A watchtower security team at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, pictured in 2002. In his new book, The Value of Violence, the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg denounces the US prison system and argues that ruling powers such as America maintain authority through the systematic violence of laws and incarceration. Shane T McCoy / Getty Images
A watchtower security team at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, pictured in 2002. In his new book, The Value of Violence, the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg denounces the US prison system andShow more

The use of force as a political weapon – from Mandela to Syria

In a 1993 interview, after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela was asked if he regretted taking up arms against the apartheid regime. The African National Congress, Mandela replied, was committed “to building a nation through peaceful, non-violent, and disciplined struggle”. But it was “forced to resort to arms by the regime, and the lesson of history is that for the masses of the people, the methods of political action which they use are determined by the oppressor himself”.

Earlier this month, after Mandela’s passing, when world leaders gathered in Soweto for a memorial service, they eulogised a different man. Their Mandela was an irenic figure, a paragon of compromise, an exemplar of conciliation, a symbol of non-violence. It would have been harder to celebrate the rebel, since actions similar to Mandela’s still land you in prisons – or morgues – from the US to Zimbabwe. It was, indeed, a CIA tip-off that led to Mandela’s arrest in 1962 and the US State Department did not take him off its terror watch list until 2008. In the end, Mandela was legitimised only by his victories.

“Violence is terrible,” writes the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg in his provocative new book The Value of Violence, “but it is the great engine of political change.” It takes precedence over other forms of political action because of its “destructive and politically transformative power”, its capacity “to serve as an instrument of political mobilisation”. Violence was not Mandela’s preference; but it was part of the array of tactics that led to apartheid’s collapse. In questions of statehood, territoriality and power, Ginsberg argues, violence provides definitive answers. Violence is not politics by other means, as the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz had it. For Ginsberg, it is Mao Zedong’s dictum that all politics issued from the barrel of a gun that shows greater ­percipience.

But violence poses both moral and strategic questions. The moral question has been answered in the affirmative by many, from Thomas Jefferson to Nelson Mandela. “Occasionally the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” said Jefferson. Armed insurrection becomes unavoidable, said Mandela, if a state’s violence leaves its opponents “no alternative but to retaliate by similar forms of action”.

The strategic question is more complicated. Violence as a strategy is only viable where there is a realistic possibility of success. If the power imbalance is too great and if there is no possibility of third-party intervention, it merely gives the stronger side an opportunity to crush opponents. Though violence can be used by anyone, notes Ginsberg, states have an advantage over other actors since bureaucratic organisation allows them to monopolise force and overcome “the natural, human, and moral limits of ­violence”. Take the example of Syria. Few people would deny that Syrians have a right to resist their oppressive and murderous regime. But only the rash few would insist that armed struggle is the surest way to achieve this. No one was more conscious of this than the regime itself. In March 2011, when the scale and intensity of the protests appeared irresistible, the regime changed the equation to its favour by drawing the opposition into a military confrontation. It no longer mattered that the regime held all the air power, artillery, armour, ballistic missiles and unconventional weapons. The moment a rebel fired a shot, state repression had turned into “civil war”. Deprived of a perfect victim, the world felt no obligation to the oppressed beyond issuing periodic admonitions for “both sides” to exercise restraint. A similar situation obtains in Palestine, where the military conflict is portrayed as an equal confrontation.

But violence alone cannot sustain a state’s power, Ginsberg argues. States have to refine it with force multipliers, such as laws, legitimation and soft power abroad. These, says Ginsberg, allow “the same result to be achieved with less effort”. Some states also command loyalty through carrots in the place of sticks. Welfare, writes Ginsberg, is “more a substitute for force than a force multiplier”. This is the track followed by Europe, where the decline of empire coincided with investment in the welfare state. But in the US, he writes, a combination of Lockean liberalism and a puritan ethic encouraged notions of individual responsibility and disdain for social programmes. Where Europeans were using incentives and public goods to instil loyalty, writes Ginsberg, the US settled on punishment. It developed the carceral state.

