Violence is “Not Good”
“A small percentage of the world is benefiting from Capitalism, while the rest of the world lives in abject poverty. At some point, those people may decide they’ve had enough, and the backlash will be ‘not good.’”
From Rhyd Wildermuth, an editorial on Welsh myth and the inevitability of ‘violent revolution.’
Recently I found myself in an argument regarding capitalism with another Pagan writer. I’m an anti-capitalist, he runs a prosperity-magic course to help people get better at capitalism, so you can imagine the conversation was not really going very far. At some point, however, he changed the subject slightly and asked me this:
“I keep hearing G&R calls for violence. Knowing that people take things out of context all the time, are you talking about violent response when confronted with violence from the state/private security or are you talking about proactive violence against the wealthy?”
The question arises occasionally, and the answer is hardly a simple one. Does Gods&Radicals call for violence? And what sort of violence do we call for?
The question first of all showed a misunderstanding of what Gods&Radicals is. We are not a political party. We are an anti-capitalist non-profit publisher. We are also hardly monolithic. Some writers are dedicated deeply to non-violent resistance, some are pacifists, some see violent defense as justifiable when attacked by police or white supremacists, and some writers are insurrectionists.
None of us speaks for anyone else, and that goes doubly for myself. While I am a co-founder and the managing editor of this site, I am neither its king nor high-priest.
I cannot and won’t speak for anyone else who writes with us unless they ask me to. That’s called anarchism, by the way.
My eventual answer to this person was that we take no collective stance for or against violence, which is true. His response was intriguing:
“The fact that people within the organization are calling for it…and the organization has no stand against it makes it culpable.”
That is, by not taking a direct stance against violence (that is, without siding with the current capitalist order), we therefore are arguing for violence. Again, the ‘we’ in this formulation is not quite correct; I manage the organisation, but I do not speak for any of the writers. I technically have the power to tell a writer they cannot take a certain stand on violence. I don’t. They probably wouldn’t write with us any more if I did, and anyway: I’m an anarchist.
I should also admit: I am probably more comfortable with the idea of violence against the rich then, say, a pro-capitalist prosperity sorcerer might be. The reason why should probably be obvious: I am probably not the sort of target the poor are likely to go after. Likewise, in any revolutionary scenario, the police and military are not going to be protecting me or anything that I hold dear. I do not own a business or a home, I do not own a car or stocks, and everything I do ‘own’ (including the computer I write on, which cost $150 two years ago) can fit in my backpack.
Thus, the angry poor are likely not going to be coming for me, but if they ever do revolt, they’d be more likely to go after people like him.
The Broken Cauldron
If speaking of such things makes you very uncomfortable, I apologize. It makes me rather uncomfortable too, especially since there are many people I know and love who would likely get caught up as targets in a mass uprising because of their perceived (and often real) wealth, status, and support for the capitalist system. Likewise, I know some very poor people who dress quite fashionably–they could be easily mistaken for being rich. Further, I have met some very rich and exploitative people who are incredibly good at hiding their wealth.
The problem is that violent revolts do not operate on the same principles of polite society. In fact, they are suspensions of polite society and revolts against it.
Those who benefit from a society may not necessarily see the violence inherent in that system. If they do, they may dismiss that violence as acceptable or sanctioned. So when outbreaks of violence against the system occur, those outbreaks seem both incomprehensible and unprovoked.
A Welsh myth, Branwen fearch Llyr, illustrates this point quite well. For those unfamiliar with the story, I’ll summarize it:
There was once a giant named Brân, king of Wales. One day, the king of Ireland arrived with several fully-armed warships, and Brân hosted them in his lands. The king of Ireland then asked to marry Brân’s sister, Branwen, and Brân agreed, seeing it a good way to keep peace between their kingdoms.
Brân and Branwen had a half-brother, Efnysien fab Euroswydd. His name meant ‘not good,’ and he was away when it was decided that Branwen would marry. Efynsien became angry about not being consulted, and so cut off the lips and eyelids of the Irish king’s horses, vandalizing his ‘property,’
The Irish king was furious and was now ready for war. Brân learned what had happened, and rather then fighting them (especially now that his sister was married into Ireland), he gave the king of Ireland an ancient cauldron capable of raising dead soldiers.
