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A Political Philosophy of Self-Defense by Chad Kautzer

A Political Philosophy of Self-Defense

Image: The Library of Congress

Editor’s Note: This essay is an adapted excerpt from Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense (ed. scott crow).


In his 1964 speech “Communication and Reality,” Malcolm X said: “I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” Earlier that year, he made a similar point in his Harlem speech introducing the newly founded Organization of Afro-American Unity: “It’s hard for anyone intelligent to be nonviolent.”

To portray self-defensive violence as natural, in no need of justification, or as so commonsensical that it could barely be called violence has a depoliticizing effect. Since the goal of Malcolm X’s speeches was to undermine critiques of armed black resistance, this effect was intentional. For good reasons, he was attempting to normalize black people defending themselves against the violence of white rule. When Malcolm X did speak of self-defense as a form of violence, he emphasized that it was lawful and an individual right. In his most famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964), he explicitly stated: “We don’t do anything illegal.” This was also, of course, how the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense justified its armed shadowing of police in Oakland in the late 1960s: it was the members’ Second Amendment right to bear arms and their right under California law to openly carry them.

When conditions are so oppressive that one’s self is not recognized at all, self-defense is de facto insurrection, a necessary making oneself known through resistance.

To develop a critical theory of community defense, however, we need to move beyond the rhetoric of rights or the idea that all self-defensive violence is quasi-natural or nonpolitical. The self-defense I discuss in this essay is political because the self being defended is political, and as such it requires both normative and strategic considerations. This project seeks to articulate the dynamics of power at work in self-defense and the constitution of the self through its social relations and conflicts.

Because communities of color defend themselves as much against a culture of white supremacy as they do against bodily harm, their self-defense undermines existing social hierarchies, ideologies, and identities. If we were to limit ourselves to the language of individual rights, these interconnections would remain concealed. Violence against women (but not only women), for example, has a gendering function, enforcing norms of feminine subordination and vulnerability. Resistance to such violence not only defends the body but also undermines gender and sexual norms, subverting hetero-masculine dominance and the notions of femininity or queerness it perpetuates. Since the social structures and identities of race, gender, class, and ability intersect in our lives, practices of self-defense can and often must challenge structures of oppression on multiple fronts simultaneously.

In the following, I do not focus on the question of whether self-defensive violence is justifiable, but rather on why it is political; how it can transform self-understandings and community relations; in what contexts it can be insurrectionary; and why it must be understood against a background of structural violence. It is necessary to clarify these dimensions of self-defense for two reasons in particular. First, arguments advocating armed community defense too often discuss the use of violence and the preparations for it as somehow external to political subjectivity, as if taking up arms, training, or exercising self-defensive violence do not transform subjects and their social relations. The influence of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) on the early Black Panthers, Steve Biko, and others derives precisely from Fanon’s understanding of the transformative effects of resistance in the decolonizing of consciousness. “At the individual level,” Fanon writes, “violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude.”

The second reason for clarification is to distinguish the strategies, ways of theorizing, and forms of social relations of liberatory movements from those of reactionary movements. There is an increasingly influential understanding of self-defense today that reinforces a particular notion of the self—a “sovereign subject”—that is corrosive to horizontal social relations and can only be sustained vis-à-vis state power. This notion of the self runs counter to the goals of non-statist movements and self-reliant communities. To be aware of these possibilities and pitfalls allows us to avoid them, a goal to which the following sketch of a critical theory of community self-defense seeks to contribute.

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Resistance and Structural Violence

At the National Negro Convention in 1843, Reverend Henry Highland Garnet issued a rare public call for large-scale resistance to slavery: “Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you, and according to the suggestion of expediency.” I describe resistance as opposition to the existing social order from within, and, as Garnet suggested, it can take different forms, such as self-defense, insurrection, or revolution. We can think of an insurrection as a limited armed revolt or rebellion against an authority, such as a state government, occupying power, or even slave owner. It is a form of illegal resistance, often with localized objectives, as in Shays’ Rebellion (1786), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), the insurrections on the Amistad (1839) and Creole (1841), the coal miner Battle of Blair Mountain (1921), Watts (1965), Stonewall (1969), and Attica (1971).

Distinguishing between defensive and insurrectionary violence can be complicated. In the Amistad case, for example, white officials initially described it as a rebellion and thus a violation of the law, but later reclassified it as self-defense when the original enslavement was found to be unlawful. In a rare reversal, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the captives on the Amistad as having selves worthy of defense. That was never in question among those rebelling, of course, but it does indicate the political nature of the self and our assessments of resistance. “Since the Other was reluctant to recognize me,” writes Fanon, “there was only one answer: to make myself known.” On the Amistad, rebellion was the only way for the enslaved to make their selves known, meaning that their actions were simultaneously a defense of their lives and a political claim to recognition.

