It’s been over a year now since the birth of Occupy sparked many debates. Occupy pushed economic inequality into the mainstream discussion, even if only for a few months, forcing even right wing pundits to address and discuss the issue. It created an albeit small space to discuss race and racism and how economic justice requires social justice. Occupy showed that there can be a popular response from the left, despite years of repression by the state, and a recent tide of right-wing populism and empowerment of proto-fascist elements.
Some people in Occupy have been too willing to absolve the movement of any shortcomings, however. The movement largely failed to push the dialogue beyond a liberal/social democratic reform-based analysis targeted at misguided corporate leadership without seeing the inherent problems in the system. The focus was kept to focus largely on the growth of corporate influence over politics, centered largely around the bank bailouts, foreclosures, student debt, and redefining democracy in terms of process.
In some circles and in some occupy groups, the dialogue was pushed beyond simple liberal analyses, but by and large it was – and still is – limited at best, though certainly a welcome change. It may be interesting to note, however, how many people now call themselves anarchists. It’s largely hollow since many have little to no awareness as to what that means, but may however open up space for more discourse from the radical left in the future.
On of the most heated debates has been over movement tactics. On one side of the argument is Chris Hedges, author of the infamous article, The Cancer in Occupy, in which he calls black bloc tactics and anyone who uses them “a cancer”. Hedges rejects any tactic that he believes could cause friction between the movement and the police, with the idea that the police could be won over in whole or part to a revolutionary movement. Hedges is followed by many other militant liberals and progressives.
On another side of the debate is a section of the anarchist movement closely aligned to insurrectionist anarchism, situationism, and other more modern anarchist ideological trends. These tendencies focus on the propaganda of the deed, an idea that if your action is radical enough and exposes some underlying crisis that the people will pour out into the streets, replacing literature-based forms of agitation with actions. One problem with this is that actions can be interpreted many ways and most of the time you have little to no control over that interpretation, leaving you in an unending struggle to define actions in your terms. This in some degree is a simplification, but it is the most relevant aspect that relates to this discussion.
Both sides were entertained in a recent debate[SRC]. Chris Hedges and B. Traven discussed the many ins and outs of their tactical differences and marginal similarities. Hedges staunchly defending his position, often against hecklers, B Traven defending the use of black bloc tactics, both representing what seems to be the two most prevalent camps in the movement on the issue. Overall, the debate lacked any certain amount of nuance, missed the opportunity to offer some real vision of how to move forward, and again limited the discussion to that of tactical choices while decidedly avoiding any discussion of strategy or at the best conflating the two.
The problem with the debate was that it lacked any real discussion of strategy. Out of both of them, Hedges presented the most developed vision. Traven’s vision of change was the most ridiculous ultra-left liberal vacuous statement. His response was, “just keep doing what you are doing”. I was not surprised by this at all, however, as it is in line with his apologist attitude towards liberal progressive politics. Yeah, you could blame it on time constraints, but there was an overall trend in his arguments. Traven’s challenges to Hedges largely amounted to slighted insults and devaluations of Hedges. Hedges does need someone to shrink his ego from time to time, but if you are going to challenge his positions, it helps to respond with some level of nuance and not resort to adult versions of childish insults.
There is also something to be said about the racism inherent in a discussion about movement tactics where the central actors are two white men. This limits the discussion to the specific experiences common to white men, based on greater levels of privilege and power. It may be just a coincidence considering Hedges’ article and availability of a counterpart with whom to argue, time constraints, or many other factors, but the exclusion of women and people of color from the debate portion of the program contributed to the holes and lack of progress in the discussion.
Hedges makes several assumptions that are flatly off-base and often sexist during the course of the debate. He assumes that black bloc tactics are about committing acts of violence and are inherently hyper-masculine. Hedges assumes that the purpose of black bloc tactics is to use militant tactics to strike fear into the heart of the state. It is sexist to assume militancy is equivalent to hyper-masculinity. Women and non-male gendered individuals are just as capable of participating in militant tactics, although it may not be as common in the US because of the heavy amount of sexist gender socialization. All humans have the same capacity for militant action and violence. The definition of violence sits at the crux of this argument, however. Hedges seems to equate militant struggles and conflicts with police and the systemic violence wrought by capitalism. He openly declares he has no desire to distinguish the two. While it is up to the victims to define violence, there is also a bigger picture to it as well, as expanding capital is by far the largest perpetrator of violence between humans.
