Violence and Oppression: Anarchy and Social Movements
by Shaun Terry
(note: I may use the gender-neutral “them,” “they,” “their,” and “theirs” to refer to imagined persons)
Chris Hedges generally seems to me like a decent historian, but not overly analytical, which is fine. He can be opinionated, and I sometimes agree with him, but not always. I think that his assertions that the Black Bloc is necessarily problematic and counterproductive rely on some hefty assumptions. He says, “Because Black Bloc anarchists do not believe in organization, indeed oppose all organized movements, they ensure their own powerlessness.” On what does he base this? He takes it even further: “They can only be obstructionist.” Hedges seems to paint anarchists in general—that is, not just Black Blocs (although it would still be quite ridiculous even if he limited this to just them)—with such a broad brush that it’d be funny if it weren’t tragic in its implications.
In Graeber’s longer piece¹, he brings up Kropotkin. I think of Kropotkin as a very sweet, old, eccentric Russian grandfather (despite Hedges’s views on anarchism), and I very much admire Kropotkin’s ideas about mutual aid and communalism, along with his analysis of societies that behave anarchistically (as in remote villages in old Russia, for example)—a point that Graeber brings up. I’d guess from his writing here that Hedges only knows second- and third-hand horror story distortions of what anarchism is.
Hedges’s article operates on the axiom that everyone should be bothered by attacks on people’s property and antipathy to the police. His primary example of Black Bloc anti-police attitudes is that of anti-police chanting—a kind of chanting that seems ubiquitous in contemporary protest demonstrations. He reaches a fever pitch of incomprehensible hypocrisy when he argues that the left’s is “a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police)”—those same police that he had, only a few lines earlier, criticized for their “draconian,” violent reactions to peaceful protesters. He justifies his position by claiming simply that the problem lies in the Black Bloc’s sole responsibility for the state’s violent reactions to these protests. Instead, reasonable people might conclude that people like Hedges contribute to, and help to disseminate, a narrative by which Black Bloc tactics are treated as problematic. In Graeber’s response to Hedges, I found it interesting how he treated the othering in Hedges’s analysis and how he treated the implication of treating the Black Bloc like a cancer.
When Hedges quotes Jensen saying that “violation” of “boundaries” is sometimes justifiable, he only muddies the waters. Is violence against a person ever justifiable? That is a complicated argument that cannot be done justice here, but what side is Hedges on, and why? If his point is not that he is opposed to all interpersonal violence, then he is left with saying that the Black Bloc’s violence is a tactical misstep, but previous to sufficient revolution, how can anyone argue that some particular strategy is the right one? Hedges does not seem to have any means by which he can reliably conclude that the Black Bloc has or has not been beneficial or detrimental to the left. Instead, his arguments appear as bald assertions, made all the more confusing by his animosity toward what he calls “absolutism sects” that, he sarcastically claims, “alone possess the truth” and “alone understand.” He says, “They believe only their own clichés. And this makes them not only deeply intolerant but stupid.” In general, I have a hard time disagreeing with this assessment of dogmatism, in this case, there appears to be a lack of self-awareness at play. The dogmatism of Hedges and Jensen that says what we must do first—and what we cannot do—seems to suppose that they have all the right answers for achieving some revolution that everyone else has been getting wrong for the past few centuries. I’m not convinced. While Graeber similarly claims some understanding of how certain acts would affect the future, at least Graeber’s analysis is consistent with history, as opposed to trying to claim that future responses to social phenomena would necessarily appear as opposite to the kinds of responses we’ve seen in the past.
It seems to me that Hedges here foregoes the opportunity to discuss a legitimate problem in order to exploit some low-hanging fruit. Instead of making the valid point that the Black Bloc’s intentionally disorganized nature avails it to state colonization and corruption—and, therefore, counterproductivity—as well as to anyone simply looking for a means to effect legitimated (at least by some) violence, Hedges seems content with stoking liberal fears (ironic in that Hedges seems critical of the state’s exploitation of people’s fears). The locations of his anger are truly confusing to me.
He seems to save his sharpest criticisms for destructions of property, as in the coffee shop (which Graeber points out is mischaracterized by Hedges) in Oakland. On one hand, he quotes arguments that claim that violence on someone’s person can be just fine; on the other hand, Hedges has big problems with people (ostensibly non-strategically) destroying the property owned by someone(s) (or by some entity) who (that) presumably is privileged enough to own a business in a large US city. And, Hedges’s arguments are meant to support a more strategic left. I fail to fully apprehend Hedges’s simultaneous—supposedly leftist—outrage against property destruction and simultaneous (at least tacit) support for interpersonal violence.
Graeber’s example of Gandhi and the shooter of the British official made me think of last week’s discussion. Gandhi didn’t approve of murder, but he didn’t disapprove of the shooter. This makes a lot of sense to me, as does the fact that Gandhi still found liberatory violence more virtuous than oppressive violence.
In response to Stay Woke, while I don’t believe in punishing people (it seems to me that this is just a form of interpersonal violence—again, another conversation), as long as well all have to live in this system now, I find it striking, and deeply troubling, to see the difference in how justice plays out differently for different groups of people. I also found it interesting how the messages of horizontality and direct action tied the longer Graeber piece with the documentary. I find the notion of diversity of tactics to be one that seems wise. I think that it’s probably important to attack systems of power from many different directions and in many different ways. Of course, Graeber might argue that a point of disagreement between classical anarchists and BLM members might appear in how BLM tries to appeal to the broader populace and some deep sense of empathy or morality at the heart of society’s institutions.
Something that repeatedly appeared in this week’s readings, albeit in varied forms, was the general sense of respect for police that appears in the US. I wonder what makes the US different from other countries in how the police are treated by the media and others. Does the answer maybe appear in something to do with responses by Nixon, Reagan, and others to the US 1968 movements? Has the US always put the police on a pedestal? Why does this seem to happen? What could be done about it?
I appreciated Jensen’s definition of “lifestylism” (in Hedges’s piece) and how he describes cultural markers as indicators of in-groups and self-identifications that have become simplistic substitutes for actual communities and actual intentional praxis, even if I’m not convinced that Black Blocs are necessarily astrategic. I feel that there are interesting and important problems that come from solidarity-as-individual-consumer-choices, but that’s for another conversation.
- Graeber, David. “Direct Action, Anarchy, Direct Democracy.” Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press. 2009. 201-37.