The tactic is a distraction. It is not the exclusive province of anarchists. Marxists and other radicals have sometimes taken this turn. Of course, the state simply uses the same approach on an altogether different scale with its uniformed employees acting under the color of law. The right wing has their version, the Brown Shirt mobilizations. The difference is that the Brown Shirts are generally more effective enjoying, as they do, a certain immunity from prosecution.* How then must we respond to a right-wing regime and its trolls who elicit black-bloc responses, especially those who thrive in the attention and appearance of persecution? To understand the stakes involved in responding to individual provocations, it is worth noting that the symbolic politics of the new regime rests on trolling-style activities (as Nate Silver observed long before it came to be). The regime fabricates itself in the public imagination with the thrust and counter-thrust between itself, the defender of a mythical America, and the enemy, an imagined multicultural, liberal elite. The right chooses the stage then suckers the left into assuming a role that the right has already defined. How then to escape the role, indeed, the entire script, that the right has chosen for the left? The answer lies in better understanding the challenges of a rapidly changing political mood that correspond to “weeks when decades happen…” It requires an understanding the very mass mobilizations that inspire but nonetheless warrant some scrutiny.
Over the last year, coinciding with extreme crises of environment, international order, and economic retrenchment, progressives saw their hopes raised and then dashed with the Sanders candidacy. In the presidential race between an authoritarian populist, a corporate liberal, and a silenced Green candidate, the first prevailed albeit with minority support. The subsequent take-no-prisoners transition, cabinet appointments, and early Executive Orders have confirmed the worst fears of the progressive majority. Though correct about the dangers of Trump and Clinton’s limitations, what should have been a moment of vindication for the long-suffering left rapidly morphed into an even more profound marginalization (as described below). One starting point must therefore be the understanding that black-bloc tacticians may be expressing our own rage and rationality. Who, after all, will not concede at least some satisfaction at Richard Spencer’s most recent comeuppance?
But there is another, more troubling problem. Non-violent protest of the type at airports or the larger marches have provided a very necessary and effective platform for signaling the rejection of Trump’s project. Here the left defines the stage. This is to be applauded. However, these have also served to rehabilitate the Democratic Party’s leadership and have provided many otherwise mainstream politicians with a progressive backdrop and photo opportunity. More than any black-bloc tactic, this co-optation from above of the left’s strategy of non-violent, mass mobilizations should be the real focus for anyone looking at the past few weeks for strategic insights – how shall the repressed majority be represented?
If protest itself is to be monopolized in the same way that the party system is monopolized—sidelining in the case of the Democrats even their very loyal labor and people-of-color bases—then it is up to the independent left to find new space and/or expand existing niches to full-blown participatory, organizing and mobilizing platforms. Monopolization itself takes many forms – the redeployment of Democratic Party machinery and politicians’ staff people to turnout and media work, the overwhelming of rally platforms with Democratic Party heavyweights, and the relative absence of participatory decision-making spaces. If #Occupy erred in one direction, too much deliberation, the current mobilizations do so in the opposite direction. This also takes form of suppressing any discussion of either Clinton or Obama precedents for many of the policies that Trump is promoting; the lack of honest conversation may ultimately undermine the credibility of the anti-Trump movement.
This problem extends to the fact that Greens and other independent leftists have been frozen out of decision-making roles in many of the mass mobilizations. If Trump’s fascist pretentions are to be believed, this this is the very moment that the Democrats should be reaching out to both their internal left and to those outside, on their left flanks. Instead, they are predictably exercising the kind of discipline that one never sees them exercise against their internal right and right-wing flanks. For socialists, this is not surprising: it reflects the untenability of the neoliberal project and the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. However, mobilizations that so vastly exceed organizers’ expectations—as the January protests did—are to be welcomed because they signal the social movement potential of these actions. The demonstrations are much bigger than the motives of their mainstream organizers.
The point here is not to whine about our exclusion and plead for crumbs – it is to suggest that realpolitik requires cooperation and coordination between most anti-regime forces.
Fortunately, signs are still contradictory as to which way the mass mobilizations will turn out. The proliferation of calls for this or that mass mobilization may easily blunt the weapon. This danger may discipline strategists’ planning processes and point to the need for coordination between diverse sectors and forces. Structures are emerging for more participation. Even projects initiated by Democratic Party operatives necessarily have decentralized dimensions. Formal principles of unity that are very inclusive and very progressive are also good signs.
But there are also disturbing signs. The same Democratic politicians who seem especially militant at the mass rallies are also being incredibly selective in their opposition to Trump, witness the green lighting of the various Trump nominees. The hearings for HUD secretary could have been turned into a national teaching moment on what has gone wrong with urban policy and why Trump nominees’ policies (or attitudes) will only exacerbate matters.
