Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Peace-Violence Axis

Maria Rubinke
Albert's plot of thinkers has elicited some strong reactions. The vertical “Ecotopia”/“Collapse” axis seems somewhat less controversial: it seems that some people are more optimistic, some less optimistic, but that this is a personal preference that others can easily accept. But the horizontal axis, especially in his initial version, where it went from “peaceful transformation” on the left to “violent revolution” on the right, didn't sit well with many people. The new version, which goes from “transformation” to “resistance” may be more politically correct, but I feel that something is lost in eschewing the concept of violence, which I feel is omnipresent and inescapable.

Perhaps the new axis should start out with “appeasement” rather than “transformation”? Doesn't it stand to reason that to remain scrupulously peaceful and cooperative in a situation where acts of unspeakable violence are being carried out in your name is to tacitly condone that violence? When US citizens pay their taxes, or cast their vote for President, they, wittingly or unwittingly, give their approval to a system of mass imprisonment that has surpassed both Hitler's and Stalin's, become complicit in the mass murder of foreign civilians, a.k.a. “collateral damage,” that number in the hundreds of thousands, and underwrite a system of global surveillance that has put East Germany's Stasi and USSR's KGB to shame. By this standard, a law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying American is automatically one of the worst criminals mankind has ever known. How is that nonviolent?

Turning our attention to the right end of the axis, where the label has been changed from “Violent revolution” to “resistance,” things are not any less muddled. A good example of “resistance” is the recent Greenpeace action to stop Russian oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. The activists got arrested, charged with “hooliganism,” imprisoned, and then amnestied and released. The Russians were able to neutralize their effort and to deter any repeat of the action. As far as their drilling program, no damage has been done. Another good example is the “resistance” against XL pipeline, where various celebrities burned lots of jet fuel and gasoline to travel to Washington and get themselves arrested. Unlike most Russians, most Americans can't seem to see the irony in burning fossil fuels to protest the burning of fossil fuels. It is rather late in the day for the environmental movement, and it seems to have devolved to the status of fossil fuel industry's “useful idiots.” Is resistance just another form of appeasement?

If so, then the horizontal axis goes from “passive appeasement” on the left to “active appeasement” on the right, and both of them, and all points in between, are soaked through with violence—against people and against nature. The difference between them seems to be a matter of posturing: some people prefer to act in ways that get them invited to international conferences which fail to achieve anything; other people prefer to hire college students to stand around on the sidewalk and get money from passing pedestrians, so that they can then grandstand on the high seas and get caught, charged with “hooliganism” and released. It's a question of style: some people prefer business-casual, while others like to dress sporty.

If resistance=appeasement, then what is left? What is the actual behavioral difference that actually does make a difference? It is not resistance, it is defiance. Now, there are two types of defiance: open defiance and secret, clandestine, plausibly deniable defiance. Open defiance is the domain of fools and madmen: refuse to pay your taxes, and you get fined and jailed. Secret defiance is the key to success: don't owe any taxes, and you find yourself living better than most. It is also the key to making tangible improvements to your tiny patch of the world. Now, it would make no sense to ask people to place themselves on the “obedience”/“defiance” axis, since doing so would constitute open defiance, which is foolish. Moreover, secret defiance starts with defying classification.

Classification, you see, is a form of violence—a subtype of “objective violence.” The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek defined the terms “subjective violence” and “objective violence” roughly as follows: subjective violence happens when you are walking down the road and somebody throws a brickbat at your head and robs you; objective violence happens when you then get taken to a hospital emergency room, stitched up, and later receive a hospital bill for tens of thousands of dollars, including $300 for a $3 bandage, plus a separate exorbitant bill from a doctor who didn't even see you. Now, you could say that the robber “classified” you as an easy mark—somebody who could be robbed—but that's stretching it, because the robber's victims do not constitute a recognizable class. On the other hand, when you are received in the emergency room, you are immediately classified as a patient, triaged, treated, and, upon release, pursued in the public realm of collections agencies and bankruptcy courts. Epistemologically speaking, your victimhood in a robbery is a matter of perspectival identification—“that guy over there,” while your victimhood in this commonplace episode of medical extortion is public identification—based on your full name, social security number, date of birth and, if you decide to flee, your fingerprints and biometric data that are on file.

