Saturday, October 13, 2012

Activism and Siege Mentality: A Critique of the Critics of Boots Riley.

      Recently, Boots Riley placed a pair of political critiques of the recent actions coming out of the extra-parliamentary and primarily anarchist milieu of a set of subcultural formations within Oakland.  He notably argued that the forms of property destruction used by the Black Bloc as a political formation were making it difficult to bring folks not already a part of those subcultures into the movement, often because of their lack of direction, but also because they were occasionally directed against working class property.  There are certainly problems with Riley's initial posting, particularly in the the way that it often reproduced some of the assumptions about insiders and outsiders, authentic and inauthentic community members that echo to an extent the earlier criticisms presented by city officials to legitimate violence against the movement.  But Riley's intervention can't be simply limited to that mistake.  He is making a significant and substantial intervention, noting the alienation that he is picking up on in his day to day organizing, as well as the increasing isolation of the various political formations operating under and near the "Occupy" banner.  I want to offer a critical reading of the various refusals to recognize that criticism, refusals based in a 'siege mentality' that shuts down critical engagement and dialogue to protect a political line in the name of security, solidarity, and an overlapping series of demands for political loyalty.  Before I move into this critique, I want to acknowledge that the events that Riley describe involve a great deal of violence on the part of the police, and the need to provide support financially and otherwise for those who were arrested.  It's also very frustrating to receive critical input when you have put time, pain, and labor into a political project, from perceived outsiders.  However, critique is crucial to radical politics.  Riley's critique, while pointed, remains principled.  The responses, however fall into a number of substantial political errors.

      As I have already noted, the most immediate error was the refusal to recognize the need or even validity of producing a radical critique of the contemporary moment.  Despite the fact that Riley didn't identify individuals or provide any evidence for future prosecution, a number of folks claimed that his response would legitimate state prosecution.  All too often, the discourse of security is used to secure and legitimate a particular political position through the invocation of security culture, a point I made in an earlier essay.  As Riley notes in a later response, "I would also say that many of the folks who are conflating my critique of folks doing bb tactics in a certain situation in Oakland- with the idea that I’m not showing solidarity to the folks who WEREN’T doing bb in SF and were arrested- are misleading and it speaks more to other issues than this one. Two separate issues. My post actually implies that the folks who get arrested for bb aren’t the ones doing it. Most times bb is done at actions in the bay area, somebody gets arrested. So using this logic no critique should be put out about the planning until the media aren’t talking about it."  As Riley notes, the demand that one cannot critique the tactics of an action while folks are under arrest, effectively infinitely defers the ability to present that critique.  It transforms critique into a sort of treason, a refusal of a sort of political loyalty.  Open critical speech is then limited to a very small and private set of spaces, effectively limiting broader conversations about political activity to small interpersonal groups, keeping those critiques isolated and scattered, while leaving large swathes of the population of the conversation.

      The second notable error in the responses to Riley is the continual attempts to take Riley's unique critique of a particular set of tactics in a particular situation and transform them into a series of very familiar discourses.  A set of respondents immediately tried to associate Riley's critiques of the tactics with the critiques made by Mayor Quan earlier in the year.  Another set attempted to match up Riley's critiques with the highly problematic statements made by Chris Hedges on the Black Block.  Still another group attempted to translate Riley's critiques into a series of predictable anarchist vs. marxist debates, and a final set of groups attempted to reduce the political options for action to a binary opposition between the sorts of random property destruction and either inaction or minimal symbolic action.  In many of the responses to Riley, we saw a return to a number of forms of redbaiting, generally framed in a manner that accused Riley of opposing anarchism to some sort of marxist orthodoxy.  In each case, the respondents substantially refused to engage with the argument that Riley had presented, instead making a easy set of straw man arguments, in response.  Cliche becomes a way of enforcing a set of normative practices, of refusing to challenge the categories of thought that define a conservative form of common sense.  I don't want to exclude the possibility of criticizing Riley.  After all, it would fall back into the same set of bad habits and errors that I'm criticizing, but criticism should work towards breaking up these forms of cliche, either through gesturing towards new categories, new forms of knowledge and action, etc. or towards showing the limitations of our present.

      Which leads me to a third notable error in the responses, the demand that those who criticize immediately have a solution for the problems that they have brought up.  At an immediate level, this criticism doesn't fall into the same immediate fallacies that the other categories have fallen into.  After all, Riley doesn't offer a positive solution.  However, the demand for immediate answers leads to a far more significant problem, the inability to pose fundamental questions, questions that don't simply challenge a small aspect of the current framework of the world.  At a fundamental level, it erases the ability to pose a radical critique.  After all, all current approaches to anti-capitalism have failed.  It's likely that a successful approach to creating a radical anti-capitalist social formation is going to take a form of organization and structure that is currently unrecognizable.  The way to that formation is going to need voices to point to the limitations of current forms of organization, along with the points that we step into the marshes of disorganization, even when we can't identify the road to create new forms, to complete Lenin's metaphor.  Let's create the possibilities of accomplishing that. 

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