Obviously many of us are both. I have zero use for either empire or war. But I’m using those tags as shorthand for two groups that sometimes unite and sometimes do not in their advocacy efforts.
One speaks against empire and war with the emphasis on empire, tends to avoid advocating nonviolence, has little to say about alternative means of conflict resolution without war, usually likes the term “revolution,” and sometimes advocates for violent revolution or revolution by any means available or “necessary.”
The other speaks against war and empire with the emphasis on war, promotes the tools of nonviolent activism, disarmament, new structures to replace war, and doesn’t have anything to say about the “right” to armed defense or the supposed choice between violence and “lying down and doing nothing.”
It’s critical that these two groups, which overlap and blend and contain infinite variations, talk with each other. Both understand the weakness of division. Both believe there is also great weakness in following the lead of the other. So, sometimes there is collaboration and sometimes not. But when there is, it’s superficial. Rarely do the conversations go deep enough to find mutually beneficial strategies or to persuade those of one position to shift to the other.
A discussion often looks something like this:
A: The research that scholars have done appears to show clearly that movements to overthrow oppression have been over twice as likely to succeed, and those successes far longer lasting, when those movements have been nonviolent. Is there still some reason to advocate for or accept as a viable option violence even understanding that it’s less likely to succeed?
B: Well, but what counts as success? And I’m not advocating violence. I’m just refraining from dictating to oppressed people what they may do. I’m not going to refuse to support their struggle against empire unless it suits my strategy. It’s not our place to dictate to people, but to support them. I would never fail to support the freedom of a wrongly convicted political prisoner because he advocated violence.
A: But have you seen the research? You could start with Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s book. Would you like a copy? Do you really think that there’s something unsuccessful about the examples counted as successes? I’ve never ever once done or even dreamed of doing anything like dictating to a distant group of people what they must do. I have pretty darn limited ability to do such a thing if I wanted to, but must admit that the very idea never occurred to me prior to discussions very similar to this one. I support freeing everyone from prison and first and foremost those wrongly convicted. I oppose all domestic and foreign oppression everywhere regardless of how people are opposing it. But if someone asks for my advice, I’ll point them to the best understanding I have — admittedly fallible — of the facts. That understanding says that violence is more likely to fail, and that the righteousness of the cause has little to do with that likelihood of failure.
B: But it’s a question of building global solidarity to take on international capitalist pirates, and we can’t do that without respecting the people themselves who are impacted and struggling to free themselves from the crimes our tax dollars fund. And we can’t respect them, and have them respect us, if we insist that they do what we recommend. Do Iraqis not have the right to fight back? And does that fighting back not achieve victories?
A: It’s absolutely not our place to dictate to the victims of our tax dollars and our own political failures. You and I couldn’t be in closer agreement on the point. But, here’s the tricky part: it most definitely is our place as human beings to defend the lives of those who will be unnecessarily and probably counterproductively killed and injured and traumatized and made homeless in efforts tied to a noble cause. We actually have to choose to be on the side of the victims — all of them — or that of the executioners. Much of the world ended slavery and serfdom without the sort of violence that the United States saw in the 1860s and has yet to recover from. You can hardly find a nobler cause than ending slavery, but there are plenty of noble causes lying around today waiting to be picked up. What if the people of the United States decided to end mass-incarceration? Would we want to first pick out some fields and kill each other by the millions, and then pass a law ending mass incarceration? Or would we want to jump straight to passing the law? Isn’t it possible to do things in better ways than they have been done in the past?
B: So, Iraqis don’t have the right to fight back because you know better?
A: I don’t have much use for the notion of rights or the lack thereof. Sure, they can have the right to fight back, and the right to lie down and do nothing, and — for that matter — the right to eat nails. But that doesn’t mean I would recommend doing any of those things. I most certainly — I’m not sure how to make this clear, but I’ll keep saying it — would not instruct them or order them or dictate to them. If they have any so-called right it is the right to ignore the ever living hell out of me! But how does that prevent us being allies and friends? Aren’t you and I allies and friends? I have friends in countries the United States military is occupying who are committed to nonviolent resistance, as am I. Some of them no more support or cheer for the actions of the Taliban or ISIS or various other groups than I do.
