Histories of Violence: Nonviolence and the Ghost of Fascism

By Brad EvansMay 21, 2018

Histories of Violence: Nonviolence and the Ghost of Fascism
THIS IS THE 20th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Todd May, who is a political philosopher and social activist based at Clemson University. Among his many books are, more recently, A Fragile Life: Accepting Our Vulnerability (2017) and Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction (2015).


BRAD EVANS: Your work deals with two of the most pressing challenges of our era — namely how can we rethink violence as a political strategy, while taking seriously the multiple ways the ghost of fascism reappears in everyday life. How would you counter those who insist that fascism can only be dealt with through direct confrontation?

TODD MAY: First, Brad, let me offer thanks for the opportunity to address these urgent questions. I can approach the first one like a true philosopher: by raising the question of what might fall under the category of fascism, and then the question of what might fall under the category of direct confrontation. We often think of fascism in the extreme, as in Nazism or Italian fascism. In these cases, it is difficult to see how nonviolence can successfully overcome them. There are some people, mostly pacifists, who claim that a nonviolent approach could successfully confront Nazism, but I’m not convinced. However, when we pose the issue in this way we’re taking Nazism and fascism as already established power relationships.

Suppose instead that we consider the period before these movements became entrenched. That may be the situation we currently find ourselves in in the United States. Here there are important roles for nonviolence to play, among them offering people (or sometimes a people) a more positive image through which to see themselves, providing a model for political engagement, and inspiring people to act. Among these roles there is a place for direct confrontation.

Turning to direction confrontation, then, we need not see such confrontation solely in terms of violence. Nonviolence often involves direct confrontation. For instance, the Freedom Riders of the American Civil Rights movement directly confronted those who maintained segregated travel arrangements, the citizens of the Philippines directly confronted Ferdinand Marcos’s army in 1986, and the Palestinians who march against Israeli oppression are all engaged in direct confrontation.

Nonviolent direct confrontation displays a different dynamic from violent direct confrontation. For the latter, the goal is to defeat the adversary militarily, to make it surrender. For the former, there are several important goals on the way to eventual victory: to display the violence of the adversary for others to see, to confront the adversary with an unflattering image of itself, and to empower the people who participate with a sense of their own dignity. We should not underestimate the last of these. It is often one of the most damaging effects of oppression that people’s sense of dignity is violated. Nonviolent action can help restore that.

Your understanding of fascism pulls away from state or even ideological moorings, which tend to equate it with a failure of liberal and democratic modernity. How might we better see the recurring motif of fascism in the 21st century?

The term “fascism” is thrown around a lot these days by both left and right. Outside of its application to the historical zenith of fascism in the 20th century one might wonder whether it is a very useful term. It stands in contrast to terms like “apartheid,” which can refer not only to the South African context but also to other contexts in which a people is geographically, politically, and economically marginalized in the way black South Africans were. (One thinks here of the Israeli occupation as a trenchant current example.)

Fascism tends to be ascribed to many egregious dominant power relationships that have no common structure. However, if we think of it with reference to Nazism and Italian fascism it can be seen as something roughly along the lines of an authoritarian regime that privileges a particular group of people, often defined by the notoriously ambiguous idea of race. Moreover, this privileging is generally done through reference to previous glories that are under siege by impure others. In this sense, the Jim Crow South was not fascist because it was not authoritarian and China’s current government, while authoritarian, is not particularly racist (except perhaps at the margins).

If we take the term this way — and admittedly, this is not the only way we might take it — then while we should deny that the United States is currently fascist we should worry about its inclination in that direction. There is, as everyone with eyes can see, an authoritarian tilt to Trump’s governance, one that is reinforced by the lock-step way the Republican Party follows him. And the privileging of white Americans, exemplified by the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and practice of the administration is in line with earlier fascist movements. If this is right, then we are in a moment where nonviolent resistance is not only appropriate, but also indeed urgent, if we are to push back against the current authoritarian movement before it becomes entrenched.

I would like to push you more on the politics of nonviolence as a viable political alternative. What can we learn from history in terms of thinking about nonviolence as a form of empowerment to take us beyond reductive narratives of passivity?

Gandhi long insisted that nonviolence is not a weapon of the weak but rather of the strong. That’s why he rejected the term “passive resistance” in regard to nonviolent action. Moreover, we have historical lessons in the empowering character of nonviolence and empirical support for the idea that it is not only a viable alternative to violence but actually more effective. As for the former, we can turn to the classic examples of the Indian Independence and American Civil Rights movements. They were not only successful at overcoming powerful adversaries; they were at the same time empowering for those who engaged in them. This is why, for instance, so many significant American Civil Rights leaders are still involved in teaching others how to engage in successful resistance.

As for the empirical support, we can turn to Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s seminal book, Why Civil Resistance Works. Their study of over 200 campaigns between 1900 and 2006 shows that nonviolence is generally far more effective and has better long-term prospects for justice than violent resistance. If we think about it, this should not be surprising. Nonviolence, as they note, offers wider opportunities for resistance than violence: it tends to garner more sympathy both locally and in a more widespread fashion; it often creates cognitive dissonance among those who count themselves as among its adversaries; and it can make suppression of its activities appear to be morally objectionable.

