Two Questions for 2017

Phil Sandifer asked two excellent questions on Twitter recently, suggesting that answering these would make a good replacement for New Year’s resolutions:

“1) At what point would you consider your government illegitimate and in need of removal outside traditional democratic processes? 2) At what point does violence become an acceptable tactic for resistance? (Unless you’re a full pacifist, the answer isn’t “never.”)”

He went on to say that sharing our answers publicly would be even better. Here, therefore, are mine. Feel free to comment with yours, or post them wherever, or just write them down on a piece of paper and stick it in a drawer to look at later.

So. When is a government illegitimate and in need of removal outside traditional democratic processes? This is two separate questions. The first is when a government loses legitimacy. In my view, there are two basic functions of government: to promote the general welfare, and to act as an asshole control mechanism. The first should be fairly straightforward: keep the people safe and healthy and ensure they have space within which to be who they are. The second is an acknowledgment that, first, everyone is an asshole sometimes, and some people are assholes most or all of the time–in this case, “asshole” meaning a person who acquires and exploits power over others in order to subjugate or harm them. The second job of government is to therefore minimize opportunities to be an asshole, mitigate the damage caused by assholes, and if necessary cut off assholes’ access to whatever it is that they’re exploiting.

So, simply, a government loses legitimacy when it is no longer able to effectively exercise those two functions. The second part of the question is then fairly straightforward: if traditional democratic processes are unable to restore the ability of government to perform those functions, then the government has failed and must be replaced. This is an inevitable occurrence: the only way an asshole control mechanism can work is if it is able to wield some form of power over them, but that means that the government has power that can be wielded over people. Sooner or later the assholes will get their hands on that power. There are ways to set up internal mechanisms to control the assholes who would exploit the asshole control mechanism itself, but eventually some asshole will solve the system and start exploiting it, and once that happens, nothing can prevent its complete subversion.

This has happened. The assholes solved the system we know as capitalist liberal democracy over a century ago at the latest, as first the assholes we now call robber barons, and later the ones we call fascists, took control. Major overhauls over the next few decades–the welfare state, civil rights movements–kept it lumbering along for a while, but the revised system was clearly solved by assholes by the time Thatcher and Reagan came to power. Everything since then has been collapse and decay. It is now very, very obvious even to the most dyed-in-the-wool liberals that the U.S.’s traditional democratic processes have utterly failed to control the assholes, and in fact are now being exploited to empower them.

The question then is, if not traditional democratic processes, what? We are obviously talking about some form of resistance, but does that necessarily entail violent resistance? If so, when, where, and how?

Let me tell you a story about my father: When my father was young, mandatory prayer and corporal punishment were still both legal and commonplace in U.S. schools. He was also very often the only Jew–indeed, the only non-Christian–in his classes. As Jewish law requires, he habitually refused to take part in Christian prayers, instead just sitting quietly. One day a teacher took exception to this, and used their habitual punishment: he was ordered to place his hands on the desk so that they could be smacked with a ruler. Instead, he snatched the ruler from the teacher, broke it, and threw the pieces in her face.

I have no idea if that story’s true. My parents were both, shall we say, prone to exaggeration. But it’s not really important whether it’s true; the point was that it was held up by my parents as a model of behavior, an act of justified violence.

And that, to me, is when violence is appropriate: when it is recognized by the oppressed as the best available means of destroying the power structures underlying their oppression. There are, of course, moral considerations regarding collateral damage, harm to innocents, reprisals; but ultimately that’s what it comes down to. The only thing that can stand up to power is power, and violence is very often the cheapest and easiest form of power, making it the hardest form to strip away.

Just things to keep in mind for the coming year.

6 thoughts on “Two Questions for 2017

  1. The essay currently uses the phrase “capital punishment” in a context where I believe “corporal punishment” is correct.

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  2. It’s a good answer, and if we’re going to compare, well, there’s a lot more of you in your answer than me in mine.

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  3. I like Austin’s answer to the first question, and it brings to mind something that’s been on my mind for a while: the entire rhetoric about “What the Founding Fathers did/wanted for the USA” is nonsense, because what the Founding Fathers wanted most of all is for the USA to be a growing, changing, evolving nation, and they would have been flabbergasted at the notion of American lawmakers centuries later still wanting to take cues from their policy minutiae. They were slaveowning tyrants in the 18th century, but if they were around today, I’d wager a fair percentage of them would be staunch SJ activists and proudly calling themselves socialists.

    I generally agree with Froborr’s answer to the second question, with the caveat that the revolution be able to specify an actual endgame plan, and also take some measures to ensure that people on different axes of marginalization from the most popular figures in the revolution won’t be tossed under the bus (revolutionary rhetoric has a depressing history of treating disabled people as Acceptable Losses, for instance).

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  4. I tend to see “what would the Founding Fathers want” as a moot question because dead people don’t get to vote. Then again, I’m highly skeptical that, we’re they alive today, they’d be substantially different from today’s tax-hating rich white men. Conservatism and fascism are just as descended from 18th-century liberalism as modern liberalism is, and substantially more so than socialism is.

    I’m less concerned with endgame plan–I think in the face of immediate tyranny, it’s okay to act to overthrow it even if you don’t have anything on hand to replace it, because better a high probability of collapsing into tyranny than the immediate certainty–but I do agree with your second point.

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