In Praise of Conflict

15 06 2011


Don’t reach across the aisle. Don’t partner with management. Don’t release a joint statement. Fight it out. That isn’t just an unfortunate way to make progress, in fact is the only way. Adversarial processes can be painful, stressful, and even destructive; but they are the only actual way to make change. It isn’t that one side is wholly wrong, that one side is wholly right. But there are conflicting, even mutually exclusive, goals between classes in society. Since individuals and their institutions will act in self-interest to impede the others’ goals, only actual conflict can achieve their goals.

Conflict is an actual engagement between parties in opposition. Two parties making opposing statements on a street corner aren’t in conflict in the way that two people making arguments in court are in conflict, because there is not going to be material change in position that results. Similarly, the individual act of voting, particularly in large-scale elections, is not an act of conflict because for the vast majority of voters the material change is de minimis. The degree of disagreement is a factor, too; the closer together the two sides, the less conflict involved.

Labor and capital are adversaries in the way two parties to a legal proceeding or business negotiation are adversaries. They have some goals in common, but many that are in conflict. We should assume they will not do anything to undermine their common goals: but the rest they have to resolve through conflict. We should assume parties will not do anything to undermine their common goals: this provides the framework for negotiation. The rest has to be resolved, and that process, even when it happens through direct negotiation, reflects the force and strength of the parties.

Social, economic, and political reform are efforts to re-mold society’s institutions. Society’s institutions reflect social relationships. This is particularly true of government. Women did not begin to enter government in significant numbers until relationships between men and women had begun to evolve. The marching in the streets, the rallies and voter drives were the phenomena of conflicts in the workplace, in homes, in public spaces. Conflict there led to action. Even great reforms by enlightened despots or aristocracies were either compelled by or were in response to changing social relations. Two of the most radical reform periods of ancient Rome–the Gracchan Tribuneships and Christianization under Constantine–were the results of long periods of intense social changes that put strain on social institutions. Tiberius Gracchus’s land reforms became necessary because of the influx of slave labor resulting from successful foreign wars. The way they manifested, through Gracchus’s subversion of the Senate’s authority by appeals to mass disruptions and the use of the Tribune’s veto, accelerated the collapse of the republic and the concentration of power–setting the stage for Sulla and Julius Caesar.

Gracchus' Flight

In our own time, the great strides of labor in the Progressive and New Deal Eras, and of minorities and women in the civil rights era, did not arise by acclamation, but adversarial–at times, even violent–processes. While individual pieces of, say, civil rights legislation were the result of high-level negotiations (this is true of Gracchus’ lex agraria too), but the negotiating resulted from and reflected in character massive and material conflicts–strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and non-cooperation with the institutions of society. The great reforms that so changed American institutions were a point in a continuum with its source in broader social conflicts. Again, petitioning, marches, and rallies were phenomena–they expressed social conflict.

It cannot be mere coincidence that America’s shift to a consumer society dependent on mass communication and marketing on a massive scale has taken the expression of conflict for the conflict itself; thus the proliferation of no-risk civil disobedience done for media consumption; the emphasis on media events organized top-down for media consumption to create an appearance, rather than alter a reality. The American political system has become one of appearance rather than substance. We elect leaders financed by the powerful, who rely on access to the influential, and expect them to make fundamental change because we confuse rhetoric and appearance for conflict.

The principle that the process of reform is determinative of the reform that results can be illustrated endlessly with historical examples from all corners of the globe and in every epoch. Perhaps the best practitioner of this principle though was Mohandas Gandhi, whose careful (though of course imperfect) implementation of it in the cause of Indian independence revolutionized mass political and social action.

Throughout his career, Gandhi argued with other leaders and members of the public about the practice of “non-violent resistance,” what he called “satyagraha.” In particular, many of the most active advocates of of independence–by definition radical elements–questioned why Indians were not justified in using force to expel the British who, after all, had used or prompted violence to take over in the first place.

In Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi took up this question of means and ends at some length. In dialog format, Gandhi dismissed the idea that righteous goals of fundamental reform could be achieved by illegitimate or immoral methods; or, more accurately, that the change eventually obtained will be deficient in direct proportion tot he degree of illegitimacy of the means employed. In doing so, Gandhi argued for a “non-cooperation” that would act on the state, rather than inside it. Swaraj for Gandhi meant full independence: individual, spiritual, and national. Thus the emphasis on for example homespun cloth and homemade salt, or his initiatives to encourage participation of women and “untouchables” in non-cooperation movements. Extrication of the individual from existing institutions was necessary before action could have force behind it.

