Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2016
Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
“All our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
— Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker
“Our experience today is the strange one of empty political institutions in which no one has any confidence any more, of a system of government which functions only in the interests of a political class, and at the same time of the almost infinite growth of power, authority and social control which makes any one of our democracies a more authoritarian mechanism than the Napoleonic state.”
—Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity
“The task at hand is not to abandon or deconstruct civil society but to establish our civilization on a foundation of justice.”
—Jim Corbett, Sanctuary For All Life
The business-sized, lime green envelopes began appearing in the neighborhood in August. Two landed in our mailbox. The contents were identified in bold print: “Official Ballot Material Enclosed.” It’s election time, with its implied summons to perform the quintessential civic duty, voting. Refusing is branded unpatriotic or anarchistic, or both, and once again the door opens for that lively discussion I have not had since the last presidential election. The topic: anarchism. This single word stops other conversations in a crowded room. While electoral politics is just the tip of the iceberg in a serious conversation about anarchism, the election is still someplace to start.
Why does the mere mention of anarchism cause a Pavlovian response of disgust, even righteous anger? I often hear: “Well, that’s pure violence, mayhem and madness. You just want to smash the state.” Historian Howard Zinn once asked: “How did the social philosophy of anarchism become such a dirty word?” Why does this issue of voting, or rather nonvoting, let alone anarchism, rile our friends and family?
Catholic Worker co-founder and lifelong anarchist Dorothy Day observed: “How strange it is that the anarchists I have met have been the most disciplined of men (sic), lawful and orderly, while those who insist that discipline and order must prevail are those who, out of plain contrariness, would refuse to obey and are the ones most unable to regulate themselves.”
In the opening chapter of Anarchism and Christianity the French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote: “By anarchy I mean first an absolute rejection of violence. Hence I cannot accept either nihilists or anarchists who choose violence as a means of action.”
Institutionalized violence is the primary tool of the state. The military-corporate-academic complex is the terra firma of democratic republics. In the US, no major party from ultra-conservative Republicans to liberal Greens has a nonviolent platform. Not one of them significantly addresses the military budget, let alone nuclear weapons, drone warfare, forced occupation of other states, etc. Not only are such matters left off the ballot, they’re not even on the table. State violence is non-negotiable. There is no “Bernie fix,” nor is there a Green Party fix. All matters of social import take their place in the shadow of US militarism. Civil rights activist Diane Nash once said, “If violence truly brought about social change, by now we’d be living in a utopia.”
Anarchism envisions another way to build community, ensure security, and exercise liberty. In other words, anarchists seek a civil society worthy of the concept, not one regulated by violence and man-made laws that compel people to act justly out of fear. We’re talking about “building a new world in the shell of the old”—a favorite phrase of Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker. This construction is two-fold. Challenging and dismantling the old, tried and failed means of “might-makes-right” by means of non-cooperation with the “tyrannical forces of State and Church”—as Catholic Worker and anarchist Ammon Hennacy wrote—and simultaneously engaging in civil initiative. These two practices operate in tandem.
Civil initiative was most notably practiced here during the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s. US citizens, who believed that no one should be denied the basic rights that constitute a civil society, took direct, personal responsibility for refugees fleeing violence in Central America. Often risking arrest, Sanctuary anarchists worked at feeding, clothing, sheltering and transporting the refugees to safe havens. According to Sanctuary activist Jim Corbett, civil initiative “must be societal rather than organizational, nonviolent rather than injurious, truthful rather than deceitful,… substantive rather than symbolic, volunteer-based rather than professional, and based on community powers rather than government powers.” These concepts are the heart of civil society.
Even though an ideal anarchist society may never be fully actualized, we can put our energy toward an anarchist movement as a social model. While challenging the status quo of domination enforced with its military/corporate apparatus, we can work together to create non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian, grass roots bodies which respond to the needs of civil society. Personal responsibility is fundamental. We cannot delegate our responsibilities as human beings and members of society to bureaucracies and institutions, state or church. This is not to say that these institutions do not have a role in the current complexion of our society. They absolutely do. Still, their presence is no substitute for personal, civilian responsibility.
When your only tool is a ballot, then all issues look like a big bucks lottery. On November 8, election day, I will vote with my feet, like I do most days. Civil responsibility is not a one-night stand. My day may include resupplying water stations along remote Arizona desert trails for refugee sisters and brothers walking north, or gathering discarded produce and dry goods for redistribution to families in need, or attending some consensus-based organizational meeting. My civic voice is not muted by my absence at the polling station. Hardly!
Anarchism challenges me to dig deep and think outside the ballot box, and then put my feet to the tasks at hand. At the end of the day, my motivation is best articulated by Dorothy Day. “What we would like to do is change the world.”
—John Heid lives and works at the Casa Mariposa Community in Tucson, Arizona.
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