Violence, Tactics, and Revolutionary Strategy
Note: I was not going to comment further on Chris Hedges’ widely published essay, “The Cancer in Occupy,” 1 concerning tactics for Occupy Oakland (and by extension Occupy Wall Street) and condemning tactics he attributed to the Black Bloc. But after he appeared on May Day on Democracy Now! and renewed those claims without reflecting at all on what folks in Occupy had been saying, I’ve decided to publish this here, and in my forthcoming book, “What Is Direct Action? Lessons from (and to) Occupy Wall Street.” You can find out more about the book by writing to me at the email address above.
Chris Hedges has and continues to make valuable and often blistering critiques of what he calls “corporate capitalism,” and the role of both the Democratic and Republican parties in crushing civil liberties, enacting imperialist wars and ravaging the planet in the service of the 1 percent. He is an inspiring ally (and, strangely, “not a member,” in his own words) of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But he has zero experience as part of a radical organization or even in an affinity group, and it shows, especially when it comes to how to address differences of opinion and other concerns within a movement.
In fact, Hedges exhibits tremendous disdain for left movements that don't conform to his increasingly moralistic mold. His book, Death of the Liberal Class, “is one of the worst misreadings of history by an acclaimed writer on the Left that I've ever seen,” says Brian Tokar, a veteran participant in numerous direct action campaigns and also a professor at the Institute for Social Ecology and of environmental studies at the University of Vermont. “Hedges honestly believes that the New Left accomplished almost nothing, except for some key figures he likes, such as Howard Zinn and the Berrigans.” In that book, Hedges (incredibly, to me) writes that the New Left had “no political vision. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, with its narrator’s search for enlightenment, became emblematic of the moral hollowness of the New Left.” And he continues:
Protest in the 1960s found its ideological roots in the disengagement championed earlier by Beats such [as] by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Borroughs. It was a movement that, while it incorporated a healthy dose of disrespect for authority, focused again on self-indulgent schemes for inner peace and fulfillment. ... These movements, and the counterculture celebrities that led them such as the Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, sought and catered to the stage set for them by the television cameras. Protest and court trials became street theater. Dissent became another media spectacle. Anti-war protesters in Berkeley switched from singing “Solidarity Forever” to “Yellow Submarine.” 2
Hedges misses completely the numerous contributions by participants in anti-war, Women’s, Black & Gay liberation, cultural, social justice and ecological movements of the last 50 years; he somehow also misses the dual power strategies for revolutionary societal transformation put forth by key sectors of the New Left (many of those crushed or co-opted by the State). The alienation from all aspects of capitalist society that so marked the New Left is invisible in Hedges’ critique. Hedges turns the ’60s generation’s struggle against one’s own oppression into, for him, a contemptible rejection of self-sacrifice on behalf of “others”:
The civil-rights movement, which was rooted in the moral and religious imperatives of jus- tice and self-sacrifice, what Dwight Macdonald called nonhistorical values, was largely eclipsed by the self-centeredness of the New Left, especially after the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1967 [sic – Malcom was killed on February 21, 1965, not ’67 – MC] and Martin Luther King Jr. a year later. And once the Vietnam War ended, once middle-class men no longer had to go to war, the movement disintegrated. The political and moral void within the counterculture meant it was an easy transition from college radical to a member of the liberal class.3
Hedges’ portrayals of the civil rights or trade union movements as “rooted in the moral and religious imperatives of justice and self-sacrifice” are true only if one leaves out all the Black people trying to register to vote and workers trying to organize into unions to better their own condition.
Hedges’ Invention Of An Intervening Liberal Class
While Hedges pulls no punches in excoriating liberalism today (and I agree with him there), he offers a cartoonish one-dimensional portrayal of the New Left. Hedges’ Christian-based umbrage dismisses those who choose to fight for their own liberation as well as for others. And it weakens Hedges’ strategies for effecting societal transformation. It also leaves him impossibly reliant on, strangely enough, appeals to a non-existant liberal “class” (the same sector he rips into elsewhere) to take up the revolution’s cause.
The real danger to the elite comes from déclassé intellectuals, those educated middle-class men and women who are barred by a calcified system from advancement. Artists without studios or theaters, teachers without classrooms, lawyers without clients, doctors without patients and journalists without newspapers descend economically. They become, as they mingle with the under- class, a bridge between the worlds of the elite and the oppressed. And they are the dynamite that triggers revolt.4
Hedges offers here a pale reflection of V.I. Lenin’s early argument (later modified) in What Is To Be Done? where Lenin posits that a “third party” was required to bridge the historical abyss — a tightly-knit cadre of professional revolutionaries, primarily from the intelligentsia, whose self-defined mission was to bring political questions and revolutionary answers into the working class movement from their up-till-then development outside of it, and thus transform it.5 For Marx and Engels on the other hand, consciousness is not some state of individual enlightenment to be attained from outside workers' struggles as a class. Class consciousness is part of an objective process inherent in, bound up with and emerging from those struggles, while for Hedges consciousness and “agency” come from elsewhere. In positing a “liberal class” and then blaming its demise on its failure to become more radical, Hedges ends up working to achieve one set of goals while much of the Occupy movement is working towards fulfilling a different set, requiring different strategies and tactics.
