Friday, June 08, 2007

Gandhi vs. Osama: Who Wins?

If you're Peter Gelderloos, then the answer might be: Neither, because both of them are just as dangerous to real peace and justice in the world today. Gelderloos is the author of "How Nonviolence Protects the State". The main purpose behind this book is to try to shake off the supposed stranglehold that nonviolent theory has upon political activists in the United States and point out that nonviolent movements have never accomplished any significant social change in modern history. In a few short chapters, Gelderloos argues that nonviolence is 1) ineffective as a means of transforming society, 2) racist, 3) patriarchal and sexist, 4) tactically inferior to other methods of social change (read: direct action), and 5) statist (that is, instead of standing up the institutional injustices of the nation-state, nonviolence theory and its practitioners actually do everything to make sure that the state remains as an organization to inflict harm upon communities). You can read an exerpt from the book here.

What is most frustrating and seemingly contradictory about the thesis of this book is this: Gelderloos claims to want to open up the discussion of social change to include the possibility of a "diversity of tactics" and that peace activists today are so wedded to nonviolence that they immediatly rule out the use of sabotage, property destruction, and other forms of potentially violent ( to persons and property) action. But the argument quickly turns into how nonviolence is NOT an option in the world today and if you think thing are going to change using nonviolence, you are either 1) seriously deluded or 2) morally corrupt and part of the structures that need to swept aside. An passage from Gelderloos:

"Our options have been violently constrained to the following: actively supporting the violence of the system; tacitly supporting that violence by failing to challenge it; supporting some of the existing forceful attempts to destroy the system of violence; or pursuing new and original ways to fight and destroy that system. Privileged activists need to understand what the rest of the world's people have known all too long; we are in the midst of a war, and neutrality is not possible. There is nothing in this world currently deserving of the name peace. Rather, it is a question of whose violence frightens us most, and on whose side we will stand." (p. 134)

What is most frightening about this rhetoric is how closely is matches the language of world leaders used to justify war and violent retaliation (for instance, in the "war on terror"). The world is us against them, and the only morally relevant question is: whose side are you on?

For what its worth, most of the major theorists of nonviolent direct action, Gandhi, King, and Chavez for instance, rejected thinking of the world in these terms. Gandhi would have said the stark choices laid out by Gelderloos might be appropriate as part of the law of the jungle, but we are no longer in that kind of existence. We would not have survived as long as we are today if we had not learned different forms of cooperation and creative means by which to live with one another. The task for nonviolent activists, say these figures, is to push ourselves to learn more and more creative ways to resolve conflict peacefully.

Toward that end, I really appreciate Mark Juergensmeyer's article which attempts to point out how Gandhi might approach the problem of terrorism today. Juergensmeyer points out that Gandhi was certainly not passive and would not have allowed anyone to be taken advantage of (Gelderloos continually conflates the idea of pacifism and passivity), and might even have justified the use of some force to contain violent offenders like Osama bin Laden.

Hopefully the world is more complex than having to decide which forms of violence are more appropriate for the work of justice today.

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At 8:02 AM , Blogger crallspace said...


It's hard to say it's just one way or the other. I have never completely committed to learning non-violence, NVC (communication), etc. though I do want to learn more about Ghandi.

This would be a great topic to hear at the Open Forum. Shameless plug, I know.. but I would love to meet you. I know I've seen you around.

At 1:20 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

Not having read the book, I obviously can't comment in an authoritative manner....but why should we listen to this guy? Thus far, I haven't heard him say anything new or interesting. Joseph, I would appreciate if you suggested a reason that he should be given attention in the first place.

Also, I'm curious about claims #2 & 3 - does Gelderloos think nonviolence is always (that is, conceptually) racist, sexist, and patriarchal, or does he think it's that way for some historical, embodied reason? If it's the former, I don't see how that's possible. If the latter, HAS THE MAN NEVER HEARD OF GANDHI OR MLK? I'm just asking...

At 2:27 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Crallspace: OSU offers a course on Peace Studies that studies major nonviolence theory and practice. Let me know if you ever are interested.

