeli identity cards (Kennedy, 1990, p. 197), and Norwegian teachers and churches, as well as Dutch railway workers, against the Nazis (Schwarcz, 1990, pp. 185, 187).

But what in the world is democracy? The term resides in a restless spectrum, so perhaps the adjective democratic should be employed more than the noun. Even so, most conversations about democracy decline to define it. At the end of their book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan eventually explain democracy as a national institution in which leaders are voted for through competitive elections, citizens have enforceable civil liberties, and government is divided into checks and balances (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 203). This emphasis on checks, balances, and competitive elections might suggest why capitalism has followed democracy everywhere like Mary’s little lamb.

And this emphasis is one of the West’s greatest assembly-lined exports. Anthropologist David Graeber quips that the West certainly didn’t invent democracy, but they did spend “several hundred years invading and spreading democracy to people who were practicing democracy for thousands of years and were told to cut it out” (Graeber, 2004, p. 93). Because of this, defining democracy in many places leads to enraged debates because the word is associated with imperial models and with economic liberalization (VeneKlassen & Miller, 2007, p. 27).

Chenoweth and Stephan recognize that their definition falls under the category of liberal democracy (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 203), which is only one among many forms (VeneKlassen & Miller, 2007, p. 29). They further note that modernization theory assumes that democracy is only possible within liberal political societies (ibid, p. 203). Defining democracy this way smells suspiciously like Eurocentrism, especially because equating democracy with voting is a recent historical classification. Consensus decision-making was the necessary norm in many societies without an apparatus to enforce majoritarian decisions, but indigenous village councils aren’t often considered democratic because they don’t vote (Graeber, 2004, p. 88). The nonviolent egalitarian society of the Buid (Braun, 1990, pp. 182-184) and the consensus decision-making of the Druze (Kennedy, 1990, p. 201) trouble the notion that democracy, and nonviolence, is only found within modern liberalism.

Even so, liberal state democracy is usually presented as a social contract that prevents widespread violence. However, many historians now claim that state-making originated, not to protect people from violence, but to organize for the purpose of war (Cavanaugh, 2004, p. 250). European peasants staged major popular rebellions, causing some of the most tumultuous periods in European history, during the infancy of the nation-state when royal leaders consolidated power through uniform language, currency, and taxes over huge territories (ibid, pp. 248-249). State-making is historically a form of violence.

The transition method often predicts the outcome of the new state regime (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 204), but even democratic regimes are hard for “we the people” to handle, as is currently obvious in the United States. Chenoweth and Stephan argue that citizens’ circumventing normal political avenues highlights democratic weakness (ibid, p. 211), but it might instead expose some level of incompatibility between nonviolence and nation-states. The two don’t seem to go together easily. After all, a strong connection exists in resistance movements between hierarchy and violence (ibid, p. 35), which are the structure and function of the modern nation-state. Surely a representative democracy is theoretically better than a totalitarian dictatorship, or even a liberal democracy over an illiberal one. And perhaps a regime could be democratic, but is that the best we can imagine, or even witness, in the world?

The emphasis on liberalism and voting highlights a discrepancy between Chenoweth and Stephan’s definition and many movements that become democracies. Active participation in social movements increases the post-transition prospects for engaged citizenry, but interestingly popular disillusionment with government often follows nonviolent transitions (ibid, p. 207). This could be because the road to accountable governments is long (VeneKlassen & Miller, 2007, p. 25), but it could also be the inevitable result of replacing horizontal participatory movements with procedural systems of checks and balances, especially when the former seem marked by creativity and the latter by constraint. So why move from decentralized networks of direct democratic engagement to institutionalized modes of hierarchical democracies? Unfortunately, people often treat the former as an interim phase until the latter is achieved, but then after the new regime takes the reigns they longingly remember the good days of resistance. Quality of engagement is just as important as quantity (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, pp. 30, 39), but after the quality dilutes, the quantity dwindles.

Gene Sharp acknowledges that while nonviolent action is usually extra-constitutional because it doesn’t rely on established institutional procedures, he believes it could be incorporated into statist systems (Sharp, 1990, p. 149). Therefore, he argues, nonviolent action shouldn’t be confused with anarchism (which is indirectly what we’ve been discussing) because the latter hasn’t adequately thought about practically achieving their envisioned society, much less realistic means for social struggle that are substantially different from the state (ibid, p. 149). In a recent interview, Erica Chenoweth seems to agree with Sharp when she critiques nonviolent action’s over-reliance on inefficient leaderless movements. Both fine scholars do not appear to have encountered much of the long history of anarchist praxis and seem unaware of extensive anthropological research on anarchistic societies (Graeber, 2004, pp. 13, 39). And both, at least Chenoweth, make a mistake in equating leadership with hierarchy. Leadership could be hetrarchical, which implies distinction without rank, evident in Palestinian popular committees or Druze consensus processes.