Hedges wants Occupy to engage in symbolic nonviolent civil disobedience which, he argues, would delegitimize corporate capitalism in the eyes of sufficient numbers of people who would then do what, exactly, to bring about his goal of a less predatory capitalism shorn of the corporate state? The closest he comes to explaining how this would occur is in his essay “Why the Occupy Movement Frightens the Corporate Elite”:
The end of these regimes comes when old beliefs die and the organs of security, especially the police and military, abandon the elites and join the revolutionaries. This is true in every successful revolution. It does not matter how sophisticated the repressive apparatus. Once those who handle the tools of repression become demoralized, the security and surveillance state is impotent. Regimes, when they die, are like a great ocean liner sinking in minutes on the horizon. And no one, including the purported leaders of the opposition, can predict the moment of death. Revolutions have an innate, mysterious life force that defies comprehension. They are living entities.
Still, and unlike Lenin (whom he deplores), Hedges provides no mechanism for how the system which he defines as corporate capitalism would be replaced. He royally denounces the black bloc sector within the Occupy movement and any tactic that foresakes or might tend to undermine symbolic civil disobedience as the motor for social change. My own view, as someone who has participated and been arrested in many civil disobedience actions, is that CD is a tactic that is obviously useful in many circumstances and at certain stages — especially for calling public attention to particular inequities — but of and by itself it is not and has never been a vehicle through which systemic change in the United States takes place. (I discuss this more fully below.) There is a dis - connect between the tactic and the goal Hedges wants it to achieve, a disconnect that the militant pacifist Dave Dellinger, for one (unlike Hedges, Dellinger was a strong supporter of the Black Panther Party) was always trying to resolve.
Was there ever a “liberal ‘class’ ”?
Hedges’ core thesis in “Death of the Liberal Class” is that up until World War I the liberal “class” served as an effective intermediary between social movements and the American corporate state, and that after World War I that model abruptly unravelled. But he fails to offer substantive analyses of the rise and fall of the working class and other radical movements in those periods. It is because he holds a superficial understanding of the history of social movements that he can today wrongly claim that liberalism was once a positive “intervention” by a class of individuals on behalf of social movements in earlier periods of capitalism — a time to which he would like to return. His sharp critiques are directed at the Democratic Party for having abandoned that liberalizing role. Hedges views symbolic civil disobedience within that framework, as a strategy for winning over liberals who do not participate in Occupy Wall Street, for example, but who are nevertheless potentially sympathetic and influential. They then would presumably intercede on behalf of the valid claims of social justice movements, just as (according to Hedges) they had done in the past.
The danger the corporate state faces does not come from the poor. The poor, those Karl Marx dismissed as the Lumpenproletariat, do not mount revolutions, although they join them and often become cannon fodder. ... In every revolutionary movement I covered in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, the leadership emerged from déclassé intellectuals. The leaders were usually young or middle-aged, educated and always unable to meet their professional and personal aspirations. They were never part of the power elite, although often their parents had been. They were conversant in the language of power as well as the language of oppression. It is the presence of large numbers of déclassé intellectuals that makes the uprisings in Spain, Egypt, Greece and finally the United States threatening to the overlords at Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil and JPMorgan Chase. They must face down opponents who understand, in a way the uneducated often do not, the lies disseminated on behalf of corporations by the public relations industry. These déclassé intellectuals, because they are conversant in economics and political theory, grasp that those who hold power, real power, are not the elected mandarins in Washington but the criminal class on Wall Street.6
But liberalism was never the province of a separate class that interceded in the U.S. (positive or otherwise); rather, it was the ideology of the dominant arm of the U.S. ruling class itself during capitalism’s long period of expansion. Supposedly “liberal” issues like an end to racial slavery, the legalization of trade unions, and recognition of women’s and Black people’s right to vote served important economic functions for the Rockefeller-Roosevelt wing of the ruling class, enabling that sector to gain hegemony over other competing capitalist sectors. [See SideBar, below, for historical details.]