The king recognised this cauldron, and asked Brân how he came to have it in Wales. Brân explained that two giants had come bearing it across the sea, fleeing persecution. He gave them shelter, and they gave him the cauldron in return. The king of Ireland replied with his own story. It was he from whom the giants originally fled. They lived in Ireland for awhile, but the children they birthed scared the nobles of Ireland with their strength. So the king tried to burn the giants and their children alive inside an iron house. The giants survived though,and took the cauldron with them across the sea where Brân welcomed them.
Fast forward a few years. A bird arrived bearing news to Brân that his sister was being beaten and forced into slavery by her husband. Brân traveled across the sea with an army (including his half-brother, Efnysien) to rescue her. When he arrived, however, the king of Ireland welcomed him, offering him a house large enough in which the giant could sleep. Also, the house was filled with 100 sacks of grain and other riches, proof that the king did not want war with Wales.
Efnysien went through the house late that night, stabbing each sack of grain. Instead of wheat or oats, however, blood poured out from where he plunged the knife: each sack contained a soldier ready to assassinate Brân as he slept. The next day, Brân was invited to dinner with the king of Ireland and Branwen, who now had a child, Gwern. Such a child officially meant peace between the two peoples. However, Efnysien, the child’s uncle, grabbed him and threw him into a fire, killing him and starting a war. That war desolated Ireland, led to Branwen’s death by heartache and Brân’s death by a poisoned spear.
It also meant the end of Efnysien. The Irish king had used the Cauldron to raise each soldier who died in battle against the Welsh to fight again, and to stop it, Efnysien pretended to be dead so he would be thrown inside. The moment his living body landed in the cauldron, he and the cauldron shattered.
All readings of this myth lay upon Efnysien the guilt for all the violence which eventually ends both the Irish and Welsh kingdoms. On the surface, this seems definitely true: Efnysien maimed the Irish king’s horses for no apparent reason, and it was his murder of Gwern (his nephew) that triggered the war between the kingdoms. And anyway, Efnysien was ‘not good.’
The thing is, this reading misses all the other violence in the story. The king of Ireland previously tried to burn innocent giants alive, giants who had done nothing wrong except scare and threaten the rich. Then, the king married a giantess and treated her like a slave (after, according to the tale, she gave so many gifts to people that the nobles became threatened by her generosity). Then, he hid 100 assassins in the house he ‘gifted’ to Brân in order to kill him in his sleep.
While the story itself gives no indication whether or not Efysien acted specifically out of spite or from a full view of the truly violent nature of the Irish king, it is easy to see Efnisien’s maiming of the horses and murder of his nephew (both acts against innocents) as more treacherous and more evil than the Irish king’s violence against Branwen, the giants who forged the cauldron, and his attempted murder of Brân himself.
But the question of violence is never that easy.
Making the Invisible Visible
Efnysien, ‘not good,’ perfectly describes revolutionary violence. Innocents are caught up. Windows are smashed, property is destroyed, people (including innocent children) are killed. From the perspective of anyone doing relatively ‘okay’ in Western capitalist societies, such violence is not only horrific, but utterly without justification.
From such a perspective, any revolutionary acts which harm innocents are immediately not just illegitimate, but worse than the very political and economic order that they attempt to replace. Even those of us who do not do well under capitalism tend to feel disgust at the idea of such violence.
The problem with such a perspective is that it ignores that the current capitalist order already kills innocent children. Police murder unarmed Black kids in the streets very often in the United States, Democracies casually drop bombs on school kids in the Middle East, children in inner-cities are poisoned with chemicals in their water and schools, and we do not even have a full picture of how many children will eventually die from radiation poisoning or global warming in the next few decades.
The sheer scale of violence against innocents within Capitalism doesn’t stop at children. Capitalism’s extinction of entire species and the mechanized slaughter of farm animals through industrial agriculture makes Efnysien’s maiming of several royal horses seems quite amateur.
