ANARCHISM & RADICAL DISSENT: “Winnipeg Social Forum,” University of Winnipeg, May 7th, 2005
I’ve been asked to initiate a discussion about something called “anarchism & radical dissent,” and touch on some core issues of activism: like tactics, civil disobedience, the role of violence, perhaps even the question of vanguardism and popular support, and other related stuff. I’ve basically got about 10 pages of notes, and I can go through as much or as little of it as people want (or find interesting). It’s fairly wide ranging, but always comes back to the issue of dissent, and its importance. But before I do this, you’re probably asking yourselves “Who the hell is this guy?” – which is a fair question.
I haven’t joined the Zapatistas, or started up a local version of the Weather Underground, or bombed hydro dams and porn shops like Ann Hansen, so I’m not sure how much I fit everyone’s preconceptions of a “radical dissident” – if by “radical” we only mean armed struggle to overthrow the system or State. If by “radical” we mean something akin to the original meaning of the word — getting to “the root,” asking ourselves what are the root, systemic causes of the social ills and injustice all around us, and more importantly, trying to do something about them – then I’ve been involved in this for a while: from trying to raise awareness (through writing, speaking, building community institutions, and doing mundane organizing work), to trying to mitigate human rights atrocities and war, and to arguing for meaningful systemic, social change.
In the late 1980’s I spent a year in El Salvador and Guatemala, at the height of the so-called “civil wars,” and it was basically my crash-course in global politics, human rights violations, U.S. imperialism (coupled with Canadian silence or complicity – the norm, not the exception), as well as armed guerrilla resistance (which, at age 19, basically shattered the quiet Canadian bubble I had grown up inside). One of my first sustained forms of activism back in Canada included raising money to send to the FMLN (the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front). Since then, I’ve been involved in various forms of activism and dissent in Winnipeg, as well as elsewhere – from anti-Apartheid stuff, to working with First Nations activists around the 500 year anniversary of European colonization in 1992, to writing articles about Canadian complicity in war crimes and genocide in East Timor, to helping co-found a bookstore/café downtown called Mondragon in 1996 (just as much a form of activism and dissent in my mind as something like “the Battle in Seattle”), to participating in the Quebec City FTAA protests in 2001, and so on, to more recent things like participating in an International Solidarity Movement campaign in the West Bank in Occupied Palestine in late-2002 (doing the same kind of work that resulted in the murders of U.S. activist Rachel Corrie and British activist Tom Hurndall less than six months later).
These things may seem quite far-ranging and disconnected, but I consider them related in terms of both the driving ethical imperatives behind them, and in terms of the root causes of each particular form of injustice or oppression confronted…and I feel that they’re all consistent with, and informed by, my particular blend of anarchist beliefs. And just so my personal biases are up-front and centre, I don’t mind applying some tidy labels to myself: I consider myself to be an anarchist in some senses (and not others), a socialist in some senses, a feminist, a Green, an anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, and many other “isms.” I don’t particularly care to be defined as, or reduced to one over the other. I’m also less interested in the labels we give things than their substance. I also consider the much-maligned terms “freedom” and “democracy” to be consistent with my own political ideology, though not in the ways meant by mainstream pundits and politicians let alone neo-classical economists. I’m not a pacifist, but neither do I tell people they ought to blow up the Richardson building, or go pick up guns and head for the hills. I’m not opposed to globalization per se, just neo-liberal, capitalist or imperialist forms of it. And finally, I don’t think anyone should take what I am about to say at face value. I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, nor do I claim to be particularly “radical” (I live a far too comfortable an existence for that). Nor do I claim to have “the light” of righteousness upon me that many activists seem to shine like a really annoying flashlight in your face. Nor do I think that the kinds of activism or consciousness-raising that I happen to engage in are more important than the kinds others choose to focus on. I have very little tolerance for people who are constantly trying to tell you what the “primary” oppression or social relationship is, or what the “primary” focus of your struggle and your life ought to be.
So, with that very sketchy bio behind us, and some of my biases and assumptions all nicely laid out, we can proceed to the topic at hand. First, what do I mean by “anarchism?” And second, what is radical dissent and why is it important?
