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Thinking Beyond The Conventions: What Comes Next?
Among all the buzz surrounding the upcoming convention protests in the United States has been a palpable silence surrounding the question we will inevitably face: after the delegates are blockaded from the conventions, after the tear gas, the arrests, the media spectacle, trauma and recovery, what will happen next? I am writing this essay with the hope that we begin trying to answer this question now and through discussion over the coming months, rather than wait for the day after expecting that momentum will carry us forward.
To begin with, whether or not we succeed with our goals at the convention protests, it is clear that the milieu surrounding the RNC and DNC will in effect represent a resurgence, at least in terms of visibility, of anarchist direct action organizing in the United States.
In many ways, this could not come at a better time. The conventional forces that co-opted the anti-war movement and what has passed as anti-establishment protest over the past several years have proven themselves not only impotent to transform public discourse around the war (among other policies), but have repeatedly shown themselves willing to compromise their most basic principles in the interest of the electoral regime, i.e. the Democratic party.
Not only has this represented a defeat for “the movement”, it has driven thousands of people away in frustration and despair. While discontent may be growing in this country, there has been no large-scale forum through which this can be channeled in a way that concretely challenges the system. This situation presents an opportune moment for a “coming out” party for anarchist direct action politics.
So, in August and September of this year, we will make a splash. Perhaps a huge one, perhaps smaller – either way, anarchists will likely receive more attention in its aftermath, and we should be prepared to think about what we will do with it.
Many critiques have been presented concerning mobilization around the party conventions – that the conventions themselves are essentially symbolic, and successfully blockading them will accomplish nothing materially. While this critique is legitimate, there have also been good arguments presented in favor of mobilization. Either way, it is too late to turn back the energy and enthusiasm that continue to grow related to these protests – and those who participate should make the most of this opportunity to successfully confront the system, if only in symbolic terms.
But let’s face it – after September 4th, the wars will still be raging, the planet will still be facing extinction and climate crises, and our communities and lives will continue to face an onslaught of capital and it’s desire to shape everything in its image. Many of us will still have jobs to grudgingly return to on September 8th. Racism and patriarchy will still define our culture. So what comes next?
Considering where we are:
Like Seattle in 1999, the energy, tactics and organization going into the DNC and RNC are not emerging out of a vacuum; recent years have seen an increase in creative, courageous and smart organizing against global warming, infrastructure and the war machine among anarchist circles.
Groups like Rising Tide have been developing active networks across the continent and successfully challenging both the discourse and infrastructure that are fueling the climate crisis. Campaigns against infrastructure development and resource extraction (such as I-69 and mountain-top removal) have catalyzed regional campaigns whose support extends well beyond the limited circles of the anarchist sub-culture. And the energy growing around groups like SDS is bringing a new generation into the front-lines of anarchist organizing. The courage displayed by SDS chapters like the one in Olympia, Washington – who day after day faced pepper gas and arrest blockading the shipment of military equipment – have not only been inspiring, but set a challenge to the rest of the anti-war movement; if such actions became the norm for the movement, we could actually talk about bringing the war to an end rather than appealing to indifferent Democrats.
These groups and campaigns are encouraging, and provide living laboratories for libertarian, anti-capitalist organizing. However, to create the kinds of changes that the world and our communities so desperately need, we obviously have a long way to go.
On November 4, either John McCain or Barack Obama will be elected president. In January the eight-year nightmare of the Bush regime will come to an end, to be replaced by yet another four to eight years of darkness under either would-be ruler.
So, let’s talk about the limitations and opportunities that the political climate we are about to enter may offer.
First, Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the imaginations of a lot of well-intentioned, idealistic people have been captivated by Obama’s candidacy. Obama himself has cynically manipulated this enthusiasm, describing his campaign as a “movement”, as though such a hierarchical organization, let alone a political operation could legitimately be considered as such.
In the unlikely event that Obama wins the election, the left liberals who’ve fallen under his yolk will initially greet his presidency with elation. It is possible that Obama will prove a progressive reformer – a capitalist Gorbachev; however, even if he truly desired to reign in the worst excesses of capitalist American hegemony, he will be at the head of a system that depends on extraction, colonization and repression for its survival.
More likely, Obama will pursue the same kinds of policies as Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush – shrowded in the language of “hope” and progress. In time, as the material conditions of their lives fail to improve and socio-ecological crises worsten, many people may become disillusioned. For the past eight years, a great deal of “oppositional” sentiment in the U.S. has been channeled through the Democratic party apparatus; with the Democrats in power, we will have an opportunity to open new fronts of resistance and demonstrate what “opposition” can really look like.
