CrimethInc: What to do while the dust is settling

CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective

CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective

CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective (CWC) has been running a series reflecting on the experiences of anarchists involved in recent popular protests and uprisings, with the emphasis on what to do after the crest of the wave of popular protest. Below, I reproduce excerpts from Part One. For the rest of the series, click here. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Ideas, I included excerpts from CrimethInc.’s analysis of the 2011-2012 Egyptian revolution.

crimethInc blog-dust-1b

After the Crest, Part One: What to do while the dust is settling

Over the past six years, cities around the world have seen peaks of anti-capitalist struggle: Athens, London, Barcelona, Cairo, Oakland, Montréal, Istanbul. A decade ago, anarchists would converge from around the world to participate in a single summit protest. Now many have participated in months-long upheavals in their own cities, and more surely loom ahead.

But what do we do after the crest? If a single upheaval won’t bring down capitalism, we have to ask what’s important about these high points: what we hope to get out of them, how they figure in our long-term vision, and how to make the most of the period that follows them. This is especially pressing today, when we can be sure that there are more upheavals on the way.

“At the high point, it seems like it will go on forever. You feel invincible, unstoppable. Then the crash comes: court cases, disintegration, depression.

Once you go through this several times, the rhythm becomes familiar. It becomes possible to recognize these upheavals as the heartbeat of something greater than any single movement.”

…Many anarchists depend on a triumphalist narrative, in which we have to go from victory to victory to have anything to talk about. But movements, too, have natural life cycles. They inevitably peak and die down. If our strategies are premised on endless growth, we are setting ourselves up for inevitable failure. That goes double for the narratives that determine our morale.

After the Crest

After the Crest

Movement – A mysterious social phenomenon that aspires to growth yet, when observed, always appears to be in decline.

When social change is gathering momentum, it is protean and thus invisible; only when it stabilizes as a fixed quantity is it possible to affix a label to it, and from that moment on it can only decompose. This explains why movements burst like comets into the public consciousness at the high point of their innovation, followed by a long tail of diminishing returns. A sharper eye can see the social ferment behind these explosions, perennial and boundless, alternately drawing in new participants and emitting new waves of activity, as if in successive breaths.

In Occupy Oakland, a three-week occupation gave way to a six-month decline. This bears repeating: movements spend most of their time in decline. That makes it all the more important to consider how to make the most of the waning phase.

As all movements inevitably reach limits, it is pointless to bewail their passing—as if they would go on growing indefinitely if only the participants were strategic enough. If we presume the goal of any tactic is always to maintain the momentum of a particular movement, we will never be able to do more than react quixotically against the inexorable passing of time. Rather than struggling to stave off dissolution, we should act with an eye to the future.

This could mean consolidating the connections that have developed during the movement, or being sure to go out with a bang to inspire future movements, or revealing the internal contradictions that the movement never solved. Perhaps, once a movement has reached its limits, the most important thing to do in the waning phase is to point to what a future movement would have to do to transcend those limits.

crimethInc-oak-1b

“We had occupied the building for almost 24 hours, and we were starting to imagine that we could somehow hold onto it. I was about to go out for supplies to fortify the place when something caught my eye. There in the dust of the abandoned garage was a hood ornament from a car that hadn’t been manufactured in 40 years. I reached down to pick it up, then hesitated: I could always look at it later. On impulse, I took it anyway. A half hour later, a SWAT squad surrounded the building for blocks in every direction. We never recovered any of the things we built or brought there. Over a hundred of us met, danced, and slept in that building, outside the bounds of anything we’d previously been able to imagine in our little town, and that little hood ornament is all I have to show it happened.

When I visited my friends in the Bay Area the following week, they were in the same state of elation I had been when I left the building: ‘We walk around and people see us and call out OCC-U-PY! Things are just going to grow and keep on growing!’ ”

crimethInc perspective

Keep perspective.

