In this same time … our good Lord shewed a ghostlie sight of his homelie loving: I saw that he is to us all thing that is good and comfortable to our help. … And in this he shewed a litle thing, the quantitie of a hasel-nutt, lying in the palme of my hand, as me seemed; and it was as round as a ball. I looked theron with the eie of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ and it was answered generallie thus: ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last: for me thought it might sodenlie have fallen to naught for litleness. And I was answered in my understanding, ‘It lasteth, and ever shall: for God loveth it. And so hath all thing being by the love of God.’
—Lady Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, ch. 5
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How, then, is a state to be overthrown? There are two ways of doing so, direct action and indirect action; indirect action (in an ostensibly democratic culture such as ours) tries to elect people who will work to dismantle the structures of power, while direct action simply tries to get on with the dismantling and never mind electing anybody. Of these, only direct action is likely to be any good, because not one man in a thousand is going to dismantle the system that put him in power; he is far likelier to work, as far as in him lies, to render that system hostile to his rivals for power.1
Direct action can again be divided into two kinds: the coercive and the persuasive. Coercive direct action includes all techniques that rest on either violence or the threat of violence, from armed revolt to sabotaging property to holding Cold Stone Creamery executives at gunpoint with demands for socialized ice cream distribution. By contrast, persuasive direct action encompasses the range of tactics that appeal to the opponent’s conscience and intellect, from pamphleteering to strikes to non-coöperation with the law.
As a professed pacifist, I naturally look to persuasive rather than coercive action. But, given that I view my pacifism as a matter of personal calling, not universal obligation, the question remains of whether I prefer persuasion as a matter of liking, or think that it’s simply better strategy than coercion; and I think the latter.
The chief argument in favor of coercive direct action is that it accomplishes radical change in a short period, which persuasion can’t, because some people just won’t be persuaded. The trouble about this argument is that it’s wrong from start to finish.
First of all, let’s talk about radical change. It shouldn’t be confused with merely drastic change. The word radical comes from the Latin radix,2 which means ‘root’; it is change at a root level, a change of heart, that is at stake here. And coercive means can’t effect that. Thinking it could was the error of the Middle Ages at their worst, attempting by force of arms to protect and expand the dominion of the Prince of Peace. Trying to force profound change on a population breeds only hypocrisy; it’s a law of human nature. Radical change has to come from within, and be permitted to flower through patient tending—pulling a plant will not make it grow taller, and the harder you pull, the likelier you are to tear it up.
Persuasion is not the best way of effecting a change of heart: it’s the only way. For many people it may not do its work alone: it may require experiment or experience for them to change their minds. And, yes, there will always be people who can’t be reached. ‘That we should wish to cast [Sauron] down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind.’3 That’s life, and there’s no getting round it.
But the fact is, coercive direct action does accomplish something. It can right certain material injustices, even if it can’t effect radical change as such. Surely that’s better than nothing?
Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on what the coercion brings with it. But we can say this about all coercion, before we know anything else about it: it is, whether implicitly or practically, violent. And if violence is the problem, adding in more violence is doomed to failure. Not all anarchists are pacifists, either personally or philosophically, but the state’s power to compel is something we all object to, and compelling them to cut it out is pure hypocrisy.
The only way it could be justified is to classify the agents of the state as the enemy, an other, not a human neighbor. Both Christianity and democracy forbid such a thing. And anyway, if the problem with the state is the separateness of the state and the people, siding with the people just makes it worse. It doesn’t solve anything. Dehumanizing one’s opponents is always wrong; which is why I describe myself, in the words of Dorothy Day, as a pacifist in the class war.
So what does persuasive direct action actually consist in? It has three primary forms: advocacy; striking; and civil disobedience. Advocacy includes every kind of argument for anarchy, spoken and written, from pamphlets to full-length books. It also encompasses techniques chiefly meant to draw public attention to the cause of anarchism, like protests or artistic displays. The aim here is persuasion in its purest form: gaining a hearing from people, explaining what we mean by anarchy, and trying to convince them to adopt it.
