The debate, which centers on the role of violence in protests, is a tremendous opportunity, but only if we concede that we don’t yet know how to win. If we don’t start with this simple, brutal fact, it risks degenerating into one more spectacle to keep us mesmerized as the world burns.
The debate between Chris Hedges and the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective, scheduled to take place September 12 at the City University of New York Graduate Center, is long overdue.
Squaring off to determine what role – if any – violence is to have in movements like Occupy, the opponents will march into one of the left’s most treacherous minefields. And they want you to watch.
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If activity on Facebook is any indication, the hall at CUNY will be packed. Meanwhile, the showdown’s promised livestreaming has prompted many activists to set up viewing events at infoshops, or at house parties with beer and popcorn.
The terms of the debate are already well established; nevertheless, if there was ever such a thing as a diversity-of-tactics championship round, this surely would be it.
Up until now, Hedges has maintained that there’s no point in engaging with “black bloc” advocates. In an interview posted on Truthout on February 9, 2012, he admitted to not having spoken with black bloc participants when coming to the conclusion that they were Occupy’s “cancer.” In response, CrimethInc. declared that they would not enter into debate with figures like Hedges.
In their introduction to a first-person black bloc testimonial published on February 20, 2012, they wrote: “We do not accept the terms set by the mudslingers: Our intent is not to compete for ideological legitimacy on a battlefield of abstractions.”
Now, seven months later, they’ve resolved to go toe to toe. Of course people want to watch. But will the event be a mere spectacle or will we rise to the occasion to ensure that it becomes something more?
From the Battle of Blair Mountain to the eviction of Occupy, the story of American radicalism is inseparable from the question of violence. Sometimes embraced, often denounced, but even more often sidestepped, debates about violence have tended to return (like all repressed phenomena do) with a frequency that only underscores their importance.
But while activists on both sides of the violence/nonviolence divide seem committed to their respective certainties, few would suggest that either position has brought us any closer to a collective understanding of what we must do to win.
Maybe this means that “we” will never be a unified force, that agreement on ends is not enough to see us through. Maybe it means that the violent opponents of constituted power are in fact enemies to the pacifists who trust that power can be shamed into doing the right thing. Then again, maybe it means that “we” – pacifists and advocates of a diversity of tactics alike – still haven’t grasped what’s essential.
In a context where the State continues to enjoy a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, it’s hardly surprising that many of us go to great lengths to avoid describing our actions using the language of violence. Around the time that Chris Hedges denounced the black bloc as the “cancer of occupy,” activist-journalist Rebecca Solnit proclaimed that social change arose not from violence, but from “people power.”
In her estimation, this power was evident during November’s general strike in Oakland, where activists helped to shut down the ports in what she described as “a triumphant and mostly nonviolent day of mass actions.”
I will be the first to concede that “people power” sounds good. At very least, it doesn’t have the same bad name that violence does. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to wonder what this “power” amounts to, or where it ultimately comes from.
Given its broad appeal, it’s not surprising that Solnit landed upon the general strike as a compelling example of people power. But if people’s power is the antithesis of violence as Solnit proposes, and if the general strike gives that power a concrete form, then what are we to make of the fact that the general strike was a significant reference point for some of the 20th century’s most significant meditations on the question of political violence?
In his “Critique of Violence” (1921), Walter Benjamin recounted how strikes called the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force into question and how, in response, capitalist countries began incorporating the “right” to strike into their legal paradigms. In this way, they began placing restrictions on what strikes might look like.
Today, strikes have become highly ritualized procedures that bear little resemblance to their violent precursors. Nevertheless, as the recent Quebec student strike has made clear, they continuously threaten to erupt into moments of sovereign contestation. For this reason, and as Benjamin indicated, the strike remains essentially violent because its participants tend to “exercise a right in order to overthrow the legal system that has conferred it.”
In Benjamin’s account, violence either works to preserve an existing legal framework or to establish a new one. Law-preserving violence commits people (police and bosses, to be sure, but also “innocent” bystanders) to custodial care for a crumbling world.
In contrast, law-making vio¬lence arises between competing sovereignties, one ascendant and one in decline. In this formulation, the measure of violence ceases to be “harm” and becomes instead the degree to which the status quo was maintained or transformed. Law-preserving violence is generally sanctioned; law-making violence is not. The realm in which there is no violence at all becomes infinitesimally small. Even doctrinally nonviolent protesters don’t escape, since their actions rely upon the violence that established the legal rights and legal power to which they appeal.
