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Disarmy

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Quebec police wheel away the Teddy Bear Catapult during the FTAA protests in 2001

Introduction to the Disarmy Concept

The disarmy is, first and foremost, a proposal for a new kind of organization, one that presents both the beginnings of a popular civilian-based defense, and one that advocates, plans and practices for an alternative approach to engaging in struggle: nonviolent action.

The concept brings together two new approaches to effecting social change:

I. An alternative, institutional and community-based approach for dealing with conflict and existential threats, and

II. A new way of engaging in those struggles and conflicts, based on nonviolent action.

Disarmy as Alternative Institution

Alternative institutions are an important part of social movements. They are conceived as alternatives to those institutions within a governing structure which, regardless of the overall illegitimacy of that government or the general failure to meet its subjects' needs, do in fact provide for some set of basic needs on which large portions of the population depend. 

Basic needs such as clean water, edible food, shelter from the elements, or derivative needs like gainful employment and self-determination, have, since the time we've evolved beyond small bands of hunter-gatherers, required an institutional response.  The need for a coordinated and community response to their provision follows from things like specialization and division of labour, economies of scale, resource limits, and the like. All governments, regardless of how despotic or tyrannical, owe their continued existence to the fact that they provide for some (though rarely all) of their subjects' needs, and that because of this, large numbers of people collaborate to various degrees with it.

This has led to the development of a platform for revolutionary struggle and social change called "dual-power" anarchism. The dual powers referred to in this case are:

a) the organizing of direct power (usually conceived of as military, though sometimes political), to confront and overthrow the powers-that-be; and 

b) the development of alternative institutions that people can turn to, either before a revolution as part of a progressive process of withdrawing support from the rulers and reducing dependency on their institutions, or during and after a revolution, as the rulers' pseudo-positive institutions collapse along with the oppressive ones, and without which the result would be mass deprivation and power vaccuums.

Alternative institutions not only serve as mechanisms for the provision of basic human needs, but they also serve as a locus of community building, skills sharing, education, and concsiousness raising.

One way of conceptually organizing such institutions is based on a hierarchy of basic human needs (see Maslow's hierarchy of needs, for example), where lower tiers on the hierarchy correspond to more acute needs. For example, breathable air, without which we would die in 3-4 minutes, is a more acute need than say, drinkable water, without which we would die in 3-4 days, which is itself more acute than the needs for edible food or for shelter from the elements, without which we may last anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on things like the local climate or the availability of metabolic reserves. Shelters, soup kitchens, community gardens and field to table programs: these are all forms of alternative institutions which address different basic needs.

There is, however, an even lower level to this hierarchy, one which is not normally discussed, and which is rarely if ever considered as a domain for alternative institution building. That level is the one occupied by pure existential threat itself -- defense against those things that are actively "trying" to kill you. The threat of loss of life (or of diminished quality of life) posed by inadequate or insecure provision of the higher tiers is in one sense a passive kind of threat. This is in contrast to those things in the environment which pose an active threat in the sense of an actively dangerous or lethal process -- historically this would have included strong representation by deadly weather or wild fires, for example, or wild animal attacks. Since antiquity, however, this risk has been predominantly in the form of one thing, namely the risk of violence and death wrought by a single animal, man. Think of all the ways men have crafted to kill one another, and how many of them are so much quicker than the 3-4 minutes that loss of air gave you, as popular as asphyxiation might otherwise be.

Institutions operating at this level are tasked with adressing immediate threats to life. In modern societies, the formal versions of these institutions are the army & police (and to some extent the other emergency services such as Fire/Rescue, Paramedics, Coast Guard, etc.). These institutions are those which, (whether good or bad, under popular or autocratic control, whether internally democratic or commanded & controlled) address the lowest level of the needs hierarchy - existential threat. Although in practice they may be more about defending unequal distribution of wealth at home, or serving as colonial shock troops abroad, the narative within these institutions is typically about saving lives, defending ways of life, etc.

Black panthers standing in formation

The hierarchy (or holarchy, to use a term useful for describing those kinds of hierarchies which are not value judgements but rather are structural and organizational schemes) of needs also hints at the existence of a similar holarchy of institutions. For example, we might ask the question, "Does the functioning of some institutions pre-suppose the existence of, functionality and availability of, others?" Some examples which illustrate this point include the fact that all activist movements, regardless of their issue, end up interacting with the Police (and sometimes the military) when the struggle turns militant, or the fact that even protest camps and Occupied parks are forced to turn to Emergency Services of various kinds if faced with a fire, a sudden medical emergency, or an armed attacker. Unfortuantely, physical safety and emergency medical needs are rarely considered beforehand, and the need for an institutional response to them is often only considered once the need suddenly (and inevitably) arises.