Interestingly, despite Sharp’s and Chenoweth’s concerns, nonviolent social movements emphasize “civic organization and decentralized power,” which are the “bedrock of democratic development” (Stephan, 2009, pp. 314-315). So why not continue the popular committees? Local Palestinian communities organized village-level popular committees all across the West Bank (ibid, p. 315). From neighborhoods to regions, committees formed around education, medical-relief, agriculture, business, and social reform (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 124). These autonomous structures overcame social divisions by encouraging deep participation (ibid, p. 138). All of this sharply contrasts with the Palestinian Authority that followed the partially successful movement (Stephan, 2009, p. 315). In Pakistan, the Khudai Khidmatgar strove to reform not only political life but also social and economic life (Raqib, 2009, p. 109). Members cooperatively shared work to realize the goal of the country’s economic self-sufficiency from colonial power (ibid, p. 110).
Of course, alternative institutions should not be content to only carve out enclaves within the current order, but should also challenge it, as Palestinians and Pashtuns did, because the top-level Metonyms don’t voluntarily modify. Instead, the point of anarchism is direct democracy by building a new society in the shell of the old. Perhaps nonviolent social movements should view themselves as the harbinger of the impossible becoming possible.


Braun, S. (1990). Jungle nonviolence. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 181-184). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Cavanaugh, W. (2004). Killing for the telephone company: Why the nation-state is not the keeper of the common good. Modern Theology, 20, 243-274.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kennedy, R. S. (1990). The Druze of the Golan: A case of nonviolent resistance. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 193-203). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Raqib, M. (2009). The Muslim Pashtun movement of the north-west frontier of India, 1930-1934. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 107-118). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schwarcz, E. (1990). Nonviolent resistance against the Nazis in Norway and Holland during World War II. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 184-187). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Stephan, M. J. (2009). Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

VeneKlassen, L. & Miller, V. (2007). A new weave of power, people, and politics: The action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Bourton on Dunsmore: Practical Action Publishing.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Proximity Matters: The Place of Democracy Part IV

Parochialism or not, community is unavoidable if we understand humans as social creatures dependent for better and worse on lives beyond ourselves. However, community is often without a livable definition by being limited to “conversations of shared interest.” Shared interests and ideas are integral to community, which should include psychological and emotional connections (Ohmer & DeMasi, p. 6; Carr, p. 26). But ideas and interests are fleeting and can divide neighbors based solely on cognitive affiliations. Different ideas ensure critical thought and even reinforce one another, especially since we always live and work with people with whom we vehemently disagree and still consider them friends, lovers, and colleagues (Graeber, 2004, pp. 8-9).

Because of this, I respectfully quibble with Cheryl Walter, to whom community is “an inclusive, complex, and dynamic system, of which we are a part” (p. 69). To clarify, I agree with this but her existing definition too easily leads to expressions like the “online community” or the “global community,”
which may appreciate interconnectedness but also dilute, or delude, community of any bioregional emphasis, local mutuality, and ultimately interdependence. And so community ironically remains individualistic: we are connected so long as nothing is required of us. Democracy functions similarly in a procedural republic like the United States.

Walter suggests that community has no structure (ibid, p. 74) and even though she admits that community happens in context (ibid, p. 72), she dichotomizes social/demographic community from multidimensional/dynamic community (ibid, p. 70).
A process-structure concept, which is an adaptable dynamic process that maintains form without rigidity over time (Lederach, p. 84), accommodates both. Community is a multidimensional system, but I think Walter’s attempt to cover all forms of social relationship as community makes places vulnerable to extractive market forces and therefore homogenization. She short shrifts the notion of the commons, as well as the crucial role of trust and partnership in community (Walter, pp. 80-1). And her definition, like many others, is entirely anthropocentric. We cannot, as some assume (Minkler & Wallerstein, p. 33), divorce ecological and social systems, because the latter take their lives from the former.