Striking is normally a refusal of work in some way or other.4 A walkout at a company (especially in fields of work with ‘hard’ products, like farming or construction, as opposed to ‘soft’ products like entertainment or research) is the commonest form, and its aim is to bring about negotiation, or to bolster the cause of the strikers in an ongoing dispute; the same is true of rent strikes, culture strikes, and student strikes. I know only little about this, as I’ve never been in a position to participate in one (partly because I’ve been fairly well treated by my employers to date). Abstaining from voting can be considered a form of striking as well; though, given there's no quorum for electing public officials—i.e., no matter how low voter turnout is, the person who gets the most votes out of that turnout will win the election—it’s largely symbolic, and blends a little into the third category.
Lastly, there is civil disobedience: this is peaceful but direct defiance of the law. This may be a symbolic action, like Gandhi’s Salt March, or it may be simply a result of conscience clashing with legislation. There are times when anybody should do this, anarchist or not, as when the resistance movements in Europe in the 1940s concealed Jews. That isn’t so much anarchism as basic human decency. When it comes to specifically anarchist civil disobedience, though, the technique has a more determinate character. Civil disobedience doesn’t require attention-grabbing defiance of every individual law; after all, many laws do codify right behavior no matter who did the codifying, and many more are just less trouble (and no affront to your dignity as a person) to obey than to make a fuss over.
But some laws aren’t like that. Some laws are simply wrong, and should not be obeyed, or should even be specifically disobeyed: for example, not only should you not turn Jews over to the Nazis (not obeying), you should help them get away, however much you can (disobeying). Rosa Parks’ famous refusal to coöperate with the segregationism of the Montgomery bus system, though not a defiance of a law exactly, is of a kind with civil disobedience. A more exact and contemporary example would be Edward Snowden’s disclosure of surveillance information; that the spying was going on in the first place was wrong, and it was also wrong that it was being kept secret; his publication was, therefore, an act of conscience, a symbolic protest, and a kind of advocacy all in one.
Okay, the pic may be a little melodramatic, but the article's good and hefty.
Other laws, while they may not be violations of justice per se, may still be unwarranted, offensive intrusions into the general human right of liberty. Quiet refusal to fall in line with laws that have no right to be instituted are not usually effective as protests, but, from an anarchist point of view, they’re perfectly legitimate choices ethically (for example, in places where selling alcohol is banned on Sundays, an anarchist would see nothing immoral about selling and buying it anyway).
But what does any of this matter? There are never many Parkses, Snowdens, or Gandhis in any generation. What effect can something as small as one person have on an entire political system? What can one woman or man do?
First, break the spell of size. The state may be huge, but it is made of human beings; there’s nothing else in it. If there are many of them, there are many of everybody else, too. And second, it is our submission to coercion that gives it its power. Sedition doesn’t have to mean conspiracy and rebellion, when it is conducted not against the powerful but against their power; sedition can be as simple and clear as the word No. Realize for a moment that every state would crumble to dust in a day if everyone in its simultaneously refused to coöperate with its directives. Only one thing is needed to bring down principalities and powers: namely, the will to do it. From the moment we choose it, we have liberty. All the rest is the flower; the will is the seed.
How can this sort of sedition have victory? That’s what persuasive direct action is for: annoying your friends into agreeing with you. Because with every person you convince, the number of free people expands. Maybe, one day, the state will crumble; in the meantime, anarchy has already begun.
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1There have been exceptions: Cincinnatus, the first dictator of republican Rome, was famous for being a dictator that actually followed Roman law and retired when the emergency was over; similarly, King Juan Carlos of Spain, who quietly blended in with the totalitarian regime of Francisco Franco, emerged after the tyrant’s death as a democratic reformer, transforming his own office into a constitutional monarchy. But these men are precisely exceptional. Rulers like Julius Cæsar, William of Orange, Napoleon Bonaparte, Vladimir Lenin, and Augusto Pinochet are the rule. Being trapped in the spider’s web of power politics is a far commoner fate even among would-be reformers, men being what we are.
2From which we also get the word radish, which is why radishes have long been a symbol of political unrest .
3Said by Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Book III.4Hunger strikes are the only exception to this that I’m aware of, but, like the other forms of strike, they are often used as a negotiating tactic, or sometimes for publicity.