That Window at Starbucks

That Window at Starbucks

Bhaskar Sunkara: That Window at Starbucks

Chris Hedges has the internet’s attention. In an article for Truthdig, he identifies Black Bloc anarchists as “the cancer of the Occupy movement.” Their confrontational ways, he argues, fly in the face of nonviolent principles, only further alienate the mainstream, and serve as justification for state repression.

Insurrectionists were angrier than usual. Other radicals joined in too. They accused Hedges of capitulating to the most timid elements in the movement. There were semi-literate blog posts, angry comment threads, and hateful tweets—the web at its finest. But there were also some considered replies. Most significantly, David Graeber responded in an open letter to Hedges.

I will spare readers a significant overview of the debate and keep myself to a short intervention. An intervention I only make because I feel that the debate’s crystallization around these two figures is unfortunate. As articulate as Graeber is, the Black Bloc tactic deserves little defense. It offers no way forward for the democratic Left. Neither does Hedges’s well-intentioned but inchoate liberalism.

Some background: The son of a Presbyterian minister, after receiving a Master of Divinity from Harvard, Hedges soon found himself in the New York Times‘s hallowed pages. He didn’t play the mainstream journalism game very well. He condemned the Israeli occupation and earned rebuke from his employer for publicly damning the Iraq War.

And here Christopher Hedges stands now. His former peers are jet-setting around the world, talking to cab drivers with Thomas Friedman, taking Pilates classes with Ross Douthat, and enjoying the dying days of print on David Brooks’s expense account. Meanwhile, our protagonist is thanklessly filing away weekly copy for Truthdig and sleeping in tents.

Hedges’s contributions have been valuable and his radicalization has been inspiring to watch. By 2008 he was even calling himself a “socialist.” But there’s a conservative hue to his politics that is impossible to ignore. It’s more anti-corporate than anti-capitalist. It’s more a yearning for the secure and small than the abundance of the future.

This isn’t to denigrate Hedges’s transformation. His goal, sustaining a vibrant movement for social justice, is the same as mine. And I share his opposition to the Black Bloc. But it’s clear he didn’t do his homework, preferring to fight a straw man of his own creation than the actual beast. Hedges presents the Black Bloc as far more organized and ideologically cohesive than it actually is. The Black Bloc “is a tactic, not a group,” as David Graeber writes. And while its members strike a paramilitary posture, they aren’t really that malevolent. When they decide to engage in petty vandalism, they look more like petty vandals than serious political actors.

Beyond personal acting out, it’s not clear what the tactic has actually done. That goes for political accomplishments as well as for violence. The cops are winning on that count. Protesters have been the repeated victims of police assaults. This has nothing to do with the Black Bloc and everything to do with the police.

If you’re of the opinion that breaking things constitutes violence, the “nihilists” are not very good at that either. If they were better at smashing windows, capitalists who manufacture glass would be making a killing. I would probably become one. With foes like these my property rights wouldn’t be in any real danger.

But I don’t blame Hedges for his misreading. It’s not surprising that he couldn’t figure out who our masked comrades are or what they’re struggling for. It is not that easy to confidently articulate your politics behind a mask. Luckily, leftists in all sorts of dangerous situations, under conditions of illegality, surveillance, and war, have managed to do without them for well over a century.

Masks, after all, aren’t good for talking to people. They’re good for robbing banks and running around drunkenly on Halloween terrifying small children. But why would you need to waste time talking to people when there is action to be taken? It’s as if the old socialist appeal to “educate, organize, agitate” has morphed in a drone-like call for just the latter. Shit is fucked up and bullshit.

It’s smoke without fire, tactics without strategy, and all the more frustrating because of the alternatives available to us. Take the J28 demonstration in Oakland. More than a 1,000 protesters failed to occupy a building to serve as a new protest hub and community center. For security purposes, the target, the Kaiser Convention Center, was not known to anyone but a tiny cadre of organizers. The group, far too small to succeed, was cornered and fell victim to a savage, police-provoked attack.

One thousand people doing anything isn’t much of a movement, especially if they’re failing (and tactical failures are all the more depressing when all you believe in are tactics). The broader layers of the population inspired by Occupy are the movement, and as encampment after encampment is dismantled, reaching new constituents and getting more people actively involved will be more important than ever.

A long-term political strategy will be more important as well. It’s on this count that part of Hedges’s message resonates. But we don’t need to excise people from Occupy, we just need to grow it. And I remain unconvinced that anarchists are in any significant way preventing this growth, though they are a convenient scapegoat for more fundamental failings.

It is this tendency to scapegoat that makes some paint segments of Occupy as having undergone some sort of sudden ultra-leftist infiltration. I would have loved it if the protests were sparked by a coalition of Trotskyist sects, social democrats, and left-wing unions. They weren’t. The initial spark behind the movement and much of its form and character are owed to its anarchist roots. There can be no denying this fact. The anarchists have been very successful—when they have organized clad in vibrant colors. We have a more confident Left to thank them for.

But the potential of Occupy Wall Street went far beyond those active in it day-to-day, much less the minuscule core that laid its foundation. It lay in the millions of Americans who saw in it their discontent with austerity regimes, wage cuts, unemployment, and financial abuse. If it’s acknowledged that the movement could be more successful at engaging these people at present, the question then becomes, “What kind of change will be needed?”

These questions will need to be resolved democratically, but they can’t be if socialists refuse to be confident partners in the discussion. The tendency thus far has been for socialists to table intra-movement conflicts and uncritically accept notions concerning the “diversity of tactics” and consensus, as opposed to majoritarian-based, decision making. The willingness to at least discuss the relevance of more traditional forms of left-wing organization has also been lost behind the glossy allure of “spontaneity.”

Yet the response among anarchists who felt “betrayed” by Hedges shows a similar softness. (Did Hedges ever pretend to be anything but a “statist” who wanted a reformed capitalism?) Yes, the “cancer” rhetoric was in poor taste and had disturbing implications. But political conflict, the airing of differences, and open debate over the future of the movement are all good for it and especially beneficial for those who have a clear vision of a better society. If different people within the movement have different notions of what “victory” would look like and how to get there, it naturally means that political alliances are shifting and contingent. While we’re in this unstable marriage, conflict is bound to arise. This conflict is more than therapeutic. It’s a battle for the Left.

You can’t stop people from wearing black. (And even if it were possible, I’d have no part in it—it’s slimming.) But we can have a broader and more inclusive movement, one that would inevitably make anarchist elements less prominent. The path we’re on right now is not a promising one. More than ever, democratic socialists cannot afford to shy away from confidently articulating political strategies that can make Occupy bigger and more effective. We’ll have more than the internet’s attention. We’ll have the future.

Photo by Barry Solow, 2011, via Flickr creative commons.