The real victories that were won came about through mobilizations of large numbers of workers taking direct action in critical economic sectors. Workers’ historic strikes and occupations of Ford and General Motors in the mid-1930s threatened to overturn the whole capitalist applecart, and they won from the Roosevelt administration the right for many (not all — not farmworkers or restaurant workers) to legally unionize. But today, as the production base in the U.S. declines, there is much less room to win reforms. Still, unions are less and less bound by the restrictions of that 1935 social compact. New possibilities open up; in fact, some unions have begun to express solidarity with Occupy and other social movements, and are even probing, however gingerly, the possibility of raising environmental, anti-war and other social policy issues for the first time in 60 or 70 years.
The argument with Hedges over whether, historically, a liberal sector of civil society interceded with the state on behalf of the working class (as Hedges argues) or whether liberal rearrangement of the workplace and related social policies were promulgated by the ruling class itself as a matter of its own economic class interest, is not a distinction without a difference. The institutions resulting from what Hedges sees as liberal working class victories in actuality were put into place to curtail radical influence and manage working class movements, not assist them. Hedges’ misinterpretation of history is telling, since his misreading greatly influences the goals and strategies he advises for today.
A Question of “Violence”
Hedges’ overarching misinterpretation of the history of the Left and radical movements in the U.S. leads him to propose misapplied goals and strategies for advancing them. Here, for instance, is how he sees what he calls the “failure” of the Black Panthers and other groups:
The Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and the Weather Underground Organization, severed from the daily concerns of the working class, became as infected with the lust for violence, quest for ideological purity, crippling paranoia, self-exaltation, and internal repression as the state apparatus they defied.7
While no one involved in those organizations would claim that they were without serious problems and internal contradictions, Hedges provides such a blanket (and convenient!) dismissal — let alone a Hollywood conception of who is “the working class” — that one has no choice but to question his honesty as he rewrites history to draw from it the “lessons” he has already decided to promulgate.8 Having decided that Hedges is not to be trusted in reporting accurately and fairly on the Left’s history, I’m just going to leave all that aside for the remainder of this essay, in order to be able to zero in on Hedges’ arguments that come out of his observations concerning what’s happening today, which he makes in his essay “The Cancer in Occupy”:
1) Hedges equates the code-words “property damage” and “violence,” and then blames the black bloc for all random acts of property damage. This is simply wrong, as:
a) like it or not, damaging corporate property simply is not the same as violence against people and other living beings;
b) members of the black bloc do not generally engage in random acts of property damage; and,
c) much of the property damage is done by cops posing as protesters (which is a concern Hedges raises).
To me, this is the most serious and legitimate concern, and the black bloc does need to take responsibility for examining ways of preventing police agents in sheep’s clothing from wrecking the movement. (There are many ways to root out, expose or contain police agents in our midst. Hedges’ public denunciation of all of those involved in some form of militant tactic is not the way, however.)
In fact, Hedges calls on the Occupy movement to purge the relatively few individuals engaging in minimal property damage (such as breaking a few windows), going so far as to label them the “cancer of the occupy movement.” (We all know what the western prescription for “cancer” is, I reckon. It’s not homeopathy.) And for what grievous act are we to spend endless months debating how to set up committees of public safety to police our own movement? A kid who throws a soda can against a window? An occasional individual who spraypaints graffiti on a friendly business? Where’s the morality (let alone the “non-violence”) in that? Even if one disagrees with or deplores such actions, does that make it okay to wreck a kid’s life by turning her over to the police (as occurred in Seattle in 1999) or purging her from the Occupy movement? Think of the time and energy it would take to argue over and set up mechanisms for purges. Couldn’t it be spent more productively and compassionately? Hasn’t the Left been down that road before?
Our movements need to more clearly make the distinction between property destruction and physical violence against people — a distinction Hedges strangely fails to make; we should not use the same word “violence” for both. Had Hedges written about the futility of breaking a window here or there during a march as a tactical issue (as opposed to making it a question of morality) and brought it up for discussion within Occupy, surely I and most others would have agreed with him that the vandalism was counterproductive (depending on the target, timing and circumstances), although I wouldn’t have thought it to be that big a deal. But Hedges turned his annoyance into a crusade and fed the mainstream media’s frenzy to tar Occupy, especially those in the black bloc who generally do good work and don't engage in random vandalism — let alone “violence” — that Hedges is attributing to them.
Furthermore, Hedges praises the same tactics he deplores in Oakland when utilized abroad. Hedges applauds the far greater property damage engaged in by rioting and often-masked comrades in Greece (his May 2010 article in TruthDig praising rioters in Greece is accompanied by a photograph of fires raging):
Here’s to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their coun- try. They know what to do when Goldman Sachs and international bankers collude with their power elite to falsify economic data and then make billions betting that the Greek economy will collapse. They know what to do when they are told their pensions, benefits and jobs have to be cut to pay corporate banks, which screwed them in the first place. Call a general strike. Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out. Do not be afraid of the language of class warfare — the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it. ... Barack Obama is simply the latest face that masks the corporate state. His administration serves corporate interests, not ours.9
Wow. Exactly right in terms of understanding that Obama “is simply the latest face that masks the corporate state.” But not so fast, Chris Hedges, with the rest of it! Class consciousness entails identifying Goldman Sachs and the international bankers as part of the enemy, which is the system of capitalism based, as it is, on the exploitation of the labor of the 99 percent and the pillaging of Nature and accumulation of resources. It is only when participants identify the source of the problems we face that we can prevent capitalism from reproducing itself through our actions and commentaries.
