Chapter Three: Tactics Are Transient
This is chapter three of the book Occupy Strategy – which is the third and concluding volume of the series titled Fanfare for the Future. In coming weeks we will follow up with more excerpts from this volume, but we hope many readers will order it from our Online Store for yourselves, and then to pass on to others.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
– Sun Tzu
Tactics are just endeavors one implements that have a contained quality about them. To strike, to occupy some venue, to march, to blockade, to rally, to teach in, to leaflet, to riot, violence or nonviolence, internet or face to face, whatever. Like strategy, but even more so, tactics are most often time bound and place bound. We string together tactics to implement program. Stringing together programs implements strategy. Strategy attains vision.
Are there general tactical insights that can guide what to do or not do, for what to be cautious about or to go all out with? To see, we consider two examples.
Violence Begets Defeat or Too Much Pacifism?
“But remember that if the struggle were to resort to violence, it will lose vision, beauty and imagination. Most dangerous of all, it will marginalize and eventually victimize women.”
– Arundhati Roy
First, regarding an issue that almost always seriously engages movements, how do we evaluate matters of violence and nonviolence? What characterizes obstruction, property damage, or, further along this scale, aggressive or violent options, and how might folks reasonably argue their preferences for or against all of these?
On one side, pacifism, or principled–non transient–nonviolence, typically comes from a religious or philosophical stance and says that violence (or in some implementations even property damage) is a bad personal choice that brooks no exceptions. Many pacifists argue publicly on behalf of political nonviolence using evidence, values, and experience of the sorts we’ll address below. They respect and interact positively with those holding different opinions. There are other pacifists, however, who don’t primarily use evidence, logic, and experience to argue for nonviolence, but instead assert that to reject nonviolence is immoral. Their morality/religion trumps political debate.
When adherents of a political view assert that all other actors must agree or be irrelevant, it is often called sectarianism. Agree with me or you are a political infidel.
In philosophy or religion, similar rigidity is often called fundamentalism. Agree with me or you are a moral infidel.
Here’s the hard part: When a pacifist says that everyone must be pacifist because all other options are immoral, it is almost assuredly fundamentalist. Lifestyle, philosophical, or religious pacifists have every right to argue that the movement should always be nonviolent, of course. But if they do it merely by proclaiming greater morality–end of story–they can’t expect to be taken seriously by those with different views. More, the same goes for those who assert the limits of nonviolence from atop a high moral horse. Those who say that disruption and violence are essential to building movements and winning change, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a tool of the state, are similarly sectarian. How might folks reasonably argue their preferences for or against obstruction, property damage, or aggressive or violent options, compared to merely proclaiming their preference and dismissing all who disagree?
With any tactic we can usefully ask:
- What are its effects on those who utilize it?
- What are its effects on those it seeks to pressure?
- What are its effects on the those who dissidents wish to organize?
- What are its effects on enduring movement organization and culture, those implementing the tactic?
It is also important to note that different people have different definitions for what constitutes violence or nonviolence. To some, property destruction is violence and to others it is not. Additionally, there are a whole host of tactics, such as obstruction and blockading, which can involve certain amounts of physical confrontation with members of the public, the police, or other agents of the state, even when participants are merely standing their ground. Civil disobedience can range from extremely passive to downright aggressive. And then there are issues of self-defense in the face of brutality.
For the purpose of this book, rather than to sort through these issues, we think it is more useful to see tactics as lying on a spectrum ranging from passive to aggressive, with pure nonviolence at one end and all out offensive violence on the other. Most of the discussion in this section will focus on areas in the middle of this spectrum, since those are the most common tactics that would be employed and debated by movements described in this book.
One side claims that tactics “exceeding” nonviolence tend to be good in that they:
- delegitimate authority
- reduce tendencies to obedience
- uproot accommodationist habits and culture
- inspire participation among youth, working people, and minorities
- enlarge courage
- graphically pinpoint protestor’s anger
- promote increased media coverage that communicates the movement message more widely, and also
- raise high social costs for elites, thus pressuring them to meet demands.
The other side claims that tactics “exceeding” nonviolence tend to be bad in that they:
- help authority rationalize its legitimacy
- increase tendencies to thoughtless individualism, amorality, and paranoia
- put off unorganized working people, women, and minorities (not to mention those unable or unwilling to participate in violent settings)
- curtail open discussion and democratic decision-making
- obscure the focus of protestor’s anger and distort media coverage from substantive discussion of issues to hysterical discussion of bricks and fighting thereby disrupting communication to broader audiences; and also
- give elites an excuse to change the rules of engagement to their advantage.
The point by point contrast of the two approaches highlights the complexity of judging tactics. The perspectives are almost exactly 180 degrees apart.
Is having teach-ins, marching, rallying, doing civil disobedience, obstructing roads or meetings, or destroying targeted windows, draft card files, a missile nose cone, or a war-making facility, or trespassing, rioting, resisting arrest, or even escalating to pro-active aggression against police, scabs, or other sectors, typically a good choice? To know, we have to decide which claims by advocates of different stances are typically true and which are typically false, and how we regard the overall tally.
But a complicating factor is that we have to consider each case on its own merits. Why can’t we have an across-the-board and always binding judgment? As convenient as that would be, and as much as adherents on both sides act as if it is obviously possible, we cannot have such universal certainty because in some situations aggressive tactics yield all the positive effects their advocates expect and minimize debits, yet in other situations aggressive tactics yield all the debits their critics anticipate and deliver few if any benefits. Thus there are no universal rules about abiding or exceeding nonviolence. Sometimes one tactical choice fits. Other times it doesn’t. Thus we have to assess each tactic people might opt for in each situation, seeking to maximize potential benefits and minimize potential ills.
For example, proponents and critics of aggressive tactics need to pay very special and priority attention to not providing authorities a rationalization to obscure the government’s wrong-doing. Proponents and critics must be sympathetic to those disagreeing with them and work hard to increase democratic participation and reduce tendencies to anti-social individualism, paranoia, or passivity. They must try to find ways to increase possibilities of wide participation and open discussion and decision-making, and particularly to prevent their tactics from alienating sought-after constituencies. They must put a high onus of evidence on themselves on behalf of avoiding adventurism or endangering others or otherwise weakening the balance of power between the movement and elites, whether by action or inaction. They must raise social costs today consistently with being able to do so even more successfully tomorrow. Likewise, it is important to undertake or refrain from actions in ways that don’t fracture the movement, that don’t reduce sympathy for the movement or obscure its message among constituencies it seeks to reach. And both advocates and opponents of any particular tactic must avoid pressuring movement participants into hostile stances toward one another.
Pursuing violent tactics by disdaining participation and democracy or by wildly imagining non-existent conditions looks like macho play-acting rather than seriously seeking maximal impact. Opposing aggressive tactics by equating minuscule disruption or destruction with the unimaginably inhumane and catastrophic violence of elites looks like fundamentalism rather than seriously seeking maximal positive impact.
On the upside, when groups who either advocate or oppose aggressive tactics pay serious attention to strategic concerns so that others are aware of their motives, logic, and attentiveness–as well as how they take into account the views and agendas of their protest partners–then while folks may still sharply disagree about choices, the dialog can be one of respect and substantive debate.
Surely we can all ratify that respect and substantive debate are worthy goals. Then doesn’t it also follow that having protest norms that facilitate groups communicating usefully is much better than having protest norms which pit disagreeing groups against one another in ideological death matches? “Different strokes for different folks” is a good slogan, as long as we add that the different folks need to also pursue mutual concern, understanding, and empathy.
