When do we launch the armed resistance? That is the question bouncing around the libertarian/anarchist social media scene and blogosphere over the last few days. At what point do we stop risking arrest, stop pamphleting, stop speaking out, blogging, YouTubing and all that other stuff in favor of picking up arms and dropping cops and IRS agents by the dozens?
Should reasonable people even take this question seriously? Yes, the question should be taken seriously. Government is the use of aggression by one group of people to get what it wants from others. Over the last decades, the US government has ramped up its use of aggression. Foreign wars, tax collection and rates, police abuse and lack of accountability, the widening gap between rich and poor, persecution of minorities on an increasing scale, a longer list of political crimes, digital surveillance and the extinction of privacy – all of these issues and many more examples of tyranny loom large. It is entirely reasonable to initiate a conversation about when, if ever, each of us is willing to take up arms in defense of our human rights and dignity. There is a valid concern that if we wait too long, the noose of government control will tighten around our collective necks and it will be too late to do anything to stop or reverse the trend.
That time, however, is not now nor is it anytime soon either. Here’s why.
- It’s impractical. Libertarians are a minority, a tiny minority. Of that group, a small percentage is interested in launching armed resistance. Of that insanely small group, most are big talkers who don’t have the equipment, training, fitness level, freedom from addiction, discipline or mindset to be guerrilla warriors. Most libertarians I know are focused on staying economically afloat, feeding their kids, getting a better job or a nicer house. They’re not interested in armed rebellion. Think about Larken Rose’s Tiny Dot video. Now reverse roles – the Libertarian Guerrilla Army is the tiny blue dot and the rest of the world is all those other dots – and you get a sense of what you’re up against. Furthermore, guerrilla warfare (you can’t field a force of regulars) depends on the support of the local population. You don’t have that.
- It’s contradictory to our message. Libertarians stand for life, liberty and property. Most of the people in the world today haven’t heard of us, I daresay, and of those that have, a huge number misunderstand us as selfish people who don’t care about others. And you want to consider killing their family and friends who work for the government? Does that communicate the message that we care about those dead people’s lives? Their liberty? Their property, especially their property interest in themselves if you find the self-ownership principle to be coherent? No. Libertarians will become even more misunderstood. We’ll be the new anarchist menace (read: crazy bomb-throwing assassins). We’ll be scapegoated for everything that goes wrong. Those of us who turn to violence will give the rest of us a black mark. Have you heard of Sacco & Vanzetti? Get ready for Rose & Cantwell.
- It will lead to another state. Violence brings out those who are good at it. If you care enough about violence to get really good at it, you expect to benefit from it. What better way to profit than by becoming a state? By starting an armed conflict, you will quickly bring out all the really violent people. They will either vote you out of control of your army or just kill you and take it over. Armed resistance would change nothing in the end. You would simply replace one violent group with another. In fact, in order for a libertarian guerrilla force to become successful, you will need to demand with force of arms that civilian libertarians finance and feed your army. Just as Hezbollah tightly controls the people in the area it holds, in order for a libertarian guerrilla force to be successful you will need to control libertarian civilians in coercive ways. Good luck with that.
- It limits your options. If you continue with nonviolence, your option to use violence is always there. If you go violent, the road back to nonviolent action will be very hard, to say the least, because people will not trust you again. You will be barred from certain employment options because your past will show up on your background check. You won’t be able to live in the nicest neighborhoods. You will be discriminated against and watched more closely by internal security forces. It will be easier to frame you on trumped-up charges. Is it hard to get a jury to nullify now? You just wait. Consider the FARC guerrilla army in Colombia. After decades of armed rebellion, they attempted a return to ostensibly nonviolent action by participating in elections as the Patriotic Union (UP). Perhaps as many as 6,000 of those UP candidates, many of whom won political office, were assassinated over the next few years. Going violent means you don’t come back home again unless you win. It’s all or nothing now.
- It strengthens the existing state. Some say that the state is there because people want protection from all that craziness out there that they can’t grok or deal with directly. A Libertarian Guerrilla Army is that kind of craziness. If you think people don’t understand libertarians now, wait until you kill their friend’s brother the cop during a routine traffic stop. The kind of rage that generates interferes with people’s ability to grasp the subtleties of the non-aggression principle (NAP). People will demand that the state get stronger in order to defeat you. You will prove that the existing expansions of state controls are not enough and that more is needed in order to keep people safe. Congratulations, you grew the state.
