Friday, August 27, 2010

Response to "Destructive Tactics" comments part II

The following is my response to a comment left by someone using the pseudonym “B”. I apologize in advance for its ridiculous length.

What are you going for with this essay? Are you trying to evangelise potential converts from the black bloc? Or convince fence-sitters to join you in what you say is not condemnation but certainly reads like it.

Yes, my purpose is two-fold. Firstly, to convince the black bloc to refrain from utilizing tactics which result in a net loss in the battle for a just society. Second, to convince activists on the left who do not engage in property destruction to voice their opposition to failed strategies.

I tried to keep the tone of my essay dispassionate and focused on the effectiveness of tactics. If the essay in any way appears to be condemning the black bloc as people, then that reflects a failure of my ability to communicate my ideas clearly. This essay was not meant to chastise, admonish or condemn. It is meant to be a frank explanation of why property destruction of the sort we saw in Toronto only helps those forces that we oppose.

Doubt you’ll get very far with such smug condescension, and I consider such a project flawed anyway.

I'm disappointed that you've chosen to attack the tone of my essay before addressing its arguments.

Like Greg said above, “in solidarity” is not an empty platitude; instead of lecturing those who choose other means of struggle, how about respecting diversity of tactics?

This sentence belies the fact that you've missed the very thrust of my essay. It is meant to undermine the notion that “respecting diversity of tactics” should be the default position. Instead, I assert that the default position should be to regard every tactic with a critical eye in order to determine whether it effectively attains our goals.

I've elaborated on the “in solidarity” issue in the previous post, but allow me to reiterate. As enlightened class-conscious individuals, we must see ourselves as being in solidarity with all victims of capitalism and authoritarianism. No person on the planet is exempt from being victimized by those forces. Therefore, to single out one group and to declare solidarity with that group is at best redundant, and at worst a coded phrase implying no questions allowed.

“Before engaging in any political act, it is of the utmost importance to first determine the intended goal of the act. In almost every case, the goal of the highest import is to affect change; often, this is impossible or implausible to achieve directly. Therefore, one must frequently resort to to affecting change indirectly; often by winning ideological converts.” Here’s where you construct your straw man. First, you imply that people who engaged in property destruction didn’t think about it or aren’t goal-oriented. That’s certainly true for some, which I don’t consider a big deal, but don’t assume that for everyone.

No straw man is constructed and no such implication is made. I'm only setting out my ideal formula for deciding upon a course of action. I will grant you that most people who engaged in property destruction were thoughtful and had specific goals in mind. However, they were either flawed in their goals or flawed in their tactics. The disastrous results of the G20 protests speak for themselves.

Peaceful” protestors are also susceptible to having flawed goals or flawed tactics. I am making the assertion that everyone should examine their goals and tactics in order to ensure that they will bring about the desired societal transformation.

Then you narrow the discussion by deciding that winning converts is the only worthy purpose of a political act. Untrue.

Again, you have misinterpreted my words. I don't say that winning converts is the only worthwhile goal. I only say that it is often the only way to achieve radical societal change. This is especially true in a society such as ours with such a dearth of class-consciousness in the populace. Consciousness must be raised before direct action is taken. Otherwise, the populace will be frightened and appalled by the direct actions, which is exactly what we saw during and after the G20 protests.

The agenda of the summit did not proceed exactly as planned, as several disruptions did reach it. Even were that not the case, the actions outside would not have been a failure.

What do you mean when you say that the actions taken (property destruction?) were not a failure? Are you saying that you think the G20 protests were successful at achieving their goals? I find this particular line of thinking quite consternating.

I have not heard anything about the summit being disrupted in any way. Please provide evidence of such a disruption. If in fact any disruption did take place (which it very well may have), the disruption was insignificant. The summit did not end early, the discussion amongst the G20 leaders occurred, photo ops happened, and Harper was able to claim that the security expenditure was necessary and successful.

I'm tempted to even go a step farther and speculate that the summit proceeded even better than planned. Due to the property destruction that occurred and the media's focus on the burning police car, both the exorbitant security cost and the neo-liberal austerity policies that were negotiated during the summit disappeared from the public discourse.