The problem is that this violence is often invisible, just like the systematic violence carried out upon Black communities in the United States which leads to ‘violent’ manifestations. These very visible manifestations are often painted as childish outbursts or events of blind rage, and become quickly dismissed by the middle-class, because what led up to it was invisible.
If you’ve ever been an adult responding to a fight between children, you maybe already understand how this dynamic works. My youngest nephew, for instance, became a master of trapping his older brother into a liberal democratic politic. He’d repeatedly hit him when no one was watching, knowing that he won’t cry. When the older finally tired of the repeated slaps or pinches and retaliated, the younger nephew would then cry loudly, provoking a ‘police’ response from his parents.
It is often the same in oppressed and poor communities throughout the capitalist world. Repeated killings of unarmed people, repeated poisonings or land-theft (gentrification) or other systematic violence remains invisible except to the people to whom it occurs.
When they are no longer willing to endure the violence, they respond. When they respond, those of us who did not witness the long build-up of violence against them see only their violent response and thus blame the victim again, just like my nephew manipulated his parents into punishing his brother.
In perhaps her most famous interview, former Black Panther Angela Davis says exactly this same thing. Asked by a reported while she was in prison if she approved of violent revolution, she responded:
“oh, is that the question you were asking? yeah see, that’s another thing. When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions.You have to expect things like that as reactions…
…That’s why, when someone asks me about violence, I just, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
Davis’s point extends to every other oppressed community within Capitalist societies, as well as those in other countries who suffer daily from the actions of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other western nations. This same dynamic also describes the ‘outbursts of violence’ from domestic abuse victims who kill their abusers, or workers who steal from their bosses, or displaced people who vandalize new businesses in gentrified neighborhoods.
Those who did not experience or witness the previous violence will be more likely to see these moments of visible violence as disconnected, unrelated, or even fully-separated from the reasons for the violence. But this does not by itself explain the entire process, because the invisible violence is no less senseless than the visible outbursts from which we recoil, and some of us benefit much more from that violence.
“Please Revolt Peacefully”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the critic who accused Gods&Radicals of being ‘violent’ is more likely to be a target of violent revolutionary uprisings than I am, and not necessarily through any direct fault of his own. Certainly, having more than those who have little makes one more likely a target, especially when that wealth is in the form of property like automobiles or homes. However, the degree to which he or others who live similar lifestyles are actually ‘the problem’ is only a matter of subjective perception. He is not part of the ‘super rich’ or even the ‘very rich.’ He is likely not a Trump supporter, nor does he actively kick homeless people in the street or wish for poor people to be shot by police.
Marxists and anarchists called the position he and many others occupy within society as ‘the bourgeoisie.’ The word literally means ‘city-dweller’ in French and applied specifically to the shop-owners, factory-owners, and others who became powerful after the French revolution beheaded the aristocracy.
The term is still in use even among non-Marxists in France and Germany, but in the United States and the United Kingdom (which never saw successful revolts against the rich), the term ‘middle-class’ is used instead. However, the middle-class is a moving target: most people in America consider themselves middle-class, whether they make $20,000 a year or $250,000. What really only seems to unite them as a ‘class’ is probably best said to be their own certainty that they are neither poor nor rich.
The conception of the bourgeoisie, however, was never merely their economic status, but also their general attitude towards capitalism. To be bourgeois is to believe capitalism is an effective way to organize society and to prioritize values that keep capitalism healthy. These core values unite both conservatives and liberals, though they often disagree on how to implement them. Looking at those values, one gets a better sense of what the bourgeoisie actually are about.
- Private property,
- laws against sleeping in parks or streets,
- laws against public drunkenness,
- a well-funded police force,
- public order,
- clean streets,
- strong national defense,
- courts which severely punish property crimes (auto-theft, burglary, bank-robbery).
