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Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Response to Christopher Cantwell Regarding Civil Disobedience

As a person who is interested in the intersection between civil disobedience, the philosophies that underwrite some of its major actors, and the overlap with libertarian principles, I thought I’d write a response to Christopher Cantwell’s March 15 strategic essay “Violently Overthrow the Government”, in which he asserts, among other things, that civil disobedience is futile as a way to combat the violence of the state. I went through his assertions point by point and wrote a response.

His original essay is here.

In a nutshell, I think many of his assertions may be poorly informed. Civil disobedience can, if necessary, take down a government, and has done so on several occasions through the disintegration of institutional support for rulers and the building of a mass protest movement. I give a few examples below.

“They ignore the fact that these things were anything but non-violent. In both the American civil rights movement, and the struggle for Indian independence, countless demonstrators were beaten, imprisoned, and murdered.”

True, but on balance disobedience movements such as Gandhi’s achieved their goals with considerably less violence than all-out bloodbath wars in similar countries under similar circumstances. For example, the Otpor! movement in Bosnia or the Solidarity movement in Poland.

Erica Chenoweth has done some remarkable research in this area. She has shown that non-violent revolutions have been considerably more successful than violent revolutions in the last century at achieving lasting positive political change.

Mr. Cantwell is throughout his essay presenting his argument in dichotomous terms (I know, you wouldn’t expect that from an anarchist). If there is any violence at all, he rationalizes, we may as well go all the way and create vastly more violence with an all-out war on the government if we’re going to be effective. While I agree this may be necessary in some very extreme cases, civil disobedience has a much better track record of achieving revolutionary political change in the century in which it’s been employed.

“All that was accomplished in the way of non-violence, was assuring that the demonstrators remained the victims when the violence occurred, empowering aggressors at the expense of victims.”False. In the case of Gandhi, Indian independence from Britain was achieved. In the case of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. millions of African Americans were spared second-class citizenship through the oppression of Jim Crow… all because Dr. King realized that civil disobedience was a powerful method of ripping people out of their comfort zone, whether they were guilty of violence, racism or mere complacency.

We also shouldn’t forget the example of the Irish Independence movement of 1916-1921, who employed civil disobedience along with guerilla tactics to harass the British. The guerilla war had all but failed by 1920 since the Irish were routinely outgunned, but the massive outpouring of sympathy from the rest of the world, particularly following the highly-publicized death by hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney in October 1920, put an enormous amount of international pressure on the British to withdraw from Ireland, including from boycotts of British goods. In short, if you’re trying to change the world, public opinion matters.

“It also isn’t really dis-obedience, so much as it is delayed obedience... If one disobeys laws, but refuses to deploy defensive force when government agents come to gain their compliance, then the compliance is ultimately gained, and the purpose defeated. This again, is not non-violent, it only empowers the aggressor at the expense of the victim, as evidenced by countless beaten, imprisoned, and dead activists.”

The purpose is not “defeated” by accepting abuse from government for symbolic reasons if it creates a massive shift in public opinion and puts the government on the defensive. For example, public outrage in the wake of the “children’s march” of 1963 helped Lyndon Johnson push civil rights legislation through a previously reluctant congress. The children’s march famously resulted in fire hoses and dogs being turned on minors and the creation of a national villain in the character of  Eugene “Bull” Connor, safety commissioner of Birmingham, AL.

“On the other hand, why we need good people in prison to expose the violence inherent in the system, is beyond my comprehension. The violence is on the television daily. People vote for wars and gleefully worship dead soldiers. Police who rob, assault, kidnap, and murder are hailed as the saviors of mankind.”

While I agree the violence that should outrage us exists day to day in our environment, domestically, violence in the U.S. is comparatively minimal. Because that state/police violence doesn’t touch the lives of most Americans, it is very easy to remain complacent for most. Civil Rights activists likely only gained momentum because the real threat of violence was a reality of their day to day lives that became intolerable. That tipping point has not yet occured in the U.S.

“Governments have been known to open fire on crowds of peaceful demonstrators, and since civil disobedience forbids violent resistance, the demonstrators would have to tolerate bullets flying through their vital organs without fighting back. They would have to continue to disobey, even as the man next to them was beaten, hauled off to prison, or murdered.”

This is beyond hyperbolic. Even in developing countries, police usually employ tear gas, mace and rubber bullets against unarmed crowds of protestors, and aside from a few rare incidents, the same strategy is usually employed in the U.S. It’s important to remember that governance is a precarious balancing act for those in power, who must constantly please institutions, interest groups and other constituencies. Upsetting this balance is extremely easy even in a stable democracy, leaving governing officials extremely fearful of any instability or widespread public outrage. Such an outrage that would be created, by, I don’t know, opening fire on an unarmed, non-violent crowd?

If you need an more proof that civil disobedience can be an extremely powerful tool even in the most vicious dictatorship, look no further than the example of the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany. 1,800 German women assembled to peacefully protest the incarceration of their Jewish husbands in 1943, resulting in the men being released.

Let me say that another way: Hitler released 1,800 Jewish men from prison at the height of World War II because he feared unrest sparked by an act of civil disobedience.

People laughed at Gandhi for suggesting civil disobedience might work against the Nazis, but on the rare occasion it was employed, it proved to be extremely effective.

“If civil disobedience aims to prevent violent conflicts, it fails the moment the State decides to make it.”

False. Again, this is the result of very polarized thinking that is common among anarchists, and in no way reflects political or historical reality.

“If someone else would like to write a paper quantifying the number of people they think would need to engage in civil disobedience to bring down a government once and for all, I’d be happy to update this article with a link to that post, and perhaps even publish it on this website.”

See Erica Chenoweth’s research here. Dramatic change is possible with only 3.5% or so of the population. In the U.S., that’s about 11 million people.

I realize the point of Mr. Cantwell’s essay is to rationalize how one might not just overthrow a government, but prevent another from ever arising. No strategy, no matter how perfectly executed, can guarantee that another government will not arise to replace the old. Since there is really no historical precedent for such a thing that I’m aware of, I’ll leave it there.


  1. "This is beyond hyperbolic." - Kent State?

    Keep up the good work, enjoyed reading!

    1. Thanks! Kent State was of course 44 years ago. Tragic, no doubt, but hardly a regular occurrence.