Property destruction did effect change, though, in the hearts of some who were there or saw it from afar. Many who were alienated by the images of burning police cars and broken windows were a lost cause. I heard from people who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend who were warmed by the flames from those cars. People who have directly experienced police violence often feel a visceral reaction of pleasure when they see a blow dealt to the police, symbolic or otherwise.

You live in a very small, very opaque bubble if you can't see that the burning police car image turned away more people than it brought in. I will readily admit that some people – myself included – enjoy seeing police property destroyed. On the other hand, many are disgusted by actions such as the property destruction in Toronto. This includes marginalized individuals who experience police brutality on a regular basis and whose hatred for police is stronger than you can imagine. They see smashing storefront windows in front of cops as petulant provocation by a bunch of selfish rich kids.

With regard to the alienated populace being a “lost cause,” I'm saddened by your pessimism
. To me, no one is a lost cause. I'm not willing to give up on anyone. There are certain terrible truths about society that are so obvious, anyone can be made to understand them if we are persistent.

Paraphrase: “the message has been lost”? Oh come on. What makes those liberal messages more important to you? Just because you agree with them?

Promoting human rights, defending the environment, and decrying the evils of globalization are liberal messages? That's news to me. I thought the radical left all agreed on these principles. Are these not the same messages that the black bloc are attempting to communicate with their property destruction? It's hard to imagine that anyone outside of the radical left could have gleaned any sort of message from the black bloc's property destruction besides anger and violence.

How many demonstrations have you been to where your message isn’t “lost”?

Many. When the protest is peaceful, organized and focused the message is rarely lost.

The media will run a teeny story about your pet cause if you’re lucky, and what do you get from that?

I will admit that many peaceful protests such as International Day Against Police Brutality or Prisoner Justice Day also fail to raise public awareness or affect direct change. I am highly critical of these bland, once-per-year, going-through-the-motions type events. They allow weekend activists to pat themselves on the back because they think they've done something decent and then go about their daily lives guilt-free. Depending on the specifics, I'm actually more perturbed by these sort of demonstrations than the property destruction that I'm decrying in the article. This is why I challenge the readers of the article to come up with new creative strategies of protest.

It’s ironic that you advocate the good protester/bad protester divide as “an opportunity to win converts to the side of anti-statism”, thereby reifying the legitimacy of the state. Non-violence can be a crime, too, whenever they want it to be.

Nowhere in my essay do I ever come close to slipping in to the “good protester/bad protester” debate. The question is one of good tactics/bad tactics. I agree that “non-violence can be a crime whenever they want it to be” (they, being the state, I assume). However, I say again and again in my essay that the question is not what does the state view as violent or criminal, but what do the masses view as violent or criminal. I defy you to find anyone who genuinely believes that sitting in a park chanting or standing on the street singing O Canada constitutes a crime.

That the state often permits [non-violent protest] just proves its ineffectiveness as a standalone tactic.

Wrong. The fact that the state allows something says nothing about its effectiveness. The state is not omniscient nor is it omnipotent. It can't always understand which protestor tactics are effective or ineffective. It may understand that crushing non-violent opposition with force would undermine itself more than letting it be, but that does not mean that the non-violent opposition does not undermine the state. This only means that non-violent protest undermines the state to a lesser degree than the state committing violence in response to non-violence would undermine the state.

Here is how I would lay out a punnet square of possible protestor behaviour and possible police response and what the results would be in a context similar to Toronto during the G20:
  1. Non-violent protest (of the creative variety which I advocate) without police response somewhat legitimizes the state by showing that the country is free and democratic, but also somewhat undermines the state by promoting ideas that run counter to the state's agenda.

  2. Non-violent protest with a violent police response undermines the state to a great degree by demonstrating that the country is not truly free or democratic and that they are threatened by opposing ideas.

  3. Violent action by the state in response to violent protest is the most effective way to reify the legitimacy of the state. This situation allows the state to be seen as a heroic force that brings about a much sought-after orderliness by disposing of violent thugs.

  4. The state not reacting to violent protest is a very unlikely scenario, but I believe it would result in the populace yearning for a more powerful authoritarian state, and thus buttress the state's legitimacy.

As you can see, the commonality of the two undermining tactics are non-violent protest. Regardless of how the state will react, non-violence is the best option.

I mentioned above that the state is not omnipotent. This means that it does not have unlimited resources to quell protest whenever it occurs. The state must pick and choose when and where it will respond to dissent. Therefore, even though a given action undermines the state's authority, it might not be acknowledged due to a practical decision about the allocation of resources.

You say you “long to engage in this debate” but it sounds like you’re settled that non-violence is the way and if only all those fools who failed to see that would just listen. For more on this, see Harsha Walia’s appearance on a panel on diversity of tactics.

I am simply putting forward my opinion. I might be swayed if I were presented with arguments that defeated my own and demonstrated that property destruction was a positive element of the G20 protests. My argument may be bluntly worded, but that is simply the style in which I write. I have watched that video several times while I was researching for the original essay and was not persuaded by her arguments any more than I am by yours. I may respond directly to her comments in a future post, but right now I'm feeling pretty G20-ed out.

“When oppression is blatant and heavy-handed, the response to that oppression can be equally primitive and be successful.” The word “primitive” is problematic, consider avoiding it.

The words 'smug' and 'condescension' immediately spring to mind. I am fully aware of the dubious history of the word 'primitive'. However, the context in which I used the word is entirely non-problematic. Failing to take into account the context in which words are used is problematic. Consider avoiding it.

Surely you’ve been exposed to the idea that non-violent movements have only historically been effective in concert with “violent” factions? Here is a video with more on that.

This video is a attacking a position that I do not hold. The scope of the original essay was meant to be very specific: property destruction performed in a way similar to how it was performed in Toronto in a context similar to the context in Toronto is ineffective and should be discontinued due to its ineffectiveness. My wording may not be as careful and precise as I would like it to be, but that is what the thesis of the essay boils down to.

I do not preclude the possibility that militant or violent political action can be effective and has been effective in the past. I did not mention MLK or Gandhi in my essay because I understand that their version of protest was not the only one happening in during their struggles. Also, I understand that Toronto was a very different sort of place than the U.S. was during the Civil Rights struggle and India was during the struggle for independence. In those times and places, the oppression was more 'real' and the resistance movement involved a much larger percentage of the population than we have in the resistance movement against capitalism and authoritarianism today. For those two reasons, comparing those contexts to our context is a case of apples and oranges. Our actions must take a different form than theirs did. If a large enough portion of the population gains class-consciousness and the state/capitalist forces become reckless in their response to the resistance, then violence and property destruction will have a much better chance of helping rather than hindering.

“Instead of burning police cars, let's cover them in flowers or colourful paint.” I’m not opposed, but it would warm my heart far less than flames.

Your views (and mine) are not those of the majority. You are not the target audience. Your heart does not need warming.

Have you read How Non-Violence Protects the State? Or Pacifism as Pathology?

No, but consider them added to my reading list.

It’s good that people are willing to talk about tactics, but coming to the table with an air of self-satisfied certainty isn’t conducive to dialogue.

It seems to me that you perceive “an air of self-satisfied certainty” as a result of your disagreement with my position, rather than as a direct result of my tone. Obviously, the way I wrote my essay has been conducive to dialogue; 14 comments and counting says it all.

I used to believe more as you do but have come to support a more broad range of struggle, don’t pretend as though if only people would think about it they would obviously agree with you.

I pretend no such thing. I believe that I am correct in stating that the property destruction that was carried out in Toronto resulted in a huge setback for the radical left and I believe that my arguments effectively communicate that fact. Furthermore, I believe that if people read my arguments they may come to agree with me. Is this not the underlying assumption of any essay that is meant to convince its readers?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Response to "Destructive Tactics" comments

A great thanks is in order for all the people who took the time to read and comment on this post. It took a lot of effort to create and I'm glad to see that it has succeeded in drawing out both agreement and dissent. I recently discovered this article from Canadian Dimension: How the 'black bloc' protected the G20. It expresses my feelings exactly, albeit in slightly more competent prose.