In very simple terms, I view anarchism as both a political philosophy, and an impulse. As a political philosophy, its major theorists have been libertarian socialists of varying degrees, meaning people who are not only market abolitionists (seeking to replace capitalism with a system of democratic control over the economy), but also committed to a process and future based on free association, workers’ self-management, democratic planning, and non-hierarchy. This commitment to the ideals of participatory self-management, and non-hierarchy, has often led anarchists to highlight the authoritarian nature of the State, and the importance of adopting means consistent with one’s ends, in addition to pointing out the injustice, and exploitation, and inequality inherent to capitalism, and class-based societies in general. It has also led anarchists to be attuned to the matrix of interlocking oppressions rooted in different types of social relations in the real world: patriarchal and gender-based ones, nationalist, cultural, and colonial ones, racist and white supremacist ones, class-based ones, and authoritarian and hierarchical social relations other than those which arise exclusively from one’s relationship to what Marx called the “means of production.” Today, this kind of thinking is increasingly being called “intersectionalist,” but it’s easy to forget how innovative this kind of thinking was in the 1970s and 80s, and how some still resist its insights.
As an impulse, I think anarchism is also a tendency within us all, whether or not we self-identify in those terms. It’s an urge to resist external rule, domination, or authority, and an impulse towards freedom, and autonomy, and creative self-management of one’s own life, or work, or affairs, that is within us all as human beings … often there as a dormant or imprisoned impulse, but there nonetheless, ready to explode or manifest itself under certain conditions.
Contrary to popular mythology, anarchism has never been exclusively concerned about the role of the State, and has never been opposed to political and revolutionary organization. Most anarchists have viewed the State as one of many institutions designed to defend class rule, and have sought to abolish unjust hierarchies in all domains of social life: not just the political and economic realms, but also what has been called the kinship and cultural realms. Most have also been engaged in political and revolutionary organizing, building movements and institutions that they feel are consistent with their long-term vision. Some have participated in revolutionary unions, political parties, and yes, even governments – rare as the latter might be. Of course, anarchism (like any other political philosophy or current) is not homogenous, and there are some that would fall outside of my characterization in crucial ways … individualists like Max Stirner perhaps, and so-called “anarcho-capitalists,” and perhaps certain eco-anarchists such as “primitivists.” But the bulk of the “big name” anarchist theorists that people may have actually heard of – from Bakunin and Kropotkin, through Rudolf Rocker, Emma Goldman and Chomsky – fall under the rubric of “libertarian socialism” of one kind or another. I’m not going to go into more detail than that, or discuss historical examples, successes, and failings, but we can re-visit this later on if anyone wishes.
Back to the question of “radical dissent” and its importance. Is there a difference between “radical” and “regular” dissent? In one dictionary sense, to dissent is simply to hold a difference of opinion from those around you – hardly unique, or crazy, or necessarily militant or radical. A Supreme Court judge can thus “dissent” from the majority court opinion – although we generally don’t think of judges as “dissidents.” “Radical” on the other hand can mean different things depending on usage: as mentioned before, it can mean to get to the root, or the foundation of something (which is eerily close to “fundamentalist” in terms of word origin). But “radical” can also mean, in mainstream media usage, holding “extremist” views. When people say, “Oh me? I’m not a ‘radical’,” this is what they typically mean… they’re distancing themselves from what they think is socially unacceptable, extreme, bad, or unjustified. In other words, they’ve defined the term as a negative concept, so of course one cannot be that. If you’re a “radical” in this technical sense, then your views are to be dismissed as coming from Mars, inescapably “naïve” or “utopian” or even “sinister,” according to standard usage. It doesn’t really matter to me which definitions you want to use, as long as we agree on the substance, and as long as we don’t define useful concepts out of existence.
I tend to use “radical dissent” to mean expressing views and/or engaging in activity for one of the following purposes: 1) mitigating or stopping existing social ills, atrocities and injustice right now; 2) raising consciousness about the systemic causes which give rise to such things in the first place; and 3) attempting to replace the current flawed system with a better one. There’s probably a snappier way to capture this range of speech and action. But it should be noted that it is not enough to engage in activity related to the first of these (mitigating atrocities right now), without simultaneously doing one of the other two (critiquing the root systemic causes and/or seeking to replace the existing system with a better one) – and still be “radical” in the sense I’m using here. Doing the first of these things without awareness of the systemic causes is not “radical” dissent – it might be genuine humanitarian work, motivated by genuine empathy for the suffering of others, and it may eventually “radicalize” the person engaged in it. But it is not “radical” in and of itself (except insofar as it is uncommon for people in our “Western” culture to give a shit about the suffering of others – the evidence for which is all around us: poverty, hunger, homelessness, to name only the most salient). “Radical” dissent in the sense used here requires an awareness of the social and political and economic origins of injustice, the systemic forces at work, which must be confronted and overthrown in order to build a truly just, peaceful, diverse, and ecologically-sustainable world. You’ve probably heard that quote by the Brazilian priest Helder Camara: “When I gave food to the hungry they called me a saint. But when I asked why there was poverty and hunger, they called me a communist.” That pretty much sums up the difference between charity work, and radical activism.