Gandhi specifically notes that “petitioning” is admittedly useless unless there is “force” behind it; however, he holds the type of coercive force (“do what we ask or we’ll harm you”) advocated by some proponents of independence to be immoral and illegitimate. “We will get only what the British got,” in other words, such force will lack legitimacy with those from whom concessions are extracted, as well as their collaterals. He advocated instead for “love force” or “soul force,” the basis of satyagraha: actual conflict that undermines the institutions of society without resort to violence. In a 1931 speech, Gandhi made clear that any illegitimate action betrayed the cause of full swaraj: “I regard myself as a soldier, though a soldier of peace. I must ask you to believe me when I say that I have never made a statement of this description: that the masses of India, if it became necessary, would resort to violence.”


The means are not irrelevant. In fact, they’re the whole ballgame. Negotiations that happen at high levels must be pushed and molded by conflict in society–that isn’t some revolutionary thought, it’s a simple description of every major reform in history. Contemporary politics assume the inverse: that the sharper the means of oppositions, the less “serious” the party; the so-called “church of the savvy” treats as unserious efforts to organize people to move into conflict. Instead, we’re led to believe that we should just be quiet while a politician walks the fence and avoid alienating language, as though by tricking just enough people to vote for him, he could get into office and change things from the inside. We now know how ridiculous this argument is.

Broad social change will not ever come from technocrats. No number of think tank studies buttressed by form e-mails from constituents can bring about broad change. Gandhi addressed this in Swaraj Hind: “[A] petition from a slave is a symbol of his slavery. A petition backed by force is a petition from an equal and, when he transmits his demand in the form of a petition, it testifies to his nobility…” The process of conflict in society, the withdrawal from and therefore destabilizing of institutions, is what makes a petitioner an equal. That is when institutional leadership must, rather than may, compromise on goals that contradict with those of the petitioning party.

The result of any subsequent negotiation will bear the character of the process that brought it about. Contained in the process of conflict–the “means”–is the ends that will result from the conflict.

The U.S. labor movement has been riven by a process dispute in its progressive wing. On one side are democracy zealots who believe that revitalization of the movement cannot happen without real rank-and-file participation and militancy, because unless there is mass involvement there is no threat to the power of dominant economic institutions (i.e., major employers). On the other side are density zealots who dismiss the “idealism” of union democracy as secondary to the need to increase bargaining power through growth by whatever means possible, including partnerships with management to allow for go-along, get-along organizing.

While the latter argument has its merits, the former has some more historical evidence on its side. A workforce that has come into conflict with capital is battle-hardened and has the courage and inclination to petition with force–to act as an equal. So long as “unions” are created through high-level technocratic fiat, negotiations and their results will reflect that lack of militancy, that absence of force. In turn, efforts to turn the rank-and-file to political action will be shallow if broad. (That said, purist, de-centralized democracy is not feasible for a large-scale labor movement faced with extraordinarily concentrated capital).

A political cartoon about subtlety.

Capital has no adversaries. Democrats raise more money from Wall Street–a media-friendly synecdoche for capital–than Republicans do, and the Republican party is institutionally tied to “big business” going back at least to the 1970s. The labor movement is so small as to be basically insignificant: while it spends enormously on elections, its interests vis a vis capital are never addressed (though its interests vis a vis government itself periodically are). It represents a mere 7% of the private sector, and even that minuscule number is hampered by a lack of rank-and-file involvement. Every other area of “progressive” advocacy–on immigration, on the environment, etc.–is funded by the capital side of the equation.

A woman’s movement led and funded by men would not be expected to ultimately address the problems of gender relations; a civil rights movement led and funded by whites cannot be expected to address the conflicts between races. We know in our bones that social change reflects the process that brought it about. We see it in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we see it in the cyclical disappointment of our own electoral politics–conservatives electing a foreign adventurer with deficit-bursting budgets, liberals electing a surveillance state advocate who touts Contract With America style health care reform as era-defining progressivism.

Conflict is painful, and can be ugly, but it is necessary to bring about change. The sooner the leadership of the American left moves away from marketing-as-activism into non-cooperation, disobedience, and conflict in substance, the sooner our social institutions will reflect that rebalancing of power.



One response

7 07 2011
Portland and Chicago: Urban Dynamism « Same Subject, Continued

[…] personally am fond of (non-violent, though that should go without saying) conflict. Conflict is the source of dynamism. Renn is on to something here. Conflict and consensus are not […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: