Friday, November 5, 2010

An essay on organizing after the Anti-War Movement

 Here's another older article.  It made me realize that there was a time when Leninists really annoyed me.  Not sure if they've gotten less annoying, I've become more tolerant, or simply my politics have changed.  Probably the last option, to be honest.  The other notable aspect of this essay is the strong influence from Empire.  This was written at the height of my fascination with that book.  I could say more, but I will stop for now.

“We should say right away that this new militancy does not simply repeat the organizational formulas of the old revolutionary working class.  Today the militant cannot even pretend to be a representative, even of the fundamental human needs of the exploited.  Revolutionary political militancy today, on the contrary, must discover what has always been its proper form: not representational but constituent activity.  Militancy today is a positive, constructive, and innovative activity….  In other words, resistance is linked immediately with a constitutive investment in the biopolitical realm and to the formation of cooperative apparatuses of production and community.”
                                    --Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire

“The best response to a bad movie is to make another movie.”
--Jean Luc Godard

            A whole series of demonstrations occurred before and during the early stages of the war.  They were just another moment in a global anti-war movement.  This movement cannot be precisely called new, but at the same time, it has grown to a level that dwarfed its former constellations.  This popularity is leading to a number of contestations both within and without the movement over the matter of representation.  I am not so much interested in debating who is the legitimate “speaker” for this movement, so much as I am interested in looking at the way that contesting groups attempt to represent this movement.  I’ll begin by following the debate between liberals and Leninists, and show where there conflicts come from a certain common ground.  At that point, I’ll begin to discuss the attempts to resist these modes of representation, in both their sense of possibility and their limitations.  At that point, I will try to point to a way out of this morass, not in the sense of a blueprint, but rather in the sense of a process of thought.[1]
            Former SDS head Todd Gitlin has been conducting a formidable campaign against the burgeoning anti-war movement.  He has been able to bring this message to a number of large public venues, ranging from radio to print.  He is only the most significant of a group of liberals making critiques.  Their critiques can be formulated on two large points.  1.  The anti-war movement is far too apologetic to dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il.  2.  The anti-war movement is far too dominated by Leninists, and their modes of expression and messages.  There has been a tradition of dismissing this sort of message as mere red-baiting.  I propose that we take it quite seriously, even if we reject all of its implications in the end.  The call of red-baiting has been for too long a cloak for deflecting the criticisms of Leninists in the movement.  

            The primary charge it seems is the domination of Leninists in the movement.  The other charge, the one dealing with apologism for dictator can be subsumed under the former, as a form of anti-imperialist politics.  Two of the most prominent anti-war movements, the ANSWER coalition, and the Not In Our Name coalition are tied to the Worker’s World Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party, respectively.  Both groups work to obfuscate the role that the Leninist groups play in them.  Both will bring up ‘red-baiting’ at any time that the connection is made. However, the politics of the groups can be seen at points.  For example the ANSWER coalition will never consider criticizing the Iraqi or North Korean regimes because it would be considered to be outside a certain anti-imperialist politic.  This allows for the pro-war forces to claim themselves as a pro-democratic group, opposed by those who support the status quo.

            Both groups by in large use what is referred to as ‘mass line’ organizing in dealing with these movements.  What this form of politics does is to suppress the particular idiosyncrasies of the groups for a politics that the group interprets as that which allows the greatest number to come together.  This creates the desire for a form of organization that emphasizes uniformity and coherence at the sacrifice of creativity and spontaneity.  The level of joy at these forms of marches is frequently related to the distance participants are away from the bullhorns.[2]  This model is in opposition to the one that was emphasized within the anti-globalization movement, which despite its massive problems, rarely led to boredom.  The politics of the ‘mass line’ simultaneously engages with the perceived politics of the crowd, but it closes off the possibility of the crowd transforming itself into something else, a democratic and communicative body, which can come to its own decision making processes and decisions. 

            Why is it that liberals such as Gitlin make these criticisms of the movement?  What is their stake in these criticisms?  I think that the Northestern Federation of Anarcho-Communists illuminates this to some extent.  NEFAC notes that what these Leninist groups are able to within the anti-war movement is to express the project of liberalism better than the liberals do themselves.  They can put the project of human rights and et al much more forcefully than liberals themselves.  In effect, by representing these values, they displace the liberals.  They can do this precisely because unlike mainstream liberal groups, the Leninist groups are not linked to the Democratic Party, and therefore aren’t responsible for the maintenance of the empire or the reproduction of capital.  Therefore, they can speak in the voice of a particular utopian liberal anti-interventionary politics without flinching.

            Before we express a false nostalgia for some liberalism of the past, it’s important to remember that liberalism is just as willing to crush difference within its movements.  The best example I can think of is Todd Gitlin himself.  Gitlin repeatedly criticized, the women’s and queer movements for their abandonment of ‘proper progressive politics’ for the politics of ‘identity’ and ‘lifestyle’, and in effect, refused to recognize the particular needs and desires of the people within the movement who are different.  Liberal groups as diverse as the Human Rights Campaign to the Democratic Party hold to this assimilationist tendency.  Liberals are just as invested in this form of representation as the Leninists.  The antagonism between these two forces is built upon the need to both represent and displace the complex group of actors within the movement.  Liberalism has constantly acted too put the brakes on social movements through its particular forms of representation, to neutralize political movements and transform the organizers into stakeholders and NGOs.  To make the choice between the liberal representative and Leninist one is to choose who is going speak for you, which actions you make are to be allowed to be legible, etc.  In reality, it is no choice at all.

