Are We Living Through a De-Dollarization?

De-dollarization is apparently here, “like it or not,” as a May 2023 video by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a peace-oriented think tank based in Washington, D.C., states. Quincy is not alone in discussing de-dollarization: political economists Radhika Desai and Michael Hudson outlined its mechanics across four shows between February and April 2023 in their fortnightly YouTube program, “Geopolitical Economy Hour.” Economist Richard Wolff provided a nine-minute explanation on this topic on the Democracy at Work channel. On the other side, media outlets like Business Insider have assured readers that dollar dominance isn’t going anywhere. Journalist Ben Norton reported on a two-hour, bipartisan Congressional hearing that took place on June 7—“Dollar Dominance: Preserving the U.S. Dollar’s Status as the Global Reserve Currency”—about defending the U.S. currency from de-dollarization. During the hearing, Congress members expressed both optimism and anxiety about the future of the dollar’s supreme role. But what has prompted this debate?

Until recently, the global economy accepted the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the currency of international transactions. The central banks of Europe and Asia had an insatiable appetite for dollar-denominated U.S. Treasury securities, which in turn bestowed on Washington the ability to spend money and finance its debt at will. Should any country step out of line politically or militarily, Washington could sanction it, excluding it from the rest of the world’s dollar-denominated system of global trade.

But for how long? After a summit meeting in March between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping, Putin stated, “We are in favor of using the Chinese yuan for settlements between Russia and the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” Putting that statement in perspective, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said, “The world’s second-largest economy and its largest energy exporter are together actively trying to dent the dollar’s dominance as the anchor of the international financial system.” Already, Zakaria noted, Russia and China are holding less of their central bank reserves in dollars and settling most of their trade in yuan, while other countries sanctioned by the United States are turning to “barter trade” to avoid dependence on the dollar.

A new global monetary system, or at least one in which there is no near-universal reserve currency, would amount to a reshuffling of political, economic, and military power: a geopolitical reordering not seen since the end of the Cold War or even World War II. But as a look at its origins and evolution makes clear, the notion of a standard global system of exchange is relatively recent and no hard-and-fast rules dictate how one is to be organized. Let’s take a brief tour through the tumultuous monetary history of global trade and then consider the factors that could trigger another stage in its evolution.

Imperial Commodity Money

Before the dollarization of the world economy took place, the international system had a gold standard anchored by the naval supremacy of the British Empire. But a currency system backed by gold, a mined commodity, had an inherent flaw: deflation. As long as metal mining could keep up with the pace of economic growth, the gold standard could work. But, as Karl Polanyi noted in his 1944 book, The Great Transformation, “the amount of gold available may [only] be increased by a few percent over a year… not by as many dozen within a few weeks, as might be required to carry a sudden expansion of transactions. In the absence of token money, business would have to be either curtailed or carried on at very much lower prices, thus inducing a slump and creating unemployment.”

This deflationary spiral, borne by everyone in the economy, was what former U.S. presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan described in his famous 1896 Democratic Party convention speech, in which he declared, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” For the truly wealthy, of course, the gold standard was a good thing, since it protected their assets from inflation.

The alternative to the “cross of gold” was for governments to ensure that sufficient currency circulated to keep business going. For this purpose, they could produce, instead of commodity money of gold or silver, token or “fiat” money: paper currency issued at will by the state treasury. The trouble with token money, however, was that it could not circulate on foreign soil. How, then, in a global economy, would it be possible to conduct foreign trade in commodity money and domestic business in token money?

The Spanish and Portuguese empires had one solution to keep the flow of metals going: to commit genocide against the civilizations of the Americas, steal their gold and silver, and force the Indigenous peoples to work themselves to death in the mines. The Dutch and then British empires got their hands on the same gold using a number of mechanisms, including the monopolization of the slave trade through the Assiento of 1713 and the theft of Indigenous lands in the United States and Canada. Stolen silver was used to purchase valuable trade goods in China. Britain stole that silver back from China after the Opium Wars, which China had to pay immense indemnities (in silver) for losing.