There are demonstrations in which property destruction, for example, grows organically from the event’s logic and its intentions, such as clearly enunciated and widely supported and understood assaults on particular draft boards or ROTC buildings. There are other demonstrations where property destruction is counter-productive and irresponsible due to endangering innocent folks and diluting the message and solidarity of the event.
Consider a massive protest to shut down a meeting of elites where those who tirelessly organized the events were committed to legal marches and rallies and also to illegal, but nonviolent, civil disobedience. Imagine 100,000 people attend. Imagine in the first days success is overwhelming and mutually respectful as ties develop between usually fragmented constituencies (for example environmental activists and Teamsters, Lesbian Avengers and steel workers). Imagine the prospect that civil disobedience would grow was extremely exciting and that developing optimism was contagious. Movement participation is climbing and the targeted meeting is effectively disrupted.
Imagine the police begin to employ gas, clubs, and rubber bullets. At this point, imagine a highly organized group breaks off and breaks windows and attacks the police. Afterwards they celebrate that due to their mobility and organization none of them was arrested or harmed. Perhaps these combative dissenters taunt and otherwise provoke police and then disappear, sometimes leaving others, often utterly unprepared families, to bear the brunt of the easily predicted police response.
Now imagine that various contingents who provided some of the initial energy, song, creativity, and combativeness at rallies and especially at civil disobedience, had, on top of that, not gone off breaking windows but remained with larger crowds shielding them from police, assisting those who were hurt, helping those suffering from tear gas, and preventing arrests. This would have capped their otherwise positive involvement with exemplary behavior on behalf of their fellow demonstrators, rather than tailing off into counter-productive window breaking. The meaning of dissent and activism conveyed by this would have been creative resistance plus humanity and solidarity, in tune with the rest of the demonstration. Do we admire more the courage of knowing folks who could easily see what was coming and escape if they wished to, but who instead used their talents to help protect their less well prepared co-demonstrators, or the self preservation instincts of those who brought down repression and then fled the scene?
Does this mean, however, that there cannot be a time and place for property damage or broader and more offensive confrontation? No, it doesn’t mean that, at least not to us. Instead, the time and place for such behavior is when it will meet widespread approval and increase the power of protest rather than providing an excuse for folks to tune out or to become hostile to protest. Up to the moment when the police repression began, in the above example, the most combative contingents likely added energy, creativity, art, music, and often greatly needed courage and steadfastness at many demonstration venues. They uplifted participants’ spirits and otherwise played a positive role within the rubric of the demonstration’s guidelines. It was only when some went off breaking windows against the demonstration’s norms, in this example, that a problem arose. And we should note that it isn’t just trashing that is sometimes warranted and sometimes not. Sometimes civil disobedience is out of place too. It too can be at odds with the mindsets of people’s current orientation and with the planning for a specific event so that spontaneously undertaking civil disobedience would violate the event’s logic and promise and the expectations and plans of most people present. It might then, at least in part, alienate people who were moving toward dissent, and not spur new insight and solidarity, but reduce it. Other times, however, employing civil disobedience makes excellent sense and is even pivotal to success. For that matter, sometimes even a march can be adventurist; other times it can be the ideal tactic.
In other words, what tactics at an event are warranted and will help a movement grow and strengthen is very rarely a matter of unyielding principles but is instead nearly always a matter of how the event has been portrayed and organized, who is at the event, what their expectations and consciousness are, what the event’s prospects are for impacting social outcomes, and how the event and tactics are likely to be perceived by and impact non-involved constituencies.
Regrettably, though, this is not inevitable, it has typically been the case that once activists enter a very aggressive mindset, they most often don’t care about such calculations. At that point their inclination becomes that property damage is good because, after all, the targets are criminal corporations and damaging them is a step toward demystifying and destroying them. Anyone who opposes trashing such targets must be pro-corporate. The mindset sets aside determining the impact of possible tactics, and instead asks only what target to hit. But the truth is, it is not the height of wisdom to deduce that McDonalds and Nike are better targets, if one must have a target, than random passersby or a family grocery store. And for a relatively minuscule number of participants to impose on a massive demonstration tactics that are contrary to the demonstration’s definition is not only unwise for its predictable effects, but also undemocratic in a way that should never typify movement activism.
Of course, the above hypothetical situation is largely real. The anti-corporate globalization uprising that took place in Seattle, Washington, in the U.S. in 1999–which is just one among many similar cases–had, before any trashing occurred, already hamstrung the WTO. The activists had evidenced creativity, organization, and knowledge. They had begun to generate new allegiances and ties among diverse constituencies. They had combined many levels of creative, legal and illegal tactics in a mutually supportive mix. Speeches at rallies in many instances made the obvious leaps from opposing free trade to opposing free markets, and from opposing global profiteering to opposing capitalism. A foundation was being laid for gains to multiply. Then, the addition of trashing to the mix, however emotionally understandable, predictably did not win useful visibility that would otherwise have been absent. It did not enlarge the number of folks participating or empathizing with the demonstration. It did not cause more substantive information to be conveyed either in the mainstream or on the left. It did not respect, much less enlarge, democracy. What it did do, instead, was replace substantive discussion of globalization with an endless litany of noise about police and activist tactics. It provided a pretext for repression which would otherwise have been seen as crushing legitimate dissent. It caused many to feel that dissent is an unsympathetic undertaking in which some, at least, feel that they have the right to undemocratically violate the intentions and desires of most others.
Just so we are clear: the issue in the view we are presenting is not whether breaking windows and other such acts per se are good or bad. Rather, the discussion is contextual. To continue with the example being discussed, suppose that the trashers hadn’t embarked on breaking windows but had become a support group for those suffering police assaults, rallying spirits and protecting bodies. Suppose that hundreds and then thousands more students and workers had joined the civil disobedience efforts because of the sense of community the efforts embodied, and the undiluted clarity of their aims. Suppose that the state had then used gas and charging cops to break up activist efforts. And suppose, in this context, a good part of the city’s population and of the “audience” around the country and a large majority of the constituencies that had gone to Seattle to demonstrate, felt solidarity with the law-breaking demonstrators and were inspired by the bravery of those who put themselves at risk to protect their fellow activists.
Now imagine, in this context, after this rise in awareness and a long pattern of totally non-violent response, that the police charged and some folks finally had had enough–and with preplanned audacity and clarity that let all those who did not want to be there for the response leave–didn’t run, but instead suddenly stood their ground. More, suppose they then turned and decided it was time to push the police back. Imagine that this led to battles, and then to cars turned over, barricades built, and so on. The property damage by protesters in such massive melees would dwarf anything committed by the trashers in Seattle and it would no doubt extend beyond corporate targets and would damage, at least to some degree, even the property of innocents. Some would say this type of scenario couldn’t possibly be good, but, in fact, as described, this type of scenario could have had a completely different flavor and logic from the trashing in Seattle–and could perhaps have expanded rather than diminished the involved movements and constituencies. What is crucial is to realize that both possibilities exist, arguments can be marshaled, evidence can be brought to bear, and burdens of proof for actions met–or not. There is, therefore, a judgment call in the use of tactics. Sometimes a tactic is wise, other times the same tactic is mistaken.
What was wrong with the trashing in Seattle was that (1) despite participants’ other genuine and valuable contributions to the events, regarding anticipated benefits from trashing their judgment was faulty. And (2) regardless of desires to benefit the cause, they egocentrically thought that their judgment alone was sufficient justification for them to dramatically violate norms accepted by sometimes hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of other demonstrators.