- It’s not compatible with our individual dispositions. Libertarians and anarchists in North America are too individualistic to join an army. Being part of a cohesive fighting force requires great sacrifice, grueling hard work and commitment. If you think organizing activism and events is like herding cats now, wait till you have someone calling himself a captain telling two privates to dig a latrine. “Your authority is illegiitmate!” State armies are effective because statists are good at following orders and submitting to authority. You think they smoked a lot of pot in Vietnam? That ain’t nothing compared to what your libertarian “army” – a preposterous combination of words – will be doing. And that will be an effective fighting force?
- War is Gruesome. Libertarians don’t have the stomach for war. We’re against putting people in cages. So is an anarchist activist turned guerrilla fighter going to keep POWs in a cage? Will she accept execution duty? Will you even be able to pull the trigger in a firefight? The US military invests a lot of effort and expertise into overcoming recruits’ innate resistance to shooting other people. How are you, General, proposing to brainwash your fellow libertarians into the same level of bloodthirstiness? What about libertarians who enter into guerrilla boot camp but decide to leave before finishing? Will that be allowed? After all, they might have a change of heart and become an FBI informant. What will you do with those of your comrades in arms who develop PTSD and other emotional trauma from the fighting? War is nasty business.
- Collateral Damage. What will you do with civilians who collaborate with statist forces – who feed them, who run messages for them, who fund them? Are they targets, too? Can you kill civilians? You don’t have time in the middle of a guerrilla operation to debate the NAP. Decide now. Your decisions are all questions of life and death. Are you ready to have that on your conscience?
- Indefinite Detention. Are you actually prepared to go to Guantanamo Bay, be puts in stress positions, tortured and caged for the rest of your life? Because you may not be treated as a lawful combatant. Sure, our liberty is under attack from all sides but at least we still have some freedom and good food out here. Not so in Gitmo.
- Disunity. Prepare for splintering and then warring among a dozen libertarian guerrilla groups. The Libertarian Guerrilla Army vs Guerrilla Libertarian Army vs Army of Libertarian Guerillas. It’s Monty Python times ten. How effective is that going to be? Which will be the “real” libertarian guerrilla army?
- Loose Cannons. It is dangerous even to talk about this carelessly because there are people among us who can be led into doing self-destructive things. All it takes is for one idiot that you associate with to shoot a cop because he heard how important and justified it was to do that. Now the spotlight is on you. It’s on all of us as well. Furthermore, the dividing line between idle philosophical chatter and felony conspiracy charges is blurring daily at injustice departments across the country. Who are you talking to about these things? Are you sure that person isn’t an informant or federal agent just dying to make a case on your back? Are you ready to be the FBI’s next manufactured terrorist plot?
Oh you just want to shoot the cop who is trying to arrest you? What do you hope to accomplish by it? More cops will come, you will be caged or killed and your name will live on in infamy among the statist mass, your family pariahs, and libertarians won’t be able to decide if they love you or hate you. Sound good?
“The guerrilla band is an armed nucleus, the fighting vanguard of the people. It draws its great force from the mass of the people themselves. The guerrilla band is not to be considered inferior to the army against which it fights simply because it is inferior in fire power. Guerrilla warfare is used by the side which is supported by a majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms for use in defense against oppression.”
— Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare
Simple Self-Defense vs. Political Violence
Under the non-aggression principle (NAP), a bedrock concept for libertarians, one may not initiate force, ever. Don’t start the fight! But, if someone is using force against you, then you are justified in defending yourself from it. If Jack is hitting you, you get to hit back (or use other appropriate force) in order to make him stop.
Some libertarians are comfortable only with the use of violence to defend from immediate threats to life and limb. This is what I call simple self-defense. It is defensive violence meant to save life, limb or property from immediate aggressive attack. Examples of this include a mugger taking your wallet, a rapist with a gun to your head and a cop who is whaling on you with his nightstick.
Other libertarians take a more expansive view of the right to self-defense, saying that all government employees are involved in an enterprise of aggression that already has or soon will initiate force against them, directly or indirectly. They believe that any level of violence to stop this aggressive enterprise and/or any of its agents is acceptable and, indeed, necessary. This is what I call political violence. It is violence, loosely defensive in nature from a certain, controversial point-of-view, that is primarily intended to achieve a political outcome of greater liberty.
