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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 262: September 2018

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Editorial: Opportunity Cost

The application of business or capitalist economic terminology and thinking to the community, voluntary and state sectors over the last few decades has generally been catastrophic. The idea that profit-making businesses are by nature more efficient than non-profit sectors has led to costly failures like PPP/PPI initiatives where the cost of a project to the state is a number of times what it would have been if it paid upfront or even if the state borrowed the money at its usual rates. Of course efficiency is important and all sectors need to address this continually but the idea that you are inherently more efficient if you are profit making is nonsense and tends to lead to inferior services with inferior pay and conditions for workers.

The marketisation of health services is also expensive and unnecessary. Administrative costs within the NHS in Britain went from 6% to 15% due to introducing internal market mechanisms – so nearly 10% more of the total budget was being wasted, which meant that any ‘savings’ introduced as a result would have to claw back that amount before it saved a penny. Health services in Ireland have been in a mess, both having appalling waiting lists, with the NHS in the North and the HSE in charge in the Republic; the answer in both cases is simplification in terms of provision and more money.

If the UK could afford to introduce the NHS in 1948 at a time of severe economic stringency following the Second World War, a proper service can be afforded today even with the enormous expansion of services provided. Sláintecare, the relatively new policy in the Republic, has an excellent vision for a universal healthcare policy, free of charge at point of delivery, however no one is predicting how and when it will be implemented (though it is meant to be under a decade).

One economic theory which is worth bearing in mind in any aspect of life, however, is opportunity cost – the opportunities lost when a particular choice is made, in other words what you cannot do or benefit from when you choose to go in one particular direction. In economics it may be primarily about financial opportunities lost – with the assumption that the option with the greatest financial benefit will have been chosen. It need not be thought of in financial terms, however; if I personally decide to do x, then this may mean I have no time to do y. Life is full of such difficult choices and it is possible that if we try to do both ‘x’ and ‘y’ then we may not both badly, or risk burning ourselves out in the process.
Discernment in relation to our choices in life is not an easy task, personally or politically. If we work full time and have a family then the amount of time we will have to devote to issues that concern us may be limited. Can we afford to live our life differently to the norm and what will be the opportunity cost of this? We can analyse and plan but our gut feeling about what we could and should do is as good an indication as anything.
In the peace and political campaigning spheres there is one big choice to be made. Do we stick with one issue/project/concern for decades and decades, hoping that the water-on-stone approach will yield results? Or do we flit from issue to issue according to what we feel has the best chance of success at any given time (and where our skills can best be utilised)? The latter can of course grow into the former; an issue which has a limited involvement for us gradually grows to become an all-encompassing concern which takes all our available energy.

There is no ‘right’ answer. The answer is what you discern. Both ‘work’. You can see that the long term, and sometimes lonely, efforts of an individual or group can pay off in terms of success (however that might be interpreted) on the issue in question. On the other hand, running with a new and urgent issue, or lending your weight to a burgeoning campaign, may also be important. Strategising is necessary, and thinking in terms of the stages a campaign has to go through (cf Bill Moyer’s ‘Movement Action Plan  or do a word search) can help in working out where you want to be and where you want to contribute. If you have the time and the commitment you can of course do ‘both’ – have a long term, heavy involvement along with other more temporary and time-bounded projects or issues that you work on.
We all have a contribution to make to peace and social change. Discerning what kind of contribution we can most valuably make will optimise our contribution. Are we, for example, a leader, a solo runner, or a team player? However even these three roles should not be totally exclusive. A leader has also to be a team player. A solo runner or lone activist may do most of the work on a particular issue but if they do not inform others and cooperate when opportunities arise then it is also going to be lonely and not anything like as productive as it might be. All groups need team players but these also require initiative (= leadership on an issue, even if it is limited in its range or scope).

We can all jump into things feet first when enthusiasm inspires us. Maintaining that energy and enthusiasm, and working out where to go next requires rather more thought and work. Efficiency is not just for business. If we are not efficient in our peace and campaigning work then we are certainly wasting some of our time and energy. However much effectiveness and success may be our goal, however, we can only do what we can do and await the outcome of our labours.
The world does rest on our shoulders but it should do so lightly. Being aware of what burden we can carry is a key part of being efficient and effective.