The Dangers in NOT Identifying the System
In Greece, there is an increasingly organized and growing fascist movement participating in the anti-austerity strikes, riots, occupations and shut-downs alongside their arch-enemy: the socialist, anarchist and communist Left. Hedges makes the mistake of praising the rebellions in Greece while failing to differentiate the contradictory forces involved and identifying capitalism itself as the enemy. Writing from Cyprus, Petros Evdokas explores the on-the-ground manifestations such confusion leads to, in a more advanced stage of the movement than exists currently in the U.S.
Popular leaders like Glezos and Theodorakis are the visible part of a humongous majority of activist-oriented millions of people in the country who have been organizing (and recently calling openly) for an uprising. The majority of people are behind this sentiment and support it, BUT, also the majority of people have the political maturity to desire an uprising that is as peaceful and mindful as possible.
The arson attacks against more than forty buildings on Sunday that burned down a large number of shops and buildings that have NOTHING to do with the regime of Corporate and State oppressors, took place against the wishes of the people-in-rebellion. They are actions of conscious and unconscious agents of the regime. If you think this claim is too extreme, please see the top photo of the new Cyprus IndyMedia article titled “This is who burned down Athens” http://cyprus.indymedia.org/node/88 — the truth is all in the photos. Are these masked protesters “revolutionaries”?
There is nothing “revolutionary” about burning down classical architecture buildings that people love and identify with, cafés and movie theaters that constitute some of the last remaining humane parts of the City’s downtown.10
At this time, the debate among true and honest revolutionary networks has not yet concluded on what is the best way to revolution in THIS juncture. Strikes are more and more organized and well-attended, but takeover strikes (occupations) are only now, in this last year beginning to ap- pear, and only on a very small scale. Armed response teams capable of delivering meaningful blows to the regime (meaningful in the political sense), or capable of defending strikes, occupations, and protests from the regime, or capable of enforcing direct actions such as liberation and distribution of food in the cities or the countryside have not yet been formed because the people still do not support such a move. It might come to that, but popular awareness, desire and willingness to engage in the revolution is the one and most important factor that we need to be in tune with. The only ones engaged in armed actions in the last few years are the same fake anarchists and regime provocateurs who repeatedly pull off highly destructive (and sometimes lethal) actions that erode the peoples’ morale.
Nobody wants to be part of a revolution that kills workers, attacks leftist demonstrators and firebombs small shops, and the people have repeatedly in the last few years immediately re- sponded to these actions by pulling away from mass mobilizations. That is EXACTLY the reason why the regime seeks to instigate such actions, with the help of a few hundred brainless idiots who think that such behaviour is “revolutionary”.11
While Petros Evdokas’ critique might appear to lend support to Chris Hedges’ view, the concerns that go into it are very different. Petros starts from the point of how to successfully organize ourselves into a revolutionary force and whether the tactics attributed to the black bloc in Greece (in which three people were killed in a firebomb attack on a bank while people were inside) contribute to doing that. Hedges, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with creating a moralistic and almost religious approach so that the liberal class would advocate on our behalf; we would consequently need to mold our goals and tactics accordingly so as not to alienate them. He writes (more and more lunacy, when it comes to looking at and understanding history):
Radical violent groups cling like parasites to popular protests. The Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Weather Underground, the Red Brigades and the Symbionese Liberation Army arose in the ferment of the 1960s. Violent radicals are used by the state to justify harsh repression. They scare the mainstream from the movement. They thwart the goal of all revolutions, which is to turn the majority against an isolated and discredited ruling class.12
Aside from the fact that he skews the history of the groups he mentions, especially the Black Panther Party, there is this question: Is “turn[ing] the majority against an isolated and discredited ruling class” the primary “goal of all revolutions” at all stages in their development? If so — and let me for the sake of argument allow Hedges his increasingly moralistic assertion without challenge right now — what mechanism does Hedges propose that converts the consciousness of the majority into actual revolution? How is that mechanism created, and by whom? He writes:
Acts of resistance are moral acts. They take place because people of conscience understand the moral, rather than the practical, imperative of rebellion. They should be carried out not because they are effective, but because they are right. ... [They are] the supreme act of faith, the highest form of spirituality ... [that] cannot be measured by its utilitarian effect.13
Hedges goes on to castigate these groups and individuals without learning a thing from them
These violent fringe groups are seductive to those who yearn for personal empowerment through hyper-masculinity and violence, but they do little to advance the cause. The primary role of radical extremists, such as Maximilien Robespierre and Vladimir Lenin, is to hijack successful revolutions. They unleash a reign of terror, primarily against fellow revolutionaries, which often outdoes the repression of the old regime. They often do not play much of a role in building a revolution.14
Hedges is just wrong about this historically, which leads him to profer ineffective and disempowering strategies and tactics for today.
2) Chris Hedges’ tactical assessment of the black bloc is based on fiction, on (mis)information garnered from the same incendiary news broadcasts he elsewhere lambastes. Surprisingly, Hedges doesn’t bother to check their sources, but “confirms” his already-drawn conclusions by quoting one (and only one) obscure teenager (nom de guerre “Venomous Butterfly”) writing in an equally obscure anarchist journal, Green Anarchy, 10 years ago — an article that at the time had every anarchist I know protesting its statements. He did not talk to actual participants at Occupy Oakland, and had he done so I suspect he would have hopefully been able to see the black bloc as a specific political formation around a strategy of dual power and not of symbolic tactics; he would have been hard-pressed not to qualify, or even withdraw, the statements he made about them.
3) Hedges sets up a flawed framework in which the poles of debate are either black bloc “violence” or non-violent civil disobedience. But there is no such thing as “violence” in the abstract or “non-violence” in the abstract. In fact, the supposedly “nonviolent” movement in Egypt was rife with protesters committing acts of property damage and violence — much, but not all of it, in their immediate self defense. While I am not arguing that forms of resistance in Egypt — a country with its own and very different internal conditions than the U.S., as well as external relations that greatly impact on the nature of its State15 — could or should be automatically transposed to the United States or anywhere else, we have seen the proponents of symbolic nonviolent civil disobedience seize on the misleadingly portrayed “nonviolent” revolution in Egypt as an argument for what we need to do here. A letter of solidarity from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street specifically focuses on setting that record straight:
Those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces: by the government's own admission;
99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed, and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down. Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks even as they fired tear gas and live ammunition on us. But at the end of the day on the 28th of January they retreated, and we had won our cities.
It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose. If we do not resist, actively, when they come to take what we have won back, then we will surely lose. Do not confuse the tactics that we used when we shouted “peaceful” with fetishizing nonviolence; if the state had given up immediately we would have been overjoyed, but as they sought to abuse us, beat us, kill us, we knew that there was no other option than to fight back. Had we laid down and allowed ourselves to be arrested, tortured, and martyred to “make a point,” we would be no less bloodied, beaten and dead. Be prepared to defend these things you have occupied, that you are building, because, after everything else has been taken from us, these reclaimed spaces are so very precious.16
Hedges, who lived for several years in Egypt and reported on events there for the New York Times, has praised the armed bodyguards that accompanied him there and in some of the world’s other hot spots. It was only their training in violence, and their machine guns, that protected him and allowed him to write his articles. He does makes a point of saying that he is not a pacifist, but he nonetheless calls those who in the U.S. commit violence against corporate property a “cancer” that must be extirpated. On the one hand, this smacks of what we used to call “American exceptionalism”; on the other, there has been virtually no violence against people perpetrated by the Occupy movement. The absolutist poles Hedges sets up with regard to Occupy Oakland are devoid of context. They present us with a false, moralistic and decontextualized narrative.
Amin Husein is an organizer with Occupy Wall Street and edits its theoretical journal, Tidal. He spoke directly to Chris Hedges on Democracy Now:
It’s an oversimplification to just say that the movement needs to make a decision [on the black bloc] without really kind of rethinking how we work.
... In this context of [Hedges’] article, though very good points [were made] and many peo- ple in the movement felt it was good because it sparked a conversation, it came at a time when it almost derailed us. And we worked with each other, you know, on the issue of Trinity and Duarte Square, and it’s like, we would have appreciated a phone call, because we would have facilitated these conversations, which needed to happen. Thanks to your article, we’ve overcome it, and we have a deeper sense, because we’ve talked about violence versus diversity of tactics back in August, and it was heated conversations. But many other people joined, and the conversation needed to be had again. And this is why we have Tidal, to always have these conversations.17
Occupy activist and attorney Marina Sitrin hammers home the difference between discussing an issue within Occupy vs. publicly blasting a segment that you don’t agree with:
It’s actually not useful at all, from the outside, to tell the movements what to do, especially by people who have access to publish in certain places. And there’s quite a few. [Some are] well-meaning people [like Hedges and] Zizek, telling us we must be serious revolutionaries and anti-capitalists and do this, that and the other. And, you know, with all respect, either engage in the discussion, because it is open — all of it is open, and we need to have these conversations, and we’d love to have more intellectuals who relate to the movements relating to us directly and having the discussions, not telling us what to do. That part is not useful. But we’re organizing despite all of it, and the movement is flourishing.18
The question of tactics is an ongoing discussion within the Occupy movement, as Husein and Sitrin explained to Amy Goodman and Hedges. Unlike journalists (however supportive of a movement they may be), participants in movements engage each other in such discussions all the time. As a participant, Hedges’ views would have been welcome, just like everyone else’s. But Hedges makes clear he is “not part” of it, and so his thunderbolts are issued from afar, rather than put up for internal discussion. The fact that Hedges used his access to the media as the venue for this “fight” while others do not have such access, and called for the purging of those whose alleged actions he might not agree with, was extremely disruptive to the movement he supports.
