Modern Violence, Resistance and the Calculus of Revolution
Let us talk, today, about violence, resistance and revolution. It has been observed that armed populations often seem to be more free, equally it has been observed that armed populations live in a state of misery and anarchy, as in most failed states, where virtually everyone is armed.
An armed population, alone, means little. For all of the talk about how important it is to have Americans armed so they can “resist tyranny”, the fact that America is awash in guns has done nothing significant to stop the erosion of civil liberties and the rise of plutocracy. Indeed many of those screaming loudest for policies which ensure their own poverty, the power of the rich, and thus the decline of effective democracy are the most heavily armed.
Guns alone mean little.
America’s founding fathers wanted Americans to have guns and be in well regulated militias. In this, as in many things, they were wise. A militia, properly oriented towards the community it serves, is an organized body of citizens who have military training and are used to fighting as a group. They have ties to the community, and there is not more than one militia per community, they also have ties to whatever local government exists. If enough of these militias decide, as groups, to resist the government, they can do so.
Individual violence is not a threat to the state. The threat of assassination can act as a brake on the activities of politicians (though I, of course, would never suggest it). It is notable that the concrete barricades and ludicrous overprotection of DC politicians, especially the President, picks up exactly as plutocracy gets underway. Say what you will about Nixon: he went to meet protesters, at night, with a single aide and no bodyguards. He was not afraid of his own citizens, even those who disagreed with his policies. It is unimaginable that Clinton, Bush or Obama would do such a thing.
To some extent the right wing gets some of what they want because they are armed, and every once in a while their crazies “go off”. Rhetoric justifying violence is regularly issued by the right wing, and it works: when a political attack occurs, it’s almost always against someone perceived as a left winger. The days when there was any chance of being beaten up by a “union thug” as a pol are long gone, let alone having a genuine anarchist blow up your building, but you can still be shot in the head by a right winger.
Moreover people have simply not understood the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Mexico. The modern toolkit of violence is amazing at area denial. If the US government starts losing control of chunks of the US, what it will look like is Mexico or Iraq: places where they can’t go without police cars or tanks blowing up, sporadic attacks by people who fade away. Terror against the police and their families. It will not be some great glorious slugging match between armies, because anyone stupid enough to fight the US that way will lose.
The problem with modern insurgency technologies, however, is that you can’t protect anything. So you can deny the writ of the state, you can create places where they can only go in force, you can make it so they control the ground their boots are on and nothing more, but you can’t create a sub-state, because they will find it and destroy it: any facilities you build or staff they’ll bomb; any public leadership they’ll assassinate and they’ll kill as much of the secret leadership as they can.
Modern states, and especially the US state, after Iraq and Afghanistan, are very aware of this. This is one of the main reasons for the rabid scramble to surveil everything: not just online, but offline. Put cameras, drones, satellites, listening devices (many cameras now eavesdrop) everywhere they can, add in recognition software and behaviour algos, and scoop everything up. The first sweep is algos, looking for behaviour that seems consistent with being a threat or even that is just unusual (Fred’s not doing what he usually does, let’s flag that.)
With this surveillance, the hope is to be able to stay on top the new technology of violence and area denial: we know where you go physically, online, what you buy, who your friends and family are. We know you, we can predict you, and if you get out of hand we know where to find you so we can grab you or kill you.
Historically the more the State needs its citizens to fight, the more power they have. You get universal male suffrage, generally, when you have the draft, you get selective male suffrage when part of the population fights and is required to fight (is not replaceable. You can replace US soldiers, Greek hoplites came from a class which could not be replaced with someone else.)
Even so human soldiers are a clear point of failure. They may not shoot their fellow citizens, and the more of them you have, the more likely it is they won’t shoot. Thus automated warfare: not just aerial drones, but ground robots, which are no more than a couple decades out. It’s a lot easier to kill someone from remote, when you don’t smell what humans smell like when their guts are ripped open, when you can turn off the sound on the screams.
If there is violence against the state, it will look Iraq or Afghanistan, not like the American Revolution. Add in other new techs like 3D printing, and you have an insurgency where virtually anyone with a minimum of tech skills and a few parts can make weapons. Some household chemicals which can’t be banned, and you have bombs. Drones will not, ultimately, be weapons of the strong, either, but weapons of the weak: they are not hard to make and if technically savvy people get motivated, they will be more than able to make their own air and ground drones.
The… issue, here, is the inability hold ground and protect infrastructure. What happens in this type of war is that it is difficult to land a knockout punch. So the country becomes a place where you have low (or high) grade terror, places where no one can go, and constant atrocities on both side as they try and destroy the will of the other side to resist, punish their enemies and cow the local population into obedience.
An armed population gives ruling class pause when it is not fully under their control and is organized by local elites not fully under the control of the central elites. But if those local elites go too wrong, you get armed militias imposing local shakedowns at best, tyranny at worst (see: Klu Klux Clan.) It gives more pause when they need that armed population to fight external foes who are actually an existential threat (Islam, again, is not an existential threat to the US.) It gives them pause when they fear assassination and need to maintain close contact with the population and not hide behind guards and walls all the time.
One must also recognize that despite its apparent overwhelming power, the US military is absolutely horrible at anti-insurgency. Take a map of Afghanistan or Iraq and plunk it down on a map of the continental USA.
The US is… big, very, very big. If the US military could not crush insurgencies in Iraq or Afghanistan, if one ever gets seriously underway here, why do you think it could in America? Hmmm?
Thus, again, blanket surveillance and remote or (ultimately) automated killing machines.
If anyone wants to defeat a first world State, on its own ground, they will either need the mass active (not passive) support of the population, before the killing machines become active, or they will need to rethink, or more likely, adaptively learn, how to defeat the surveillance state. The model for this, of course, is Hezbollah, who runs a secret army and in certain respects, almost a secret state. You must have your own ways of communicating which cannot be tapped. You must know how to avoid the surveillance of the enemy, or take it out. You must know how to move without triggering the algorithims, and you must figure out some way to protect the organs of your nascent state, whatever they are, from destruction.
It may come to this, but we should hope it doesn’t, because civilization will be laid waste by it. The other route is the failure of ideology. The USSR did not fall in battle, it fell when the decision was made not to use the troops, by men who did no longer believed enough in the USSR to kill or die for it. A vast ennui had swept the USSR, they simply no longer believed in their form of communism. Done.
One problem with that is that it happens when it happens, and it may not happen for a long time: plutocrats don’t need any grand belief in anything more than money and passing it on to their heirs, and the people who fight for them don’t need to believe in much more than money either. Absent a belief to unify them against the ruling class, they’ll kill for their lords and masters.
The second problem was also displayed in Russia: if you don’t have an ideology to replace the old one that’s better than the old one, your society can go downhill fast. Russians were vastly worse off after communism than during communism. By some metrics they still are. America failing and accepting, say, Chinese state capitalism might not be a good thing.
The best way of overthrowing a state is to undermine belief in it and replace that belief with belief in something new and something better. Do those things, and while some violence may be necessary, you will find when push comes to shove that the state is rotten and can hardly fight, because those running it do not believe in it and those fighting against it are fighting for something not just against something.
Absent powerful external enemies, belief is what makes states, and it what destroys them, and even in cases where there are external enemies, great nations tend to rot from within before falling to outside foes, if they do not renew themselves first.
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