Changing society isn’t mainly a matter of breaking windows, obviously. It is a process of developing consciousness and vehicles of organization and movement, and then applying these to win gains that benefit deserving constituencies and create conditions for still further victories on the road to permanent institutional change. Cultivating movement coherence, trust, and solidarity–not just in a small affinity group but far more widely–is a big part of this agenda. Coherence, trust, and solidarity are typically not furthered when small groups undemocratically violate the agenda of massive demonstrations to pursue their private inclinations, even when the small group has a plausible case for its preferences.
The fact that corporations are so vile that attacking them is warranted if it will do good, doesn’t mean they are so vile that attacking them is warranted if it will do harm. Organizing against the Vietnam War, activists often used to appear in front of very large and animated audiences, give long talks, and then field questions. It was a tumultuous time and the most prevalent question was often “Would you burn down the school library if it would end the war?” A sensible reply always took more or less this form: “Who wouldn’t burn down a library to save a million lives? Of course one would, in an instant. But there is no connection whatsoever between burning a library and helping the victims of U.S. imperialism in Indochina, nor is there any connection between burning a library and altering the fabric of our own society so that the U.S. no longer engages in such pursuits. Worse, such behavior would have exactly the contrary impact, thereby actually benefiting those committing the vile bombing. Can we now please get on to something serious, such as how to communicate effectively to new constituencies about the ills of the war, and how to build sustained and serious as well as increasingly combative resistance to it–and leave the posturing and baiting behind?”
Back then, it was often very brilliant, well-trained, and highly capable minds that drifted into becoming that time’s fundamentalist violence advocates, including Weatherman and other such formations who were hell bent on violence as a kind of tactical and strategic priority. What was always quite notable was that these individuals could engage carefully, critically, and caringly in many domains, but reverted to odd leaps of faith and fancy regarding their out-of-touch tactical choices. Our movements, decades later, must do better.
The events in Seattle, for example, were successful in conveying to tens of millions of people that there was great opposition to the WTO and therefore that there was something here to look into and have an opinion on, and in laying seeds for further effective activism by many diverse and powerful constituencies willing to respect and relate to one another, to multiply agendas, and to adopt diverse tactical options. This was all achieved, however, not via the trashing, but in spite of it.
We even think it is fair to say that the Occupy phenomenon of a decade later is an extension of and owes much to the anti-corporate globalization movement, among others. But, still, the same issues keep arising.
Some of the pronouncements of defenders of contemporary trashing recall a very brilliant and eloquent friend of ours who came to Michael’s apartment one 1969 night, about 2 AM, and with a bunch of others snuck in and said, “We are the Vietcong, we need a place for the night…the revolution is imminent, we are underground. Don’t mind us, go back to sleep. Wake up to a new society.”
Those Weathermen had as an excuse for their delirium that they hadn’t done just one demonstration, but had been enmeshed in full-time activism for years. Their environment was almost exclusively their friends in Weatherman and they had all lathered themselves into a well-motivated–but utterly delusional–turmoil of hope, rage, desire, paranoia, anticipation, and abstract rationalization that was so divorced from reality as to render them, so long as the mindsets persisted, very nearly useless as positive agents of social change. These were in many cases the best minds and best hearts of the sixties generation.
So we need to please note: those who find themselves angry at young activists who trash, do not make the callous and ignorant mistake of thinking trashers are by nature all anti-political, uncommitted, insensitive, or unsympathetic, much less police agents. Life is not so simple. It isn’t the case that those you disagree with are always in some way abhorrent. Activists involved in property destruction and violent clashes with police–even those who violate nonviolence agreements thus subverting the vast majority of voices–are often some of our best movement people. For those who are involved or who supported trashing to sharply disparage and even pose as enemies those who didn’t–or vice versa–isn’t going to get anyone anywhere useful. There is misunderstanding on both sides, but the distance to unity and progress is much less than many other chasms we need to traverse. We all ought to be able to carefully bridge the gap and agree on the broad logic of how to assess tactics–even though we won’t always all agree on every judgment about every single specific tactic–and we especially should be able to agree on how to abide collective norms at our demonstrations.
Hopefully those who have trashed, at times–which includes the authors of Occupy Strategy–won’t take these words as disparagement of your potentials and aspirations. Hopefully, instead, you will seriously consider that perhaps with the best intentions you have mistakenly repeated one part of sixties movement history–the saddest and least functional part–and will in reaction to this observation rise above the temptations and confusions that bedeviled many of the best in that generation.
So, finally, is there anything broad to say about violence and nonviolence, beyond the above? Yes.
The simple fact is that we live in a world, particularly in highly industrialized societies, where the means of violence are almost entirely the province of states. The prospect for any dissident force to overcome military and police violence with counter violence is zero. Sometimes self defense is essential. Sometimes even aggression is desirable. But for the most part, and certainly in the large, violence is the turf of the status quo, not of change, and certainly not of a new world.
Little forays into violence, which is all anyone on the left in industrialized countries can do, typically curtail broad participation, provide an excuse for repression, divert consciousness and focus to the inessential, promote attitudes and mannerisms and habits that are contrary to healthy movement building–and one could go on–all to engage in a battle on turf that is without any doubt theirs, not ours. There is, therefore, a very high burden of proof on exceeding nonviolence because in the world we inhabit violence typically neither works to win gains nor to build support for a powerful movement–and instead eventually creates a foundation for disaster.
So, on balance, on the question of violence and nonviolence, a modern stance is that such choices are contextual and should be made in light of the whole panoply of effects we can predict. Choices by a few should not be made in ways that trump choices of the many, imposing violations of nonviolence on those favoring it, by deeds undertaken against agreed norms. Those favoring any tactic that others reject should, at the most, undertake their own separate efforts, not piggyback on larger ones that do not accept their views.
And finally, in any event, at the very least in highly industrialized countries, choices to utilize even property damage much less great violence have a very high burden of proof. Perhaps Ghandhi’s advisory is most pithy and succinct: “The principle of an eye for an eye will some day make the whole world blind.”
“If all economists were laid end to end,
they would not reach a conclusion.”
– George Bernard Shaw
Decisions are typically arrived at by a number of steps. Possible paths are enumerated and described. Then there may be more or less exploration of their implications and more or less discussion or even debate of their merits and debits. At some point, however, there is some form of resolution. We might call these three stages proposing, discussing, and deciding. Given our orientations in this book, presumably we would want these three stages–for any particular decision, or set of decisions–to be consistent with advancing not only good choices, but also our guiding values. If our values are diversity, solidarity, self-management and equity, for any given decision, we want to choose a process that, to the extent possible, promotes these values.
Here in the decision-making arena, as with other arenas, there are many tactics that groups could opt for regarding proposing, discussing, and especially deciding, such as majority rules, or a dictator decides, or consensus. Just as in other matters discussed in this book, many activists are attached to one particular possibility, usually based on the belief that their chosen method is always more ethical or more efficient, or more effective, etc. We believe, however, that deciding which decision-making method makes sense depends on the context, the constituency, and the issues. There is no one best way for all circumstances.
Some people, for example, advocate consensus decision making for universal use (just as others advocate majority rules for universal use). It isn’t always clear what they have in mind, but most often it goes something like this. Everyone should be free to propose possible paths (though, interestingly, there is rarely much focus on what choices need to be made beforehand for everyone to actually be in a position to utilize that freedom). Likewise, everyone should be able to participate in the ensuing explorations, debates, and discussions aimed at seeking to clarify and make a case for different paths (again, however, often without much attention to what might facilitate that kind of participation). Out of the discussion, a final proposal is born, which usually represents the most popular path, or compromise path. Finally–and this is the defining aspect of what is called consensus decision making–when it comes time to decide among options, the rule is to move forward with some new proposal or new path only if everyone agrees to allow it to proceed. In other words, to move forward only if no one vetoes or blocks it, which, additionally, one is not supposed to do unless one feels so strongly against the decision that one would want to leave the group if the decision were made because it violates one’s principles so much you cannot abide carrying out the decision or seeing others carry it out. In essence, if no one blocks what many favor–it is enacted. But if some, or even one voter blocks what many favor, then it isn’t enacted.