During a crescendo of social struggle, it can be difficult to maintain perspective; some things seem central yet prove transitory, while other things fall by the wayside that afterwards turn out to have been pivotal. Often, we miss opportunities to foster long-term connections, taking each other for granted in the urgency of responding to immediate events. Afterwards, when the moment has passed, we don’t know how to find each other—or we have no reason to, having burned our bridges in high-stress situations. What is really important, the tactical success of a particular action, or the strength of the relationships that come out of it?

Likewise, it is rarely easy to tell where you are in the trajectory of events. At the beginning, when the window of possibility is wide open, it is unclear how far things can go; often, anarchists wait to get involved until others have already determined the character of the movement. Later, at the high point, it can seem that the participants are at the threshold of tremendous new potential—when in fact that window of possibility has already begun to close. This confusion makes it difficult to know when it is the right time to shift gears to a new strategy.

“We were outside at a café in downtown Oakland a couple months later. I was asking what my friends thought the prospects were for the future. “Things will pick up again when spring arrives,” they assured me.

At first I believed them. Wasn’t everyone saying the same thing all around the country? Then it hit me: we were sitting there in the sunshine, wearing t-shirts, in the city that had seen the most intense action of the whole Occupy movement. If there wasn’t another occupation there already, it wasn’t coming back.”

Toronto G20

Toronto G20

Keep the window of possibility open while you can; if you have to split, split on your own terms.

Movements usually begin with an explosion of uncertainty and potential. So long as the limits are unclear, a wide range of participants have cause to get involved, while the authorities must hold back, unsure of the consequences of repression. How do we keep this window of possibility open as long as possible without sidestepping real disagreements? (Think of Occupy Wall Street when it first got off the ground and all manner of radical and reactionary tendencies mingled within it.) Is it better to postpone clashes over ideological issues—such as nonviolence versus diversity of tactics—or to precipitate them? (Think of the controversial black bloc in Occupy Oakland on November 2, 2011.)

One way to approach this challenge is to try to clarify the issues at stake without drawing fixed lines of political identity in the process. As soon as a tactical or ideological disagreement is understood a conflict between distinct social bodies, the horizon begins to close. The moment of potential depends on the fluidity of the movement, the circulation of ideas outside their usual domains, the emergence of new social configurations, and the openness of individual participants to personal transformation. The entrenchment of fixed camps undermines all of these.

This problem is further complicated by the fact that the top priority of the authorities is always to divide movements—often along the same lines that the participants themselves wish to divide. It may be best to try not to precipitate any permanent breaks until the horizon of possibility has closed, then make sure that the lines are drawn on your own terms, not the terms of the authorities or their unwitting liberal stooges.

crimethInc Hedges

Push the envelope.

What is still possible once the horizon has been circumscribed? In a dying movement, one can still push the envelope, setting new precedents for the future so subsequent struggles will be able to imagine going further. This is a good reason not to avoid ideological clashes indefinitely; in order to legitimize the tactics that will be needed in the future, one often has to begin by acting outside the prevailing consensus.

For example, at the conclusion of November 2, 2011, Occupy Oakland participants controversially attempted to take over a building. This provoked a great deal of backlash, but it set a precedent for a series of building occupations that enabled Occupy to begin to challenge the sanctity of private property during its long waning phase—giving Occupy a much more radical legacy than it would otherwise have had.

crimethInc atc-dust-2b

One year’s breakthroughs are the next year’s limitations.

During the burgeoning stage of a movement, participants often become fixated on certain tactics. There is a tendency to try to repeat one’s most recent successes; in the long run, this can only produce conservatism and diminishing returns. Diminishing returns are still returns, of course, and a tactic that is no longer effective in its original context may offer a great deal of potential in another setting—witness the occupation of Taksim Square in June 2013, when no one in the US could imagine occupying anything ever again. But tactics and rhetoric eventually become used up. Once no one expects anything new from them, the same slogans and strategies that generated so much momentum become obstacles.

As soon as Occupy is in the news, anyone who had an occupation in mind had better hurry to carry it out before the window of opportunity has closed and nobody wants to occupy anything at all. In a comic example of this tendency to fixate on certain tactics, after Occupy Oakland was evicted, Occupy Wall Street mailed a large number of tents across the country as a gesture of support. These tents merely took up storage space over the following months as the struggle in Oakland reached its conclusion on other terrain.

crimethInc atc-dust-3b

Don’t regress to outmoded strategies.