Once established as the global imperial manager, the British Empire insisted on the gold standard while putting India on a silver standard. In his 2022 PhD thesis, political economist Jayanth Jose Tharappel called this scheme “bimetallic apartheid”: Britain used the silver standard to acquire Indian commodities and the gold standard to trade with European countries. India was then used as a money pump for British control of the global economy, squeezed as needed: India ran a trade surplus with the rest of the world but was meanwhile in a trade deficit with Britain, which charged its colony “Home Charges” for the privilege of being looted. Britain also collected taxes and customs revenues in its colonies and semi-colonies, simply seizing commodity money and goods, which it resold at a profit, often to the point of famine and beyond—leading to tens of millions of deaths. The system of Council Bills was another clever scheme: paper money was sold by the British Crown to merchants for gold and silver. Those merchants used the Council Bills to purchase Indian goods for resale. The Indians who ended up with the Council Bills would cash them in and get rupees (their own tax revenues) back. The upshot of all this activity was that the Britain drained $45 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938, according to research by economist Utsa Patnaik.

From Gold to Gold-Backed Currency to the Floating Dollar

As the 19th century wore on, an indirect result of Britain’s highly profitable management of its colonies—and particularly its too-easy dumping of its exports into their markets—was that it fell behind in advanced manufacturing and technology to Germany and the United States: countries into which it had poured investment wealth drained from India and China. Germany’s superior industrial prowess and Russia’s departure from Britain’s side after the Bolshevik Revolution left the British facing a possible loss to Germany in World War I, despite Britain drawing more than 1 million people from the Indian subcontinent to serve (more than 2 million Indians would serve Britain in WWII) during the war. American financiers loaned Britain so much money that if it had lost WWI, U.S. banks would have realized an immense loss. When the war was over, to Britain’s surprise, the United States insisted on being paid back. Britain squeezed Germany for reparations to repay the U.S. loans, and the world financial system broke down into “competitive devaluations, tariff wars, and international autarchy,” as Michael Hudson relates in his 1972 book, Super imperialism, setting the stage for World War II.

After that war, Washington insisted on an end to the sterling zone; the United States would no longer allow Britain to use India as its own private money pump. But John Maynard Keynes, who had written Indian Currency and Finance (1913), The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), and the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), believed he had found a new and better way to supply the commodity money needed for foreign trade and the token money required for domestic business, without crucifying anyone on a cross of gold.

At the international economic conference in 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, Keynes proposed an international bank with a new reserve currency, the bancor, that would be used to settle trade imbalances between countries. If Mexico needed to sell oil and purchase automobiles from Germany, for instance, the two countries could carry out trade in bancors. If Mexico found itself owing more bancors than it held, or Germany had a growing surplus of them, an International Clearing Union would apply pressure to both sides: currency depreciation for debtors, but also currency appreciation and punitive interest payments for creditors. Meanwhile, the central banks of both debtor and creditor nations could follow Keynes’s domestic advice and use their powers of money creation to stimulate the domestic economy as needed, within the limits of domestically available resources and labor power.

Keynes made his proposal, but the United States had a different plan. Instead of the bancor, the dollar, backed by gold held at Fort Knox, would be the new reserve currency and the medium of world trade. Having emerged from the war with its economy intact and most of the world’s gold, the United States led the Western war on communism in all its forms using weapons ranging from coups and assassinations to development aid and finance. On the economic side, U.S. tools included reconstruction lending to Europe, development loans to the Global South, and balance of payments loans to countries in trouble (the infamous International Monetary Fund (IMF) “rescue packages”). Unlike Keynes’s proposed International Clearing Union, the IMF imposed all the penalties on the debtors and gave all the rewards to the creditors.

The dollar’s unique position gave the United States what a French minister of finance called an “exorbitant privilege.” While every other country needed to export something to obtain dollars to purchase imports, the United States could simply issue currency and proceed to go shopping for the world’s assets. Gold backing remained, but the cost of world domination became considerable even for Washington during the Vietnam War. Starting in 1965, France, followed by others, began to hold the United States at its word and exchanged U.S. dollars for U.S. gold, persisting until Washington canceled gold backing and the dollar began to float free in 1971.

The Floating Dollar and the Petrodollar

The cancellation of gold backing for the currency of international trade was possible because of the United States’ exceptional position in the world as the supreme military power: it possessed full spectrum dominance and had hundreds of military bases everywhere in the world. The U.S. was also a magnet for the world’s immigrants, a holder of the soft power of Hollywood and the American lifestyle, and the leader in technology, science, and manufacturing.