Such people seem hostile to community incorporating anything geographic (Carr, p. 25) and argue that communities solely based on interest, such as the Internet, can effectively replace declining geographic communities (ibid, p. 27). Social media has made humans more intricately connected than ever before, but recent research apparently shows that we’re also lonelier than ever before, which is a public health issue. An Australian study also found a strong link between Facebook users and narcissism, manifested “in patterns of fantastic grandiosity [and] craving for attention.”
And interestingly, narcissism is closely tied to loneliness. Online “communities” become projections of self-image, which then defines community as a retreat from “the messy reality of other people.” This is certainly not always the case, but we do meet fewer people and gather together less frequently. Proximity matters: where we live, who we live there with, and how we live there define our relationship to the world.

Community must be narrowed to emphasize places and expanded to include nature. Therefore, I think it would be better, and more realistic, to say community is like, and part of, an ecosystem, which is mutable and resilient, inclusive, has permeable borders (Walter, p. 72), and is always adapting to context. In fact, place can be more inclusive than communities of interest because it encompasses multiple interest groups by something, or somewhere, held in common. And because of that they may realize that their best option for survival is learning to work together, and in “this way places breed cooperation” (Kemmis, p. 122). This kind of community does not spontaneously happen, because, as mentioned before, inhabiting means dwelling in a place in an intentionally practiced way (ibid, p. 79). Place is large enough to nurture pluralism but is small enough to restrain it (Myers, p. 364) from becoming another indiscriminate egalitarianism. The land itself is made healthy through biodiversity. This conception knows the always changing nature of community and place.
Which once again brings us to the question of democratic scale and limits. Community is like cells in the body and the body itself, which has limits but is always receiving and giving, just as ecosystems are always transformed by outside disturbance. In this understanding, there is potentially an organic household—that is, an ecosystem—which can contain the human and the nonhuman together (Kemmis, p. 120). I don’t think a radical democratic public is possible without some idea of community as an ecosystem, because “public life can only be reclaimed by understanding, and then practicing, its connection to real, identifiable places” in which citizens participate (ibid, p. 6). Perhaps, then, communities as ecosystems could help revive, or achieve, something like democracy. In a healthy durable place, diverse residents must learn to live well with their neighbors. Scholars as far back as Tocqueville “have emphasized the engagement of the community as a focal point of a healthy democracy” (Ohmer & DeMasi, p. 6), something which the Occupy Movement is trying to revision and reinvigorate. Understanding the relationship between community, democracy, and place does not ignore the reality of forced migration through violent displacement (Footnote). But displacement only highlights the importance of place in human imagination even more. We are always already somewhere. And, as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, somewhere is better than anywhere.

Peacebuilder John Paul Lederach describes society as a House and the opposing theories of how to construct this House: top-down or bottom-up (p. 37). The blueprints of our House called for liberty and justice for all, but the foundation was poured with white supremacy, patriarchy, and oligarchy (Myers, p. 203). This House was built more by enslaved Africans than by free Europeans, and we evicted the previous inhabitants. Lederach’s opposing theories of social change lie at the heart of the debate about democracy and community. One approach believes social injustices are a personal and policy problem: the House needs some slight adjustments and some redecorating, but the structure is sound. The other approach thinks that these injustices stem from the very history and formations of economic and political structures themselves: the House cannot simply be repainted, but might be in need of extensive renovation.

Because a House divided against itself cannot stand.

Footnote: The Occupy movement has even experienced this.


Carr, M. (2004). Bioregionalism and civil society: Democratic challenges to corporate globalism. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kemmis, D. (1990). Community and the politics of place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lederach, J. (1997). Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace.

Minkler, M. and Wallerstein, N. (2004). Community Organization and Community Building: A Health Education Perspective. In M. Minkler (ed.), Community organizing and community building for health (pp. 30-52). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Ohmer, M. L. & DeMasi, K. (2009). Consensus organizing: A community development
. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Walter, C. L. (2004). Community building practice: A conceptual framework. In M. Minkler (ed.), Community organizing and community building for health (pp. 68-83). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Proximity Matters: The Place of Democracy Part III

Social change is, borrowing from James Joyce, a chaosmos, a tenuous order hinged on the contingency of flux. We can predict and prepare for it, we can leaven society to precipitate it, but ultimately social change belongs to the indeterminate future. For this reason, activists like those in the Occupy movement must be skilled readers of the unveiled signs of the time.

Like knowing when to pluck ripe fruit gifted by the tree. And so social change requires an urgent energy but also a wild sort of patience, which implies committed time in a place, which implies community. Associations should come and go, but communities are meant to last.

