Friday, January 19, 2007

Thinking About Growing Pains

Here are some further thoughts on Upping the Anti, the radical journal out of Toronto, Canada...

The most ambitious part of Upping the Anti #3 is clearly its editorial, titled Growing Pains: The Anti-Globalization Movement, Anti-Imperialism and the Politics of the United Front. This is really a look at the radical left today, bringing some fresh air to the subject and making several interesting claims. While it contains some misplaced analogies and at times remains unclear, it provides some useful tools and insights. Worth discusssing.

Growing Pains starts from the fairly uncontroversial observation that the September 11th 2001 attacks in the united states effectively put an end to the North American anti-globalization movement, a movement which had been marked by a high level of participatory democracy and a willingness to experiment in the politics of direct action and non-violent illegality (traits which were especially conducive to anarchist militants).

Most importantly for my purposes, the authors also note that the anti-globalization movement embraced what they call the “pedagogy of confrontation” – explained as the idea that “people will be moved to action once it is demonstrated that action is both possible and effective.” (35)

After attempting to briefly sum up the successes and failures of this “anti-globalization moment” (1997-2001), Growing Pains notes that following September 11th the pedagogy of confrontation lost much of its momentum:

the anti-war movement – taking its direction from the socialist organizations that correctly read the timing of the twilight of the heart – came to take on the attributes of the united front.

According to this formulation, left currents need to build the movement around minimum demands while at the same time arguing against the limitations of the minimal platform. Consequently, socialist groups built broad coalitions around the slogans “stop the war” and “troops out now.” On this basis, they gathered together broad sections of the organized and unorganized “left” – including the trade union bureaucracy, a wide range of Arab and Islamic organizations, as well as the New Democratic Party (NDP) and occasionally even dissenting Liberal Members of Parliament. (34)

As Growing Pains notes, “the opposition between the pedagogy of confrontation and the united front has been one of the most consistent fault lines in the socialist tradition.” (35)

What the editors are alluding to is a divide many of us have experienced personally, and you can hear comrades complain about it time and time again, though not always with such clarity. Indeed, the reason so many of us, especially in big cities, came to the radical left through anarchism is precisely because of this “pedagogy of confrontation,” which many of us took for granted was almost a litmus test for what was revolutionary and what wasn’t.

As a teenaged radical in the 1980s – and almost all comrades I knew back then felt the same way – nothing discredited outfits like the International Socialists or the various “peace” groups so much as the fact that they had fucking “peace marshals” (we called them “peace cops”) telling us not to act too rowdy or rambunctious at “their” protests. Many of us ended up in one left tradition or another largely as a result of where we fell on this question, and issues of Bakunin vs. Marx were then decided upon retroactively. Once we’d been around for a few years, the idea many of us in the anarchist camp acted on - whether formulated as such or not - was that the best thing we could do was to intervene in movements and try to raise the level of militancy as much as possible. Questions of accountability to those directly affected were tackled with varying degrees of responsibility, or lack thereof. As was the question of why we preferred tactical militancy, or even why we found some movements more attractive than others. (Struck us as obvious, y’know...)

Having grown up in that atmosphere, i always assumed the “diversity of tactics” that existed in the late nineties came about not from some democratic principle but as a diplomatic face-saving compromise as the conservative “radical” leadership of yesteryear tried to make inroads in movements that had emerged from outside of their control.

This conservative and disempowering strategy which was hegemonic in the mid-eighties is (if I am reading it properly) what Growing Pains refers to as the “politics of the united front.”

Having established its terms, Growing Pains goes on a bit of a tangent tracing how these two approaches played out in Europe in the 1920s-30s and the 1960s-70s. While there may have been something to this section, and the authors seem to feel it important to refer to Walter Benjamin’s idea of a “dialectical image,” it struck me as far too undeveloped to be anything but slightly confusing. If this background was really important, i for one would need a few extra pages to understand the relevance (beyond pointing out that there have been other shifts from the pedagogy of confrontation to the united front, which could have been said in a single sentence)…

