Transcript of a discussion on a friend's wall on the merits of responding "guillotines" to union text-bankers when asked what the country needs more of:

Me: When you respond "guillotines" what do you expect the campaign volunteer reading the response to think you're advocating for?

Them: Murder.

Me: Whose murder do you expect them to think you are advocating for?

Them: The richest people in the US.

Me: 0.1%, 1%, 5%?

Them: I think billionaires is a good cutoff. There are 540 in the US. So, the richest 0.000164%.

Me: Is executing them your first choice? Or would you prefer to see non-violent redistribution?

Is your objection that having this much money is immoral when others need it so much more, that you can't be this rich without having committed serious crimes, or something else?

Them: I'd certainly prefer a non-violent solution. Redistribution sounds lovely.

My objection is that we do not have anything remotely resembling a democracy. And I think that having that much money is actually immoral, while 21% of the children in the US are below the poverty line. Putting them together, I think it's a fine solution to kill them off until they can figure out how to release their chokehold on our government.

And it seems to me, solutions within the system have been adequately tried.

(I do think that keeping millions—let alone billions—for yourself is immoral when the money could do so much more, but that is the extent of my agreement.)

I see this perspective often in leftist spaces: the system has failed its most vulnerable, it cannot be fixed, we must escalate violently to transcend the system and find new solutions outside.

There have been many successful leftist revolutions, at least if you define success as gaining power. (And that gap is one reason why I wouldn't support violent revolution regardless.) What I don't understand is how leftists could look at the current political climate in the US and think that violent revolution would work out well for them?

It's not clear that Trump will leave office if he loses in November:

Crowd: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

Trump: Now if you really want to drive them crazy you say "twelve more years"

Crowd: [cheers]

Crowd: "Twelve more years! Twelve more years! Twelve more years!"

Trump at the Republican National Convention, 2020-08-24

Then consider that the military and gun owners tend conservative. While I understand why leftists would be unhappy with the status quo, violent escalation clearly plays into the narratives and strategy of the right.

(I wonder whether this is similar to what happened with ironic support for Nazism blending into actual support for Nazism? You go from commiserating about rent, to posting jokey memes referencing mass killing of landlords under Mao, to citing it unironically as the solution to the housing crisis?)

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It seems likely that you're just talking about different topics. "I'm upset enough to advocate irrational destruction and violence with no clear plan to long-term success" is a very valid statement. For very deep social-signalling reasons, it's never put that clearly, and instead framed as somewhat wild-sounding proposals. And this is internal to the person - they THINK it's a proposal, even when it's not.

You're arguing against the proposal, but it's not actually a proposal. One hint to this is the reference to "outside the system", but not actually being outside of the system (of politics) - guillotines required organized agreement by large groups of people, or they just get you arrested.

People are literally looting businesses and NPR is publishing interviews supporting it. They're not just interviewing people who support it -- the interviewer also supports it. What makes you think these aren't actual policy proposals?

They may only propose it for deep social-signalling reasons as you say, but that doesn't mean it's not actually a proposal. Historically, we've seen that people are willing to go through with mass murders.

I was curious what tone changes NPR made between the archived version you linked and the current version. I ran a quick diff:

  • hand-wringing about looting. -> condemnation of looting
  • bemoaned the property damage -> denounced the property damage
  • "" -> Osterweil is a self-described writer, editor and agitator who has been writing about and participating in protests for years. And her book arrives as the continued protests have emerged as a bitter dividing point in the presidential race.
  • I spoke with Osterweil about this summer's riots, the common narratives surrounding looting, and why "nonviolence" can be a misleading term. -> I spoke with Osterweil
  • Now, as protests and riots continue to grip cities, she argues that looting is a powerful tool -> Now, as protests and riots continue to grip cities, she stakes out a provocative position: that that looting is a powerful tool
  • The rioters who smash windows and take items from stores, she says, are engaging in a powerful tactic -> The rioters who smash windows and take items from stores, she claims, are engaging in a powerful tactic* new Black and Brown nations -> new Black and brown nations
  • the Civil Rights bill -> the civil rights bill
  • You know, one of the causes of the L.A. riots was a Korean small-business owner murdering 15-year-old Latasha Harlins -> You know, one of the causes of the L.A. riots was a Korean small-business owner [killing] 15-year-old Latasha Harlins

On one hand, I think you're mostly right about this not being an actual proposal, but I also think that people saying stuff like this would (and will) use guillotines if/when they have the opportunity and think they can get away with it.

If they would do it, it's an actual proposal.

It's not a proposal without some path to implementation or vaguely possible opportunity to do it. "guillotines" is a signal and perhaps a pipe dream. It's not a plan or useful suggestion.

Related post by hilzoy.

Its opening section is the part that's least related, so you could skip it and begin with this part:

Back in 1983, I sat in on a conference on women and social change. There were fascinating people from all over the world, women who had been doing extraordinary things in their own countries, and who had gathered together to talk it through; and I got to be a fly on the wall.
During this conference, there was a recurring disagreement about the role of violence in fighting deeply unjust regimes.

Excellent post; thanks for the link!

I like the first section as well, especially the "war is not the instrument he thought it was" perspective.

(I grew up Quaker, and while at this point I am not 100% pacifist I am generally extremely skeptical about the ability of violence to improve situations)

Man, I'm reading the first volume of The GULAG Archipelago and that talk about murder is just sickening.

Doing a thing that hurts me is stupid, in isolation. But having a precommitment to do X even if it hurts me, can be a powerful tool in negotiation. "Give me a dollar, or I swear I will click this button and kill us both" can be a good strategy to gain a dollar even if you don't want to die, assuming you are sufficiently certain that your opponent fears death, too. ("My opponent doesn't seem to have sufficiently strong precommitments against blackmail, and he knows he has more to lose than I have" is a possible heuristic for when this strategy might work.)

People won't express it this way, either because they are not fully conscious of the game-theoretical mechanism their instincts tell them to use, or because they want to be the good guys in their story. (Actually, not understanding your own motivation is another game-theoretical tool: if you can't understand it, you can't change it, and that makes your precommitments more credible.) From inside, it's just when the world feels unfair, strategy "if you won't make me happy, I will burn down the entire place" feels like the right thing to do. The explanations how burning things actually improves places are just rationalizations.

Then there are many biases and lot of hypocrisy on top of that. Because we are evolutionarily optimized to live in smaller groups, people are probably likely to overestimate their chances in violent conflict. (When hundreds of people are on your side, what could possibly go wrong? In a Dunbar-sized tribe, nothing.) On the other hand, most people will only speak about violence, and expect someone else to initiate it and bear the risk. Etc.

What I don't understand is how leftists could look at the current political climate in the US and think that violent revolution would work out well for them?

Do they mean it, or do they just bond over the sound of talking violence? (Simulacrum level 1 or 3?)

Assuming they mean it literally (which I don't think is the case for most), I can imagine some possible sources of bias. Maybe the near-mode experience of living in a strong bubble at campus trumps the far-mode knowledge of election results. Or the belief that they represent the majority is so strong it resists empirical falsification. ("We are the people. Those who vote against us are just temporarily confused, but they will join us when they see us fighting for their rights.") Maybe they assume the opponents are less organized on average, or unwilling to fight. (A smaller organized group can defeat a larger disorganized crowd. Also, elections show the direction but not the magnitude of your political faith: "I weakly believe that X is lesser evil than Y" vs "I am willing to sacrifice my life for X".)

This reminds me of the "The Toxoplasma of Rage" post by SSC:

The question of "why do the left play into violent confrontation, even though it's suboptimal from their perspective" is another version of the central question discussed in the article.