Sometimes, after a new strategy that is attuned to the present context has created new momentum, there is a tendency to revert to previous approaches that have long ceased working. When people with little prior experience converge in a movement, they sometimes demand guidance from those who have a longer history of involvement; more often, it is the veterans themselves who demand to provide this guidance. Unfortunately, longtime activists frequently bring in old tactics and strategies, using the new opportunity to resume the defeated projects of the past.

For example, fourteen years ago, worldwide summit-hopping offered a way to exert transnational leverage against capitalist globalization, offering a model to replace the local and national labor organizing that had been outflanked by the international mobility of corporations. Yet when labor activists got involved, they criticized summit-hoppers for running around the world rather than organizing locally the old-fashioned way. Likewise, Occupy got off the ground because it offered a new model for an increasingly precarious population to stand up for itself without stable economic positions from which to mobilize. But again, old-fashioned labor activists saw this new movement only as a potential pool of bodies to support union struggles, and channeled its momentum into easily coopted dead ends.

In the wake of every movement, we should study what its successes and failures show about our current context, while recognizing that by the time we can make use of those lessons the situation will have changed once more.

crimethInc splashimage5

Beware of rising expectations.

When a movement is at its high point, it becomes possible to act on a scale previously unimaginable. This can be debilitating afterwards, when the range of possibility contracts again and the participants are no longer inspired by the tactics they engaged in before the crest. One way to preserve momentum past the end of a movement is to go on setting attainable intermediate goals and affirming even the humblest efforts toward them.

The trajectory of green anarchist struggles in Oregon at the turn of the last century offers a dramatic example of this kind of inflation. At the beginning, the goals were small and concrete: protect a specific tree or a specific stretch of forest. After the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, the goals of green anarchists in the region hypertrophied until they reached a tactical impasse. When your immediate objective is to “take down industrial civilization,” just about anything you can do is going to feel pointless.

Indeed, during a declining phase, it may be important to resist the tendency to escalate. When the SHAC campaign ran aground, Root Force set out to apply the same strategy against a much bigger target—scaling up from a single animal testing corporation to the major infrastructural projects underlying transnational capitalism. A SHAC-style campaign targeting a smaller corporation might have succeeded, empowering a new generation to go on applying the strategy, but Root Force never even got off the ground.

crimethInc entrapment

Quit while you’re ahead.

The declining phase of a movement can be a dangerous time. Often, popular support has died down and the forces of repression have regained their footing, but the participants still have high hopes and feel a sense of urgency. Sometimes it’s best to shift focus before something really debilitating occurs.

Yet quitting while you’re ahead is complicated. If the connections that have been made are premised on collective action, it can be difficult to retain these without staying in the streets together.

Months after Occupy Oakland was definitively over, police brutally attacked an anarchist march against Columbus Day, making several arrests and pressing felony charges. It is an open question whether this showed that anarchists had overextended themselves, but after a payback action the following night in Oakland, street activity in the Bay Area died down for almost a year. On the other hand, after the UK student movement died down, an explosion of riots in August 2011 suggested that many of the underclass participants felt abandoned by the withdrawal of their former activist allies from street action. It is possible that, had the movement continued in some form, the riots might have turned out differently—as a point of departure for another wave of collective struggle, rather than the desperate act of a marginalized population rising ruinously against society itself.

crimethInc passions

Be prepared for burnout and depression.

After the crest, when the euphoria is over, many participants will experience depression. Since the events that regularly brought them together have ceased, they are isolated and more vulnerable. Others may veer into addiction: substance use can be a way to maintain intimacy with each other and with danger itself when there is no more fire in the streets. The simple pleasures with which people celebrated their victories can expand to fill the space left by the receding tide of events, becoming self-destructive. This is another reason to establish new venues to maintain camaraderie and connection when the window of possibility is closing.

Save energy for the fallout.