People throwing tear gas canisters back at police or defending their right to assemble and protest are not equal to the violence wrought by police forces in poor communities and communities of color. Sure, not all police officers take part in that violence just as not all police officers take part in repressing political movements. They are, however, governed by a system that works to serve private property and business first and foremost, a system that will always be beholden to those in positions of power, except for the few fleeting moments that a movement might be strong enough to shake up power relationships. A system that encourages them to participate in violent anti-democratic repression. The ruling class always finds a way to respond and adjust to maintain their hegemony, and the police are their force of choice domestically.
Traven also makes several assumptions that are off base. Traven chooses to ignore some of the problems that do exist inside parts of the movement that participate in Black Bloc actions. Sexism is present in all political movements and it should be no surprise that it is present in some form in the political circles that use black bloc tactics. This does not equal to saying that these circles are hyper-masculine or discounting the fact that women and non-male gendered individuals have the same ability and license to participate in militant and violent action. It is important to note that sexism and white privilege are just as much an influence in political circles as in any others, though it often takes different forms.
At times black blocs engage in adventurist politics that glorify confrontations with police over making any concrete political gains, or at the very least lack any sense of political strategy and goals, aside from outright insurrectionary revolution direct to full communism. This makes them politically irrational at times, separated from their historical roots and based on an ideology of exaggerated politics similar to Peter Camejo’s description of ultra-left liberals. It limits their ability to connect with larger swaths of the public who are not ready to make such leaps and make it easier for the state to isolate them from popular social movements.
Traven argues that black blocs are a space in which all can feel welcome and all can participate in the types of actions that build a sense of confidence and awareness of our collective power. There may be some truth in this statement, however, people can and often do empower themselves and develop a sense of collective strength without participating in black blocs. Some people are alienated by the militant tactics of black blocs. Empowerment and a knowledge of collective power is a matter of consciousness which can be developed in many ways which include political action, but not necessarily in black bloc formations.
Traven values the anonymity of “masking” in black blocs actions as one of its most important aspects. Masking is about being anonymous, protecting your identity from your employer or from possible persecution should you have a criminal record or some other vulnerability. You cover your face so that you can’t be identified in the crowd. This is functional and important for some people. However, black blocs are more than just masking. They are a space for anonymous militant action by choice. This can be good and bad depending upon the context. It’s hard for people in general to trust someone who decides to always be behind a mask because many of the state operators who have perpetrated violence on movements also hide behind masks of a physical or mental sort.
This priority of the individual over the needs of the many is problematic. Not to say that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but there has to be a balance. Not all people who participate in black blocs actions are even interested in building a larger social movement, and to them the needs of the many are irrelevant. In reality, however, significant social change comes through a period of struggle that requires some level of traction among the greater populace, so there must be a balance and an understanding that we cannot change the world by ourselves, or in small groups isolated from the larger population..
Black blocs are no more or less safe than any other action whether you are wearing a mask or not. If we take the passive route of appealing for the attention of the ruling class, we will still face police repression, just as they did during the Civil Rights Movement. We may get in more scuffles if we defend ourselves from police violence or use force to defend our right to speech and assembly. Regardless of which path we take we will always face repression if we build enough power to present a challenge to the state, even if it’s only an ideological challenge.
The militarized surveillance state apparatus is astounding and vast. We should respect it and not expose ourselves without due reason, yet also not live in fear of it. We can’t place limitations on our ability to build a movement and develop solidarity out of a concern that we may be persecuted by the state. The state will always be able to gain access to our movements in various ways, disrupt them, and expose activists to persecution. They hide behind the mask of the undercover agent, the mask of the violent repressor, and the mask of safety provided to them by the state that they will never be punished justly for their actions. Our strength is in our solidarity, our creativity and adaptability to respond to conditions, and our willingness to challenge paradigms and narratives presented by the state.
We should not resort to militant tactics for their sake alone. Building power for social change is not about our choice of tactics in and of itself. It’s about a strategy. What is our purpose? What do we want to achieve? How do we get there? Is it just about staying the course, just keep doing what you are doing like Traven says? We should be open to using any means necessary when time is appropriate and just to advance our political aims.
Diversity of tactics, the 99%, and a way forward
Movements influenced by modern anarchist political tendencies, including Occupy, seem obsessed with the diversity of tactics paradigm. However, there is a dark side to that paradigm. In many ways “diversity of tactics” discourages a discussion of strategy. This is not to say that we need one uniting strategy to lead one movement of all people. This is not to say that everyone must agree on everything in order to work together and have a common respect for the work we do, or that we should feel obligated to do so.
