February 9, 2012

Solidarity is hard: preliminary notes on violence, non-violence and the magic of divide and conquer (with some afterthoughts concerning co-operation)


I read a bunch of articles on the internet about the Black Bloc, Occupy and Oakland: the one that went viral by Chris Hedges, a trenchant response by David Graeber (my favourite), and some more responses in Counterpunch (also good) and Jacobin. I have often found Hedges inspiring in the recent past and now I'm turning on him a bit. But let's see what he does next. Everyone should be allowed a few striking mistakes. I know I've made millions. I hope it's simply an error in judgment and not the beginning of a witch hunt.

I don’t feel I have enough activist experience to weigh in on these issues, but I’ve been thinking about it all so much lately, and see no reason not to add my reflections (for the forty or fifty people who might read this.)

I usually fall on the side of non-violence, feel that violence most often leads to more of the same. But there are no hard and fast rules. We must carefully take things on a case by case basis, there are certainly some instances in which violence is the best strategy, and as long as state violence rules the day there will be a strong desire to fight back.

What bothers me more: why is it so difficult to have a reasonable dialog among people who disagree on certain points? Why all the name-calling and strife? (Come on: cancer? Why not the black plague, at least the color scheme is right.) Why are the terms so absolute? There need to be disagreements about strategy and about intent - agonism (in Mouffe’s awkward term) - but productive disagreement seems too rare. (Actually, Occupy has been a beacon of productive disagreement. I mean in the world, there seems to be too little productive disagreement in the world. Or at least in my life.)

I believe all of this has something to do with a desire for purity: I’m more left than you are, more pure, my ideas more perfect. I wonder if there is some way of speaking of an “impure left” as something worth searching for. Of course, many have done so, in so many different ways. There is a history of this search. What is effective, and who is the most pure, are separate questions, though rarely treated as such.

The psychological dynamic of being further radicalized by political disappointment needs to be addressed. As a story it makes sense: I tried non-violence, nothing happened, so now I want to get serious. I think everyone can relate to this desire. That’s not to say it should be acted on, but the fact that’s it’s an understandable impulse should always be present in any given debate.

There are many roads from violence to non-violence and back again. No one key will open every lock. An effective opposition must be slippery like soap, full of surprises. There is nothing to be gained from being absolutely predictable.

Infiltration and agent provocateurs are extremely effective government strategies. I would like to hear more about ways to work against their effectiveness. Ways to talk about these questions that open something up. I have no idea what these ways might be.

Also, I feel behind all of this is the magic of divide and conquer. Not exactly a conspiracy, though that certainly happens often enough, more like a daily reality. Sow divisions in the opposition, generate a few cracks and maybe the thing will break. And there are, of course, legitimate divisions. Many. I’m not saying anyone has to be one big, happy family. But with every statement, every rhetorical flourish, one might think: is the value of this statement worth the division it will generate? Are there ways of speaking about these questions that don’t make the person I’m criticizing so defensive that all communication breaks down? Will speaking of things in these terms do more harm than good? (Maybe this is an overly Canadian perspective, since Canadians have a reputation for being polite and considerate, though I feel much of this Canadianess is only a cover for the reality of being passive-aggressive. And, again, maybe I’m only talking about myself.)

The enemy (the very rich, the military state, the free market mafia) is immense and victory against them is unlikely. Solidarity is hard but necessary. I am, personally, terrible at solidarity, not sure I even know what it really is, what it feels like, or even if it’s useful all the time. It is just another magic word for me. I wonder if this will ever change.

I will try to think more about all of this. What I have written here is not nearly enough, barely a beginning. Hopefully, there are more insights in my future. It is always the same for me: how to speak about these questions in new ways, how to think things differently?

[P.S. Just saw a poster (on the internet) that said: Be careful with each other, so you can be dangerous together. And above they had written: That's what solidarity is. A pretty good summation of what I was trying to say above.]

And now it's one day later and I just read this article by Richard Sennett entitled All together now: Montaigne and the art of co-operation in the Guardian. (I so like these little mental coincidences, when one comes across something directly connected to the questions one is wondering about.) Sennett prefers the idea of co-operation to that of solidarity and goes on to explain:

The 20th century perverted co-operation in the name of solidarity. The regimes that spoke in the name of unity were not only tyrannies; the very desire for solidarity invites command and manipulation from the top. The perverse power of solidarity, in its "us-against-them" form, remains alive in the civil societies of liberal democracies, as in European attitudes toward immigrants who seem to threaten social solidarity, or in American demands for a return to "family values".

Solidarity has been the left's traditional response to the evils of capitalism. Co-operation in itself has not figured much as a strategy for resistance. Though the emphasis is in one way realistic, it has also sapped the strength of the left. The new forms of capitalism emphasise short-term labour and institutional fragmentation; the effect of this economic system has been that workers cannot sustain supportive social relations with one another. In the west, the distance between the elite and the mass is increasing, as inequality grows more pronounced in neo-liberal regimes such as those of Britain and the US; members of these societies have less and less a fate to share in common. The new capitalism permits power to detach itself from authority, the elite living in global detachment from responsibilities to others on the ground, especially during times of economic crisis. Under these conditions, as ordinary people are driven back on themselves, it's no wonder they crave solidarity of some sort – which the destructive solidarity of "us-against-them" is tailor-made to provide.

It's little wonder also that a distinctive character type has been bred by this crossing of political and economic power, a character type seeking to relieve experiences of anxiety. Individualism of the sort Tocqueville describes might seem to La Boétie, were he alive today, a new kind of voluntary servitude, the individual in thrall to his or her own anxieties, searching for a sense of security in the familiar. But the word "individualism" names, I believe, a social absence as well as a personal impulse: ritual is absent. Ritual's role in all human cultures is to relieve and resolve anxiety, by turning people outward in shared, symbolic acts; modern society has weakened those ritual ties. Secular rituals, particularly rituals whose point is co-operation itself, have proved too feeble to provide that support.

I am still thinking all of this through, but I believe Sennett is suggesting that solidarity always takes place against something or someone, while co-operation can happen more quietly, in the daily interactions of working together. In this sense co-operation must be the basis for all solidarity, the way we learn to work together so, if need be, we can fight together later on. And, if I were contiue this line of thought, solidarity is so difficult today because the basic habits of daily co-operation are absent. (Well, this is not what Sennett says, but it is what I'm wondering.)


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