The dollar also had a more tangible backing, even after the gold tether was broken. The most important commodity on the planet was petroleum, and the United States controlled the spigot through its special relationship with the oil superpower, Saudi Arabia; a meeting in 1945 between King Abdulaziz Al Saud and then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on an American cruiser, the USS Quincy, on Great Bitter Lake in Egypt sealed the deal. When the oil-producing countries formed an effective cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and began raising the price of oil, the oil-deficient countries of the Global South suffered, while the oil exporters exchanged their resources for vast amounts of dollars (“petrodollars”).

The United States forbade these dollar holders from acquiring strategic U.S. assets or industries but allowed them to plow their dollars back into the United States by purchasing U.S. weapons or U.S. Treasury securities: simply holding dollars in another form. Economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler called this the “weapondollar-petrodollar” nexus in their 2002 book, The Global Political Economy of Israel. As documented in Michael Hudson’s 1977 book, Global Fracture (a sequel to Super Imperialism), the OPEC countries hoped to use their dollars to industrialize and catch up with the West, but U.S. coups and counterrevolutions maintained the global fracture and pushed the global economy into the era of neoliberalism.

The Saudi-U.S. relationship was the key to containing OPEC’s power as Saudi Arabia followed U.S. interests, increasing oil production at key moments to keep prices low. At least one author—James R. Norman, in his 2008 book, The Oil Card: Global Economic Warfare in the 21st Century—has argued that the relationship was key to other U.S. geopolitical priorities as well, including its effort to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. A 1983 U.S. Treasury study calculated that, since each $1 drop in the per barrel oil price would reduce Russia’s hard currency revenues by up to $1 billion, a drop of $20 per barrel would put it in crisis, according to Peter Schweizer’s book, Victory.

In 1985, Norman recounted in his book that Saudi Arabia “[opened] the floodgates, [slashed] its pricing, and [pumped] more oil into the market.” While other factors contributed to the collapse of the oil price as well, “Russian academic Yegor Gaidar, acting prime minister of Russia from 1991 to 1994 and a former minister of economy, has described [the drop in oil prices] as clearly the mortal blow that wrecked the teetering Soviet Union.”

From Petrodollar to De-Dollarization

When the USSR collapsed, the United States declared a new world order and launched a series of new wars, including against Iraq. The currency of the new world order was the petrodollar-weapondollar. An initial bombing and partial occupation of Iraq in 1990 was followed by more than a decade of applying a sadistic economic weapon to a much more devastating effect than it ever had on the USSR (or other targets like Cuba): comprehensive sanctions. Forget price manipulations; Iraq was not allowed to sell its oil at all, nor to purchase needed medicines or technology. Hundreds of thousands of children died as a result. Several authors, including India’s Research Unit for Political Economy in the 2003 book Behind the Invasion of Iraq and U.S. author William Clark in a 2005 book, Petrodollar Warfare, have argued that Saddam Hussein’s final overthrow was triggered by a threat to begin trading oil in euros instead of dollars. Iraq has been under U.S. occupation since.

It seems, however, that the petro-weapondollar era is now coming to an end, and at a “‘stunning’ pace.” After the Putin-Xi summit in March 2023, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria worried publicly about the status of the dollar in the face of China’s and Russia’s efforts to de-dollarize. The dollar’s problems have only grown since. All of the pillars upholding the petrodollar-weapondollar are unstable:

But what will replace the dollar?

“A globalized economy needs a single currency,” Zakaria said on CNN after the Xi-Putin summit. “The dollar is stable. You can buy and sell at any time and it’s governed largely by the market and not the whims of a government. That’s why China’s efforts to expand the yuan’s role internationally have not worked.” But the governance of the U.S. dollar by the “whims of a government”—namely, the United States—is precisely why countries are looking for alternatives.

Zakaria took comfort in the fact that the dollar’s replacement will not be the yuan. “Ironically, if Xi Jinping wanted to cause the greatest pain to America, he would liberalize his financial sector and make the yuan a true competitor to the dollar. But that would take him in the direction of markets and openness that is the opposite of his current domestic goals.” Zakaria is wrong. China need not liberalize to internationalize the yuan. When the dollar was supreme, the United States simply excluded foreign dollar-holders from purchasing U.S. companies or assets and restricted them to holding U.S. Treasury securities instead.