Consensus is, albeit with modifications case by case, clearly, one rule, approach, or algorithm to use. Sometimes consensus makes very good sense and works very well, even in this precise form, such as when unity is essential for implementation, when the decisions will affect many other decisions that follow, and, mainly, when each actor should have a veto they can impose if they really feel the need.
Consensus is warranted when we think any one actor seriously and steadfastly objecting to an option is justified in curtailing the option. In other words, the negative assessment by, or the negative impact on the one person outweighs whatever degree of positive feelings others may have for the option. Put that way, it now may seem to some that this will never make sense. Why should my disliking a path a priori outweigh the contrary desires of the ten others I am making the decision along with–or even of the ten thousand others I am making the decision along with–so that all I have to do is just say no, and the path is closed?
The answer is, we think, there are indeed times that this makes sense. As but one example, imagine a relatively small workplace, or work team. Everyone who works in this venue is in proximity of all others who work there. Everyone there must interact with all others there, extensively. The group needs to sign on a new member. This person will of course also work with everyone. Rather than majority rules, or two thirds, or three quarters, the group agrees that this hiring choice should be by consensus. Even one person should be able to stop a hire–just by saying no. The group’s logic is simple. They assess that the negative impact on someone of hiring a person that will drive him or her nuts, as indicated by that person, can be so great that it should outweigh the positive reasons others indicate for wanting to make that hire. The person dissenting is way more affected, not least because another person can be found whose presence would not be disastrous for anyone, and who would be good for the position. (Of course, one might decide instead of one dissenter being sufficient to stop hires, it takes two, or whatever.) The point is, in this case to decide by majority rule, say, has worse implications than to decide by consensus.
Here is another example. In American court trials, one jury member dissenting can stop eleven others from pursuing their desire to decide guilty. This, too, is consensus decision making, and it is easy to see that it could be done differently–you need two negatives, or three, majority rules, etc. The assessment is that in the context, given the gravity of the decision and impact on the accused, consensus is best.
Groups sometimes use consensus to form their foundational charter or principles of unity, especially when they are small enough to facilitate such a process. In these cases, such agreements form the basis for all the work to follow. The agreement of all those involved can be key to implementation and to set guideposts by which further principle-based decisions can be made. Consensus in these cases, at the outset, is often essential to keep everyone involved and to smooth the way for good decision-making down the road.
Most people will agree that there are many situations in which consensus would be counterproductve. First, one person should not be able to overrule many others, when, for example, all are affected essentially the same whatever way the decision goes. Second, even if a long extended discussion could bring the few dissenters from some path to instead assent to it, it is simply not worth the time to achieve that for some decision. Third, unintentionally to be sure, requiring consensus support to pass an option can be a very conservative stance since it puts such an onus on diverging from what has been agreed in the past. A minority can preserve old ways. Only total agreement can diverge from them. And for our purposes here, let’s add one more encompassing reason.
Consensus, ironically, will in many contexts and with many types of decisions run contrary to values we otherwise prioritize. In many contexts consensus will violate diversity, solidarity, and self-management–just as, in many contexts, majority rules, or super majorities, or one person decides will do so, so we rule out those options.
Briefly, diversity is conceived as the opposite of homogeneity. In some ways, consensus protects diversity by forcing majorities to accommodate minority viewpoints before being able to move forward. But this can become truly cumbersome on a large scale. Additionally, diversity is not just about having diverse inputs into a decision-making process. It also implies respecting dissent and preserving options, and even continuing to explore dissenting paths while most pursue some choice preferred by most. For a group to assert that literally everyone must advocate x, or at least must not oppose x, if the group is to do x, can be a strongly homogenizing pressure. Often it will be much better, in fact, if those who favor y and think x is a mistake, retain that view, and be given space to continue to explore it, and to experiment with y even as x is the overwhelmingly favored path. Having diverse views persist regarding dissident paths or policies is an essential aspect of diversity.
This preservation of alternative paths, instead of the tendency to find one compromise path, can be achieved through a consensus process if it is an explicit goal of the group. It could also be achieved through a voting method that mandates that paths with a certain amount of support–even minority support–be pursued.
This preservation of dissenting views is also critical to real solidarity. And it doesn’t merely mean compromise. It means literally retaining opposite and conflicting options. While consensus can promote solidarity by asking participants to grapple with and understand the stances of those who dissent from the majority, it does also promote a mindset that says to move forward we must agree in our assessments or at least not dramatically disagree. Consensus thus establishes considerable pressure to arrive at unity which will sometimes be contrary to diversity and dissent, and even to solidarity. This is because it sometimes says we two, you and I, are working well together only if we agree–but that ought not always be the case. Rather, real solidarity sometimes entails that we two, you and I, are working well together if we understand each other’s views, respect them, pay attention to them, and are eager to see if the view you have, not the view I have, or vice versa, proves right, even and especially when our views are dramatically different. Solidarity is mutual aid that transcends most difference, not mutual aid based on no difference.
Finally, consensus in many situations violates self-management. While it avoids a situation in which a majority can force people with a minority viewpoint to act in discordance with their own views, it creates a potentially worse situation in which a minority, one person even, can derail a majority of people from acting as they wish. If I am way more affected than all others, then my being able to alone derail some choice may be consistent with my having–and everyone else having–decision making say in proportion as we are each affected. But if I am comparably affected, or even less affected than others, than my having the right to veto gives me too much power. The fact that if I am responsible I won’t use it, doesn’t mean my having it is desirable.
It follows from all this that consensus, just like majority rule, is not a principle that one extolls and abides universally. It is, rather, like majority rule, or even one person authoritatively deciding, merely an algorithm–or if you will, a tactic–for tallying preferences into a decision. Sometimes we should use one tactic, sometimes another–sometimes consensus, sometimes majority rules. Why one or the other? It should be said that majority rule, the way it is currently understood and practiced, also often violates many of the principles we advocate. Thus, we need to be creative in the way we use decision-making tactics and design our decision-making processes to best approximate our values in any given situation. This will require flexibility and creativity, as well as experimentation. So why one or the other? Because the one you favor should most closely implement self management, diversity, solidarity, etc.
To get caught up in the idea that universally or even nearly always favoring consensus (or majority rule) is some kind of indicator of radical or revolutionary fidelity is no more sensible than to think similarly about favoring violence or nonviolence, marches or sit-ins, teach-ins or leafletting. A tactic is something you evaluate case by case, not something you forge an identity around.
Occupy to Self-Manage
“Works are of value only if they give rise to better ones.”
– William Von Humboldt
In 2011, partly in response to the inspiring Arab uprisings against dictatorships, partly as a continuation of earlier but less vigorous, continuous, and decentralized efforts, the Occupation Movements emerged. First there were the events in Greece and Spain, actually dating back to before the Arab Spring. Then, after Tunisia and Egypt, there was Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and perhaps because OWS was in the heart of the U.S., it gave hope and prodded emulation so that in a very short span there were similar efforts all over the U.S. and then around the world. Still, it was the efforts in Greece and Spain that were initially the largest outpourings in democratic settings, and that remained so, and a look at some of the lessons from those efforts will recap and embellish the points made throughout the last chapter and this chapter.
