Rethinking Nonviolence: An Interview with Jeriah Bowser

What if the great heroes of nonviolence didn’t totally support nonviolence? What if the widely hailed “successes” of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. were not actually a step forward for oppressed people? What if their nonviolent resistance movements were only effective due to lesser-known violent resistance? What if the people in power want us to think that nonviolence is the only acceptable way to resist oppression?

Jeriah Bowser posits that if we knew the truth about the history of resistance, we’d threaten what he calls Business As Usual. We don’t know the nuanced details of effective resistance because we’ve been fed a narrative that immobilizes us. In his new book, Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, Bowser gives a brief but dense overview of oppressive power, and what it might look like to live in a society without oppressive authority or hierarchy.

After reading the book, I had some questions for Jeriah. I wanted to know about his background and credibility, and what informed his radical notions. He told me about his experiences with oppression and resistance throughout his life as an inmate, a wilderness therapist, and a staff member for a juvenile detention center, and shared his narrative of human origins. Here’s the conversation we had.

Q. Jeriah, you say in your book that we think nonviolence is effective because the State – essentially the people who are in power – want us to think that. You listed Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. and say that they were what the State needed: people who were against really threatening the system. Then you make a case for violent resistance. Can you explain in simple terms why it’s not okay for the State to be violent, but it’s okay for you to be violent?

To start with, the State is not an actual being. It’s a social construct, a legal fiction, it’s something that only exists because we all agree it exists, it’s a cultural entity. So when you say “the State,” what it looks like in reality is one person with an imaginary fictitious power over another person. So, as an example, you could say a judge has fictitious power over someone who broke a law or a policeman has fictitious power over someone who broke a law, or a soldier has fictitious power over someone from another State, etc. So why is it not okay? …My personal belief is oppressive violence of any sort used by anybody against anybody else is destructive, therefore I choose to resist it. Every person needs to, in the moment, whenever they feel like something is happening that is unjust, think, “am I okay with the terms of this relationship? Is this acceptable? Do I agree to give a third of my labor to this entity (aka taxes); do I agree with giving my life to this entity (aka military service or legal execution); do I agree with the terms of this social contract?” And if you’re not, then I would advise you to resist. This also takes place on a personal level, with abusive relationships, families or significant others; if someone is abusing you, violating your boundaries and your well-being, you have to ask, “Do I accept the terms of this?” And if you do, then keep accepting it. If one day you decide that you don’t, then you can stop accepting those terms, hopefully. That’s what I mean by resistance.

Q. One of the most interesting things you talked about in the book is “Privileged Pacifism.” For me – especially with a lot of the issues lately in the news, I’ve seen people saying “violence is never the answer” –

Can I pause you right there? So whenever I hear that, I always insert the word “sanctioned” into that sentence. Because what people who are saying that are actually saying is “unsanctioned violence is never the answer.” Only sanctioned violence is acceptable, and by “sanctioned,” I mean “declared acceptable by the State or by power.” So when a cop murders a black teenager, that’s okay because that’s sanctioned. What’s not okay is unsanctioned violence. So whenever you hear the phrase “oh, violence is never the answer,” always insert the word: “unsanctioned violence is never the answer” in front of that, and that will help make a lot of sense in deconstructing power.

Q. Do you think power should ever exist?

There’s this concept that Noam Chomsky talks a lot about: power having to justify itself, and I’ve found that to be super helpful. What that means is that any rule or any power structure can be challenged at any time, by anybody, for any reason. So what this looks like practically is my very first wilderness therapy job that I had many years ago. My field manager told me that any rule that we had there, if a kid asked why we did it and I couldn’t explain it, then that rule didn’t need to be there. If I can’t explain why, then it’s rule just for rule’s sake. In Christianese it’s called legalism, and I created my own term for it – Hierarchal Personality Disorder: people who depend on rules and laws just because they’re rules and laws. For every rule, and I let my clients know this every week, I’ll be like, “If there’s a rule that you don’t understand, let me know. Talk to me about it. None of these rules are here just for rules.” And the kids will do that, they’ll be like, “Why do we…why does a guy have to be in front when we’re out mountain biking?” You know, I’ll explain why. For safety, for monitoring, because we have a first-aid kit on us, there’s always a reason. And they’re like, “Oh, okay, I get that, that makes sense.” They understand that I’m using my power – which I do have, I’m not going to deny – I’m using my power to enhance their experience and to help them, and at any point they can question and challenge that. There’s no rules that exist just to contain them. All the rules that I have make sense to them and they embrace, and they get.

Q. It sounds like you work with dealing with oppression on a personal level, rather than a macro approach to overthrow the government. Do you think that’s more effective in freeing people?

