“vi•o•lence [vahy-uh-luh ns]
1. swift and intense force: the violence of a storm.
2. rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment: to die by violence.
3. an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws: to take over a government by violence.
4. a violent act or proceeding.
5. rough or immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language: the violence of his hatred.”
“Only those at the top of the hierarchy can afford to pay, and therefore attract and retain, the services of the state’s best story-tellers, chroniclers, historians, priests, etc. The risks that the texts these writers produce one day confine future rulers to a particular interpretation and therefore inhibit their freedom to rule as desired, are minimised by both dominating their interpretation (i.e. with a priestly class), and writing texts as open-ended and conflicted as possible (i.e. The Bible). The written word is thus both the source of state permanence and the justification thereof, as well as of diplomatic, lawyerly and political double-speak the modern world knows so well, and has become so jaded by.”
The above is a quote from my book, the dictionary definition I pasted from dictionary.com. I’m not quoting my work here to advertise my wares, but because it introduces something Debbie has been bringing to my attention recently, both in comments and in email exchange: violence is as natural as sunshine. I’ve been pondering this for a while, and wanted to invite comment and critique, or any sort of observation on the nature of violence, because I see this topic, and its association with force and the threat of force, as a fundamentally important area for those of us seeking to define what might happen after capitalism, what direction we ought to try to follow.
Thus far my musings have generated the following rough thoughts.
Hobbes, whose thinking still dominates today even among those who believe they no longer think that way, saw a progression away from ‘uncivilized’ violence characteristic of anarchy towards a state monopoly on force, so as to minimize violence and increase harmony. Is there an animal more violent than we humans, the sole creators of the state? If not, why not, and what does that mean? A solitary predator like the tiger is not violent beyond some dynamically balanced relationship with its environment. They defend their territory and nothing more. Indeed, well fed in a domain that can keep them that way one could hardly call them violent; more ‘necessarily aggressive.’ I imagine such is true of all other solitary predators. Social predators such as wolves (no Hobbesian war of each against all there, and no state either) are also not violent beyond the immediate survival needs of the pack. Wolves are hierarchical, but also quite communistic it seems. They have ‘developed’ a crude consensus-maintaining system which is far more intricate than was once assumed in the alpha-leader-and-the-rest model. The details of this are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that violence, be it of storms, tigers or wolves, never attains the level of something like torture. Are humans different? Yes, but so is everything else. In everything we do, we are as natural as the weather. Is violence in the human realm Evil?
Should we seek to transcend violence, end war, crime, suffering? No, that’s utopian. Hobbes was a loyal servant of the state because it minimized (in his eyes) the natural urge to violence in every human breast, not because it eradicated it. He was no dewy eyed idealist. That accusation is more accurately leveled at me and those who see more cooperation, harmony and ‘justice’ emerging more or less spontaneously by transcending the state form, demoting money to as minimal a role as possible, and revolutionizing just about everything else. Such a direction can only be trod by a people willing, ready and able to do so. But how might a people, across the planet no less, agree to such a radical change? Won’t that take violence? And don’t the means become the ends?
Violence could well be embedded inextricably in our ability to assert an opinion, to come to a conclusion, to interpret. Because everything is unique there must be as many opinions and interpretations as there are people. For there to be consensus some violence must be done, some must lose, sovereignty must be yielded. If we are to have agreement, some are going to be unhappy. Society thus requires violence in an ongoing way, whether hierarchical or anarchic, whether implicit or explicit. On top of this, even non-violent rebellion must be violent, even if its members are all pacifists, because the object of the rebellion—most likely a state—can only react violently. Even ‘peaceful’ refusal to cooperate at all invites violence, since one is thereby rejecting existing consensus. One is a party-pooper of the worst possible kind; rejecting the right to party in the first place. I am unaware of any minority becoming the majority consensus without this involving violence. And to embark on that path requires almost fanatical passion, for choosing to be an outsider, one calling for fundamental change, is a lifelong commitment likely consigning one to the wilderness, to the fringe. To be able to bear that kind of isolation one must be insensitive to others, and hence, in a way, sociopathic. (By this I do not mean uttely without compassion, but that an element of this deep insensitivity must be there.)
Today society worldwide is more complex and interconnected than it has ever been. Much energy of many kinds has been invested in its construction. The amount of energy it will take to change course is enormous. This enormous amount of energy must be applied against the wishes of the majority. How can this not be violent? Or, for the majority to want something different, violent collapse, which releases coherent energy into wilder forms, must first happen. Violence again.
Because of the mess and 'uncontrollability' of life generally, violence pops up everywhere. The amount of control necessary to turn every single citizen into a ‘non-violent’ person, the amount of repression, the totality of ownership of interpretation of all existing and future data would itself be violence, and doomed to fail too. Control is an illusion generated by our sense of being separate from nature. In truth we only react, we never act. There are no uncaused causes, hence violence has to happen, in that the unwanted has to happen, and sometimes with great force. We can’t always be ‘right,’ and others will always have different perceptions, pleasures and opinions.
Leaving violence behind is as impossible as leaving opinion and perception behind. The paradox of this is wrapped up in empathy—the opposite of psychopathy—which enables us to feel what others feel, even those alien to us. Just as we are passionate passengers of our lives, so our lives become aligned and entangled with those of others and Universe generally. How could it be otherwise? We are not separate, we are of All. For me it is therefore the fact of empathy, evident too in monkeys, elephants and other animals, that suggests to me a different and, yes, ‘better’ system—one in which our potential to enjoy our lives richly, as our inter-being and co-evolution ‘create’ our entangled trajectories, and allow them the ‘freedom’ to blossom fully, including error, suffering and tragedy—is possible.
There will be violence and crime always, but perhaps our relationships to these inevitabilities will simply be maturer and less hysterical. I think that’s well worth fighting for.