But as Chinese economist Yuanzheng Cao, former chief economist of the Bank of China, argued in his 2018 book, Strategies for Internationalizing the Renminbi (the official name of the currency whose unit is the yuan), Beijing can internationalize the yuan without attempting to replace the dollar and incurring the widespread resentment that would follow. It only needs to secure the yuan’s use strategically as one of several currencies and in a wider variety of transactions, such as currency swaps.

Elsewhere, Keynes’s postwar idea for a global reserve currency is being revived on a more limited basis. A regional version of the bancor, the sur, was proposed by Brazil’s President Luis Inácio (“Lula”) da Silva. Ecuadorian economist and former presidential candidate Andrés Arauz described the sur as follows in a February interview: “The idea is not to replace each country’s national, sovereign currency, but rather to have an additional currency, a complementary currency, a supranational currency for trade among countries in the region, starting with Brazil and Argentina, which are the sort of two powerhouses in the Southern Cone, and that could then amplify to the rest of the region.” Lula followed up the sur idea with an idea of a BRICS currency; Russian economist Sergey Glazyev proposes a kind of bancor backed by a basket of commodities.

Currency systems reflect power relations in the world: they don’t change them. The Anglo gold standard and the American dollar standard reflected imperial monopoly power for centuries. In a multipolar world, however, we should expect more diverse arrangements.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

AER 126: Multipolarity? Schmultipolarity! A debate with Sam Gindin

Sam Gindin and Justin Podur, moderated with fairness and balance by Nora Barrows-Friedman, debate the proposition that the world is becoming multipolar as US hegemony declines. We clash over capitalism, colonialism, and the history of the past few centuries; as well as over the meaning of the Russia/Ukraine war and the relative power of Chinese billionaires. If you listen through to the end, leave a review on the podcast app saying who won.

Subimperialism and multipolarity: Brazil’s dilemma

A look at sub-imperialism and multipolarity in Brazil historically and into the future.

In the Open Veins of Latin America Eduardo Galeano described an 1870 genocidal war of regime change waged on Paraguay by a Triple Alliance of its neighbors, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, on behalf of British imperialism. The target, nationalist president Solano Lopez, died in battle. The country lost 56,000 square miles of territory. Paraguay’s population was reduced by 83.3 percent.

By the end, Galeano wrote: “Brazil had performed the role the British had assigned it.” Before the intervention, “Paraguay had telegraphs, a railroad, and numerous factories manufacturing construction materials, textiles, linens, ponchos, paper and ink, crockery, and gunpowder… the Ibycui foundry made guns, mortars, and ammunition of all calibers… the steel industry… belonged to the state. The country had a merchant fleet… the state virtually monopolized foreign trade; it supplied yerba mate and tobacco to the southern part of the continent and exported valuable woods to Europe… With a strong and stable currency, Paraguay was wealthy enough to carry out great public works without recourse to foreign capital… Irrigation works, dams and canals, and new bridges and roads substantially helped to raise agricultural production. The native tradition of two crops a year, abandoned by the conquistadors, was revived.”

After the war: “it was not only the population and great chunks of territory that disappeared, but customs tariffs, foundries, rivers closed to free trade, and economic independence… Everything was looted and everything was sold: lands and forests, mines, yerba mate farms, school buildings.”

Summarizing all this, Galeano wrote: “Paraguay has the double burden of imperialism and subimperialism.”

“Subimperialism,” Galeano continued, “has a thousand faces.” Paraguayan soldiers joined an intervention against the Dominican Republic in 1965, under the command of a Brazilian general, Panasco Alvim. Paraguay “gave Brazil an oil concession on its territory, but the fuel distribution and petrochemical business [was] in U.S. hands.” The U.S. also controlled the university, the army, and the black market as well, of which Galeano wrote: “Through open contraband channels, Brazilian industrial products invade the Paraguayan market, but the Sao Paulo factories that produce them have belonged to U.S. corporations since the denationalizing avalanche of recent years.”

Elaborating on Brazil’s sub-imperial function since 1964, Galeano wrote: “A very influential military clique pictures the country as the great administrator of U.S. interests in the region, and calls on Brazil to become the same sort of boss over the south as the [U.S.] is over Brazil itself.”

