November 13, 2011

So, What Exactly Are We Talking About? Some Preliminary Observations

[Given the form and emphasis of the following discussion, and the possibly erroneous conclusions about my views of the Occupy movement to which they might lead, I think it advisable to mention that I have advocated widespread, ongoing civil disobedience for the past several years. As just one example, you can consult this article, in particular, the second section and the Addendum which discuss what I sometimes refer to as "The Power of No." Two additional articles of special relevance are this one (from February 2007) and "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?" (from December 2007).]

I have no opinion about the protesters' point of view. These barriers are killing my business, and everyone—the police, the protesters, the Mayor—has to understand the ramifications. The police decided the way to solve this was to put up these barricades, and I've approached every white shirt police officer here and said, "You are killing my business!" They say they're just following orders.

These barricades have created a siege down here on Wall Street that makes people not come here. I opened in June and hired 100 people and thought that was something good. I borrowed money, and the Trump organization took a risk with a little guy from Boston and signed the lease with me, and the bank loaned me money, and now I feel like a fool. I took such a risk here, and I'm collateral damage. My staff is collateral damage for other people's battles.
The remarks were made by Marc Epstein to the Gothamist. Epstein is the owner of the Milk Street Cafe. Because of the decrease in his business, Epstein has laid off more than 20 employees and may go out of business altogether.

Have Epstein, his business and his laid-off employees been damaged? Certainly. Has violence been committed against them? And if so, by whom precisely? Occupy Wall Street has an answer to the second question:
Asked about his plight, Occupy Wall Street issued a statement saying, "The NYPD makes the decisions on the part of police barricades. This is not our choice and we would never want businesses to have to deal with inconveniences that may reduce their business traffic."
Is that a satisfactory response? It may be true that the NYPD did not have to respond in the way they have; they might have used fewer barricades (or none at all), or placed the barricades in different locations (then perhaps harming others, but not Epstein). But the NYPD would probably respond with a statement on the order of, "We only did this [erected the barricades] in response to that [Occupy Wall Street]."

Would it claim too much to state that the presence of the barricades and the resulting damage to Epstein's business would not have happened but for OWS? That seems accurate in general terms. Given an ongoing presence by OWS, the NYPD will react in some manner, if not in this particular manner harming these particular actors, then in some other manner perhaps harming other actors. Some people might claim that the damage in this case is only to an "upscale food court" catering to Wall Street criminals and their abettors and enablers, so to hell with inquiries of this kind. Here, I will set aside such strategies, which substitute overly broad moral judgments for the difficult task of analysis, thus making analysis irrelevant.

In a different way, the response by OWS to Epstein's situation also avoids the analytic problems. The choices that led to damage to Epstein's business may not be those that OWS itself would make, but that isn't the issue. It was almost certain that the NYPD and the various other authorities potentially involved would respond in some manner; assuming they did respond (as they have), it was entirely certain that the choices they would make would not be selected by OWS. In other words, the fact of OWS's presence without more -- here assuming that such presence was completely "non-violent" as that term is generally understood -- set off a chain of events which OWS would not itself be able to control or direct. And that much could have been known by those taking part in OWS in advance of their taking any action at all.

Therefore, assuming for the moment that we wish to identify who is responsible for the damage suffered by Epstein's business (and based on reading various news stories from across the country, we can safely assume that there are more individuals suffering damage in the way Epstein has -- or in different ways, some possibly worse -- in additional locales), whom do we name? OWS? The NYPD? Both? Neither? Is it the case that, as he says, Epstein (and his staff) are "collateral damage for other people's battles," possibly unavoidable collateral damage once the battle was joined? Moreover, in reaction to the claim that the damage in this case would not have happened but for OWS, OWS might say that their presence only came about in response to the crimes of the ruling class. Thus, the causal chain is pushed back farther still; the parties who are ultimately responsible may be offstage, at least so far as this particular instance of harm is concerned (and setting aside for this inquiry the hardly insignificant matter of the extent to which the NYPD are only representatives and embodiments of the ruling class's means of control).

These questions, and more, call to mind an observation from Hannah Arendt: "No doubt, 'violence pays,' but the trouble is that it pays indiscriminately..." This returns us to the still more difficult question: Has violence been committed in the scenario involving Epstein's business? Relying again on the common understanding of the term, it would appear not. But "violence" is one of those terms ("God," "democracy" and "love" are others) which almost everyone uses without ever defining them, or even describing them with any particularity. "We all know what we mean" is a phrase that in practice means that we frequently possess only an approximation of a guess about the nature of the object casting constantly shifting shadows on the wall, that we likely have a similarly indistinct grasp of what others mean, and that debates very rarely clarify anything at all but only serve to strengthen the opinions with which the participants began. (You will find related observations here, especially in the parenthetical remarks in the second paragraph.) That is, in fact, we often don't know with any precision what the hell we're talking about. We can observe two results, among others. We may employ terms with one (vague, unspecified) meaning in one context, and then seamlessly shift to another meaning (still vague and unspecified, although apparently different in some respect) when the particular dispute alters. And, when a debate opponent appears about to corner us using our own words, we can say (and perhaps even believe, at least for the moment), "Oh, no, that's not what I meant!" I leave as an exercise for the reader a determination as to whether those who engage in such tactics do so with an appreciation of the sloppy, heedless, often repellent games they play while others suffer and die in the world of events.

Most typically, "violence" refers to physical harm inflicted on persons or things by direct action, where the harm is caused by an individual(s) or by an individual(s) controlling an instrumentality of some kind (a knife, a gun, a bomb, a drone). But we also use "violence" in a looser sense, when we refer to emotional or psychological violence -- or to economic violence. Factors common to these various usages include harm which would not have occurred absent the preceding action (assuming other possibly impinging elements remain unchanged), and that the nature and extent of the harm can often not be predicted with any reliability. We may think that a shot to the head will kill someone, but even that much is uncertain (as recently demonstrated in the case of Gabrielle Giffords). Although the specific nature and extent of the harm cannot be predicted, we can identify one other factor common to the different usages of "violence," including when physical harm is not involved (at least, in the beginning): when we employ violence, we seek to restrict or direct the range of choices available to the person(s) against whom the violence is aimed. As the Milk Street Cafe example demonstrates, those who are affected by the violence involved may not be immediately apparent.

In this last general sense, violence is a means of compelling obedience:
Informed, voluntary agreement occurs when a person is presented with a reason(s) to act in a certain manner; he understands and is ultimately convinced of the validity of the reason(s), and therefore acts in the manner suggested.

Obedience is the opposite of voluntary, uncoerced agreement: the understanding and agreement of the person in the inferior position are not required, and are often not sought at all.
The murderer's victim is compelled to obey: "You will no longer act at all." In a very different way, all the manifestations of the Occupy movement seek to compel obedience, even if only in a broad manner: "Our ongoing presence will make you take notice of us, and of our concerns." The same may be said of civil disobedience in general. As in the Milk Street Cafe case, a specific result of this effort at compulsion may not be what the initiators intended or would choose themselves -- but stating that they do not desire to cause a particular form of damage does not remove them from the chain of events. I emphasize that none of this is intended as a moral judgment or other kind of evaluation (whether the Occupy tactics are "good," or "justified," or "effective"); I am first attempting to identify exactly what is happening. And I mean to point out that when we view violence in general outline, as an instance of attempting to compel obedience, the line between violence and non-violence (as those terms are usually understood) is not a sharp one as almost everyone seems to assume, but one much more difficult to identify.

If we restrict ourselves to instances of civil disobedience which are entirely non-violent (again, in common understanding), we can observe that those who engage in such civil disobedience decline to follow those courses of action which are expected and informally condoned or, in the case of more overt conflict, those courses of action which are legally required. In other words, they decline to obey; they are being disobedient. While that much is obvious (perhaps painfully so, you might be heard to say), the reversal that is attempted is perhaps not so obvious: those who engage in civil disobedience seek to make others obey them. This is true in the manner already identified: the Occupiers (for example) are seeking to make the ruling class as well as the culture more generally take notice of their concerns. The additional goal is that those in power should do something about those concerns, even if what they should do is left unspecified (about which, more later). Those who protest seek to make those in power act in ways the powerful would not themselves choose, absent the protesters' actions.

I approach these questions from this perspective to throw into relief one particular issue: when we speak of civil disobedience, we are speaking of compulsion by those in power being answered by (attempted) compulsion by those who protest. The effort to compel others to act in a certain way (and/or to restrict their range of action) is common to both. It cannot be otherwise in a State founded on compulsion, which is any State. I will offer arguments on this issue in future articles; in the meantime, you can consult "The State and Full Spectrum Dominance" (in particular, the discussion of Nock and Higgs), which sets out some foundational concerns. I note again that this specific question is separate from an evaluation of the "rightness" or "justification" of the protest against perceived injustice, which I will get to in time (and it's touched on below).

Moreover, it cannot be otherwise when all of us are taught from the time we are infants that the foundation for society and "civilization" is obedience, which proceeds from compulsion. I say "all of us," and I mean all of us. There may be one exception among five or ten thousand, but I see you, and you are not that blessed exception. Nor am I, and the greater part of my work and thought over the last ten years has been to understand and undo the effects of that teaching. The work is neverending. I direct your attention to this article, which summarizes certain elements of this phenomenon about which I have already written. I will have more to say on the subject in these new essays.

Keeping these observations in mind, I think that, while it initially may strike us as very wrong to view the question this way given the widespread cultural conditioning to which we are all subject, it is far more accurate to view non-violence itself as another instance of compulsion. And if we are attentive to what proponents of non-violence advocate with regard to action -- and, importantly, what they hope the effects of that action will be -- the sense of error begins to dissipate. Surely, advocates of non-violence hope that change will result from what they do, and they often hope for dramatic and widespread change, even on a societal level. These advocates are not relying on persuasion alone; if they were, why the call to action?

One of the results of the commonly accepted view of non-violence as devoid of compulsion, and thus tautologically devoid of violence, is that we are led to bewildering reactions, as reflected in a number of comments I've seen about recent events in Oakland, for example. Advocates of non-violence will enthusiastically applaud the fact that the port of Oakland was forced to be closed (those who operate the port did not choose to close the port voluntarily), while they fervently condemn those protesters who smashed some windows and caused other property damage (all of which seems to be comparatively minor, to judge from multiple reports).

Why is compulsion approved in one case, but condemned in the other? I am unable to identify a principle which justifies the disparity. (There may be one, but I have yet to find it, even though I have read and continue to read extensively on these issues.) The answer cannot be in the nature and degree of the harm inflicted. Consider the Milk Street Cafe example with which we began. The chain of events which led to the dismissal of more than 20 employees, and which may lead to the closing of the Cafe altogether, includes the presence of Occupy Wall Street. Rather than the continuing presence of the protesters, the Cafe's owner himself might prefer, if he were free to choose, that the Occupiers broke some or even all of his windows, and perhaps went on to damage some of his other on-site property. If that happened on one occasion (and possibly even two or three times), he could replace and repair all of it, and his business might return to previous levels. That result would be a significant improvement over what is happening now.

Also consider the possible further effects for the laid-off employees. Perhaps one of them is a single mother (or father). She is unable to find another job, which is far from difficult to imagine in the present circumstances. She runs out of food in a few weeks, and she can't find sufficient food for herself and her two children from available food banks and similar resources. At some point, she considers stealing food so that her children will survive. Let's rephrase that to better capture the reality, which is much starker: she considers stealing food so that her children won't die.

But, certain proponents of non-violence will assuredly announce, that would be wrong. It would be a crime (obviously true, given current laws), and it would involve violence. For the non-violence advocates, it would be wrong in multiple ways. Violence is always wrong, they inform us. (Yet forcing the port of Oakland to close is a triumph.)

In addition to noting the inconsistency, a caution would not seem out of place. You might wish to reconsider a position which obliges you to take the part of Javert against Jean Valjean. Who's on the side of constituted authority, and of societal compulsion, and of institutional violence, now? As a thought experiment, I offer the following. Imagine that, a few years from now or even sooner given the possible trajectory of events, continuing and widespread food shortages occur. Imagine how different the manifestations of the impulses behind the Occupy movement might look. Food riots are not uncommon in periods of historical crisis, and sometimes precede revolutionary movements. What would those absolutely committed to non-violence have to say to the food rioters? "Violence is always wrong!" Will they add, "If you're unable to procure food except by violent means, then die"? Perhaps not.

(I have read, and continue to read, books, articles and numerous blog posts and associated comments about this general subject. Many of these concerns are addressed only infrequently. I sometimes get the sense that certain advocates of non-violence are more enamored of their self-perceived moral superiority than concerned with identifying and analyzing the immensely difficult questions involved. But the contradictions in their views alone fatally undercut the moral righteousness with which they seek to smother those who disagree with them. They eagerly endorse the use of compulsion [but it's "non-violent"!] to achieve the results they want, while they continue to eat the sweet, non-violent cake of moral self-satisfaction. Given the smugness that often oozes from the commentary of certain advocates of non-violence, I myself have begun to refer to such individuals as "non-violent smuggers." I am already inordinately fond of the phrase.)

Or is the commitment to non-violence not so absolute after all? Does the legitimacy of a response which includes violence depend on the nature of the injustice to which one reacts? The mention of Javert and Jean Valjean brings up a connection with which I had only a passing familiarity, one that I find fascinating. In my previous post, I pointed readers to Thoreau's passionate admiration and praise of John Brown (not precisely a consistent practitioner of non-violent civil disobedience). Another great admirer of Brown's was Victor Hugo, as discussed in David S. Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.

Reynolds writes:
It was fitting, given Brown's racial message, that among the most heartfelt services in his honor were those held in Haiti. The epoch-making slave revolts of Haiti had inspired John Brown; he in turn inspired Haitian blacks.


The French novelist-reformer Victor Hugo was as deeply stirred by Brown's death as were the Haitians, whose history and culture he admired. Hugo sent an emotional letter about Brown, dated December 2, to the London News. Soon newspapers throughout the world, including many in America, had reprinted the letter. American Abolitionists saw it as a document that would "be read by millions with thrilling emotions."

What made the letter significant was not only Hugo's celebrity but also his sincere love of America. Hugo did not hate the South and love the North. Instead, he hated slavery and loved America. His revulsion over Brown's execution was proportional to his respect for the American democratic experiment. "The more one loves, admires, reveres, the Republic," he wrote, "the more heart-sick one feels at such a catastrophe." ...

The execution of John Brown revealed America to be the greatest oxymoron in the world. In this unthinkable act, Hugo wrote, the world witnessed "the champion of Christ ... slaughtered by the American Republic," "the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty," "something more terrible than Cain slaying Abel, ... Washington slaying Spartacus!" "The murder of Brown," he wrote, "would be an irreparable fault. It would penetrate the Union with a secret fissure, which would, in the end, tear it asunder."


Hugo's interest in Brown did not flag, even after slavery was abolished. Five years after the Civil War, Hugo aired plans to write a novel about John Brown. ...

Although Hugo dropped the plan, he incorporated Brown into Les Miserables, his famous novel of 1862. At the climax of the novel, to illustrate the idea that the victor is "magnificent" and the martyr "sublime," he wrote: "For ourselves, who prefer martyrdom to success, John Brown is greater than Washington." One sees shades of Brown in Hugo's Christ-like protagonist Jean Valjean, who suffers for the oppressed, and in Enjolras and his fellow revolutionaries, who fight against overwhelming odds on the barricades, just as Brown had fought in the engine house, and who die for a noble cause.

In 1874, Hugo, as the head of a committee of eleven French reformers, wrote a letter to Brown's widow along with a gold medal inscribed "to the memory of John Brown, judicially murdered at Charlestown, in Virginia, on the 2nd of December, 1859, and in commemoration also of his sons and comrades who, with him, became the victims of their devotion to the cause of Negro emancipation."
This is already far longer than I had intended. Perhaps these dismayingly unordered observations provide some impetus to reflection. As my title has it, these are only preliminary thoughts. In the next installment, we will turn to a consideration of a few genuinely difficult issues.

For the moment, I am condemned to exclusion from the state of grace which appears to be remarkably easy of attainment for so many others, where "we all know what we're talking about" and questions of grave import have luminously clear and satisfactory answers. I have sinned greatly in my life, and I continue to pay the price.