In Greece and Spain, during the 2011 Occupy uprisings, one particular experience occurred over and over. This had nothing to do with analyses of capitalism or other analytic focuses. Instead, Greek and Spanish activists reported that they had massive assemblies in widespread cities and their occupations grew and grew, so that assemblies were up to 12,000, 15,000 and more. And then they shrunk and shrunk, so that assemblies were eventually not meeting, or were meeting in the hundreds, or less.
Yet the activists also reiterated that nothing had diminished regarding the population’s rejection of unfolding injustices. The people remained fed up in huge numbers and still turned out massively for demonstrations, marches, and strikes. So why were most people who were still rallying and marching no longer occupying–or even just meeting as assemblies–and, one might add, why weren’t both numbers steadily climbing?
The answer offered was that the decline of the assemblies–the decline of participation in decision making and the slowing of growth more generally–wasn’t due to repression, or to people being co-opted, or to people being tricked or saddened by media distortion or dismissal. Instead, the problem emanated from within.
For example, Greek and Spanish activists said that at their massive assemblies–and it is easy to see in their experience overtones of the much earlier Argentine uprisings, and of Occupation movements around the world, and even of smaller projects and movements on single campuses or in communities–initially people spoke with incredible passion of their plights and desires. Their voices often broke. Their hands shook. Each time someone rose to speak, something real, passionate, and persistent happened. It was enchanting and exciting. People were learning not only new facts and interpretations–and, indeed, that kind of learning was relatively modest–they were also learning new confidence and new modes of engaging with others. But after days and then weeks, from being primarily new folks speaking passionately about their reasons for being present and their hopes for their future by delivering deeply felt and quite unique stories, the speakers shifted toward more seasoned or habituated folks who lectured attendees with prepackaged views. The lines of people waiting to speak became overwhelmingly male. The deliveries became overwhelmingly rehearsed. Some described robotic repetition. Frequently predictable and almost text-like ranting overcame innovation. It quickly got boring and alienating. Sometimes it was even demeaning.
At the same time, new people, who were still far more prevalent, didn’t know what to do while they were occupying. We could assemble, they reported. We could talk and engage with each other. We could listen to others and sometimes debate a bit–the Greek and Spanish assemblers reported–but, how long could we do that and feel that it was worth the time we had to spend away from our families, friends, and jobs, not to mention away from rooms with a roof? Especially when much of the talk was so often boring, alienating, and demeaning?
As they first formed, the assemblies were invigorating and uplifting. People were creating a new community. They were making new friends. They were hearing from new people. They were enjoying an environment where dissent was the norm. But as days passed, and then weeks, the recurring patterns got too familiar. And it wasn’t obvious to folks what more they could do. There weren’t tasks to undertake. People weren’t being born into activism anymore, they were dying off from it. For many it was impossible to keep learning and to keep contributing. There was a will, but there was not a way. Folks didn’t have meaningful things to do that made them feel part of a worthy project. They felt, in time, only part of a mass of people.
Increasingly, many asked, why should I stay and listen to boring talks? Why should I be hugely uncomfortable and cut off from family and work, if I have nothing to do that is constructive, nothing that is empowering, nothing that furthers worthy aims? Not everyone felt this way, of course, but there is no denying that many people started to attend less, and then to leave–or to come, see, and then leave without ever truly attending.
Another factor that was initially exciting but later became tedious, was seeking consensus. At first it was novel. It implied trust, which felt good. It implied shared intentions, which felt inspiring. But after awhile, seeking consensus often became tortured, a time waster, and its claim to be the best decision making approach for every possible choice became steadily less compelling.
Why can’t we arrive at decisions which some people do not like and don’t even want to participate in? Why can’t we arrive at decisions and have a strong minority that dissents, and then respect that minority, and even have it pursue other possibilities to see their worth? Why do we allow some small group to cause discussions to continue without end, turning off many from relating when the small group has no legitimate claim to greater influence than anyone else–save that our mode of decision making gives them a veto?
Folks recounted all these dynamics graphically and passionately. No one said that people stopped participating in assemblies because of fear of the cops or because of depression over the newspapers lying or the magnitude of change needed. No one said people left because they had developed doubts about protests or resistance per se, much less about the conditions of society. Instead, everyone–and it was a lot of very committed people- reported that participants left, including often themselves, due to lacking good reasons to stay. Folks wondered, why must I be here every day and every night? The thought nagged. It led to legions moving on.
What is the solution?
Self-manage, we were told by those who had thought most about the problem. To occupy is basically passive. To self-manage is active and yields tasks and thus opportunities to contribute.
Grow in numbers and awareness, of course, but ensure those who become well learned stay in touch with new people and always remember that new people’s involvement matters most. Otherwise, when old timers are getting more knowledgeable, they are also getting more aloof, and new people will not stay.
Have classes for learning. Have activities for creating. Have actions for winning changes. Always speak to the new people from experience, from events, not from preconceived lines. Always hear the new people, especially those with different experiences. Always involve yourself and new people together in tangible and worthy activity. Make options evident and easy to become involved with. Give options and priorities structure and specific times.
Of course some things can’t be solved at occupations themselves, even if they begin to self-manage. Sleeping out is a young person’s passion, but not an option for everyone. So, while sleeping in an occupied space makes sense for some young people or for those without children, jobs, or homes, why not proactively take for granted that many other folks will not and cannot sleep under the stars? Why not have a program of activities that returns people to their home locales for organizing purposes each night, or even for all but the explicit time of assembly meetings which are spread out on a reasonable schedule?
Ideas that resonated in the many discussions, and that activists felt might win preponderant support, included: once an occupation has a lot of people, have subgroups initiate other occupations in more places, all federated together and providing one another mutual aid. In local, neighborhood occupations, visit every home. Talk with every resident. Involve as many neighbors as possible. Determine real needs. If what is most upsetting neighbors is housing concerns, daycare issues, traffic patterns, mutual aid, loneliness, whatever, try to act to address the problems directly by mutual aid, and also via making demands and winning them. Do these things systematically, with schedules, responsibilities, timelines, and reports to learn and improve the methods.
Have occupations self-manage and create innovations artistically, socially, and politically for the venues they fill. When it is a town or city square, begin the task of self-managing the town or city. Of course, the power is missing, but that doesn’t mean the issues can’t be tackled, and the opinions and preferences of the activists made visible for contrasting with the opinions and preferences of rulers.
Have occupations occupy indoors, not just outside. It is a leap, perhaps, but not much of one to occupy abandoned apartments and other buildings, preparatory to inviting the homeless to dwell in them, as well as for using them for meetings and the like. Don’t do this, or anything, in a way so weak and unsupported that rejection and repression are easy for the state to justify and enact. Do them with massive popular support, in ways that, if repressed, will only cause more support, more participation.
To occupy buildings, especially institutions like universities or media, isn’t just a matter of call it, or tweet it, and they will come. It is a matter of go get them, inform them, inspire them, enlist them, empower them, have excellent plans for how to proceed which all those involved get to ratify and refine and later enlarge. And then prepare the way with outreach to involved and adjacent communities and constituencies, so they understand, respect, and even support the endeavors and will react with mutual aid and politicization if the state intervenes.
In Greece and Spain, violence was another focus of concern for why things didn’t grow or declined. Folks overwhelmingly argued that violent acts were counterproductive on two counts. First, violence, they saw, is the state’s main strength. Shifting the terms of conflict toward violence shifts it precisely where the state and elites want it. Second, violence distorts the project. It makes it inaccessible for many. It makes bystanders critical of it. It diminishes outreach, and outreach is the basis of all gains.