Ruy Mauro Marini Analyzes the Phenomenon

It is perhaps no coincidence that the leading scholarly authority on sub-imperialism is the Brazilian scholar Ruy Mauro Marini. Mauro’s 1977 article was published shortly after Galeano’s book. To understand “global capitalist accumulation and subimperialism” some background on the theory of imperialism set out by Lenin is in order, and more recent books like Zak Cope’s The Wealth of Some Nations and Patnaik and Patnaik’s A Theory of Imperialism teach the theory eloquently.

The key concepts are unequal exchange and value transfer, magical processes through which the wealthy countries exchange smaller amounts of labor for larger amounts of labor from the poor countries. The mechanisms are many: patent regimes, Western corporate control of Global South resources, denomination of oil and other commodities in U.S. dollars, IMF and Western-bank loan terms and draconian rescue packages, Western arms sales and military training programs—all backed up by the threat of sanctions, coups, invasions, and “color revolutions,” which happen frequently enough to remind Global South governments to stay in line.

In Imperialism, Lenin described the pressure on wealthy countries to “go imperialist:” winners in the Western domestic market invariably consolidate and tend towards monopoly; these winners are invariably coordinated increasingly through banks and financial interests; throwing new investments in to a mature market brings lower returns than they can get in newly opened ones, so the financiers seek colonies to get high returns on their growing piles of capital; the colonies also address their interests in labor and raw materials that are cheap (or ideally, free, through theft).

Mauro shows how this dynamic can lead to sub-imperialism if the context is right. Sub-imperialism, he writes, is “the form assumed by the dependent economy when it reaches the stage of monopoly and finance capital,” and it has two basic components.

The first is a “relatively autonomous” expansionist policy that functions under the overall umbrella of U.S. hegemony.

The second is what Mauro calls a “medium” organic composition of capital. To explain this concept an example comparison will suffice: an economy with a high organic composition of capital is one where workers use advanced, costly machinery that itself required a lot of labor to produce (the word “composition” refers to how much so-called “dead labor” went into the machines on which the “living labor” is now laboring). These are the workers in the vacuum labs making nanometre-precise computing chips. An economy with a low organic composition of capital is one where workers labor with their hands or simple tools, cutting sugar cane with machetes as day laborers. Their work is called “unskilled” and their wages are proportionately lower.

In 1977, Mauro argued that in Latin America, only Brazil had both the medium organic composition and the relatively autonomous expansionist policy. But what about today? And what about in other regions?

Generalizing the Concept

Are there sub-imperialists in South Asia? Pakistan exercises its ambitions in Afghanistan under U.S. hegemony. Imran Khan was overthrown in a coup for withdrawing support for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan; his successors have worked hard to prove their subordination to the hegemon. India meddles in the affairs of its small neighbors like Bhutanand does so under U.S. hegemony; Western corporations certainly have an immense footprint in both India and Pakistan.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Turkey qualify as sub-imperialists though both showcase how each sub-imperialist is a special case. In Africa, South Africa has been analyzed as a sub-imperialist and tiny Rwanda could well qualify as a Central African version.

Who doesn’t fit? None of the U.S. Five Eyes partners (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or UK) nor Japan, nor Israel, since all are high-income countries with higher than “medium” organic composition of capital.

Nor do China, Russia, or Iran fit the sub-imperialist mold. They may exercise hegemony—or contest it—in their regions, but they do not do so under the umbrella of U.S. hegemony.

This brings us back to Brazil and to the changes in the world since the writings of Mauro and Galeano on sub-imperialism.

Sub-Imperialism and Multipolarity

Until very recently, unilateral U.S. hegemony was the basic fact of world affairs.

No one could contest the U.S. invasions of Grenada, Panama, Iraq, or Haiti or its destruction of Yugoslavia and Libya. But Russia and Iran did contest the U.S. plan to dismantle Syria in 2015.

When Yemen voted against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1990, they were told that it was “the most expensive vote they ever cast” and punished economically. But by 2022 many countries remained neutral in the Russia-Ukraine War despite Western demands that they support Ukraine. India and China ignored Western demands that they refuse to buy Russian energy, expanding a series of options for trading commodities in currencies other than the U.S. dollar. African countries need not beg Western commercial banks for development finance: they can examine Western offers side-by-side with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. In 2023, China brokered a peace deal that restored relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These developments reveal a historical change from a unipolar to a multipolar world order. The world has been under unipolar Anglo-American hegemony since the 1750s. There were world empires prior to that (notably the Spanish and Portuguese) but China and India each had around 25 percent of the world economy even at that time; a few centuries earlier, before the devastation of the Americas, the world was even more multipolar, if much less globalized.