All of these problems are often intensified by the explosion of discord that usually follows a movement’s demise. Once it is clear that a movement is definitively over, all the conflicts that the participants have been putting off come to the fore, for there is no longer any incentive to keep them under the rug. Suppressed resentments and ideological differences surface, along with serious allegations about abuse of power and violations of consent. Learning from these conflicts is an essential part of the process that prepares the way for future movements: for example, contemporary anarchism is descended in part from the feminist backlash that followed the New Left movements of the 1960s. But participants rarely think to save energy for this phase, and it can feel like thankless work, since the “action” is ostensibly over.

“It was a few nights before the eviction of the Occupy Philly encampment, and we were holding a General Assembly to decide what to do. Tensions were running high between the residents of the camp, who were primarily homeless, and those who participated chiefly in meetings and working groups. That night, a homeless man interrupted the GA to accuse several of those in leadership positions of being in league with the police, being racist, and planning to sell out the homeless. The facilitator tried to ignore the disruption, but the angry man drowned him out and eventually riled up a few more people who began shouting too. In this moment of chaos and heightened emotion, we had a unique opportunity. We could have shifted our focus from the threat that the government wanted us to react to, instead using that GA to finally address the tensions in our own group in hopes of building a force that could survive into the next phase of struggle. Instead, the facilitator tried to restore order by directing us to “break into small groups and discuss what ‘respect’ means.” My heart sank. Our shared energy was explosive; we needed to channel it, not suppress it.

That was the last time I saw many of the comrades I’d befriended over the preceding months. The eviction wasn’t the greatest threat we faced after all.”

crimethInc dont_big

Repression hits hardest at the end.

Government repression usually does not hit in full force until after a movement has died down. It is most convenient for the state to attack people when their support networks have collapsed and their attention is elsewhere. Operation Backfire struck years after the high point of Earth Liberation Front momentum, when many of the participants had moved on and the communities that had supported them had disintegrated. Similarly, the authorities waited until May 2012 to strike back at Occupy with a series of entrapment cases.

The chief goal of repression is to open the fault lines within the targeted social body, isolating it and forcing it into a reactive position. Ideally, we should respond to repression in ways that establish new connections and position us for new offensives.

Hold your ground.

How do we transition into other forms of connection when the exceptional circumstances that drew us together are over? The networks that coalesce effortlessly during the high point of momentum rarely survive. While new events were unfolding, there was an obvious reward for setting differences aside and interrupting routines to converge. Afterwards, the large groups that formed slowly break down into smaller ones, while smaller groups often vanish altogether. The reshuffling of allegiances that takes place during this period is vital, but it’s equally vital not to lose each other in the shuffle.

During the crest of a movement, participants often take for granted that it will leave them at a higher plateau when it is over. But this is hardly guaranteed. This may be the most important question facing us as we approach the next wave of struggles: how do we gain and hold ground? Political parties can measure their effectiveness according to how many new recruits they retain, but anarchists must conceive of success differently.

In the end, it isn’t just organizations with contact lists that will remain after the crest, but above all new questions, new practices, new points of reference for how people can stand up for themselves. Passing these memories along to the next generation is one of the most important things we can do.

crimethInc_header_right

Proudhon on Insurrection and Resistance

In addition to being the bicentennial of Proudhon’s birth, 2009 was the 160th anniversary of the publication of Proudhon’s Confessions of a Revolutionary, one of his most anarchist works. In it he denounced the unholy trinity of capitalism, religion and the state, which was to become a common theme in subsequent anarchist writings:

Capital, which in the political field is analogous to government, in religion has Catholicism as its synonym. The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them… What capital does to labour, and the State to liberty, the Church does to the spirit… The most effective means for oppressing the people would be simultaneously to enslave its body, its will and its reason. If socialism is to reveal its truly positive aspect, free from all mysticism, all it will have to do is denounce the idea of this trinity.