In Greece, criticism of violence was for a long time quite weak, particularly among young Greeks–understandably infuriated by social events and state reactions–who were ready and eager to rumble. But as time passed, the nonviolence stance gained traction in Greece. In Spain, right from the start, committed nonviolence was predominant and Spanish activists successfully avoided giving the state an excuse for violent repression, thus causing nearly every act of violence by the state to reverberate to the state’s disadvantage.
Forget about violence and rioting, was the message–develop campaigns emanating from occupations, develop demands to fight for. Indeed, over and over activists wondered about demands that could unite constituencies and which could be fought for in creative and participatory ways so that victories would not only really matter to people’s lives but associated enthusiasm and lessons would spur further struggle.
Activists certainly didn’t want demands that would delimit occupy into a narrow focus. They wanted the opposite, demands that would enlarge and also give substance to the breadth of Occupy. They felt that while the open-ended character of dissent worked well initially (and was warranted while waiting for enough outreach so that demands would represent a real constituency’s views, not just those of a few leaders, and should remain part of the process) over time, one also needs additional specific focuses for action.
Some suggestions for demands that arose were welcome. Others less so. For example, everyone liked demanding big cuts in military spending and reinstatement and enlargement of associated funds for social programs. But what folks really liked was when that demand was enlarged to include transforming the purposes of military bases that would otherwise be shrunk or closed due to budget cutting to stay open and do worthy public works such as building low income housing–first for base residents who would need and appreciate it, and then for the homeless.
For the homeless, a demand that resonated was freezing foreclosures, returning homes to prior owners, distributing vacant homes, and generally housing the homeless–including enacting occupations to undertake these results directly, a process that has been occurring in Barcelona, Madrid, New York, and Minneapolis, among other places, as well as building robust movements to block foreclosures. One might even imagine occupiers–including workers in the units–challenging hotels that have many empty rooms to allot them to the homeless.
Another approach that seemed to gather considerable support was to demand full employment. But that wasn’t all. Recognizing the lack of current demand for produced goods, people realized a sensible full employment demand would require also reducing the work week by 10-25 percent, depending on their country’s unemployment rate. Of course if most people saw their incomes decline by a corresponding amount, they would face catastrophe, and thus the reduced hour demand would have to be combined with a demand that most people would incur no loss of income. (Living wage policies and redistributionist progressive taxation would also be part of the mix.) Full employment would additionally strengthen working people because when they all have jobs, the threat of being fired declines to near irrelevance. Winning this demand would also mean workers would enjoy more leisure and higher hourly wages for those in need. The costs beyond revenues, firm by firm, would have to be borne by owners, and if they don’t agree, workers might in that case occupy those workplaces, and then self-manage them. Having demands and foreswearing violence, it became clear, doesn’t need to diminish the breadth of focus or militance.
Another popular notion was to confront the media. One option that resonated as a possible campaign goal–even while obviously falling short of total transformation (though certainly on the way toward it)–was demanding one or more new sections of mainstream newspapers, or shows, or whatever, would be devoted to, for example, labor dissent, or feminism, or peace, or ecology, and so on. Crucially, these would not be managed in the usual corporate fashion, but, instead, via self-management by their participants under the umbrella of major labor, women’s, peace, or ecology organizations.
In these exchanges, activists were imagining a worldwide campaign against mainstream media, against military spending, for affordable quality housing, and for full employment with accompanying income redistribution and increased leisure. They envisioned these campaigns unifying protest into resistance and then unifying resistance into creative self-management, even as each occupation also related to its own local concerns. All of this, it should be clear, can be judged and advocated or opposed–and the grounds for doing so is the relation of the gains to be had–for outreach, for consciousness raising and commitment building, for building the seeds of the future in the present, for winning gains that benefit people now, and for generating greater means of winning more gains in the future–against any risks or costs.
Occupations–or what might come to be known, in time, as self-managements–would occur in local neighborhoods, town squares, financial districts, and such, and federate up to cities and beyond, but would also occur at the entrances to, and perhaps even inside, mainstream media, and at military recruiting stations and bases, at government ministries and branches, at unoccupied buildings and perhaps, in time, at hotels, factories, and other workplaces. And in such endeavors not everyone would have to sleep outdoors but everyone would have to give some of their time, resources, insight, and energy to aid one or another campaign of the overall project.
The revolution, we know, is not immediately at hand. We will not have a liberated world overnight. In the sixties, youth bellowed, “We want the world and we want it now!” It was fine as a rousing chant displaying desire. But we need to understand that transforming society in a participatory manner and direction takes time and sustained effort, traversing not weeks or months, but years.
Indeed, even with the incredible speed and ingenuity of current outbreaks of activism, there are undeniably pessimistic scenarios in which occupations wind down and then demonstrations happen for a time but manage to win only minor, if any, gains until movement morbidity sets in. This is what the Greeks and Spaniards are trying to avoid by their self evaluations. It is why they are beginning new kinds of occupations aimed at media, housing, universities, and at the transformation of budgets, and soon, perhaps at war and peace and hiring and firing. It is why they are trying to develop and promote projects designed to enhance and widen participation in ways leading to massive involvement of masses of people–all knowing what they want and how they can contribute to attaining it.
There are, however, also optimistic scenarios in which occupations diversify and morph into self-managing projects radiating campaigns for change while also welcoming into sustained participation and continuous learning countless actors of all ages and orientations. In this picture, daily marches to support other campaigns in a city–like in New York–with steady growth in numbers and confidence, lead to empty buildings becoming residences and meeting places, to mainstream media businesses becoming targets for occupation, and likewise for universities, and other workplaces of all kinds. Simultaneously, local neighborhoods generate their own assemblies, initiated by the residents who had been schooled in the earlier, larger, city-wide endeavors, and then local participants patiently and empathetically enter every house, every kitchen and living room, and elicit desires, and, in time, participation, and plans for change–including demands and campaigns to win them.
Envisioning all this and much more, once people’s ambition is unleashed from the shackles of daily pessimism, was not hard for folks in the Occupy movements. The optimistic path is a scenario involving planting the seeds of the future in the present. It is a scenario that marshals energy and insights to building alternatives, but also to winning gains now, all fought for and implemented in ways that build desires and organization aimed at winning still more gains in the future.
It requires a sense of proportion and pacing. The occupations now underway still involve only a tiny fraction of the people in pain and angry about it. To grow, the occupations need to very explicitly conceive themselves in ways that address immediate needs, are aimed at viable and worthy long term goals, and develop modes of participation that cause non political folks–enduring harsh conditions, with demands on their time and emotions–to feel that giving some of their time makes good sense because it can eventually lead to a new social system with vastly better outcomes than those presently endured.
Occupations that began in response to current economic insanity need, as well, to broaden and adopt a more encompassing focus taking into account not only the economy, but also, and equally, matters of race, gender, age, ability, ecology, and war and peace. This is what makes a movement a threatening project able to induce capitulation from authorities afraid to make it grow even larger. It is what makes a movement worthy of winning, as well.
The occupations have been a veritable firestorm of initiation with vastly wider support than their direct participation evidences. There is awesome potential. And if the events peter out rather than developing positively, that isn’t failure–it is a step that will inform the next round, likely not very far off, so that it might do better. When fighting a system with roots centuries old, you lose, you lose, you lose, you win.
“The struggle is eternal.
The tribe increases.
Somebody else carries on.”