Classifying people is almost always an act of objective violence. Let's try an exercise. You probably fancy yourself as a member of the middle class. Most people prefer to consider themselves middle-class, because upper-class aspirations seem arrogant and overweening while lower-class aspirations don't exist. On the other hand, it is often said that the middle class is rapidly disappearing. The parents might still fancy themselves middle-class, but their underemployed basement-dwelling adult children have scant hope of keeping up the appearances. Now, let's follow this trend to its obvious conclusion. The middle class is gone; what are you now? Let's introduce some categories: we have nobs (filthy rich bastards), proles (who have a job serving the nobs) and bums (who don't have such a job). Which one are you? Do you feel slightly offended at being classified in such a manner? Well, you should be. Classifying people is an offensive thing to do.

But this sort of thing goes on all the time, and English-speakers seem particularly susceptible to it. English, with its definite and indefinite articles, which, unlike other languages, convey semantic rather than grammatical distinctions, makes it a grammatical requirement to classify things. In Chinese or Russian, you can only say the equivalent of “president of bank”; in German you can say ”Bank-Präsident”; while in English you might say “a president of the bank” or “the president of a bank”, in each case picking out one or more members out of one or more classes. It is commonly believed that different languages do not set limits on what thoughts their speakers can entertain, but they certainly do set limits on what thoughts their speakers can refuse to entertain, and English-speakers cannot refuse to entertain thoughts about the class membership of the objects they wish to discuss. I believe that this may help explain the appalling level of objective violence and the horrific level of social stratification and inequality that can be observed in most English-speaking societies.

And so I am quite happy that Albert's plot produced such great discomfort; maybe there is some hope for us English-victims after all... I certainly have resented the classification “Orlov is a collapsitarian” (whatever that means) with which some fool writing for Mother Jones once tried to pin me down. I defy efforts to classify me. I suppose this puts me somewhere on the defiance spectrum, but I can't tell you how high or I'd be openly defiant, i.e., I'd be a fool. Maybe you can do even better. This is one parameter in which some one-upmanship might be called for. How defiant are you?


Unknown said...

Another pearl DO, might have to buy another of your books :)
Unlike you tho i try to let people keep their classification of me, and just snooze or play within it when they're around. Start scaring/proving folks wrong and they get cranky and put you in the 'Other' box, and we all know what happpens to Others when the going gets tough. This is possible a common difference in strategy between landowners & gypsy sailors.

The violence done for our cheap oil etc is unmentionable, its shadow is the endless claims of peacefulness from anyone priviledged enough to fake it. Those who try to keep that particular selfindulgence/'value'/'principle' when their circumstances change wont last long.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

I'll take a chance, and sketch briefly my history of hidden defiance. It's main notable item is a refusal to pay income tax. This has been made possible by a consistently low income, plus a very footloose life, until I became too old to sustain that any longer.

By that time, though, I had been identified as being too old and too poor to persecute for unpaid tax without creating for the tax-gatherers a situation which would be both unprofitable and disastrous PR.

So, I'm now celebrating my forty-first consecutive year as an income-tax refusenik. All, and more, of what I would have had extracted as income-tax has gone instead to voluntary self-tithing, for a range of good charities. In my case this was mostly supporting the defence and rescuing of victim animals from human cruelty. Some of my tithing goes to keeping very poor children in the poor countries alive and thriving, too though. Despite being no longer likely to be in danger from the tax gatherers I maintain these tithings still anyway, simply because it's right, as lavishly as I can manage.

The other defiances have consisted - and still consist - of a nearly complete withdrawal from the consumerist splurge society, and a frugal, small-footprint lifestyle.

No wonder my women keep finding that they can't stand me any longer, and leave. :-)

GHung said...

@ Rhisiart- My first wife couldn't tolerate me, indeed, persecuted and eventually left me because I refused to be labelled 'Christian', and essentially refused to accept any classification that she and society put on me. She said it was a sign of weakness to "not take a stand". At one point, if pressed, I would say I'm an 'independent', until that became a label unto its own. I'm just me.

