Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Activist Wars


Activist wars about tactics – Not just a question of effectiveness
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Why do activists fight? What are the circumstances of the most widespread and vicious fights between white First World activists (of all colours) who are supposedly against the same injustices and supposedly fighting the same system of exploitation?
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I have seen the biggest disagreements arise regarding differences in tactics. If the activists are all fighting the same oppressor, all pushing in the same direction, then why should they have such visceral confrontations about methods?
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Generally speaking, those who propose more direct and higher risk approaches are told that they “put the movement at risk,” “are counterproductive,” “will give us bad press,” “will turn sympathisers and contributors to the illusive ‘critical mass’ away,” etc. Significant energy is expended confining and normalizing those elements that would be more bold.
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The independent minded are told to subject themselves to the consensus decisions of majority groups, to “show solidarity,” and to “respect what others are trying to achieve.”
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All of this is contrary to the anarchic spirit of exploration, vital impulse, and diversity of tactics. All of this is contrary to the millennial traditions of celebrating the bravest and supporting those who elect to push harder.
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I have come to believe that the majority of organized First World activists prize their security in numbers and in imposed low-risk behaviours more than they are driven to actually fight the oppressor.
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The radicals are seen not only as not fitting in but they also represent a critique of mainstream ineffective protest and of low-risk cooperative behaviour mainly aimed at guilt alleviation and mutual comforting. Such a critique, even if not verbalized, cannot be tolerated. This critique is deeply threatening to self-image and to the main evasion tactic of talking loudly and in large coordinated numbers to the wind.
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Tactics are the expression in action of the activist model. And the two main competing First World models are: (1) the dominant model that low-risk expression if it involves sufficient numbers is the best lever for “progress,” and (2) the minority model that fighting the oppressor means fighting the oppressor, inflicting disabling damage, and thereby necessarily implying a backlash or adjustment and an associated risk.
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So differences in tactics, along this divide, give rise to significant disagreements and often cause break ups. These differences in tactics are at the heart of self-image and worldview, of how the activist perceives her place and purpose. They are tied to the activist’s beliefs about finding meaning.
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Activist wars in across-class oppression
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This is all well known and has been written about often enough, but now consider a special variety of this dynamic – one that arises when middle class First World activists fight the oppressor of an underprivileged group living on the same territory (e.g. aboriginals) or in a distant land (e.g., Palestinians).
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Occasionally, a member of the middle class activist community recognizes that the same oppressor acts in her immediate work or school environment, in the place where her own livelihood and liberation are at stake and decides to directly fight the oppressor (or one of its many tentacles) in her work or school environment, using necessarily high-risk tactics that involve trying to reduce the oppressor’s undemocratic and concentrated power in the work or school environment.
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If this driven activist on the road to liberation claims solidarity with the underprivileged group and draws attention to the across-class character of the oppression by suggesting that we need to actually fight the bastards where we are and where we have power, then that is going too far. The majority middle class weekend and after-work low-risk consensus-seeking activists who fight for the underprivileged simply flip out.
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Corporate media coverage of ineffective actions is allowed whereas media coverage of actions that threaten power is generally not. And media ties the activist to the broad community with its social norms and opinions, which in turn protect the individual resistor from indiscriminate and disproportionate applications of power, such that media-share, media-strategy, and media-use are often at the core of the conflict between activists. And our driven workplace activist is “subverting media away from the dying underprivileged children…”
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The accusations are almost comically predictable: “You are using the underprivileged for your own selfish means, for your own promotion…” “You are privileged; you can therefore not be oppressed.” “How dare you compare their suffering to yours; these people are being killed.”
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The protectors of low-risk activism call upon the obviously extreme suffering of the distant group targeted for aid via critical mass leverage, in order to argue that they need not actually fight anyone. They focus their efforts to eliminate this threat to their cultist belief in action at a distance via multiple filters as the most they can do.
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Their contributions may arguably be important and the nurtured consciousness of First World civil society may arguably play a role in frustrating expressions of war and genocide in non-First-World-middle-class jurisdictions, but the point here is that any suggestion that they are not doing everything they can or that they need to do more that would involve an actual fight with consequences and casualties will not be tolerated.
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An activist from their own privileged class that actually takes the battle personally into the halls of the economic system that sustains the oppression, and is necessarily not polite and suitably restrained in doing so, must be killed, or at least defamed, isolated, and neutralized.
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It’s a mobbing with the full intellectual pretext mill backing of university-bred feminist theory and progressive liberal rationalization. It’s ugly; the finest expression of fear and ignorance that mainstream First World activism can provide.
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Today’s North American mainstream progressive liberal low-risk consensus-seeking hobby activists are possibly the greatest barrier to First World liberation (and whole-world sanity); since the radicals that are neutralized rather than projected and multiplied are the main connections to liberation.
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RELATED POSTS
Activism and Risk
Against Chomsky
Means and Freire
Embracing Hatred
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RESPONSE FROM THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION PARTY:
Open Letter to Denis Rancourt: Harsh Words for the Ex-Professor
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OTHER RELATED EXAMPLES:
Why Norman Finkelstein dropped out of the Gaza Freedom March

6 comments:

Gwen said...