To develop a critical theory of community defense, we need to move beyond the rhetoric of rights.

A sustained insurrection can become revolutionary when it threatens to fundamentally transform or destroy the dominant political, social, or economic institutions, as with the rise of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico in 1994 and the recent wave of Arab uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, including most significantly Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan. The armed rebellion led by John Brown in 1859, which seized the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, was intended to instigate a revolution against the institution of slavery. Although the insurrection was quickly put down, it inspired abolitionists around the country and contributed to the onset of the U.S. Civil War.

Brown’s rebellion was not a slave revolt (and thus not an act of self-defense), but it did highlight the nature of structural violence. Henry David Thoreau, the inspiration for Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience and, in turn, that of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the most insightful analysis of this violence at the time. In his essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau defends Brown’s armed resistance and identifies the daily state violence of white rule against which the insurrection took place:

We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery. . . . I think that for once the Sharps rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause [i.e., Brown’s insurrection].

In this passage Thoreau highlights how the so-called security of one community was achieved by oppressing another and making it insecure. To properly understand the insurrection, he therefore argues, one must view it as a response to illegitimate structural violence. He enumerates the commonplace mechanisms of this rule, which, for whites, fades into the background of their everyday lives: law and order upheld by a neutral police force, enforced by an objective legal system and carceral institutions, and defended by an army supported by the Constitution and blessed by religious authorities. The violence of white supremacy becomes naturalized and its beneficiaries see no need for its justification; it is nearly invisible to them, though not, of course, to those it oppresses. “The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system,” writes Robert Williams in Negroes with Guns (1962). “The Afro-American militant is a ‘militant’ because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system—the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself.”

We all exist within hierarchical social structures and the meaning and function of violence, self-defensive or otherwise, will be determined by our position vis-à-vis others in these structures. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, for example, described the self-defensive practices of the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and thus insurrectionary, if not revolutionary. Surely his assessment had more to do with the threat self-reliant black communities posed to white domination in the country than with the security of government institutions. “When people say that they are opposed to Negroes ‘resorting to violence,’” writes Williams, “what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.” These structures of domination and monopolies of violence are forms of rule that operate in the family, the city, and the colony, and resistance to their violence, both dramatic and mundane, “makes known” the selves of the subjugated.

‘The Afro-American militant . . . does not introduce violence into a racist social system—the violence . . . has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself.’

A satisfactory notion of self-defense is not obvious when we view self-defensive acts within the context of structural violence and understand the self as both embodied and social. Writing specifically of armed self-defense, Akinyele Omowale Umoja defines it as “the protection of life, persons, and property from aggressive assault through the application of force necessary to thwart or neutralize attack.” While this is appropriate in many contexts, the primary association of self-defense with protection does not capture how it can also reproduce or undermine existing social norms and relations, depending on the social location of the self being defended. Describing the effects of his defense against a slaveholder, Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote that he “was a changed being after that fight,” for “repelling the unjust and cruel aggressions of a tyrant” had an emancipatory effect “on my spirit.” This act of self-defense, he asserts, “was the end of the brutification to which slavery had subjected me.” Our understanding of self-defense must, therefore, account for the transformative power of self-defense for oppressed groups as well as the stabilizing effect of self-defense for oppressor groups.

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Social Hierarchies and Subject Formation

To see how self-defense can have several effects and why a critical theory of self-defense must, therefore, always account for relations of domination, we need to understand in what way the self is both embodied and social. By embodied I mean that it is through the body that we experience and come to know the world and ourselves, rather than through an abstract or disembodied mind. The body orients our perspective, and is socially visible, vulnerable, and limited. Much of our knowledge about the social and physical world is exercised by the body. Our bodies are sexed, raced, and gendered, not only “externally” by how others view us or how institutions order us—as, for example, feminine, masculine, queer, disabled, white, and black—but also “internally” by how we self-identify and perform these social identities in our conscious behavior and bodily habits. By the time we are able to challenge our identities, we have already been habituated within social hierarchies, so resistance involves unlearning our habits in thought and practice as well as transforming social institutions. As David Graeber writes, “forms of social domination come to be experienced in the most intimate possible ways—in physical habits, instincts of desire or revulsion—that often seem essential to our very sense of being in the world.”

Self-defensive violence can transform self-understandings and community relations; it can be insurrectionary; and it must be understood against a background of structural violence.