Engineer and activist Randy Schutt declares that we need a clear vision of a good society toward which we are moving (pp. 67-68). Because of this, activists need supportive community in order to live simply, animate social change for the long haul (ibid, pp. 72-3), and imagine what the alternative future looks like right now. At this point, Schutt is betraying (unacknowledged) anarchist values of revolution and organizing, such as ending oppression rather than individual oppressors, direct nonviolence, the commensurability of ends and means, and alternative institutions (ibid, pp. 64-68). Of course, alternative institutions should not be content to carve out enclaves within the current order, but should also challenge it because the top-level Metonyms don’t voluntarily modify. Nevertheless, regime change usually chops the head off the Hydra monster only so another biting head can grow in its place. Instead, the point of anarchism is direct democracy by building a new society in the shell of the old. And this is what movements like Occupy are trying to do.

But let’s be clear: these movements are not the answer to our problems. They are not the beatific vision of democracy or community. In an essay called “In Distrust of Movements,” farmer and writer Wendell Berry complains that such movements are often insincere because they presume that other people cause all the problems and so require only policies, not behaviors, to be changed (2004, p. 45). He proposes three conditions for his participation in the Movement to Teach the Economy What It Is Doing, or the MTEWIID, a name which he hopes will be too clunky to be bumper-sticker trendy. Firstly, we must give up the belief in totalizing solutions (ibid, p. 49), which are often predicated on regime change (Graeber, 2011, p. 27). Secondly, we should acknowledge our complicity in the economic system, because in order to expose it we must understand how we participate in it, especially if we are going to build a good economy (Berry, 2004, pp. 49-50). Finally, we must be satisfied to be poor and so find cheap solutions within the reach of everybody, which will never happen if we have lots of money: “We want a movement that is a movement because it is advanced by all its members in their daily lives” (ibid, p. 50).

In my experience and reading, many Occupy hubs are wrestling with these conditions. For instance, Occupy Harrisonburg in Virginia asserts that they are the articulation, not the solution, of the problem and that their mission is to: celebrate what works; acknowledge what is broken; take responsibility; create action; and repeat.

David Graeber argues that mass direct action organized as direct democracy is very effective, but the main problem with such movements is that they are shocked by quick successes and then thrown into confusion and infighting (2011, p. 12). Perhaps Berry’s conditions provide one way to avoid these perennial pitfalls, especially if we also come to terms with and repent of the dark American history of racism, militarism, and classism.

Peacebuilders and activists stumble upon other related pitfalls, such as wanting to address root causes but not wanting to put down any roots. Transience breeds abstraction, around which the danger of global thinking revolves. Those with grand abstract schemes to “save the world” don’t always think that differently from those with grand abstract schemes to “take over the world.” Both operate on reductionist assumptions and the myth of the White Man’s Burden. Indeed, the most successful global thinkers have been imperial governments and multinational corporations (Berry, 1993, p. 19). I’m not proposing isolation, because justice necessitates imaginative respect for the plurality of the world’s places (ibid, p. 50). No place is wholly free while another is enslaved, no place wholly healed while another is diseased.

However, I doubt whether global solutions will be any less destructive than the problems which they seek to solve. Contrary to popular belief, I think size does matter. The bigger they are the harder they will fall. This is not only a practical consideration, but an ethical one as well: who will suffer the consequences of bad decisions if, or when, the mighty walls come tumbling down? Unfortunately, scale and limits are not popular topics in industrial Western countries. The question of democratic scale transports us back to the Constitution’s drafting, where Federalists and republicans disagreed on proper scale but both used the wide western frontier to their advantage.

Kirkpatrick Sale maintains that scale is “the single most critical and decisive determinant of all human constructs” (p. 54) because people are not usually persuaded by forceful moral argument but can be moved to right behavior when they see the problem before them and their connection to it, and this can only be done at a limited scale (ibid, p. 53). For something to be democratic, it seems to me that people at least need the option to interact with one another, to cross paths at least once in a while. Sale notes that humans evolved in villages mostly ranging from 500 to 1,000 people, with broader tribal associations rarely exceeding 10,000 (ibid, p. 64). Clearly network organizing across regions is necessary, much as the Iroquois Confederacy did or perhaps as 21st century town meetings are attempting to do now (Lukensmeyer & Brigham, 2005). However, these should supplement, not replace, actual town meetings.