Tactics “should not be about abstract principles of using violence or not,” writes Les Evenchick, a community organizer in New Orleans. “Initiating violence serves the interest of the ruling classes unless you are in a position to win. And it should not be about trashing property but about seizing property. And the property that needs to be seized are the banks, the seats of government, the means of communication, and the centers of police and military organization.”
Petros Evdokas adds:
Exactly. Plus, something that is almost always forgotten, is that organized revolutionary violence is ALWAYS the most peaceful solution. By comparison to a Corporate State regime's otherwise unchecked, perennial, chaotic and barbaric violence, organized revolutionary violence is the non-violent alternative. But in order to fulfill those criteria, in addition to what Les correctly points out above, [Petros continues], revolutionary violence:
1. Must be organized.
2. Must be under tight and disciplined control by a morally uncompromised and politically aware leadership.
3. Must have clear, transparent goals, plus a strategy and tactics worked out beforehand.
4. Must have the support — or tolerance — of the majority of the population.
What triggered Hedges’ ire was Occupy Oakland’s attempt to seize an abandoned city-owned property and use it to provide much needed social services for the community, devastated by cutbacks that were part of the neoliberal structural adjustment program enacted by the Democratic Party politicians running that city. Whatever criticisms one may have, Occupy Oakland’s shutdown of the ports and its attempts to occupy and open up abandoned city-owned property shifted the gears; Occupy was no longer simply engaging in symbolic civil disobedience but enacting a dual power strategy of establishing and defending actual spaces to be used to meet people’s needs through direct action, albeit ones that needed better planning and coordination. The community has not only the right but the responsibility to physically defend those seized buildings and the embryonic network of new people’s institutions attempting to be born.
Occupations and organized physical defense of reclaimed community property require all sorts of tactics, different ones at different times. We have to stop falling into the trap of arguing about tactics and property dam - age in the abstract, on almost religious moralistic grounds. “Direct Action” in this context is not a code-word for acting stupidly, individualistically or counter-productively. But the reality is, the “violence” Hedges deplores really does not exist in the Occupy movement in the U.S. Almost all of the violence has been undertaken by the police, in defense of the property relations and interests of the 1 percent. Tactics utilized in self-defense of a hospital or a community center that has been occupied and “opened up” for the community have a different purpose than tac- tics employed for the purposes of symbolically calling attention to an issue. In writing one’s list of acceptable tactics to symbolic civil disobedience, one is, in effect, accepting the authority of those in power even while despising it. And without transformative strategy (such as the occupation of buildings and the creation of institutions of dual power), one has no choice but to rely on tactics that futilely try to shame the ruling class into “doing the right thing,” even though the bankers and their enablers could not care less about self-sacrifice and civil dis- obedience as a moral force.
Strangely, Hedges writes that “primitive anarchist” author John Zerzan is the outside-agitator leader of the Oakland black bloc. Even stranger, he alleges that the black bloc disparages the Zapatistas. That would be news to the 99 percent (so to speak) of its participants. Had Chris Hedges bothered to read the decades-old arguments within anarchism between Zerzan and, say, the Fifth Estate or Love & Rage newspaper collectives, which were quite extensive, and then with Murray Bookchin and the social ecology school of anarcho-ecologists, he might have come to different conclusions. And had he bothered to actually communicate with anyone in the black bloc he would have realized that the anarchists he condemns were actually not only among the most active supporters of the Zapatistas, but published many of the early communiqués and essential writings of Commandante Marcos immediately following the January 1994 uprising in Chaipas. In fact, the Zapatistas’ collective and very elongated decision- making process has greatly influence Occupy’s (and the black bloc’s) consensus-based procedures. For someone of Hedges’ stature, failure to confirm sources or read the historical debates is not only poor journalism but a serious breach of the whole idea of Occupy Wall Street’s horizontal communication. As such, his generalizations read simply as smears.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Police Department and city officials, like so many before them, claim that Occupy Oakland is made up of outsiders who are not from Oakland. Well, it’s true that many of the participants come from around the Bay Area and not Oakland proper. The Occupation there acts as a magnet for people trying to create new, non-commodified ways of relating to each other, and the attraction of meaningful ways of relating and living know no municipal boundaries. But here’s what press reports fail to mention: 93 percent of the Oak- land Police Department lives outside Oakland. The cops come into the city each day as part of a different sort of “occupation” — that of an occupying army, which is the way the Maoist organization that Oakland Mayor Jean Quan once belonged to had put it.