Since our location within social hierarchies in part determines our social identities, the self that develops is social and political from the start. This does not mean that we are “stuck” or doomed to a certain social identity or location, nor that we can simply decide to identify ourselves elsewhere within social hierarchies or somehow just exit them. To be sure, we have great leeway in terms of self-identification, but self-identification does not itself change institutional relations or degrees of agency, respect, risk, opportunity, or access to resources. These kinds of changes can only be achieved through social and political struggles. Our embodied identities are sites of conflict, formed and reformed through our practical routines and relations as well as through social struggle. Since the actions and perceptions of others are integral to the development of our own, including our self-understanding, we say that the self is mediated, or is formed through our relations with others in systems of production, consumption, education, law, and so forth.

In The Souls of Black Folks (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois theorized black life in a white supremacist society as experiencing one’s self as split in two, a kind of internalization of a social division that produced what he called “double-consciousness,” or “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Although one may view oneself as capable, beautiful, intelligent, and worthy of respect, the social institutions one inhabits can express the opposite view. Part of the experience of oppression is to live this othering form of categorization in everyday social life. Even when one consciously strives to resist denigration and to hold fast to a positive self-relation, the social hierarchy insinuates itself into one’s self-understanding. In the most intimate moments of introspection, a unified self-consciousness escapes us because our self-understanding can never completely break from the social relations and ideologies that engender it. Social conflict is internalized, and it takes great strength just to hold oneself together; to live as a subject when others view and treat you as little more than an object, and when you are denied the freedoms, security, and resources enjoyed by others. Ultimately, only by undermining the social conditions of oppression through collective resistance can the double-consciousness Du Bois describes become one.

Racism produces race and not the other way around. Racial categories emerge from practical relations of domination, unlike ethnic groups, which are cultural forms of collective life that do not need to define themselves in opposition to others. Racial categories are neither abstract nor biological, but are social constructions initially imposed from without but soon after reconfigured from within through social struggles. As with all relations of domination, the original shared meanings attributed to one group are contrary to the shared meanings attributed to other groups and, thus, often exist as general dichotomies. This oppositional relation in meaning mirrors the hierarchical opposition of the groups in practical life—a fact that is neither natural nor contingent.

Masculinity and femininity, for example, are not natural categories: they are social roles within a social order and thus have a history just as racial groups do. Yet, like those of race, the social and symbolic relations of gender are not contingent. Indeed, masculinity and femininity exhibit a certain kind of logic that we find in every institutionalized form of social domination. Because gender is a way of hierarchically ordering human relations, the characteristics associated with the dominant group function to justify their domination. Group members are said to be, for example, stronger, more intelligent, and more moral and rational. Nearly every aspect of social life will reflect this, from the division of labor to the forms of entertainment.

In reality, the dominant group does not dominate because it is more virtuous or rational—indeed, the depth of its viciousness is limitless—but due to its dominance it can propagate the idea that it is more virtuous, rational, or civilized. “The colonial ‘civilizing mission,’” writes María Lugones, “was the euphemistic mask of brutal access to people’s bodies through unimaginable exploitation, violent sexual violation, control of reproduction, and systematic terror.”

The fundamental dependency of the oppressor on the oppressed is concealed in all ideologies of social domination. Although the very existence of the colonist, capitalist, white supremacist, and patriarch relies on the continuous exploitation of others, they propagate the idea of an inverted world in which they are free from all dependencies. This is the camera obscura of ideology that Karl Marx discusses in The German Ideology (1845–46). The supposedly natural lack of autonomy of the subordinated groups is, we are told, the reason for social hierarchy. Workers depend on capitalists to employ and pay them, women need men to support and protect them, people of color require whites to control and decide for them, and so forth.

Resistance to domination reveals the deception of this inverted world, destabilizing the practical operations of hierarchy and undermining its myths, for example of masculine sovereignty, white superiority, compulsory heterosexuality, and capital’s self-creation of value. Violence and various forms of coercion support these myths, but such violence would be ineffective if some groups were not socially, politically, and legally structured to be vulnerable to it.

While self-defensive practices can’t eliminate vulnerability, they can undermine it as a structuring principle of oppression.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Indeed, to be vulnerable to violence, exploitation, discrimination, and toxic environments is never the choice of the individual. Any radical liberatory agenda must therefore include among its aims the reduction of such group-differentiated vulnerabilities, which would strike a blow to many forms of social domination, including by not limited to race. This is not to say that vulnerability can be completely overcome. The social nature of our selves guarantees that the conditions that enable or disable us can never be completely under our control, and those very same conditions render us vulnerable to both symbolic and physical harm.

Turning specifically to consider self-defensive practices, while they cannot therefore eliminate vulnerability, they can reduce it for particular groups and undermine it at a structuring principle of oppression. Training in self-defense, writes Martha McCaughey in Real Knockouts (1997), “makes possible the identification of not only some of the mechanisms that create and sustain gender inequality but also a means to subvert them.”