We also need to address in any discussion the difference between “radical speech” and radical action – because it seems to me that dissent can encompass both speech and behavior. But to me, being “radical” involves more than just the cliché about “speaking truth to power,” and more than just bearing “moral witness” to ongoing atrocities around the world. As activist and author Ward Churchill wrote in his latest book: “There is no place for spectators and bystanders at a Holocaust.” In other words, bearing moral witness to crimes against humanity, and even denouncing them and expressing “opposition” in ways deemed acceptable to the perpetrators, in symbolic protests, in petitions, in letters to the newspaper, and in police-escorted marches that predictably disperse after a series of ritual speeches – this is not a serious threat to the status quo. If it WAS a threat, you can bet your life that it would be banned, or broken up by force. (Protests are typically broken up only when they make elites uncomfortable, when people go outside the normal bounds of “acceptable” dissent, when people throw wrenches or obstacles in the way of “business-as-usual” or – heaven forbid, hinder private sector profits – or when those dissenting are from marginalized sectors of the population – but in Canada this seems to be changing, and any excuse to crack activist skulls and provoke a reaction which can justify further repression is becoming the norm: whether you look at the APEC summit in Vancouver, or the Queen’s Park “riot” in Toronto, or the Quebec City Summit of the Americas, or the WTO protest and Concordia Netanyahu “riot” in Montreal). Regardless of the facts, “bearing witness” in ways acceptable to the perpetrators of the crimes in question is not a threat. And until we abandon clichés about “speaking truth” to powers that simply don’t care, and start talking about kicking power in the teeth, and start talking about dismantling power, and creating revolutionary and accountable forms of it, until then Left and social justice movements will remain marginal. Our criteria for choosing tactics and judging our overall, collective success as a movement (and as human beings) ought to be based as much (and maybe more so) on effectiveness as it is based on some ideal ethical principle. In other words, it is all fine and dandy to oppose the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and to go to a demo, and write a letter denouncing it, but if the largest anti-war demonstrations in world history don’t stop the invasion and occupation – then you have to ask yourself “what will?”
I have viewed activism and dissent as not only “normal” human activities, but as ethical requirements. In some sense, I think the answer to the question “Why is radical dissent important?” is the same answer to a different question “What is ethical living?”
What does ethical living mean, as a worker, as a “consumer” (which is really just the flip side of the production coin), as an ordinary person or business, or as a “citizen of the world?” The answer to that absolutely depends on historical context and one’s particular place in the matrix of interlocking social relations and oppressions that real-world societies have. So generalizations here are rarely helpful. Some people suggest that living ethically means “doing no harm” in any direct sense, minimizing human impact upon the planet’s ecology, treating those around you (friends, family, even strangers that we bump into as we go about our lives) with respect and compassion. Some people go further and insist that living ethically requires a more active positive role –– not just refraining from doing bad things, not just opening the door for a stranger, not just giving spare change to the homeless, not just tipping well at Perkins, or being courteous to retail workers, not just building a happy family environment, and “tending one’s own garden” without directly screwing over your neighbours. In short, not just doing what most people do, or at least what most people think constitutes being a “good person.” But rather working to make the world a better place for everyone in it; actively opposing injustice (even if you didn’t “personally” and directly cause it); expanding our sphere of concern and solidarity beyond our immediate circle, beyond our family or community, beyond our country or culture, to all of humanity; asking questions about the causes of social ills (not just feeling good about ourselves if we treat some of the symptoms); fighting for alternatives to war, militarism, human rights violations, hunger and poverty.
There’s a tension between these two types of “ethical living.” You can be the nicest person in the world, the best mom or dad to your kids, the most selfless friend, and so on, but live within, accept the basic framework of, and benefit from a system of fundamental oppression, exploitation, and injustice. This is what’s sometimes called being “a Good German” in the midst of Nazi Germany – and I would argue that the same can be said of “Good Canadians” and “Good Americans” today. This is what Hannah Arendt meant by her phrase “the banality of evil.” It was about the normalization of monstrous systemic crimes, made possible in part by conscious attempts to mystify the process, to ensure that people don’t see, or to instil fear or indifference in those who do.