I have never heard anyone say that direct action on the job or in community organizations makes the movement look bad or puts us at risk.

The problem comes when people conflate militant action with direct action. The kind of "direct action" associated with anarchists and demonstrations can be militant, yes. But is it direct? Direct action means taking the shortest path to the goal. The goal is to shut down Cansec, or the SPP or whatever. Does militant action involving charging police officers, throwing rocks etc accomplish this? No, never. It is in fact militant reformist action.

Actual direct action is much more difficult to criticize as it often gets the job done rather than wasting the time and energy of the Left as militant reformers do.

CJ Symons said...

Props, Gwen.

As a combatant in the so-called "activist wars", I can safely say that the question *is* one of effectiveness... not out of worry that "we'll be made to look bad" (because we will whatever our tactics) but out of an attempt at objective analysis of the present conditions.

I can think of a number of actions that were, sure, confrontational, but by no means direct. Disabling the meeting of a rubber-stamp body whose purpose is to prop up the illusion of democracy does no damage, let alone irreparable. These were the ones to which I and several other objected.

We also objected to the devil-may-care attitude (and sometimes outright contempt for) the mass support needed to actually accomplish much of anything... the bigger the change, the larger the majority we'll need to win it. Tactically. It's the masses who make history, not hooligans.

So, when I see flippant disregard for... and call me a white consensus-seeker if you want... *educating people*, it irks me. Not necessarily from a principled position, but at least from a pragmatic one.

So, try to frame us as reformists or moderates or whatever if you want, but that ain't what's going on. Propaganda by deed died ninety years ago. Let's not try to revive its corpse... the smell alone is nauseating.

Arthur said...

Gwen makes a good point: if a successful direct action is about bringing ourselves the results we seek, then once it's done and it worked as planned, there's not much left to debate.

yayacanada said...

CJSymons said: "Tactically. It's the masses who make history, not hooligans."

Thanks for the chuckle. I'm not a fan of violence, but when the revolution comes, I'm sorry to say it will probably be violent. As for history: I'm pretty sure Louis Riel was seen as a hooligan and worse.

When "the masses" are actually forced off their butts as decaying conditions start to affect them personally and they become angry, they will not be at all politically correct. A lot of ATM's were smashed in Argentina (See "The Take"); the storming of the Bastille - not a pretty sight; "peasant" revolts anywhere, anytime - not pretty - sometimes government and clergy were slaughtered; and the two favourite models of the left, Che and Castro, won Cuba with gunfire. I could go on, but suffice it to say that post-9/11 polite activism has not been effective, as demonstrated by the fact that none of the wars have been stopped, we are increasingly surveilled and micro-chipped, we are on the verge of losing our right to refuse vaccinations because of a non-pandemic, the environment has been reduced to a laughable problem of CO2 so that corporations can continue to deposit their toxic waste into our water, soil and air, deforming fauna and depleting vital flora; jobs are being shipped overseas, thousands of innocent people are on no-fly lists, the SPP has not been deactivated as Maude Barlow has suggested (although one might wonder if she herself has been effectively deactivated by a prestigious UN advisory appointment); I have been told by a secessionist Nova Scotia politician that Canada won't last the century - if that - and maps have already been drawn that incorporate Ontario and the whole Great Lakes system into the United States, reducing central Canada itself to one of 19 "nation states", not to mention that far too many of the lethargic left are so gullible they have been Obam-boozled.

Jean Pape said...

Gwen's opening paragraph seems to show the she's using a definition of action unrelated to Denys' article, and maybe illuminating some of the root of the mobbing problem: people in large groups associate things with their own situations to feel whether they are true or worthy or not.

-Denys's definition of action seems to be (by the words he uses) disruption of the hegemonic ideology and heirarchy inbred in economics.
-a comparison to throwing rocks at police is an unrelated situation, albeit maybe a more obvious one of basic order.

Though its sometimes easy to confuse the obvious with the profound, the metaphorical rock that does need throwing for Denys is one of high-language and power, new instruments of language and democracy power, which are hurt by associative thinking and associative activism like we have just experienced. I am impressed by the idea category for this article, 'Dissociative Activism', a good meta term for faculty debate if i ever saw one

Anonymous said...

It really hasn't been made clear for me in this debate what kind of action we're debating. I tend to like Gwen's statement that direct action has a purpose beyond mere disruption, unless that disruption is strategic to your goal of shutting down what you disrupt. I guess Denis' essay is too vague, in that regard.
Because if the debate truly is about smashing bank machines or other things that haven't stopped the capitalist system yet, and frankly don't appear to many to be the tool we need to do so, then yes, I would go with the majority. But I do agree that if you feel a direct action is going to stop something or move us that much forward, then by all means, offend the naysayers. But not all 'militant' actions bring about change. Many are just kids being badass and feeling good about being militant. So this whole debate needs more clarity.