- Socialist critics of the Black Bloc (and, to be clear: I consider myself one of them) should recognize the basic tone and method of criticism employed by Hedges right away: it is closely analogous to red-baiting. I'm unsettled by this language of "cancer", "beasts", "criminals" and so forth. This strategy is a hop, skip and a jump away from classic red-baiting tactics used by mainstream elements to purge and denigrate radicals from movements. To be clear: I'm not accusing Hedges of red-baiting in this particular polemic. But this strategy of argument lends itself rather easily, with a few changes here and there, to red-baiting and anti-radical hysterics. That should give socialists pause. Sure, there are plenty of political criticisms which need to be made, which target the ultra-leftism and adventurism of some of the Bloc's participants. But let's set aside the language of cancer and disease, beasts and criminals. Many of these folks are comrades in struggle, and their ideas aren't fixed in stone. To the extent that it is possible—and it may not be, given the way that the Bloc often operates—revolutionaries should be in critical dialogue with them about how social revolutions happen, why we have to build internally democratic mass movements, why the working class is key, etc. Neither the Bloc nor their sympathizers in the movement are persuaded of anything when it is derided as a "disease" or a "cancer".
- Hedges blames the Bloc where he should blame the cops. This comes out rather clearly when he says that "this is a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police) who are possessed of a conscience. It is not a war. Nonviolent movements, on some level, embrace police brutality." After everything that's happened, I find it absolutely incredible that Hedges has the chutzpah to say that the Occupy movement is presently engaged in a mission to win the "hearts and minds" of the cops. This perspective completely misunderstands the function of the police as an institution in our society. Are white Occupiers supposed to encourage their black comrades to go up and start polite moral discussions with the legion of armed thugs in blue who regularly brutalize and murder people in their communities? Are white people supposed to tell people of color in the movement that they should embrace police brutality? Moreover, are we to think that the cops are a more worthy political audience for the movement than the "disease" that is the Bloc? Hedges misses the mark here by a wide margin.
- There is a moralistic thread running through Hedges's piece regarding the issue of non-violence. It is patently absurd to say that there are only two positions here: one of fetishizing violence for its own sake and one of fetihsizing non-violence. I absolutely agree that it's bone-headed to think that Occupy can go toe to toe with the State in a physical confrontation and win. It can't. And I completely agree that the strength of the movement lies in mass character, and especially in its capacity to mobilize the working majority to use its special social power to disrupt the profit system. So, I agree that it's important to challenge elitist insurrectionist ideas within the movement. It's important to distinguish genuine social revolutions from coups waged by small self-appointed elites. Whether or not it is possible to engage a group that appears to place no stock in intra-movement dialogue and debate, it's certainly not the case that we should have to adopt Hedges' abstract and ultimately fetishistic perspective toward non-violence. Moralistic injunctions to "obey the law" are not left-wing criticisms.
- Hedges's critique of ultra-leftism is ham-fisted. He makes it sound as if it is a crime to offer radical critiques of mainstream "left" elements and institutions. It would be easy to contort his arguments against ultra-leftism to serve the purposes of a soggy reformist apologia for the conservatism of the Democratic Party and the higher-ups of the AFL-CIO. Although I disagree with his generally warm embrace of the Hedges piece, Louis Proyect usefully compares the ultra-leftism of many of participants in the Bloc to the sectarianism of Stalinist parties during the so-called "Third Period" in the 1920s and early 30s. (I also think the Weathermen and Red Army Faction comparisons are apt as well, but I won't discuss them here). During the so-called "Third Period", Communist Parties under the direction of Stalin's Russia were instructed to view all non-Communist groups on the Left (e.g. reformists, other revolutionaries, trade unionists, etc.) as "social fascists", on par with groups on the far Right. Everyone who wasn't in the Communist Party was to be viewed as a class traitor and a tool of the system. Of course, this was a disastrous policy and it eventually gave way to its equally problematic opposite, the sycophantic tailism of the "Popular Front". The "Third Period" perspective, it seems to me, accurately captures some of the rather abstract and highly sectarian dismissals of groups on the organized Left with whom the Bloc evidently disagrees (e.g. the Zapatistas, organized labor, etc.). But the problem with ultra-leftism isn't that it offers criticisms of mainstream Left forces such as the labor movement or Left parties elsewhere in the world (e.g. the Zapatistas or Bolivia's MAS or the PSUV, etc.). That criticism is necessary and it underscores why we should steer clear of lesser-evilism and tailism. Instead, the problem with ultra-leftists is that they are abstentionist, abstract, and ultimately sectarian. They are incapable of understanding what "critical support" means at crucial conjunctures, and they fail to grasp that fighting in the here and now for reforms doesn't necessarily make one a reformist. Many are elitist and cynical about the possibility of mass revolt. Most have an un-dialectical and implausible perspective when it comes to the concrete question of how movements are built and how peoples' consciousness changes in the course of struggle and self-activity. So, I'm all for critiquing ultra-leftism. But let's not do so in a way that lends itself to easy co-optation by lesser-evilists and liberals.