At close to one per cent, the US currently has the world’s highest incarceration rate. In 2009, it held 2.3 million in prison; another five million were on parole, probation or bail. Europe, by contrast, imprisons only 0.2 per cent. With an overbearing and oppressive criminal-justice system, instances of wrongful arrest, prosecutorial overreach and prisoner abuse are legend.

For Ginsberg, this internal reliance upon force is consequential, because it also leads to a violent posture abroad. A culture that sees force as an indispensable corrective to social ills will also see it as a suitable alternative to diplomacy. Absent the financial constraints of a welfare state, resources will always be there for foreign military adventures. A “war on drugs” will lend tropes to a “war on terror”; and the prison system will yield a ­Guantanamo Bay.

Ginsberg’s critique of the state is refreshing for its tone if not for its originality: politicians are irredeemably corrupt; votes preserve the status quo; and reform is a mere mechanism for forestalling meaningful change. If power is the currency of politics, then politics only attracts the power-hungry and corrupts the virtuous. But Ginsberg’s criticism loses some of its persuasiveness when it collapses into libertarian anti-politics. Yes, protest is a useful form of political action, but it must be a complement rather than an alternative to voting. While everyone would like the justice system to be fairer, few would want to dispense with it. Some laws are prone to abuse, but that is merely an argument for reform and greater oversight. There is no substitute for sustained political engagement.

Ginsberg uses Walter Benjamin’s distinction between “lawmaking” violence and “law-preserving” violence to dismiss the possibility of real peace. What people consider peace, he argues, is merely the submission to a state’s overwhelming capacity for violence. The state maintains its authority through the systemic violence of laws and ­incarceration.

But this inflation of concepts is of little analytical value if it obscures the question of degree. One can argue that both Syria and the US maintain their authority through violence, but few would suggest that their rule is of a piece. No doubt even the humane Norwegians deploy such violence to maintain order, but violence in Scandinavian proportions is surely preferable to a lawless free-for-all.

Ginsberg denounces US prison systems on libertarian grounds, but elides the fact that it’s the privatisation of prisons and the rise of the prison-industrial complex that are partly to blame for the high incarceration rate. Prisons are a $60 billion (Dh220.38bn) a year business; its bottom-line depends on the number of units that it’s allowed to process. It has lobbied for the criminalisation of more and more offences; and the prison population has risen since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. At the same time, commercial imperatives have mandated cost-cutting that causes overcrowding, understaffing and general neglect. A profit motive has replaced the public interest and, following the new zeitgeist, politicians have been all too eager to prove themselves tough on crime with excessively harsh legislation.

The ubiquity of crime mandates that every society evolve a means to protect the vulnerable. Rule of law necessarily requires an enforcement mechanism. But just because the end is legitimate doesn’t mean the means are also legitimate. Bestowing legitimacy upon any entity’s violence is fraught with the possibility of abuse. If the state’s system of checks and balances fails, it can easily turn into a licence for oppression. Citizens have the choice to end oppression by mass protest – but where confronted by a state that is willing to kill rather than compromise, the question of violence becomes inescapable. This, however, can be a potentially suicidal choice, since it plays to a state’s strength; and states suffer less censure for the use of violence than citizens. Indeed, states are sometimes legitimised by it.

On August 21, when the Syrian regime trained its ballistic missiles on Ghouta, it may or may not have calculated the political ramifications of its actions. But the chemical attacks proved a dramatic turning point for a regime that appeared on the ropes. In one bold move, it was able to terrorise the opposition, humble a superpower and earn international legitimacy. By crossing the US “red line”, the regime had called Barack Obama’s bluff and found him wanting. The war criminals who appeared destined for a dock in the Hague found themselves with seats at Geneva. “All murderers are punished,” Voltaire quipped, “unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the author of The Road to Iraq (Edinburgh University Press, 2014) and a regular contributor to The National.

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