Diversity of Distrations vs. More Important Discussions

The recent in-burst of in-rage within the Occupy movement has been making the rounds. The internet outlets of choice for any Occupiers have been inundated with long winded rants concerning “diversity of tactics” whether they be pro or con, the possible ramifications and moral implications of property damage, self defense and non-violent civil disobedience. Chris Hedges may have know or may not have know what kind of reaction he was going to stir up with his piece “The Cancer In Occupy,” but considering how long he’s been excelling at provoking a reaction of some kind from various groups and institutions, the best bet is that he had some idea of what he was about to do when he set out to write the piece. All of this is a useless distraction, and the movement has much more pressing business to attend to.

There is absolutely no reason to go further into debating, acknowledging or attacking what he has written. It’s been done thoroughly. It’s been done well. For two very well written and somewhat different takes on the response to Hedges, first read Deb Lassiter’s piece, “Concerning The Violent Peace Police. It’s the more cogent, intelligent and least hysterical reaction of those currently going around. Then there is another side of the coin, written by essayist SKS, “The Psychopathology Of A Liberal OWS! Baiter.” It’s still well thought out and well constructed, but it’s also little more than a hit piece, with many of the same varieties of generalizations that make Hedges piece problematic.

Chris Hedges is a journalist. He’s also someone who has been an outspoken critic of many of the same policies and institutions OWS has been criticizing. He’s been at it a long time. It’s worth it to consider that he should have known better than to lob something into the Occupy movement that was half researched and deeply flawed, because he’s been at it for a long time. He’s also been an outspoken and often deeply emotional proponent of the movement. Rhetorically cutting his head off so that it can be placed on the spike of one blog url or another is a pretty useless, and ultimately pointless act. Many people probably felt betrayed by his piece, which is understandable. At the same time, it’s within the movement’s best interests to make a rather seriously defined distinction between that which is specifically a targeted attack on the movement, what it stands for, it’s members and it’s ideas versus one journalist making a rather lazy mistake. He may be naive in some ways, specifically in this case by expecting a rather heterogeneous group of people, for many of whom this is among their first forays into activism, are all going to understand the term “non-violence” in exactly the same fashion and are all going to act in accordance with his understanding of that term, much less any other. People who are continuously subjected to violence and subjugation for little other than attempting to find the most effective, useful and least violent way to bring about a society that takes it’s citizens dignity, liberty and well being into account aren’t too long going to take that violence without some of them striking out somehow. Non-violence may have been the tip of the spear that felled the opponents of the civil rights movement, but it didn’t exist in a vacuum. Rioting and violence of every variety were happening all around it, specifically because not everyone had been trained in it’s use and aims. Not all of those participating in the civil rights movement agreed to it as the central tactic and there were many who were just incapable of it after having lived entire lives under the yoke of oppression. The Oakland Police Department isn’t headed into federal receivership because that’s the easiest or simplest way to run a police department. It’s headed into federal receivership because at this point, it’s a destructive, oppressive force in the city that has been badly managed, badly trained and has been engaged in outright thuggery since long before Occupy Oakland came along.

Before members of the Occupy movement start getting ready to roast Hedges in his own juices, let’s remember a few things. First, he has not been the kind of journalist who has been swishing around the Congressional halls, making nice with the establishment and getting cozy with staffers. Nor is he given to blindly, dully following what passes for the mainstream of the American liberal or leftist community. He made his bones as a journalist doing things like going to do unpopular and unsafe interviews and doing good, factually accurate reporting on everything from Kosovo, to Arrafat, to the leaders of a number of Middle East organizations that have been characterized and listed as terrorist organizations (sometimes rightly so, sometimes not). He has also been one of the most profound and penetrating voices in opposition to the corporate state, and all the forms of inequality that come with it. He’s written pretty extensively about the dangers of Dominion theology (the philosophical force behind the majority of the right wing Christianity) and has spoken vehemently against it, while also being able to speak lucidly and with strong foundations about religious freedom. I may not appreciate much of what he has to say about atheism, philosophically, but the philosophical disagreements melt away when the more practical aspects of both atheism and Hedges personal view of “faith” are expressed, being founded on the combination of each to decide such things for themselves and to have some respect for both the individual’s choice and the ability of the other to be allowed to state their understandings in the public space, and rooted less in declarations of “Truths” than they are in taking an objective view of the individuals actions, how they effect other individuals and the community.