And we are well positioned to call the liberals out on their bullshit and pull away the curtain with which the Democrats enshroud their politics. By manifesting our opposition to the systems that are detrimentally affecting peoples’ lives, and insisting on radical change that, while necessary, Obama will have no capacity (or desire) to deliver, we will expose the Democrats’ inability to offer any meaningful change.
More likely, however, the voters in this country will prove too racist and mean to elect as president a black man with a “muslim” name, despite his legitimate shortcomings. In spite of the current electoral trend Democratic, our next president will be John McCain.
One of the consequences of McCain’s election will be bitter disappointment and frustration among the thousands of people who have invested their passion, energy and hope in Obama’s candidacy. This disillusionment will be something that we can tap into, inviting people to bring their energy to a movement that genuinely confronts the systems they oppose, offering a much more gratifying feedback on their frustration.
Of course, McCain will continue to pursue many of the same policies of the Bush administration. These should all be familiar by now, along with the failed politics of opposition that have dominated the Bush era. The Democrats will continue to try and manipulate opposition to their ends, but more and more people will know better, and we can do our part to expose their charade.
The insanity of the policies McCain wishes to pursue will only push the system further into crisis, and while this will have real-world, frightening consequences for people and the environment, it will also present opportunities for creative opposition and confrontation, and the ability to fill the political vacuum that will emerge in the aftermath of the election.
McCain will keep troops in Iraq, and will expand the war. McCain will continue a campaign of repression against dissent at home and abroad. McCain will pursue an energy economy based on fossil fuel extraction, and neoliberal economic policies projected around the world. So will Obama.
Of course, we know better than to pursue our desires through or become too concerned with the outcome of electoral politics; however, the electoral apparatus does affect the cultural landscape within which our actions and organizing take place and are understood. Regardless of the outcome of the election, we need to expose the lie of this sham democracy and expand the organizing work that many of us are already engaged in. We already have a good foundation to build upon, and there are many lessons, good and bad, to be learned from current examples of anarchist organizing. More importantly, we ought to reflect on and consider the pitfalls of recent movement history, so as to avoid repeating some of the mistakes of the past.
One of the dangers around the convention protests has been a manifest nostalgia for the tactics and ambiance of the heyday of the anti-summit movement. The “anti-globalization” era, with its focus on large-scale mobilizations and summit blockades, proved unsustainable for a number of reasons. Many have blamed the premature decline of the movement on the post-September 11 political climate; however, it was clear to many even before September 11 and the IMF/World Bank protests scheduled for later that month that the movement had begun to run its course. Police very quickly adapted to our tactics – and each successive summit blockade necessitated an escalation of tactics in order to claim success, leading toward levels of repression we were ill prepared to deal with. The assassination of Carlo Giuliani represented a turning point, and by the Miami FTAA protests it seemed clear that we were done for; in the face of overwhelming force employed by the state, we lacked the local bases of support and community power necessary to sustain long-term confrontation.
This is not to say that the anti-summit era was ultimately misguided or without value – the large-scale mobilizations radicalized thousands of activists and popularized anarchist process, from decentralized affinity groups and consensus decision-making to direct action-oriented politics. The mobilizations, for a while, built energy that fed into a growing sense of possibility, and large-scale confrontation with power is always healthy. But the seeds of the movement came from long-term organizing, relationship and capacity building that had been ongoing throughout the nineties. When this became overshadowed by summit blockades, the ground beneath us slowly fell away.
Following the collapse of the anti-summit movement, liberal and authoritarian groups moved into the space we left behind, promoting a top-down movement model whose self-understanding was overwhelmed with 1960s nostalgia. One could write endless critique of the last five years of anti-war “organizing”, and I have already stated that it was thoroughly ineffective. However, what I’d like to highlight here is the overwhelmingly ahistorical nature of the 1960s mythology promoted by many among the recent wave of organizations and activists.
By and large, by 1971 much of the radical milieu of the 1960s had imploded in on itself. Part of this was due to government repression, Cointelpro, etc. However there were key weaknesses that made the movements and organizations dominant in the 60s especially vulnerable to this kind of infiltration and sabotage. Most important was the patriarchal and authoritarian nature dominant in the movement, including its “radical” wings (SDS, the Black Panther Party, etc.). Emblematic of these attitudes was an infatuation with Mao Tse Tung, one of the most dystopian political figures of the 20th Century. This is not meant to deride the courage and commitment of many who participated in these struggles, but to point out the structural weaknesses that were never addressed until many of these groups self-destructed.
