There could not be a more timely moment for this book, when resistance across the world – the Arab uprisings, the Greek revolt against austerity – seem to be succumbing to the brutality of the army and the law; when the heady protests, which many saw as offering the hope of revolution, seem ineffective against the dead hand of the state and the global rule of capital. Acutely attuned to this context, which was unfolding as he wrote, the philosopher Howard Caygill offers a meditation on the history of resistance as idea and lived experience, a term which, as he states at the outset, is "strangely unanalysed".
On Resistance could be read as a warning against the dangers faced by all forms of resistance: the risk of co-option, of the escalating violence that is the hallmark of modern warfare, of the revolutionary moment allowing itself to be folded back into the ugly imperatives of authority and power. And yet the book is wholly inspired by the spirit of resistance whose often unhappy trajectories it so brilliantly describes. It is therefore asking us to do two things that may at first glance seem incompatible. To step back from the euphoria in order to take the measure of the cruel fate that hovers, always ready to pounce on people's most energised objections to injustice; and, at the same time, to go on believing in resistance as a way, perhaps the only viable way, of living in the modern world.
Caygill's acclaimed studies of Kant, Walter Benjamin and Emmanuel Levinas were already alert to the political ramifications of philosophical thought. Gathering up these thinkers – together with writers and activists ranging from Rosa Luxemburg to Gandhi, from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Stéphane Hessel – Caygill now goes down into the street where, in a sense, he has always belonged. It is his unique mix of caution and enthusiasm, his avoidance of blind utopianism and of defeatism alike, which makes this book so important. At the end of his life, Pasolini, whose work and life is read here as a form of continuous protest, was, we are told, "sombre but not desperate". Caygill could be describing himself. He has written a manifesto in the style of radical melancholia. He is telling us to think again; he is suggesting that, without the ability to tolerate despondent thought, to grant it a place alongside our most passionately held convictions, there is no prospect of making the world a better place. In the words of The Coming Insurrection, issued in France by the protest group The Invisible Committee following the 2007 riots against Nicolas Sarkozy, "From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues."
On Resistance opens with Clausewitz, whose famous discourse On War, Caygill suggests, could itself be retitled On Resistance, since what Clausewitz meant by war was the destruction of the enemy's capacity to resist, and the preservation at any cost of your own. Clausewitz also spends much more time on guerrillas and partisans than we might expect from his most famous statement, that "war is the continuation of politics by other means". Resistance is therefore mired in war, which goes some way to explain why, according to a seemingly inexorable logic, it so rarely seems to escape it. When Goya painted his famous series Disasters of War, he matched the image of uniformed figures executing civilians con razón o sin ella (with or without reason) with one of resistant partisans killing a soldier lo mismo (the same). For us to be shocked today by the atrocities that appear to have been committed by the insurgents in the Syrian civil war is therefore a category mistake. Why – a founding question for this book and one that any meaningful resistance has to keep asking itself – should it be any different?
Resistance does not breed good behaviour. It may arise from just protest, but that does not mean it will be ethical, unless it makes the choice to place ethics at the core of its politics. For that reason, the heroes and heroines of this book, which are many, include Jean Genet, the Zapatista liberation movement in Mexico, and, perhaps unexpectedly, the women of Greenham Common whose main imperative and slogan – "resist the military" – was embedded in a non-violent philosophy centring on the affirmation of life and the creation of a community of women. This was resistance as a form of continuing education. Preparing women to bring about the desired political change was part of the ongoing work of the camp. What kind of human being, On Resistance prompts us to ask, does resistance promote? Not only what do we want to achieve, but who do we want to be?
Pitting Gandhi against Mao, Caygill sees Mao's commitment to the primacy of military action and the cathartic role of violence as having devastating consequences for subsequent revolutions across the world; whereas Gandhi's satyagraha (firmness to the commitment to truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) entrench protest in unflinching belief, an inner state grounded in the justness of its cause. Such resistance is sustained not by violence, but by legitimacy that in turn creates a type of freedom: if a subject refuses to "obey laws that are unjust," Gandhi wrote, "no man's tyranny will enslave him". This principle led, for example, to mass burning of identity cards, central in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa where Gandhi had lived, and the acceptance of mass imprisonment during the Indian fight for independence. Violence, on the other hand, can lead only to escalation, since it justifies its use by the enemy. It is also illogical. How on earth are we supposed to get our opponent to do by force "what we desire but he does not"?
The critique of violence does not however entail a naive refusal of death, nor of its strategic place at the heart of resistance. At such finely drawn distinctions, On Resistance excels. The Zapatistas draw their moral authority from their claim to speak on behalf of what they call "the resistant dead", all those who have resisted in Mexican history: "Everything for everyone says our dead. Until this is true there will be nothing for us." Among other things this brings resistance close to the realm of poetry: "Arming a tender fury. A nameless name. An unjust peace made war. A death that/ is born. An anguish made hope…Everything for everyone. Nothing for us. We the/ nameless, the always dead. We, the Zapatista National Liberation Army."
Similarly, Clausewitz's vision of resistance is read here as a form of creative activity, an "imaginative response to chance" that plays havoc with the deadly mix of force and consciousness that underlies "the military posture of the nation state". Resistance is canny. It has to be. It must mislead, entice and confuse. This is not the vocabulary of rational prediction, but rather a different type of knowledge, outside the remit of state power, which recognises that the world will not wholly submit to man's purpose. We should not, then, be surprised at the lengths to which state authority will go to destroy resistance, such as the modern-day manhunt that cuts the enemy down with no legal process or possible path of escape, reducing its targets from human to prey. Think of the Indian government's explicitly named "Operation Green Hunt" against resistance from Indian tribal peoples, or Obama's drones.
From Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, the call to resistance has today become a "living genre". There is a new "technology of resistance", and a belief that social media can forge the path to revolution. We need, however, to remember that modern technology was perfected as the bureaucratic arm of the capitalist state. The origins of the internet can be traced to the Rand Corporation, a strategic thinktank for the conduct of nuclear war, founded in 1948 with the objective of looking into future weapons technology. And yet the more technology perfects itself the more it makes itself vulnerable, or available for better ideas. Proliferation breeds potential loss of control. The denser the archive, the greater the chances that secrets will come to light. Nothing is pre-given. The future will be decided by struggle. On this Caygill is unambiguous. On Resistance is as much an act as a philosophy of defiance. It will be indispensable for anyone thinking about resistance in our times, not least for demonstrating so profoundly that, for all its perils, resistance still possesses its "own necessities, its own affirmations and its own joy".
• Jacqueline Rose's books include The Last Resistance.
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