Everyone but the most committed pacifists are comfortable with simple self-defense. Political violence, on the other hand, is a more extreme idea that does not enjoy widespread support in the libertarian community.
Political violence is not only unwise (see above), but it is also an example of collectivist thinking.
Shooting random agents of the state is an example of collectivist thinking. It’s not compatible with the non-aggression principle (NAP) to say that just because someone is associated with a government and other members of that government have made or even carried out credible threats of violence against me, that I can then attack any person associated with this government, or any other, on that basis alone. That is collectivization. Libertarianism demands that we treat people on an individual basis. It is not compatible with the NAP to go around shooting random cops, IRS agents, etc.
If there is a specific cop who is trying to kidnap and cage you, then simple self-defensive violence may be justified under the NAP.
Some may argue that all state agents receive a salary that is paid for out of tax receipts. Tax funds are, they say, taken using a credible threat of force. Therefore they are the fruits of aggression and anyone who accepts such funds is guilty of aggression. There are a few problems with this.
- Some people pay taxes willingly, even cheerfully. You can not speak on behalf of these people, not unless they consent to it. And they’re not consenting. Is their money stolen? They don’t think so.
- A considerable amount of government is funded not by any taxes you might pay but by Federal Reserve loans. They’re not kosher either. But they constitute very indirect aggression at best.
- Can you conclusively prove in a court of law or arbitration hearing beyond a reasonable doubt that the agent you want to gun down actually received any of your money? How much did he individually receive? $1? 10 cents? So you want to punish the theft of a dollar with death? Now, this really does sound like Somalia! What if you receive veterans’ benefits, social security payments or other direct government payments? What if you use Medicare or otherwise indirectly benefit from government aggression? What if your income is from a large corporation that benefits from government subsidies or other aggression, such as a defense contractor? Are you qualified to throw the first stone?
- Did the agent actually make a credible threat of aggression or commit an act of aggression against you, in particular? If the victim is someone else, then you have no legal standing to employ defensive force against this agent. You’re not actually defending yourself by any standard whatsoever. Now you’re looking at murder, not just by state standards but also by libertarian standards.
There is no justification for political violence. It is not NAP-compatible because if you can prove that the agent directly harmed or threatens to harm you, then it is a case of simple self-defense. If not, you have no case for defensive force whatsoever. Political violence is not compatible with the NAP or libertarianism.
Thin vs. Thick Libertarianism
Even if you disagree with my analysis and believe that political violence is NAP-compliant, there are a whole host of other values that individual human beings bring to bear on a situation besides the NAP. Thin libertarianism is the idea that the only ethics of concern to libertarians is that which you find in the NAP. Thick libertarianism is the concept that as individual human beings, we bring a lot more to an ethical conversation than just the NAP.
As libertarians, do we only care about the proper way to use force? Is that all libertarianism is? I say it is much more. It is a rich collection of ideas that goes way beyond a simple binary choice of yes I will shoot the mailman or no I will not shoot the mailman.
To conceive of libertarianism as only the NAP is incredibly shortsighted and oversimplified. That needs to be understood and it needs be excused because we have a whole raft of scholars in our community who tell us that the proper use of force is the full width and breath of what it means to be a libertarian.
I say it is a whole lot more. For me, it includes, skepticisim of authority, questioning, reasoning, forgiveness, love, kindness, mutual aid, collective defense, voluntary cooperation, building and not destroying. It is about prosperity, about helping people. It is about ending the rule of violence and replacing it with the rule of reason. It’s about resolving disputes not with the executioner or the torturer but with cooperative mediation or voluntary arbitration. It’s about, not returning to a darker time but advancing to a more brilliant future where every life is valued, cultivated and brought to its maximum potential.
My libertarianism is not angry, irresponsible or bloodthirsty. It’s happy, bright and welcoming. What about yours?
The Difference Between Shooting a Cop and Shooting a Carjacker
Let’s say a cop stops you and wants to impound your car because you don’t have the right stickers on your window. How is this any different from a carjacker who holds a knife to your throat demanding you give him your car? It is very different.
- The cop isn’t stealing your car. He is holding it, albeit illegitimately, until you comply with rules that might be reasonable if only they were enforced voluntarily.