As a case study, we can compare the First and Second Palestinian Intifadas. The first one, which was largely nonviolent, allowed for broad participation on a variety of levels and gained world sympathy, negotiations with Israel, and ultimately an agreement that ushered in a period of peace. (To be sure, Israel’s violations of that agreement eventually undermined it.) The Second Intifada, which was fought largely with weapons, excluded much of the Palestinian people (who were unarmed) from participation, failed to garner international sympathy, and gained nothing, even temporarily, for the Palestinian people.

In your writings, you continue to highlight the contemporary importance of continental thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Rancière, among others. How do they still help us develop a critique of violence adequate to our times?

Let me address this in two parts: the issue of the critique of violence and then the alternative of nonviolence. Regarding violence, we need to ask a bit about what violence is. In my book on nonviolence, I confessed to being unable to come up with an adequate overall definition of violence. However, traditionally violence is considered to be of at least three types: physical, psychological, and structural. It is structural violence that is most relevant to consider here. Let me focus on Foucault and Rancière. In his most famous works, Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault can be read — rightfully so, in my view — as offering us genealogies of particular kinds of structural violence, violence that stems not from direct person-to-person contact but instead emerges from the structure of a social situation.

In Discipline and Punish, for instance, Foucault traces the rise of systems of discipline that, by constraining us to certain kinds of behavior and self-understandings, marginalize large groups of people as well as limiting the options for resistance to current oppressive arrangements. While this kind of violence may seem to be something very different from physical or psychological violence, it isn’t. In particular, systems of power that marginalize people are psychologically violent in ways that are similar to person-to-person psychological violence. They deny people’s dignity, as I mentioned above. In addition, they limit the kinds of resources people have access to in order to create meaningful lives, they make interaction with other social groups difficult, and they often directly circumscribe the kind of activities people have access to.

Rancière’s perspective is less historically nuanced than Foucault’s. He takes a wider view, insisting that what he calls police orders are characterized by hierarchical relations in which some people’s views and contributions count and others’ do not. For Rancière, the denial of people’s equality runs deep and to confront it successfully often involves a collective assertion of equality. This leads to his contribution to nonviolence. Rancière has not, to my knowledge, written much on nonviolence. However, I have argued that it is implicit in his thought. The presupposition of equality that he believes animates real democratic movements requires nonviolence as a default. This does not mean that such movements must always be nonviolent. But that must be the default position. The reason for this is that the presupposition of equality is a presupposition of the equality of everyone. It cannot be just those who struggle who are presupposed equal; the presupposition must also encompass the adversary.

If this is right — and, again, he does not say this but I believe it follows from his view — then the default position of a democratic movement must be nonviolent. One might ask here: When a movement of equality is forced into a position where it must be violent, does that undermines its character as a movement of equality? It is, admittedly, a vexed question, one that I have struggled to answer in a way that I am finally comfortable with.

Returning to the question you raised earlier concerning human dignity and the challenges we confront when actually trying to define violence, how might we use this concept of dignity to gain a real tangible purchase on what violence actually means at the level of everyday human existence beyond mere bodily violations?

The term dignity is often associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He used it to refer to the particular dignity associated with rational creatures. However, historically the term has several uses. Michael Rosen, in his book Dignity: Its History and Meaning, isolates three different strands of dignity before proposing a fourth one. There is dignity as inherent value deriving from the history of Catholicism, Kantian dignity, and dignity as a way of behaving — as in a dignified bearing. Rosen proposes a fourth definition of dignity as a right to a certain respectfulness, a right that he thinks is foundational for other rights. I am sympathetic with this view, but it leaves open the question of what it is that is to be respected.

In my book Nonviolent Resistance, I propose the following definition of the dignity to be respected: to engage in projects and relationships that unfold over time; to be aware of one’s death in a way that affects how one sees the arc of one’s life; to have biological needs like food, shelter, and sleep; to have basic psychological needs like care and a sense of attachment to one’s surroundings. It’s broader than Kantian dignity, because it refers not solely to rationality but to a recognizably human way of living. It also leaves room for modification in ways that can take account of the dignity of nonhuman animals.

With this definition of dignity in mind, it is easy to see how the structural violence I discussed above violates people’s dignity. On the other side of things, it allows us to understand what characterizes movements of nonviolent resistance and perhaps even offers some help to those who are constructing one. In my book, I argue that a movement is nonviolent to the extent that it respects the dignity of everyone involved — participants, adversaries, and bystanders.

It is important to emphasize, however, that this view of nonviolence does not preclude coercion. There can be many forms of nonviolent coercion, and contrary to what Gandhi held, I believe that most successful nonviolent movements are in fact coercive. They rarely work through the moral conversion of the adversary but instead through a dynamic that puts the adversary in a situation where continuation of its activities is morally, economically, and/or politically impossible. (Conversion, if it happens, is often after the fact.) And this can be done while respecting that the adversary or its members have lives to lead in the sense I mentioned in the previous paragraph.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.

LARB Contributor

Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is author of over 17 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2021) and Conversations on Violence: An Anthology (with Adrian Parr, 2021). He leads the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section.


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