Deliberative democracy builds on and links more direct, scaled democracies. In a deliberative process, everyone affected by or interested in a decision should be invited to participate in the decision-making process (Evanoff, p. 24), which doesn’t mean everyone would convene at larger levels to discuss regional cooperation. Representative forms of democracy may be more efficient, or at least faster, but they tend to exclude those without access to power centers and, ever so slowly, representation becomes separation. But this doesn’t imply some bland uniformity. Sale argues that while alpha males and coercion are present in the nonhuman world, there is no institutionalized system of domination that could be called hierarchy (Sale, p. 98). However, we do see hetrarchy, or “distinction without rank,” that entails complementary roles (ibid, p. 98). After all, as Wendell Berry points out, a superficial egalitarianism is a free market society in which we won’t listen to those who may know more or we won’t help those whose conditions are worse (1993, p. 173). Equality without equity, compassion, or mutuality endorses power and wealth (ibid, p. 172). Berry insists that a deep pluralism demands, not an indiscriminate egalitarianism or shallow tolerance, but knowledge and respect of differences, which implies imagination, or “the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.” (ibid, p. 173).

A democratic confederal model, like bioregionalism, moves toward this knowledgeable respect and imagination, asserting that convergence is necessary for cultures to address shared problems, but divergence is also needed to ensure cultural diversity and evolution (Evanoff, p. 1). This decentralized network, like ecological trophic levels or nutrient cycles, is one way to prevent insularity. While parochialism is an undoubted risk, it is also a regular red herring in discussions of communities and local democracies, no more endemic to them than to urban centers and nation-states, evidenced by the rampant anti-immigration rhetoric in the U.S.


Berry, W. (2004). Citizenship papers. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard.
(1993). Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight essays. New York City:
Pantheon Books.

Evanoff, R. (2011). Bioregionalism and global ethics: A transactional approach to achieving ecological sustainability, social justice, and human well-being. New York: Routledge.

Graeber, D. (2011). Revolutions in reverse: Essays on politics, violence, art, and the imagination. New York: Autonomedia.

Lukensmeyer, C. J. & Brigham, S. (2005). Taking democracy to scale: Large scale interventions—for citizens. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 41, 47-60.

Sale, K. (2000). Dwellers in the land: The bioregional vision. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Schutt, R. (2001). Inciting democracy: A practical proposal for creating a good society. Cleveland: Spring Forward Press.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Proximity Matters: The Place of Democracy Part II

In any case, defining democracy as voting—a fairly recent historical classification—smells like Eurocentrism. The United States is a majoritarian democracy, a military institution descended from ancient Greece (Graeber, 2004, p. 87). This democratic structure is only possible when a society believes people should have an equal say in decision-making and when a coercive legal apparatus is able to enforce those decisions (ibid, p. 89). Consensus decision-making was the necessary norm in many societies without a coercive apparatus, but many Western scholars don’t designate an indigenous village council as democratic because they don’t vote (ibid, p. 88). It does seem relevant that the U.S. democracy-as-voting system originated in ancient Greece, which was one of history’s most competitive societies in which public decision-making was a form of contest within a populace at arms (ibid, p. 90), an idea we see expressed in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. As we should recall, democracy etymologically refers to the force or violence of the people—kratos, not archos—because the political elites that devised the word did not see a huge difference between democracy and mob rule (ibid, p. 91).

Even so, democracy is a strange spectrum and a word in reclamation. Many progressives involved with Occupy declare that this new movement is about reclaiming our bought democracy, perhaps agreeing with Cornel West that citizen disillusionment is due to free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism (pp. 3-6). Occupiers are not the only ones noting the challenge of reclaiming democracy. Some believe that we must rebuild the nation’s moral foundation because an emphasis on individual rights has made us self-absorbed (Wharton, p. 3). Others argue that reinventing citizenship necessitates a web of connections because democracy is the habit of working together (ibid, p. 5) . And still others bemoan that citizens have lost control of a government that is supposedly of, by, and for the people (ibid, p. 7). Our work is indeed cut out for us because this trend may trace back to the defeat of the agrarian Populist movement in the 1896 presidential campaign. William McKinley’s victory marks the first time in which big money and mass communication became central ingredients in American politics (Kemmis, p. 29). Daniel Kemmis, Montana lawyer and former mayor of Missoula, probably agrees with each of the above challenges to varying degrees, especially since the embodied habit of working together implies certain moral values, but he suggests that democratic deterioration might go back even further than McKinley. In fact, it may go back to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

