We are more than the mere sum of our possessions, of course. But what we own has real significance: it marks our place in society, the elbow-rubbing world of men and women sharing a place at a given moment in time. Distributive justice defines our sense of how possessions ought to be shared in a community of like-minded people.
Occupy Wall Street has inspired protest from one end of the country to the other. There is a groundswell of hope that a unity of voices will force reform. What unites the protestors is a sense that the American Dream is at risk. A people deprived of hope are awakening, finding one another, and learning to speak out, to act out.
Is speech enough?
The plutocrats own the airwaves, their corporations select and manage our candidates for public office, they control the apparatus of power. A policeman wading into a crowd with baton swinging rarely worries about his paycheck. He is bought and paid for, a state agent acting under color of law and protected from the consequences of his acts by all the immunities our judiciary can contrive. The boot on your neck is the state, a legal fiction, made lethally real.
The levers of power rarely change hands as a result of polite negotiation. When both political parties begin to look and act alike, real choice might not be found in the polling place. Real change might come only on the street. Barak Obama, the great hope of progressives, has been transformed into yet another tool. Hence, the protests.
What role does violence have in these protests?
Raising the topic of violence frightens people. Don’t Ghandi, Thoreau, King teach of the power of nonviolent social change?
It is effective to meet the baton’s blow with a prayerful, if swollen, lip. Enough prayers can silence a tyrant.
But why yield to the state a monopoly on the use of violence? Force is an effective tool. That is why the police don’t offer you a prayer rug when they arrest you. Force terrifies and intimidates. It is supposed to do that. It is supposed to persuade you that whatever will you have to resist is futile. It is best simply to submit to a show of force.
Can force be used in the name of distributive justice? Does violence have a place in the protests now swelling across the United States?
Consider the political economy of violence and direct action.
Social scientists write of criminology as though deviance from social norms requires explanation. The status quo, whatever it may be at a given point in time, is presumed rational. Thus, a person who breaks the law breaks faith with the norms shared by the community. We prosecute the deviant to deter them and others from future law-breaking, to train to adhere to common norms, and to punish.
What if we were to reframe criminology? What if deviance were not the variable requiring explanation? What if we asked the following: What explains compliance with the law? What if the jailer, rather than the jailed, were required to sing for his supper?
This reframing of the question has enormous consequences.
Consider the following: We call ourselves the land of the free, but we incarcerate a far greater number of people, both in real terms and as a percentage of our population, than any other nation on Earth. How is this possible? Perhaps the answer is simple: The rhetoric we use to explain our lives is dishonest. This is not a land of equal opportunity for all. Because we cannot make good on what we promise, we isolate and remove from society those who cannot find a place within it. What explains conformity with the law? A sense of belonging and of having a stake in the status quo. We call those who cannot conform deviant because it is less threatening than admitting that our rhetoric is false. Perhaps we should simply admit that the American Dream is an ideological conceit, but that would result in questions too painful fully to contemplate. If the dream isn’t real, then what justifies or explains, our social world? What if deviance were really a rational response to the world as it is, to the lack of distributive justice in our society? What if conformity were the odd variable requiring explanation?
The social contract tradition informs our sensibilities. We say that government arises from the consent of the governed. We grant authority to serve common ends. Yet John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, the two great seventeenth century theorists who spawned the social contract doctrine, each recognized that the very people who create authority can take back what they have given. Locke called such revolution an "appeal to the heavens." Hobbes, the great authoritarian, also recognized that a people could take back their consent to be governed. Even Thomas Jefferson, informed by this tradition, wrote of revolution’s being a good thing every generation or so. The status quo in a social contract regime is not sacrosanct.
Does violence have a role in the protests now sweeping the land?
I do not see that it doesn’t. People are angry and feel as though the power elite has entrenched itself behind the apparatus of the state. Do we really think we can chant the ruling class into concessions? Just when has that worked? Violence, or the threat of violence, is the engine of history; it is fueled by ideas and ideals sufficient to motivate people to take risks.
The state’s decision to arrest is an act of violence. A foreclosure on a family home is an act of violence. Imprisonment is violence. We are surrounded by violence. Social compliance is sometimes forged less as a matter of the consent of reasonable people than it is the terrified compliance of a herd forced through cattle chutes. What happens when those manipulating the levers of state-sanctioned-violence and force know fear? Why shouldn’t the plutocrat face the day with foreboding?
There is a political economy to acts of violence, just as there is to acts of compliance.
Consider the case of car windshields.
What would happen if the windshield of every luxury car in the United States were broken, not just this week, but week after week? This is a property crime, a misdemeanor. No person is hurt. These cars are conspicuous symbols of economic inequality. Who suffers, whose behavior is influenced, by a broken windshield? The car owner, a man or woman living well enough to be able to afford the monthly payment. Yet each broken window requires time spent to replace it. The bubble of affluence is burst, for a time. The well-heeled call their insurance agent, they pay a deductible, they arrange for a replacement to the windshield. For an hour or so they are taught what it is like to have the bubble of their dreams burst, and they are reminded that deviance is not what requires an explanation, rather, they begin to ask how to create a world in such acts of petty vandalism are no longer meaningful. In a paradoxical way, these small acts of creative destruction force the economy to respond: you can’t very well send offshore the task of repairing the windshield. A tradesman close to home will have a job.
I am, of course, suggesting that there is a strategic utility to petty acts of vandalism. That will make many of you uncomfortable. Where, after all, will this end? To what does it lead? I don’t know. The state will respond with harsh new laws. Police officers will step up their patrols. It may be that violence begets violence. It might invite a return to the very state of nature from which Locke and Hobbes told us we emerged by creating a social contract.
But here’s the rub. For many Americans, the state of nature is already here. They have lost hope, lost a connection to the status quo, and lost the ability to care for themselves and their families. These Americans already face the state as an instrument of violence. There is an alternative to destructive self-medication, homelessness and imprisonment.
Political violence has a long history in the United States. We used it to rebel from Britain. It tore the country asunder in the Civil War. It emerged to help labor win a decent standard of living from the distant cousins of today’s plutocrats. Violence is as American, it seems, as an apple pie in the face of the glutton lacking the sense to make sure than others have enough to eat.
It is also terrifying.
Welcome to the twenty-first century.