The Disarmy concept is an attempt at beginning to address the need for alternative institution building within the spheres of use of force and defense of life. Aspects which form part of the insitutional nature of addressing this need are the call for things like the formation of dojos, clubs and affinity groups, the securing of space for meeting, training and learning, and the creation of resrouces such as this Wiki site for gathering and sharing knowledge.There are historical precedents for this kind of phenomenon, which include a study of the role of Chinese martial arts temples and associations in key moments in Chinese history. Other historical examples of groups with elements in some way connected to the disarmy concept, include the Black Panther Party, the Guardian Angels, Brazil's Serviço de Proteção ao Índio "Indian Protection Service", etc..

An Institutional Capacity for Nonviolent Struggle

"We live in a world of many conflicts, and we have a responsibility to face many of them. Where the issues are of only limited importance, the difficulties in reaching a resolution are often small. There are, however, other conflicts in which fundamental issues are, or are believed to be, at stake. These conflicts are not deemed suitable for resolution by any methods that involve compromise. These are 'acute conflicts'.

Violence is not the only possiblity. War and other forms of violence have not been universal in the waging of acute conflicts. In a great variety of situations, across centuries and cultural barriers, another technique of struggle has at times been applied. This other technique is based on the ability to be stubborn, to refuse to cooperate, to disobey, and to resist powerful opponents powerfully."

-Gene Sharp, paraphrased from Waging Nonviolent Struggle

A disarmy is an organization of people involved in concerted and coordinated self-defense (activities that in society are normally conceived of as being in the domain of the police) and militant action (activities that, if employing other methods, would be normally considered military in nature), as well as ongoing training and preparation for such eventualities. 

Zapatista women confront soldiers from the Mexican army during the conflict in Chiapas, 1995

Disarmies are specifically conceived to become involved in the conflicts surrounding efforts to improve people's lives and protect our environment (believing that poverty, subjugation and environmental destruction are forms of slow violence).

Disarmies, though unarmed and the opposite of an army in many ways, are not at all passive. They engage in conflicts but in a way that avoids actively contributing to the fast violence of armed conflict (in fact, engage in a way designed ideally to actively disarm, destabilize and dissipate violent power). This is not because a preference for nonviolence is morally or ethically superior (though many participants may view it as such), but rather because it is believed to be more effective and more likely to result in the desired outcomes of redistribution of power and wealth, and the lessening of misery, fear and death in people's lives.

Firstly, the rulers are much better at violence (its monopolization or more effective use often being what got them there in the first place), and will take violent struggles in an arms race that has no end other than total annihilation for both sides (frighteningly, many with this mentality believe they will live on in some kind of afterlife that only they or their kin are privy to).

Second, the conflict is, in truth, not a conflict between people, but rather is a battle of ideas. Even large social structures are nothing more than the sum of all the actions and attitudes of the people making them up. People are animated by the ideas, to either live well together or to fear one another, to want to work with, or to seek power over another, to wish health or harm upon one another. Paraphrasing Ghandi, we want to change their minds, not kill them for weaknesses we all possess.

Despite Mao's insistence that "power stems from the barrel of a gun", ie from a monopolization of the means of violence, the only real source of power is the collaborative efforts of people. Rulers don't grow any food and they don't build anything. Even the tools to wage war are, since we moved beyond bows and arrows, entirely dependant on a vast network of cooperating (though perhaps under duress) people. The ability to make, wield, repair, refuel and rearm those tools rapidly dissappears if that consent is withdrawn. 

Instead, nonviolent action has the potential to get at the real root of power, namely people's collaboration in the endeavours of "society". It is a dual power process which both progressivley undermines that collaboration, while drawing away the real wealth and power that is people working together, into alternative institutions.

Violent action, in addition to failing to address the fundamental problem underlying whatever conflict is being addressed, actively harms the cause, regardless of any virtue or merit which may motivate it. The medium is the message, and the means become the ends. Fear of an existential threat turns off the minds of opponents, and strengthens bad ideas, which frequently have their origins in fear. Fear of extremism and violent or undisciplined action turns off potential allies and drives the general population (whose cooperation is the real source of "autocratic" power) away from supporting social movements. The large swaths of people who, though not themselves in power, are privileged by the system -- the people who perform the work of maintaining the power structure -- come to identify so strongly with the leaders that they fear (perhaps rightly so) for their personal safety should power change hands.

Nonviolent action, on the other hand, is fundamentally about chaning power relations, and about changing bad ideas rather than harming their hosts. The powers-that-be need to be removed from power, not tortured or killed for inhabiting positions that many helped create.

Radical participatory democracy meets the (Dis)Armed Forces

Woman talks to riot police during protestAnother way that a disarmy would set itself apart from an army, in terms of its approach to organization, would be its advocacy for radical democracy. Disarmy activities are necessarily those that demand a high degree of commitment, and may involve enormous amounts of risk. For this reason, disarmies should practice as radical a form of participatory democracy as possible. People have the right to determine what happens to their bodies (consent), and in addition to valuing self-determination for its own sake, bottom-up organizing also gives a group an amazing capacity for adaptability and strong, fluid action. This leads to the challenge, by no means insurmountable, of how to allow a group to be both democratically organized, yet coherent and coordinated.

