Where There's Smoke: Anarchism After the RNC
Where there's smoke....
Anarchism after the RNC
We've got the numbers, they've got the guns..
Our chants reverberated under the St. Paul skyway. The 2008 RNC protests were underway, the culmination of two years of anarchist/anti-authoritarian organizing materializing before our eyes. For once, we were many, and they were few... or maybe not. With 3500 cops and an uncounted number of National Guardsmen and Secret Service agents on the streets, this time they had both the guns and the numbers.
Overwhelming force was only one element of the state's repression strategy. The main hub of direct action coordination– the RNC Welcoming Committee– had been infiltrated by at least one undercover cop and two paid informants almost a year prior. On Friday night, the hammer came down with a raid on the St. Paul Convergence Center. Cops busted in the doors with guns drawn, forcing about 100 people to the ground, zip-tying them, and then photographing everyone and taking IDs. What a start to the weekend...
The next morning, I got a call from a friend alerting me that the cops were raiding anarchist houses across south Minneapolis. Eventually, four houses had been raided, and eight members of the Welcoming Committee jailed.
Over the next week, over 800 people would be arrested in conjunction with the protests. Many would be injured by rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas, pepper spray, and other weaponry. The state imposed a high cost on expressing dissent.
The Strategy of Tension
Such a brutal reaction might lead us to believe that 'we must be doing something right.' After all, where there's smoke, there's fire, right? We must really pose a threat. Why else would the FBI and lord knows what other agencies put so many resources into crushing our protest?
No doubt, the prospect of a major political convention being delayed or cancelled due to protest activity would be extremely embarrassing for the ruling elites. However, we must also be aware of the way that the capitalist class uses threats to the existing order to legitimize the violence with which it maintains its hold on the planet. The experiences of the Italian left in the 1970s provide valuable historical lessons for today’s radical movements.
In the 1970s, the Italian state, backed by the United States government, faced a massive social insurgency that threatened the stability of capitalism. In response to the rise of autonomous movements of workers, women, students, youth, and pretty much everyone else, the state launched a campaign of terror. In 1969, the Piazza Fontana was bombed in a 'false flag' attack, killing 17 people and injuring 88. The attack was attributed to anarchists, although it had in fact been planned by neofascists with the support of US covert operatives. Their goal was to delegitimize the left, stem the tide of social insurgency, and push the government to declare a state of emergency in which the left could be crushed.
In the wake of the bombing, the state arrested 4000 people, many of them anarchists. This was the first in a series of over 140 bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, beatings, and other assaults perpetrated by the state and neofascist right in order to demonize the left. This was dubbed the "Strategy of Tension." The objective is to render the cultural environment impervious to social movement organizing by discrediting, and then eliminating the interventionist left. To borrow a phrase from counterinsurgency strategy, the Strategy of Tension 'drains the swamp,' raising the stakes for participation in social struggles, leaving only the most hard core activists alone on the field of battle where they can be easily targeted and destroyed. The ensuing defense work serves to distract activists from actual struggles, forcing them to devote time, energy, and money to bailing comrades out of jail.
In spite of the machinations of reactionary forces, the social antagonism in Italy expanded into an unbridgeable chasm. The 1970s witnessed an outbreak of downright social war. Beginning with the “Hot Autumn” of worker unrest in 1969, the Italian movement crescendoed through the “Years of Lead” of the 70s, reaching an earsplitting climax in 1977 as overlapping waves of factory and university occupations and urban insurrections pushed the state to the brink of collapse. However, the strategy of tension was not without impact within the movements. A split developed in the pro-revolutionary milieu around the question of violence.
On one side were the proponents of mass organization and mass violence, the friends of "Comrade P 38," as we can call them. They favored self-defense of the movement on the broadest possible basis. The leading theorist of this wing of the movement were the intellectuals clustered around Antonio Negri and the other 'Autonomists.’ The movement coelesced into a gallaxy of collectives, workplace committees, small political parties, campaigns, free radio stations, and other autonomous direct action initiatives that was termed the "Area of Autonomy" or Autonomía. Participants in Autonomía were by and large ready to defend themselves in battles with police that occurred at every major demonstration. It was not uncommon for one or two people to be left dead in the street after a protest or strike. In self-defense, some autonomists carried the P 38 revolver, which was cheaply available on the black market. When the pigs fired on the people, the people answered in kind. However, violence was never the focus of this side of the movement. The emphasis remained on building building mass organizations to expand human freedom.
On the other side of the split were the Red Brigades and other hierarchical, closed armed formations. For them, the armed struggle was more than defense, it was a revolutionary strategy in itself. Their organization was the mirror of the state. Through their violence, the state no longer needed provocateurs or false flag attacks. The actions of the Brigades alienated much of the working class base of the movements and provided plenty of rationale for the inevitable crackdown.
The Brigades strategy of armed struggled fit neatly within the state's own strategy of tension. In 1979, the Italian state arrested all the leading figures of the Autonomist project, including Negri and the proponents of the mass, participatory movement. Negri and others were then framed as the intellectual authors, or even as the leaders, of the Red Brigades.
Caught between the forces of the state on one side, and the advance of an armed, hierarchical left on the other, the autonomous movements of 1970s Italy lost popular support and were crushed by a wave of mass arrests. It took over a decade for the left to recover.