It goes without saying that the poor have less interest in such things. In fact, the primary target of many of these laws are the poor, particularly poor people of color. The poor are more likely to rob a bank or scream drunkenly on the street than the middle-classes. More so, one does not hear of many business-owners or internet-technology professionals stealing cars or breaking-and-entering.
Thus, the values of the bourgeoisie do not only run counter to the existence of the poor, they specifically criminalize things that the poor do to survive. We can thus see why the poor might not care if a person who stands for such things voted for Trump or Hillary, whether they support socialized health care or oppose abortion. What the middle-classes have that the poor do not is money, property, and access to more of the same, as well as a state which defends their interests and a class-wide support of the capitalist system which ensures the poor never have more than what it takes to survive (if even that).
When you expand this outward from the societies of Liberal (Capitalist) Democracies to the rest of the world, you see the divide is even more severe. Even the poorest Americans have more access to wealth than the average Haitian, and a significant reason why this is the case is American foreign military and economic policy supported by the American bourgeoisie. The same extends to France (where I currently live), the rest of Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada and every other Liberal Democracy.
A small percentage of the world is benefiting from Capitalism, while the rest of the world lives in abject poverty, experiencing the invisible violence caused by Capitalism.
At some point, those people may decide they’ve had enough, and the backlash will be ‘not good.’
Violence is Not-Good, But It Will Happen Anyway
So, the question of whether or not Gods&Radicals or I take a stand for or against violence against the rich is really an irrelevant one.
The violence seems inevitable regardless of how I feel about the matter. Corporations, governments, and police-forces certainly agree on this: for the last decade, they’ve invested heavily in new arms, new surveillance, and new prisons to deal with the inevitable backlash. The militarization of the police forces in the United States and France that has led to increasing murders of unarmed poor people and minorities is not some unfortunate accident.
They know what’s coming.
Personally? I hate violence and wish we can have a non-violent revolution. But let’s not delude ourselves: what I personally believe about the usefulness or goodness of violence will have absolutely no effect on uprisings in European and North American cities in the next decade. This truth extends to what the bourgeoisie believe, too.
‘Non-violence’ is a religious mantra of the bourgeoisie themselves. When a protest turns violent, it is the (mostly-white) middle-classes who are the first to denounce the actions. “I don’t support violence,” they often say, forgetting that it is them for whom the police and military exist.
This class-solidarity is often stronger than racial solidarity. In Ferguson and Baltimore, many Black middle-class people opposed the expressions of rage and anger of the poor who were tired of their children being shot on the streets. In the protests at Standing Rock, many well-off elders actively attempted to eject poorer and angrier First Nations protestors from the camps. And among whites, bourgeois class solidarity is the most pronounced: middle-class liberals in protests often do the work of the police for them, unmasking Black Bloc protesters and helping to detain poor people within marches who break windows or throw stuff at cops.
While some in the “middle-class” perhaps truly believe in non-violence, I suspect there is a darker, unconscious reason.
The violence which sustains capitalism isn’t entirely invisible. Perhaps they are not as ignorant about the state of the world as they pretend to be. Perhaps they’ve made the connections between real estate sales and homelessness, business profits and poverty, Liberal Democratic ‘freedoms’ and the subjugation of entire continents, the connection between ‘our way of life’ and the destruction of nature.
Maybe they’ve seen the violence, and then looked away. Maybe they tried to forget, hoping no one noticed the sacks aren’t full of grain but assassins, that they tried to burn giants alive, that there’s an immigrant slave-woman in the kitchen being beaten and abused.
Perhaps it’s all feigned ignorance. Perhaps that’s why they insist that violence is always ‘not good,’ because they know they are the violent ones.
I suspect that nothing can stop what is coming, not my own feelings on the matter, nor a bourgeois commitment to non-violence, nor even all the billions of dollars spent by governments and police and corporations to prevent the sort of revolutionary violence that will leave us all uttering Efnysien’s name: Not good.
And if it comes to that, I suspect it will be better to be on the side of the poor than the people who oppress them, regardless the outcome. For it not to come to that, the ‘middle class’ who truly believe violence is ‘not good’ must start following that belief to its logical conclusion.
Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram
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