Below are some excerpts from the comments that the original post received and my thoughts in response.
Alex DP said...
“Well to be quite honest protest doesn't really win many converts at all. But who wants those anyway. Not me.
What gets allies is power, material security and spiritual community. These are the bread and butter of resistant communities. They come from alternative building, and oppositional institutional creation, not protest. Protest can protect them and highlight the awesomness of these new social places and spaces, but the point is to build a community that is trying to break free but is super inclusive, and all about taking care of each other...
working class culture and institutions are the missing ingredient to white radicalism of this day and age.”

You seem to have separated “converts” from “allies”. To me, they're the same thing. I think the right kind of protest can win allies, but far too often protest takes the form of people carrying signs and walking the streets while halfheartedly mumbling slogans. Good protests involve creativity and actions that capture the attention of everyday citizens. The bubble event I participated in yesterday did a decent job of achieving that ideal. I agree that alternative-building should be the major focus of the radical left. If I were to make a hierarchy of effectiveness of tactics, I would say 'alternative building'>creative protest>boring peaceful protest>property destruction. Could you elaborate on what you mean by “working class culture and institutions”?

slappy the dolphin said...

“I think we need a People's power that can make a decisive break from the what-is, and fend off the re-establishment of the old order. At the same time, we'll need to continuously struggle within the movement against forms of oppression that continue until all forms of oppression and exploitation are abolished. That's some historical task. And it's not one that's started and completed as easily as smashing a Starbucks' window.

Another thought I had recently is this: I see capitalism as the masking of a social relation between humans as the relation of humans to things via the market. Property destruction seems to be the other side of the coin here, where smashing a Starbucks' window is confused for smashing capitalism. Capitalism is a social relation, and it is only smashed when we revolutionize the way we relate to one another. We need to break with commodity fetishism.”

I agree wholeheartedly.

PSG said...

“Rather than discuss the topics of property destruction, per se, I'd like to raise the discussion up a notch and ask you to consider whether summit demos have passed their "best before" date. To get this discussion going, I suggest you read a thoughtful critique of the whole idea at Follow that up with a reading at

Keep the debate alive and maybe we can get past the destructive actions of a small gang of ultra-leftists and devise effective strategies and tactics in the years ahead.”

Both those articles are very well written and poignant. As I said in the post, I think protest actions need to be focused, organized, creative and designed to capture an audience's attention and goodwill. I disagree with your use of the term “ultra-leftists”. Is it possible to be too far left? I call myself a radical leftist and wouldn't disagree if someone tried to label me as an ultra-leftist. To me, leftism entails a valuation of equality, justice, human rights and freedom. Is it possible to value those things too fervently? I don't think that using the term “ultra-leftists” in a pejorative sense has any place in a discourse amongst thoughtful self-declared leftists.

Anonymous said...

“Personally I don't want to spend my time trying to convince the middle class fence sitters that something is wrong. "Winning" them over to your side it not my fight. I feel as a group the middle class has the privilege to information and the education and environment to understand how fucked everything is. I'd say most of them get it. Aside from the odd super conservative I meet everyone I know is "on our side" when it comes to protecting the environment and equal rights. In my mind the issue is not getting people on our side but showing people what it means to be on our side.”

Showing people what it means to be on our side is extremely important, but I disagree with your sentiment that people in general are already on our side. Most people are unaware that capitalism even exists and that there are alternatives to it. They just think that things are the way they always have been and the way they always will be. People may think that rights are good and the environment is good but class consciousness still needs to be raised.

“When I talk to my friends from those neighborhoods and say "look at this picture of someone throwing a rock at a cop" or "holy crap, they beat the fuck out of that storefront" I have never been met with shock or disgust. More often than not it's "Serves them right, fucking pigs" and I tend to agree.”

I don't believe that your sample is representative of the majority. Most people are shocked and disgusted by images such as those. In my experience, no one is harder on the underclass than the underclass themselves because they buy into the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality harder than anyone else. Because all they think they have is their bootstraps so they think it's their only chance for freedom and happiness. Also, they're too thoroughly deceived by the mass media and too deficient in critical thinking to question the idea of hating their neighbours for being just as poor as they are.

