The question of violence as it relates to politics has entered the national conversation in the wake of the firebombing of the Orange County Republican headquarters. It’s an important subject, though the media often distorts the context of the conversation. Liberal and conservative pundits alike spend an extraordinary amount of time condemning violence. It is worth analyzing what type of violence they condemn and what type of violence they condone.
Let’s take a scenario that has become familiar to all of us over the past few years.
Immediately following the murder of a black man by police, state officials and community “leaders” issue statements calling for nonviolence. These pleas are always directed at the protesters- the racially oppressed and economically exploited populations living in the city. The protesters are told to keep themselves peaceful. They are told to express their outrage, at being murdered and having their neighborhoods occupied by the state, in a courteous and respectful manner. Martin Luther King Jr.-who never condemned a riot -is almost always invoked. When the protesters take to the streets they are met by a domestic army. They are tear gassed. They are beaten. They are kidnapped and tossed into jail cells. A curfew is implemented and they are told to go back to their homes. These provocations are too much. People break windows, throw rocks, and burn cop cars. In the morning the “violent protests” are roundly condemned. No pundit bothers to point out that the police were the instigators of violence. The politicians and the newspapers deplore the destruction of private property. They are horrified by the burning of police cars. But they cheer the actions of the police who callously murder, cage, and traumatize poor communities, especially communities of color. The oppressed are subjected to a smear campaign that paints them as savages.
Ever since humanity became divided into classes there has been a “ruling” class and an underclass- an oppressor and an oppressed. For example: there existed large slave owning societies ruled by a class of priests and/or headed by an emperor or king. Later, feudalism emerged and feudal lords extracted tribute from their peasants. Feudalism was then abolished by a series of revolutions that ushered in the era of capitalism, in which workers are ruled by capitalists and market mechanisms. This is, of course, a simplification- not every culture and civilization followed this exact trajectory and there are many local variations and deviations- but it serves as a useful general outline of history.
In each case the ruling class can always be identified as those who own what people need to survive. It is not the ruling class of paranoid conspiracy theories. They are not meeting together in a shadowy room collaborating to brainwash us all. They are not spraying chem-trails. They did not plan the 9/11 attacks. They are not reptilians in human suits. The current ruling class is simply the people who own the means of production- the factories, the farms, the banks, the methods of distribution, etc. They own the tools and technology necessary to make society function. When the means of production is owned by a small class of people it becomes private property. Socialists see the existence of private private property as inherently violent and despotic. We believe this property should be owned and democratically managed by society, not by a small group of individuals.
Like the empires of earlier epochs the ruling class of the United States, the leading capitalist state, commits violence on oppressed populations both at home and abroad. It does this not out of some conspiratorial agenda, but because it is the only way the system can operate. Violence is used to extract profits and maintain the means of production as private property. Some examples will demonstrate the scale of this violence. All over the world people live in fear of U.S. drone strikes killing their loved ones. U.S. bombs kill children every day across the Middle East and Africa. Billions of dollars worth of weapons were sold by the United States last year. These weapons go to regimes like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel, who routinely brutalize millions of people. U.S. hedge funds are systematically destroying Puerto Rico by forcing the country to close schools and hospitals and cut social programs. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is 12% and the population is fleeing in record numbers. The U.S. government routinely tortures people at Guantanamo Bay and “black sites” all over the world. Coups are used to kill or exile democratically elected leaders, who are then replaced by puppet states. The new government almost always cooperates with Washington and offers favorable markets to U.S. corporations. In return they are given weapons and free reign to suppress dissent. Domestically the ruling class ensures that millions of people are locked in cages, funding for public schools is cut, welfare programs for the poor are gutted, entire cities are gentrified, and hundreds of thousands of people are living on the street. This abuse and exploitation is practiced by the capitalists and their various governments across the globe. The system itself is founded on violence. It could not exist otherwise.
It is only when the masses of everyday people have had enough, when the conditions are so intolerable that they rise up against their oppressors, that violence is condemned. When oppressed peoples take a stand against the violence inflicted upon them- whether it is burning down the local headquarters campaigning for a racist billionaire, or occupying a pipeline, or destroying police cars -the men and women at the head of the most violent institutions on Earth suddenly bemoan the use of force. They beg for a non-violent expression of grievances after years of committing violence themselves. The ruling class is not moved by human suffering, their aversion for violence only surfaces when the violence directly threatens their system of power. When French peasants and sans-culottes overthrew King Louis XVI the feudal lords and kings of Europe were horrified by the violence of the masses and their guillotine. But their hearts were not moved by centuries of suffering caused by the French monarchy. When Nat Turner led his rebellion through Virginia the slave owners were shocked by the killing of fellow slave owners and the burning of their mansions, but they saw nothing wrong with, kidnapping, owning, raping, maiming, and murdering African slaves.
Today capitalists and those loyal to them use violence to defend private property and profits. They value the current system more than they value the millions of lives destroyed by the system.
It is violence in the defense of violence.
The violence of the oppressed is different. The oppressed use violence at the last moment, when their protests have fallen on deaf ears. The oppressed use violence in the defense of their very existence.
It is violence in the defense of human dignity.