When Bakunin and James Guillaume put together a selection of Proudhon’s writings in 1873, entitled Anarchy According to Proudhon, they included extensive excerpts from the Confessions, as well as material from The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century. Both books, written by Proudhon while imprisoned for denouncing Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as the personification of reaction, set forth Proudhon’s anarchist analysis and response to the 1848 Revolution in France, not his subsequent and far inferior work, The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the December 2 Coup d’Etat, seized upon by Proudhon’s critics to show he was a “secret friend” of the right (for more on this, see my previous blog page entry, The General Idea of Proudhon’s Revolution). In the following excerpts from the Confessions, Proudhon argues that the majority always has a right of insurrection against the minorities which oppress them, but that when a democratic government is established based on universal suffrage and majority rule, minorities should limit themselves to what today would be called civil disobedience, the refusal to pay taxes, to serve in the military, and to obey the laws imposed upon them by the majority. Later anarchists, for the most part, argued that oppressed minorities always have a right to revolt, even where the government is elected by majority vote, while pacifist anarchists, inspired by Tolstoy’s doctrine of non-violent resistance (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 47), preferred civil disobedience (what Proudhon refers to below as “legal resistance”).

The following excerpts, translated by Martin Walker, are taken from Chapter 18 of the Confessions and will be included in the forthcoming collection of Proudhon’s anarchist writings, Property is Theft! A Pierre Joseph Proudhon Anthology, to be published by AK Press in 2010 (the 170th anniversary of the publication of Proudhon’s What is Property?, in which he first proclaimed himself an anarchist).

Confessions of a Revolutionary, Chapter 18

As the question of legal resistance is of the highest seriousness, it being a part of republican law which is revived every day by the arbitrary nature of power and of the parliamentary majority, and because many people confuse it with the right to insurrection recognised by the Declaration of 1793, I am going to give a short account of its true principles before accounting for the political course followed by [Proudhon’s newspaper] the People in this situation.

What is the right to insurrection?

How is one to understand the concept of legal resistance?

In which cases may one or the other apply?

If it were possible that the government were truly concerned with order, if it respected liberty and sought less to impose arbitrary decisions, it would make haste to deal with these questions officially and not leave the job to a journalist. But the government hates all questions of legality above all things and hushes them up as much as it can. What occupies it most is to persecute authors, printers, newspaper sellers, peddlers, bill-posters: it reserves its instructions and circulars for them [Proudhon’s newspapers were suppressed by the authorities and he was imprisoned for 3 years in June 1849].

I will observe first of all that the rights of insurrection and resistance are peculiar to the period of subordination and antagonism: they fall into disuse when liberty is practiced. In a democracy organized on the basis of the popular initiative with multiple locations of responsibility and no superior authority the exercise of such rights would have no grounds for taking place at all. By the establishment of universal suffrage the Constitution of 1790 had already invalidated, while implicitly recognizing, the right to insurrection. Imperial despotism, the Charters of 1814 and 1830, the 200 franc poll tax suppressing the intervention of the masses in public affairs, all these re-established it. The February [1848] revolution had once more abolished it, at the same time as the death penalty: the monstrous doctrine of the omnipotence of parliamentary majorities which the government would like to impose restores it again.

It is not, after all, to tell the truth, a principle of democratic and social institutions which we are going to discuss now: it is a principle of absolute and constitutional monarchy, an idea born of privilege. Socialism repudiates the right to insurrection and legal resistance: it has only to make similar sanctions for its theory. But, forced to defend itself on the terrain where the Constitution challenges it, it borrows the right from absolutists and doctrinaire politicians, authors or instigators of that Constitution, and uses it against them in the manner of an argumentum ad hominem, to use the scholastic expression.

The right to insurrection is that by virtue of which a people can claim its liberty, either against the tyranny of a despot or against the privileges of an aristocracy, without a previous denunciation as warning, and by force of arms.

It may happen, and hitherto this has been the almost constant state of the majority of nations, that an immense, scattered people, disarmed and betrayed, finds itself at the mercy of a few thousand satellites under the orders of a despot. In this state, insurrection is fully justified and has no rules but prudence and opportunity. The insurrections of the 14th July [1789] and 10th August [1792] were of this nature. There was a chance that Malet’s conspiracy in 1812 could have provoked an insurrection which would have been equally legitimate. The insurrection of July 1830, in which the country sided with the parliamentary majority against a king who violated a pact, was irreproachable. That of 1848, in which the majority of the country rose against the parliamentary majority to claim the right to vote, was all the more rational for having as its object the abolition of the right to insurrection by re-establishing universal suffrage.