The flip side to this is also rotten: you can be the most committed activist, with the highest ideals and consciousness, and feel genuine anger about injustice, and feel genuine passion about the possibility of alternatives –– but at the same time, be the most nasty, judgmental, ego-centric, person around. Taking things to the extreme, you might even hate your family, treat ordinary people with contempt for their alleged “ignorance,” “apathy,” or “false consciousness,” and abandon your lover and kids –– all the while professing to build a beautiful, revolutionary future on behalf of “humanity.” This is basically role-playing a “revolutionary” as far as I’m concerned — but sadly, it’s a character many still love to play.
How does one reconcile these seemingly contradictory things? It seems to me that neither scenario is acceptable. Most people who supported the Nazi Party in Germany, or who simply went along without too much fuss while the German military-industrial machine conquered neighbouring countries, killed political dissidents, union leaders, and activists, suppressed what it called “terrorism” in Poland and France, and most infamous of all, sent train-loads of Jews and Roma and others to concentration camps and gas chambers –– most of these Germans were ordinary people like you and me, who paid their taxes, and were probably really nice folks. They probably thought stealing candy from toddlers and kicking puppies was bad too. But what does “being nice” mean in such an appalling context?!?
Now for the part that gets people uncomfortable. Canada is not Nazi Germany, but the ethical point remains. I’d like to talk about three crucial examples, real quick, to demonstrate: 1) the treatment of First Nations, 2) the growth of poverty and prisons (Canada’s real growth industries), and 3) Canada’s foreign policy record. Canada historically tried to wipe out many distinct indigenous nations as such, meaning as self-identifying peoples. For anyone who thinks this only happened a hundred years ago, or it’s far away in time, and not particularly relevant anymore, you’d be mistaken. The most prominent example is perhaps the Lubicon Cree in Alberta. Canada has been accused of “genocide” in its treatment of the Lubicons, during the 1990’s, by such “radical” groups as the World Council of Churches and the UN Human Rights Commission. You don’t have to physically kill people, in order to commit genocide, though Canada has done its share of killing Indians. Genocide is a term that has very specific meaning under international law. The term itself was coined by Raphael Lemkin in the 1940’s, and was never meant to pertain exclusively to direct killing –- though this was certainly recognized as one way to achieve the goal of destroying the identity of targeted groups. Genocide, according to Lemkin (and it must be stressed that the UN followed his definition in some important ways), involved a
“coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves [even if the individuals physically survive]. The objectives of such a plan would be a disintegration of political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed at the national group as an entity….”
Canada’s preferred path to genocide has always been the less bloody one, but the goal is nonetheless the same: removal of people from land and resources to which they have historical, moral, and legal title, and the statistical elimination of people by imposing colonial definitions of “race” and identity, and by criminalizing the very cultural, linguistic, and spiritual traditions that strengthen collective identity as such. The reservations systems imposed on First Nations, the race-based legislation that inspired apartheid South Africa, and the residential school system were all facets of this genocidal agenda. We are, of course, “civilized” and so we attempt to eliminate Indian nations (and thus Indian title) in sneakier, more sophisticated ways, by undercutting their traditional means of subsistence, by ripping children from their homes, by placing them into “proper” schools where they’re denied the right to their own language, dress, and religious beliefs, through forced sterilization of Indian women, and so on. This is what’s affectionately called “assimilation” in Canada –– a term that should send shivers up anyone’s spine, as anyone who watches Star Trek (and knows about the Borg) will understand. Non-voluntary assimilation is genocide. The Lubicon experience, or the Grassy Narrows experience for the last 30 years, shows that this process, and the underlying state, colonial, and corporate greed driving it, is far from over.
Poverty & Prisons?
Everyone knows that poverty is on the rise in Canada –– everyone except “respectable” journalists, commentators and politicians of course, who happily announce “growth rates” and record profits for major corporations. But most people know that “record profits” and “investment returns” doesn’t relate to their own experience, in the same way that people knew the “chocolate ration” wasn’t always rising in Orwell’s book 1984. Direct observation and experience tells us otherwise. It’s there in the increasing numbers of panhandlers and homeless people we encounter in the streets, it’s there in the sky-rocketing rise in the use of food banks in this city (and across the country), it’s there in the expectation of young people today that they won’t have the same job security or standard of living as their parents. Most people’s real wages (not absolute wages, but wages accounting for inflation) are lower than they were in the 1970’s. Most people work longer hours for less pay than thirty years ago. Most people live from pay cheque to pay cheque, or cannot afford to lose their job, or cannot afford to get sick, or cannot afford to pay for some sudden, unexpected emergency that arises.
