coming out of the woodwork

Leftist organizing seems to me a continual process of familiarizing yourself with an ever-broadening network of people.  This must be done at the informal, personal, street level, the ground level, or it is false.  It almost seems as if the closer you get to established organizations with name brands, the further you get from any actual self-organized or radical activity.

It no longer makes sense to claim lineage anymore – that we are The Descendants of the Bolsheviks, or Lenin or Trotsky or “anti-revisionism” or the Russian Revolution or the n-th International, the Unbroken Thread of Marxist Orthodoxy.  These days it’s almost an embarrassment to even call yourself an Occupy Working Group – shouldn’t you be dead by now?

None of that matters because these things that maybe once carried some weight with large numbers of people are now just historical echoes.  People are no longer attracted to them because they are no longer living forces.

We will always be in the process of establishing ourselves; we will always appear not-yet-established.  Our strength should not be that we are The Authority because we are a Pre-Existing Organization with an Already-Established Mass Membership.

Our appeal should be that we need a resistance movement, and that we are trying to be one, and we are a good spot to get together for anyone else who is thinking the same thing.

We will always be up against the stigma of being small, and therefore appearing hopeless and ridiculous.  Against that, however, we should simply insist that social change is simply necessary, and that every linking-up of individuals creates one more increment of strength for our side, so there’s no point in worrying about scale just yet.  The point is to get started organizing, even if it’s just you and me.

It’s easy to gain an entrenched view of the Left, a view that the existing structures are lasting and unchanging.  This perspective may have made sense in the 40-year dead zone of political history following the 1960s, but it doesn’t make sense anymore.  History is moving again.  People’s ideas are subject to shifting and change.  Organizations that have traditions which seem unlikely to ever change just may break their own rules and decide to do something new.

The rather arbitrary lines which demarcate various factions of radicals from each other may just melt away, or at least soften.

Instead leftist organizing should be a continual adventure.  It should be an RPG-like wander of exploring your city, stumbling upon others who share your goal and team up with you.  You should meander into all of the existing resistance groups, not with a mind of the critique you have of each of them, but as someone hoping to shake up their old narrowness and separation from each other (or maybe, God forbid, to actually learn something yourself).  Maybe it takes a fresh face to call the old tribal grudges into question.

As with progressive religion, the intellectual coherence of the project is beside the point.  The point is that it is a living force that can agree on a baseline and create change.

Obviously “unity” as a buzzword has its limits.  What we have to do is not just simply mash everyone together.  What we have to do is find the real commonalities between groups, which may indeed involve a process of debate.  When it seems that it’s only a language barrier or prejudice or semantics getting in the way of anarchist platformists and libertarian bolsheviks being on the same page, we may have to argue that out with people – they may not believe it, or have some kind of psychological investment in being-better-by-being-different-from-them.

In situations where these different groups are already in the same space, such as the Occupy moment, the emphasis may shift from getting everyone together to sharply standing up for a way of doing things that will actually keep everyone together, or at least the best elements.

When groups insist that they are better alone, better off in their own corner doing their own thing, maybe that’s something we should actually argue with them about.  The difference here, though, is that we are not trying to tear down one radical faction in the name of building up another one.  We have no organization, no factional identity over which we are asking people to swallow their pride and give up their old labels.  We just want a level of political collaboration (not just movement collaboration) which is for the benefit of all.

So let us wander through the infoshops, through the socialist meetings, through the feminist clubs, through the queer organizations, through what union events open their doors to us, let us wander through coalitions we previously wrote off as useless, let us familiarize ourselves with every squirm of movement under the sun.  Let us journey into the land of strange groups we never thought we’d find ourselves amongst – the Maoists, the Black Nationalists, the Zeitgeisters.  Let us learn about issues that may have been off the map of our old crew’s focus – legalizing weed, direct democracy, whatever.

Let us forget our histories, and become people who actually represent the potential of forward motion, instead of the naysayers who know all the answers but implement none of them because “it’s not time yet” despite the fire everywhere.

Ye must be born again.

Issues in demonstrations

When we throw a demonstration, who is the intended audience?

Is it a media event?  (Doesn’t being a media event alone tend to channel things toward small, snappy-looking groups instead of building mass-coordination between many people?)

Is it meant to reach the public bystanders wherever we march?  The pedestrians, the motorists, or both?

Is the demonstration meant to impress or intimidate the politicians?  (If so, can they even see us?  Are we hoping they see us in person or just hear about it over the news?)

Are we trying to re-energize ourselves, and give isolated participants a sense of our collective strength?

Is it one of these?  All of these?  Some and not others, which combination?

And of course, the big question – is our demonstration actually geared to effectively reach our intended targets?

