Monday, October 22, 2012

A couple of quotes on official violence and "revolution by implosion"

"Does not right cease to be right whenever it is seized?" - Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History

"Law and Order": these words have always had an ominous sound; the entire necessity and the entire horror of legitimate force are condensed, and sanctioned, in this phrase. There can be no human association without law and order, enforceable law and order, but there are degrees of good and evil in human associations - measured in terms of the legitimate, organized violence required to protect the established society against the poor, the oppressed, the insane: the victims of its well-being. Over and above their legitimacy in constitutional terms, the extent to which established law and order can legitimately demand (and command) obedience and compliance largely depends (or ought to depend) on the extent to which this law and this order obey and comply with their own standards and values. These may first be ideological (like the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity advanced by the revolutionary bourgeoisie), but the ideology can become a material political force in the armor of the opposition as these values are betrayed, compromised, denied in the social reality. Then the betrayed promises are, as it were, "taken over" by the opposition, and with them the claim for legitimacy. In this situation, law and order become something to be established as against the established law and order: the existing society has become illegitimate, unlawful: it has invalidated its own law.
- Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (1969)

Genuinely unpopular regimes can suppress popular movements by force to a grimly effective extent. But the extent isn't infinite. Even strong states willing to use extensive violent repression, like East Germany in 1989-90 or Mubarak's Egypt, to take just two examples, found themselves unable to preserve power via force when the government had lost legitimacy to a sufficient extent.

This is a much more complex matter than simple popularity as might be expressed in an opinion poll, for instance. But it's an important part of understanding what Joschka Fischer called "revolution by implosion," which is how he characterized the post-1989 transitions in central and eastern Europe after the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The more recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt would also seem to fit into something like a "revolution by implosion" model, though there was violence in both cases, mostly from the official side. In Libya and Syria, something more in the direction of a civil war developed.

Marcuse in that passage talks about "standards and values" that are "[o]ver and above their legitimacy in constitutional terms." In many cases in the United States, such as the disgustingly routine use of tasers by local police and the far-reaching restriction of protest to confines which make them ineffective, the established order is trampling on standards and values that are very much part of "their legitimacy in constitutional terms." The same can be said about many manifestations of the unending "war on drugs" which in practice is often a war on minorities.

This is part of what disturbs me about hearing President Obama routinely say that protecting "the security of the American people" (or variations of that formula) is his first priority as President. Glenn Greenwald isn't just splitting legalistic hairs when he insists against such formulas that the President is pledged to defend the Constitution of the United States, not "security" as such.

Because there is really no such thing as "security as such." Security from street crime, from home burglaries and sexual assault, are one category of security. Security from seeing homeless beggars or security from embarrassing protests outside a corporate headquarters are in very different categories. Security of the public from violence has very different implications for what kind of Constitutional order in which we live than does the security of the super-rich from annoyance by their inferiors.

The Occupy movement in 2011 highlighted, if only for a brief moment in time in the United States, the ways in which the law-and-order that protects the comfort of the present order of things from the political manifestations of "the victims of its well-being" can actually violate the deeper and more important values of society. They, and the continuing protests of the indignados in the eurozone's periphery countries against the brutal austerity policies laying waste to the lives of millions of people there, are showing how the values of advanced democratic societies "are betrayed, compromised, denied in the social reality."

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