In a recent edition of Occupy’s theoretical journal Tidal, Gayatri Spivak outlined the history of the general strike and elaborated the means by which it could be retooled for our new global situation. Along with other figures, Spivak’s history makes reference to the work of the now mostly-forgotten French theorist of the general strike, Georges Sorel. But while Sorel gets a nod, Spivak makes no mention of the fact that his considerations on the general strike are to be found in “Reflections on Violence” (1908), a pro-violence tract of the first order. This omission must surely have been deliberate, since she goes on to insist that the general strike is “by definition nonviolent.”
Strategically useful though it may be, Spivak’s assertion does not stand up to scrutiny. Following in the tradition of Sorel and Benjamin, even the provocative black cultural nationalist Amiri Baraka gravitated toward the general strike as oppositional violence’s most obvious political form.
Contemplating the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) suggested that, in response, “The US Steel plant in that city should have been shut down by Negroes.”
Black workers should have walked out of every job they hold in the city. A general strike should have been called. An attempt should have been made to shut down completely the city’s industrial resources. That city should have died, should have been killed by Negroes.
Such urbicide, he avowed, was unquestionably an act of violence. However, as with Marx (who professed that the proletarian revolution would make the bourgeois individual “impossible” without requiring that every shop owner be killed), Baraka envisioned the general strike as a form of violence that could transform social relations without ever requiring that physical harm be inflicted on people.
This past spring, the Occupy movement became enthralled by visions of a post-thaw resurgence that would culminate in a general strike starting on May Day. But despite these ambitions, which were endorsed by activists on both sides of the diversity-of-tactics debate, many movement participants ignored – or remained oblivious to – the violent character of their proposed plans. Had this violence been acknowledged, we may have discovered (tactical differences notwithstanding) that the movement’s nonviolent wing had more in common with its putative “cancer” than we’d previously realized.
Rather than acknowledging the tendency toward violence underlying both the movement’s most significant moment, and its most significant aspirations, commentators on both sides of the violence/nonviolence divide have tended to allow the debate to slip back into a well-carved and circuitous groove. Like a broken record, the proponents of nonviolence assert the strategic and ethical superiority of their position without ever acknowledging the State violence that underwrites it. Nevertheless, as Geoff Berner put it, “To live outside the law you must be vicious; to live inside you must depend upon the viciousness of strangers.”
Meanwhile, activists who have come to recognize violence’s productive character have opted once again to convey their discovery in the coded, user-friendly language of a “diversity of tactics.”
Does that mean that the scheduled debate brings us back to the “battlefield of abstractions” that CrimethInc. hoped to avoid? It might not be inevitable, but reading the comments on activist web sites makes me worry. Although it’s an arbitrary sampling method, I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve reached a point of intractability that makes learning new things impossible. We’ve already chosen sides. And what we want most is the fight.
How else are we to explain the dramatic recurrence of pugilistic metaphors on activist message boards? “Hedges is about to be so smacked down,” wrote one message board contributor on August 16, 2012. Pleased that the debate would be livestreamed, they concluded by promising a “viewing party at [their] apartment.” “Mine too,” wrote another, adding: “If ever there was a celeb death match to remember, this would be it.” Extending the metaphor in a subsequent entry, another participant expressed hope that the CrimethInc. speaker would be “working up a sweat everyday…in preparation for this debate!!” The entry concludes in an explosion of fandom enthusiasm: “We love you and don’t let us down!!”
Others weighed in too. “This is going to be awesome,” wrote one commenter. “I hope Hedges cries.” “I hope Hedges bleeds,” wrote another, perhaps concerned that crying was not sufficient for a contender guilty of taking pot shots at the black bloc. In the end, however, even bleeding was not enough: “I hope Hedges dies.” Taking a more cautious tone, another participant wrote: “I got nothing but love for CrimethInc., just hope they really throw a good punch.”
Are we waiting for a boxing match? A case could be made that we’re about to witness the activist equivalent of the Rumble in the Jungle. A clever journalist could claim that CrimethInc. can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee (it’s not for nothing that one of the books that most defined them in the early years was called “Evasion”). Meanwhile, Hedges – a former boxer himself – could be considered a miniature George Foreman. Unrelenting and unapologetic, he may well be the heavyweight champion of moral journalism. As was true of Ali in 1974, CrimethInc. seems to be the underdog favorite going into the bout; and, like Ali before them, it seems like their strategy will be to stand firm, cast evasion aside, and draw Hedges out.
But a debate is not boxing, and activism is not a spectator sport. As we prepare for this important event, let’s not lose sight of how inadequate our certainties have proven to be thus far. Neither doctrinal nonviolence nor respect for a diversity of tactics has allowed us to come to terms with violence’s omnipresence and inescapability, or to develop a response that’s equal to the task. The debate is a tremendous opportunity, but only if we concede that we don’t yet know how to win. If we don’t start with this simple – brutal – fact, September 12 risks degenerating into one more spectacle to keep us mesmerized as the world burns.