Back to the present – the post-September 11th conservative shift within the left was the result not only of disarray within the (already declining) anti-globalization movement; more conservative unitedfronters took advantage of the sea change, working “to ensure that the [anti-war] movement would not be overrun by the confrontational logic” of the radicals. “From the standpoint of orthodox socialist strategy, it is far easier to work with liberals than it is to work with radicals who share similar end goals but are committed to the pedagogy of confrontation.” (39)

If the unitedfronters today lead the movement, Growing Pains suggests that more radical comrades are making a mistake by simply continuing as before, albeit with smaller numbers and more modest goals. Comrades are criticized for engaging in isolated militant actions or breakaway marches instead of engaging with the broader anti-war movement, challenging the unitedfronters for hegemony. “Currently the anti-war movement is the only movement with a potentially mass base. If the modest acquisitions of the anti-globalization movement are going to survive, they are going to have to be replanted in its soil.” (35)

First things first...

Growing Pains doesn’t explain the reasoning behind its claim that the anti-war movement is the only place where a potential mass base exists, making it difficult to actually grapple with. There may be a lot of opposition to America’s Iraqi adventure, but there is very little in the way of an actual anti-war movement, especially here in Canada. As for opposition to Canadian military action in Afghanistan, my impression is that there is no mass movement there either. Nor do i think that this is simply due to the fact that what anti-war activities there are remain controlled by unitedfronters...

(i’m not so much disagreeing with this proposition as noting that i remain unconvinced...)

But this point – important though it may be – is not the only thing that i am left wondering about. After all, even if one does agree with the authors’ position that anti-war organizing is the key area where radicals should challenge the conservative logic of the united front, one might be left puzzled by their statement that “The resolution to this problem [of the hegemony of the united front] cannot be found in efforts to reestablish the hegemony of the pedagogy of confrontation,” but instead in “recognizing, synthesizing and transcending these seemingly antithetical terms on a mass scale.” (40)

I am unclear – and Growing Pains doesn’t help me here – as to how these different modes can be transcended at this point in the struggle. Or what is meant by synthesis, beyond simple coexistence. Once again: it’s not that I’m disagreeing with the UTA editors, just that I don’t understand what they mean.

It is worth remembering that the pedagogy of confrontation does not need to take the specific forms it did during the anti-globalization moment in order to remain true to the idea that people will be moved to action once it is demonstrated that action is both possible and effective. While direct action may have flowered between 1997 and 2001, it was a pretty monocultural crop, tame indeed (at least here in the metropoles) by the standards of the 20s/30s or the 60s/70s. For the most part “violence” was aimed strictly at property, and where cops were occasionally targeted (i.e. in Quebec City) this was marginal and still overwhelmingly in self-defense. Throughout most of white North America the frontiers of illegal confrontation were being pushed by anti-fascist youth and radical environmentalists more than by summit hoppers or most community organizers. This is neither compliment nor complaint, just my clearest recollection. (and I should mention that here in Quebec things were a bit different, with some radical community organizations which predated the anti-globalization movement engaging in confrontational actions...)

I could go on, giving many more examples. My point is that the pedagogy of confrontation still strikes me as appropriate, and i can say that even though i would not point to the anti-globalization movement as a model for what we need.

The authors’ objection seems to be more philosophical than strictly tactical, though – which is both good (forcing us to think) but also frustrating, as the concepts touched upon are left undeveloped, leaving a degree of guesswork as to how they might play out in real life... so here we go:

Using as their examples those who argue against confrontation “because-it-will-endanger-vulnerable-communities” and those who argue for heavier confrontation “because-we-owe-it-to-vulnerable-communities,” Growing Pains suggests that both the pedagogy of confrontation and the united front are necessarily grounded in a putative responsibility towards the Other. So recognizing/transcending/synthesizing this dichotomy might simply mean moving past a politics based on the Other, instead grounding oneself in one’s own reality.

If this is what Growing Pains is driving at, it is difficult to disagree. Grounding ones activity in ones own experience is a good habit for us all to have, and developing ones own position in hostility to the State (and not just in solidarity with its victims) is a virtual sine qua non of revolutionary consciousness. As one German political prisoner from the Red Army Faction once put it: “Look into your mirror. Either you see a revolutionary subject there or you don’t.”

