Jan 31, 2007

Pedagogy of Confrontation

by reddboy

The Growing Pains editorial and the Sketchy Thoughts response to it are welcome treatments of important issues. I want to make a few comments on one aspect; the editorial’s treatment of the pedagogy of confrontation. Other important points such as the impact of 9/11 on left attitudes and the trajectory of “united front” politics will be left for later.

My points of reference are the Seattle WTO action and the anti-war movement in this country, rather than Quebec City and an oppositional movement in a semi-reluctant ally of the aggressor. However, I think in this case the similarities between the U.S. and Canadian experiences are more instructive than the differences.

It’s certainly true that a revolutionary “sense of possibility”, developed dramatically at the end of the last century. It’s also true that it has rapidly “dissipated” over the past five years and the boundaries and limits that it challenged have been rebuilt. Was this a process of illusion and self deception coming back to earth, or were real possibilities lost because they weren’t fully recognized and adequately protected? If the latter, there are limitations and errors that can be addressed. If the former, maybe we deserve the movement we currently have. I know that both explanations might be true to some extent, but I lean toward the second and assume the authors of both documents do also.

One central theme of “Growing Pains” is the dichotomy between the “pedagogy of confrontation” and the “united front” a dichotomy which it argues must be transcended in a viable revolutionary strategy. This needs to be a lot clearer. On this general point, and on a number of the more specific ones, I agree with the Sketchy Thoughts response.

This rough quote from the editorial describes main features of the pedagogy of confrontation as it developed in the anti-globalization movement.

“…this potent mix…encouraged the anti-globalization movement to develop a series of innovations that transformed, if only briefly, the whole paradigm of struggle…the following three stand out as most significant. First, the movement embraced and reframed disruptive direct action tactics. Second, it placed emphasis on direct democracy in the organization of spokes-councils and affinity groups. Finally, it developed the ability to name the enemy – global capitalism – directly.”

I would like to say a bit about each of the three elements with respect to the Seattle Demonstration.

While “thousands of activists (did) work together…(to shut) down a major city”, it didn’t happen in the way suggested by the editorial. The process was hardly one where the “movement” simply “embraced…disruptive tactics”. These tactics developed through a new organizational form, the Black Bloc, which had estimates, goals, and arguments which are spelled out, for example, in the “Acme Collective’s” analysis of the Seattle experience. The Black Bloc initiated a set of combative actions that were off the printed menu. This provided tactical options that liberated a tremendous amount of political energy, surprising almost everyone, probably including the Eugene anarchists who were central to this initial Black Bloc. The Seattle Black Bloc challenged the existing anti-globalization movement structure as much as it challenged capitalism, the WTO meeting, and the Seattle police.

The major impact of the official structure was its contribution to the complacency and lack of preparation by the Seattle and King County police. Another important contribution, equally unintended, was that hundreds of militants around the country, many from anti-fascist struggles, had no clue that Seattle would break new ground and stayed home – to their everlasting regret.

In the months following Seattle the official movement made a grudging, gradual, and superficial accommodation to tactical militance, by institutionalizing the “diversity of tactics”. I think that Sketchy Thought’s view that this was largely an attempt by apparatchniks to reassert some control over the popular base of the movement is right on point. This leads to the issue of “direct democracy in organization, spokes-councils, affinity groups” etc. In my experience what was most striking about this was its lack of substance, a problem this is indicated in the editorial, (It was) “…a movement in flux with little in the way of defined structure or overall means for democratic and accountable coordination”.

In most of the larger actions the lack of “accountable coordination” was as true for the Black Bloc as it was for the overall structure. Ad hoc Black Bloc groupings that typically didn’t know the streets, much less the people who lived on them - indeed, often only small circles even knew each other – could not develop and implement effective street tactics. Black Blocs were increasingly caught between better police preparation and a dynamic in which escalating militance seemed to be the way to avoid becoming a parody of Seattle. It was a recipe for a crash. In a way 9/11 was fortuitous. Without this dramatic change in circumstances, who knows what the next large international action after Genoa might have entailed.

Let me return to the third innovation mentioned in the editorial; “Finally, it (anti-globalization movement) developed the ability to name the enemy – global capitalism – directly.” This is true and important, but it is not enough, over even a relatively short period of time. The crucial task is to understand the enemy once it is identified. In Seattle, trade union officials that are not even social democrats were naming the enemy at the same time as they attempted to limit the militance of the confrontations and inoculate their members from the radicals.

I would argue, admittedly well after the fact, that the Seattle action caught capitalism in a difficult transition to a new framework of command and discipline for a global system that couldn’t be left to market forces. To use Negri’s awkward terminology, it was at a crucial point in the transition from imperialism to empire, a point when the ruling class project was still under debate and popular oppositions had not encountered the fault lines of the not so liberatory anti imperialism and nationalism with which we are now familiar.

