Todd May’s Nonviolent Resistance: A Philosophical Introduction (2015) significantly contributes to the ongoing debate concerning political strategies of nonviolent resistance, what it is, and how it works. May defines nonviolent resistance as “political, economic, or social activity that challenges or resists a current political, economic, or social arrangement while respecting the dignity of its participants, adversaries and others” (59). He outlines diverse examples, practices, and strategies utilized by nonviolent movements, addressing how they work, philosophically, in relation to respect for dignity and equality. Additionally, May analyzes nonviolent resistance within the framework of contemporary neoliberalism that “erodes social solidarity . . . [and] contributes to an increasing individualization” (169). The government is less than trustworthy, and privatization and deregulation results in the government’s noninterference in what private corporations do (170). In part, nonviolent resistance is difficult to bring about because of the recurring neoliberal practices that have already structured social relationships into “isolated individualism.” However, nonviolent resistance can, according to May, bring about “cooperation, trust, and solidarity” (171). Neoliberal practices and the institutions that uphold them help to frame this symposium insofar as each participant addresses contemporary conflicts reflective of neoliberalism, demonstrating the usefulness of the book toward critically engaging with possible ways to nonviolently transform social, economic, and political conflicts.
The book begins with an extended analysis of the dynamics of past instances of successful nonviolent resistance, drawing on a history of scholarship on the role played by nonviolent resistance. From the Estonian “Singing Revolution,” to Ferdinand Marcos and Hosni Mubarak’s losses of political power in their respective states, to the Indian Independence Movement and the American Civil Rights Movement, and Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, May notes the nonviolent strategies that contributed to the success of these events, pulling from the theories produced by scholars such as Richard Gregg and Gene Sharp. He also distinguishes the anarchist strategy from a Marxist one, particularly in the anarchist’s rejection of Marxist hierarchically-organized protest, and its view that a militarized revolutionary group would give up power. Anarchism’s strategy is to be “the society one wants to see after struggle . . . in the struggle itself,” i.e. “prefiguration” (20–21).
There is much to say about May’s characterization of nonviolent protest, so, I will aim for brevity, which will inevitably exclude some of May’s argumentation. May emphasizes that nonviolence is not passive resistance, but active, and aims to avoid violence, which raises the issue concerning what kinds of violence does nonviolence avoid, particularly because the term “violence” is itself defined in diverse ways. May addresses arguments concerned with what violence and nonviolence are, produced by theorists such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Audi, Johan Galtung, Slavoj Žižek, C. A. J. Coady, Newton Garver, and various others, ultimately arguing that nonviolence, in its challenge to power, can sometimes be mistaken for a kind of violence (insofar as it communicates something that the adversary experiences as a kind of symbolic or psychological violence). May also adds that defining violence itself is problematic insofar as a restricted definition can fail to account for some kinds of violence, such as when a definition of violence only requires intentionally produced physical harm, and ignores unintentionally produced psychological harms that might count as violence. In contrast, a broad definition for violence could include too much. In the end, May focuses on Vittorio Bufacchi and Gerald C. MacCallum’s definition of violence as a “violation of integrity . . . [i.e.,] wholeness or intactness.” In this sense, a nonviolent action must respect the integrity of participants, adversaries, and bystanders. Furthermore, nonviolent resistance can be coercive, while respecting dignity, as long as the protest respects the fact that everyone involved has a life to lead, and no one exists for the purpose of serving the ends of others. Though threats tend to be violent because they do not respect the dignity of the adversary, whether nonviolent coercion counts as psychological violence depends on the context of the campaign. May also distinguishes between principled and practical nonviolence, which Geoff Pfeifer addresses first, in his encounter with May’s work. I will stop here to introduce May’s interlocutors’ primary points in their engagements so that this timely symposium can itself unfold.
In short, first, Pfeifer addresses May’s distinction between principled nonviolence and practical nonviolence, ultimately questioning the need for this distinction, and pointing out that principled nonviolence, the ideal that nonviolent resistance aims for, seems too unrealistic of an expectation for participants in an actual resistance. Pfeifer also questions whether not respecting adversaries is, sometimes, a more useful strategy. Second, Mark Lance suggests that May underestimates the problem concerning what nonviolent action is as a “practical recognition of dignity in those one struggles against” insofar as May too heavily emphasizes the need for the external expression of respect for dignity, and does not sufficiently address the internal, psychological transformations that are also a part of the struggle in nonviolent resistance. Lance also challenges May’s commitment to nonviolence, and wonders how a commitment to nonviolence can relate to potential allies who are willing to resort to violence. Third, Verena Erlenbusch challenges May, suggesting that perhaps he himself is (illegitimately?) exercising power in naming what counts as nonviolence, since he participates in a “politics of naming,” and she also wonders why we should want nonviolence in the first place. And finally, Shon Meckfessel takes issue with how May frames nonviolence as a disavowal of other kinds of violence, arguing that we cannot distinguish violence from nonviolence in the way May does, and that to do so is to undervalue the efficacy of some kinds of violent protest. That is, Meckfessel suggests that we should take more seriously the violence that occurs alongside nonviolence, particularly because riots (“unarmed violence”) have been successfully used in the past, especially by marginalized groups who are otherwise ignored. Meckfessel worries that the idea that a “good protestor” is a nonviolent one is what political authorities would have protestors believe, possibly forestalling the possibility of success.