If we are indeed moving away from the unipolar historical pattern, current sub-imperialists have some re-thinking to do: the U.S. umbrella is not what it once was.

Sub-Imperialism or Multipolarity? Which Way for Brazil?

With Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) back in the president’s office in Brazil as of 2023, the country faced this precise dilemma. In his previous tenure, Lula acted as both a multipolarist and a sub-imperialist. An early proponent of multipolarity (before the moment had even arrived) through his advocacy of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and of Latin American integration, Lula’s Brazil played the sub-imperial role as well, leading the morally compromised and disastrous UN mission to take over the U.S. occupation of Haiti. Some of the military officers who led the Haiti occupation helped overthrow Lula’s party in the coup that led to his jailing and eventually to Bolsonaro’s destructive presidency.

Bolsonaro was certainly, symbolically sub-imperialist: he saluted the U.S. flag and marched under the Israeli one. But most of his time in office was characterized by a disastrous COVID-19 response, genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples, and a general incoherence on foreign policy. Bolsonaro participated in a regime change stunt in Venezuela but tried to stay out of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Lula returned to office in a context of weaker domestic left-wing movements but a stronger multipolar context. Lula’s Brazil voted with the West in the condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but Brazil was told by Russian diplomats that Russia understood the vote.

There are economic considerations beyond the organic composition of capital that can drive Global South leaders back into the criminal arms of the U.S.—dependence on natural resource exports and foodgrain imports are tendencies that are difficult to reverse, especially in democracies like Brazil that are vulnerable to coups or regression when the right-wing returns to power.

Perhaps Brazil will be the vanguard of multipolarity in the Americas, or the sub-imperialist agent undermining BRICS from the inside. The changing world includes possibilities never contemplated by Galeano, Mauro, or Lenin.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Asking the Oppressed to Be Nonviolent Is an Impossible Standard That Ignores History

In January 2023, after five police officers killed Tyre Nichols, President Joe Biden quickly issued a statement calling on protesters to stay nonviolent. “As Americans grieve, the Department of Justice conducts its investigation, and state authorities continue their work, I join Tyre’s family in calling for peaceful protest,” said Biden. “Outrage is understandable, but violence is never acceptable. Violence is destructive and against the law. It has no place in peaceful protests seeking justice.”

In June 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Biden made the same call to protesters. “I call on everyone, no matter how deeply they care about this decision, to keep all protests peaceful. Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful,” Biden said. “No intimidation. Violence is never acceptable. Threats and intimidation are not speech. We must stand against violence in any form, regardless of your rationale.”

It is a curious spectacle to have the head of a state, with all the levers of power, not using that power to solve a problem, but instead offering advice to the powerless about how to protest against him and the broken government system. Biden, however, showed no such reluctance to use those levers of power against protesters. During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, when Biden was a presidential candidate, he made clear what he wanted to happen to those who didn’t heed the call to nonviolence: “We should never let what’s done in a march for equal rights overcome what the reason for the march is. And that’s what these folks are doing. And they should be arrested—found, arrested, and tried.”

In the face of murderous police action, Biden called on protesters to be “peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.” In the face of non-nonviolent protesters, Biden called on police to make sure the protesters were “found, arrested, and tried.”

Are protesters in the United States (and perhaps other countries where U.S. protest culture is particularly strong, like Canada) being held to an impossible standard? In fact, other Western countries don’t seem to make these demands of their protesters—consider Christophe Dettinger, the boxer who punched a group of armored, shielded, and helmeted French riot police until they backed off from beating other protesters during the yellow vest protests in 2019. Dettinger went to jail but became a national hero to some. What would his fate have been in the United States? Most likely, he would have been manhandled on the spot, as graphic footage of U.S. police behavior toward people much smaller and weaker than Dettinger during the 2020 protests would suggest. If he survived the encounter with U.S. police, Dettinger would have faced criticism from within the movement for not using peaceful methods.