On a practical level, there is also one very important point to consider. Chris Hedges is, at this point, the only person who has mounted anything resembling a pointed assault on the NDAA. He has taken up suit against the Obama administration based specifically on the idea that due to the nature of his body of work, and being a journalist, the legislation places him directly in the path of the all too vaguely worded idea of providing “support” to the enemy. In the political and judicial atmosphere that currently exists, there may not be much hope in the suits success, but it shouldn’t be dismissed that there is some significant weight to the argument being made. No other opponent of the NDAA has been able to develop an argument or the moral fortitude to bring suit. For Occupiers, and the extremity of the NDAA’s reach, this shouldn’t be a small thing.

It is one thing for a generally reasonable (though sometimes arrogant and grandiose) person to make honest mistakes. It is something else entirely for an individual to devote themselves solely and with endless abandon to proving right that which is demonstrably false. So far, Hedges career and body of work suggest he is more of the first variety of journalist, not specifically a blind propagandist or a henchmen for the establishment left. Hedges is not the enemy. He may be somewhat misguided in his characterization of anarchism and even of black bloc tactics, but wrong is very different than being purposely misleading or having a particular attack to launch against the Occupy movement, it’s existence or any potential successes. It’s also understandable that Occupy members and supporters may have over reacted somewhat to Hedges piece in light of the amount of liberal establishment criticism that has been going on over the last few weeks. There have been many people carrying water for the liberal establishment and the Democratic party, of late, who seem to be in the process of delivering that water to the cauldron they’d like to see Occupy boiled in.

All of this misses something else though, something infinitely more important than one journalists opinions or ideas about what Occupy does, doesn’t do or how all of that works out. It becomes the kind of distraction that has plagued change movements for decades, and feeds into exactly that thing which produces those distractions. The Spectacle we experience as culture.

The Occupy movement isn’t currently in the position to have the luxury of spending time and energy debating journalists about it’s choice of tactics. It’s not even in the position right now to spend a great deal of time arguing the choice of tactics amongst it’s own community. Tactics are the choice of how to achieve particular goal that furthers a larger strategy. Right now, there isn’t even a strategy. Occupy has succeeded in furthering the public discussion and debate about a number of things, income inequality and the kleptocratic class that are both defending and furthering that inequality being chief among them. But to achieve the kind of systematic change that it has been proselytizing for means there is going to have to be more than a number of strung together protests, relating to a number of directly or tangentially related principles or entities.

The nebulous (though completely justified) rage that brought the movement into the national consciousness and made it a national movement that is influencing the public debate worked perfectly because it took the establishment completely by surprise, and there was no plan and not having a strategy worked in the movements favor for a while because it allowed for a more mobile, more innovative and more quick to react community.

That is no longer working. For a number of reasons, among them the tendency to become distracted when there aren’t some relatively specific goals within a larger strategy, the movement has lost most of it’s momentum, and it is also losing favor among the public. Even as it’s ideas and the issues it has spoken to are gaining favor among the public, the movement itself is losing favor. This can not be underestimated in terms of the problem that it presents. A movement based on dissolving power and influence from the hands of the too few, will inevitably lose favor if it can not present itself as a better alternative instead of a different set of too few. On the most practical levels, it also means the movement can’t summon the kind of numbers that present a real and credible pressure or threat to those in power. There is a fundamental difference between any action of non-cooperation, be it a protest, a strike, a work stoppage or slow down that is able to summon twenty thousand participants and one that is able to summon a thousand participants. As a projection of the symbolic nature and power of the action, they are equal. As a practical message to the status quo (and most importantly, it’s defenders) that it is fundamentally failing and is being challenged in serious contention, they are completely different. The same can be said of actions that are able to summon one hundred thousand versus those which can summon twenty thousand.

This is one of the most important reasons the Occupy movement and all of the different communities and organizations that support it’s rhetorical aims to begin to sit down and hammer out a practical, measurable and honestly appraised strategy. This will probably mean doing a number of things the movement has so far been reticent to attempt. The first is to develop some understanding of exactly what success or “victory” actually looks like. If the movement were to successfully achieve it’s goals, what exactly does that look like? What is the result of the transformation it has been fighting for? In other words, what is does the society look like that the Occupiers can look at and say, “We can go home now”?