Dennis: Gelderloos is an anarchist activist and is well known in those circles (in fact, he's in jail right now in Spain for doing surveillance of police activities there). I think he speaks to a number of young activists who are frustrated with injustice in the world and the slow pace of change. Watching the protests at the G-8 this week, I see that there are probably a few people who would want to hear this message. And even people who are not anarchists (everyday moderates) might believe the idea that nonviolence and pacifism are ineffective or at best, nice ideas but not really workable.

What's interesting about how he argues his points is to direct them at other activists he's met or read on line. He doesn't analyze nonviolent theory per se, but says "On a pacifist news group, I read..." I'm wary about this just because no matter how great I think the web is, I don't take very much on here to be authoritative.

I think for Gelderloos Gandhi and King had great hope, but were confused about how their actions actually contributed to further injustice and it was the more radical (violent) groups that were really putting the pressure on England or white America.

All in all, the book is a rehash of Ward Churchill's book "Pacifism as Pathology" for a new generation.

At 10:26 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

So this is like that take on MLK and Malcolm X - a choice between the "moderate" MLK or the "radical" Malcolm X?

Also, if I remember correctly, that particular Churchill work was somewhat demolished in PAX 201.

At 12:40 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

His take on MLK is interesting. He thinks that MLK did have a good critique of racism but that white pacifists have erased this legacy, as well as the legacy of Malcolm X, by emphasizing nonviolence. He accuses them of engaging in revisionist history.

I think its a more careful and detailed argument but the main thrust is the same as Churchill's. However, I think Gelderloos has the benefit of actually living his talk--Churchill still strikes me as talking about revolution but not working the in the trenches like Gelderloos.

At 1:41 PM , Blogger chris farrell said...

Osama is an evil person. Gandhi was an inspirational and moral person. I think it's obvious who wins here.

Gandhi used nonviolence to great effect in India. That doesn't mean it is going to work in other situations. It worked then, so give Gandhi credit for using something that worked. Nonviolence has limitions, but so does violence, as you can see just about everywhere.

At 1:53 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Chris: I agree with you, but its not clear that Gelderloos would. He doesn't think that nonviolence worked in India. He thinks the British pulled out because they were battered by World War II.

The interesting question is whether Gandhi would consider Osama "evil"....

At 3:49 PM , Blogger chris farrell said...

Gandhi was not dangerous. Bin Laden is very dangerous. They are completely different people, in completely different situations. It is meaningless to compare the two at all. You should have stopped reading this guy the moment he compared the two.
You could say that many people like Stalin and Hitler were very "effective." in that they got things done. At that point you have to say: do we want people to be effective? Only if the effect they are having is good.

At 3:50 PM , Blogger chris farrell said...

Would Gandhi consider Bin Laden evil?

Yes he would. Gandhi was against the random killing of civilians. And I sure hope you feel the same way.

At 4:35 PM , Blogger chris farrell said...

I hope I didn't leave an impression that I was getting too combative. It is hard to discuss anything serious by posting comments.

At 4:52 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Chris: Gandhi was very interesting in this regard, though. He thought that we ought to respect those people who we think are our "enemies" and try to learn why they think the way they do. Martin Luther King thought that the strength of a nonviolent approach was that it taught us to look through the eyes of our "enemies" and criticize ourselves. Neither of them were quick to point the finger and blame some individual. Both thought evil individuals were the products of evil institutions which ought to be the real source of our anger and frustration.

And I do think Gandhi, King, and Cesar Chavez were dangerous--to the people in power. They were pacifists but certainly not passive. They believed in creating crisis and tension to raise awarenmess of injustice. They were not figures to be ignored.

Glad for your remarks and thoughts.

At 7:17 AM , Blogger Ashok Gupta said...

Gandhi might have recommended to the Muslims of the world who were unhappy being hijacked by the terrorists to say how about demonstrating your dissociation with violence through a fast if need be.

There is no question that Non-violence can create wonders, but there is no one at this point of time to lead such a movement. People like Nelson Mandela can do something.


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