Tomás Hirsch: the meaning of nonviolent action

February 2, 2013

Posted by: Pressenza IPA Posted date: 02 February 2013

On February 1st the Chilean humanist Thomas Hirsch took part in the International Conference for Peace that took place at Munich, called “Non violent ways of regime change.” We publish here the transcript of his words: “The name proposed for this conference is already arguable.

Firstly, as a reflection rather than a criticism, if I am asked to talk about nonviolent regime change is because the basic assumption is that the possibility exists for regime change through violence. Obviously this is still installed in the minds of many of us to produce the changes we seek, while nonviolence appears only as an addition to the existing possibilities.

Beyond the ethical position that leads us to reject its use, the question is: Is it really possible to bring about change through violence? Are there any real examples that it actually changed the political, economic or social situation?

To answer this we first must agree on what we mean when we talk about violence. Surely we all agree that hitting another person is an act of violence. No question about it; but beyond the particular case of physical violence, its essence is to prevent the expression of other people’s freedom and that can be done both with punches and with less showy but equally monstrous means.

If I put a fence around a city or country and control everyone who enters or leaves, that is violence. If a financial system restricts my rights to food, housing, education and health surrounding me with debt, difficult to understand speculative interests and commitments, that is violence. Physical violence and economic violence are different only in appearance. And what about psychological violence? We are familiar with the manipulation of minds and the generation of fear through propaganda and information control.

All forms of restrictions to the freedom of another human being or an entire society, either by force, or by the control of subjectivity, or by controlling their livelihood, are all different forms of violence because they obstruct what is essential for Human Beings: their freedom.

In the last century the great moments for humanity in terms of nonviolence have been, for instance, the creation of the United Nations, the tremendous process of decolonization that gave rise to most present day States and the unilateral disarmament began by the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. And more recently the announcements by Germany and Japan that they will close in the next 30 years their nuclear power plants have been of great relevance. There is a force fighting in favour of life and overcoming suffering. But these models are rapidly degraded to slow down their implementation and are disqualified as examples to follow.

We must be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that because a ruler is replaced by another with a different tendency, less cruel, more democratic, by that fact alone violence has been eradicated.

This new ruler may lower the physical violence, the brutality of torture, citizens’ disappearances, but that in no way means that violence has ended.

Millions of people face in their daily living economic, racial, religious, generational, sexual and psychological violence. When a dictatorial regime ends the more explicit and brutal violence also ends, and everyone is happy about the change, but behind the most conspicuous events the fact is that all other forms of violence remain untouched. Then, if there is no decisive direction towards structural change, any progress made can easily fade away and definitely end up not changing almost anything.

This happened in Chile, where we lived 17 years under one of the worst dictatorships and we finally defeated it with a vote in a referendum that they themselves had devised. I will not remind us here of all that long process, but let me tell you that 23 years after the end of the dictatorship we still have the same anti-democratic Constitution created by Pinochet. We live in a very poor democratic system, sold well abroad as successful, but deeply unfair.

I have been travelling the world for 15 years to explain the failures of this apparent success. And everywhere I encounter a spectacular image of the Chilean process. And the reason for this good image is simple. Those who raise it are the very same who have benefited from the continuity of the economic, political and social model inherited from the dictatorship. Retired people who have seen their pensions vanish, sexual minorities who are still discriminated, students who must take loans beyond the imaginable, poor women who cannot survive on their miserable salaries, citizens in contaminated villages to the point of disease and death, the Mapuche people, whose land was snatched, none of them have had the money or the chance to get out into the world to denounce their drama, nor the space in the media to publicize their reality. For years I travelled through countries denouncing the Chilean reality and was regarded as an oddity, unable to see “the spectacular success of the Chilean transition”. This began to change only last year, after such huge student demonstrations with which the world began to realise that the Chilean reality is very different from what the powerful have sought to show.

I come from a country which after almost 30 years of continuous economic growth it has ended up being one of the worst in income distribution in the world. That is violence.

In Chile, a country of lakes and glaciers, water is private and its property is governed by a law that is unique in the world. Electricity, gas and all forms of energy were privatised by governments self- labelled as centre-left. Fishery resources have been handed over only a few weeks ago, without competition and in perpetuity to 7 powerful families. Copper, which is our greatest asset and that once belonged to the Chilean people, today is mostly exploited by a few multinationals that take it away practically without paying any taxes, only a royalty so low that it is a national disgrace. Every year my country loses billions of dollars just in uncollected taxes from private mining companies. Everything has been privatized in Chile. Everything is everything. The large student demonstrations you saw last year were asking for something as basic as the right to an education. They demanded free, public and high quality education. And these young people were repressed with the brutality characteristic of the worst authoritarian regimes. Education in Chile is private. And it is an excellent deal for those who control it. The same happens with healthcare and social security. And the Mapuche people are still having their territories snatched, deprived of what is theirs. All that IS violence.

So here, in my country, we have the best example that eradication of the brutality of a dictatorship is not the end of violence. In reality military administrators were replaced by civilian administrators but keeping the same system. Civilians are more presentable and have better marketing than the military, but make no mistake: Basically they maintain and deepen a violent system. If violence was physical before, today is economic, especially from a speculative financial system that is suffocating individuals and small businesses.