- The carjacker wants your car for personal gain. The cop doesn’t directly benefit personally from impounding your car.
- The police officer is perceived as being a legitimate authority by many, many people. This is a fact of reality that must be accepted by those of us who want to persuade people to our libertarian point-of-view. If you want to force people to agree with you, then by all means you can attempt to ignore this point. See the beginning of this article for further information.
That Conversation about Using Violence
Advocates of violent resistance say that they want to have a conversation about when the proper time to engage in armed resistance is. Let’s have a conversation. I’m ready to converse. Here’s my side of the conversation to kick things off.
- This is not the time. (See above.)
- The time is not coming anytime soon because we are woefully outnumbered and outgunned. Don’t fool yourself.
- It is not unwise to get – right now if you have the disposable income – the training and equipment you need to be prepared to defend yourself and fight in a civil war. Don’t bankrupt yourself to do it though. It will likely not come down to a gunfight. If you have disposable income, I recommend you invest in yourself first, in your ability to earn an income and provide value to others in the marketplace. That will be of more direct use to you in the long run.
- Engaging in violence is like being romantically intimate with a lover. Those who talk about it the most are the ones who are least likely to actually do it. Be careful who you follow. Question all authority, not just state authority. If you see someone advocating for political violence, ask them why they aren’t living their professed principles. When do they plan to start taking their own advice? Pay close attention to the answer. Analyze it slowly and carefully.
When is the time? Hopefully never. Although I consider myself a Gandhian nonviolence practicioner (satyagrahi), I am not a pacifist. I do not renounce simple self-defense. I only renounce political violence. If we reach a situation where we have numerical, organizational and armed superiority, then it may make sense to mop up the remaining forces of government. Or it may not even be necessary.
But, perhaps you say, we must talk about the right to use political violence and/or simple self-defense against state agents in order to undermine the widespread belief in government authority. Is that the only way? Are there other ways that don’t incur the risk of garbling our message of respect for life, liberty and property?
Let’s take one example. We can inform people about their right, as jurors, to judge the law as well as the facts of any given case. This is called jury nullification. Since judges today frequently give jurors the complete opposite instructions (that they can only judge the facts), jury nullification activism undermines government authority. The message is that you, the juror, know more and have more power than the judge in that courtroom. That’s subversive. That undermines belief in government authority. No, it doesn’t satisfy our whole agenda in one fell swoop. There are no silver bullets. But it is a viable way to undermine government authority and replace it with the authority of the people.
Or, perhaps if everyone understood that it was morally acceptable to kill cops in self-defense (assuming that doesn’t constitute excessive force), then more people would engage in self-defense from cops. Soon, it would become harder for the cops to beat us all up and then we win.
It’s not that simple. I accept that it is morally defensible to fight back against state agents who attack me. But I choose not to. It’s not just because of the reasons at the beginning of the article, but also because I simply don’t want to hurt anyone. There are actually a lot of people out there who don’t want to hurt anyone. So just convincing people of the idea that it is ok to fight back, doesn’t mean that everyone will suddenly be comfortable with the idea of actually using violence.
Are we all Pacifists Now?
No, we are not pacifists. We’re simply nonviolent. Nonviolence is different from pacifism.
Advocates of political violence like to strawman nonviolent people. They like to draw a clean, straight line. On one side, you’re shooting cops like the terminator. On the other, you’re a pacifist bending over and shouting, “Yes, please, more, sir,” as a cop shoves a tazer up your ass. This is patently ridiculous. It’s a logical fallacy because there is a third option. In fact, there are many intermediate options.
Politely asking fascists to not be fascists has a poor historical track record, say violence advocates. Well so does violent revolution. Even when it succeeds in military or political terms, it is a human and environmental tragedy. Take a look, for starters, at the US civil war in the 19th century, where huge numbers of people died and were left severely handicapped. But there are alternatives.
My favorite is nonviolence. I use my voice, both my physical one and my electronic one, to speak the truth. I voluntarily organize with other people to speak the truth as well. Of what use is speaking the truth when faced with a policeman’s bullet? Will the truth stop a bearcat? Will it prevent injustice?