The answer to those questions is the end goal. It’s more specific aspects are going to determine the actual strategy, because the movement has to be able to build the necessary relationships and infrastructure to make that goal possible, while it is challenging the status quo. Relying on the idea that they are somehow going to be cobbled together “once we’ve won,” is folly at best, and willful ignorance at worst. Should the movement be able to actually challenge the status quo in a way significant enough to destabilize it, if it hasn’t already established methods and reliable actions to address the needs of the people, the instability present will allow all too easily for an even more authoritarian mindset and militant ideological groups to fill that void. Think Afghanistan following the end of it’s war with the Soviet Union or the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. Many of the existing conditions we find ourselves at odds with now have been the result of authoritarian figures, organizations and communities promising to make stability, security and prosperity possible again. They began some forty years ago, were emboldened by the opportunity presented them by 9/11 and further empowered by the economic collapse. Those who can promise order, stability and security will very easily seize the attention of the masses, it has happened here in the very recent past. Part of what will make the movement successful will be the ability to prove itself capable of answering these concerns in the midst of the struggle to reach it’s goals.

Half of the actual strategy then is in large part answered by, “How do we begin to create those facilities and make the ability to do that a reality?” By doing so, it will also increase the necessary number of people willing to participate. If those institutions/facilities/communities, whatever form they may take, can begin to prove they can better answer the needs of the people than the current status quo and the authoritarian corporate state that controls and profits from it, there will be a natural progression of growth. In our situation, probably more than any kind of public education, public relations or protest campaigns, this is the key to developing a greater base of people willing to devote their skills and resources to some degree of involvement. The majority of us are in some way, shape or form, dependent on the current establishment and power structure for our survival and basic personal security. To have a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs and any basic leisure (which is necessary because of the degree of stress related to any endeavor like this and the high level of burn out which it produces), we must cooperate with the same system that dehumanizes us. Should we be able to make it possible for people to stop cooperating with that system, without endangering their basic survival and personal security, the necessity of dependence will disappear, and make much more likely a growing number of participants in non-cooperative actions.

Let’s be perfectly clear that this is not a list of demands. A list of demands is a set of requests that the current power structure and the status quo are being asked or pressured to fulfill. That is not a strategy, nor is it a solution. We have seen that no matter how popular an idea may be, no matter how deeply our current population may wish or demand it become reality, it is given little more than lip service by the people who currently have the power to fulfill it. It essentially becomes the kind of empty rhetoric that rolls out in talking points and pandering, on both sides of the political spectrum. In practical terms, by making demands of the power structure as it currently exists, all that is done is to help legitimate that structure because of the implicit acknowledgement of legitimacy made in assuming that the demand can be filled by the power structure, the implicit suggestion that the demand may even be considered and the suggestion that we can not fulfill it more effectively and equitably. The corporate state is only interested in it’s own demands and any other demands are only given attention in the hopes of either crushing them or fulfilling them to a degree sufficient to secure silence. It is not interested in creating an equitable, healthy or mutually co-efficient society. If anything, it is that lack of the desire or ability of the corporate state to treat the people with anything resembling real dignity that has motivated the Occupy movement. Making demands of it only makes it stronger and strengthens it’s hold on the populace to compromise or wager away the fulfillment of their needs. This is the exact reason the establishment has been demanding the movement issue demands of some kind, and exactly why it’s been good that we haven’t. There has only been one implicit demand from the movement since it’s inception, the chance to develop public spaces where the populace may be able to engage in the kind of civic experiment and dialog that would produce it’s own solutions has been met by vitriol, propaganda campaigns and state sponsored violence. The miscalculation in the establishment’s assumption that Occupations were full of people who wanted to “camp” just to camp and be seen is possibly it’s gravest mistake and could turn out to be an opportunity for the movement. We attempted to establish public spaces where demands could be hammered out, in an open, inclusive manner. That was met by overwhelming state force, destruction, state sanctions and the lies of establishment propaganda. It should be enough to demonstrate exactly how little demands are worth.

