A few weeks ago I took part in a Conference in Brescia in honour of the 60th anniversary of Paul VI’s Encyclica Populorum Progressio (March 1967). This document contains interesting reflections on the issue of violence. Paul VI, of course, criticises the use of violence, but he admits some exceptions: ‘ … revolutionary uprisings – except where there is manifest, longstanding tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country – engender new injustices, introduce new inequities and bring new disasters.’1
One year later, the Latin American bishops who convened in the town of Medellín (Colombia, in 1968) discussed the same issue in the chapter ‘The Problem of Violence in Latin America’ in their final document. They used, for the first time, the concept of ‘institutionalized violence’ to describe social injustice in Latin America, and to counter it called for ‘global, audacious, urgent, and deeply innovative transformations’. In this context, they quote the above passage from Populorum Progressio, adding however that the tyranny described by Paul VI can proceed ‘not only from one person’ but also from ‘clearly unjust structures’.2 The concepts of institutional violence and structural tyranny, introduced by the Bishops Conference of Medellín, moved the debate from the moral/the individual to the social sphere.
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We all agree on a nonviolent approach for the present social struggles in Europe. This is not an abstract issue, but a concrete political one, according to historical and institutional circumstances. In other times, for instance under the Nazi occupation, armed resistance was morally legitimate. In Europe today, practically nobody in the left claims that emancipatory movements should use violence. A handful of young activists, calling themselves ‘Black Block’, habitually break many windows during demonstrations, but this is (useless) symbolic violence, not directed against humans.
In Europe, however, there are various forms of institutional violence:
1) The violence of European neoliberal capitalist policies, leading to social suffering, growing inequality, precariousness, unemployment, poverty, and the dismantling of the welfare state. In some cases, as in Greece, financial capital and its institutions (the European Central Bank, the IMF, etc.) have used economic violence and blackmail to impose a brutal reduction of wages and pensions on a population, along with other socially regressive measures, leading to mass unemployment and misery.
2) The violence against refugees: By closing its borders, building walls, and extending barbed wire, European governments are responsible for thousands of immigrants perishing in the Mediterranean Sea. Those who arrived on European shores are being interned in ‘provisional camps’, and, in the vast majority of cases, denied asylum. Many are deported to their original countries. Desperately trying to escape wars – in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan – or famine, many refugees are being condemned to die by the inhumanity of the dominant European powers. Pope Francis denounced this situation in his famous intervention in Lampedusa (2014).
3) Violence against ethnic or religious minorities: In many European countries, discriminatory policies are being implemented against Roma (‘gypsies’), Muslims, Jews, and other minorities. In some cases, they are victims of murderous racist attacks.
4) Police violence against peaceful demonstrators, and police killings of individuals of colonial origin – mainly African and Arab – living in the poor neighbourhoods of large European cities.
Throughout Europe the answer to this institutional violence has been the rise of nonviolent social movements such as:
1) The legal or illegal networks of human solidarity with migrants, helping them to cross the closed borders, and giving them shelter, food, and fraternity.
2) The popular movements against neoliberal ‘austerity’ policies, such as the Indignados movements in Spain and Greece, or the mass strikes and demonstrations in France against the regressive labour law imposed by the government in 2016.
3) The social-ecological movements against the destruction of the environment by useless mega-projects, such as the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport in France, or against coal mining in Germany (‘Ende Gelände!’).
4) The symbolic nonviolent initiatives of movements like Attac, ‘expropriating’ chairs in several banks as a protest against their recourse to tax oases and their massive investments in fossil energy responsible for disastrous climate change. These initiatives have been repressed by the police, but the courts have usually refused to condemn the ‘chair reapers’.
These are only a few examples among many others.
There are various motivations in the choice of nonviolent forms of action: for some, nonviolence is rooted in moral and/or religious convictions; but for most of the activists, it is simply the fact that in Europe today there is no military or fascist regime that would require and legitimate emancipatory violence. As long as a minimum of democratic freedoms exist – though increasingly curtailed in several European countries – nonviolence is the reasonable option.
Clearly today in Europe, Marxists and Christians are united in understanding the need for nonviolent resistance to institutional violence.