This very recent scene from Game of Thrones is the sweetest shit ever. (Edit: link broken due to YouTube copyright issues. It was a reference to the liberation of the Unsullied.)
It raises a lot of questions in my mind about the aesthetics and politics. Can leftists have uniforms? Can they march in formation? Should they look badass and have a forceful presence like that, or does that scare people away? Is this compatible with organizational democracy? With movement democracy? I happen to think the answer to all these is yes. After all, we’ll have to do more than march in formation to take down the ruling class…
It’s almost a cliché that the bad guys have the best looks. The Nazis, riot police, the Galactic Empire. Can we pull off the look without becoming bad guys?
Let’s check some examples, past and present.
Here’s a march type that most leftists could probably get down with. It has a simple but effective formation. It’s got coordinated T-shirts or at least coordinated colors, which falls way short of having a more serious uniform – like the Panthers.
Every time I find myself thinking “God damn it the Nazis had the best uniforms,” I remind myself that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense happened.
A further throwback into history would be POUM, the Trotskyists of the Spanish Civil War. No discomfort with formations here, either!
Fast-forward to the present. Anonymous, the V for Vendetta crew, the Guy Fawkes masks.
It’s got its whole cool religion behind it, the cool phrases like “We Are Legion” and all that. Occasionally you get just one dude at a protest with the mask, sometimes they all wear em. Both Anonymous and the mask tactic seem more chaotic and unplanned than the disciplined formations displayed above – more Internet-y, perhaps more swarm-like? That has its ups and downs.
And of course, if the contemporary Left has a combat uniform, it would unmistakably be the Black Bloc. I have criticized the Bloc as a tactic pretty often in the past – though to be honest, my criticism is more of insurrectionist-anarchists who try to turn every demonstration into a riot, which yes I have had to contend with personally and is not a strawman.
So maybe I’m warming up to the Bloc, not really even for the sake of anonymity, but just for being visually badass.
Again, like POUM, nice flag useage.
YOU CALL THAT “MARCHING?”
^That. I have never actually been to a leftist “march,” despite all the national demonstrations being called “marches.”
Whatever that thing we do is called, that waddling down the street in a blob, it looks shabby and sloppy. It’s totally demoralizing to be part of; after most “marches” I want to go home tired and sad. It probably has something to do with how I was basically forced to walk like a zombie (the slow kind not the fast kind) by being packed like sardines into a crowd which, true to unorganized form, inched forward like a long line at a grocery store.
The horrible presentation we give at demonstrations reinforces everyone’s stereotypes of the Left: weak, unprofessional, undisciplined, unserious.
This is not just an issue of how we look, but also potentially tactical. A crowd appears as a solid unified mass of people but in reality it is just a blob. If you hit one part of the crowd, especially in American protests, there is no indication that the crowd will react in unison, either fleeing or retaliating. Often when you hit one part of a crowd, that’s all you’re doing – hitting that one part of a crowd. If you watch any YouTube videos of crowds that get hit by police, you’ll see what I’m talking about – the reaction to the police assault is absurdly localized to the exact spot in the crowd where it is occurring. The rest of the crowd has fundamentally the same interests as the attacked spot, but does not respond.
Why? Lack of preparation, lack of prior coordination.
How, precisely, could leftists have an actual march, instead of a blobbish procession? How could we have a crowd capable of a coordinated response, instead of being a disconnected mass?
GETTING TACTICAL: SOME COORDINATION BLUEPRINTS
One of the organizations I have worked with has a good chanting system for demonstrations. There was a central initiator with a megaphone, and a few “officers” (never called that) placed throughout the contingent with megaphones. Typically they would practice the chants beforehand, quietly repeating them while various speakers were pontificating, before the actual walking part of the “march” began.
Now of course, this group was made of people who were comfortable with a certain degree of being told what to do for the sake of maximum effect and creating a greater resistance.
What if we wanted more than just coordinated chanting, but a response system for various issues? What if we wanted to have a coordinated response to police assault instead of a spontaneous, localized one? What if we just wanted our contingent to be able to march around a corner without slowing down like a disorganized blob?
Truth is, earpieces are cheap, and two-way radios aren’t that expensive, especially if you have a whole crew chipping in. In the same way that you have selected some trusted people to be chant-relayers, you could use the same infrastructure to set up a system of responses. Your group could shift formation to handle a turn better, it could respond with linked arms up front and pressure from the back against police lines, it could quickly change protest routes in case of a roadblock, it could have a signal to release the confetti for all I care. If you’re really good, each relayer could have a group of demonstrators roughly assigned to them and they could completely change the shape of the contingent to deal with shifting police formations (or just to get down a narrower street without blobbing).
Most importantly, the communication would not have to be one-way. This would create a central nervous system by which the relayers could inform the center of a localized event, to which the center could then signal a coordinated response.
PRIOR PLANNING, DEMOCRACY, CROWD SITUATIONS
Any plans to actually march or have any other type of coordination could absolutely NOT be imposed right there on the spot. An agreement would have to be built in the organizations attending during the organizing process and meetings building up to the event itself.
If some people are just really uncomfortable with true marching, how will that be handled? Personally I think most groups should just vote on something like this, and if the minority loses, they should just roll with it. But then maybe in your group you could set up a way to have a marching section and a walking section for whoever is into either. This would be the time to figure out stuff like uniforms or matching colors too.
Obviously some of the planning meetings before the demonstration will have to be dedicated to practice – how to actually march, deciding what precise formation people should be in. (If you don’t decide on a formation, it will revert to just being a blob and then people won’t have the leg space to actually march.)
If you’re using a coordination system as described in the previous section, the prior planning meetings would be the time to elect your field directors. This might make some people uncomfortable and is obviously completely incompatible with purist anarchism.
Here’s the thing: the more coordination you need in a tight, short period of time, the less libertarian it can be. This is why militaries have traditionally been some of the most authoritarian organizations in human history – they have to contend for physical space in short bursts of time. Well, so do we.
BUT – we don’t have to accept that as our permanent style of organization in order to be coordinated during demonstrations. We can use a system of alternation: democracy during the organizing process, unity during execution. Bolsheviks (their historical value) call this “democratic centralism,” a term which has certainly been abused by authoritarians but is still nonetheless useful. Pirate ships used to function the same way – equals during sailing, with the captain as merely an elected figure for instances of combat. Any system that uses delegates to a larger representative body essentially functions the same way. Anarcho-syndicalists in Spain successfully used a system of immediately-recallable delegates elected directly from workplaces, though again I suppose that would violate the anarcho-purist allergy to representation.
This is also how aesthetics would have to be decided. Compromise in art can often lead to a gross mix-and-match that is visually awful, so democratic centralism might be the best way to make uniform/fashion decisions as well. Once again, maybe the group could be partitioned into a section who is down with the Panther getup and a section who is not.
So we elected the field coordinators, we review their in-the-moment decisions later. If the group concludes that they screwed up too badly, then we don’t trust them with that pivotal tactical role again. Next time we vote to empower someone else with those responsibilities. It is before and after the operation that the group should also establish its level of comfort with police confrontation and its preferences regarding keeping all activities legal, crossing that line, or figuring out where it resides in the gray area. The field coordinators should respect these guidelines.
There’s also the issue of including last-minute arrivals, spontaneous march-joiners who may jump in from the sidewalks along the march route, and people who show up to a march from who-knows-where without being a regular part of any of the groups that set up the demonstration. Would this dissuade people from jumping in?
I don’t think it would, I think people could be welcomed aboard. Keep an open mind, invite them into your formation, tell them roughly how it’s supposed to work, and don’t be too hard on them if they do it wrong or look funny. Especially if you have a system of coordinators, perhaps walking freely and not bound to the formation, they could run over and serve as the welcoming committee/integration for any newcomers.
What if someone, maybe someone part of the pre-organized group, or maybe someone who just spontaneously joined the event, had some zany idea that seemed adventurous or fun?
Anyone trusted with being the temporary commander would have to be a fairly-open minded person, not the bureaucratic/sectarian type whose first instinct upon hearing outside suggestions is to distrust and reject. If possible, the suggestion should be implemented. But of course, in order for the coordination structure to hold up, this has to be the sole call of the elected central coordinator.
Of course the coordinator would have to weigh the need to embrace spontaneity with the security of the group. If the person’s spontaneous idea is to immediately charge the police lines or do something else illegal, the elected coordinator would have to make a call about how this fits in with the group’s established preferences on confrontation and degrees of legality/illegality.
THE POWER OF BEAUTY, THE BEAUTY OF POWER
America worships force – and so do I. There is an ethical side to life, which comments on how things should be, and there an amoral side to life which simply wishes to have desires granted, and to appreciate the awe of the structures that exist, even if they are totally heinous and destructive. I think Game of Thrones is a case study of this; I have never seen a world so evil be so beautiful – except, perhaps, real life?
Everyone has this dark attraction. Maybe you’re uncomfortable with it, but you need to come to terms with it in yourself, and more importantly in other. The further you are from being a leftist intellectual and the closer you are to being an ordinary American, the more power this dark attraction can have over you.
Because the ruling class has such tremendous resources, it is usually only institutions dominated by them (police, military, intelligence) that are capable of motivating people (with paychecks) to work in the tight coordination that is not just effective but also beautiful. And beauty is one of our greatest weapons.
Sometimes people need figureheads too (Zizek on the need for a Leftist Thatcher). They’re a synthesis in people’s minds between political leanings and the simple, concrete reality of a person. It’s effectively another form of branding, with logos replaced by individuals.
Clearly in that Game of Thrones clip there was a big “hero and crowd” divide going on that makes for great movies and potentially horrible, authoritarian politics. But not necessarily. I think pretty much every political movement has its romantic hero. It often happens to coincide with a person who has a lot of say in how the movement goes. What’s important here, though, is the structure and culture of the movement. Can the figurehead be questioned? Can they be removed if necessary, by election or recall? Are they formally questionable and removable, but there is such a strong informal culture of discouraging dissent that the formal mechanisms are effectively useless? You can have a movement with a folk hero which still gives its ordinary members voting power over its direction and actions. Eugene Debs is a great example. Hugo Chavez walked a knife edge between allowing initiatives from below in his movement and using bureaucratic methods to steer things into his personal control. Overall I think he was just using Machiavellian power plays to push the movement as far forward as it could possibly be pushed. But overall I think he is another great example of a people’s hero who also wielded some power without being totalitarian or harmful to the movement.
People are inspired when a leftist organization really has its shit together – they love us not just for our ethical stance, but for our effectiveness as a machine. Our presentation should reflect this as well – unless of course we are in fact horribly coordinated, in which case we need to work on that.