The failure to take certain steps are not what is most disturbing. It is the wholesale valorization of either phony or shaky “intelligence” claims or US imperial policies that is really disheartening. There are widely disseminated and need little rehearsal here. But one that is particularly pernicious and requires further conversation is the strategy of distinguishing worthy from unworthy victims of Trump immigration ban. It mis-educates the public to emphasize just how the exclusion of this or that scientist or doctor will hurt the US public while failing to note that residents of the targeted countries have already suffered greatly at US hands. It is not so much that immigration benefits the US as much as it is that the US has a responsibility to take in the refugees whom its policies have created – Somalia was a Cold War battleground; Sudan had US missiles rain down on its pharmaceutical infrastructure; enough will never be said about the bi-partisan war on the Iraqi state since 1990; similar brutal histories of US engagement may be retold for Yemen, Syria, and Iran. If, at a moment when most of the country rejects Trump’s ban, we cannot educate it about US culpability, then we will always be susceptible to the worst kind of xenophobic tropes and resulting targeting of immigrants.
In the same vein, some on the left have been celebrating and citing the minoritarian “color revolutions” in the Balkans, Iran, and the former Soviet Union as models worthy of emulation. Not only to we have the negative aftermaths of such “revolutions” to contend with, but we also must deal with the fundamentally undemocratic and technocratic substitutionism that such sometimes CIA-connected movements entailed. Applying it domestically is just as bad as supporting it abroad (see Glen Greenwald or Adam Shatz for diverse takes on the problems with this kind of thinking).
A similar problem emerges in the response to the shutting down of the rightwing provocateur’s Berkeley event. Although most socialists would likely not have endorsed a violent response to the provocation on strategic grounds, call for investigations into the identities of the masked individuals are counter-productive. Any such investigation will likely follow the path of least resistance and end up targeting organizations and individuals engaged in wholly legitimate protest. The left should rather use the opportunity to focus on the ongoing persecution of immigrants and the brilliant organizing work happening in response. Those who prefer black-bloc tactics would be better counseled to show us how they will shut down actual deportations rather than generating publicity and sympathy for a provocateur who was allegedly going to name individuals on a campus already claiming to protect those individuals. The man who had an event audience of 500 suddenly received a media spectacle of millions and his book sales rose accordingly.
Nonetheless, black-bloc tactics often become a note in dog-whistle politicking – the targeting of all progressive forces in the guise of shutting down “violence.” The archetype for this process is the Reichstag burning. How then should the left engage and set out positive alternatives?
At the moment, and this may change, we have greater media receptiveness than at any previous point in our recent history (reminiscent of the early days of both #Occupy and #BLM). As such we need to very aggressively be expanding our media and public relations work. The capacity for conducting such work comes from the left-wing portions of the non-profit world where women, immigrants, and people-of-color often have effective toe-holds. In some cases, they actually lead their organizations. Effective and solidarity engagement with these forces will help liberate these organizations from the cultural constraints of the non-profit world. It will also help educate those parts of the left which have had little inter-generational continuity and which have a smaller representation of women and people of color in their ranks, leadership and character than their historical missions require. Most importantly, the associated social-media networks that have relatively hard generational, cultural and lifestyle boundaries that are not susceptible to the old-style mobilizations of the 60s or even 80s left. These require direct participation by people fluent in the language of social media – this means going well beyond our traditional networks.
Similarly, left engagement with mainstream labor unions in defense of their rights to collective bargaining will help challenge myths on both sides about the other and help us clarify the class character of our movement. This will not be easy going – deep antipathy to parts of the left, including the Greens, remains. Nonetheless, if the unions believe that the stakes are as high as they say it is, then closing the doors on allies and future members will be harder to do than in the past. If the political moment could not seem more dangerous for labor, it is also a moment of profound opportunity. Specifically, while moving on collective bargaining, Trump is also going to promote privatization with his infra-structure plans. There could be no better moment to unite unionized public sector workers with the public demand for services especially in long excluded communities. It may therefore be possible to build robust urban-suburban and community-labor alliances on an unprecedented scale. Given the nature of infra-structure spending and the impact of climate change on such infrastructure, novel coalitions are not only possible but exist in protean forms already. This involves concrete work connecting real communities and already-existing organizations; it may also require inventing ones equal to their tasks. It is hard work that is unglamorous, but it is ultimately the only work where measurable progress toward a new politics may be possible.
Analogous work to ones that engage immigrants, communities of color and unions is necessary in many other sectors including especially challenging mass incarceration, police violence, military recruitment and the persecution of particular forms of sexual expression and identity. None of these automatically lend themselves to the kind of substitutions that exercises many of us. However, the more persecuted and isolated a community or target, the more tempting it is to engage in such substitutions. To the extent that we fail to meaningfully engage such communities and fail to responsibly draw on their leadership, we will only create space for such black- bloc activity as the latter unwittingly follows the logic, “they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” mirroring Trump’s claim to represent the “forgotten men and women.”