The potentials that were manifest at Seattle seemed to make further analysis superfluous, but it wasn’t. What passed for analysis in the heat of the moment developed into a growing obstacle to the movement. To refer again to the Seattle Black Bloc’s Acme Statement, its conception of capitalism contained two estimates; first, in response to the charge of provoking repression, it argues:

“(We are already)…living in a police state.”

Second, the Acme Statement asserts:

“…private property and by extension capitalism cannot be reformed or mitigated.”

Developments since 9/11, give both estimates an Alice in Wonderland character. Repression has increased exponentially, while maintaining and even extending its popular legitimacy. Much of the remaining left has merged with sections of the ruling class to pursue the most questionable reforms and they will certainly achieve a certain flawed success. If there had been a framework for discussion after Seattle – or even a clearer feeling that such discussion was in order, there is no reason that the expanded potentials couldn’t have been placed in the context of a more realistic appreciation of the future struggle.

As I understand it, the pedagogy of confrontation involves more than tactical militance and exemplary action. It involves the understanding that people can learn lessons about what is needed and what collective potentials exist from struggles that break with usual ways of thinking and acting – particularly when this involves a clear confrontation with power and authority. We have a lot of history and experience that supports this possibility - but that also demonstrates that it is not inevitable, not automatic, not stable, and can turn into its opposite.

I don’t understand the logic of combining the pedagogy of confrontation with the overwhelmingly reformist, gradualist and usually manipulative united front perspective, with its even larger history of becoming what it starts out to change. That’s not a synthesis that I’m going to buy into. I agree with Sketchy Thoughts that there is no reason to maintain that a genuinely radical approach must prove itself on the anti war terrain or that it can only do this through merging with an approach that is genuinely not radical.


Anonymous said...

Following the Upping the Anti/Autonomy & Solidarity, the Sketchy Thoughts, and the 3 Way Fight discussions on this topic, it's surprising to see that no mention is made of the place of prefigurative politics in the anti-globalization movement, and the utter lack of such a politics in the anti-war movement.

This is why the terms of "pedagogy of confrontation" misframes the issue. It was not simply that people joined the actions because they saw them to be effective, but *also* because they saw themselves reflected in their activities. This practice of recreating -- even if only for the moment -- social relationships along egalitarian lines, was a huge motivation. Participants were therefore not only acting for "the Other," as the "Growing Pains" editorial argues. While solidarity with people more deeply effected by global capitalism was a central motivation for action, it was the absence of sacrificial politics (sacrificing ones' own interests and desires) that motivated huge amounts of people. The contrast of direct democracy and cooperative engagements that people experienced in the anti-globalization movement drastically contrasted with the alienation felt in familial, school, work, and "community" lives. The Growing Pains editorial does not grapple with this issue at all, and is one of its main weaknesses.

Also, the attempt to retell the Seattle story as a Black Blok story is just inaccurate. Lockdowns and street occupations were the majority of the confrontational politics that made Seattle what it was. The Black Blok only added to that dynamic already existant in mass direct action.

The final thing to say about the Growing Pains essay is its treatment of a so-called anti-war movement. Really, there is no such thing in the U.S. And the socialist groups have really no power, no matter how many people turn up for their irrelevant events. The "Troops Out Now" slogan does not represent a Left position. Isolationist movements have always existed in the U.S. They have regularly been on the Right -- such as those opposing the U.S.'s involvement in WWII. These movements have often been white supremacist and antisemtic. It shouldn't be assumed that anti-war sentiment is Left leaning. It wasn't historically that simple and neither is it today. The Right and the Center are the sections who have been gaining ground over anti-war sentiment today. A neorealism is on the rise. A new conservatism as well. And a liberalism with nothing to say other than "we're not Bush." This leads to a final point, that the existence of and progress of right-wing isolationist movements should make left-wing anti-imperialists more self-critical about who gains from simple sloganeering such as "troops out now." This is why the framing of this situation between a "pedagogy of confrontation" camp and united front camp is too one-dimensional. It is the best of the anti-globalization movement that is challenged us to think multi-dimensionally, about everything at once. The bastards of 911 immediately revealed contradictions that in our Seattle euphoria we had downplayed and/or ignored -- that we are not the only ones fighting. We we're unprepared to grapple with that contradiction at that time, we were unable to address it. The "UnitedFronters" do not care about this contradiction. They go foward with one-dimensional anti-imperialism. But Autonomy & Solidarity also has published grossly one-dimensional anti-imperialist tracts (such as that by the Anti-Imperialist Front, which basically supports reactionary anti-imperialists in Iraq and Afghanistan). This one-dimensional anti-imperialism is what reveals the poverty of Left politics at the current moment, and seems central to rebuilding a movement and politics worth fighting for.