So how can a group of people be both a free association and yet tight enough to stay cohesive and disciplined during the most violent onslaughts? How can an organization be incorporating the will and whims of many people at once, and yet achieve the speed, fluidity and descisiveness of a top down command & control army?

In part, we can dissect the methods and tools used by the traditional modern armed forces. For example, we can analyze the methods that they use to produce unity (perhaps thigs like the initial and intensive training together, the indoctrination, the unity of purpose produced by well-defined mission parameters, etc...) and to allow for rapid command & control (things like the mastery of mobile communications technology, the selective sharing of information, chains of command and the highly coordinated collaboration that comes from obedience of commands). All of these can be re-imagined in ways that are instead truly voluntary, consensual, democratic, "bottom up", organically organized, etc...

For example, in the science fiction novel "New Model Army", by Adam Roberts, a near-future emergent kind of (albeit armed) organization exists that uses a mobile technology to share information and make rapid decisions. Advanced information technology is being used to assist in rapid proposal formation & consensus development, and the system shares information which allows for that decision-making process, such as with live chat (text, audio/radio), advanced polling software and collaborative GIS management. The novel explores what happens when radical participatory democracy crosses paths with the institution of the army.

Another metaphor that helps understand how these features can emerge is to look at what can happen when two individuals who have never met, but who are like-minded and have extensive & compatible training, come together to perform. Inspiration can come from forms like salsa dancing and jazz music: both allow beautiful, complex and deeply coordinated activity to come spontaneously from freely acting individuals, and, if they are highly trained, even when they may never have performed together before.

What would a disarmy look like?

Disarmy activities would necessarily take many different forms in the context of different times and places. Nacent examples of this kind of organizing and thinking might be evident in the large-scale, coordinated nonviolent blockade of many intersections around the WTO conference in Seattle, by independent yet choreographed affinity groups from across the continent, in late November / early December of 1999. Those actions led directly to the collapse of that round of trade talks, and the postponement of keys elements of the neoliberal agenda. The activities and organizing methods of street medics at large demonstrations might also serve as a prototypical example.

As this is a new way of doing things, and in the process of being articulated, it would necessarily be difficult for those unfamiliar with these ideas to imagine what it might look like in practice. While the training, learning and teaching, part -- the "boot camp" part -- might look something like past examples of clubs, community centres and training academies, their deployment in the "field" is perhaps a more difficult thing to imagine.

Disarmies would probably initially begin as groups in isolation, with like-minded individuals coming together to form things like dojos or clubs for advancing theory and practicing techniques. Through ongoing and constant practice together, the community members would be developing discipline and the capacity for coordinated action. Members or some delegated body would decide together on when, where & how to deploy their skills in service to various needs that may arise along the path of social movement building and radical social change. Perhaps with many such groups operating, a larger structure might emege, bringing together multiple federated bodies, and eventually the potential for wider collaboration & collective action. The best articulation of a vision of how this could work on a large scale is work by Gene Sharp on the concept of Civilian-based defense.

The Disarmy concept, by bringing together both the promotion of trained, coordinated, democratic bodies to engage in nonviolent direct action, with the methodology for creating such a capacity among groups of people working together through a dojo or similar institution, creates a framework for building a true alternative, both institutionally and philosophically, to the present inadequate or absent response to these problems.

Perhaps we must turn to fictional, or even science-fictional, vignettes in order to imagine these ideas in action. One that is nice to imagine (though perhaps a reductio ad-absurdum example) would be a disarmy of grannies, facing down conventional forces. Instead of molotov throwing, black-clad youth, imagine the popular side of a revolutionary uprising bringing forward a front line of little, old ladies: small in stature, but, due to their years of martial-arts training, surprisingly sprightly. A wall of grannies, kind, gentle and completely uncompromising, inexorably closing on the riot squad, the soldiers, the goons. Perhaps the ideal form would have three to four grannies per man-with-gun. Cooing reassuring platitudes, talking with the men, telling them, "You have nothing to fear from us physically, though this naughty behaviour simply will not be allowed to continue!", they would surround them, slowly separate them, and relieve them of their weapons which would be immediately and visibly broken down and rendered unusable. After all, the disarmy grannies have more use for tea and cookies than they do the armaments confiscated from the (mostly) young men.

Might there still be terrible violence from the other side in such an absurd scenario? Perhaps. But the Disarmy would be trained to receive casualties, and never to inflict them. This is true not because it maintains some romantic, moral high-ground. Rather it is precisely because it is proposed as the most likely path to a future with much less death and suffering and oppression.

Further, the unwarriors on this path would be particularly good at nonviolent self-defense. The "modern martial art" of Aikido teaches methods which allow for extremely effective self-defense while also incorporating a philosophy that permits valuing, and striving to preserve from harm, the life of the attacker. 

Still to write

-a couple of paragraphs about the importance of desertion in toppling regimes (especially with new evidence for this coming from a number of "arab spring" countries' experiences

-articulating an alternative to the black block, with examples of what a disarmy pod or two would look like within a demonstration at large protests like G8/G20 summits, etc..

-concluding bit to summarize the main points of the disarmy concept

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