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Populism and the Miscarriage of Revolutionary Violence

On January 8, 2011, Gabrielle Giffords, an American congresswoman, was shot in the head in a mass shooting at a political meet-and-greet event.  Nineteen people were shot and six have died at this point — including Arizona’s chief federal judge and a nine year old girl.
Giffords was a Democrat and has drawn negative attention from Republicans for supporting Obama’s health care bill.  Thus, for example, she is listed on Sarah Palin’s target list (which, by the way, placed cross-hairs over Giffords location and employed a fair amount of gun-based rhetoric — oh, and at the same time as posting this list to her facebook, Palin tweeted, “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”).
Giffords’ office was also targeted last March when a glass door and window were found smashed, either by boot or by bullet.  She is not alone in this regard.  Four other Democrat offices had windows smashed on the same day.  Around ten others received death threats.  To pick a few examples: Nancy Pelosi was personally threatened on the phone by a man who said he would burn her house down; a Democrat in New York, Louise Slaughter, had the lives of her and her children threatened; another Democrat in Virginia, Tom Perriello, received death threats and a member of the Tea Party tried to post his address online and encouraged others to stop by to express their “gratitude” to him; and so on.
As of yet, nothing is known of the political position that the shooter, Jared Loughner, may or may not have held.  What is apparent is that he is probably quite unwell mentally and that he may have acted with the assistance of another older male accomplice.
However, regardless of the stance(s) taken by Loughner and his possible accomplice, it is clear the the violence enacted on January 8th fits with the criteria and goals of the Tea Party and the Right of America’s Republican party.  To borrow the language of Hardt and Negri, this is an example of the sort of populist violence that may occur when “the people” rise in order to reassert traditional relationships of privilege, property and power.  Over against the creative resistance offered by “the multitude,” this sort of violence is not liberating but only further deepens the oppression of those who are lashing out against their perceived enemies.
Of course, it is appropriate for Americans to feel betrayed by the Obama administration and the Democratic party.  Obama played off the hope of the voters (who were audacious enough to vote for him) but only continued to further the agendas of the transnational corporate power-players of global capitalism.  Instead of “fixing” America, Obama made it worse (his health care reform is a good example of this — something that postures as a radical action in favour of those in need of health care, but something that actually makes very minimal changes and also furthers the interests of American capitalism — as is his ending of the “combat mission” in Iraq).
It is appropriate for the American public to be thinking about things like subversion, resistance, and revolt (although, I should stress this: I do not think that it is ever appropriate for somebody to do what Loughner did).  However, it is precisely here that the violence desired (and enacted) by the Tea Party has an insidious impact upon movements of resistance.  Populist (American) violence is violence that and supports an oppressive status quo, and also ends up strengthening other pro-capitalist agendas — it causes an increase in security measures and surveillance, it brings more oppressive laws into being in order to target those who pursue change (thereby altering the legal system so that social justice advocates and community organizers become defined as “terrorists”), and it causes the general public to be increasingly suspicious, fearful, and violent against any who might pursue liberating change outside of the prescribed legal, institutional or governmental avenues.
For a parallel example, think of Jim Jones and the ways in which he poisoned the perspectives of any who (even today) think about living in alternate, more intentional, forms of community that seek to explore better ways of sharing life together.  When I first began to approach people about living in  a more intentional kind of community, the same comments (half-serious, half-joking) were always made: “When do we drink the cool-aid?” or “I’m not going to let you sleep with my spouse.”  Thus, those who want to do something that might look a bit like what Jones did — because, you know, he did create a community where people of all races where equal and were the rich shared with the poor so that everybody had enough — are also going to be looked at like they might be sociopathic killers and sex offenders.
Therefore, one of the results of Loughner’s actions will be that the public is increasingly unwilling to consider or engage in anything that looks like less-legal tactics of resistance and the Powers will be increasingly able to criminalize dissent.  This, just like the deaths that occurred on January 8th, is a tragedy because life-giving change will not come through the means that are legally available to us.

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  1. “However, it is precisely here that the violence desired (and enacted) by the Tea Party has an insidious impact upon movements of resistance.”
    Wait, explain again how exactly it is that the Tea Party exacted violence in this case. I missed any logical basis you have for making this leap.
    Also, why did you fail to mention the death threats and attacks on Republicans and their offices during the same time frame last year?

