When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice, by Jason Brennan

Lisa Mckenzie finds a challenging but essential piece of reading in an age of failing political systems and distrustful citizens

January 10, 2019
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Climate of distrust: we live in an age in which ‘political systems are in flux’

The ethics of using violence as a tool for emancipation has always been a tough circle to square, especially when discussed within an organised political movement. “By any means necessary” has too often been used as a fashionable slogan on a placard or as a provocative statement for promoting your column in a national newspaper, getting traffic to your YouTube channel or pointlessly marching around a city while chanting (the now ironic) “Whose streets? Our streets!” However, when it comes to defensive violence against the oppression of individuals by the state, the debate becomes one that many people would rather not have.

Jason Brennan’s book When All Else Fails definitely does not shy away from this difficult debate, and starts with a disturbing fictional scenario of an unarmed man being beaten by two traffic police officers. After two paragraphs of brutal description, Brennan steps in and asks: “Will you stop this?” The premise is that you the reader are armed and can shoot at the police, but will you?

I found the book extremely demanding, despite a long history of rebellious behaviour against the state. Adopting a careful philosophical approach, Brennan examines theories, ideas and contexts, and then uses fictional and non-fictional vignettes of state injustice, constantly testing you as a reader (or student), while raising difficult questions about power, why it is concentrated in the hands of the few and why it is so easily corrupted. Chapters 3 and 4 come to the heart of the matter, asking whether government is allowed special immunity from defensive violence, through claims about its legitimacy and authority, and confronting the common notions of what democracy looks, sounds and acts like. Brennan’s position is that of neither a bleeding-heart liberal nor a cold, individualistic libertarian. It is far more complicated, reflecting on vigilantism and the circumstances in which the police and the military should refuse to follow the orders of the state.

I make no secret of the fact that I am an anarchist, and when I opened this book I thought “this is right up my street”, but in reality I found it challenging and difficult, especially the argument about voting (and the thesis that poorer voters are ignorant and misinformed when it comes to organised political systems). Here Brennan raises questions about the legitimacy of government and the damaging policies too often inflicted by the state in relation to welfare and war.

This book is essential reading in an age in which political systems appear to be failing and in flux and populations are becoming insecure and distrustful of their governments. Some may think that even raising the issue of the legitimacy of defensive violence against state injustice is irresponsible. When All Else Fails is not an easy read, nor is it enjoyable if you understand the levels of violence in our time. However, it should stimulate a debate that we need to have.

Lisa Mckenzie is lecturer in practical sociology at Middlesex University and the author of Class Cleansing: Grieving for London (forthcoming).

When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice
By Jason Brennan
Princeton University Press
288pp, £22.00
ISBN 9780691181714
Published 11 December 2018

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