That strategy will, of necessity, have to involve specific goals along the way to it’s fulfillment. In part because no project of this magnitude can be achieved in one fell swoop, but also in order for the movement and it’s adherents to be able to both measure and celebrate success. There will be enough drudgery, heartache, and probably pain, to go around. If it isn’t tempered by some measure of proof that these things are worth enduring, they will not be endured.

Also, establishing what specific goals further the larger strategy keeps the movement on track and gives it the ability to be able to make any necessary adjustments along the way. All goals and all actions should be tested with the questions, “Does this further the larger strategy?” If not, then there are two other questions that make it worth continuing to consider. “Does this enable meeting one of the already accepted goals that does further the larger strategy?” Also worth considering, “What does this mean for the people of the movement?” In other words, what does this ask of resources and in taking a realistic assessment of those resources, does it tax them to a degree that makes continued progress impossible? We, as members of the movement, are it’s most important resource. Asking ourselves or each other to do that which will make us unable or unwilling to continue participation is both morally wrong and practically stupid. Especially in these early times, the majority of the material resources including by not limited to finances are going to be coming from us. These are important considerations because it is an inescapable truth that though we may wish to build and establish a better society and more equitable reality, we do not currently exist in that society or reality. We can not just simply act as if we do if we want to be able to continue as individuals or as a movement. Reality does not care whether we believe in it or not, and that is something that should be in our favor.

The other benefit of developing measurable goals is that they will allow for the kind of tiered levels of involvement Occupy has so far been missing. There has very much been a sense of either all in or not in at all. This doesn’t serve to enable the fulfillment of any larger strategy as it stands. As is the reality, not everyone who has some desire to participate or who has skills and talents that would be useful has been able to to participate. In part, the Occupations themselves have been responsible for this out of the necessity of holding ground in a park, under relatively constant threat. Those who were able to do so should be applauded and deserve appreciation for having done so and for having helped to catapult the movement into the national consciousness and give it the strength to influence the national dialog. Now though, it’s time to spread the wealth a bit further. Anyone who has been involved with any of the Occupations nation wide will know that it is no walk in the park. It’s not easy and it’s extremely demanding. Developing these specific goals which will almost inevitably allow for a natural evolution of tiered involvement will help to relieve some of that stress and spread the demands to more individuals. Occupations experience a high burn out rate, and that can’t continue if there is going to be any successful movement to produce fundamental changes.

They also give Occupiers, of all stripes, something specific to communicate. Lacking specific goals to communicate to people not already involved has been seriously detrimental to the movement as it’s progressed. Again, this does not mean demands. Having not developed and stated demands has been a positive thing, but demands and goals are not necessarily the same thing. The Occupy movement has succeeded in establishing something most other movements take years or decades to establish, an outward communication network that works with speed, accuracy and transparency. It is, without any doubt, the most well documented movement in the history of the world. The only problem with the success we have had in creating this communications network is that we have not developed as a movement as quickly that network did. Inevitably, we have ended up with ever longer periods of time with little to nothing to communicate to the people who have any interest in the movement at all. Specific goals give us something specific to communicate, be it progress, setbacks, calls for assistance etc. It’s something that many Occupiers are not at all happy to embrace and nearly refuse to endorse at all, but the reality is that without some variety of public relations campaign, even if that campaign is based specifically on transparency and the kind of communal integrity the movement reaches for, it’s still an absolute necessity in the reality we currently inhabit. The harm that has and will come to the movement if it isn’t able to develop some kind of public relations strategy in order to be able to project it’s ideas, goals and strategy into the public space and to defend itself when absolutely necessary, is incalculable in a reality which is as saturated with and influenced by media as the one that we do inhabit. Call it propaganda, call it public relations, call it information sharing, call it whatever you like, but at the end of the day, accept that it is going to be intrinsically necessary and get over it. If we want to succeed, if we want to create a new reality, we are going to have to accept the one we’re in and do what we have to within it’s in order to reach it’s outer limits and beyond. Relying on the mainstream media to propagate the truth or to even portray events in a completely truthful manner is misguided, stupid and worst of all, utopian. Let there be no doubt that no aspect of the movement has succeeded in creating a new institution as it’s media has. A number of live streamers have already succeeded in becoming independent of the power structure and it’s apparatus. The establishment media are stealing from them, instead of it being the other way around. They are in the midst of creating the newest form of journalism. They have done so by being almost completely independent and being allowed to follow their conscience’s and their viewership (which in some cases is completely supporting them financially) has decided that this is acceptable. They do it because they enjoy it, they believe it is a necessity and they’re extremely good at it for those reasons as.

