Violent Constitutions in Contemporary Social Movements

Brian Blanco/Reuters

Dr. Daniel Jaster, Eureka College

Published on: January 20th, 2021

Photo Credit: Brian Blanco/Reuters

History repeats itself, to paraphrase Marx. We find ourselves again in a time where all that is solid melts into air. Globalization, capitalistic economic hegemony, and other factors have thrown our political understandings and experiences of space and time into disarray. Much like during the Modern period, we see groups of people wrestling with their understandings of their pasts and desires for certain futures. Social movements can be understood as attempts to coordinate and unite our understandings of pasts and futures. The uncertainty associated with upheavals, and associated anomie, prompts many to use violence against themselves or others. But we should be wary of seeing violence as merely a product of the present times or a tool that movements use: it can also be a fundamental component of their understandings of how the world works; a lens.

First as tragedy. The Modern revolutions which inspired political theorists and activists used violence to enforce their moral perspectives. The 1789 French Revolution is infamous for the blood spilt in an effort to abolish vestiges of the Ancien Régime; the Russian Revolution and its progenitors (e.g. the Red Army Faction) inspired by accelerationists. But it is not just the future which elicits violence. After all, the 1789 French Republic was inspired as much by the past. We can see this in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), who has semi-successfully waged a war against multiple nation-states and have also built a pseudo-state. Like the French Revolution, we see a complex mix of establishing a new future by harkening to the past, specifically a fundamentalist Islamist theology. The Caliphate must wage war against Rome (the West) to bring about the End of Times. A major source of recruitment was disaffected Muslims in Europe who felt disconnected from society, denied from their rightful futures, and/or seek a sense of greater community. Not only does the community demand violence to fulfill the ancient prophecy, but this community is something work sacrificing oneself for. Violence here is not incidental. It is a fundamental part of how their ideal society is founded. But it was more than founding: violence is also how their society operates. Crimes are violently punished; slavery is rampant; women are routinely sexual victims. The spectacle of the violence is the point: it establishes sovereignty over a people. Indeed, for some communities this cruel governance could be preferable to the lack of governance that some communities currently experienced. Of course, not all welcomed ISIS’s totalitarian rule, nor is everyone happy in their territories. But this is evidence that violence is a red thread through their understandings of society, from past to the present and towards the future. It is not instrumental, but a core ideological component. Violence is a fundamental action for these activists to refigure their idealized past to create a new future.

Then as farce. In the US, we are once again seeing the rise of the prominence of right-wing militias. I say once again because here history has repeated itself more quickly: these groups are direct descendants of movements associated with the violence of the Oklahoma City bombing, Ruby Ridge, and the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound. Here again violence is not incidental. Many of these groups see themselves as ideological descendants from colonial American guerilla groups. They understand the US as founded on fighting against government tyranny, and they see government as increasingly interfering in their lives and controlling them, and forcing them to change their cherished ways of life. Violence is, in effect, seen as part of their heritage. And they aren’t exactly wrong: there is a long history of anti-government violence in the US. Events like the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, and even the recent occupation of the US Capitol are not unexpected to those who have studied these groups. Violence is lionized. These groups spend a lot of time preparing to commit, to defend against, it.

All of this to say that violence is a key theme to understanding many groups. Some groups are not shy about using violence to resolve this conflict. They do not knock politely to establish their understandings: they kick down the door. To understand how and why they act the way they do, one must understand that violence is the very foundation of their understandings of how society did, does, or will operate. Which brings us back to the bouleversement I opened with. Seeking stability, what core values do people turn to? Violence is seductive because in many ways it offers straightforward solutions and is also a time-tested strategy. In other words, to understand how and why people use violence, we must sometimes look to the core values across their temporalities; the lenses through which they interpret reality.