Thursday, August 1, 2013

Pragmatic Pacifism

Just finished reading this excellent article: "The Failure of Pacifism and the Success of Nonviolence" by Dustin Howes.  Howes' basic argument is that traditional pacifism, a principled rejection of the use of violence, has politically failed.  Unlike the many other grand ideologies of the last few centuries: Liberalism, Realism, Marxism, Fascism, etc... pacifism has never reached the point where it has been accepted as the dominant ideology of at least one particular society.  This lack of political traction has been matched by a lack of consideration in the academy.  While all of the ideologies mentioned above have been exhaustively studied, pacifism rarely makes the pages of respected academic journals and has typically not been taken seriously by political theorists.  However, while traditional pacifism has largely failed as an ideology, the methods and techniques of nonviolent action which have largely been developed by pacifists have become a dominant force in hundreds of instances of transformative political change around the globe, in major epochal shifts in global society such as the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women, and in the overall decline in violence around the world.  These empirical realities point to a new kind of pacifism, a "pragmatic pacifism" which maintains the complete rejection of violence but does so on the grounds that the evidence suggests that nonviolence on the whole is a superior method of achieving political ends.  Violence will doubtless continue to occur, but "creative nonviolence" is always able to devise a superior strategy to overcome it.

The linchpin of the argument, is, of course, the empirical question.  If the evidence of the superiority of nonviolence to violence isn't convincing, then Howes' "pragmatic pacifism" becomes deeply problematic.  He does extensively cite studies on the ineffectiveness of various forms of violence and the superior effectiveness of nonviolence, but no doubt for some the empirical question is still very far from settled.

There is a theoretical point about power which is also important to Howes' argument.  Howes argues that nonviolent action is superior to violent action because it operates on an understanding of power which is more nuanced and accurate.  Instead of the simplistic "power comes from the barrel of a gun" approach, nonviolent action has typically sprung from a more interdependent understanding of power.  Power fundamentally arises from the consent of others.  Violent sanctions may be able to create fear which coerces this consent, but the consent is still the fundamental source of power.  If consent is broadly withdrawn, no regime's power can remain intact.  Even military studies which Howes cites argue that traditional understandings of military "hard power" are poor predictors of who will win in any particular conflict and that the more nuanced understanding of power as involving consent and support is superior.

The article is certainly thought-provoking.  Both skeptics and dyed-in-the-wool pacifists will doubtless take issue with various points in it.  For the skeptic, the empirical piece will be doubtful.  For the old-fashioned pacifist the emphasis on pragmatism over principle is likely to be problematic.  Pacifist forebears whom Howes mentions such as Adin Ballou were famously not concerned with pragmatism (though Ballou does argue that Nonresistance can be made to function in a political community as a whole).  Nonresistance was a duty imposed by the gospel rather than a pragmatic political strategy, and to remove that moral element would be to gut the very essence of the belief.

On the empirical question too, Howes overplays his hand to make his point.  Studies which he uses to bolster the case for the superiority of nonviolence, particularly Chenoweth and Stephan, don't make claims quite as broad as he uses them for.  Chenoweth and Stephan argue that nonviolent resistance works more frequently than violent insurgency, but in very particular contexts and also over the long-term strategic perspective, not over the short-term tactical perspective.  Thus while an argument can be made with that evidence that a nonviolent uprising is more likely to overthrow a dictator than a violent insurgency, it doesn't really support the central point of Howes' "pragmatic pacifism" that creative nonviolence will always find a way to adapt to and overcome violence in a superior fashion than violence.  Other studies which Howes uses have similar limitations.

If anything, "Pragmatic pacifism"  seems to be more of an attempt to legitimize an ideological perspective by jettisoning its moral or religious foundations.  The motive is certainly understandable, but the empirical limitations of his work makes his argument suspect.  Nonviolent political action is often successful, and more so than violent resistance in many circumstances (a fact which not enough people realize).  Political actors should take that knowledge to heart.  But that increasingly well-established empirical fact is insufficient to make full-fledged pacifism "pragmatic." True pacifism, it seems to me, still requires an act of faith and a moral commitment to hold on to that act of faith.  This certainly doesn't have to be religious faith, though that has traditionally been the source of pacifist principles, but some act of faith in human nature or the inherent value of human life at the very least.

Having made my critique, though, I will say that development of theory for the study of nonviolent action is really critical and for that reason, Howes' article is both important and brilliant.

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