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The Politics of Self-Defense

If we accept a social, historical, and materialist account of group and subject formation, and understand that groups are reproduced with the help of violence, both mundane and spectacular, then we can see why self-defense functions as more than protection from bodily harm. It will also be clear why self-defense is not external to questions of our political subjectivity. If we acknowledge that we are hierarchically organized in groups—by race, gender, and class, for example—which makes some groups the beneficiaries of structural violence and others disabled, harmed, or killed by it, we see how self-defense can either stabilize or undermine domination and exploitation.

Self-defense as resistance from below is a fundamental violation of the most prevalent social and political norms, as well as our bodily habits. As McCaughey writes: “The feminine demeanor that comes so ‘naturally’ to women, a collection of specific habits that otherwise may not seem problematic, is precisely what makes us terrible fighters. Suddenly we see how these habits that make us vulnerable and that aestheticize that vulnerability are encouraged in us by a sexist culture.” Organized examples of resistance to this structured vulnerability include the Gulabi or Pink Sari Gang in Uttar Pradesh, India; Edith Garrud’s Bodyguard suffragettes, who trained in jujitsu; as well as numerous queer and feminist street patrol groups, including the Pink Panthers. McCaughey calls these self-defensive practices “feminism in the flesh,” because they are simultaneously resisting the violence of patriarchy, while reconfiguring and empowering one’s body and self-understanding. We could similarly think of the self-defensive practices of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Deacons for Defense and Justice, Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement as anti-racist, as decolonization in the flesh.

Organized examples of self-defensive resistance include the Gulabi or Pink Sari Gang in India, Edith Garrud’s Bodyguard suffragettes, the Pink Panthers, the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Deacons for Defense and Justice, Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement.

Although self-defense is not sufficient to transform institutionalized relations of domination, unequal distributions of resources and risk, or the experience of double-consciousness, it is a form of decolonization and necessary for other kinds of mobilizations. The praxis of resistance is also an important form of self-education about the nature of power, the operations of oppression, and the practice of autonomy. When conditions are so oppressive that one’s self is not recognized at all, self-defense is de facto insurrection, a necessary making oneself known through resistance. While the most common form of self-defense is individual and uncoordinated, this does not make it any less political or any less important to the struggle, and this is true regardless of the mind-set or intentions of those exercising resistance.

We must, however, also be attentive to how resistance, and even preparations for it, can instrumentalize and reinforce problematic gender and race norms, political strategies, or sovereign politics. A critical theory of community self-defense should reveal these potentially problematic effects and identify how to counter them. There is, for example, an influential pamphlet, The Catechism of the Revolutionist (1869), written by Sergey Nechayev and republished by the Black Panthers, which describes the revolutionist as having “no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name.” This nameless, yet masculine, figure “has broken all the bonds which tie him to the civil order.” But who provides for the revolutionist and who labors to reproduce the material conditions of his revolutionary life? Upon whom, in short, does the supposed independence of the revolutionist depend?

Although the machismo and narcissism here is extreme to the point of being mythical—George Jackson said it was “too cold, very much like the fascist psychology”—it does speak to a twofold danger in practices of resistance. The first danger is that self-defensive practices are part of a division of labor that falls along the traditional fault lines of social hierarchies within groups. Men have, for instance, too often taken up the task of community defense in all contexts of resistance, which has the effect of reproducing traditional gender hierarchies and myths of masculine sovereignty. Considerations of self-defense must therefore be intersectionalist and aware of the transformative power and embodied nature of resistance, as discussed above. The group INCITE!, for example, seeks to defend women, gender nonconforming, and trans people of color from “violence directed against communities (i.e., police brutality, prisons, racism, economic exploitation, etc.)” as well as from “violence within communities (sexual/domestic violence).”

The second danger is a commitment to the notion of a sovereign subject, which is the centerpiece of authoritarian political ideologies and motivates so many reactionary movements. The growing number of white militias, the sovereign citizen movement, as well as major shifts in interpretations of the Second Amendment and natural rights, are contributing to an increasingly influential politics of self-defense with a sovereign subject at its core. For this sovereign subject—whose freedom can only be actualized through domination—the absolute identification with abstract individual rights always reflects an implicit dependency on state violence, much the way Nechayev’s revolutionist implicitly relies on a community he refuses to acknowledge. The sovereign subject’s disavowal of the social conditions of its own possibility produces an authoritarian concept of the self, whose so-called independence always has the effect of undermining the conditions of freedom for others.

Although one objective of self-defense is protection from bodily harm, the social and political nature of the self being defended makes such resistance political as well. Self-defense can help dismantle oppressive identities, lessen group vulnerability, and destabilize social hierarchies supported by structural violence. The notion of a sovereign subject conceals these empowering dimensions of self-defense and inhibits the creation of self-reliant communities in which the autonomy of each is enabled by nonhierarchical (and non-sovereign) social relations being afforded to all.


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