The discussion about tactics, a discussion that’s been misguidedly taking place since Occupations began popping up across the country, actually should be a discussion about how exactly to fulfill any of these specific goals. Does a strike seem like the best thing to fulfill this particular goal? Is a protest better? Is some other form of action better? Discussing tactics so far as property destruction versus vowing not to destroy property, before all of these other decisions have been mulled over, pursed and parsed, weighed and worn out, is premature to say the very least. So far, the discussion of “diversity of tactics” has seemed less like a discussion of tactics than it has the philosophical meaning of the word “violence.” What it boils down to is whether one believes property destruction is violence. This is a useful discussion to a point, if only so that all involved have the opportunity to hear the reasoning on all sides, weigh it out in council with their own conscience and come to some decision on it, but it’s long past it’s usefulness. That opportunity has already come, been met and has now devolved into a lot of self righteous barking and posturing on all sides with attempts to persuade the others or to somehow “prove” an intangible.

If the ultimate decision is toward that which accepts property destruction as a form of violence and therefore is a violation of what has been nearly universally accepted as a non-violent movement, then those who do not feel this to be true, should coordinate their efforts elsewhere and under a different banner than “Occupy.” The same is true should it turn out that property destruction isn’t defined as violence by the movement at large (or a specific Occupation), those who are of the absolutely firm belief that property destruction is violence should also coordinate their efforts elsewhere under a name other than “Occupy.” The movement as a larger body doesn’t seem to have an answer to this question, and it may be best to leave this to each specific Occupation, with the understanding and caveat that the actions of each singular Occupation are going to have effects on and repercussions for the others. Should one Occupation decide that breaking a window isn’t going far enough and decide to burn down a building, that is going to certainly mean a violent, repressive reaction the likes of which we have not yet seen. This is also something each Occupation needs to understand and take very seriously. Should one Occupation’s action considerably endanger the others through, be they through property destruction or possibly even co-option or corruption, it should be well within the rights of the rest of the movement to disown them and disavow their actions. Chaos is not a goal, not even of the dreaded anarchist hordes (make best monster face here), no matter how many different times establishment institutions say this. Chaos is the result of true nihilism and true nihilists (Eric Cantor, for instance) have no sense of compassion for or loyalty to anything other than the momentary desires that seem as if they might further their future desires, pleasures and comforts. They will in fact sacrifice others ability to experience these things for no other reason that to possibly further their own. The nihilists of the corporate state have proven conclusively that violence can be used to induce the ends they want, but those ends may be induced through various other measures, including property theft and destruction, which they then legalize to give their actions legitimacy. (Personally, I am not against property destruction in principle, it seems like the natural progression of reaction to a society which is increasingly more concerned with property than humanity, though I am not at all comfortable with the free hand it is often wielded with in protest movements. It should be specifically related to achieving something, not a symbolic gesture, because the symbolism of that specific gesture leaves a great deal too much for interpretation. It should not be an outlet for spontaneous rage. That is more often not a waste of good rage that can be channeled into more productive and useful channels. I understand it as a method of expression, the cry of the voiceless, and will not impugn people as a result, but I do believe there are more effective and useful channels for that energy. We will be successful if we present the channels necessary.)