But even if this is what Growing Pains is proposing, the confrontation/unitedfront dichotomy is neither transcended nor synthesized, it is merely placed on a different, perhaps even more antagonistic level. Because within communities, amongst people who experience the same oppression, even people who broadly share the same values, we still tend to divide in these terms. Except in situations where one approach or another is clearly useless or suicidal (literally, not figuratively), these two positions tend to reemerge time and time again.

What i would be interested in is thinking of why we should come down on one side or the other of this divide? What effect do our politics have on our tactics? What effect do our tactics have on our chances for success? On our class orientation? On our consciousness?

i suspect that the answers are complex, but vitally important.

Nor are they the only questions that this editorial brings to mind... for instance, what is the connection between the content of our politics and the form in which we act? Are the degree of militancy, illegality, and violence not important aspects of this form, perhaps more complex than whether or not an organization sees itself as the vanguard or practices consensus or democratic centralism, but nevertheless an aspect which should be taken into consideration?

Or is the question of autonomy from the State and opposing class collaboration what is really at issue – with “militancy” relating to this mainly as an imagined innoculation against co-optation?

I understand this examination of the “pedagogy of confrontation” as related to UTA’s goal of exploring forms of radical organization outside of the party-building or reformist community group models. I think Growing Pains is a useful contribution, though at times unclear. The fact that it could have benefited from being longer is as much a compliment as anything else. I certainly look forward to seeing these ideas discussed, and deepened, in future issues. Being willing to take a chance and grapple with these questions, even though such efforts are bound to be imperfect, is what makes Upping The Anti a valuable project.

1 comment:

  1. Pedagogy of Confrontation -

    by reddboy

    The Growing Pains editorial and the Sketchy Thoughts response to it are welcome treatments of important issues. I want to make a few comments on one aspect; the editorial’s treatment of the pedagogy of confrontation. Other important points such as the impact of 9/11 on left attitudes and the trajectory of “united front” politics will be left for later.

    My points of reference are the Seattle WTO action and the anti-war movement in this country, rather than Quebec City and an oppositional movement in a semi-reluctant ally of the aggressor. However, I think in this case the similarities between the U.S. and Canadian experiences are more instructive than the differences.

    It’s certainly true that a revolutionary “sense of possibility”, developed dramatically at the end of the last century. It’s also true that it has rapidly “dissipated” over the past five years and the boundaries and limits that it challenged have been rebuilt. Was this a process of illusion and self deception coming back to earth, or were real possibilities lost because they weren’t fully recognized and adequately protected? If the latter, there are limitations and errors that can be addressed. If the former, maybe we deserve the movement we currently have. I know that both explanations might be true to some extent, but I lean toward the second and assume the authors of both documents do also.

    One central theme of “Growing Pains” is the dichotomy between the “pedagogy of confrontation” and the “united front” a dichotomy which it argues must be transcended in a viable revolutionary strategy. This needs to be a lot clearer. On this general point, and on a number of the more specific ones, I agree with the Sketchy Thoughts response.

    This rough quote from the editorial describes main features of the pedagogy of confrontation as it developed in the anti-globalization movement.

    “…this potent mix…encouraged the anti-globalization movement to develop a series of innovations that transformed, if only briefly, the whole paradigm of struggle…the following three stand out as most significant. First, the movement embraced and reframed disruptive direct action tactics. Second, it placed emphasis on direct democracy in the organization of spokes-councils and affinity groups. Finally, it developed the ability to name the enemy – global capitalism – directly.”

    I would like to say a bit about each of the three elements with respect to the Seattle Demonstration.

    While “thousands of activists (did) work together…(to shut) down a major city”, it didn’t happen in the way suggested by the editorial. The process was hardly one where the “movement” simply “embraced…disruptive tactics”. These tactics developed through a new organizational form, the Black Bloc, which had estimates, goals, and arguments which are spelled out, for example, in the “Acme Collective’s” analysis of the Seattle experience. The Black Bloc initiated a set of combative actions that were off the printed menu. This provided tactical options that liberated a tremendous amount of political energy, surprising almost everyone, probably including the Eugene anarchists who were central to this initial Black Bloc. The Seattle Black Bloc challenged the existing anti-globalization movement structure as much as it challenged capitalism, the WTO meeting, and the Seattle police.

