Saturday, November 5, 2011

A short comment on property destruction in relation to the Oakland General Strike

     There has been a lot of hullabaloo about some of the property destruction that occurred during the fantastically successful November 2nd Oakland General Strike.  I wasn't there, so I'm not going to get into a discussion of the events of the day, but I am going to disagree with the way that the question of property destruction has been dealt with by a number of critics, most notably the tendency to collapse the question of smashing windows with violence. 

     At a basic level, there is something very problematic with the act of equating the destruction of an inanimate object such as a window or a picket fence with the act of striking or physically injuring another human being or even an animal.  I'm reminded of Marx's comment about the commodity fetish in the Economic Manuscripts, noting that the structure of capitalist production leads to "a personification of things and a reification of persons."  The act of naming the smashing of glass window or destroying a ATM machine 'violence' animates that object with a curious sense of life.  Within mainstream and liberal accounts of the protests, an act of vandalism or property destruction becomes the equivalent to police violence in sympathetic accounts or acts to erase or legitimate that violence in unsympathetic accounts.  In effect, the 'personification' or subjectivization of private property comes with a simultaneous 'reification' or erasure of the people within that scene.  To put it another way, the staging of property destruction as violence legitimates, and at time creates the preconditions for the real violence against protestors. 

      That isn't to say that there isn't a legitimate place to have a conversation about the use of such tactics within political action, but that the conversation needs to be framed in a different manner.  After all, to see property destruction as one tactic amongst many in a given situation doesn't inherently legitimate it as an action.  As Noam Chomsky notes, tactical considerations are always ethical questions.  Within that context, one could ask what the tactic is meant to accomplish, what are its consequences, who is negatively impacted by it, etc.  We should recognize that the people who indeed engaged in these tactics in Oakland took these questions fairly seriously.  There was nothing indiscriminate about the property destruction engaged in by the anti-capitalist bloc.  They damaged the properties of financial institutions, and the rather despicable Whole Foods, leaving small businesses and other properties alone.  Nor is there much evidence that the late night police violence was related to these actions, which took place much earlier in the day.  But I can still see legitimate criticisms, focusing on who is put at risk and who is excluded by these actions, and other concerns.  These questions however operate on a much more complex and nuanced terrain than the flattened topography violence and non-violence.

      Before I finish this, I also think that there has been a tendency among certain anarchist polemicists to over-valorize these sorts of actions, seeing them as somehow more 'real' than the symbolic action of conventional protest.  As a number of folks, including many anarchists, have noted, the sorts of property destruction that occurred at the Oakland action have a very small impact on the banks and corporations that are affected.  The truth is the milling crowds of the general strike that closed the businesses in the first place, probably had more of an impact on the finances of those businesses than the destruction of windows (not to mention the far more conventional Bank of America protests, which have cut of a new revenue stream for the banks).  In effect, the smashing of windows, the acts of vandalism are no less symbolic than the conventional sign holders that are so often derided by the insurrectionist side of the anarchist spectrum, and therefore most of these actions must be judged on their symbolic, or perhaps more properly speaking, their theatrical value.  That being said, to my eyes, at least, the actions against the banks struck me as an extremely powerful symbolic action and created some good theater, although this is really a question for the comrades in the Oakland movement, I suppose. 

       To return to the beginning premise of my comment, the attempt at equating property destruction with violence misses out on the fact that the only real violence was committed by the police.  That violence wasn't in response to the small acts of destruction committed in the day, but as a way of quelling the potentially insurrectionary power of the crowd itself, that is to say, as a way of checking the massive victory of the General Strike itself.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you once again for a spot-on commentary. Re-posted.