There is a paradox here. The United States, the country with nearly 800 military bases across the world, the country that dropped the nuclear bomb on civilian cities, and the country that outspends all its military rivals combined, expects its citizens to adhere to more stringent standards during protests compared to any other country. Staughton and Alice Lynd in the second edition of their book Nonviolence in America, which was released in 1995, wrote that “America has more often been the teacher than the student of the nonviolent ideal.” The Lynds are quoted disapprovingly by anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos in his book How Nonviolence Protects the State, an appeal to nonviolent protesters in the early 2000s who found themselves on the streets with anarchists who didn’t share their commitment to nonviolence. Gelderloos asked for solidarity from the nonviolent activists, begging them not to allow the state to divide the movement into “good protesters” and “bad protesters.” That so-called “antiglobalization” movement faded away in the face of the post-2001 war on terror, so the debate was never really resolved.

For the U.S., the UK, and many of their allies, the debate over political violence goes back perhaps as far as the white pacifists who assured their white brethren, terrified by the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804, that abolitionism did not mean encouraging enslaved people to rebel or fight back. While they dreamed of a future without slavery, 19th-century abolitionist pacifists understood, like their countrymen who were the enslavers, that the role of enslaved people was to suffer like good Christians and wait for God’s deliverance rather than to rebel. Although he gradually changed his mind, 19th-century abolitionist and pacifist William Lloyd Garrison initially insisted on nonviolence toward enslavers. Here Garrison is quoted in the late Italian communist Domenico Losurdo’s book Nonviolence: A History Beyond the Myth: “Much as I detest the oppression exercised by the Southern slaveholder, he is a man, sacred before me. He is a man, not to be harmed by my hand nor with my consent.” Besides, he added, “I do not believe that the weapons of liberty ever have been, or ever can be, the weapons of despotism.” As the crisis deepened with the Fugitive Slave Law, Losurdo argued, pacifists like Garrison found it increasingly difficult to call upon enslaved people to turn themselves back to their enslavers without resistance. By 1859, Garrison even found himself unable to condemn abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

The moral complexities involved in nonviolence in the antiwar movement were acknowledged by linguist, philosopher, and political activist Noam Chomsky in a 1967 debate with political philosopher Hannah Arendt and others. Chomsky, though an advocate for nonviolence himself in the debate, concluded that nonviolence was ultimately a matter of faith:

“The easiest reaction is to say that all violence is abhorrent, that both sides are guilty, and to stand apart retaining one’s moral purity and condemn them both. This is the easiest response and in this case I think it’s also justified. But, for reasons that are pretty complex, there are real arguments also in favor of the Viet Cong terror, arguments that can’t be lightly dismissed, although I don’t think they’re correct. One argument is that this selective terror—killing certain officials and frightening others—tended to save the population from a much more extreme government terror, the continuing terror that exists when a corrupt official can do things that are within his power in the province that he controls.”

“Then there’s also the second type of argument… which I think can’t be abandoned very lightly. It’s a factual question of whether such an act of violence frees the native from his inferiority complex and permits him to enter into political life. I myself would like to believe that it’s not so. Or at the least, I’d like to believe that nonviolent reaction could achieve the same result. But it’s not very easy to present evidence for this; one can only argue for accepting this view on grounds of faith.”

Several writings have sounded the warning that nonviolence doctrine has caused harm to the oppressed. These include Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill, How Nonviolence Protects the State and The Failure of Nonviolence by Peter Gelderloos, Nonviolence: A History Beyond the Myth by Domenico Losurdo, and the two-part series “Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence” by Marcie Smith.

Even the historic victories of nonviolent struggles had a behind-the-scenes armed element. Recent scholarly work has revisited the history of nonviolence in the U.S. civil rights struggle. Key texts include Lance Hill’s The Deacons for Defense, Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back, and Charles E. Cobb Jr.’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed. These histories reveal continuous resistance, including armed self-defense, by Black people in the United States.

Even before these recent histories, we have Robert Williams’s remarkable and brief autobiography written in exile, Negroes With Guns. Williams was expelled from the NAACP for saying in 1959: “We must be willing to kill if necessary. We cannot take these people who do us injustice to the court. … In the future we are going to have to try and convict these people on the spot.” He bitterly noted that while “Nonviolent workshops are springing up throughout Black communities [, n]ot a single one has been established in racist white communities to curb the violence of the Ku Klux Klan.”