– Ella J. Baker
War, what is it good for? Not nothing. Instead, it is good for the system it is typically undertaken to defend or enlarge. Social life is not insane when viewed from the interstices of existing social relations and the agents they place behind the levers of power. It is only insane when viewed from the piles of rubble and corpses it produces, and in contrast to the alternative peace and plenty that might exist.
Strategic issues often arise in battling against wars. Here is a brief overview of some.
Boston antiwar rallies–where one of the authors was radicalized–in 1964-1965 numbered only a few hundred people who listened to vague talks about the horrors of war. Most students at MIT, Harvard, Boston University, and other local colleges, for example, ignored the events, although a few eagerly heckled and threw stones at assembled dissidents.
By 1968-1969, however, Boston antiwar demonstrations reached 250,000 people listening to talks on the imperialist roots of war and the efficacy of resistance. A large percentage of, and sometimes even most MIT, Boston University, and yes, even Harvard students not only regularly participated in one or another kind of antiwar activity, but also, in the case of MIT, elected a student body president demanding no more war research, a $100,000 MIT indemnity to the anti-racist and anti-capitalist Black Panther Party, no more grades or requirements, open admissions, and redistribution of MIT’s technical resources equally among local colleges.
In the four intervening years, Boston saw hundreds of teach-ins, dozens of major rallies, and many acts of civil disobedience, building occupations, and the burning of ROTC buildings. Cultural events, classroom takeovers, marches, sit-ins, and a nearly infinite number of endless late night discussions transformed student life. This trajectory of increasing resistance shows:
- LESSON ONE: Organizing works. It can change people’s consciousness, commitment, and values.
As the antiwar movement grew, a demonstration called “Mayday” was planned for Washington, DC, where demonstrators would use mobile civil disobedience to shut down the government. Demonstration organizers like Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden toured the country giving emotional talks about Vietnam and the war, and called on people to storm Washington with the slogan: “If the government doesn’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” This was “apocalyptic organizing” which includes:
- Describing reality as careening toward catastrophe.
- Urging that we have only one more chance before final disaster.
- Urging that we can reverse the tide and win justice and victory now if everyone immediately drops everything and joins the action.
- Sparks flying, commitments given, and organizers leaving for the next whistle stop, with fists waving gloriously.
Other activists organized for Mayday with a different approach:
- Explain that the war is fed by institutions that serve political and economic elites, and is nurtured by racism, sexism, and manipulative mainstream media.
- Teach that our task at demonstrations is to strengthen our movement and attract new recruits.
- Explain that U.S. policy is now catastrophic and that it will remain so until we build a much greater scale and breadth of opposition.
- Teach methods of discussion needed to spread the word and create local coalitions and organizations.
- Preserve and combine the sparks to create more heat, channel the energy to avoid waste, nurture the commitment to get longevity, and then move on.
Both approaches favored teach-ins, rallies, demonstrations, and civil disobedience but apocalyptically-organized demonstrators returned home from major antiwar events unprepared to see the war continue. Recriminations flew, frustration rose, and anger turned inward. Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, and almost every organizer at one time or another cajoled well-meaning demonstrators who didn’t know the detailed whys and wherefores of their actions. Finally, Davis left to support an “Eastern” spiritual guru, Hayden left to enter a “Western” secular party, and hundreds of thousands of apocalyptically-organized activists burned out.
In contrast, long-term organizing gave people the insight to look at our movement, not government press conferences, to see signs of progress. Were we getting better at organizing, building institutions, reaching out, and causing some decision-makers to take note? Demonstrators aroused by a long-term analysis better understood their actions and knew what indicators of success to look for and what evaluative norms to apply.
The argument that because the bombs are falling we require apocalyptic rhetoric and quick but ill-informed actions was repeatedly wrong. First, change is nearly always more distant than the next rally or demonstration. Second, elites can distinguish between brief outbursts that can be weathered and resistance that will keep growing and, if repressed, grow still more. Only the latter worries them sufficiently to affect their policy-making. Thus:
- LESSON TWO: Apocalyptic organizing gets short-term results with limited impact. Long-view organizing produces a movement that can withstand the rigors it will face and sends a message capable of reversing war policies.
Organizers in the 1960s favored two main focuses. Some said we have to organize only around the war. “If we stick to the lowest-common denominator and avoid controversial stands we will amass the greatest support.” Others said we have to organize not only around the war, but also “around poverty, alienation, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism.”
Yes, some people who would otherwise agree with antiwar analysis might reject radical stands on poverty, racism, or sexism, so having ways for these people to become involved before they become comfortable with wide-ranging analyses is important. Likewise, debates about diverse issues take time. But ignoring non-war focuses has even more devastating costs.
As the 1960s showed, constituencies concerned about domestic issues don’t trust an antiwar movement that slights their concerns. Additionally, a single-issue approach delivers a weaker message. It says to elites, “Yes, there is a growing movement, but its attention is narrowly focused on the war. If you tough it out, this movement won’t challenge society’s domestic class, race, political, and gender inequalities.” A multi-issue approach risks alienating some people via controversial stands, but can reach more diverse constituencies and deliver a more threatening message: “If you don’t end the war, this movement will not only become more combative and disruptive about the war, it will develop similar strength and commitment regarding racism, sexism, political participation, and capitalism.” Thus:
- LESSON THREE: Single-issue organizing appears superficially less controversial and more popular but carries the seeds of its own dissolution and sends a limited message to elites. Multi-issue organizing is difficult to do well, but averts fragmentation, attracts wider support, and sends a more powerful message.
In 1960s organizing efforts, many seasoned activists addressed large groups for extended, highly emotional sessions. We would, of course, explain the criminality of the war for people still clinging to naive views of U.S. foreign policy and corporations. Especially on campuses, we invariably found that with sufficient facts, we could offset such views. Then, however, we encountered more tenacious obstacles to participation.
First, people who agreed that the war was immoral and only in elite interests would then argue that nothing could be done. Immorality was the way of the world. Hate, inequality, servility, and war are in our nature.
Second, after long discussions on everything from human nature to history overcame their cynicism about human potential, still, people would fall back on cynicism about achieving better conditions. The bad guys have the guns, money, and media. We can’t beat them.
Third, even when we convinced people that in the short term we could force decision-makers to reverse their war policies by raising costs, and that in the long term we could change basic institutions, the final impediment turned out to be distaste of left behavior and a fear of becoming our own worst enemy. People would say, “I know you are right that the war is wrong and peace is possible, but your protesting seems to pervert you so that you will eventually sell out your values and become as bad as those you now oppose.” Thus, popular responses to organizing reveal:
- LESSON FOUR: Getting people to join radical opposition requires overcoming cynicism about human nature, fear of losing, and a distaste for what activism seems to entail.
The U.S. did not drop nuclear bombs in Southeast Asia. Limits were placed on U.S. policy. Many aggressive acts were prevented and others reversed. Many civil rights were won and women made major gains. Though permanent change requires transformed institutions, there were many short-run victories. What won these gains?
A look at the Pentagon Papers’ documentation of decision-making during the period, and at newspapers and the public record of Congress, shows a remarkable fact. Whenever some politician changed from voting pro-war to voting antiwar, or whenever some corporate head went on record against the war, the explanation was very nearly always the same. It was almost never the loss of lives of American soldiers or Vietnamese soldiers or civilians, or the economic dislocations of the poor at home that provoked a new view. When elite figures announced their switch from hawk to dove, and when the Pentagon Papers listed factors assessed in choosing policies, the focus was always the desire to keep down the cost of political resistance. “Our army is disintegrating, our streets are succumbing to disruption, the next generation is being lost to our corporations, the costs we are bearing are too high. I am now for peace.”