If we want to be seen by pedestrians, are we friendly and welcoming to them, or do we seem threatening and menacing?  Is the activist milieu from a different demographic than the people who are witnessing us?

Do we have a sharp presentation, or do we look like a waddling blob?

Is our chanting sensitive to the context?

Do we chant “We are the 99%” when there’s only five of us?  When we chant “WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!” do the people who witness us feel like they are part of the “us” and they are taking over the street with us, or do they feel like the activist Left just forcefully seized what was previously everybody’s street?

Is anyone else annoyed that there are about ten different socialists newspapers circulating at every demonstration?  Even worse, when you try to sell one, do you find yourself completely foiled by the fact that the entire place is covered in free copies of People’s Weekly World?

resurrecting uniforms, marching, coordination in the Left

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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.

PRETTY PICTURES

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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.

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Matrix, anyone?

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FORCE.

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Hot logo.

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A further throwback into history would be POUM, the Trotskyists of the Spanish Civil War.  No discomfort with formations here, either!

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Fast-forward to the present.  Anonymous, the V for Vendetta crew, the Guy Fawkes masks.

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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.

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^LOL

Egyptian Bloc

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Again, like POUM, nice flag useage.

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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.

“Awareness”: Kill it with fire

Earth Day!

Photo: Thinking we can move toward sustainability through buying different products from capitalists, who will happily sell us any old crap as long as it's profitable, is about as effective as giving a bike to a fish.

For starters, let’s talk about what kind of groups use “awareness.”

Firstly, K-12 school assemblies, which any true radical understands right off the bat as being one of the most heinous vehicles of large-scale capitalist mental programming.  If they even work.

Another type are groups which are dominated hard by paid staff, give basically no thought whatsoever to organizational democracy, treat attendees to their “educational” event as passive observers, or probably as numbers that paid organizers can/must check off to get credit with their superiors.  (Yes, paid organizers are often forced to work by piece-rate, so while you think you’re talking to a human being, you’re probably just talking to a sales robot.  A similar assumption of non-human communication should be made with bureaucrats.)

So what happens at these “awareness” events?

Typically, some kind of perspective is provided which is politically horrible – not in the sense that it raises an important issue, but in the sense that it implies the audience is entirely to blame for the problem.  First-worlders are made to feel horrible about third-world starvation, first-wolders are made to feel horrible about environmental damage from the consumerist lifestyle (which is obviously determined by them, and not the corporate-political elite?), and occasionally whites are made to feel horrible about racism.  But not just “horrible” in the sense of, there is a problem that needs to be fixed.  The total lack of solutions provided, mixed with a political culture of liberalism which basically depicts all social groups as hostile but sides with the “left” ones, just makes anyone who is American or white feel horrible about themselves for no reason.  While rarely, there are some “awareness” events which provide information that makes the audience angry instead of guilty, this is rare, and it begins to spill over from “awareness” to actual politics.  This, of course, is generally not encouraged, because it violates the radical centrist banality and “neutrality” which the hosting institutions thrive on.

And that really is the thrust of what happens at “awareness” events: nothing.  That is, at the end, there is no call to action.  There is no invitation to be part of a regular, self-directed organizational effort.  At best you are told to throw your bottles in the recycle bin, to watch the garbage collectors just throw all that shit in the same pile anyway.  They may ask you to call or write your representative, who will shake your hand and appreciate your input before going back to their expensive lunches or stuffing wads of campaign cash in their pockets between rim jobs (definition) for corporate lobbyists.  At worst, you may be asked for money which you will certainly never see or hear about again and will probably go mostly to paying the salaries of the charity.  On the off-chance that they call a demonstration, it will be a one-time thing with no organizational follow-up.

I suppose there is a “dialectic” or dual nature to awareness.  Is it good to make people care about the world’s issues?  Yes, certainly.  On the flipside, though, I think society is already so saturated with system-propagated “awareness” of the stereotypical “awareness” issues that no more is really necessary.

I think that institutional “awareness” breeds such heavy demoralization that it is actually equally hostile of a cultural phenomenon/ideology to outright conservative myths supporting the free market, etc.  That is to say, along with liberalism, conservatism, fascism, etc., the list of counter-revolutionary ideologies must now include “awareness.”

To raise an issue, to “create awareness” without building a movement to resolve that issue, actually is not neutral.  It is reactionary, it is hostile.  It takes social energy toward solving a problem and it disperses it, demoralizes it, or in some cases even channels existing energy into a dead end.

Any actual political resistance must be sharply directed towards turning observers into organizers and audiences into demonstrators.  Otherwise, it is “awareness,” and it is the enemy.