            In response, anarchism has counterpoised the option of spontaneity.  But all too often, this notion of spontaneity is tied in with a certain humanist, essentialist conceptualization of human agency.  In response to that notion of agency, we need counter-pose a notion of spontaneity that is completely materialist, and immanent in nature.  We can find the beginning of such a model in Rosa Luxembourg’s debates with Karl Kautsky.[3]
            In response to Kautsky’s notion that the class struggle will culminate in massive, general strike, Rosa Luxembourg advocates something quite different.  The class struggle in her view builds in fits and starts.  It comes about from the proletariat learning from its own self-action in small strikes, meetings, etc.  This particular form of production of new subjectivities creates the conditions for acts of spontaneity.  The spontaneous act occurs when the proletariat embodies the knowledge that it has produced through these actions.  To put this in more prosaic language, one can think of it in the same sense as driving or riding a bike.  There comes a point that the act of riding or driving becomes unconscious.  Collective political practice works in the same way, through experimentation.

            In this sense, the field of political practice becomes a sort of laboratory.  This creates a need for both using new forms of organization, and looking back at them critically.  The anarchist community has constantly ignored this second element.  It has tended to blithely ignore its weaknesses, or done the opposite, in condemning itself or others in total.  Critique is something else.  It’s not a form of condemnation, or cynicism, as so many activists seem to think it is, rather it is a joyful act.  It allows one to see the possibilities contained in what is seen to be a failure.

            The primary critique I have of the anarchist community comes out of its refusal to organize, and create organizations.  When one looks at the anti-war movement, the people who have made the contacts, created the alliances, and organized the events have been liberals and Leninists.  They are perceived to be the responsible parties within the activist communities.  They also draw of the most responsible of the activists to their cause.  They have created the activist community within their own image.

            Anarchists on the other hand have managed to isolate themselves.  Far too often, anarchists have become a group of slouching adolescents, grumbling about the protest on the sidelines.  Either that or they organize themselves into exclusionary cells in an attempt to create a militancy that has nothing to do with the crowd.  By doing this, they act as a perverse boon to liberal and Leninist grouplets.  It allows them to act as mediators between the crowd and the anarchists.  It makes them appear as responsible actors.  It also makes anarchist look a bit parasitical in their approach to organizing, letting others do the work, and then entering in as if the event was theirs at their command.

            I don’t want to deny that there are some ideas that are worth embracing within the anarchist camp.  The most significant of those is parody.  This tactic has only been taken up a few times as a deliberate tactic; for the most part it comes out of frustration and boredom with the tactics at hand.  This has led to an implementation of this tactic in a manner that tended to be more sullen, and less creative.  Perhaps this can be moved in another direction, one that is less confrontational with the organizers, and is rather a joyful subversion within the process.

            Anarchist culture within and outside the Twin Cities has developed a number of creative and exciting tactics and ideas.  They range from use of bicycles in demonstrations, shields, radical cheerleaders, etc.  We need to recognize these strengths and use them.  Moreover, we need to use them within the crowd, not outside of it in opposition to it.  The crowd is not a homogeneous mass; rather it’s complex, creative, and vibrant.  So far there are two sides to the same coin when it comes to the crowd, the Leninists and liberals want to control it as a homogeneous mass.  Anarchists want to reject for that same reason.  But there is an alternative that doesn’t stand between; rather it rejects the logic altogether.  It recognizes the crowd as an immanent assemblage, differentiated, constantly shifting, and in constant production.  The point is to become a part of this, not to assimilate to it but to contribute to it, and to communicate within it.

            In order to move beyond the current situation, this is a dire necessity.  The anti-war movement has been pushed as far as it can go within its current manifestation and it was a failure.  A failure that has potentials within it, but it is a failure nonetheless.  Perhaps it represents the last flight of a type of representational politics at its dusk.  At this point, we are at a standstill.  In order to move forward we need to create the alliances and contacts that the leninists and liberals have without the representational forms that they engage in.[4] The figure of the organizer is scoffed at by current avant-garde anarchist thought, but it is the organizer that is at the heart of the strongest anarchist projects, the IWW, the CNT-FAI, the student organizers in Paris, etc.[5]
            There ultimately needs to be a break away from this form of representational spectacle.  We need to return to the question of social democracy[6] in the broadest sense of the term, a form of social democratic politic that allows for people to take control of their lives both collectively and individually.  Revolutionary politics can never be based within the notion of charity, the notion of social changed being handed from above from a generous hand.  That mode of thought holds to the same spectacle and representation of helplessness that traps traditional political thought.  It must instead be tied to the notion of mutual aid. It must be tied into what has always been the proper realm of politics, that is, the creation of different relationships between people.  This is a process that must push itself into the realm of production, and touch upon the most fundamental parts of people’s lives.  It must become a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena, not allow itself to stop at any form of standardized, ‘proper’ form of tactic.  It is only at that point can we successfully resist the perpetual war that Empire calls peace.  

[1] I feel like noting both as a preemptive strike and a moment of modesty that I am critiquing a movement that I am a part of, and that there is nothing in here that does not apply to myself.
[2] I would like to explicitly part from anarchist company on one issue although, that of marshals.  I don’t think that demonstration security is in itself stultifying, and often acts to allow a more diverse crowd.  Those who make this comment, frequently confuse creativity with fighting the police.      
[3] See Rosa Luxemburg “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions”.  I would also recommend reading Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, as well as Kathi Weeks’ work.
[4] For more on this issue, see my article “Politics and Polemics: A Sort of Response to Michael Wood” contained in a previous issue of the journal.
[5] It is also worth noting that in every one of these situations, there were connections and alliance to people whose project was one of a genuinely radical and democratic marxism.
[6] To avoid the inevitable sectarian backlash that this term brings, I don’t mean this term in the sense of the Social Democratic movement that emerged from the Second International; rather I mean it in a way that can be synonymous with “communism”, “participatory democracy”, or even “anarchism.”  The terms don’t mean that much to me.

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