So when the Convention [of 1792], after having organized the primary assemblies and re-consecrated universal suffrage, wrote the right to insurrection into the constitution of the year II, it was creating retrospective legislation, to be exact; it took out a guarantee against a danger which no longer existed in principle. The Constituent Assembly of 1848 acted in the same way when, having declared direct and universal suffrage in Article 24, in Article 110 it adds that it entrusts the Constitution and the rights that it preserves to the guardianship and the patriotism of all the French. In principle, let me repeat, universal suffrage abolishes the right to insurrection: in practice, the antagonism of the separate powers and the absolutism of majorities can cause it to be reborn. How and in what cases is precisely what must yet be determined.

The right of insurrection has a particular characteristic, namely that it presupposes a people oppressed by a despot, a third estate by an aristocracy, the greater number by the lesser. That is the principle, apart from which the right of insurrection vanishes at the same time as the conflicts of opinions and interests. The social union effectively takes on a different character inasmuch as the practice of universal suffrage becomes more widespread and propagates itself, while the economic forces tend toward equilibrium; the empire of minorities is succeeded by that of majorities, which latter is itself succeeded by that of universality, that is absolute liberty, which excludes any idea of conflict.

There is, however, one case when the right of insurrection might be legitimately invoked by a minority against a majority: that would be in a transitional society when the majority wishes to abolish universal suffrage, or at least limit its application, in order to perpetuate its despotism. In that case, I maintain, the minority has the right to resist oppression, even by force…

We now come to legal resistance.

We have said that the right of insurrection cannot be allowed to pertain for a minority against a majority in a country where universal suffrage has begun to develop. However arbitrary the decisions of that majority may be and however flagrant the violation of the pact may appear, a majority can always deny that there is a violation as such, which reduces the difference to a simple question of perspective and consequently offers no pretext for revolt. Even if the minority invoked certain rights prior to or superior to the Constitution that it claims the majority has overlooked, it would be easy for the latter to invoke in its turn other prior or superior rights like the public safety by virtue of which it could legitimize its will. This would be so effective that it would always be necessary to arrive at a definitive solution by voting, to appeal to the law of number. So let us admit this proposition as proven: between the minority and the majority of the citizens as constitutionally manifested by universal suffrage an armed conflict is illegitimate.

A minority cannot be permitted to be at the mercy of a majority, however: justice, which is the negation of force, demands that the minority have its guarantees. For it may occur as a result of political passions and the opposition of interests that the minority reacts to an action of the ruling majority by claiming that the Constitution has been violated, which the majority denies; when the people are called upon as a final arbiter of this disagreement, being the supreme judge in these matters, the majority of the citizens joins the majority of representatives with uncompromising egoism in deliberately treading underfoot both truth and justice, though they are precisely the ones who should defend them according to the Constitution. The minority, overtly oppressed, is then no longer a party in political and parliamentary opposition but a proscribed party, a whole class of citizens thus being placed outside the law.  Such a situation is shameful, is suicide, is the destruction of all social bonds. Yet insurrection in the terms of the Constitution is forbidden: what can the minority do in this extreme case?

When the law is audaciously violated; when a fraction of the people is outlawed by society; when the passionate impetus of a party has come to the point of saying: We will never give in; when there are two nations in the nation, one of them weaker and oppressed, the other more numerous which oppresses: if the division is admitted on both sides, my opinion is that the minority has the right to consummate this division by declaring it. The social bond being broken, the minority is freed from any political agreement with the majority: this is expressed by the refusal to obey those in power, pay one’s taxes, do one’s military service, etc. A refusal motivated in this way has been called legal resistance by journalists because the government has gone beyond the bounds of law, and the citizens remind it of that fact by refusing to obey it.