    The major impact of the official structure was its contribution to the complacency and lack of preparation by the Seattle and King County police. Another important contribution, equally unintended, was that hundreds of militants around the country, many from anti-fascist struggles, had no clue that Seattle would break new ground and stayed home – to their everlasting regret.

    In the months following Seattle the official movement made a grudging, gradual, and superficial accommodation to tactical militance, by institutionalizing the “diversity of tactics”. I think that Sketchy Thought’s view that this was largely an attempt by apparatchniks to reassert some control over the popular base of the movement is right on point. This leads to the issue of “direct democracy in organization, spokes-councils, affinity groups” etc. In my experience what was most striking about this was its lack of substance, a problem this is indicated in the editorial, (It was) “…a movement in flux with little in the way of defined structure or overall means for democratic and accountable coordination”.

    In most of the larger actions the lack of “accountable coordination” was as true for the Black Bloc as it was for the overall structure. Ad hoc Black Bloc groupings that typically didn’t know the streets, much less the people who lived on them - indeed, often only small circles even knew each other – could not develop and implement effective street tactics. Black Blocs were increasingly caught between better police preparation and a dynamic in which escalating militance seemed to be the way to avoid becoming a parody of Seattle. It was a recipe for a crash. In a way 9/11 was fortuitous. Without this dramatic change in circumstances, who knows what the next large international action after Genoa might have entailed.

    Let me return to the third innovation mentioned in the editorial; “Finally, it (anti-globalization movement) developed the ability to name the enemy – global capitalism – directly.” This is true and important, but it is not enough, over even a relatively short period of time. The crucial task is to understand the enemy once it is identified. In Seattle, trade union officials that are not even social democrats were naming the enemy at the same time as they attempted to limit the militance of the confrontations and inoculate their members from the radicals.

    I would argue, admittedly well after the fact, that the Seattle action caught capitalism in a difficult transition to a new framework of command and discipline for a global system that couldn’t be left to market forces. To use Negri’s awkward terminology, it was at a crucial point in the transition from imperialism to empire, a point when the ruling class project was still under debate and popular oppositions had not encountered the fault lines of the not so liberatory anti imperialism and nationalism with which we are now familiar.

    The potentials that were manifest at Seattle seemed to make further analysis superfluous, but it wasn’t. What passed for analysis in the heat of the moment developed into a growing obstacle to the movement. To refer again to the Seattle Black Bloc’s Acme Statement, its conception of capitalism contained two estimates; first, in response to the charge of provoking repression, it argues:

    “(We are already)…living in a police state.”

    Second, the Acme Statement asserts:

    “…private property and by extension capitalism cannot be reformed or

    Developments since 9/11, give both estimates an Alice in Wonderland character. Repression has increased exponentially, while maintaining and even extending its popular legitimacy. Much of the remaining left has merged with sections of the ruling class to pursue the most questionable reforms and they will certainly achieve a certain flawed success. If there had been a framework for discussion after Seattle – or even a clearer feeling that such discussion was in order, there is no reason that the expanded potentials couldn’t have been placed in the context of a more realistic appreciation of the future struggle.

    As I understand it, the pedagogy of confrontation involves more than tactical militance and exemplary action. It involves the understanding that people can learn lessons about what is needed and what collective potentials exist from struggles that break with usual ways of thinking and acting – particularly when this involves a clear confrontation with power and authority. We have a lot of history and experience that supports this possibility - but that also demonstrates that it is not inevitable, not automatic, not stable, and can turn into its opposite.

    I don’t understand the logic of combining the pedagogy of confrontation with the overwhelmingly reformist, gradualist and usually manipulative united front perspective, with its even larger history of becoming what it starts out to change. That’s not a synthesis that I’m going to buy into. I agree with Sketchy Thoughts that there is no reason to maintain that a genuinely radical approach must prove itself on the anti war terrain or that it can only do this through merging with an approach that is genuinely not radical.