- Hedges is probably at his best when discussing the need to build mass movements that are internally democratic. But this argument needs to be closely tied to an analysis of how successful social transformations occur. And this requires bringing the centrality of the working class into the picture. But so far as I can tell, this is not a major part of Hedges's analysis. He seems to think that the movement is trying to win the support of "the people" plus those in power with a conscience. But the politics here are soggy at best, and conservative at worst. The 1% is not our audience. Occupy is at its strongest when it draws the masses of working people into self-activity with an eye to engaging in industrial actions such as strikes, sit-downs, factory occupations, walk-outs, and all the rest.
- Hedges derides the Bloc for sectarianism (rightly), but takes himself (wrongly) to be non-sectarian. In fact, his polemic is highly sectarian. Sometimes he makes it sound like the enemy isn't the capitalist state or the ruling class, but rather the "cancer" within the movement. He sometimes makes it sound as if the Bloc is a bigger threat to the movement than the State, the ruling class and the organized Right. But that is to merely reproduce the sectarian mistake of those in the Bloc who label everyone who isn't a BB'er a "tool of the system" or a "sellout" and, therefore an enemy of the movement. He, like Bloc ultra-leftists, makes it sound like the main enemies are within the Left rather than without. To be fair, Hedges says plenty of things that brush against the grain of this sort of sectarianism. But too much of what he says in the piece is at odds with this non-sectarian impulse. I'm not saying that the Left should handle the Bloc with kid gloves. But let's not single them out as the single most significant challenge that the movement faces. Surely the 1% and the State have that distinction.
- The language of "criminal" is useless to the Left. When Hedges follows a discussion of property destruction with the charge of criminality, he might as well have said "and get a damned job!" next. To be an anti-capitalist is to think that the institution of property as its configured in capitalist societies is illegitimate. Of course, that doesn't mean that one should steal from other members of the 99%; ethical and political considerations here overwhelmingly speak against such an opportunistic and ultimately selfish conclusion. I don't destroy the property of my neighbors because it would be ethically wrong and politically useless; considerations of "legality" don't enter in to it. Moreover, socialists think that the working class should own and control the means of production. That is a sharp objection to the legitimacy of capitalist property rights. So, the rebuke to the Bloc isn't "But you don't respect capitalist legal institutions!". Rather it should be: "hey comrade, you aren't doing anything to advance the cause of winning a socialist society", or "what you're doing is opportunistic and individualistic; it's not a political strike against property but a selfish orgy of appropriation and abstract destruction". "Criminality" does no critical work here. It makes it sound like Occupy should call the cops on the Bloc. For all I know, that's what Hedges thinks we should do.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Many readers will have seen Chris Hedges' polemic against the Black Bloc titled "The Cancer in Occupy". It's getting a lot of play on the internet, so I figured it would be worth joining in the fun and offering a few of my own unsystematic, incomplete remarks on the topic. What follows is more a critique of Hedge's polemic and less a thorough analysis of the Black Bloc phenomenon: