reflections on ‘How nonviolence protects the state’ – part one

I have been working through Peter Gelderloos’ How nonviolence protects the state for the last few weeks. During that time I have had the opportunity to discuss many of the challenges he puts forward as well as some underlying assumptions and non-stated premises. Whilst I think significant amounts of what he has produced provide valuable points for discussion, I also have a number of issues with it. As my comments and reflections on this will be substantial, this will be my first installment, in engaging with this work.

My aim here is not to summarise the arguments he has put forward – you can look elsewhere for such commentary. My intent is to critically engage with some of the underlying assumptions and non-stated premises I have noted. It should be noted that there are others I do not engage with here, and I may revisit these at a later time. That said, there is enough substance to the How nonviolence protects the state for me to dwell on many of the arguments for some time. Even considering differences of opinion, I do value this work.

What I have found most troublesome with Peter Gelderloos’ writing are a number of repeated themes (for lack of a better descriptor). The first of these is a conflation of pacifism with nonviolence. In drawing on those who challenge principled pacifism, he draws from Ward Churchill. He is not the first to attempt to use the words and writings of Ward Churchill to justify the use of violent tactics, and will not be the last. The problem is the common misconstrual of his ideas. Whilst Ward Churchill does argue quite strongly and effectively for not disclosing tactical options that include violence, he is not the champion of violence that he is often portrayed as being. Anyone who has really looked at his works will easily note this. Whilst I expect such inaccurate conflations from people who have not really looked at Ward Churchill’s works and those who have not actually read nonviolence theory, I expected more from Peter Gelderloos. For me, this provides another indication that a variant of American exceptionalism is in fact prominent in activist movements, leading to and emanating from a naïve libertarianism. To get back to my initial point, Ward Churchill is very clear that pacifism and nonviolence are not one and the same. Whilst there have been some changes in pacifist understandings and approached over recent years, such a conflation is very much off the mark.

In setting the scene for his critical attack – and it is a fervent one, Peter Gerlderloos reflects on a number of actions/historical case studies that are often used by nonviolence advocates as examples of its efficacy. His approach to challenging these is somewhat puzzling. For example, he refers to such actions as not being victorious given ongoing issues counter to the aims of those working for change. Some credence is easily garnered there, albeit this contrasts with his reflections on challenging patriarchy and pragmatism in later chapters. What is immediately notable is that whilst describing such actions as not achieving what they set out to do (i.e. not being victorious) he makes a strange addendum. Firstly he outlines – and often correctly – that some of the campaigns did in fact involve a diversity of tactics (his at times inaccurate pseudonym for the very dangerous ‘all tools in the toolbox’ argument). This is not problematic per se. After referring to these actions as nonviolent, ineffective and the reason for the described failures, followed by outlining that a diversity of tactics were used, all of a sudden these were in fact successful! An interesting circular logic…

In challenging essentialism and what he refers to as the patriarchy of nonviolence, there are a couple other striking issues. One of these is that he, seemingly un-noted, makes essentialist claims himself. Whilst this is problematic and an issue I have noted with many proponents of the any means necessary position, what I found to be a far more significant issue is his complete obfuscation of the work of bell hooks. To summarise, he uses the flow on implications of patriarchal domestic violence against women (i.e. taken out on their children) to suggest that women are in fact violent. Whilst he is trying to counterpoise with essentialist claims that women are nurturing and inherently passive, this is very much problematic. Aside from the variant of essentialism needed to justify such an argument, describing it as a stretch of bell hooks’ own writings would be to do a disservice to bell hooks herself and do little to challenge this clearly misconstrued construction. I found this attempted analogy to be unsupportable.

to be continued…

One thought on “reflections on ‘How nonviolence protects the state’ – part one

  1. I have had several conversations with people about Peter Gelderloo’s book. He deserves credit for the work he put into it, and for his commitment.

    I did not put together a follow-up to this post, as a review was put together after I passed on some details:

    Brian Martin. How nonviolence is misrepresented. Gandhi Marg, Vol. 30, No. 2, July-September 2008, pp. 235-257. Review article of Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State.

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