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Editorial essay

Radicalism and nonviolence

 This editorial essay is the final in a short series looking at feminism, ecology, human rights, religion and secularism, democracy, and radicalism in general, and their relationship to nonviolence. It will be followed in the next issue by a short ‘nonviolent manifesto’. They are written in the Irish context but in most regards applicable elsewhere as well.

This essay will try to examine the issue of ‘radicalism and nonviolence’, specifically how radical someone who believes in nonviolence needs to be, and in what way. It comes at the end of a series of pieces which have tried to consider the relationship between nonviolence and other approaches to life. As with all such questions, there are no easy answers but there is certainly a clear direction in which it is necessary to travel.

There are many different definitions of nonviolence possible, with different emphases. These would include avoiding violence, striving for peace, refusing to kill, and trying to transform relationships at every level so that violence is avoided. However there should be no doubt about the counter-cultural nature of nonviolence, and hence its radicalism, in an era which promises ‘perpetual warfare’.

It may be objected to the arguments here that ‘we cannot do it all’. Perhaps not, but in alliance with other progressive forces in society we can certainly achieve much. And to be credible we have to have a detailed analysis of the world and ‘what is to be done’. We can do what we can do, others can do more, and together we can create at least a path in the right direction.

The root meaning of radicalism and revolution
‘Radicalism’ comes from the Latin word ‘radix’ for ‘root’ or ‘base’ (as in the bottom of something). Overcoming violence is obviously a very basic change from current situations so it requires ‘radical’ action to get at the root causes and to bring about change. But violence does not come from nowhere; it comes from a wide variety of factors including injustice, greed, fear, machismo, lack of self control and so on. So to get at the root of violence requires a radicalism which will deal with a wide variety of other factors as well.

‘Revolution’ means a turning but the problem with many revolutions is the turnaround is approximately 360°. In other words, while the regime changes the situation for the populace remains at least as bad in relation to freedom and justice. Within a couple of decades of the French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon became emperor. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led within a decade or so to Stalin being a dictator and a far worse situation for ordinary people’s freedom than under the Tsar. When a country goes through a chaotic time then people can long for a strongman (sic) to restore order but unfortunately the constraints on this leader may be very weak.

So how change takes place is crucial. Building a nonviolent future needs to avoid the excesses of violent revolution, building on the positives which already exist, and successfully challenging the negative factors which prevent change happening but doing it in such a way as to build firm foundations for a more just and peaceful society. Changing political and cultural practices and patterns is not easy but it is possible.

Economics and nonviolence
A peaceful society and world is totally impossible while a large economic divide between rich and poor exists, either within a country or between countries and around the world. A relatively equitable society is possible and statistics show that these tend to be both happier and healthier than more divided societies. Of course if people at home or abroad are so abjectly poor and ground down that they simply seek to survive, they are unlikely to be protesting or working for change. Stability in societies is only possible when the people of the world have their needs met, otherwise there can be mass migration which can damage the society which migrants leave (cf Ireland after the Great Hunger of 1846) but also be used by right wingers in host countries as a cause for repression and scapegoating.

Creating more equal societies and a more equal world is a daunting task but one which cannot be avoided in building peace. Since those who hold economic wealth tend to be organised multinationally, it follows that movements for change and progress also must work multinationally. Accountability and tax systems need to be coordinated so that wealthy international companies and wealthy individuals cannot avoid their responsibility to support the common good. Wealth also need to flow from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere and/or ‘the North’ to be stopped from draining wealth from the global South.
Building a more equal society is likely to require by law a maximum income differential between the best paid and the worst paid (e.g. no one can be paid more than ‘y’ times the living wage). It also requires progressive taxes so that the rich cannot accumulate vast fortunes and comprehensive health and care systems are possible and are universal or can be afforded by everyone.

The question of whether you need to be a socialist to be nonviolent is an interesting one. While being able to name something is always important, socialism – which has many different forms – is not everyone’s cup of tea or ideology. What is clear is that much greater equality, nationally and internationally, is required to build a peaceful and nonviolent world. It is a question of justice but it is also simply that a world of haves and have nots is unhappier, unhealthier and unlikely to be content. Inequality can breed violence.