This is also part of the problem with the 99% paradigm of Occupy. In many ways it operates in the same form, searching for the lowest common denominator, or reducing the political experiences of everybody to mere taglines in a press release. This process, clearly a form of reductionism, limits discussion and education in many ways. This lack of discussion limits the ability of the movement to encapsulate multiple political experiences by adopting an intersectional analysis. Intersectional politics include an understanding that no identities or groups are monolithic and that all political experiences are based on the interaction of these identities as they contribute to the material realities of each individual. It recognizes both the macro level as well as the micro level influences and impacts that racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and other forms of oppression have on the individual development of political identity and consciousness.
Presenting a way forward
In many ways both the diversity of tactics and the 99% paradigm are limits to the development of a real and honest discussion about what we are doing, where we are going, and how we can get there. The 99% paradigm is reductionist while diversity of tactics is apologetic to progressive/liberal aims and leaves no space for criticism and discussion.
These discussions would also benefit from an intersectional materialist understanding that we do not all come from the same experiences, though some may be comparable or similar. It’s not required that we agree on every part of analysis, but discussing our differences will help us to bridge them and not look at each other as possible collaborators with the CIA, as some ultra-leftists in the audience did of Hedges.
Our dialogue should explore what this debate did only a little of. We need to offer some level of nuance, real honest discussion that can advance the popular discourse beyond the limited notions of the basics of economic inequality. It needs to remove any cloaks of romanticism of past movements whether we are talking about the Arab Spring, the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights movement, or any other movement. We need to be willing to put everything on the table, not rule things out for sheer ideological purpose, but to have valid positioned arguments based in reality. There is no infallibility in history or ideology. There is no infallibility in social movements.
Occupy is a predecessor movement. It will develop into something different or contribute to the birth of new movements. In many ways it already has. The big question is – where will these movements go? Will they be able to push the discourse? If we look at history, particularly in moments of social upheaval, there have always been movements that have pushed the discourse and played a role as a sort of vanguard in pointing others in a particular direction. This was the case with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. This was the case with the Global Justice movement, which had a definite impact on the initial explosion of the anti-war movement in 2003. This may be the case with Occupy, which in many ways is also a product of predecessor movements, such as other anti-austerity struggles and student and youth struggles dating back several years.
Some Occupy-based groups are offering some guidance on strategy. There are several groups engaged in militant home defender campaigns against foreclosure. Strike Debt, a newly formed group focusing on the prospect of organizing political power around refusing to pay off debt, student, commercial, or otherwise, seems to be gaining some ground. There has been a growing influence on the militancy of labor actions as well.
What seems true to me more than anything else is that just staying the course or repeating old models of change will not get us where we need to be. More importantly, without a real discussion about where we want to go and what we want to do, we will never develop a better understanding of the world around us, not to mention developing a more advanced strategy to combat the crises of capitalism.
The “Tactics” debate may have been the hottest thing on the block at the time. Maybe it allowed for a more honest discussion representing the two divergent positions. Maybe it was just about giving certain anarchists a chance to defend themselves from the “enabling effect Hedges comments had on state violence”. Either way, taking a strong stance with Hedges or with the participants of the black blocs gets us nowhere in talking about future strategy. We need to move beyond the diversity of tactics paradigm into a space where we can honestly discuss what is going on and how we can respond. We need to be able to develop an advanced discourse that is able to honestly respond to state repression without bending to its will and without using tactics as strategy. We need nuance, not reductionism. We need to see both the bigger and smaller pictures at the same time.
Political change is not just about the masses, just as it is not just about the personal. It is about both at the same time. It’s not just about having the right strategy and recruiting everyone to follow it, but about discussing strategy and using those honest discussions to develop more effective strategies. It’s about being bold when needed and passive when it suits the strategy. Most important above all else it’s about understanding that political change does not come about simply because we have the right formula. Conditions are constantly in flux, and so should our responses to them. Our strength is in our ability to adapt and our ability to work through our differences to continue the fight. Political change is about relating to the people you want to move into political action, but not in a way that reduces their political experiences. It’s about relating to people in a way that elevates the entire discussion, that doesn’t limit people to restricted paradigms, but raises consciousness and empowers people into action. This is strategy. Tactics derive from strategy. We can’t be effective if we skip strategy and go straight to talking about tactics.