Why, yes, it can do all that and much more. If you want to portray nonviolence as the dominion of useless cowards and pacifists, then you yourself need to attack me right now. Otherwise, you are contradicting yourself because any reasoned words you speak to me in opposition to what I say are examples of nonviolence. And nonviolence is the dominion of useless cowards and pacifists. So, according to this line of argument, you must either deploy violence or you must stand by quietly and say nothing (signaling your agreement in this case). Those are your only two consistent choices.
Am I just scared of the state recognizing me as a non-conformist? Sure, I am scared of that. Who isn’t? I don’t want to go to prison for a decade or more. Why should I care what the state thinks of me? Because their opinion of me determines how much force they will use on me, how strongly they will press any trumped-up charges on me and how long they will keep me in a cage. I don’t want to be in a cage. Nobody does. It’s inhumane and depressing.
But that’s not why I am a proponent of nonviolence. I am nonviolent because I think it is the right way to go for me – and probably for you, too. It accords with my principles. I am on planet earth for a short time. Life is fragile and fleeting. I don’t control my fate entirely. But I can control the message that I send with my life. I will not be sending a message of death, destruction or hate with it. I don’t care how skilled you are at contorting the NAP, political violence is death, destruction and hate.
But we have to win, George! What is winning to you? Of what use is a world that is nominally free but in ruins and doesn’t understand why it’s free, what freedom is or why it should care? Fools and their money are soon parted. Likewise, the ignorant and their liberty are soon parted. That is why our job is nonviolent education. And when enough people have accepted our message, in theory and/or in practice, perhaps violent struggle will not be necessary. But, if it is, at least we will have a solid foundation for pursuing it and not a snowball’s chance in hell like we do now.
There is already a group of people who make war on state agents. They’re called sovereign citizens. Please go and associate with them if you want to engage in violence. Don’t besmirch the good name of libertarians and don’t worsen the stigma surrounding anarchism.
We have not even started nonviolent resistance. We’re overwhelmingly passive right now. Explore your nonviolent options. Educate jurors and potential jurors. Homebrew. Start a small business. Unschool your kids. Pursue direct action to feed the homeless. Start a mutual aid society. Champion the agorist dual power strategy of growing a power base outside the statist society. The options are endless. Some of us have barely begun to scratch the surface. Find your niche and grow.
Some proponents of political violence say that they just want the aggressor to bear the cost of the aggression and not themselves, the victim. This is very pleasant wishful thinking. When a cop hits me, I should hit him back harder so he won’t do it again. So that he pays the price. I would love to live in the beautiful utopia where that were possible. But it’s not possible in today’s reality. Cops are very highly-organized. When one goes down, ten more pop up to beat the crap out of you and fabricate charges and evidence against you. I don’t work on wishful thinking. I work on the reality I face. That’s why I started Shield Mutual – to use the principles of collective bargaining and truth-telling to defend my fellow liberty-lovers.
They will also say that the outcome of any encounter is determined by who can use force better. This is simplistic zero-sum thinking. When I have an encounter with the grocer, we both win and neither of us uses violence. I once went up against 17 state agents. It was just Julian Heicklen, Jim Babb and myself. None of us knew how to use violence. Those 17 state agents had hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and training behind them. But we won that encounter. They backed off and we distributed jury nullification pamphlets to more than 100 people. Force of arms is not the only kind of force. There is also the force of truth and one’s own determination and commitment. These are worth much more than any AK-47, Glock or RPG.
If you want to make a difference for liberty, join me in engaging in nonviolence. It’s not easy. You can’t fantasize about winning battles or killing statists. Nonviolence requires that you work to understand them. It expects empathy. It demands consistent work over an extended amount of time. Can you handle it?
If all you feel is rage and you seek an outlet for that rage, then go right now and figure out how to control that. Take some meditation classes. Learn yoga. Take up a martial art – aikido is very good. Buy a punching bag and beat the crap out of it. Journal to understand yourself better. See a psychologist if you must. But don’t start killing cops and then tell me you did it for liberty. That’s bullshit.
9/11/2013 Update: I’d like to add another reason to draft-dodge the libertarian guerrilla army. If you plan on engaging in violent action against state agents, you don’t talk about it publicly. You carry it out secretly. Otherwise, your words will be used against you in a court of law. They will be used to show that you weren’t engaging in self-defense but instead carried out pre-meditated murder.
7/10/2016: Disqus lost the comments when I switched domains on the site. The whole thread is still here but is not displaying. When I have time, I will get the comments to display again. Apologies.