Like many people, I have a vague if unexamined sense that non-violent resistence is somehow the “best” political strategy — even if it doesn’t work under all circumstances, it would in any case be somehow better or preferable to use non-violent resistence. In light of the white-washing of Nelson Mandela that’s currently underway, though, I started wondering about a couple things. Above all, I started to become suspicious of the very fact that mainstream political leaders are so eager to praise Mandela as a non-violent resistence leader.
It’s easy to see why the powers that be would be willing to embrace non-violence as a strategy for their opponents. I don’t think it’s a simple matter of effectiveness — after all, the state is very good at fighting violence with violence. Rather, the strategy of non-violent resistence seems to implicitly presuppose the basic legitimacy of the existing order. Those who are in charge of it are being asked to change their ways, but they or their peers will still presumably be in charge. Indeed, responding favorably to non-violent demands can be a great way of shoring up the legitimacy of the existing order by showing generosity of spirit and an openness to reform.
I also wonder if part of the appeal of non-violent resistence for Western audiences doesn’t come from Christian ideology that views suffering as redemptive. When watching the Occupy protests unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the Rolling Stones line: “I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse.” Several people I talked to went to the Occupy encampment specifically in order to get arrested, and I could never really make sense of that. It’s as though suffering for the cause has some type of automatic, quasi-magical effect on public opinion, which will recognize the protestors as righteous and grant their request.
These two dynamics feed into each other, so that the violence of the powers that be is actually necessary to the movement — which again implicitly legitimates the power structure even as it is taking clearly illegitimate actions. We need to go through the whole cycle: you guys beat us up, then we nobly bear it, and then we all really grow as people and change our ways, together. At least until the next time we have a request that you’re not immediately willing to grant, and then we do it all over again. It all starts to sound eerily like the dynamics of an abusive relationship.
None of this is to say that non-violent resistence is a bad thing or shouldn’t be used. But isn’t it strange how the great non-violent resisters wind up being taken up as legitimating symbols for the systems that oppressed them? We recognize the irony that Jesus becomes part of the ideology of the Roman Empire or that Martin Luther King emerges as a symbol of America’s ever-closer approach to perfection — but maybe there’s a deeper, harsher irony at work.