I think it's good that there is so much debate ensuing around tactics and strategy within Occupy right now. Movements only move forward if they are able to vigorously deliberate about their own strategy and goals. Avoiding debate and discussion means leaving our views unexamined and uncriticized. It means allowing the inertia of the status quo to set in and dampen progress. When this happens, movements wither on the vine. To the extent that the arguments about Black Bloc tactics have ignited discussions of this sort, they are productive for the movement as a whole.
Still, there are several unfortunate consequences of the framing of many of the debates raised by Chris Hedge's polemic against Black Bloc tactics. Some of the debates appear to have devolved into a shrill, abstract and moralistic back and forth about non-violence/violence. Others ignore matters that deserve a lot more attention than they're getting from the media. As a result of the framing of the "Black Bloc debates", a number of crucial questions have been lost in the fray.
What do I have in mind? The question of movement democracy, on the one hand, and the related question of how consciousness changes, on the other, are two deeply important questions that are not well-served by the debate instigated by Hedges's polemic.
As many have pointed out, the "Black Bloc" is a tactic, not an organization. Many who employ the tactic seem to have a roughly similar set of politics, but there is nothing like political homogeneity among the Bloc's participants. Different people employ the tactic in different contexts for different reasons. I'm inclined to say that any sweeping, abstract assessment of the Black Bloc as a tactic is bound to get things wrong. Only by conducting, as Lenin puts it, a "concrete analysis of a concrete situation" can we hope to get things right here. But what would a more concrete assessment of the tactic look like?
In order to answer this question, we have to back up for a moment. Who is it that's supposed to be doing the assessing here? And what method or practices for assessment should be used? There has been a lot of general debate over whether Black Bloc tactics are effective or justifiable. But the question of who should make this decision (and how they should make it) has been largely ignored. Before we can know which tactics are the right ones, we have to be clear about who should make that call.
One perspective here would be the following: the question of Black Bloc tactics is a matter best handled behind closed doors by activists already committed to using such tactics. According to this perspective, Black Bloc tactics should be employed whether or not the rest of the movement is won through dialogue and debate. Perhaps an attempt to win the rest of the movement should be tried, but if, in the end, that argument isn't won at a G.A., those who prefer Black Bloc tactics should simply go ahead with their plans anyway. Thus, activists of this persuasion see movement democracy as a mere means to achieving their pre-deterimined goals, rather than a genuine deliberative process where their own minds might change in the course of collective discussion with their comrades. Ultimately, this perspective assumes that decision-making power about movement tactics should rest with a relatively narrow group of people who decide internally what to do. I use the example of Black Bloc tactics, but this perspective could just as well be employed in support of any tactic whatsoever.
I'd like to suggest that this is a deeply problematic position.
A far better perspective would be one in which movement democracy is central. It is deeply undemocratic to use democratic bodies (like a G.A.) as mere means to achieve pre-determined goals (which can be discarded if it proves to be an unreliable means). The person who approaches movement democracy in this way says, in effect, "I'm for democracy only if it means I get my way, otherwise I'm against it." In the end, this person will say "I don't care if most people disagree with me about what this movement should do, at the end of the day I don't have any obligation to justify myself to fellow activists." This is not a democratic approach in the least. This individualistic/strategic perspective brushes against the grain of the cooperative and deliberative attitudes necessary to the flourishing of movement democracy.
But why is movement democracy important? It's worth going through the most significant reasons why effective mass movements have to be internally democratic.
First of all, an internally democratic movement draws everyone involved into active participation in the determination of the goals and tactics of the movement. Rather than allowing a self-appointed clique of "experts" to issue orders from on high, vigorous movement democracy mobilizes and activates all participants and enables them to be the co-authors of the movement (rather than mere followers or sympathizers). People have a much stronger stake in a movement when they are actively involved in running it. Mass participation goes hand in hand with genuine movement democracy.
Mass participation is key because it fosters that crucial element of all successful social struggles and revolutions: self-activity. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once put it, a "vibrant and active democracy" is needed within movements so that all members can "participate actively and consciously in working out its views and in determining its course of action." The point isn't that democracy is the most fair procedure in some abstract sense; rather, the idea that democracy is an essential political element of active social movements from below. Mass participation generates political energy and an anti-conservative spark that cannot be achieved in any other way. All of the most successful and inspiring social movements in history have created radical new forms of democracy from below that draw everyone into active participation (the revolutionary workers council is a key example). The success or failure of Occupy depends on its ability to draw the masses of people into active participation in determining its course of action.
Furthermore, a movement that eschews vigorous internal democracy risks running aground on the shoals of substitutionism. Substitutionism is the political mistake of substituting oneself (or one's small group) for a mass movement. Without vigorous movement democracy, where everyone debates publicly and openly what their common course of action should be, the door is left open for a group (or competing groups) to substitute their own perspective and goals for the perspective/goals of the movement writ large. Substitutionism is problematic for at least two reasons. First of all, it it elitist. Rather thank seeing liberation as a process in which the masses collectively emancipate themselves through their own self-activity, substitutionists assume that a minority must step in to grant the benighted masses liberation from on high. Second, substitutionism has the effect of de-mobilizing people. By drawing a sharp line of demaraction between themselves and the rest of the movement, substitutionists give others the impression that their active participation lacks value and importance. Substitutionist posturing does not win new people to the struggle. It doesn't radicalize the masses and encourage revolt from below. It tends to be perceived as top-down, insulting and de-mobilizing by those outside of the substitutionist clique.
