Friday, November 4, 2011

Capitalism, Violence, and the Problem of the Spectacle

I had the opportunity to observe some events at ‘Occupy Oakland’ on the day of the general strike (Nov. 2).  I have not been involved in the occupy movement and, as an anthropologist interested in social justice, wanted to examine the movement’s rhetoric and actions firsthand.  I reserve judgment or critique on the movement itself, which is still in its early stages.  But, as I explore below, some things I saw and heard reignited my recent conceptual struggle with the idea of violence.  I’m referring mainly to growing discontent with a faction of the occupy movement that has vandalized property and not agreed to use ‘peaceful’ means of protest.  During the night after the occupation of the Port of Oakland, a group of protestors broke windows, threw stones, and started fires.  As far as I know has been reported, the protestors did not hurt anyone or cause damage other than to property.  They have been roundly condemned by police and fellow occupiers alike.

What is violence?  And why does it conjure up such emotional angst among us?  Anthropologists and philosophers have long struggled with this question.  For most of us, violence is that physical or bodily damage - rape, crime, killing, and other acts that violate the dignity of the physical body and property.  Violence brings to mind images of shootings and stabbings, of torture and mutilation, of vandalism and looting.  But of course, violence is much more than that.  Paul Farmer, among others, has popularized the idea of ‘structural violence’, or the violence done by structural processes and social conditions that condemns some to poverty and disease.  It is an idea that could be used to describe the ways in which fluid capitalism creates growing inequality between the richest and poorest, felt particularly during economic crises such as the one that led to the occupy movement. 

How can we compare physical and structural violence?  For most of us, they are both immoral.  But philosophers are not so sure.  Marxists Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre believed that violence was critical to ensure political and human liberation for the colonized, who (in the late 1950s and early 1960s) were plagued by an inferiority complex.  Even the liberal Hannah Arendt felt that to take away violence from man would be to dehumanize him.  She opposed violence not to peace or non-violence, but to power.  Those regimes losing power would increasingly resort to violence in order to maintain it.  But violence will always destroy power, never giving rise to it.  Let us then be skeptical about not only the glorification of violence for the grand end of seizing power, but also the revulsion against violence as an inherent evil. 

 First, it is too easy to condemn physical violence.  There is something about the way in which the flowing of blood, the smashing of a window, or the explosion of a gunshot shatters our world.  We become transfixed by the spectacle that it so often produces – pools of blood, destroyed buildings, a dead body – in part because they disrupt our sense of normalcy.  But everyday normalcy is not equivalent to historical normalcy; in the Marxist sense, of course, all history has been a history of class struggle, with violence and revolution inherent to that history.  From a historical perspective, nothing could be more normal than for a movement directed against the wealthiest class to turn to violence against property. 

Does this mean that an event attentive to historical normalcy should be seen as moral?  This is a more difficult question, with several perspectives.  From the point-of-view of the land-owning class, such an event is considered inherently wrong within a bourgeois moral framework in which the protection of property is guaranteed by law and ideology.  Their moral stance is shared by many occupiers from the middle classes who were ‘hurled’ into unemployment after diligently following the rules of achieving the American dream.  From the point-of-view of other more radical occupiers, violence risks alienating potential liberal allies, and becomes a utilitarian question about the efficacy of tactics by which the movement can grow and accomplish specific goals (which seem to still be in the process of formulation).  From a Marxist perspective, one might see the destruction of corporate property as a physical violence fighting against a structural violence.  Yes, a downtown Oakland bank branch seems quite normal and harmless.  It employs local workers and provides a useful service to local residents.  But it is in fact not only symbolic of but also constitutive of a structural violence by which labor power is exploited and finance capital grows – the essential violence done by the capitalist mode of production on workers.  That we aren’t shocked when we walk by a bank branch is because what goes on inside is not earth-shattering shootings or visible torture of people.  Instead, it is a slow violence, an everyday violence, in which the blood and sweat of labor is exploited, hour by hour, dollar by dollar.  
Ultimately, the ethical dilemma in which we are left is this: how does one best respond to the structural violence of capitalism?  The occupy movement has successfully gathered a critical mass of people ready to act, but with very different ideas of what type of action should take place.  I am neither convinced by the violence of some occupiers nor by the non-violence of others.  To close, I draw from Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France (1871).  He was analyzing the reasons for the fall of the Paris Commune – the 1871 takeover of the city of Paris by workers in what was seen as the first ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.  The socialist occupation was cut short when troops from Versailles re-took the city, crushing the nascent government and executing many of its members.

"...In the economic sphere much was left undone which, according to our view today, the [Paris] Commune ought to have done. The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remained standing respectfully outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake. The bank in the hands of the Commune - this would have been worth more than ten thousand hostages." - Karl Marx, from 'The Civil War in France' (1871)

Perhaps the battle against structural violence consists neither of destroying banks nor of occupying public spaces; historical lessons suggest that occupying banks is an alternative worth considering.