The Founding Fathers famously debated balancing the interests of slave and free states and small and large states, but they also disputed whether citizens could solve problems together or if elaborate government machinery was necessary to resolve conflict without direct democratic engagement (ibid, p. 11). The republican tradition, championed by Thomas Jefferson, depended on people working together to pursue a common good (barring, of course, everyone except white land-owning men). The Federalists, such as James Madison, opposed this with two alternatives: checks and balances in a procedural republic and the extensive western frontier (ibid, pp. 12-13). The Federalist argument rejected the possibility of citizens working together because individuals could only pursue their own private interests, so the effective role of government would be to channel vices toward some emergent higher good (ibid, pp. 14-15), which replaces direct encounters between conflicting parties (ibid, p. 56). The procedural republic’s checks and balances functioned much like the invisible hand of the market, which may explain why capitalism has followed democracy everywhere like a dog chasing its tail. Kemmis argues that this is no accident since the Federalists were also interested “in creating optimal conditions for an expanding commercial and industrial economy”: Adam Smith introduced the invisible hand into economics and James Madison introduced it into politics (ibid, p. 15).

Because of this, the Federalists advocated a much larger political scale than traditional republican teaching, which needed governance small enough that proximate citizens could actually know and repeatedly engage with the ‘public thing’ (ibid, p. 16), something which Alexis de Tocqueville did in fact witness. This outsider also witnessed something rotten in the state of America: a despotic cocktail of racism, empire, and democracy that could undermine what he saw as good (West, p. 45). But Madison saw expanding the western frontier as a hedge against the tyranny of a majority finding a common motive (Kemmis, p. 17) which could foment the aforementioned mob rule; the frontier then became a way of keeping citizens apart (Footnote), even as Jefferson naively believed colonization would preserve republican values through the promise of continual fertile land (ibid, p. 19). As the frontier inevitably closed, two new escape valves saved citizens from finally facing one another: extra-continental imperialism and the regulatory bureaucracy (ibid, p. 32). Since then, these two escape valves have been consistent features of American political life.

Maybe Timothy Zick is right that the Occupy movement aims to redeem rather than achieve democracy, but this would depend entirely on how we want to define democracy and how we interpret our past. Either way, the intended outcome may be a democracy quite different than the one envisioned by the U.S. founding fathers, and we should allow for the possibility that whatever comes may not even be called democracy. And we must always be ready to challenge whatever comes. As biologist Mary Clark says, “In the United States, the centralized, ‘weak’ democracy that the Federalists put in place – with the professed intention of discouraging ordinary people from serious political engagement – needs to be turned into highly participatory, ‘strong,’ community democracies that give people back a sense of control over their own lives” (p. 395). The Occupy movement is attempting to redeem or achieve this democratic public through general assemblies in neighborhoods parks and city squares, operating on the assumption that citizenship is not allegiance to an abstract state but is the repeated practice of communal decision-making, and this requires some common place in which to share experiences (Wharton, p. 5).

One challenge of democracy is that associations, though they still exist in the United States, often relinquish their connection to creation, education, mutual aid, and health to the market and the state (Cavanaugh, p. 258). Kemmis compares contemporary public life to a Big Mac, which can exist in the same form anywhere as a placeless abstraction that diminishes the possibility for culture (p. 7). Or perhaps public life is now like Taco Bell commercials, which market products by fabricating contexts like a small Hispanic neighborhood, in order to have some semblance of cultural identity. For Kemmis, public life simply isn’t possible unless people are trying to inhabit a place together through practiced embodied patterns like work and play, celebration and mourning (ibid, pp. 79-80).

Kemmis drives this argument home by comparing the preambles of the U.S. and Montana constitutions. At first glance, they are similar, beginning with “We the people” and ending in the intention to “ordain and establish.” But Montanans took a lengthy pause between these phrases to thank God for the beauty and majesty of the mountains and valleys, dedicating themselves to preserving this heritage for themselves and future generations (ibid, p. 4). This is not rhetorical flourish, Kemmis contends, but instead signifies a different orientation to governance than the U.S. Constitution: the authors’ relation to the place helped inform what they meant by “we the people,” because people “in their separated individuality never become public. They only do that by a deliberate act of constituting themselves as ‘the people’” (ibid, p. 4). The tangibility of the place delivers the potential for this common effort.

