The Crisis as Pacification

by Peter Gelderloos
Cascades: Conversations in Crisis

Coming back to the US after four years living abroad, I’ve been surprised to see a proliferation of tent cities, foreclosed home occupations, squatting, university occupations, illegal urban gardening, immigrant solidarity rallies, and anti-police riots from one coast to the other.

On the one hand, there seems to be a country-wide level of resistance, a potential boiling-over, not seen in this country in decades. On the other hand, the collective feeling of being in a revolutionary moment, the emotional reality of participating in a strong and global struggle, seems suspiciously absent. People don’t dare to get their hopes up, when precisely what a struggle needs to have any hope of accomplishing anything is to be bold. Yet the reality of the NGO-style activism to which many people consign themselves, and which has controlled social movements in this country for years, is nothing if not demoralizing.

Many people have pointed out that “crisis is business as usual”, or that crisis is a normal part of the ebbs and flows of capitalism. Another good way to understand crisis is as the pacification of social movements. Capitalism is always exploiting us, and the government is always trying to pull one over on us and increase its powers. Perhaps the most tragic element of the current crisis is how much they have been able to get away with, precisely because we have been pacified.

In Barcelona, where I currently live, the practice of squatting abandoned buildings for housing and social centers has coalesced into a major movement with an evolved ability to defend itself. Nearby in Greece, a deeply rooted anarchist struggle has gained ground time and again in urban land occupations, workers’ movements, immigrant struggles, responses to police brutality, and more.

Contrasting the situation in the US with the situation in those two countries, one can tease out a number of lessons that could be helpful here.

Democracy Is Not Your Friend

Both Spain and Greece transitioned from fascist or military dictatorship to democracy in the ‘70s, and both dictatorships were instituted with the complicity of the bourgeoisie at a time of growing anarchist and communist social struggles. Because they have kept this memory alive, more people are aware that democracy and dictatorship are just two sides of the same coin, and it is a coin the elite will fl ip whenever they need to improve their luck. There is less trust in government; therefore the illusion of social peace and the trick of participation, the two tools a democracy has that a dictatorship does not, are less effective. Anarchists in these two countries do not consider themselves a part of the Left, because they understand the Left to be nothing more than the leftwing of Capital. Just as the state has two wings, it has two basic strategies of counterinsurgency: repression–violently crushing social struggles; and recuperation- -bribing and diverting social struggles to become civil and focus on rejuvenating the system rather than destroying it.

Using democracy as a good term, understanding it as anything other than the slave system it is and has always been going back to ancient Athens, prevents us from understanding the primary way social movements are defeated these days: by being tricked into participating in the system and trusting the authorities who are to blame for all the problems we are opposing.*

In Spain and in Greece, anti-capitalists understand that NGOs are the enemy every bit as much as the police are. NGOs get their funding from the Ford Foundation, the government, and similar state and capitalist enterprises precisely because they provide such a useful safety valve, preventing social tensions from becoming social struggles. NGOs turn revolutionaries into careerists, radical politics into office politics, struggles into bureaucracies.

The Left, through its political parties as much as through its non-governmental organizations, is structured to control resistance. Those of us who really want a free and egalitarian world in which everyone can meet their needs and pursue their desires would be better off understanding our relationship with the democratic system as an antagonistic one.

People in the social movements in the US need to assert the autonomy of our struggles. Political parties, politicians, and corporate or state funding are not welcome. Projects that do need to rely on funding to alleviate harm in the short-term need to be open and honest that they have traded in their autonomy, and while they are doing important, compassionate work, they have not embarked on a sustainable, long-term path of struggle that can address the root causes of social harm.

History Dies Without Our Love

Social struggles in Spain and in Greece benefit from longer historical memories that allow collective lessons, momentum, and continuity to survive from one generation to the next. Their deeper analysis of democracy would not be possible if the histories of past struggles had died out. US society, on the other hand, suffers from a pronounced amnesia, and this is because the social movements in this country have chosen, by omission, to let histories of struggle die out. History has no objective existence. It dries up if it is not nourished, and replenished, and taken out for walks. History cannot live on the pages of a book; it can only live in the streets.

What better example of the power and vulnerability of history than May Day. A struggle waged 114 years ago throughout this country gave birth to a force that anti-capitalist movements around the world can still draw on today, yet in this country, May Day had become all but extinct until immigrants brought it back to life in 2006. Losing this history accompanied losing the ability to fight against capitalism armed with the knowledge that democratic peace has never existed, that we have always been fighting back. Historical depth corresponds with political depth. Without it, all we can do is beg for scraps and oppose the most recent outrages while leaving the broader system intact. This speaks to a great weakness of the anti-globalization movement. A common leftist politics, lacking that historical depth, could only challenge neoliberalism, while remaining silent on the deeper global structures that produced neoliberalism, and for which neoliberalism was only an alternative strategy.

The history of struggle is generally the history of our defeats, but these defeats are dear to us, because they remind us that we are brave, that we are capable of fighting back, and they teach us how to do better next time. Just a few decades ago, the US was home to powerful social struggles that are still an inspiration for other radicals and anti-capitalists around the globe. The Black Panthers, for example, spoke not just to African-Americans, but to the entire world.

In Barcelona, anarchist squatters are still talking about the eviction of the social center Cine Princesa 14 years after the fact. The resistance failed, the building was evicted, but people inspired themselves by fighting back, they made the state think twice before the next eviction, and they held on to the memory of this battle, inspiring future generations.

