There’s a popular way of drawing the distinction between electoral politics and revolutionary politics that I think gets things almost precisely backward.
According to this way of thinking, electoral politics represents a peaceful, conversational way of settling disputes, whereas revolution represents an abandonment of persuasion in favour of violence.
According to the Greek orator Lysias, for example, singing the praises of Athenian democracy, it was “the way of wild beasts to be forcibly subjected to one another, but the way of human beings to define justice by law and to persuade by reasoned discourse” – where by “reasoned discourse” he meant the debates in the assembly that culminated in laws, decrees, and declarations of war.
Now certainly states that feature parliamentary debate are generally preferable to states where, say, a single dictator has sole decision-making power. All the same, a conversation that is going to culminate in a vote, where the result of that vote will be imposed by force of law on the dissenters (as well as on others who, whether by choice or by necessity, have not even participated in the vote), can hardly be a process of the same nature as a normal – I’m tempted to say a civilised – conversation.
Under ordinary circumstances, if we’re planning an evening out and discussing what movie to see, it’s understood that if we cannot reach agreement on a particular film there is always the possibility of cancelling our plans and heading off to separate movies. The possibility that, in the event that consensus is not achieved, one of us might simply compel the other, by force or the threat thereof, to go to a particular movie is simply not contemplated. Discourse and persuasion in the legislative arena, by contrast, take place under the shadow of the truncheon and the gun; these conversations have a winner, and the losers are conscripted into the winners’ projects. The whole process of discussion has as its aim and presuppositon the externalisation of the costs, and internalisation of the benefits, winners’ favoured schemes. Legislation – at least the kind of legislation practised by states – is not an alternative to violence but is rather a mode of violence. Those who favour persuasion over coercion should be seeking to reduce or eliminate it, not to glorify it.
Nor is violence an accidental feature of the state’s way of doing things. It is essential to states that they compel dissenters to go along with their projects; if they ceased to do this they would become mere wholesome voluntary associations, without the monopoly power that characterises the state as such.
And what of revolution? People tend to think of revolution as inherently violent. But unlike states, revolutions do not require violence. Revolutions in history as we know it generally have been violent (which is partly why I included the qualifier “almost” in my first sentence above). But that is because revolutions have generally had the same goal as conventional electoral/legislative politics: taking over the state and using its power to impose a new order on the dissenting.
But there’s another model for revolution, one aimed not at capturing or co-opting the instrumentality of centralised power but rather at bypassing and undercutting it.
The state, after all, is just a particular (pathological) pattern of social activity, one constituted and sustained by the actions not only of the rulers but, crucially, of the ruled. The libertarian revolution is the only kind of revolution that doesn’t by its nature require violence, since it doesn’t need to take over the reins of power (either by electoral or insurrectionary means). Such a revolution can be nonviolent because it proceeds by building alternative institutions and gradually winning more and more people’s allegiance (if that’s not too statey a word) to those institutions. The pillars that uphold the state are, like Soylent Green, made of people; when the people walk away to form new patterns, the pillars dissolve and the state crumbles. No need to storm the barricades; just cease to prop them up.
By contrast with the all-or-nothing character of conventional political reform, where proposals have to be approved by 51% of the voters (or by 51% of a bunch of politicians elected by 51% of the voters) in order to be implemented, the libertarian revolution spreads incrementally, the way new products do – a few customers at a time. The revolution is complete when those still participating in the state’s institutions and practices are too few to cause any trouble to the rest of us. In Paul Goodman’s words: “A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life.”
Join the revolution!
Roderick T. Long is professor of philosophy at Auburn University; president of the Molinari Institute and Molinari Society; senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society; senior scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute; editor of The Industrial Radical (debuting at Libertopia this year); co-editor of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies and Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?; former editor of the Journal of Libertarian Studies; and co-founder of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. He blogs at Austro-Athenian Empire.