The prison system has grown in proportion to poverty. The two are related, and obviously related to anyone not benefiting from the system, and to any honest person who spends two minutes thinking about the matter. Statistics Canada puts out all sorts of reports, including information on prison populations, make-up of prisoners, nature of offenses, and so on. According to our own government reports, most people are in medium-security prison for what it calls “fine default conviction.” That’s a fancy way of saying they’re in prison for being poor. Rich people don’t go to prison to avoid paying fines. Prisons have nothing to do with “corrections” or “rehabilitation.” They’re about punishment (of highly selective offenses), and social control of both marginalized communities and dissent. It’s disgusting, but true: the U.S. imprisons more blacks per capita today than South Africa under apartheid. Manitoba imprisons more aboriginal people per capita than South African blacks under apartheid. Think about that, and ask yourself why that’s not a total indictment of our entire society.
Let me jump to some bullet points on Canadian foreign policy. We can always re-visit prisons in the discussion period. Some examples, chosen somewhat randomly from hundreds of possibilities, will illustrate the point.
El Salvador: 1932 “matanza”: Canada sent the first gunship to the coast of El Salvador, to back up a military dictatorship as it slaughtered 30,000 peasants.
East Timor: Indonesia’s December 1975 invasion unleashed one of the worst genocides in terms of direct per capita killings in the world. Canada’s response? Waffle in the United Nations, and then start calling East Timor a “province” of Indonesia.
Iraq: Canada’s involvement was as a junior partner in a U.S.-led imperial occupation and military bombardment. Some estimates of the first Gulf War alone put the death toll as high as half a million dead children — not to mention the countless other civilians killed, and the systematic destruction of the civilian infrastructure necessary to sustain life. Madeline Albright famously failed to dispute these figures and said the civilian casualties were “worth it.” What was Canada’s response? Well the U of Winnipeg, right here, under the guidance of that so-called “humanitarian” Lloyd Axworthy, is apparently planning to award Albright an Honorary Doctorate this year.
Afghanistan: Need I say more? All the pretexts for this one fall apart immediately, and Canada still has troops there, backing up the murderous “Northern Alliance” warlords who have a comparable, even worse human rights record to the Taliban.
Haiti: In one of his first acts of foreign policy, Canada’s then-unelected Paul Martin sent troops to help depose Haiti’s elected leader.
Each of these “snapshots” is worthy of an entire presentation, but there’s no time to elaborate here. What are we to make about all of this? I’m not listing off Canada’s sorry record at home and abroad just to hear myself talk. This relates to ethical living, activism, the creation of a meaningful peace at home and abroad, and to the importance of “radical dissent.” Here at home, where we can most affect things, otherwise good people ignore or rationalize oppressive policies and atrocities –– carried out often in our name, but sometimes in secret (by a state-corporate elite that knows it’s hard to sell exploitation and genocide), but in either case, carried out with public money, with our tax dollars. It’s not that we really don’t know what’s going on, it’s not that our so-called “leaders” are unaware of the consequences of their actions. (Madeline Albright, for example, was asked on prime time (60 Minutes) if she thought that half a million dead Iraqi children was “worth the cost.” She didn’t dispute the numbers. She just said “yes!”) The information is there for those who care to see, but we choose to avert our eyes, to not accept the implications, to sigh at the “inevitability” of suffering, and we’re often content in the luxury of our own cynicism. But most Canadians – at least those we might broadly-construe as part of “settler society” – don’t even have the excuse that ordinary Germans might have had –– that is, fear of being tortured or killed for dissenting, fear of disappearing in the middle of the night – although this ultimately depends on what sector of society one hails from, and what colour your skin is. The so-called “Starlight tours” in Saskatoon are clear evidence that we do, in fact, have racist death squads in this country – and the perpetrators are wearing uniforms and carrying badges, drenched in public money, and worshipped as “heroes.” For most of us, the only thing that we have to face (at least, most white Canadians) is social ostracism, ridicule, being barred from what are called “respectable” media and journals. In short, it doesn’t require a great deal of courage to speak out in Canada, only some measure of integrity.
I began this discussion by talking about ordinary, generally kind and considerate people, living in and rationalizing and ultimately buttressing an unjust system…a phenomenon that Arendt called the “banality of evil” (in reference to “Ordinary Germans” – including petty bureaucrats and relatively minor SS officers like Adolf Eichmann – living comfortably, and ultimately going along with Nazi expansion, war, occupation, and eventually outright genocide.) The other side of the coin mentioned earlier was the committed activist who hates people, who treats everyone like idiots or dupes. I won’t go into this in detail, but simply want to say that we should be striking a balance between personal and familial kindness and empathy, and aspirations of social and revolutionary justice. We should be somewhere in the middle of all this: it’s important for people to develop an understanding of the systemic causes of social problems, poverty, war, environmental destruction, and injustice, without becoming dogmatic, pretentious, judgmental, without thinking that you’re the “light” and the “way” and the “vanguard” of everything good, and those who don’t share your perspective are stupid or evil. It’s important to be a good person, but this doesn’t mean being parochial (or inward), it doesn’t mean shutting off our empathy at the border, it doesn’t mean being a “respectable citizen of Canada” (traditionally-defined) – but quite often, in fact, it means the opposite. It means dissenting, opposing, critiquing, resisting in whatever form you can – because the Law and Justice have nothing to do with one another.