Fundamentally it does not matter if you label yourself as a socialist. What does matter is building a more equitable society and world. In party political terms this could happen under a variety of different labels but is highly unlikely to happen from a right of centre political entity or government; there are significant differences from country to country and there may be populist gestures from parties to the right of centre but the fundamentals are unlikely to alter in this situation.

Decision making and democracy
A peaceful society (as opposed to an illusory peaceful society where the populace are cowed into silence) can only come where ordinary people not only feel they have a stake in decision making but politics reflects this. Where there are ethnic divisions then the political system must guarantee fair treatment for all, and the involvement of all. A participative society is also a society which will address issues and problems as they arise, not allowing them to fester and possibly become a cause for injustice and violence.

Patriarchy and feminism
It is clear that feminism still has some distance to travel. The idea that there is now a ‘level playing field’ (or, indeed that women now dominate men) is disproven in many ways, not least by the ‘Me too’ movement of recent times regarding sexual aggression and assault but also by pay levels and the amount of work women do in the home relative to men.

The conservative backlash against feminism argues that it disempowers or emasculates boys and men. But given that the vast majority of violence of all kinds comes from men, we clearly need a new definition of masculinity which takes men beyond the macho stereotype to a new and nurturing vision. This does not mean that masculinity should be the same as a feminist femininity or ideology but it does mean it should be radically different to traditional masculinity. Of course there may be confusion as we move to a new role model but move we must if the acceptability of violence is to be overcome.

The idea that feminism oppresses men is nonsense, though we also need to be clear that there are many different versions of feminism and of masculinities. What oppresses men the most – and resultantly directly oppresses women – is the idea that a man should be breadwinner, hunter-gatherer and overall tough guy. This creates expectations which men either feel they cannot live up to, or, if they do, can cause problems in their relationships and their lives in general. We do not yet have an adequate definition of a positive masculinity but this must be an aim in building peaceful families and societies. This requires a radicalism in lifestyle and personal commitment by men.

Within the nation state
One of the definitions of a nation state tends to be that it has, or claims, a monopoly on violence through its armed forces. Those who believe in nonviolence reject this claim, not because they want others to be able to use violence as well but because the belief is that the state should not have the right to inflict death either. So from the point of view of the state, believers in nonviolence reject a fundamental tenet of statehood as it tends to be defined.

In the west in the current era risking even the lives of members of the armed forces, who have signed up to being prepared to use violence if asked to do so, is not as acceptable as it once was. This comes about through a variety of factors. One is war weariness. Another is the fact that relatives of armed force casualties are now prepared to ask questions and/or mobilise on the issue of whether the war in question was necessary. Another is technological change which allows armed force to be deployed ‘at arms length’ through missiles and drones and this does not risk the lives of members of their armed forces in the same way.

However states in the West do not employ the same measuring stick about the risk of death to soldiers and civilians in countries elsewhere as they do to their own soldiers or civilians. They are quite happy for armed conflict to take place ‘out there’ and for any number of people to be killed in non-western locations – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and so on. There is a fundamental duplicity about this. It is saying ‘our’ lives are more important than ‘their’ lives. It is also possible because the killing or ill treatment of soldiers or civilians elsewhere does not have anything comparable in terms of backlash to the loss of life or liberty of ‘our’ citizens.

This is true of Ireland and not just NATO countries. If we look at the Irish government’s permission for the armed forces of the USA to use Shannon Airport ‘no questions asked’ (which is quite clear from the lack of inspection of any US planes passing through) this is effective backing for the wars fought by the USA, and the illegal practice of rendition – there is no other way of putting it. And so through total moral cowardice, in a situation where Irish neutrality is actually popular with the citizens of the Republic, the state backs the world’s greatest superpower in its aggression around the world.

Northern Ireland
The little war in Northern Ireland may have come to an end but the conflict is not resolved. To work for peace and progress in such a divided situation requires radicalism of a different kind, a radical rejection of sectarian and unidimensional or bipolar solutions. This is not easy. While the Good Friday Agreement has helped Northern Ireland to move beyond violence it has not worked to overcome sectarianism and sectarian political responses.

Northern Ireland needs, and deserves, more, and a vision to create something new and different. Many people of all ages remain wedded to their old and often sterile perceptions of identity and wellbeing despite the feeling of many young people that they have moved on beyond the conflict. It is not easy to create something new. But this requires a total rethink at a political level about how people are involved and decisions made, and a radical vision of a new society which cares equally for all.

