Toward a Diversity of Tactics

I attended the debate a few weeks ago, sponsored by Occupy Oakland’s Events Committee, between advocates of non-violence and advocates of a “diversity of tactics.” It was held in the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, and the pews were packed, with people lining the walls.   What follow are my thoughts and comments.

For those new to this conversation, the phrase “diversity of tactics” is used both in the literal sense of a range of distinct tactics, and also as a euphemism for property destruction and more aggressive confrontations with police.  The phrase has been with us for quite a while; I remember its use by black bloc anarchists at the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999.

From the outset, I should say that framing the debate as being between nonviolence and “diversity of tactics” is not the best path to take. Understandably, none of the anarchists want to go on record publicly advocating illegal acts. This makes for a somewhat convoluted debate, since they can’t utter the thesis they are trying to defend! But the two sides are not balanced in the sense that nonviolent civil disobedience is relatively well defined in theory and praxis, whereas “diversity of tactics” is deliberately vague. You must always put it in quotes.

Also, we are likely to associate the word “diversity” with “racial diversity,” which, on the left at least, has positive connotations.  To be against diversity insinuates something unsavoury, which is probably why the term is used by its proponents.

Here, I don’t have to use the euphemism, so I’m going to talk about the tactic of “property destruction,” and “diversity of tactics” will retain its literal meaning.

Anyway, the underlying issue isn’t really the merit of one tactic versus another. It’s the unwelcome imposition of the property destruction tactic on the nonviolent civil disobedience tactic. Unwelcome, of course, in the eyes of the people engaging in NVCD. Is it really necessary to enumerate the problems that occur when you organise a large demonstration that you publicise as nonviolent, and then have a tiny minority of participants engage in property destruction? There are many. The one I’d like to single out, though, is the problem of coherency.

There is a clash of narratives. The NVCD thesis is that the hegemony of the state is dependent on its use of violence; and by exposing that violence the state’s illegitimacy is exposed, leading to radical (the root, not the leaves) change. I suppose this is predicated on the idea that the legitimacy of the state derives from the consent of the governed. On the other side is the idea that violence is ineluctable; if you are not subjected to violence it is only because you are not a threat to the existing distribution of power, that real change entails some level of violent confrontation. By provoking escalating levels of police violence, increasing numbers of people are “radicalised,” leading to revolutionary change.

I don’t mean to do violence to either side by abbreviating or misrepresenting their narrative! However, I do want to make an argument for coherency. Coherency is a “logical or natural connection or consistency.” Coherency is powerful! As an analogy, light that is not coherent is benign, but light that is coherent, in the form of a LASER, is very powerful indeed. Ideas are like that. Coherency makes them contagious, persuasive, powerful. The point is that these two narratives are inconsistent. That’s not to say they can’t be effective independently, just that they are different enough in significant ways that they are mutually incoherent.

A demonstration which is simultaneously violent and nonviolent is incoherent. A demonstration that is perceived as violent and nonviolent, or can easily be portrayed that way by the media, is effectively incoherent. Incoherency undermines either narrative. So, barring some unlikely capitulation by one side or the other, the solution with the most coherency would be to separate — in time and space — the demonstrations of mass civil disobedience from the acts of property destruction. I assume the NVCD panelists would welcome that proposition, and of the anarchist panelists I think at least two of them would probably accede to that.

If you don’t accede to that, what are you saying? That you favour an incoherency that undermines the best efforts of equally well-intentioned activists? That you’d rather do your thing even if it means preventing others from doing theirs? That you refuse to allow a diversity of tactics — in the literal sense of the phrase? If you understand that coherency is more powerful than incoherency, what justification can you make for creating an incoherent muddle of a demonstration?

It’s important to understand that the paradigm of power in which we live is one of domination. That is, power is typically exercised over someone or something. One race over another, men over women, rich over poor, mankind over nature… powerful over powerless. The nature of a paradigm is that it permeates our very being. Like the fish that don’t know they’re wet, we take domination for granted. It’s easy to see the paradigm of domination replicated in this schism.

On one side, people bringing property destruction to a nonviolent demonstration are imposing their tactic on the others. And on the other, “How do you control that many people?” asked one man from the audience. If one person in a crowd of thousands decides that now’s the time to smash a store window, what’s stopping him? Some of the anarchists were particularly incensed by the efforts of demonstration “peace keepers” to thwart their tactic. In both cases, the activists are acting within the paradigm of domination. How do you impose your will over another’s. It’s a zero sum game, and that’s a recipe for stasis.

This reminds me of something from game theory called the “prisoner’s dilemma.” I’ll write more about that in a separate post. For now, I’ll just say it’s encouraging that this debate took place, and I would love to see more of them. Let’s keep the conversation going! At the same time, a debate is probably not the best format. How about a dialogue? As long as there are people who are willing to engage, there are other ways of engaging that are more likely to produce results.

Fear was expressed by one woman in the audience — but I was already thinking that fear had pervaded the earlier debate. Fear of the brutality of a system that senses it is being threatened, fear that we may fail — ourselves, each other, future generations, the planet. Fear of each other.  “What happens if you win,” said the woman, addressing the anarchist side of the forum, “What happens to us?” Violent tactics inspire the fear that violence will be used against ourselves someday.

One of the panelists, a member of Iraq Veterans Against War, posed the question “How do you know that, instead of a revolution, you don’t end up with a civil war?” No real answer was offered, and it hung in the air, a troubling reminder of our inability to predict the future. He also reminded the audience, if it was even necessary, of the overwhelming superiority and tactical advantages of police and military. It’s one thing to confront pepper spray and beanbags; quite another live ammunition.

If you support a real diversity of tactics you must allow other tactics their integrity, otherwise you are merely re-enacting the “power over” paradigm that is a fundamental part of the overall problem — and that is a self-defeating behaviour we cannot afford.

Comments are welcome.