What are the pre-requisites for meaningful peace on the planet?
As will be apparent from the talk so far, “peace” in my view, is not simply the absence of war. It’s only meaningful if the social and economic and political causes of rebellion and war have been addressed. In this sense, peace is more than a cessation of hostilities. It’s a situation of harmony and co-existence and trust between diverse peoples and constituencies –– based on an understanding that discrimination, exploitation, oppression, apartheid, or any form of domination cannot be sustained, that they inevitably give rise to dissent, resistance, and eventually violence (if legal and peaceful means of effecting change are blocked.) Peace in this sense is based on the understanding that freedom for all is guaranteed only by freedom for each.
By contrast, the mainstream, propagandistic, meaning of “peace” is a situation in which subordinate groups accept the status quo, regardless of existent injustices, inequalities, and so on. It’s a situation in which elite power and privilege, and that of official allies, is safe from internal or external threats, safe in fact from democracy itself. This is what’s called “stability” in respectable circles. The distinction between “peace” as the embodiment of flourishing prosperity and justice for all, and “peace” as the capitulation to class or imperial power has long been understood. It essentially goes back to the Roman historian Tacitus, who famously quoted Calgacus more than two thousand years ago: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”
As activists, we need to challenge these nationalist, imperialist, and propagandistic definitions of “peace.” We need to demonstrate that a commitment to peace is meaningless if it’s patriotic, as if our empathy and allegiances should stop at a border that was itself constructed by conquest and war. We need to insist that the struggle to end war is the same as the ongoing struggle to democratize our own country, to shift resources from military to social spending, and to wrest control of our communities and workplaces from corporations and private power in general. We need to step back and look at the privileges we enjoy, and be willing to sacrifice some or all of them for a society truly based on equity and social justice. In Canada, for example, it would mean supporting – for starters – meaningful indigenous self-determination – not just to some vaguely defined, and homogenized category of people called “Indians,” but to historically and culturally and linguistically distinct peoples. It would mean recognizing land claims on unceded Indian territory, upholding (the few) legitimate treaties that were signed, recognizing that the spirit of virtually every single treaty signed in this country was broken by the colonizers, and changing the way we view Canada, up to and including its actual borders, its official languages, and the distorted history we teach ourselves. It would also mean changing Canada’s foreign policy in dramatic ways. The terrorism of September 11th will never be eliminated without first establishing a meaningful peace with justice across the globe. But meaningful peace cannot be established under our current economic system, under a system of hierarchy, class privilege and exploitation, under globalization as it’s currently defined. It has to be rooted in anti-fascism and anti-imperialism and anti-militarism and yes, anti-nationalism.
How can one oppose militarism, war, human rights violations and injustice in one’s day-to-day activity?
There’s a lot of things individual people can do, but even more that we can do working in conjunction with others, joining or starting organizations committed to immediate reforms or long-term change, raising awareness about local or global issues, and so on. Individuals challenging themselves to overcome years of socialization around issues of sexism, racism, classism, speciesism, these are all good things. Becoming more conscious about the things we consume, the way they’re produced, and questioning the need for endless growth and consumption from an ecological standpoint, these are also good things. But changing one’s own consciousness and consumption patterns, while often quite principled and important, is not the same as activism. It’s not a substitute for it. Don’t get me wrong: these kinds of things need to be done, we need to challenge ourselves, and look in the mirror, when it comes to what we eat and buy –– but it’s not the end of the story. This doesn’t challenge structures of power and systems of exploitation which lead to the problems we’re concerned about in the first place.
We also need alternatives to corporate, market-driven business as usual, alternative movements, alternative media, alternative businesses and institutions –– but ones which attempt to put into practice the values we as activists profess to hold, and which pre-vision and pre-figure the future society we want to create.