B: Those aren’t the only groups that have used or could use violence. And there are individuals who are compelled to use violence, just as you would be if cornered in a dark alley.
A: You know, I’ve debated the guy who teaches “ethics” at the U.S. Army’s academy at West Point, and he uses the exact same dark alley routine to justify imperialist wars. But building up massive machinery of death and deploying it actually has little in common with a lone guy in a dark alley — a guy who, for what it’s worth, has more options than we like to imagine. Organizing a military resistance to an imperial invasion or occupation also has next to nothing in common with a lone guy in a dark alley. Here the options are vast indeed. The variety of nonviolent tactics is immense. Of course, violence can have successes, even major ones, but nonviolent action is more likely to have successes, with less damage along the way, with more people involved, with greater solidarity going forward, and with the successes more durable.
B: But if people are in reality organized into violent revolution, the choice is whether to support them or not support them.
A: Why is it? Can’t we agree on opposing what they oppose, while disagreeing with how they are opposing it? I think I may know one reason why it’s hard for us to do so. It’s a reason that suggests a deeper disagreement between you and me, but I think we can only work through it if we talk about it. And it’s this. When I ask you to publicly commit to nonviolence in a protest action in Washington, D.C., or New York, or London, there’s no question of needing to respect the preference for violence of some distant group of our brothers and sisters in a far-off land. This is your preferences for here and now that we’re dealing with. And you’re still reluctant to commit to nonviolence, even though it could make our movement much larger, communicate our message more effectively, and stymie police infiltrators and saboteurs. Sometimes you agree with me on this point, but not usually.
B: Well, maybe we can manage to agree more often on some of these points, I don’t know. But the same issue does arise: there are allies of ours here and now who want to use violence; there are also disputes as to what counts as violence. We can’t build a movement by excluding people.
A: And how’s that working out for you? Where’s the movement? You could ask the same question of me, of course. But I have a theory backed by extensive evidence that one way to increase our chances of enlarging the movement is to publicly commit to nonviolence, at least in our own actions in the Belly of the Beast. We can’t build a movement by excluding that vast majority of people who want nothing to do with violence. Yes, they may love violent movies and violence done with their tax dollars in their names. They may tolerate violent prisons and violent schools and violent Hollywood casting offices and violent police. But they do not want any violence near themselves.
B: So you want a movement of hypocrites?
A: Yes and of cowards and thieves and braggarts and cheats and perverts and failures and fanatics and narcissists and recluses and also of courageous leaders and geniuses. But we can’t be overly picky when we’re trying to bring in everyone. We can try to encourage and bring out the best in people to the extent we know how, and hope they do the same for us.
B: I can see that. But you still want to exclude the guy with a gun.
A: But only because the gun ends up excluding many more guys.
B: Yeah, you said that.
A: OK. Well, let me try saying one other thing about guns. I think there’s a way that empires oppress distant peoples that’s not quite the same as sanctions or bombs or missiles or death squads. It’s the provision of products. Native Americans were given diseased blankets, but they were also given alcohol. The Chinese were given opium. You know what poor abused countries are given today by wealthy abusive countries? Guns. The places on the globe that we’re trained to think of as violent manufacture almost no weapons. The weapons are sent in from the North, and largely from the West, like truckloads of diseased blankets. And the guns mostly kill the people who live in the nations they are sent to. I think celebrating the guns as a means of resistance is a mistake.
B: Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But there are people who live in those places who don’t see it that way. You see it that way from your safe, air-conditioned office. They don’t see it that way. You know what we ought to do? We ought to have a meeting, a conference, not a contest, not a debate, but a discussion of these disagreements, a polite, civilized discussion so that we can figure out where we can and cannot agree. Do you think we can agree on that?
A: Absolutely. That is a very good idea.
B: You’ll have to be part, of course. You were really killing it on some of these points.
A: And you of course. You were really living it.