One might ask: is it not just what you describe evidence that non- violence does not lead to change in the social structures? What was left of the hope awakened in the world by Allende’s coming to power, driven by millions of Chileans who wanted a better world? I shall answer that even though in Chile we are still living a painful moment, perhaps because we had the misfortune of being Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys guinea pigs, perhaps because the system refuses to drop the initial model in a world where the neoliberal failure is loud and clear, my answer is that precisely in this Latin America humiliated by the military at the service of the U.S. strategy, in this Latin America today are blowing the winds of peace and social welfare, inclusion, fellowship and advances towards humanism like never seen before in its history. And that is also the heritage of what began to emerge in the 70s movements, which could not and cannot be silenced by any regime.

But I would like to move away from the specific case of Chile to share with you some more general reflections on the subject: We know that the current situation is critical in all latitudes and characterized by poverty of vast regions, by the conflict that arises between cultures as a reaction to the attempted imposition of another pretending to be the only, universal one, and the discrimination that pollutes the daily lives of large segments of the population. Armed conflicts affect today many areas and at the same time we can observe the deep crisis of the international financial system.

We must emphasize that the most urgent problem to be solved is that of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction growing every day and threatening life on earth. We cannot be left at the mercy of a leader’s moment of madness or a group that achieves nuclear capability, or simply an accident that unleashes a catastrophe that escapes control. The danger of the current weapons requires us to consider them a priority factor in the effort to build a different world. The Fukushima disaster in Japan has been a sign of the danger that exists even with nuclear energy for civilian use. Try to imagine what their intentional use for destruction might mean.

If there are countries that possess nuclear weapons, what coherent argument can be used to prevent others from having them? How to justify the requirement to Iran or Brazil or any other country not to acquire nuclear power status? There is no logical reason to justify that some countries could develop nuclear weapons and others not. The notion of having weapons for nuclear deterrence failed the moment that the technology was available to any group with minimal organization.

While continental and regional powers show each other their teeth in a threatening manner, populations suffer in all latitudes, even in Europe that was supposed to be already out of the struggle for survival.

It is urgent to raise awareness about peace and disarmament. There is an immediate need to create conditions and demand by all means at our disposal:

1 – Global nuclear disarmament;
2 – The immediate withdrawal of invading troops from occupied territories;
3 – The progressive and proportional reduction of weapons;
4 – The signing of non-aggression treaties between countries
5 – The renunciation by governments of the use of war as a means to resolve conflicts.

However, ultimately the eradication of violence is not achieved only through social change. Its root is not in the social system but in our own psyche and everyone has to make an effort to overcome it in oneself. It requires a simultaneous change in which as we improve the social system, we understand the root of violence in us and how it can be overcome. This is not a simple issue, it relates to what is essential to the human being and touches on our deepest beliefs. It has to do with communication with others and with oneself.

Ultimately, it refers to the fundamental questions about the Meaning of life, who we are and where we are going.
And if someone were to insist that non-violent change is only a distant unattainable dream, I would tell them to adjust the focus and see the symptoms of the new world already here, close by and among us.

During the last year we have seen signs of a new sensibility that is emerging. We must remark on this new sensibility that beginning in the Arab world has manifested itself in different latitudes. A new generation emerged into the social landscape with a new style, a new language and new forms of organization. We saw it in the 15M of Spain and European movements, Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. and in the hundreds of thousands of students who marched in Chile. In Russia, China and the West they surged demanding greater democracy.

This new sensibility irrupted and is still alive in squares and streets. It hates violence, rejects verticalism, abhors discrimination and is ready to organize mass, planetary and simultaneous mobilizations.

The system at the beginning was surprised and incapable of giving a response to this emerging sensibility like a vital whirlwind, then it repressed it with extreme brutality. Not only it repressed it but in some places it maliciously accused it of being linked to armed groups that promote civil war and move interests very distant from democracy and social justice. But beyond the repression and disqualification, this sensitivity exists and will continue to show signs of a new thinking, universalist, non-discriminatory and non-violent.

In this social scenario I would like to highlight the role that Universal Humanism can have at present. Taking Silo’s words, founder of this movement: “We seek a humanism that contributes to the improvement of life, that makes common cause with those who stand up against discrimination, fanaticism, exploitation, and violence. In a world that is rapidly globalizing—and throwing diverse peoples together as it shrinks ever smaller—we see growing symptoms of the resulting clash between cultures, ethnic groups, and regions. Such a world needs a universalist humanism—a humanism that is both plural and convergent, diverse and unifying. A world in which countries, institutions, and human relationships are becoming destructured must have a humanism capable of impelling a rebuilding of social forces. A world in which the meaning and direction of life have been lost needs a humanism capable of creating a new atmosphere of reflection, in which the personal is no longer unrelentingly at odds with the social, nor the social with the personal. We seek a humanism that is creative, not repetitive— a new humanism that will encompass the paradoxes of the age while aspiring to resolve them.” Finally, a reflection: When will humans stop using violence? We believe that this will occur only when visceral revulsion arises; when the body rejects it as if it were something poisonous and dangerous to life. That has not happened yet and is a physiological change that may still take a long time.

The question then is how can we help accelerate that process? That is precisely the meaning of nonviolent actions we promote every day.

We are contributing in a humble but important way to the historical process, for humans to progress from this prehistory in which violence is part of their daily routine to a human being who remembers violence as something from another time.

We, humanists from different latitudes, are contributing in this direction without even knowing if we will witness the great change we aspire to.

And that may be the most inspiring aspect of our action; an action that does not end in ourselves. We are not promoting nonviolence as a personal matter; we are promoting the construction of a nonviolent society to ensure that future generations can live with dignity. We do it also to acknowledge all those who have preceded us in the long road of humanity’s journey.

We do so primarily to ensure the continuity of the human being towards an open, free and luminous future.

Thank you very much.“


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