Can one achieve peace by resorting to violence? Can one achieve peace by refraining from violence? Both those questions are complicated. The first thing that needs to be said about this is that anyone who pays their taxes, and goes about normal life (studying in university or just working 9-5) under current conditions is already complicit in, and benefiting from violence. Anyone who acquiesces to the system, who submits to the authority of its courts and police, who isn’t actively engaged in resistance to Canada’s domestic and foreign policies, is already resorting to violence. There’s no high horse called “pacifism” that you can sit proudly upon if you’re living in Canada, even if you’re personally a nice, compassionate, non-violent person, who treats the neighbours well, who tries to “tread lightly” upon the land, or who speaks out against injustices at home and abroad, and so on. The violence of the state-capitalist system we live in is inherent and omnipresent. It’s built into our tax structure, it’s built into our criminal code, it’s built into the politics of our prison system, it’s integral to the ongoing dispossession of indigenous peoples in this country, and it’s a central feature of Canadian foreign policy. Whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we want to believe it or not, violence is endemic to the system we live in –– and what we choose to call “violence,” what we understand the term to mean, is largely a matter of propaganda and conditioning.
In war, bombing anything necessary for civilian life (like water treatment plants, or hospitals) is a war crime. But depriving people of clean water and air, access to health care, and so on, doing the exact same thing by the so-called “invisible hand” of the market, by government policies, by tax structures, and by cutbacks to social services, by World Bank or IMF structural adjustment policies …is viewed as “free enterprise,” and praised as either a common good, or a necessary evil. But the consequences to a civilian population are no different in effect, the consequences are structural forms of violence, and in a very real way, they ought to be considered crimes against humanity – no less than the bombardment of a water treatment plant or a pharmaceutical factory in a faraway land.
The violence is already here. You’re in it. I’m in it. We’re contributing to, and benefiting from it, simply by being born into a country nearer to the top of the global domination pyramid. Canada is an integral part of the Euro-American imperial tradition going back 500 years. The question is not whether you’re in favour of violence or not; the question is not whether activists should resort to violence or not; the real question is how are we going to deal with the normalization of violence that is the essence of class power and the State right now? How are we going to respond to the government’s monopoly on violence right now? What are we going to do to mitigate the systemic violence and crushing poverty right now? Which side are we on in the vastly unequal and violent “class war” that is waging right now?
Are we really going to quibble about the relatively small-scale revolutionary violence of people attempting to assert some level of dignity and self-determination, in comparison with the monumental violence and genocide unleashed in the interests of power and privilege – which we absolve by calling it “fiscal policy” at home or “international politics” in the global arena? Why do we hear more about the sporadic “violence” and property damage of anti-globalization protesters, than we do about the daily violence of hunger and poverty in this country, the desperation, alcoholism, and suicide rates on Indian reserves, the routine and un-investigated murders of indigenous women in this country, the routine police brutality directed at marginal communities, the cold calculations of corporate CEO’s when it comes to community health or safety lawsuits, the willingness (and even relish) with which our brave leaders launch military actions against impoverished and largely defenceless nations? Why do we hear only endless denunciations about the terrorist crimes of September 11th, and almost nothing about the deliberate slaughter of 500,000 Iraqi children throughout the 1990’s – a crime at least one hundred times the magnitude, and one which still only forms the tip of the genocidal iceberg that the West has grown accustomed to unleashing with complete nonchalance and impunity?
So, before one even can talk about violence as a movement tactic, one needs to have a more accurate sense of proportions, both in terms of the difference of scale and in terms of the motivations. Even the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, distinguished between what he called “revolutionary” and “institutional” violence. This is a key distinction in liberation theology circles, but also, I think, an important one for activists to keep in mind. Romero may himself have been a “dissident” within the radical wing of the Latin American church, and his views may be directly related to the fact that he was assassinated by right-wing death squads, but the distinction is important nonetheless.
I think most people do, in fact, make such distinctions. Most people are not strict pacifists – who believe that the very moment one picks up a weapon in self-defence, one becomes as “bad as the oppressor.” Most people, in fact, cheer for Robin Hood when they watch him on TV, or the Scottish defending themselves with brutal violence against English occupation in Braveheart, or the French Resistance to Nazi occupation in WWII – or for the “Free Peoples” fighting the hordes of Orcs and Trolls in the Lord of the Rings movies. Most people don’t think that Jews who rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto were “just as bad as their Nazi exterminators” for adopting the “master’s tools of violence.” In other words, most people think there are things worth fighting for, even through violence. The question is not the use of violence per se, but under what conditions, and to what end?