The upshot of the 1960s were the myriad liberation struggles it spawned, including the queer and feminist movements which explicitly sought to address the ingrained hierarchies that had plagued their predecessors. The 1970s and 1980s saw creative, energetic movements against patriarchy, nuclear power, environmental destruction and the wars in Central America – during which many of the horizontal movement tools we now take for granted were developed. We owe a lot to these generations of struggle.
It goes without saying that the anti-war movement as it existed during the late 1960s did not bring an end to the war, despite the narrative that many nostalgic baby-boomers and movement leaders would have us believe. The war in Vietnam dragged on until 1975, long after the hey-day of 60s protest. Ultimately, what ended the war was the courage and tenacity of the Vietnamese people and anti-war organizing among the U.S. armed forces, leading to the collapse of order up and down the chain of command. The belief that non-violent marches led to an end of the war lacks any historical basis. Yet for five years the leaders of the current anti-war movement have insisted that we replicate this narrative.
There were, without a doubt, some wonderful moments and ideas that came out of the 60s – there was certainly a feeling of possibility that emerged from the upheavel of 1968, particularly the uprising in France and myriad other liberation struggles. Yet, overall, the 1960s belong in the dustbin of history, and we’ve come a long way since. The last thing we need is to “recreate ‘68”.
Finally, a note on direct action. Among the lessons we ought to reflect upon are tactical priorities and how our attachment to them can become unhealthy, hindering our effectiveness. Direct action is a tactic to achieve concrete goals – nothing more. Our tactics are valuable to the extent that they move us toward the larger aims of our movements and struggles. It’s dangerous to lose our sense of creativity, to glorify extremes or to glorify martyrdom. And it’s dangerous to confuse tactics with strategy, analysis, and politics.
During the anti-globalization era, many of us lost our ability to rethink both tactics and strategy. It was as though for more than four years we kept trying to repeat the narrative of Seattle – long after it stopped working. For movements, especially anti-systemic movements, to remain effective, we need to be able to step back from ourselves, analyze and adapt. We failed to sufficiently do so.
Around the same time, a different set of tactics became popular within the radical environmental movement, with many individuals taking great personal risks for outcomes that in the end may or may not have proven worthwhile. While we need to understand campaigns of repression such as the Green Scare as being situated within a larger effort by the state to criminalize dissent, we also need to recognize that, without the support of strong social movements behind a set of actions, they rarely have lasting impact, and those who engage in them become all the more vulnerable to the counter-attack of the state.
Confrontation with power is healthy. So is mockery, evasion and the construction of alternatives. Extreme tactics do not necessarily make us radical, even if sometimes they may be warranted; what we need most of all is to build our capacity to fight the system, and win.
Looking to the future:
Anarchists have a great deal to offer the world. In times of crisis, people frequently innovate horizontal structures to tackle whatever it is they’re confronted with (the asambleas in Argentina and grass-roots responses to Katrina are good examples). We have developed many tools, along with analysis, that allow us to creatively address the problems that our communities and society face, while dismantling hierarchy and oppression. This summer’s convention protests will be an opportunity to put these on display.
By successfully disrupting the RNC and the DNC, we will present a spectacular intervention in the electoral charade. The question that many people will be asking as a result will be: so what? We need to be prepared to answer that question. While our desires obviously extend beyond blockading the delegates, we must make them explicit.
As anarchists we have time and again proven our ability to shape the direction of society, if in limited ways – from winning an eight-hour workday to preventing the expansion of nuclear infrastructure in the 1970s and 80s, to effectively neutralizing the WTO and the FTAA. We can build on these successes in relation to the crises that face us today – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, capitalist infrastructure development, global climate change and a culture of repression – all the while setting our sites on a radical transformation of society, the decolonization of daily life, and popularizing a horizontal and libertarian form of politics.
This form of politics will be manifest this summer in the streets of Denver and St. Paul. Where will we go afterward?
Large mobilizations can represent a crescendo of organizing activity, or a launch pad that injects energy into our movements and leads to ever-greater confrontation with power. It’s up to us, now, to ensure that the milieu surrounding the convention protests leads to a deepening of our struggles – that our goals extend beyond the blockading of delegates toward the very bases of exploitation and repression in society. We have only the world to win.