Substitutionists aren't always self-professed radicals, although many are. Gradualist, conservative groups who have a stake in the status quo (esp. groups close to the Democratic Party) can step in and substitute themselves for the movement just as easily as ultra-left radicals. The key to preventing substitutionism is unfettered, vigorous movement democracy. That way, the direction of the movement is, ideally, determined by nothing except the unforced force of the better argument in mass deliberative bodies like G.A.'s. Of course, organized radicals can and must participate in those debates and deliberations. The experience and depth of politics they bring has a lot to offer the movement. But they must do so as participants in the collective-self governance of the movement, not as "experts" standing above and outside of the movement purporting to show the "ignorant masses" the unvarnished truth.
Finally, direct participation of the masses in intra-movement democracy is essential because of the collective learning process that it makes possible. This brings us to the question of how consciousness changes and how people are radicalized.
According to some, the best way to radicalize people is through provocative, small-scale actions that suddenly shake ordinary people from their "dogmatic slumbers". By witnessing daring examples of the "propaganda of the deed", people are radicalized and drawn into participation in struggle.
Now, I think it would be abstract and unhelpful to say that small-scale, bold actions have no progressive effect on consciousness. Everything depends on the form and content of the action and the context in which it occurs. But if there are examples of successful political interventions of this kind, there is also a long list of examples in which this approach resulted in spectacular failure. And even the most successful examples of the "propaganda of the deed" pale in comparison with the radicalizing effect of direct participation in collective struggles against the 1%. People are radicalized in the course of actively fighting back in concert with others. In a society in which people are bombarded everywhere they turn by advertisements and injunctions to buy this or that, it is unreasonable to expect that a mere slogan or image will be enough to win people to joining the fight for their own liberation. Drawing people into participating in struggle is the key to changing consciousness.
But how are people drawn into mass action and participation in struggle? Worsening material conditions and discussion/direct-engagement are essential here. Peoples daily lives are being shaken by brutal austerity from above, worsening living standards for the 99%, mass layoffs and unemployment, foreclosures and school closings, etc. They don't need a small clique to tell them that something is wrong with society. What they need is someone to engage them critically, to talk to them, to challenge them in discussion to link arms with others in struggle. Radicals need to talk to people in their own communities, to meet them half-way and engage them directly. This is all the more important if the Occupy movement is going to successfully collaborate and integrate itself with communities that face racial oppression, residential segregation and police intimidation. It's not enough to pull off creative political stunts that, in effect, fly the flag and demand that people rally to it. Direct political discussion with the 99% is essential to building mass movements.
Importantly, political discussion has to begin from where people's heads are at; if it abstractly sweeps in from elsewhere it is unlikely to get any traction. What's more, this dialogue has to draw on people's concrete experiences. Take the question of the role of the police. It would have been abstract to aggressively scold and berate new activists who were sanguine about the police in the early days of the movement. To be sure, raising objections to their attitudes toward the police was necessary, even at the beginning, because the cops never have been, and never will be, on our side. But things have changed drastically since then. After all of the repression from the police that the movement has faced, radicals are now very well-positioned to draw on those people's experience in arguing that the cops aren't on our side. Without a democratic forum for debate and dialogue that can draw on the collective experience of the movement, we can't expect to win fellow occupiers to the perspective that the police aren't a force for social justice. People's views are not set it stone; they are liable to change rather quickly on the basis of political debate and concrete experience through struggle. There's no substitute for engaging people in critical political dialogue in a way that draws on their own experience and concerns.
Now, critical dialogue doesn't mean that activists should leave people's existing views intact or simply pander to what they already think. This would be conservative and ultimately antithetical to the entire spirit of activism itself. Activists try to change the world, not merely interpret it as it is. Critical discussion and dialogue should be a combination of listening to people's concerns and questions, on the one hand, and challenging them to be more militant and active on the other. In the context of escalating attacks on the 99% from above, people's consciousness can develop extremely quickly. Seeing others engaged in mass struggles is a radicalizing force as well, which is all the more reason to build a mass, vigorously democratic movement from below.
This kind of critical discussion and debate can only flourish in the context of a democratic mass movement. If everyone simply does their own thing, without discussing among one another which way forward is best for all, these discussions may never transpire. If some groups, under the guise of a "diversity of tactics", simply opt out of democratic deliberation when they feel they won't get their way, this thwarts the capacity of the movement debate out and discuss tactics effectively. As a result, we can't generalize from each other's experience or learn from each other's mistakes.
The collective learning process that mass movement democracy makes possible is impossible to experience any other way. As socialist Norman Geras describes it, with mass movements:
"...the end must already be operative in the means employed, the liberation of the masses can only be their own work, and it it is in this very process of achieving it that they must develop those qualities which will sustain a socialist society. Thus, for Trotsky, mass participation in the political forms thrown up by a revolution is not only a manifestation of the widespread desire to assume more active control over political and economic life, it also promotes and consolidates that desire. Revolution is consistently seen as an educative process, in which the same mass actions which are necessary to destroy the existing economic and political structures, also have the effect of delivering the working class from bourgeois ideology, of making it conscious of its interest as a class, of raising its confidence in its own ability to organize and decide, and of providing it with the experience of these activities."
This educative process, where we learn from each other and radicalize through the course of struggle and collective self-determination, is impossible if some groups regularly opt out and decide that tactics are best determined by small groups who separate themselves from the movement.
So, the question of "Black Bloc: Pro or Con?" is not one that can be answered abstractly. It should only be answered by direct participants in a mass movement who collectively debate and deliberate together in an open, democratic spirit. To think that a few self-apointed "experts" could answer this question for everyone in a couple of widely-publicized internet debates misses this crucial point.