The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Violence

The Basis Of All Law

All laws are ultimately backed up by “if you don’t we will send violent men after you” and we should never, ever, pretend otherwise.

Mao’s “all power comes from the barrel of a gun”, or pre-gunpowder, guys with swords or clubs, is, however, only one-third true.

What matters isn’t the violent men, it is controlling the violent men. If all power came from violence, then it would be guilds of violent men who run society directly, but as powerful as police and armies are, in most places it isn’t military men or cops who who make the laws and are in the executive positions and when they are it is usually in a second or third tier country.

Ideology, whether religious or secular, is used to control violent men. It’s about legitimacy: about who has the right to give orders and what violence is legitimate. All power comes from controlling violent men, but that doesn’t mean that the violent men are necessarily in charge, especially after the first generation. Mao was a military guy: his successors after the Long March generation aged out of power were not.

George Washington was a general, most of his successors were not and when they were, as with Grant and Eisenhower, it was generally right after an important war.

Of course there are periods of history where almost every ruler was a military man, but even in such cases, control over the violent men was what mattered. The Roman Praetorian Guard choosing emperors makes this clear.

But moving back to the first sentence: law is enforced by violent men. The idea that there is some “social contract” is nonsense. You do what you’re told because their are consequences if you don’t. Those sanctions may start with fines or losing your job, but if you decide to do things the law says you can’t, well, the violent men show up. The whole history of cops going into homeless encampments, taking all the homeless people’s possessions and destroying them makes this rather clear.

At its heart law is violent. That’s why when you make a law, you should always be thinking “is this important enough that someone should be beaten up, killed or imprisoned for it? Is it important enough to use violence to enforce?”

There is a trade-off here. There’s a fair bit of evidence that many (not all) pre-historical societies were very violent. The early kings reduce internal violence by centralizing violence. “Everyone and everything belongs to me and only I and people I give permission to get to be violent.”

Whether it reduced violence overall, however, is less clear, because societies on the edge of these “civilized” states suffered a lot of violence from the civilized folk. There’s a perception that barbarians were the violent ones, threatening civilization, but when you look into the behavior of Rome or China towards the tribes on their borders, it’s abominable. As with many such things the question of “who started it” is impossible to answer, but that “civilized” nations were very often hyper-violent to their neighbours isn’t in doubt, and when they weren’t, they were constantly meddling.

The Mongols, when they invaded China, had a lot of reasons to hate the Chinese based on how China had constantly meddled in their affairs, including militarily. The Romans slaughtered “barbarians” in vast numbers. And so on.

Violence is, sadly, part of the human condition, and so far our solution sets for managing it at scale have been bad: either externalizing it, effectively enslaving most of the population as a byproduct, or both.

Finding a better way: a way that doesn’t produce war or tyranny, is one of our tasks.

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Why Armed Right-wingers Were Able to Shut Down Michigan’s Legislature

As you may have heard, Michigan has canceled its legislative session:

Michigan closed down its capitol in Lansing on Thursday and canceled its legislative session rather than face the possibility of an armed protest and death threats against Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer…

The gathering, meant to advocate opening the state for business despite the coronavirus pandemic, followed one April 30 that resulted in pictures of protesters clad in military-style gear and carrying long guns crowding the statehouse. They confronted police and taunted lawmakers…

…For the past week, lawmakers have been debating how to safely enable lawmakers to work and vote in session while the state’s laws allow people to bring firearms into the capitol building. The debate grew more tense in recent days as some lawmakers read about threats to the governor’s life on social media, which were published in the Detroit Metro Times.

Let us understand the context: Protesters from the left-wing in legislatures are routinely arrested. The charge is generally something like “disturbing the peace.” Police can always find a way and an excuse to clear protesters if they want to.

The police have SWAT teams, they can call in the national guard if necessary. They could wait for the next time the armed protesters come and arrest them. There’s a chance of violence, of course, but there are ways to do this that protect legislators.

This is clearly intimidation of elected officials. It would not be tolerated from the left, but it has not only been tolerated from the right, it has been allowed to succeed.

Now there’s an argument, and one for which I have sympathy, that politicians should be scared of the people, rather than the other way around. One can cavil, and note that the majority of the public supports isolation orders, so this is a case of intimidation from an armed minority.

But what’s more interesting to me is that it has been allowed. The protesters could be shut down if the government wanted. There might be some violence, but the US is routinely willing to be violent, so that’s not what’s stopping the government.