My current wife tolerates me with a growing appreciation because I provide a 'secure' home, keep the lights on, keep the water flowing, keep the house warm/cool, provide plenty of alternatives to factory food, more, with very little participation in the 'formal economy' or need for taxable income.
I cut out virtually all of the middle men and associated waste while allowing her virtually the same level of comfort as her contemporaries, family and friends who are too busy scurrying around the planet, "making a living[?]", complaining about taxes, taking golf vacations and keeping up with the Jones to contemplate any of this.
Forgive them, for they don't have a clue what they do.

She does work a modest job to pay the modest property taxes, provide us health insurance (oxymoronical?), and allow a modest amount of discretionary spending. She says I'm a cheap date.

Getting here wasn't so easy; being here is bliss, at least for now. While it is, perhaps, impossible to live in our society without contributing to the madness is some way, it's possible to do so on a level that keeps one under the radar of the beast that would devour us all. There's a certain sort of passive resistance inherent in not drawing attention to one's self; not 'mattering' much, at least from society's point of view. They have enough to worry about. Cop-out or default position? Whatever others decide, I'm not listening much; just watching this madness unfold from the cheap seats.
Ghung's Rule #1: Stop feeding the beast.

BonRobi said...

Prescient piece given Martin Luther Kings "day". King gets deemed a dreamer by the mainstream narrative (i.e. good things come to the idealistic boy who waits for them) and downplayed is his radical-revolutionary side. Quite the defiant dood.

Dmitry Orlov said...


I think that we are talking about the same thing. Refusing to be classified is an internal matter, while externally hiding in plain sight and getting the resilts you want require superficial conformism, mimicry and playacting. I'll say it again: OPEN DEFIANCE IS STUPID.

dex3703 said...

It's strange to realize that my childhood was a practice exercise for hiding in plain sight. In Eighties Texas, to not be a churchgoing Fundamentalist, and to have ideas that at all wavered from the far right of the spectrum, invited both ostracism and intense scrutiny. Instead, going to a mainline church and making some token gestures toward usual power structures hanging over a young adult (school, parents, police) dramatically reduced bullying from kids and trouble from adults.

Direct action is easy and cheap: just don't buy all the consumerist junk you're supposed to want. That way I didn't have to work, either.

Hiding in plain sight will be a valuable skill moving forward.


forrest said...

Maybe it was a problem with the dictionary I was trying to use (and certainly my knowledge of Russian is limited) but when I tried to translate the English word "right" I couldn't find anything I was sure would work...?

Unknown said...

I have seen many people use church membership as a cover to hide the fact that they hold no particular religious beliefs. Even if one does not espouse atheism, people will classify you as one just because you don't go along with society's pursuit of whatever the current "fugitive deity" is deemed to be (as James Howard Kunstler puts it in a recent blog entry).

I see educators that stand against the teaching of creation science in public school becoming either marginalized or unemployed as a result of their open defiance of the religious zealots that populate many school boards.

My heroes work in the background, putting up a front, or cover, that allows them to teach evolution and also claim a belief in a deity. They point out how the Catholic Church and many mainstream protestant denominations have no feud with evolution as long as their god is given lip service.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

@GHung: Solidarity, bro! (big grin)

Ien in the Kootenays said...

I had stopped checking Club Orlov when Dmitri announced he had said everything in his books and needed a break. Not. Yeah! Coming here is always a breath of fresh air guaranteed to be free from ideology.

I have a question. How much of our pessimism in the until recently rich world is due to demography? This does not mean the analysis is not true. I have been aware of Gaia's bottom line as long as I can remember and am living on a (leaky) life boat. But would the message resonate as much if it were not spread among an ageing population? What are we hearing from Asia, Africa, South America? Must learn Mandarin.

Unknown said...

I appears I have been in covert defiance for some time as have most other posters here. I also have a feeling our ranks are growing as more and more people are waking up or becoming disillusioned with the endless growth, economy above all else myth they have been sold most of their life. The sellers of this myth must rely on more and more smoke and mirrors to sell their snake oil as reality isn't producing the results they have promised.

The gray economy grows more each day. It has to with more people falling off the unemployment wagon with no prospects for a legit job. My guess is after the initial fears of treading the gray waters people will come to prefer the gray economy over the so-called legitimate one. Well, at least those who don't need all the trappings and status symbols the media bombards us with constantly.

Keep up the covert defiance everyone. This atrocious beast already has one foot in the grave.

Dredd said...