International aspects including the EU
It has already been mentioned that wealthy individuals and corporations work multinationally, moving capital and profits to where they can get the best return, whether that has any morality attached or not (in terms of depriving states of taxation that is needed to pay for services, or in relation to depriving workers of jobs). Unfortunately the EU is currently wedded to both a neoliberal economic approach and to developing its military capacity and increased support for the military (e.g. through PESCO which Ireland has signed up to).

While some radicals in the UK supported Brexit, the overwhelming direction of that narrow decision in the 2016 referendum was simplistic in the extreme. The extent to which the EU can be reformed remains debateable, particularly in the current political climate, but the extent to which withdrawing from the EU could facilitate positive change is even more debateable; the direction for the UK has taken has clearly been occasioned by both nationalistic and nostalgic thinking which is far from reality.

Building progressive movements across the EU is no easy task. However it can be strongly argued that the alternative – withdrawal – is even riskier, certainly if it comes from a nationalistic rather than a peace-loving and justice-loving agenda.

Green issues
It is clear that global warming is having considerable effects in the here and now and the dangers of runaway heating of our globe will be catastrophic for the wellbeing of our ecosystem and thus for humanity. There are many sources of violence and conflict but there is no greater threat in the current era than the devastation, dislocation, and havoc on a global scale which global warming will bring. This will also encourage rich countries (we who have largely caused the problem) to ‘pull up the drawbridge’, introducing draconian immigration measures and harsh frontiers to keep out those who have fled their unsustainable homelands.

But it is clear that global warming will hit rich countries as well, the difference being that they will have the resources to mitigate some of the worst of the effects. Global warming is a lose-lose and lose again affair. To have a concern for nonviolence means we have to have a major concern for the environment and our ecosystem or we are condemning billions to violence and misery. The crazy aspect of it is that with political will, some effort and a fair amount of money the issue is completely within our grasp to tackle. Ireland, unfortunately, has been a laggard in dealing with the issues involved. This is unconscionable.

The issue of migration in Europe is a strong example of the necessity of radicalism. How is it possible to ‘stem the tide’ of migration when people are fleeing war or poverty? Only the former of these may be considered legitimate in seeking asylum but the reality is that people make decisions based on what they feel is their best prospect – and the vast majority of people do not leave their homes unless there is a compelling reason to do so. There are a few ‘happy’ Irish emigration songs but they are few and far between; to say goodbye to your country and loved ones is a gut-wrenching experience. To, for example, put your life at risk in trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe is a desperate measure.

Migration can be partly controlled by dogs, barbed wire and guns. This will not be wholly successful and will leave a legacy of distrust and even hate. Migration can only be ‘controlled’ by creating a fairer and peaceful society and world so that people are free and happy to stay in their home environment. This has extremely radical implications for economic justice on a world level.

Living the alternative
‘Building a peaceful society’ cannot be all ‘pie in the sky in the future’ but has to involve those who believe in nonviolence ‘living the alternative’ in a variety of ways. Of course there are limits in what is possible currently. Putting into practice conscientious objection to paying taxes for war and the military is currently impossible legally. Creating cooperative ventures of various kinds is difficult when capitalism tries to undercut any competition. Nevertheless there are still a huge range of possibilities in terms of working together, sowing seeds (literally as well as metaphorically), building a green future, and rejecting the politics of division and hate.

However we should also not ‘beat ourselves up’ for not being able to do more. We have to walk before we can run, and in some situations crawling forward, or even staying still, may be all we can achieve. But following an idea or a project and staying with it can achieve remarkable results.

Radicalism and ‘radicalisation’
‘Radicalisation’ is the term which tends to be used in the current era primarily for people who are persuaded from their pre-existing beliefs to adopt a militarily-militant, ISIS-type viewpoint of Islam and the need for violence to oppose the West. While this is a real concern there is much hypocrisy involved in our society since the violence of the West (e.g. the USA and the UK) is rarely mentioned, e.g. deaths through drone strikes which are illegal in international law; is being killed by a drone out of camera shot any better or any worse than being beheaded by an ISIS militant on camera? The latter has actually been much less common than the former. And western violence as a cause of conversion to a military Islamist viewpoint is also not mentioned.