Remember, 43 years ago the media was similarly replete with accusations that the occupyers then were “out- side agitators.” In May, 1969, people from all over the region converged on People's Park in Berkeley to defend it from UC Berkeley's so-called “development” bulldozers. One participant, James Rector, was shot and killed by police while sitting on a nearby roof and observing; the tear-gassing went on for weeks. Years later, 17-year- old Rosebud was murdered by a lone trigger-happy cop after she’d snuck into the Chancellor's house — which turned out to be empty! — hoping to discuss the University’s eviction of her friends from People's Park. The struggle over Peoples Park and the role of the University as corporate and “developmental” powerhouse has been going on for decades.
The violence committed by the State, as Bay Area writer and activist Rebecca Solnit points out,19 has been over-the-top, immoral, and costly; it reveals the lengths to which the State is willing to go to protect the sanctity of corporate property when it is even ideologically threatened by peaceful activists seeking to have a say over how that property is used. The conclusion some are drawing — that property seizures should stop because they “cause” the police to react violently in defending the private profits of corporations and the authority of the State — is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen. Occupations need to expand. They need to seize back the municipal and private corporate properties that the 1 percent and its government have stolen, and put them to use in the service of the 99 percent.
I urge Chris Hedges — and all of us! — to keep focus on who is the real enemy, and who is committing the real violence.
American History Belies Hedges’ Claim
Chris Hedges built an entire thesis in his book, “Death of the Liberal Class,” around the proposition that some good things occurred historically because a sector of the U.S. intelligentsia — which he incorrectly deter- mined to be a “class” separate from both the working class and the rulers — took up certain issues and forced society to adopt them and to build policies around them. Hedges raises strategies for today’s Occupy movement from within that misreading of history, which makes at least his historical rationales for them at best not applicable and more generally ... wrong. In actuality, what today we consider to be liberal policies came about in the period of expansionary U.S. capitalism as a result of the most advanced sector of U.S. capital fighting in its own self-interest against more backward sectors, and not as a result of the interventions of a separate liberal class.
Even the U.S. Civil War (and this is half-a-century earlier than the periods Hedges refers to) was a fight essentially over the accessibility of cheap labor for expanding industrial capitalism vs. the financial expenses to rural capital of maintaining a slave labor system in agriculture. Of course moral and strategic issues with regard to institutional slavery eventually came into play as slaves were freed so that they could fight in the Civil War, and then bolster the burgeoning industrial workforce. The point is that capital’s economic imperatives were dominant, setting the framework for other issues to emerge (and not the other way around).
The Hawthorne studies of the late ’20s and ’30s are good examples of how the more advanced industrialists attempted to offset workplace tensions while modernizing industrial production. These were experiments de- signed to ameliorate rebellions, protests of serious accidents, and all sorts of grievances affecting capital’s bot- tom line, which arose from the installation of the automated assembly line and Frederick Taylor’s time & motion recommendations that segmented the labor process into smaller and smaller mechanical motions (graphically depicted in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”). Capitalists sought to lessen workers’ resistance to the grueling routine and increase production (and profits) by introducing different styles of management. Their goal was to squeeze even more production per labor-hour out of workers while projecting a more humane image, which they called “progress” and “liberalization” of the workplace — without in any way altering the basic relationships of ownership and control of capital. Hawthorne became the newest “science” of the industrial labor process; it held that workers and “advanced” bosses shared a stake in the system. The main thing wrong with capitalist industry, the new liberal ideology asserted, was the harshness of some individual bosses, the lack of proper governmental regulation of industry, hostile managers who were unschooled in the latest management techniques, unnecessarily bleak workplace environments and the lack of social safety nets — not the capitalist relations of produc- tion themselves, exploitation, or the factory form.20
Class harmony over allegedly common interests, said the Hawthorne researchers, must replace class struggle over exploitation. Liberal management techniques were designed to foster that illusion; they soon congealed into a new dominant paradigm — that of the “partnership” between labor and capital — which offered a “democratic” framework for intensifying exploitation and profit.
