The late fantasy author David Eddings was a brilliant man. I learned a lot from his books. One of the most profound insights into global politics came from a throwaway line in his “Mallorean” series, in which he restated a profoundly basic and exceptionally important point about the fundamental nature of nation-states.
At one point, Emperor ‘Zakath was informed that two of his enemies who had been threatening his rule had instead decided to turn on each other and were quite thoroughly attempting to destroy each other. The Emperor’s advisors thought this was a grand thing, and told the Emperor the wisest course was to simply let one destroy the other, then attack the winner.
‘Zakath dismissed the advice, and ordered his forces to attack both enemies. He explained that he had a strict policy that no one but him was allowed to have a victory within his Empire.
The principle underlying ‘Zakath’s seemingly ill-advised move was this: for a nation-state to survive, it must hold a monopoly of force within its borders.
This is not to say that the government must rule through violence; it simply says that any other party or body or group must not be allowed to use violence without at least fear of retaliation.
This is playing out in Mexico right now. The drug cartels have decided that they want to take on some of the prerogatives of a government (taxation, passing and enforcing laws, and whatnot), and have killed tens of thousands of people to assert that right (aided, abetted, and armed in part by the Obama administration). In some Mexican states, the cartels have informed the populace that they now owe “taxes” to the cartels, and have freely used violence to reinforce that message — one casino that didn’t pay up found a “lien” assessed against them in the form of an arson that killed over 50 people.
And it isn’t just the Mexican government that the cartels are working to intimidate. The online faction “Anonymous” announced that it was going to go to war with the cartels, exposing people who worked with them and publicizing their names and identities. The cartels replied that if that started happening, they’d take that war out of the internet and into the real world — and would track down and kill members of Anonymous. Anonymous promptly withdrew their declaration of war against the cartels, and the lesson was learned: Anonymous talks big, but will back down when their chosen target poses a credible threat right back. And the cartels showed the power that comes from holding a monopoly on force.
In the United States, though, it’s played out somewhat differently. Historically, whenever a group tries to get its way through force, it eventually loses. Or, at least, they are punished even if their side prevails.
- For example, the the anti-slavery movement that led to the Civil War. The South was the first to use force (at least formally), and they lost.
- The Civil Rights movement. The racists used violence as one of their main tactics against the civil rights activists, who (by and large) embraced non-violence and civil disobedience. In the end, the racists lost — and lost hard.
- The anti-war movement during Viet Nam. Yes, there were some who resorted to violence, but the struggle was largely won by non-violence, when the anti-war side prevailed in the PR war and in winning over enough people. Even after the war ended, the violent ones were still wanted criminals, and it took Jimmy Carter to pardon the deserters and draft-dodgers — years after the war ended.
This is a lesson the Tea Party understands on an instinctive level, and their rallies are exemplars of civil activism. No violence, no mayhem, no dire threats. Oh, yes, hints of rebellion, but as the old saying goes, “every now and then a little rebellion is a good thing.” But no open violence.
And then there are the Occupy mobs. They have several fundamental problems that will keep them from winning. The first, obvious one is that they have no clearly defined goal, agenda, demands, or even core principles. Which means that even if folks were inclined to negotiate and compromise with them, it’s doomed from the outset.
“OK, we hear you, and we’d like to talk. What are your demands?”
“Uh… I dunno, dude. We’re just pissed off.”
“Yeah, we got that. But what are you here for? What do you want to achieve?”
“We’re pissed off, and we want everyone to know that we’re pissed off.”
“Mission accomplished. But what would make you less pissed off?”
“Uh… I dunno, dude. You got any ideas?”
“What do you want us to do?”
“Fix things, man. Make it all fairer.”
“And just what would make things ‘fair’ enough for you to declare victory and go home?”
“Dude, you’re totally harshing my mellow here.”
The reasoning is simple. It’s Pride. The protesters are proud of their numbers, their might, and want to show just how strong they are and how they can act with impunity. They are far less interested in achieving any kind of concrete goals, but simply want to be recognized as worthy of recognition and respect — which they tend to confuse with “fear.” They don’t know how (or don’t want to put in the work) to win respect, but they do know what sort of thing inspires fear — and that’s what they want.
But that’s just on the surface. Where they’re really, really going wrong is in their constant insistence on making shows of force. The rioting in Oakland, the refusal to comply with laws and ordinances, the attacking of police officers in Boulder — it all is incredibly counterproductive. The average American isn’t filled with the kind of rage and envy that cheers on random destruction. No, they look at the riots, and they think “that could happen to me and mine.” They, by and large, look upon the police (even subconsciously) as protectors, and don’t like seeing the police attacked. They see the shutting down of Oakland’s port and think of the dock workers and truck drivers who just lost a day’s pay.
And further, it’s simply intolerable in the long term. The federal government simply can not stand to allow these rioters to continue unchecked poses a grave threat to the stability of the government itself. If for no other reason than to keep groups like the Tea Partiers from saying “you know, they’re getting all violent and getting their way. We behaved ourselves, and got pretty much nothing. Hell, the Democrats embraced them and called us ‘terrorists’ and ‘hostage takers.’And we have a hell of a lot more guns than those Occupy jerks do…”
Even the Democrats — who so far actually have embraced much of the Occupy movement and heaped them with praise — will eventually have to realize just who and what they are doing. The tactics emerging from the Occupy crowd are focused on one thing: to inspire fear. Fear in the authorities, fear in the powerful, and fear in those who don’t favor the vague, undefined goals and ideals of the Occupiers. And those tactics involve actual, real violence.
There’s a term for those who use violence to inspire fear to achieve their political goals. And it’s a pretty common word, especially in the last 30-odd years.
Here’s hoping the Democrats figure out that they’re trying to ride a tiger with the Occupy crowd before it gets truly ugly.