  2. although, I should stress this: I do not think that it is ever appropriate for somebody to do what Loughner did
    When you say this, I’m wondering what Loughner “did” exactly. As I read your reference to Hardt/Negri on people/multitude, as well as the rest of the paragraph after what I’ve quoted above (about populism strengthening the status quo, pro-capitalist agendas, etc.), it seems like your problem with this sort of violence is that it isn’t genuinely revolutionary… not in intent perhaps, but mostly your concern is that it isn’t revolutionary in its effects.
    How does this carry over to the particular case of the AZ shooting and your need to stress that you don’t think his actions are ever appropriate? It seems like you’re wanting to stress that you don’t think someone should go into a grocery market and open fire on a gathered crowd… but you also say that there can be a genuinely revolutionary violence at times, so I doubt your problem with the shooting is the presence of violence in itself.
    I think you’re entirely correct about the detrimental effects of events like this on true resistance efforts, but the concern that I have about advocating revolutionary violence is that there is no strong basis upon which to categorically oppose an event like this in its specificity… no way to oppose immediate event of a shooter entering the crowd, or 6 body bags or 13 stretchers being brought off the scene, that is… because of the position that is preserved for violence in the revolutionary effort. The strongest condemnation I see of this event here is that it isn’t revolutionary.
    Now, that may be all that’s necessary in your mind. And I know my recoiling from the idea of revolutionary violence may come across as merely a sort of status quo quietism (reducible either to Niebuhr or Yoder, inevitably). I’d also admit that there are certainly other things that cannot easily be categorically opposed (or affirmed) by my own position. But for what it’s worth, the inability to speak out against particular violence very clearly seems like one problem (or at least an ambiguity) with what you’re trying to say here.

    • If you’ve read anything I’ve written on this blog about violence (and I’ve written a fair bit over the last year), you’ll know that I consistently distinguish between violence against people and violence against things like private property.
      In this post, I don’t bother going into detail about how wrong it is to shoot nine year old girls, grannies, and anybody really, because I’m assuming that we can mostly take that for granted.
      Therefore, when I think about appropriate forms of revolutionary violence I think of things like property seizure or destruction, blockades, and that sort of thing. These are often less-legal tactics that are described as violent, and those who practice these tactics will only be further criminalised because of the murderous violence enacted by folks like Loughner.
      So, yeah, I have a big problem with violence against people, but not as much of a problem with other forms of resistance that are described as “violent” even when they do not hurt people.

  3. I’m not a regular reader here, but I don’t doubt that being one would have made the distinction obvious enough. Thanks for entertaining my concerns… Weber talked about how he was “religiously unmusical”, and I often feel like I’m “politically unmusical”… which means I often get chewed out in attempted conversations when I’m really just stumbling through asking some questions and trying to understand what’s going on. So, thanks for taking my comments at face value. I wasn’t trying to say you were being insincere in your dismissal of Loughner’s violence, I was just trying to understand how that dismissal fit into different views of revolution.

  4. “also ends up strengthening other pro-capitalist agendas — it causes an increase in security measures and surveillance, it brings more oppressive laws into being”…
    Well, that, of course, also can be said of the kind of direct actions you and I would support. Resistance always is met with repression, as experience and scripture tells us.
    I still have a problem with giving “effects” the kind of value in moral judgment that you (at least sometimes) seem to do. I guess I am still too much of a yoderian there. The problems with justifying deeds with regard to their effects are well known, of course, and among other things that people/nature is not a well functioning machine, so you never know with enough certainty beforehand how others will respond to what you do. So for me, faithfulness/compability to god/the vision/anarchy is a better way for judging what kind of action is approriate.

  5. I’m sympathetic to some of what has been posted here, but before you dismiss American populism tout court, do your research. This is just sloppy as hell.

    • I’m not saying that everything that has ever been called “populism” or even everything in America that has been called “American populism” should be dismissed. Moving beyond this continent, for example, it seems like Russian populism played an important and positive role in the build-up to the overthrow of Tsarism at the turn of the 20th century.
      This is why I stress Hardt and Negri’s definition of populism. The Tea Party certainly fits that definition very well and, yes, it is worth dismissing (as a valid alternative or as an avenue to life-giving change).

  6. I find the amount of political diarrhea that has poured forth in the wake of this shooting to be rather tiresome. Dude was mentally ill. That’s it. Yet everyone across the political spectrum wants to use this event to further their political interests, whether they be party related, firearm law related, or whatever. Where’s the discussion on how to help the mentally ill in our society?

  7. So are you saying that you believe that the Tea Party is “wagging the dog” here by trying to passive-aggressively incite violence in order to push through more civil liberties-eroding legislation?

    • Not really. I don’t think the populist participation in the tea party is deliberately engaging in that sort of tactic. I do think the elite interests who have invested heavily in the tea party (like the billionaire Koch brothers) are more aware of this tactic and are taking advantage of outbursts of violence to influence legislation but I don’t think that is the attitude of the average supporter (I also think that other elite parties from different ideological positions are doing the same — disaster capitalism is non-partisan).