A few decades earlier, the establishment of Workers’ Compensation grew out of the fight between different sectors of capital with competing interests, not working class demands. The owners of giant factories and oil re - fineries needed to systematize payouts for the many injuries occurring among workers utilizing the new machinery;21 in fact, no working class organizer except the bought-off Samuel Gompers had been demanding such a “reform”. It is a serious error to claim such policies as “victories” for the working class (they weren't). The ideological battles fought out within the ruling class had little to do with the needs of workers or other radicals, but the capitalists propagandized in time-honored fashion to gain the forces necessary to do the bidding of one or an- other faction of capital. As famed robber baron and multi-millionaire power-broker Jay Gould (not to be con- fused with the wonderful science essayist Stephen Jay Gould a century later) put it succinctly in the late 1800s, “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”
It was absolutely essential, from the point of view of an expanding U.S.-based industrial capital, that all resistance to exploitation be framed as an individual problem. This enabled Mayo and others (who were responsible for the Hawthorne experiments) to co-opt workers' sense of meaninglessness and anger which rose from their increasingly Chaplinesque robot-like work, before it could erupt into systematic and pervasive hatred of the ruling class. Mayo's and Roethlisberger's misinterpretations and false portrayals of their data filled that important ideological function. They helped to rationalize an exploitative system, laying the ideological basis for the corporate liberalism — which included the co-optation of industrial unions — of the years to follow.
The liberal industrial and banking sector of the bourgeoisie, represented politically by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and early 1940s, desperately needed the support of the working class in order to defeat the policies of other capitalist sectors and consolidate its hegemony over them. This battle between competing capitalist sectors had been going on for many years — each had their own way of organizing production, requiring different and often contradictory mechanisms of control and social policies. Roosevelt, on behalf of industrial and banking capital, accomplished this by taking control of the mechanisms of the state, with the help of organized labor and avowedly Communist organizations singing the praises of the new liberal ideology. To the extent that the Hawthorne perspective began seeping into the ideological pores of the system, it helped forge a national consensus behind the approach of the most advanced wing of capital. Hawthorne’s “labor-management partnership” provided Roosevelt with the “scientific” rationale he needed to legalize unions (under narrow conditions) and generate an alliance with them, enabling industrial and banking capital to wrest permanent control of the federal state apparatus away from other competing sectors while systematizing production, investment and the flow of profits.22
Winning the legal right to organize was a tremendous victory for workers everywhere. But it turned out to be a mixed blessing. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act and other federal laws allowed workers, for the first time, legal protection over a narrow range of areas to negotiate with their employers, but only in exchange for accepting the legitimacy of the factory form of production itself, against which, historically, there had been massive struggles. In accepting legislation that legalized union organizing, the organized working class was required to recognize and accept the boundaries circumscribed in the new social compact, particularly the alleged “right” of capitalists to fully own the product of the day's labor and to dispense it in any way they wished — a “right” taken for granted today but over which huge battles had been and would continue to be fought, before finally gaining widespread acceptance in the 1950s. The new laws codified certain union forms and stamped them with official state approval at the expense of other far more radical working class organizations with which they, too, had been in competition for forty years. Thus, the New Deal succeeded in salvaging capitalism by perfecting a process that had begun in the early 1900s with the Rockefeller-assisted ascension of the American Federation of Labor and the consequent defeat of the more radical Knights of Labor, Western Federation of Miners, and Industrial Workers of the World.
In a sense, legalizing the right of workers to organize within certain well-defined boundaries co-opted working class struggles and upheld only those forms that were more amenable to the long-term interests of capital. Today, we call such legitimated working class formations “corporate unions.” Most marxists and other socialists have expended immense energy defending workers’ struggles over the length of their chains, and no longer over the existence of the chain itself.
2 Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class, Nation Books: 2010. pp110-111.
4. Chris Hedges, “Why the Occupy Movement Frightens the Corporate Elite,” TruthDig, May 14, 2012
5. Mitchel Cohen, The Shortcomings of Traditional Leftist Strategy, Zen-Marxism #7, Red Balloon pamphlet series.
8. There are dozens of excellent and readily available writings that examine the contributions as well as the contradictions of those organizations in detail, and for Hedges — an experienced journalist — to have missed all of that in his research on the New Left makes the entirety of his historical analysis untrustworthy. For starters, see Mitchel Cohen, “Those Not Busy Born are Busy Dying,” a Red Balloon Collective pamphlet in the Zen-Marxism series.
11. Petros Evdokas, private letter to author.
12. “Why the Occupy Movement Frightens the Corporate Elite,” op cit.
13. Death of the Liberal Class, p205.
15. One of the big differences is that the U.S. provides billions of dollars in military aid to the Egyptian military which is dependent on it (as are so many other countries), while the U.S. does not receive any military aid from any other country.
21. James Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal & the Liberal State: 1900-1918, Beacon:1968.