As they moved around the rural South for their desegregation campaigns, the nonviolent activists of the civil rights movement often found they had—without their asking—armed protection against overzealous police and racist vigilantes: grannies who sat watch on porches at night with rifles on their laps while the nonviolent activists slept; Deacons for Defense who threatened police with a gun battle if they dared turn water hoses on nonviolent students trying to desegregate a swimming pool. Meanwhile, legislative gains made by the nonviolent movement often included the threat or reality of violent riots. In May 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, after a nonviolent march was crushed, a riot of 3,000 people followed. Eventually a desegregation pact was won on May 10, 1963. One observer argued that “every day of the riots was worth a year of civil rights demonstrations.”

As Lance Hill argues in The Deacons for Defense:

“In the end, segregation yielded to force as much as it did to moral suasion. Violence in the form of street riots and armed self-defense played a fundamental role in uprooting segregation and economic and political discrimination from 1963 to 1965. Only after the threat of black violence emerged did civil rights legislation move to the forefront of the national agenda.”

Biden’s constant calls for nonviolence by protesters while condoning violence by police are asking for the impossible and the ahistorical. In the crucial moments of U.S. history, nonviolence has always yielded to violence.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

WWCiv 9: Imperial Resentment, Industrial Power, Inevitable Socialism: Germany before WW1

Germany’s contested rise and WW1

Of all the mysteries of the World Wars, Germany’s is perhaps the most mysterious. We discuss this country with the fastest growing industrial power, the largest and most powerful socialist movement, and (perhaps) the most arrogant imperialist at the helm. We conclude with some notes on some interesting (but not especially well liked by us) sources on German-British rivalry.

AER 114: Why Democracy (TM) Fails the Global South

Does democracy deliver development?

Democracy means “the people rule”. But do the people rule in the “democratic” systems that form governments all over the world? Are these democratic governments less repressive or authoritarian than those without the democratic certification? And does the democratic system of frequent multiparty elections deliver the developmental goods?

Talking to Vik Sohonie, former journalist who runs the grammy-award nominated Ostinato Records, about why Democracy (TM) fails the Global South.

In Real Time with Stan Cox 4: A discussion of violence and policy murder

The fourth discussion with Stan Cox about his latest dispatch, “They’ll Show Up Armed – Countering Policy Murder and the Rising Violence of the Right”. We talk about a nonviolent march Stan participated in and a few of the historic movement debates about violence and nonviolence that we’ve seen over the decades. And we conclude with the question: will it be necessary for there to be more guns out there, to get gun control back on the agenda?

Countering violence with Stan Cox

AER 105: Are your favorite academic theorists really CIA spooks? With Gabriel Rockhill

Is French Theory full of CIA spooks?

Talking to Gabriel Rockhill, professor and director of the Critical Theory Workshop. Ever wonder why the CIA thought it was worthwhile to sponsor European left-wing academic theories? We talk about Derrida, Foucault, Arendt, and why even if you think obscure academic theory isn’t important, you might be mistaken. Author or editor of nine books, Rockhill is currently working on a book tentatively titled The Intellectual World War: The CIA’s Failed Attempt to Kill the Idea of Communism.

AEP 93: Take Back the Fight with Nora Loreto

Feminism, COVID, and more with Nora Loreto

I talk to Nora Loreto – podcaster, journalist, and author of Take Back the Fight: Organizing Feminism for the Digital Age and Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Epidemic. We talk about Nora’s journalism on COVID-19, about anti-feminist backlashes of various kinds, about contemporary feminism and the continuing relevance of organizing in the movement, and more. 

Civilizations 38: What is history? And have we been doing Critical Race Theory all along?

The origin story of Civilizations revisited

A year and a half ago I approached my high school history teacher with the idea of launching a podcast with a massively expanded version of the content of the “Modern Western Civilization” course he taught me in high school in the 1990s, to include the whole world and the people’s histories.

We’re just about to reach the 20th century so we thought we would debrief and go over some of what we’ve learned. We read things like EH Carr’s What is History?; Dave discusses the limitations of podcasting and of high school teaching; we talk about where the history we do fits into current debates about Critical Race Theory; and we set up for the next two series to come – the Scramble for Africa, and the Three World Wars (WWI, WWII, and the Cold War).