There is no need for those who believe in nonviolence to take conventional ‘sides’. We should not see the need to support the policies of any country except where it benefits humanity. We need to scrutinise the policies and practice of everyone and avoid uncritically supporting the USA, Russia or any other country or entity, including our own. Taking ‘sides’ in conventional geopolitics is unlikely to be productive in building peace. We should be serving, metaphorically speaking, neither king nor Kaiser but Ireland and the world.

However we have sought in this essay to argue that ‘radicalism’ is necessary, that is, getting to the root of issues which implies a deep-seated analysis and far-reaching policies for change. We seek to persuade people to adopt a radical, nonviolent viewpoint on the basis of both morality and practicality. Building a peaceful world can only be done by peaceful means; the violent policies of ‘the west’ in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere has had a serious destabilising and violent effect. We have sown the seeds of violence. Preventing the seeds of violence growing and spreading is difficult and can only be done by nonviolent methods.

We should not underestimate how radical it is to choose nonviolence – and the many paths where it may lead.

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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

A Universal Ecological Consciousness

There is little need to remind readers of the litany of environmental woes that face our local communities, the country and global civilisation. Unlike 50,000 years ago when it is thought our species had a leap-frog development in cognitive skills as cave paintings, petroglyphs and other decorative art from the time suggest, the means by which we sustain and entertain ourselves today has a global impact. Although most people have a tribal identity, the competing nationalisms in Northern Ireland are an example, as a species we are a global entity with such a profound impact on the biosphere that it has led to an intensification of the decades old discussion as to whether or not we have created a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, distinct from the Holocene epoch we are technically in. (‘The Human Planet: How we created the Anthropocene’, Simon Lewis & Mark Maslin, 2018)

There is a gaping hole between how we see ourselves individually and our environmental global impact. Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are two of the global effects of how we live which on their own, as well as collectively, have the potential to end civilization as we know it. Our strong sense of localism, while important to our sense of emotional security, is an obstacle to us embracing a sense of belonging to a common humanity with shared interests. The global dimension to almost every significant problem faced by people everywhere in the world means that it is imperative that we, no matter where we think of as home, transcend our tribalism and develop a universal ecological consciousness.

Challenging as this is, it is within the realm of possibility. The cultural and biological success of our species has rested on our outstanding ability to cooperate and to transcend assumed and practical differences. Think about how a large hospital runs. Although the employees are from a myriad of different backgrounds; cultural, religious, ethnic, class and with a diverse range of life experiences, they all work together to achieve a common outcome, the wellbeing of the patients.

The Peace Bridge in Derry City and the O’Connell Bridge in Dublin were built by people from a range of backgrounds with different belief systems who cooperated to achieve a common end. In cases of emergency people’s humanity and compassion come to the fore to achieve a common good. This is borne out across the world every day. The rescue of twelve boys and their coach from the flooded Luang Nang Non Cave in northern Thailand in July was an international effort. There is no greater need today than for the diverse communities that compose humankind to transcend their tribal differences and cooperate to secure our long-term wellbeing and that of the community of life-forms we share the planet with. The sense of belonging to a universal entity towards which one has responsibilities, and derives benefits from, does not neutralise one’s sense of local belonging as is widely feared.

As recent archaeological research suggests the willingness to cooperate is part of our DNA. Michael Marshall in New Scientist, 25 August 2018, informs us that analysis of a sliver of bone found in a cave in Russia reveals that:
“In prehistory, members of our species interbred with at least two other ancient humans: the Neanderthals and the mysterious Denisovans.”

The researchers think the reason the Neanderthals and the Denisovans vanished is not, as widely thought because Homo Sapiens violently eradicated them but through interbreeding they became absorbed into our species. In other words it seems we absorbed the distinctive others in a supreme cooperative act. Given the enormity of the environmental problems we face and the suffering experienced by hundreds of millions through extreme weather events, which as reported in New Scientist, 4 August 2018, are thought to be linked to climate change, the sense of a universal ecological consciousness, and all of what that means in terms of economic and social justice and the development of a more grounded sense of what wellbeing means, needs to be embraced. We can all role model a universal ecological consciousness and in time what might be thought of as eccentric will, as history tells us, likely become the norm.

Copyright INNATE 2021