photo by SG

Friday, August 15, 2008

An Organizationalist's Defense of the RNC Protests

In the last couple of days, I've noticed there's a current amongst many of the folks that I'd call the "organizationalists" in SDS to consider the protests at the RNC and DNC as distractions from the real work we have to do. Well, I've long considered myself an organizationalist and I'm heavily involved in anti-RNC organizing, so I think it's about time that someone responded to this murmurings.

I will admit that I involved myself in this organizing very reluctantly, as many anarchists I know did. First, those of us in the TC would probably much rather be in Denver. Everyone hates the Republicans already. The harder and more useful work is setting working people against the Democrats. Second, I feared that by focusing on this one-off event with no future campaign element, I'd be falling into exactly the type of organizing that I criticize other anarchists for.

But, upon reflection, and as the RNC approaches, I think that my time has been well-spent and that we've done important work that hasn't been going on. The primary thing that we've done is raise the consciousness of lots of people.

Lots of what I consider the "important" work of anarchists is invisible. While the occasional protest may make us feel militant, they are mostly small and marginalized by the media and society. The invisible work we do (be it labor organizing, alternative institution-making, or simply creating networks of affinity between people) sets the stage for the kind of future society we'd like to see by building it today. The invisibility of this work is often discouraging, because we'd love it if someone was watching us and encouraging us, instead of ignoring us. But for the people we work with, this work is incredibly important. What's more, it takes interested people, of whatever political stripe, and builds their organizing abilities and analysis. (For me, this was more experienced organizers taking me from ineffective anti-war actions and introducing me to labor organizing as practical work.)

The protests around the RNC are just the opposite of this work, and that's what makes them important. If we could chart a line of actions, in terms of visibility, I would start at important but invisible work, trace it through militant but marginalized direct action, and end with massive but ineffective protest. It becomes immediately clear that the more "acceptable" types of protest attract more numbers and publicity. This doesn't mean that they're more useful. Here (and at about a zillion other points) is where I part from the "organizationalist" vanguardists, who see taking the energy from these large public energy and turning it into large public resistance as the goal. I think this is impossible, as Popular Fronts throughout history teach us.

What is clear to me though is that we can channel people back up across that line. Marching down the street, some of the liberal protesters may see something they don't expect: themselves or their friends breaking free-speech laws or running from the cops. They may begin to challenge the rules of both the state and their own ideology. This process, what many of us call "radicalization," seems to me to be a useful way of encouraging massive numbers of people to go back up our line of publicity, towards the most useful work.

Only as we build our capacity by accomplishing concrete but simple goals can we turn our movement into one of large public resistance. We cannot, like the vanguardists claim, simply magically transfer energy from pacifistic actions to large-scale militancy. We cannot, like the anarchyists promote, magically inspire mass direct-action by utilizing small-scale resistance. But by linking the two, by forcing the pacifists to walk next to the "scary anarchists," by forcing the direct-actionists to politely but persistently challenge the hegemony of would-be bureaucrats of the Left, hopefully we can inspire a whole lot of people to rethink politics and their position in society. Organizationalist anarchists need not toss the RNC out the window because its a four day event with no concrete results. Precisely because it is this, we should carve out a piece of the protests and start talking to people in the street about our ideals. Once the symbolic value of the state and capital starts to fall apart, as it often does one's first time in the street, we can be there to provide ideas for how to go forward and build a mass movement from below.

Post-script: As I've been saying to every single reporter we talk to, "The real work begins on September 5th."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Following Up

So remember when I had beautiful ideas of writing a lot more in here? Well, suddenly this thing called the Ar-En-Cee showed up, and all of a sudden all I was doing was working to make it a success. But I've found a few moments (at work, typically) to write something.

Last night, around 2 am (I couldn't get to sleep, thanks to a combination of the dark liquid of the imperialist lords [Coca-Cola] and too many naps during the day) I heard a man in the street yelling profanities for about an hour. He was disturbed, or under the influence of drugs, or something, but he was definitely in need of assistance and didn't feel good.

The problem with anarchist theory is that its far too often separated from anarchist reality. I couldn't decide what to do to help this man. The logic of the state encouraged me to call the police, who could potentially give him the help he needed. But we all know the track record of the cops with mentally ill/confused people is pretty dismal and all-too-often ends with shots fired and a note on page B5.

The platitudes about "community" that we hear (and say) often in the anarchist movement would encourage me to go out and talk to the man, as part of the community. But my neighbors were clearly not doing anything and I'm a pretty small guy. Hearing stories from my father, who has worked with the mentally ill for many years, makes me pretty reluctant to simply venture out onto a dark street and jump into a potentially dangerous situation.

So what's an anarchist to do?

I've been trying to figure out what kind of social mechanisms would be most effective to deal with these kind of situations. After all, for most of the world, it is these bread-and-butter issues that matter most. Ostensibly, the practicality and common sense of anarchism is supposed to be most effective at solving these problems, in a way that Marxism or liberalism are ineffective and too conceptual to do.

My last post discussed the Provos and their penchant for the absurd. They also had a penchant for the absolutely practical. Their "White Plans" could serve as real models of utopian plans that could really work. The White Bicycle plan, which has been co-opted in a few cities and functions less effectively than if under popular direction, was for the center of Amsterdam to be closed to cars and for 20,000 white bicycles to be given out for public use.

One White Plan, the White Chicken plan, has been obsessing me in the last few weeks, as I imagine how it would work. After their happenings and gatherings began to create a police backlash with tremendous brutality, Provo suggested that the role of the police would be redesigned ("chicken" is the Dutch equivalent of our epithet "pig," with the cops being popularly known as "blue chickens") to fit the needs of an egalitarian society. The cops would be disarmed, given chocolate bars, chicken drumsticks, and condoms, and have friendly white uniforms. The police would be elected.

Obviously, the idea of suddenly switching our cops, addicted to power and violence as most of them are, to become anarcho-social workers is silly. But the model of the White Chicken is ultimately one I find quite compelling. What if, rather than tossing and turning with guilt for not assisting my fellow man, I could call up the White Chickens (or whatever we'd call them) who could come and actually help him? Rather than the liberal reaction of trusting the armed and dangerous cops to "help" people who they're trained to control, what if a society could actually help people?

All this gets me thinking, and actually returns me to James Herod's Getting Free and the idea of creating anarchist projects that transform our communities and make them democratic, anarchist communities. Where Provo failed was its inability to transcend its subculture (avant-garde hipsters and the odd angry youth) and become effective in implementing its programs. It also didn't help that they decided to run for city council in order to put their plans in motion. Anarchists certainly do a lot of programs that offer direct mutual aid to people (Food Not Bombs, etc). But maybe it's time for us to think about new programs we could implement to build anarchist communities. I feel like our ideological commitment to those projects may be blinding us to the fact that free food is not the end-all of mutual aid. Let's imagine what our ideal community would look like and start building ways to make it happen.