Who is doing what is relevant. The Occupy / NATO 3 in Illinois got played. The two state legislatures who are making assistance to the military NSA illegal in their states are spot on. Tennessee says do not give them electric power or water, Washington says really don't because it is a crime. These two are better than a molotov.

Michael J. Petro said...

I'm going to demur on the "open defiance is stupid" observation.

It is stupid when you are considering the consequences to your own self and your own situation.

But stopping there makes it an essentially (personally) libertarian concern.

Not a big fan of martyrdom (i.e., that really shouldn't be one's primary aim,) but it happens and the rest of us benefit from it and it happens because someone dared to be openly defiant.

We tend to look up to these people. I think there's a good reason for that.

(P.S. From a huge fan of your writing and thinking. Your earliest essays on collapse were electrifying, and you've continued to be relevant.)

onething said...

When I was a little girl I found it necessary to defile (enter into) every alter of every church I went to. When my mother was approaching eighty, I told her about it and she giggled quite gleefully.
My other defiance was to read. In school. I was often spotted and scolded for it.
I recall in one of the Castaneda books Carlos was to meet a lady sorcerer, and she had him find her in a church. She explained that sorcerers had been hiding out in churches for centuries.

Unknown said...

@ Dmitry - point taken, thanks for reiteration, I'm still working on that bit of programming.
@ Michael Petro - what do you think is the 'good reason' we look up to martyrs? my catholic ancestors glorified them on basis of lifeeverlasting (a.k.a jam tomorrow), i struggle to think of any other rationale.

Michael J. Petro said...

@Liam Jackson, thanks for asking.

I won't speak for everyone (but of course I think that I am,) but I look up to particular martyrs (not martyrdom, most emphatically) because they often leave behind the opening for progress. One becomes a martyr when one's death reveals and inflames the outrage against the status quo.

Michael J. Petro said...

(Just to be clear, I don't have any survival-of-death/soul fantasies, so I'm not speaking of "looking up to" an existing entity.)

Unknown said...

A very deathy death is a fantasy as well. It stems from an incorrect view. Sure its easy to call anothers belief a fantasy, but that doesnt make it false. Instead i would argue that death is an absolute variable and any classification of it questionable.

And i think u left out in your description of the positives of martydom that the martyr would therfore be respected for giving their life for the betterment of others. It is the height of altruism.

Anonymous said...

I am in a unique position to be able to use classification as defiance, because what I do is in the face of the system and confusing. It also starts a chain of curious questions with the other party getting mildly amused and hopefully educated to some extent. Usual question: "So, what do you do?"
Me "I'm a permaculturist"
They "What's that"
Me "Well, let me explain....."

Even works on the cops, they end up sort of feeling sorry for me.

Hey Dmitri, Big fan for many years, bought your books, read all your missives, donated, built bolger boat. This is my first comment - just like to say thanks for all the years of you sharing some excellent thinking. I now try to sit back, Bhudda like and let everything around me heat up. I even read that article on mother jones years ago, the journalist said you were in advertising... wow that was some real proper deep research.

Michael J. Petro said...

Boddah Meep - of course you are correct about the altruism effect. I hoped to imply this by "leave behind an opening for progress," etc. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

As for "a very deathy death" (I like that one) - I think I could defend myself on that one, but it's a rather difficult philosophical exploration to get there, and I'm not up for embarking on it in Dmitry's comment thread... :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, as always.

I lol'ed at your comment about how the 'law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying American is automatically one of the worst criminals mankind has ever known', but then wondered if the description 'criminal' requires a degree of active agency. Don't most people work hard, pay taxes and obey laws because they have been coerced into that situation by oppressive social systems that don't permit any alternatives?

I like your re-categorisation of defiance vs. obedience, but have to wonder whether it indeed 'makes a difference' in the Grand Scheme. It seems like you've defined the problem in terms of personal responsibility - working hard and paying taxes makes you complicit in government/corporate crimes, therefore the solution is to not work hard and not pay taxes. That might assuage feelings of guilt (and sounds great to me as a personal lifestyle choice!), but does it actually do anything to stop those crimes? But if you're NOT personally responsible, ie: you (and your entire social class) participate in the crimes of others against your will because they have you under duress, that changes things somewhat, no?

Basically, what about some +group+ defiance as well as individual 'lifestyle-ism'.