The Army of the Republic by Stuart Archer Cohen is one of those rare books that should be on the shelf of every activist. Cohen tells the story of an insurrection in the United States through the eyes of a militant, a corporate CEO and a nonviolent protest organizer. The Army of the Republic is a powerful imagining of what might have happened if the activists at the WTO in Seattle 1999 had been backed up by armed insurrectionaries. And while the book does not shy away from exploring the allure of violence and its potential positive use, Cohen also asks his readers to reflect on the deep, ethical dilemmas that come with insurrection.
One of the best contemporary novels about activism published in years, The Army of the Republic explores the limits of violence and the potential for insurrection. While ultimately Cohen personally embraces the nonviolent protest model for social change, his book leaves the debate open.
Cohen spoke about his book and the ethical dilemmas of violence in a recent interview with Adbusters contributing editor Micah White.
ADBUSTERS: What has been the reception to your book?
STUART COHEN: It has been very mixed. A review in the New York Times really pissed on it. And to me it seemed like the reviewer willfully misread the book. On the other hand, the community that has been most supportive has been the libertarian community. I think the book angers people and makes them uncomfortable because it is close to what has been happening.
I’d say generally that a lot of people are made uncomfortable by the fact that the urban guerrillas in the book are not portrayed as monsters or terrorists but rather as people who are responding to a situation. It’s been accused of romanticizing terrorism and that sort of thing.
AB: It seems to me that your book is one of the first to seriously consider the idea that an insurgent movement could play a positive political role because it forms a fringe that empowers the mainstream movement. Do you think insurgents in America could play a positive role?
SC: That was one of the questions that I set out to answer when I started the book because I had seen a lot of insurgencies in Latin America. I wondered, “Well, is it ever justified to kill the corner policeman to make a better world?”
I would say that the fringes define what the middle is. I don’t think that violent resistance can be controlled or that you can control the reaction to it. And it is usually more negative. Usually there is a more peaceful way to get things done. But I don’t think the urban guerrillas in the book are completely wrong either. It is a gray area. Measured on the whole it usually brings much more misery than it's worth. And I think you can tell from the book that my position is that activism – that middle way – is important.
It is a tough question and I haven’t completely decided.
Is there a role for insurgents? Oh gosh ... I’d say only in a really, really extreme situation and I’m not sure that the one in the book really merits the violence of the insurgents. I think in the book there is still a space for civil resistance to operate. And I think in the book the insurgents provide an excuse for the regime to become equally violent.
But there is a point where you feel like you must act. When they assassinate businessman John Polling in the beginning of the book, it is great. But by the end of the book the insurgents are abducting people and killing the people’s children by accident. And that is invariably what ends up happening, no matter how careful you are.
AB: It seems to me that your book tries to redeem protest movements of their post 9/11 failures. And the primary argument of the book appears to be that only a mass movement can achieve the change that we want.
SC: Yes, definitely. What happens is that extremist groups like the urban guerrillas in the book are invariably painted as terrorists by the mainstream media, which is in essence state media. And so they always lose the battle of the story. And that is what happens with all the urban guerrilla groups in the book. So what happens is that they typically get more and more separated from the mass movements.
The guerrilla groups I studied the most were in Argentina: the Montoneros and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo. And I interviewed some of those people and read their autobiographies and biographies. These groups always start out trying to organize people and then repression forces them to become violent because their ability to organize gets pushed underground when the government comes down on them. They become violent when they are not able to exercise their rights.
But once you go underground you no longer have contact with the mass movement: the people in the factories, in the streets and so on. It becomes harder to maintain that contact so that you think you are fighting for the People, with a capital P, but you become cut off from those people. That is what happens with the urban guerrillas in the book.
I think it is the mass movements, finally, that make the gains.
AB: Do you feel optimistic that protests can become effective again?
SC: Yes, I do. Not every protest is going to be successful. The protest I studied the most for the book was the Battle of Seattle, WTO 1999. I talked to some of the organizers and read a lot about it. That protest was successful because they were using strategies that had been used before but were not well known. And they had a police chief who was pretty fair-minded, who did want to go in and just brutally crush the protesters.
One conclusion I came to about that protest is that you wouldn’t have heard a word about the WTO if people hadn’t broken windows. And not everybody agrees with me. But my personal feeling is that if you don’t get some extremists who go out and break some windows then nobody cares. It is sad to say but breaking windows is a symbol that people really care. And I have trouble advocating that because the state, on the other hand, is obligated to keep order. You have to ask yourself whether the state has a duty to all its citizens to keep order. And so those kinds of questions are going to be in opposition.
I don’t want to advocate civil disorder and smashing stuff. But I do think civil protests have a place. And sometimes, unruly protests have a place in the whole spectrum of citizens voicing their opinions.
AB: Can violence play a positive role in contemporary politics?
SC: That’s a tough one ... because if I say yes to that then I am also saying yes to right-wing violence. I’d say there is a role for civil disobedience, and there always will be. A lot of the activists I talked to drew a distinction between violence against property and violence against people, and I think that is an important distinction. It gets murky very quickly though. You and I might rejoice when people destroy Monsanto’s next franken-gene, for example, but how do we feel when some white supremacist burns down a black church in Alabama? We are happy when Greenpeace blocks a whaling ship, but what about when people block an abortion clinic?
It is hard to lay down a rule. I think there is always a place for civil disobedience. That is what I will say.
AB: What is intellectually rewarding about your book is it presents these types of ethical dilemmas and does not resolve them fully.
SC: Yeah, and I was not able to resolve many of the dilemmas myself. I think in some cases violence is justified but it is not justified in the book, yet.
AB: Do you think that we are moving toward a kind of cultural civil war in America? Will the events you describe in your book happen?
SC: I’m mixed about it. Right now I’m working on an article called “Revolution from the Right” and my take is that there is zero chance of a popular revolution from the right. However, I think there are other dangers. The right wing usually seizes power through coups and they may use popular Brown Shirt movements – we got a taste of that with the Tea Party Movement. I think if Obama fails, or if there is a major economic meltdown all bets are off. And this last bout of economic collapse was nothing, I’ve been in countries when they’ve had economic meltdowns and it is a whole different reality: the banks close, people go out and burn the banks, police are everywhere and there is a 6,000% inflation rate so stores don’t even put prices up ... that’s what real economic collapse looks like.
I think events could play out like in my book. I think the right wing could easily seize power either through an election or a fake election. I think privatization is the next big goal. If the corporates can get a pro-corporate, right wing government in power then it will play out like in the book. All our manufacturing is already offshore; if you are not making anything, where is the money? It is in services. Suddenly you can turn the highway into a service that you must pay for. Water is the service that is exploited in the book.
In this country we’ve never had a media whose sole purpose was to foment hatred like we do now. It didn’t even exist during the McCarthy era. I don’t know how well a democratic society can survive that.
AB: What do you hope to achieve with your book?
SC: I want people to wake up and realize this is what democracy is. I want people to think about what democracy is. I wanted to think about the idea of armed struggle, the idea that you can go and just get that one bad guy and take him out with a sniper rifle. This idea is very appealing on the right and the left.
There are two cautionary messages: First, once you start the path of violent resistance, you cannot control it and it comes with a lot of unintended consequences. The other message is directed at the corporate elite: “You can get everything you want, but there are some real consequences of that.” And this book is about those consequences.
Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is currently writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org