“I think "destructive tactics" strips the polished veneer from our neighborhoods. Those are the images that inspired me.”

You are in the extreme minority. It's great that those images inspired you, but when you count net gains and losses I think those images drive more people away than they attract. One needs to gain class consciousness and a radical perspective before those images can inspire. Without that awareness, people only see violence.

chris said...

"I'm like some of the other commentators, I wouldn't rule out property destruction/phyiscal confrontation and probably even violence, but the ends would really have to justify the means. i.e. I think the actors in that scenario would have to be damn good and sure that the merits outweigh the negative consequences.

Of course, there's also a massive, massive different between largely-white political activists committing property destruction at a summit rally and a directly-oppressed and marginalized community fighting back against the power of the state (Oka/Kanesatake, Gaza flotilla, whatever). But we can also see what happens when political violence goes 'wrong': the IRA had a generally good reputation internationally until they chose to pursue car bombing as a tool.

Obviously a few broken windows are not anywhere equivalent to a carbombing, but the point is that in both circumstances nothing was gained and something was lost: not exactly a formula for success.”

I wouldn't rule out property destruction/physical confrontation/violence either, and I hope I didn't give that message in my essay. I think that certain circumstances warrant a violent reaction and that in some circumstances, violence can be an excellent tool for gaining public support. The Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident is a perfect example of this.

Greg said...

"I don't have much use for empty platitudes such as “in solidarity,” and I reserve my condemnation for my ideological enemies."
'In solidarity' is not an empty platitude - it expresses a fraternal bond and unity in struggle.

Allow me to explain my thinking. In solidarity is meaningless in the way that most people use it because we should be in solidarity with all of our fellow victims of capitalism and state authoritarianism. From the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich, we are all victimized in some way. The rich may be victimizers as well, but victims nonetheless. We should not discriminate between groups of people with our solidarity. Solidarity is the default position. Being in solidarity with the Black Bloc should be a given. The important question is, do you think their strategy is sound in that it will achieve our collective goals? I am in solidarity with them, as I am with all people, but I wish for them to re-examine their tactics because I believe they are doing more harm than good to the anti-capitalist struggle.

Anonymous said...

“I think one thing that you are not considering is what it means for some people to stare into a few lines of riot cops and not run away; to take a section of the city for a while and express their resentment directly on something tangible.”

I'm fine with staring at lines of riot cops and not running away. In fact, I encourage it. If that's all the black bloc did then I would be among their greatest supporters. Taking a section of the city for a short time or permanently is also great. However, expressing resentment directly should not take the form of random window smashing. Instead, let's use our not-insignificant capacity for imagination to think of ways to express our resentment in ways that the general public would be able to understand.

“Also protests are spoon-fed to the public by the media. I think it might be naive to think that any single message would ever get through to a significant portion of the population. People that consume such media already do not understand anarchism even in theory, never mind direct action.”

It might be naive, but it's not impossible. Not understanding anarchism is the default. Let's work hard to bring that understanding to the general public. I'm not willing to give up. Are you? The best way to perpetuate that non-understanding is by having the most visible representation of anarchism be black-clad window smashers.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Destructive Tactics

The debate over the use of Black Bloc tactics has been happening for years, but was recently thrust into the spotlight by the events of the Toronto G20 Summit. Although I haven't participated in a full-scale discussion on the topic of Black Bloc tactics with my fellow anarchists and socialists, it appears that many people on the radical left are “in solidarity” with the Black Bloc and favour a “diversity of tactics”. On the other side, you have moderate leftists who, for the most part, condemn the Black Bloc. Some even go as far as to blame the Black Bloc for the crackdown that resulted in the arrest and detention of hundreds of “peaceful” protestors. I don't have much use for empty platitudes such as “in solidarity,” and I reserve my condemnation for my ideological enemies. Therefore, I wouldn't classify my position on this matter as typically radical or typically mainstream. Instead, I hope that I've formulated an opinion that achieves pragmatism and avoids the pitfalls of orthodoxy.