Yeah. All anyone has is what’s in front of them, and the people in front of them. I mean, writing and ideas and philosophy is fun, but ultimately change happens on an individual, personal level. I don’t know of any revolution that happened from a book being written. But at the same time, I see my two worlds as incredibly and intimately linked and interrelated. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book – my years spent in the mental health industry, working with people who have been severely abused. My experience working in that industry merged with my growing political awareness and social awareness. I was seeing a lot of things that connected, like how the same exact dynamics apply whether abuse is happening on an interpersonal level or a geopolitical level.

When I’m at work, I’m teaching my clients how to draw boundaries, how to keep themselves safe, how to assertively communicate, how to draw boundaries in relationships and step out of an abusive relationship. In my own life, I’m starting to do that with the State and with agents of the State, and I’m doing the same exact thing politically that I’m teaching my clients to do personally. So I try to use a lot of language from the field, language that I’ve learned in the books when talking politically, trying to merge the two worlds, because ultimately I do think it’s the same concepts, the same dynamics at play. Someone who can learn to draw boundaries and resist on a personal level is going to be better at resisting on a macro level.

Q. If I want to minimize violence in my own life, what are some keys to finding the least violent and most effective methods?

There came a time when I realized my pacifism was doing more harm than actively engaging was. There were moments of cognitive dissonance where I had to deal with the fact that my pacifism was ineffective and even complicit, and my immediate desire to remain nonviolent was creating and perpetuating more violence. I have a deep desire to heal, to do no harm, and to live in the most nonviolent and best way possible, which means that I must be violent sometimes. I honestly think the biggest thing people can do is learning to connect with other people, and learn to see others as sacred beings instead of objects, whether they be oppressors or victims. I really do think the most merciful and compassionate thing you can do for an abuser is to hold them accountable for their violence. That can look like a million different things – it doesn’t necessarily mean kicking the shit out of them, but it could be. Once you see somebody, once you’re able to look at the world around you and recognize the people in your life as people; once you’re able to not connect with them and see their hurt and their pain and what’s going on for them, I think you’re naturally – I guess I can say for myself that I’m naturally driven to try to help, heal, and connect with them. That in itself is what drove me on this quest in my life to write this book and try to educate others and talk to people about this.

Q. That really resonates with me, but I think there are a lot of people who ask, “Why can’t the State do that?”

‘Cause that’s not its job. The role of the State is to enforce private property and hierarchy. The State exists to reify those two concepts. That is its primary function, that is the reason that the State exists. Both of those concepts are built on inequality and oppression.

Q. Why do you think so many people live under the impression that the State exists to promote justice and freedom?

One, because that’s all they’ve ever been taught, and two, because they need to believe that in order to validate their own existence. Not believing that is a super scary thing, and you have to question pretty much everything you’ve ever been taught, and everything you’ve ever been told. And quite honestly it’s easy to believe that, it’s simple. It’s a very simple way to view the world and it doesn’t require a lot of work or challenging or action, really. It absolves you of responsibility. As long as you pay taxes and vote, and do what you’re told, you’ll have a nice, easy life with a home and retirement and garage door opener and all that. But yeah, ultimately the State’s job is to do the exact opposite, and as long as we continue allowing the State to do its job, it will continue to do its job, and it will continue doing its job no matter what, but it’s fun to resist.

Q. Do you think that humans can exist without separating into leaders and followers?

Of course! 98% of our existence has been just that. I mean, thousands of indigenous communities today exist in that way. Our culture – and by “our culture” I mean the culture of civilization – is one out of perhaps hundreds of thousands of human cultures, and if you extend that into non-human cultures, it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions, and ours is the only culture out of these hundreds of thousands of cultures that exists in this way. And we’ve only been doing this for one to two percent of our history. This way of being is an incredibly anomaly…and this isn’t even radical anthropology, this is anthropology 101.

Q. Do you have any other thoughts to add?

Another idea I’ve been playing with lately is the difference between rhetoric and action. I have several acquaintances – I should say former acquaintances – who are pretty ignorant, straight up racist assholes who in a lot of ways are actually resisting State oppression in a lot more ways than I am due to the fact that they don’t pay taxes, and they don’t participate in any State activities. As ironic and as cringe-worthy as it is, I am actually contributing to racism more than these pretty racist people because they, for their own reasons very different from mine, choose not to participate in taxes or consumerism, and I do participate, obviously as little as I can, but I haven’t gotten to the place where I can free myself from purchasing things or paying taxes, so where’s the line? Does it really matter if you say stupid asshole-ish things if you’re actually contributing less? I remember there was this really good interview in the wake of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, where this reporter was interviewing Derek Jensen, asking about whether he supports the use of violence in furthering ideas, and Jensen responded with an incredibly brilliant retort, he said, “Actually, you’ve killed way more people than Ted Kaczynski has, because you’ve been paying taxes for the past 10 years, and he hasn’t.”

I don’t care what you call yourself, as long as you’re actually not participating. I don’t care if you’re the most radically educated person in the world, if you’re contributing your life and your resources and your time to systems of oppression, does it really matter?