What should the left be doing where a combination of resources and organization threatens to relegate or marginalize our perspectives and deny our organizations access to our “natural” constituencies? To prepare for future leadership and to re-position the left to seize the initiative, it may be necessary to become the loyal, cooperative, but independent parts of broader coalitions. This is a tactical approach but could be part of a larger strategy for a majoritarian left. This is not a matter of principle and it is not an abstract commitment to a liberal program; it merely recognizes our current level of power and the current “threat level.”
There are many tactics for shaping mass actions which the independent left does not lead this includes distributing materials—stickers and other “swag”—with distinctive left messaging. These should be both loyal to the purpose of the action and to independent left perspectives. Adding our “branding” and memes in this instance goes well beyond the traditional approach – having the largest banner in a parade. For these tactics to succeed, they should not cross-purposes with the main organizers’ messaging and framing but that extend them in ways that correspond to the left’s values.
By way of illustration, some years back, a large pro-immigrant action emphasized the American Dream with the slogan, “We are America!” (¡Somos America!) and discouraged use of national flags (other than a certain star-spangled banner). A small pro-migrant worker coalition borrowed the ¡Somos America! slogan but added a map outline of the Americas to it. Immediately, the placards were in high demand and its messaging helped define the large action – the messaging escaped well beyond the niche of the coalition.
Similarly, since 2006, a small Boston-based peace-movement coalition has given a huge mainstream activity involving tens (sometimes, hundreds) of thousands of people an antiwar flavor. In this example, they handed out thousands of small, luminescent antiwar stickers with very broad messaging to the “First Night” parade goers on New Year’s Eve. The visual impact of thousands of stickers worn by thousands of family contingents participating in the parade literally and symbolically colored the entire event. Richer political dialogue took place as some of the people taking stickers engaged the activists and were directed back to a full information table.
The social media equivalents to these tactics involve pairing mainstream hashtags with more radical ones and circulating more leftist memes. The key with media as with the real-world examples is for the left to be bold, unapologetic participants in mainstream activities – asserting our place at tables of our choosing. These tactical responses obviously do not constitute a strategy. Although this is not the place for seat-of-the-pants speculation about medium-term left goals, resources and constituencies, any response to the present moment requires some grounding in strategic thinking.
The foregoing notes on alternatives and “nudging” tactics is rooted in a strategic perspective that the left’s deep concerns for social transformation can easily be marginalized and its medium-term project sabotaged by pitting core constituencies against one another. A key strategic constituency that needs to be won over to the left consists of those blocs which turned to Obama in 2008 but then went for Trump in 2016. In response, there is the danger of overcompensating by radically refocusing organizing investments and framing to the concerns of the Tea Party’s base in parts of the white working class, perhaps at the expense of long-time loyal left-wing constituencies in communities of color, migrant workers, and the mainstream labor movement. One way to develop strategy in the context of current resistance needs is to focus on the following strategic problems:
Building win-win relationships between insurgent Democrats, Greens and independents while acknowledging real differences
Organizing campaigns on issues that require local and regional coalitions between the cities and the suburbs and that cut across often gerrymandered political units
The rigorous theorization and formulation of these strategic problems is often eschewed in favor of immediate political responses and practical challenges. Often too, anti-intellectualism and a paradoxical dependence on experts precludes a broader conversation. But these are old problems; what is now needed is the mobilization of those parts of the left accustomed to thinking through doctrinal and historical questions. Applying their minds to these strategic problems would actually allow the left to tap into the one resource it has in abundance.
Moreover, the practical work, political language and campaign framing developed in taking on these strategic challenges will provide the experiential and organic basis for a medium- and longer-term strategy to actually emerge. It may well result in conflictual coalitions of a multi-cultural working class capable of overcoming capitalism and its conjoined twin, white supremacy.
Those of us who are actually forgotten are a silenced majority – even when we are mobilized, it is often our bodies that are claimed while our voices are reduced to a cacophony. The moment women, people of color, immigrants, targeted “minorities,” and working people as a whole find tactics and strategies that open the doors to self-understanding, the Trump administration, the Republican Party, and Democratic Party leadership will find themselves a forgotten minority.
* As seasoned activists have noted too, the black bloc need not be synonymous with violence; they can and have had very effective moments using creative non-violence to achieve their practitioners aims.
Suren Moodliar helps coordinate encuentro5 and the Color of Water Project in Boston. He is the incoming managing editor of Socialism and Democracy. He may be reached at info <a-t> encuentro5 <dot> org