Violence and threats from the right are seen as legitimate; they are seen as having the right to be violent. “God, Guns, and ‘Merica.” The right has arrogated to themselves glory and right and violence. They say that violence is ethical and moral in defense of freedom, and that people who are violent and defenders of America and goodness are right-wingers.

Violence is a right-wing thing in the US and it is a good thing. Right-wing violence is legitimate to Americans; they have a right to be violent.

The left are godless, communist hippies who don’t have a right to be violent. They don’t join the cops or the military, they are not associated with legitimate violence. Most left-wingers have spent 60 years, since the 60s, explicitly saying that violence is always bad and never justified. Much of the left rejected Antifa, the people willing to fight fascists, because violence can never either be moral, or according to most left-wingers, even effective. The majority of the US left believes that violence is always bad and doesn’t work as well as non-violence.

This wasn’t always the belief. Unions fought from their earliest history right through the 70s; they would take on the police and union busters. The left fought. In the early 70s, the left was setting off multiple bombs a day; they ran rings around the FBI, who could not stop them. The 60s left-wing insurrection didn’t end because the cops won, it ended because the left itself decided to stop using violence.

A sea change happened in the 60s and 70s, one where the legitimacy of violence was rejected by the left, and violence was gifted to the right. The end of the draft and the left-wing hatred of all violence meant that the left gave the military to the right-wing. Cops have always been right-wing, of course, but the draft had meant that the rank and file military included many left-wingers. It also meant that people on the left had violent skills, taught courtesy of the military.

That ended. Meanwhile, the right, including the most far-right, encouraged their people to join the military and the police, to learn the skills and to make sure those institutions were run by right-wingers from top to bottom.

So there are two likely reasons the Michigan legislature gave into violence: (1) They think that right-wing violence is legitimate, and; (2) They don’t trust the police or national guard to stop the right-wingers, with whom they sympathize and whom they support.

Meanwhile, only two parts of the left believe they have a right to be violent: Antifa and the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers have taken to being armed escorts for those legislators they support.

Those who disarm, those who believe fanatically in non-violence, always exist at the whim of those who believe in violence and are good at it.

This is the position the left has put itself in in the US and many other countries: disarmed, bad at violence, with no influence over the violent organs of the state and almost no tradition or skill in violence in the few organs it still has influence over (like some unions).

Some of this weakness was caused by the right–as with their gutting of unions in the 80s. But much of it is because the left both believes that violence is always wrong and that it is ineffective.

Michigan is the fruit of those beliefs.

And, children, history is a record of violence often working. Sometimes non-violence works, yes, sometimes it even works very well. But effective violence, especially if it is perceived as legitimate, is also a winning strategy.

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Inequality Is Unnatural

I’ve been reading UltraSociety, by Peter Turchin. Turchin’s a biologist who turned to mathematical models of human society, and he’s done interesting work, not all of which I agree with (or agree is quite as radical as he claims).

But one of the points he makes in UltraSociety, a point which has also been made by many archeologists and anthropologists, is that for most human existence we were radically egalitarian.

One of the great curses on understanding ourselves has been a tendency to compare ourselves to other primates, in particular chimpanzees, with whom we share most of our DNA.

But we aren’t chimps, and we don’t act like them. Chimps have terrible, terrible lives, ruled by fear, in despotic dominance hierarchies.

For most of our existence, we simply did not. One anthropologist, whose name I forget, once wrote that if aliens had observed humans 10,000 years ago, they would have assumed we were hopelessly egalitarian and wouldn’t be able to form a hierarchy even if we wanted to.

In normal human society (a.k.a., not what we have now, what we had during most of our existence), if someone started to put themselves above others they were first mocked, then ostracized and if that didn’t work, they were killed.

Being stronger didn’t matter, because as Turchin and others have pointed out, what makes humanity unique as a hunter and killer is the use of thrown and missile weapons. Even thrown rocks are deadly. Sharp, thrown objects like spears and javelins are deadlier; bows deadlier still.

Get out of place, don’t accept social correction, get dead.

It was that simple, and that’s how we lived for most of our existence.

So what’s going on now is unusual, and it takes a great deal of coercion to have it happen.

The fundamentals are only two: First, you must have an ideology which legitimates radical inequality (CEOs earning 1,000 times what normal people earn; politicians who send people to war and don’t go themsleves); second, you must have violence specialists who are better at violence than random people who get tired of being unequal.

This is also why periods with good weapons of assassination tend to be more equal (the pistol or even the concealed dagger). It is why Nixon, who ruled in a period of relative equality, went to visit protesters with only one aide, while modern Presidents live in fortresses and federal buildings are armored up. As a young man, I remember being able to walk through the first floor of the Department of Defense in Ottawa. You can’t do that any more. You can’t do it in most buildings. In the 80s, you could.