Perhaps the Occupy movement is recognizing this. In fact, journalist Arun Gupta believes that this very concreteness troubles the capitalist system, which congregates “workers in a common space – the factory – where they become aware of their common interests, as well as their potential power to stop the machinery of capital,” just as educational space for student movements and black churches during the civil rights movement provided the same locus. Transforming Zuccotti Park on Wall Street into political space manifests this insight. Diverse people felt drawn to a reimagined commons in which a multitude exchanged food, music, ideas, shelter, skills, and much more. Because of this, longtime organizers were surprised by deep conversations between ideological opponents. Gupta visited approximately forty different U.S. occupations and met many Republicans, and a few Tea Partiers, who self-identified as the 99%. The ability to reconfigure space through acts of reinhabitation is crucial to the Occupy movement’s success, because inhabiting a place means dwelling there in an intentionally practiced way (Kemmis, p. 79). Unfortunately, many Americans have lost the ability to relate to their neighbors, especially ones with contrasting ideas and lifestyles (ibid, p. 79), because some surveys report that 75% of Americans don’t know their next-door neighbors (McKibben, p. 117). American transience through work, housing, finance, and virtual spaces hides the insight that “taking collective action in a shared physical space is how social change happens from below."

Footnote: “Every colonial and autocratic regime rises to power by turning citizens against each other” (Block, p. 71).


Block, P. (2009). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Clark, M. E. (2002). In search of human nature. New York: Routledge.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kemmis, D. (1990). Community and the politics of place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

McKibben, B. (2007). Deep economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future. New York City: Henry Holt and Company.

West, C. (2004). Democracy matters: Winning the fight against imperialism. New York: Penguin Books.

Wharton, T. (2006). Democracy’s challenge: Reclaiming the public’s role. Dayton: National Issues Forums Institute.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Proximity Matters: The Place of Democracy Part I

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
-Wendell Berry, “Watershed and Commonwealth” (2004, p. 135)

In a recent Al Jazeera article, law professor Timothy Zick makes a sharp distinction between the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The former, he claims, is about achieving democracy while the latter attempts to redeem an existing democratic system. Zick argues that street protests can be effective, but the Occupy movement must eventually grow out of direct action and darken the doorways of legitimate institutions to make actual lasting change. The Occupy movement’s challenge will be to maintain its democratic principles while at the same time entering the bloodstream of governmental agencies because, Zick claims, public protest is needed but systemic change demands traditional forums as the primary modus operandi.

Zick’s statist optimism is also apparent when he implies that other notable democratic movements emerged because they were within established democracies. I wonder how he then explains Indian independence under the British empire, People Power in the Philippines, nonviolent Latin American movements such as the Chilean effort to oust Pinochet, and of course Denmark’s resistance to Nazi occupation. The U.S. civil rights movement did occur in a country claiming democratic values, but those values were certainly not favoring the protesters.

Zick’s argument seems fairly standard amongst American liberals who may support democratic protests but ultimately believe that real democracy is instantiated in formal legal structures. Policy professor Peter Dreier agrees, asking aloud if Obama’s election was simply a liberal interim period or if it signals a major progressive shift in U.S. politics. Dreier sees Obama’s electoral campaign as a grassroots social movement that reconnected the people to the power, indirectly comparing this campaign to abolitionism and Populist farmers, housing and health reformers, suffragists and labor unionists, civil rights and environmental activism. Obama did hire hundreds of grassroots organizations and the statistics of support among minorities, students, and labor unions are extremely impressive (ibid, p. 5). Dreier attributes much of the campaign’s success to such grassroots organizing on Obama’s behalf, and his optimism for this “new era” is very evident.

Dreier emphasizes that shrewd elected officials will know that they depend on radical protesters to ripen the political landscape, leveraging such situations so that officials will appear moderate when building bridges. Practical protesters should also recognize that while legislation is usually a compromise, it could lead to progressive reform. The upcoming presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is portrayed as a cataclysmic turning point in U.S. history that requires Dreier’s pragmatism. Democrats accuse more radical activists of playing into the plutocracy’s hands by refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils. For liberals, the only thing worse than voting in partisan politics is not voting in them.