Before we proceed any further, let us abandon the euphemistic phrase “Black Bloc tactics” and call a spade a spade. We're talking about property destruction. Whether you believe that “property” is a legitimate concept and whether the property is private or public, we should all be able to agree that what is at issue in the Black-Bloc-at-the-Toronto-G20 debate is property destruction. Whatever else one wishes to place under the umbrella of “Black Bloc tactics” should not be germane to this discussion.

Before engaging in any political act, it is of the utmost importance to first determine the intended goal of the act. In almost every case, the goal of the highest import is to affect change; often, this is impossible or implausible to achieve directly. Therefore, one must frequently resort to to affecting change indirectly; often by winning ideological converts.

Did the property destruction that took place at the G20 affect change directly? The answer is an emphatic no. The corporations that own those damaged storefronts collected their insurance money and continued with business as usual. The agenda of the summit proceeded exactly as planned. The heads of state who participated in the summit were not inconvenienced in the slightest. The headless zombie that is capitalism continues to plod forward with as much cold brutality as ever before.

Did the property destruction affect change indirectly? Again, an emphatic no. Instead of winning converts, the images of burning police cars and broken windows served to alienate a great many potential allies. Those very same images allowed the federal and provincial governments to justify (in the eyes of the public) the billion dollar security budget and the audacious crackdown on protestors. The police didn't need the anarchists to justify the security budget, but it definitely helped. Without the property destruction, that sort of expenditure in the midst of an economic recession would have been much harder to justify and the crackdown may very well have not taken place. If the crackdown had still taken place, a greater number of people would be persuaded to see it as an overreaction.

Another indirect result of the property destruction was that the important messages about human rights, the environment, globalization, etc. that were being expressed by the protestors were lost in the din and more easily ignored by the mainstream media and the public.

There is some good that can be salvaged from the the events of Toronto. We now have a perfect opportunity to openly dialogue about tactics and how protests should look going forward. Also, through a concerted effort we can draw the public's attention to the fact that the vast majority of those who were brutalized by the police were completely innocent of anything remotely resembling a crime. With the right message, this can be used as an opportunity to win converts to the side of anti-statism, anti-capitalism, or at the very least, anti-Conservative-ism.

I long to engage in this debate with my friends on the left. Do tactics matter? If so, how should they be guided? Should we do what feels good or should we do what works? What does “works” mean in the context of protests? What are the goals we are seeking to achieve? I contend that if we are hoping to achieve radical change, then tactics are foundational to that pursuit. The way to achieve radical change is to gain popular support from a wide swath of society. This doesn't mean watering down ideology to make it palatable to the masses, but it does mean that we need to communicate our ideas in such a way that people will be able to hear, understand and consider them.

Some activists and commentators are saying that the property destruction that occurred in Toronto paled in comparison to the violence perpetrated by the police. Of course this is true. But that doesn't make property destruction a good idea or the actions of the Black Bloc justified in any way. Why not endeavour to draw an even greater distinction between the radical left and the fascist corporate foot soldiers that make up the police force? When oppression is blatant and heavy-handed, the response to that oppression can be equally primitive and be successful. In modern Western nations where oppression is subtle and sophisticated, our response needs to be equally nuanced.

Smashing windows and responding to police force with force is primitive. These acts only communicates rage and randomness to the average person. We must ensure that our actions communicate messages that are obvious and unambiguous.

Actions that are illegal are not a problem in themselves. Actions that provoke the police are not problematic in themselves. Breaking laws that can be demonstrated to be illegitimate or bringing about a police response that can be demonstrated to be illegitimate are effective strategies. Instead of burning police cars, let's cover them in flowers or colourful paint. Instead of smashing windows, let's cover them in slogans that will raise the consciousness of the populace. Let's render their security expenditures absurd by appearing completely nonthreatening to the general public. Let's do the opposite of what the police and government expect and want by creating iconic images of non-violent civil disobedience that will resonate long after we're gone.

I hope this can be the start of a productive dialogue. Please post a comment below and let me know what you think.