A year since my first interview with her appeared in Guernica, The Immanent Frame asked me to have another exchange with the feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Once again, we talked about violence, nonviolent resistance, power, and the problem of Israel-Palestine. This time, though, the backdrop was different: the Arab Spring, or the Middle East uprisings, or whatever we’re to call it (or them). On the one hand, there was the successful, largely-nonviolent movement in Egypt that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power after weeks of patient protests. On the other, there’s Libya, where the US and its coalition have joined a so-far intransigent firefight against Muammar el-Qaddafi.
In this interview, Butler stressed a theme that is actually the starting point for the discussion of nonviolence in her recent book Frames of War: the co-implication of violence and nonviolence, where neither can quite escape the other. I pushed back a bit, and so did she.
NS: Do these popular uprisings affect how we should think about power and sovereignty, as armed dictators are being coerced by nonviolent movements?
JB: I understand the desire to come up with theoretical generalizations. I spend a good deal of my time doing precisely that. But even though nonviolent practices have been important in some of these uprisings, we are also seeing new ways of interpreting nonviolence, and new ways of justifying violence when protestors are under attack from the military. The events in Libya are clearly violent, and so I think we are probably left with new quandaries about whether the line between violent and nonviolent resistance ever can be absolutely clear.
NS: Where in particular do you see that line blurring?
JB: We have to be careful to distinguish between nonviolence as a moral position that applies to all individuals and groups, and nonviolence as a political option that articulates a certain refusal to be intimidated or coerced. These are very different discourses, since most of the moral positions tend to eliminate all reference to power, and the political ones tend to affirm nonviolence as a mode of resistance but leave open the possibility that it might have to be exchanged for a more overtly aggressive one. I am not sure we can ever evacuate the political frame. Moreover, it is important to think about how one understands violence. If one puts one’s body on the line, in the way of a truck or a tank, is one not entering into a violent encounter? This is different from waging a unilateral attack or even starting a violent series, but I am not sure that it is outside the orbit of violence altogether.
NS: President Obama sometimes seems to be policing that distinction in his rhetoric about these uprisings: demanding that protesters and regimes both remain nonviolent, and then bringing U.S. military force to bear in Libya when the state turns to military force. But I would think the difference between how the movements in Egypt and Libya have progressed actually reaffirms that the line between violence and nonviolence is a useful one.
JB: Well, it is interesting that the U.S. affirms that the anti-government forces in Libya are resistance fighters and seeks to provide aerial bombing support to their forces on the ground. So it seems that even liberal public discourse makes room for justified armed resistance. What is most interesting is to figure out when certain forms of violence are considered part of an admirable struggle for freedom, and when, on the contrary, violence is understood as the terrorist activities of non-state actors. Do you have an answer to that?
NS: I certainly can’t think of a consistent rule that would apply to all cases, and probably for good reason. The case of Israel-Palestine comes to mind.
JB: Indeed, it does.
Read the rest at The Immanent Frame.
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You’re a sharp interviewer, Nathan. I look forward to reading the rest.
Dr. Butler says that “most of the moral positions [behind nonviolence] tend to eliminate all reference to power, and the political ones tend to affirm nonviolence as a mode of resistance but leave open the possibility that it might have to be exchanged for a more overtly aggressive one.” The latter may or may not be true with regard to theoretical positions, but it hasn’t typically been the case in practice.
The political use of nonviolent action is usually focused on inducing a shift in power, as Dr. Butler infers, and in history many such movements when successful have taken power away from oppressors and shifted it toward those who’ve been oppressed. Most of the movements that have done this have adhered explicitly to nonviolence not as a moral position but more commonly for the instrumental reasons that large numbers of civilians won’t join a violent movement and that using violence against a well-armed regime is thought likely to fail, for good reason: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/10/opinion/10chenoweth.html
In the relatively few cases when a failed nonviolent campaign has been supplanted by a “more overtly aggressive” approach such as terrorism or guerrilla warfare (as happened, for example, in Sri Lanka in the 1970s), that hasn’t been because there was an intentional change of strategy by the same actors, but because an insurgent group preferring the use of violence gained the upper hand in championing the underlying cause or simply developed after the earlier unsuccessful nonviolent movement.
In Libya it isn’t entirely clear yet whether those who initially led nonviolent protests were the same components of the Libyan opposition that later turned to armed resistance. What is more likely is that when the popular protests faltered in the face of Qaddafi’s violence, those who initially fought back were unaware of how to respond in any other way — despite the fact that the violence of many regimes has often been turned into a liability by well-organized nonviolent resisters, who have subsequently prevailed (http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/06mobilization.html).
But generally speaking, the history of nonviolent movements doesn’t support Dr. Butler if she was suggesting that political users of nonviolent action tend to hold onto an “overtly aggressive” option (if by that she means violence) in case nonviolent resistance wavers. If a movement is sufficiently well-prepared and led so as to understand the inherent advantages of nonviolent conflict even in the face of an adversary’s violence, it won’t so rapidly abandon civil resistance as happened in Libya.
Thanks for this, Jack. I hope you’re right that the move from nonviolent protest to violence would be largely the result of being not well-enough trained in nonviolence. I think, for instance, of my earlier Immanent Frame interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio, a South African theologian who was a prominent defender of violence against Apartheid, but who, since then, has had second thoughts about whether violence really is a sensible alternative.
Considering the example of Egypt, however, one much-discussed feature of the uprising was the protesters’ faith in the military as their champion. Though the violence that actually took place was relatively limited, bringing the military on board with the movement meant that, if necessary, tremendous force could be brought to bear for their cause against Mubarak. This threat seems to have been instrumental in Mubarak’s eventual departure. Things didn’t get “overtly aggressive,” but they could have. And it remains to be seen how the military-led interim government behaves. I wonder what other choices the protesters might have had.
I might also like to hear more from Butler about her contention that “moral” nonviolent positions lack a theory of power. Gandhi and King, for instance, seemed to have a very good idea of how power works, as well as the ability to wield it effectively.
Thanks Nathan and Jack for these comments. I do think it’s odd that Butler would claim that ‘principled nonviolence’ practitioners lack a theory of power – what an odd thing to say! And I’d like Butler to give us some evidence for “the political ones tend to affirm nonviolence as a mode of resistance but leave open the possibility that it might have to be exchanged for a more overtly aggressive one”. Otpor comes to mind as an explicit rejection of this.