There are lessons to be learned from the experience of Italy. Specifically, we need to be more deliberate in placing tactics within a strategy to reach a goal. The two wings of the Italian movement shared the same goal: the abolition of capitalism and the state. However, they chose different tactics to realize that goal.
In the case of the Red Brigades, their tactics ended up playing into the hands of the state, touching off a wave of repression that the left was unprepared for, pushing the possibility of revolution even farther into the future. The state was able to place the Red Brigades' strategy within its own, making the actions of the Brigades into the motor of their own destruction.
We need to turn the strategy of tension upside down. We must develop a form of antipolitical judo, making the actions of the state into a motor for the growth of our movements. Currently, when we go on the offensive as a small minority, the state cracks down with the approval of the public. The state frames their actions as defense against a small number of terrorists or 'criminal anarchists' who endanger the public welfare. Only when non-anarchists are caught up the crossfire do we hear anything about the state "going too far."
We cannot depend on the police making mistakes in order to make our point or to delegitimize the state. We must build a broad base of solidarity so that an injury to one is truly an injury to all. The state must know that when they strike one, they strike one million. We must defend victims of state repression, such as the RNC 8. However, the only real deterrent to repression is the support and solidarity of autonomous mass organizations. More importantly, this kind of revolutionary base is the only force that will have the actual power to abolish the capitalist system while ending the racism, sexism, homophobia, and national chauvinism that plague the world.
Today's anarchist movement is teetering dangerously between irrelevancy and insanity. We must reject the choice between suicidal adventurism and standing on the sidelines of history. Finance capitalism is collapsing before our eyes. Social tensions thought long-resolved are again tightening. The atmosphere cracks with crisis. Let us not miss this opportunity to radicalize millions.
How can we participate in this historical moment to nudge the world toward revolution? In the United States, we are ill-prepared to answer this question. Most anarchists have played little meaningful role in any major movement in almost a decade. Most anarchists practically stood by watching during the largest anti-war protests in history in 2003. In 2006, most anarchists had virtually nothing to contribute to the largest workers movement in decades, as millions of immigrant workers stepped out of the shadows and into the streets.
For our own benefit, and for the future of this planet, we must begin engaging with our coworkers, neighbors, classmates, and acquaintances to build the kind of power we will need to overthrow the state, seize the means of production, and handle the repression that comes down as we do so. We have as much to learn as we have to teach, but either way, we have a role to play.
We need to begin the work of building a revolutionary social bloc, a coalition of grassroots, autonomous mass organizations based in neighborhoods, homes, schools, and workplaces, fighting for self-determination. In some places this means joining existing organizations, in other places it means building new ones.
Many anarchists would love to participate in a revolutionary movement of the broad masses, but lack the vision, hope, or skills to get from point A to point B. We need to look for lessons from other times, places, and movements for how to participate radically in mass movements.
We don't have to look far into the past for examples. In Europe, Africa, and even the United States, organizations like the Spanish CNT, the Italian FdCA, the Irish WSM, the North American WSA, and others continue a rich tradition of engaged revolutionary anarchism the winds its way through many of the major struggles of the last century. But we may be able to draw the greatest inspiration from South America. Many are familiar with the powerful autonomous movements that have rocked South America over the last decades: the Piqueteros and reclaimed factories in Argentina, Landless Peasants Movement in Brazil, the fight against water privatization and for indigenous rights in Bolivia, to name a few. The role of Anarchists in these movements is less widely known.
In Latin America, Anarchists have developed a praxis of involvement in social movements that they call "Especifismo." The mainstay of Especifismo is the belief that anarchists must form a "specifically" Anarchist organization to formulate and enact a common strategy of engagement with society. This engagement is called "social insertion," which means that the Anarchist organization joins non-Anarchists in mass struggle or mass organizations around common interests. These struggles can include strikes, rent strikes, struggles for control of the land, struggles against the police and gentrification, struggles against sexism, for the right to abortion, against bus fare increases, or any other issue that angers working people and moves them to act.
In the struggles, Anarchists put forward viable proposals and ideas based on an anti-authoritarian, anti-statist approach to organizing.
As struggles are won, regular people gain more power against the bosses and the state. Those who are oppressed within the working class build their own autonomous organizations, fighting for the specific demands of women, queers, people of color, immigrants, indigenous, students, youth, the disabled, and other groups. Contradictions emerge, conflicts occur, the movement grows stronger.
This is not nearly as sexy as shutting things down and getting branded as a terrorist, but over the long-term, this patient, conscientious approach is the only way to lay the basis for revolution in the United States itself.
We should not have any regrets as a movement. Over the last decades, North American Anarchists have kept the flame of libertarian revolution alive amidst widespread liberalism and complacency. But it is no longer enough to keep the flame going. It's time for a regroupment. The time has come to build new organizations based on a commitment to participation in mass social struggles as Anarchists. Only within popular movements do we have the power to build a new world. As the social conflagration in Greece, rioting in China, and other recent events demonstrate, there is a new opportunity to build a mass movement against capital and the state. The contradictions are sharpening. Capitalism is becoming a tinderbox. Anarchists must now live up to our ideals. It's time to set the world on fire.
On the RNC:
On the Italian Movements
“Italy, Autonomía: Post-Political Politics” published by Semiotext(e)
“Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism” by Steve Wright
A Few Anarchist Organizations