Why is radical dissent critical? Apart from the basic ethical duty we have – first and foremost, to lift our Western boots from the necks of targeted communities “at home” and impoverished peoples and countries everywhere, and to halt ongoing atrocities committed by our own government – Apart from doing this because it’s the right thing to do, we also need to come to grips with two things: 1) symbolic protest hasn’t stopped genocide, nor halted war after war after war, nor slowed (let alone halted) the process of ecological collapse that threatens all life on the planet; and 2) there is a basic rule (somewhere between “common sense” and a “law of science”) which predicts that Canadians will not be exempt from the consequences of our government’s intransigence and complicity in war crimes. This is the law that says “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” It is Newton’s “third law of motion” applied to politics. It is what the CIA called “blowback.” This is the law that says if you push someone around long enough, they’ll eventually push back. This is the law that says empires rise, and eventually fall. Canadians will not have the luxury of being “unaffected,” any more than the Spanish people were immune to their own government’s actions. (I assume everyone knows what happened in Spain on March 11th?) Both the people who are on the receiving end of Western power, and the natural environment itself, will fight back – and neither of them will quibble about the means chosen, nor discriminate between those who made the policies, and those who resisted, and those who did nothing because they were too busy trying to find the perfect cappuccino, or saving their money for an SUV, or just “minding their own garden.” I asked people at a recent rally whether Canadians should be surprised, or shocked, or indignant if bombs start going off in subways in Toronto or Montreal? Can we cry “we didn’t know?” I don’t think so. Not when Canada has helped bomb Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq into the Stone Age—on pretexts that cannot withstand the mildest scrutiny. Not when Canada has just landed troops in Haiti, helping plunge that country into further unrest and civil war, and helping to back so-called “rebel factions” which have links to the death squads of Duvalier. That was the first major foreign policy action of our newly un-elected CEO Paul martin. Where the hell did that mandate come from? It certainly didn’t come from ordinary Canadians.
The rest of the world knows which side of the Empire we’re on, even if many of our own citizens do not. No one else is under any illusions about our “peace loving” nature. Canada has lent support to imperial control and conquest ever since our country’s blood-soaked foundation upon the very towns and villages of this land’s original peoples.
How does one raise the social costs to elites (decision-makers, corporate CEO’s, and the very rich) who benefit from “business as usual,” without ourselves becoming elitist, vanguardist, disconnected from society as a whole? To me, this is a central strategic question facing activists and dissidents – whether they are self-described anarchists or not. I don’t think you avoid the issue, and rise above the problem, simply by calling yourself an anarchist. Anarchists have their own history of elitism and vanguardism going back to Bakunin and extending all the way to the present day. (We also have a counter-history of attempting to overcome institutional hierarchy which is perhaps unparalleled, though feminists have also been pioneers in this regard.) What does “vanguardism” mean? Some examples might be the FLQ killing of Pierre LaPorte, or the Tupamaros killing of a U.S. advisor in Uruguay, or Che Guevara’s entire guerrilla project in Bolivia. We have to ask ourselves about our relationship to public opinion and public support – and judge our actions as much on the principles that drive them, as by their ability to expand the movement, and build support, rather than alienate people.
If we really want to stop war and genocide (not just voice “opposition” to a room that already shares our beliefs, or in ritual incantations before uncaring governmental buildings), and if we really want to slow or reverse the destructive processes and technologies that are poisoning the planet before every single person is dying of cancer, and all species are driven to extinction – then we will have to do more than speak truth to power. We will have to kick power in the teeth. We will have to raise the social costs to Canada’s own ruling class, we will have to let them know they won’t get away with business as usual – that the cities of Canada will become un-governable until our so-called “representatives” actually represent, or better yet, until each and every person has decision-making power in proportion to the degree they are affected, and until justice is served. It’s up to you to decide what that means, and what level of risk and civil disobedience and legality that entails. But it is clear that if we proceed as we have been, then Canadian civilians will eventually be targeted, just as American, and British, and Spanish, and Israeli civilians have been targeted for their government’s involvement in direct occupation or state terrorism. There is nothing to be indignant about that “blowback” except our own culpability in setting the stage for it to explode. If we really wish to stop “terrorism” then we are first and foremost going to have to stop participating in it – in terms of both policing and statecraft. This is precisely about taxes, about budgets, and about domestic and foreign policy. If we proceed as we have been, allowing green anarchists like Jeffrey Luers to get sentenced to 22 years in prison for setting fire to SUV’s, while white supremacists can literally get away with murdering indigenous people in this country, while Henry Kissinger, and Jean Chretien, and George Bush, and Madeline Albright, and Brian Mulroney, or Paul Martin are all allowed to remain free after presiding over what can only be called war crimes – then we have no one to blame but ourselves, when oppressed people and mother nature herself decide to fight back.