So, as inequality increases, so too must defenses against violence. This is true for domestic inequality and it is true for international inequality, now that it is possible for those who feel aggrieved thousands of miles from our countries can see that our country is responsible, travel to it, and inflict harm.

Turchin makes another important point, which cuts against Pinker’s “violence just keeps decreasing.”

Violence actually appears to have the form of an A. Before agriculture it was relatively low, after agriculture it increased until peaking around the time of the Axial sages, whose teachings tried to reduce it, and when those teachings were applied by various rulers, did. Thus, a long decline in the odds of dying by violence. (This claim comes with sharp local exceptions in time and place–exceptions which may prove, in the end, larger than the generalized decline. The story isn’t over yet.)

In the meantime, inequality isn’t natural to humans. It’s bad for us in every way possible (it shows up on every metric from health, to happiness, to stress, to how long we live), including to those at the top.

And maintaining it requires an ideology which pretends it is justified, and a cadre of violent men (and a very few women) who keep those who insist on being unequal from the normal, human, consequences of their actions.

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Is Violence Ever Justified? Does Violence Ever Solve Anything?

Painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware

Painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware

I notice a fair number of sweet, well-meaning people saying “violence is never justified.”

This is a position I have a lot of respect for, though it’s not my position. The hard-core pacifist, who always opposes violence, is a person of great bravery.

But to say NEVER is a strong statement. In the US, if you are saying “violence is never justified” with respect to the Baltimore riots, for example, you must also oppose all the wars and killing the US is involved in.

In practical terms, that must mean that you believe that every politician who voted for war is more unethical than any rioter. You must believe that George W. Bush and Barack Obama are far fouler individuals than any rioter.

Ethical outrage must be proportionate to the violence and the violence in Baltimore is nothing compared to the scale of the Iraq War, or Afghanistan, or drone murders. Nor is it anything compared to the scale of police violence against Americans, especially African-Americans.

NEVER is a big word.

What most people really mean is that they condemn non-state sanctioned violence, except sometimes, like, say, in the American Revolution, or the Maidan protests.

In fact, they approve of some violence and not of other violence. Most such people, were you to dig down hard enough, are hypocrites, but some aren’t, even if one disagrees with them. If you were to allow the USSR the right to crush revolutions along with the US, and condemn the American revolution, you wouldn’t be a hypocrite, just not a very nice person.

Trying to argue about popular will and/or democracy is a slippery road, mind. For example, the numbers on the American revolution with which I’m familiar don’t show the majority of the population being for leaving British rule. Maidan overthrew a democratically elected government in the Ukraine and the French revolution was made by the Paris mob, while most people living in rural areas of France (the vast majority of the population) would have preferred to keep the Ancien Regime.

Relatedly, violence often does solve problems. The Native Americans cleansed from North America were “problems” to the settlers, and violence dealt with that problem just fine. Fascist Germany was a problem to most non-German countries, Jews, Gypsies, Socialists, Gays, and many others and violence solved that problem. Carthage was a problem to Republican Rome and violence solved that problem.

And riots, rather better organized than the Baltimore ones, granted, solved the Parisian problem with the old Regime, while the Terror, terrible as it was, did make sure that there was to be no going back–even if France was to alternate between Republics and Empires for some time.

Violence often solves problems and it often does so rather permanently.

Here is what history actually teaches us about violence: People who are better at violence than those they fight get the spoils and often keep them for a long time. You do know that the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain, yes? Then the Normans? Those people did very well out of killing the locals and wiped them almost entirely from the most fertile parts of what is today England.

Europeans conquered most of the world and Europeans today (and their descendants) are powerful and relatively rich compared to almost everyone they conquered. Many economic historians believe that imperialism and colonialism were required for the industrial revolution to really take off; and definitely for capitalism to find sufficient markets. Violence worked very nicely for Europe and especially for England and the United States.

Of course, history marches on, and eventually everyone will get their turn at the curb, their face stomped on. But history can take a long time, and multiple generations can enjoy the fruits of violence–theirs or their ancestors. Violence only doesn’t solve anything in the sense that nothing solves anything—extend history enough in any direction and all peoples eventually have a really bad day (or really bad hundreds of years or millennia). Heck, eventually, all species will go extinct.

I don’t know if violence is ever justified. But I do know that violence often does “solve” problems and I do know that peoples who insist on being entirely non-violent or bad at violence eventually discover that everything they have they hold at the sufferance of those who are good at violence.

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