With minor exceptions, no corporate head or high political official opposed the war because it was immoral or because the human carnage upset them. Nor was there any notion that the war was not “in U.S. (meaning elite) interests.” They opposed the war because rising social costs threatened to undermine aims elites held even more important than winning the war: their political power and corporate control. That is:
- LESSON FIVE: Moving people to raise the domestic social costs of war can constrain and reverse hated policies.
State and corporate elites are not stupid or subject to moral persuasion. They promote their heinous policies not out of ignorance, but because the results serve their interests. To pressure them effectively, we have to avoid single-issue apocalyptic organizing and opt for a multi-issue long-run orientation. We have to educate about immediate facts and proximate causes, but also about the roots of injustice and the possibility of raising social costs both to win immediate reforms and to eventually restructure defining institutions. We must build a peace and justice movement that builds solidarity. Here are some possible tactical commitments we might utilize to these ends.
- Every antiwar speaking engagement or teach-in panel should include at least one speaker addressing the “totality of oppressions.”
This is not someone explaining how antiwar work can benefit class, gender, or race struggles. This is feminists, labor organizers, conversion activists, and antiracist organizers talking about how their work is critically important in its own right, as well as how assisting it will benefit the fight against war.
- Antiwar demonstrations, rallies, and written materials should have similar policies.
The organization and culture of the antiwar movement must empower diverse types of people.
Women will not work well in a movement defined by the worst male habits of competitive, macho posturing. We have to incorporate feminist principles in antiwar activism.
Blacks and Latinos will not join a movement defined by the cultural and behavioral characteristics of whites. We have to incorporate Black, Latino and other minority cultures in antiwar movement.
Workers will not lead a movement characterized by the condescension familiar from workers’ relations with managers, lawyers, and doctors. We must have a way of organizing that incorporates working-class priorities in antiwar organization.
Gays and lesbians will not join a movement embodying sexual assumptions familiar from daily encounters with homophobia. We must incorporate respect for sexual diversity in antiwar work.
A multi-constituency movement that inspires lasting commitment will have to be multi-cultural and disavow the oppressive features of gender, race, and class relations. We can’t attain perfection overnight and shouldn’t even try to make a movement that only the most culturally “perfect” human being could feel comfortable in, but we must make steady, substantial progress.
To promote the strongest possible resistance and to give the movement a positive rather than negative orientation, antiwar marches, rallies, and civil disobedience should target diverse sites and make multi-issue demands. For example:
- at the corporate headquarters of major war contractors, demanding an end to war and the reallocation of resources to the production of food, shelter, and infrastructure;
- at drug hangouts and treatment centers, demanding an end to war and the creation of massive drug rehabilitation programs;
- at Congress, demanding an end to war and financing full-employment programs, “soak the rich” tax reforms, state financed election funds, and binding public referendums on policies;
- at army bases, demanding an end to war and conversion of the bases to industrial centers to build quality, low-income housing with the first units given to GIs from the base who decide to stay on as employees;
- at TV stations, demanding an end to war and massive funding for the arts and for independent radio and TV under community control;
- at day care centers, demanding an end to war and massive funding for day care and affirmative action programs for women;
- at inner-city sites, demanding an end to war and funds for rebuilding infrastructure, enhancing housing, and providing jobs;
- at inner-city schools, demanding an end to war and massive funding for education and jobs to allow our youth to become more than mercenaries for a garrison state;
- at hospitals, demanding an end to war and conversion of resources to construction of new hospitals and local health centers and the adoption of universal free medical care.
Local, regional, and national antiwar organizations should seek coalition support for antiwar actions from groups organized around gender, race, and class, but should also give material and organizing assistance to groups, projects, and events organized around gender, race, and class–whether explicitly requested to do so or not.
This time we should not sacrifice all other agendas to the antiwar agenda, thereby weakening every effort, including the antiwar effort. We should, instead, share insights, energy, skills, and money among many activist fronts.
People will ask, “What could you do that would be better?” We have to develop answers that do not stop at solely describing how bad the system is, or “Bring the troops home,” or “Letting the sanctions and international diplomacy work,” or “Strengthening the UN, democratizing it, and making everyone, especially us, subject to its will.”
People will realize that if capitalism breeds imperialism which, in turn, breeds war, then unless we get rid of capitalism, war will recur and we will need to be prepared to fight. And if we say, OK, we eventually have to get rid of capitalism, too, they will remind us how East Europeans and Russians have recently rushed back to capitalism.
In reply we need to present a new post-capitalist vision encompassing economics, politics, gender, and race. To build a large, lasting movement we need to describe activities that can promote lasting change and show that our movement is sufficiently humane, participatory, and sensitive to come through uncorrupted.
A critic might say revolution is not on the immediate agenda, so why develop long-run revolutionary answers? He or she might say we aren’t trying to get lifelong commitment, we are only trying to get people to fight for peace now, so why worry about long-run aims? If so, he or she misses the point.
People know serious dissent can change their lives. They know that if they admit U.S. crimes, they will either have to become radical with a possible loss of friends and jobs, or else turn their backs on morality. People need long-run answers to believe the long-run struggle will be worthwhile and therefore worth joining now. People need faith in what they are doing, especially if it entails sacrifices. Building a new sense of self around hatred for war is not sustaining enough and tends to create bitter people unlikely to be effective organizers. To become radical requires jettisoning one’s old self-image and it is hard to do this and maintain one’s humanity without understanding where one is headed.
People who have been effective activists for decades believe in human potentials in a better society, in the possibility of winning, and are sustained by these positive beliefs, not solely by hating a specific injustice. To try to get others involved as deeply without helping them attain positive vision is ignoring our own politicization.
In the period before the most recent War on Iraq international opposition involved over ten million demonstrators. One would imagine that with good choices for tactics, with good strategic reasoning, once the war began, and the real carnage mounted and the rationales were not simply critiqued but proved to be bad lies, opposition would grow, dramatically. In fact, however, it shrunk. There is no more telling indicator one can find for the inadequacy of movement approaches than this fact. It ought to be at the heart of our thinking about how to do better.
“Isolated individual endeavor, for all its purity of ideals, is of no use, and the desire to sacrifice an entire lifetime to the noblest of ideals serves no purpose if one works alone, solitarily, in some corner of America, fighting against adverse governments and social conditions which prevent progress.”
– Che Guevara
Tactics are not forever. They are chosen at a moment, in a place, typically for a short duration. Tactics include canvasing, leafletting, holding teach-ins, having classes, holding rallies, having marches, occupations, modes of making decisions, ways of describing self and others, and yes, civil disobedience, rioting, even burning and fighting.
The importance of tactics has to do with whether they aid or subvert sought aims. Sought aims will typically include something quite specific to the moment–win some demands, raise some social costs, teach some lessons, shut down some operations, etc.
So far, so good, however, the point of our examinations has been to add that the sought aims should always include:
- enlarging not diminishing movement size
- enriching not constraining movement intelligence
- strengthening not weakening movement resources and structures
- building mutual aid not paranoia or distrust
- weakening not abetting state power
- educating and inspiring not confusing and alienating a broader population
- winning reforms in a non reformist way not rejecting reforms or adopting reformism
- planting seeds of the future in the present not replicating the ills of the present to carry into the future
- dealing with power in ways that empower not corrupt
- building lasting organization that, itself, adds to all these positive trajectories.
It is a lot to account for. You cannot usefully nuggetize winning a new world.