As a whole we have allowed these histories to be stolen from us in this country. Many people becoming politically active today learn about past struggles through books and documentaries, not from commemorative vigils, protests and parades, posters, celebrations, and movement holidays. The revolutionary struggles in the ‘60s and ‘70s were defeated by effective government repression, by a large part of the movement selling out and opting for peaceful, civic politics and a cushy place within the system, and by others adopting increasingly authoritarian forms of organization, which predictably led to factionalism, power plays, and infighting. Unfortunately, today more people are choosing to reinvent the wheel rather than to engage honestly with the depth of this defeat.

The ghosts of past struggles can give us strength, but only if we continue to talk to them, to learn from them, to bring them back into the streets.

In the US, we should begin commemorating the anniversaries of important riots, killings by police, land occupations, and other events of struggle by holding protests and festivals, recreating this history in the public eye, and reminding ourselves that we have always been struggling. We should publicly remember slavery, segregation, and genocide against indigenous nations, not to show how far we’ve come, as the Left does, but to show how the present system has built up its power, and how many times it has changed its

The Public Does Not Exist

Another strength of the anarchists in Spain and Greece is that in general, they do not talk to the media. They understand that the media are not an ally but a part of the democratic system of control. The problem is not just “corporate media,” when the same corporation that makes the bombs also makes the news explaining how and why the bombs were used, and makes the movie glorifying the people who used the bombs, although this is clearly an intensification of the problem. It goes much deeper, to the structure of a society in which news is created by specialized producers, and circulated in specific spaces through flows which are regulated and non-reciprocal. In other words, the structure of media creates producers and consumers of fact and culture. In a truly free society, everyone would be making the news and shaping their culture, and sharing it reciprocally.

In specific cases, media coverage can be influenced to make a concrete difference, but the media will never communicate the ideas we need to communicate in order to achieve lasting social change. Instead, the anarchists in Greece and Spain focus on counterinformation–communicating directly with society through posters, flyers, graffiti, demos, protest marches, and face to face conversations in order to counter the lies spread by the media.

In the US, the media have social movements dangling from a string, and most activists put themselves in this position voluntarily. US radicals are so sensitive to public opinion, it seems they have no grasp of what kind of institution the press is. The most important thing to realize is that the public does not exist. The public is an imaginary product of a media-driven democracy. The public is created through one-way flows of information (e.g. television and newspapers, advertising) and the framing of the debate. One could easily control society even if people were allowed to vote on every decision (e.g. “direct democracy”), as long as one could frame what questions were asked and how. Public opinion will never support prison abolition, because on the one hand that question is never posed (instead, the reporter will ask, “do you think the police are doing their job well?”), and on the other hand, the public is constantly bombarded with stories of rising crime. The root causes of crime, or what crime even means as a social construct and who gets to define it, never enter into the public debate.

Being sensitive to public opinion regarding what tactics we use in our struggles is like asking the FBI to draft our political strategies.

Revolutionaries in the US need to recognize that in fact, changing our entire society is a scary prospect, and requires rocking the boat considerably. Being pragmatic and playing the PR game brings short-term gains while making long-term change impossible. For the time being, we have to risk being unpopular, until through repetition, hard work, boldness, and constant engagement with social conflicts, we make radical ideas normal, and radical tactics attractive.

Actions Come Before Popularity

The public is not the same as society, but it is more accessible. Under capitalism, society is largely invisible, whereas the public is highly visible, even though the latter is real and the former is imaginary. It is absolutely vital to communicate with society, but no one actually knows what society thinks, least of all society itself.

What we do know is that society is full of people who silently applaud every time someone shoots back at the police, people who one day snap and hijack a bulldozer to demolish city hall, people so disgusted with the sanitized, controlled facade of urban space that they cover it with graffiti, people who think they are alone in their hatred of the system. The signs of rebellion are everywhere.

We need to have confidence in our own analysis, and take action against the system even without a popular mandate. Capitalism is based on cognitive dissonance, on trained self-betrayal, and to attack it, people must attack their own chains, their own life-support system. In Greece, for years it was only the anarchists practicing the unpopular and unpragmatic tactics of holding open assemblies, organizing indefinite occupations, smashing banks, and attacking police stations. But in the massive social uprising in December 2008 and since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been using those tactics, including people who previously criticized them.

People will never support a struggle on a massive scale until that struggle is real, because only a struggle that has already begun to create power can sustain people along the difficult path of fighting back against the systems that are exploiting them. In the meantime, struggles can only be initiated by those who dare.

Direct attacks against capitalism, the state, and the structures of white supremacy and patriarchy will win sympathy. This sympathy will never register in the media and in the conversations of professional activists, but it will be audible in the streets, on the buses, in the high schools. In the beginning it will necessarily be a minority position, as only those whose rejection of the current order is most visceral and uncompromising join in, but as this struggle becomes less apologetic and asserts itself as a real force in all the social movements and along all the fault lines of social conflict, more and more people will admit that in fact it does make sense to fight back against a system that constitutes exploitation, humiliation, and warfare against all of us.

Peter Gelderloos is an activist and author currently living in Barcelona. He is the author of several books including ‘How Nonviolence Protects the State’, ‘Consensus: A New Handbook for Grassroots Social, Political, and Environmental Groups’, ‘What is Democracy?’ and ‘Anarchy Works’.

*Take the anti-war movement in this country. It wasn’t defeated through repression. It killed itself. By being peaceful, by being civil, by making demands of the authorities and thus investing our trust in them, by participating in elections, it lost its ability to inspire and to create power.


2 Responses to “The Crisis as Pacification”

  1. […] Simulposted with Guerrilla News […]

  2. […] This is my response to the following post The Crisis as Pacifism July 27, 2010 — Negotiation Is Over Simulposted with Guerrilla News […]

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