Separate, but also worth considering

 The ideal of radical inclusion is a laudable ideal. In the current reality, it doesn’t work. We, as a people, are not prepared for it, by now that should be relatively obvious. Many different Occupations have struggled with the results of doggedly pursuing it. There should be little to no fear of essentially excommunicating someone who is incapable of attempting to take part in the consensus process and through consistent action attempts to derail that process or to foist their will on the greater body at every single opportunity. I am not advocating some kind of exclusionary politics or purity tests or any such nonsense. If you’ve spent any serious amount of time with any of the Occupations struggling with these issues, you know exactly what I mean. They will commit acts of self aggrandizement no other member would even consider, they will bully, intimidate and do anything just short of throwing the first punch to see their ideas are put before, ahead, and above everyone else’. When confronted about this behavior, they will claim marginalization, censorship, victim rights and so forth. They are the Occupy equivalent of Westboro Baptist Church who are well known for instigating a confrontation until someone finally loses their cool and takes them up on the implicitly violent nature of their words and demeanor, and then sue. The letter of the law may stand on their side, but the spirit certainly doesn’t. These individuals within Occupy are a problem that becomes more serious the longer any particular Occupation refuses to deal with them. They will tear apart the solidarity and good feeling for one another because as they continue to intimidate and bully, those who are defending inclusion this radical become enablers, and trust within the group will break down, sometimes rapidly. Do not be fooled by this act. Do not let these people pray on your sympathy, your good will or the idealism and love that make Occupy something more than just a simple protest movement. If they have been confronted about this behavior more than once, throw them out and don’t look back. Do not let them suck the energy out of you for long.

Also, and probably most controversially, if the Occupy movement decides to take on the task of developing an actual strategy, it will be within the movement’s interest to let leaders emerge in different areas. The jealous guarding of every aspect of the movement and the accusations that can accompany little more than someone taking initiative, which is what leaders do. If we are a movement of leaders, we’re going to have to understand that we can’t all lead all the time and we’re all probably most useful by putting our talents to use where they are most useful. Not everyone has a talent for strategy. Not everyone has a talent for interpersonal interactions that help to attract new people to the movement. Not everyone has the right eye for developing the kind of graphic images that express extremely complicated ideas in a very simple way. We should all be empowered to be able to take a temp check on how the group is feeling about one decision or another. We should always attempt to work within the confines of the consensus model even if it means adhering to the spirit of consensus when decisions have to be made and there isn’t time to organize a General Assembly meeting. If among the members of a group different members display a talent for things that are useful and helping the movement meet it’s goals and fulfill it’s strategy, let them be. If you think something has gone wrong or been done wrong or isn’t in keeping with the Occupations principles and spirit, ask about it, don’t accuse. Do not assume most of your fellow Occupiers have poor motives. Don’t worry about infiltration from the police, Homeland Security and the like. If your Occupation is being transparent, they don’t matter, anyone with access to the internet, etc. is going to be able to find out all of the same things they are. If they succeed at causing any real disruption, dealing with it as necessary is better, more efficient and effective than the constant worry and disruption of trying to find an infiltrator behind every set of eyes.

As for the question of non-violence, I’m still a staunch supporter of non-violence as the most effective tool in the struggle to wrest power from the corporate state. I sympathize with, and completely understand the arguments made by those who suggest otherwise. I just don’t agree. Hundreds or thousands of dead protesters or members of a movement is not going to engender anything but the kind of fear and terror that enables totalitarians and authoritarians to assume all power. I do not believe it will engender a revolutionary spirit in the mass populace. It will further terrify them into submission. Having said that, I already alluded to my feelings about property destruction. When the value of property goes before that of the value of human life and is preferable to preventing the suffering of your fellow human being or worse, is among the causes of the suffering of your fellow human beings, something is deeply, intrinsically wrong. The society that acts based on that value is one that can only expect that it’s actual valuable asset, it’s people, are going to rebel against it by destroying that thing it values most, property. I see no principled argument to suggest that in the current circumstances property damage isn’t a tactic worth considering. Property is not a person, nor is it a living sentient being and is therefore incapable of actually experiencing violence. Property damage isn’t violence, it’s property damage. Beating peaceful protesters is violence. Arresting them, jailing them, pepper spraying them is violence. Throwing people onto the street for profit is violence. Using dishonest and underhanded means to steal people’s homes and leave them destitute is violence. Forcing a woman to submit to a vaginal ultrasound that is medically unnecessary is violence. On the other hand, it has to be considered that this is an opinion in the extreme minority. We will win very few fans and fewer actual supporters if this becomes a too often used tactic. It will alienate a large majority of people who live under the constant threat of their property being stolen out from under them by one of the many corrupt institutions we face. There is the very real possibility that it may back fire and be seen as an indication that we value their property and livelihoods no more than the corporate state, in which case, we lose.

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