Obama’s rhetoric and certain policies are indeed better, but Glenn Greenwald contends that liberals now support policies they claimed to abhor under Bush, such as maintaining Guantanamo Bay, targeting citizens without due process, and extensive drone attacks. In fact, 77% of liberal Democrats support Obama’s use of drones, representing what Greenwald calls repulsive progressive hypocrisy. Not to mention that Obama extensively fundraised from Wall Street corporations (and later bailed them out), intensified the war in Afghanistan, and recently teamed up with agribusiness giants to sow GMOs throughout Africa, even though the Regional Consultation of Civil Society for Africa responded that this current plan will not support family farms constituting actual “African food security and sovereignty” (Footnote). Greenwald’s article exposes Dreier’s comparison of Obama’s campaign with American liberation movements: once Obama entered the Oval Office, on the waves of grassroots organizing, he was in control of a vast military empire centralized in D.C., far away from the dissipating associations that formed around his inspiring speeches. In a recent conversation with a classmate, I criticized Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech in which he suggested that King and Gandhi’s nonviolence was not naïve . . . but it was of course a little naïve. My classmate defended Obama because he has different job requirements than King or Gandhi. But excusing the president based simply on his job description doesn’t make me ignore his actions. It makes me question the job itself.

Perhaps subversive voting could be a tactic for radicals among a wider strategy of constructive programs. Policies surely require change now in order to limit damage, and we cannot escape constant collaboration and points of intersection, even as we guard against overwhelming centripetal force. But voting is often viewed as the heart of liberal state democracy, which has become the West’s greatest assembly-lined export. Anthropologist David Graeber quips that the West certainly didn’t invent democracy, but they did spend “several hundred years invading and spreading democracy to people who were practicing democracy for thousands of years and were told to cut it out” (2004, p. 93). As Cornel West reminds us, slavery and expulsion of indigenous people are historical preconditions to American democracy, and in fact there “could be no such thing as an experiment in American democracy without these racist and imperial foundations” (p. 45).

And yet for some reason, state democracy is still presented as a social contract that prevents widespread violence. However, many historians now claim that state-making has served, not to protect people from violence as Thomas Hobbes supposed, but to organize for the purpose of war (Cavanaugh, p. 250). Rather than paving the way for the world community, nation-states disintegrated communities through their absorption (ibid, p. 249). European peasants staged major popular rebellions, causing some of the most tumultuous periods in European history, during the infancy of the nation-state when royal leaders consolidated power through uniform language, currency, and taxes over huge territories (ibid, pp. 248-249). In a way, the Occupy movement is resisting similar trends within liberal democracy, which bifurcates the political and economic systems in which the supposed equality of the former actually supports structural inequality in the latter (Myers, p. 294). Many Americans, even poor Americans, seem to accept this division and so forfeit economic or political transformation because Horatio Algers’ bootstrap tales are still pervasive.

Design consultant Peter Block argues that defining democratic engagement by voting effectively reduces citizens to consumers giving their power away (p. 64). In this case, national elections can actually prohibit democracy. For instance, voter registration and civil disobedience among African Americans rose dramatically during the 1960s, during which time Congress approved numerous legislation in favor of black communities. Voter registration continued to increase in the next decade, but civil disobedience diminished. The U.S. government then decelerated ratifying new laws favorable to African Americans, and, of course, Nixon’s War on Drugs also began during this period. Furthermore, congressmen and senators wanted the voting age lowered to 18 in order to draw students away from direct action during the Vietnam War; Senator Jacob Javits believed that anti-war organizers would be ineffective if young people had a role in the political process, which could channel student energy in carrot-and-stick fashion. Perhaps more disturbingly, David Graeber thinks such diversion is not atypical when it comes to democratic movements. Because the U.S. military is always mobilized for war, the government can instigate violence overseas which immediately distracts domestic social movements (2011, p. 15). Graeber speculates that it might not be a coincidence that the civil rights movement led to new legislation and acceleration of the Vietnam War; or that the anti-nuclear movement led to forsaking nuclear power and intensification of the Cold War, as well as incursions into Afghanistan and Central America; or that the global justice movement led to the collapse of the Washington consensus on neoliberalism and the War on Terror (ibid, pp. 15-16). At the risk of sounding like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, I wonder aloud if the Occupy movement will be sidetracked by further threats of war with Iran.

Footnote: This consultation included “small-scale farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, consumers, women, young people, NGOs, human rights movements, trade unions, academics, artisans, [and] indigenous peoples”; in short, the people who Obama, Monsanto, Cargill, DuPont, and others claim to be helping.


Block, P. (2009). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler
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Cavanaugh, W. (2004). Killing for the telephone company: Why the nation-state is not the keeper of the common good. Modern Theology, 20, 243-274.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
(2011). Revolutions in reverse: Essays on politics, violence, art, and the imagination. New York: Autonomedia.

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world
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West, C. (2004). Democracy matters: Winning the fight against imperialism. New York: Penguin Books.