There’s already been lots of talk in the blogosphere today about Chris Hedges recent article describing “black bloc anarchists” as harmful to the Occupy movement, as a “gift” to the structures of state violence. Others have done an excellent job of picking apart the flaws in Hedges’ description of what a Black Bloc is, and the problems with his inability in this case to separate Black Bloc as a tactic from anarchism as a political tradition, so I won’t go into that here. The assertion that anyone besides the state is reponsible for the violence of the state is just another case of classic victim-blaming, the political equivalent of telling a woman in an abusive relationship that she just shouldn’t make him so angry. It’s the same dislocation of violence from its actual source that creates slut-shaming, putting responsibility onto women for not getting assaulted rather than onto rapists for not assaulting us. It’s a function of privilege to locate the violence in the response, not the instigation. With all the power that Hedges voice gives him, why isn’t he calling out that security apparatus instead of distracting the blame from that apparatus onto those that it targets?
What’s problematic for me here is a definition of violence which ignores the fact that the instigation of this violence is structural, and it’s going on around us all the time. Violence underpins every aspect of the capitalist colonial state. Nothing can really be nonviolent in that context, it can only mean pushing the violence off onto someone else, somewhere else. Violence may move to the margins where it’s mostly marginalized communities that need to see it and live in it every day, but it never goes away. Privilege conceals it, and so gives the appearance of nonviolence to actions that demonstrate compliance, or at least nonconfrontation, but allows the violence of the state to go on unchallenged in other places.
This dislocation of violence from its actual source leads to a second, and perhaps deeper trap that’s laid by privilege, a trap that I see many of my fellow Occupiers falling into on a daily basis. Hedges sums it up perfectly: “This is a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police) who are possessed of a conscience.” His assertion is that tactics that look like violence to those who are insulated from the real violence make us look bad. The idea, he says, is to try to get those folks on our side. And here is the place where he and I part ways.
Because you see, I don’t actually give a shit about what “the wider public and those within the structures of power” think about me and my actions. Speaking to the dominant narrative is not something that I am interested in. I want to smash that narrative and delegitimize its power, not moderate and modify my actions to pander to it. My struggle is to draw boundaries around what I love, what is sacred to me: wildness, human dignity, self-determination for myself and my community, and solidarity with the struggles of others for those same things. My struggle is to draw those boundaries, and when the culture of destruction comes knocking, to give no fucking quarter to what tries to cross them. My boundaries are mine to draw, and the dominant narrative does not have the right to dictate to me what my boundaries will be and how I will defend them if they are crossed.
I’m not talking about aggression, or violence, because to me the defence that I’m talking about is neither of those things. Because make no mistake: the violence is already happening. The first shot has already been fired. Capitalism is violence; destroying it, uprooting it, setting up spaces where we can begin to imagine a life outside of it and holding those spaces as long as we can, these things are not violence. If a person from “the wider public” wants to dialogue, wants honestly and openly to hear what I have to say, if we can meet on equal terms, then I will talk, and I will listen. But I will not waste my time talking to those who refuse to listen, and I certainly will not allow the opinions of those that don’t listen to dictate my actions. In the same way that we demand that those engaging in abusive and oppressive behaviour leave our spaces if they will not hear and be accountable to the effects that their actions have on others, I will not waste my time letting the dominant narrative about what “violence” means control what I do when that dominant narrative ignores whole swathes of violence that are going on every day. I’m not interested in a struggle whose primary concern is staying in the good graces of those in positions of privilege – and here, I speak of the privilege of thinking that there is not violence because you don’t have to see it or live it every day, because it isn’t directed at you. It’s directed instead at different groups of people, whether those people are humans, or trees, or rivers, or marbled murrelets. And for those who don’t think that trees and marbled murrelets are people, if your response is “no they’re not!” as opposed to “tell me why you think that so that I can understand where and how our perspectives differ,” then we have nothing to say to each other. I’m not interested in justifying myself to a narrative that seeks to erase me and everything that I love under a mountain of commodification and death. I have richer, more life-affirming things to do with my time than that.
Because my struggle is for wildness, and so to engage in that struggle my strategy is to try to learn from wildness so that I can become it, because in wildness lies the way out of the mess that we are in. The wildness I look to is the kind to be found in a screaming gale that smashes any ship foolish enough to set out in it, or a mother bear protecting her cubs, or the faceless expanse of a desert. It’s the wildness you find in the pages of Edward Abbey, a wildness that is neither benevolent nor hostile toward the culture of destruction and domestication, but rather simply indifferent. Indifference because that wildness is whole, sovereign, not beholden to any authority but its own inherent reciprocity with each being that it contains. That reciprocity is inescapable, doesn’t have to be written down or enforced. It’s the reciprocity of the redwood tree and my breathing body sitting beneath it, a reciprocity whose currency is oxygen and carbon dioxide – I breathe in what the tree breathes out, and neither of us has to construct that relationship, it’s an exchange born of the generative process of our coevolution. We are accountable to each other, the tree and I, because without one another, we both perish. Not as individuals perhaps, but as a community of beings participant in an ecosystem together, certainly we need each other. Our relationship is one of mutual aid.
Those relationships of accountability and reciprocity are relationships that I will honour, obligations that I will fulfill. But I have no such reciprocity with a culture that seeks to enclose and own and destroy every stick of wood and smudge of soil and drop of water, a culture that elicits the participation of people by tricking some of us into thinking that the privilege it dangles in front of us is freedom, while hiding the real freedom away behind fences and charging admission. The narrative that sits within that culture has nothing that I want, and I will not speak to it, I will not allow that narrative to set the terms by which I will make my decisions and value my actions as “strategic” or “successful.” I won’t spend my energy fighting to make anyone listen, because I don’t actually think that anyone ever convinces anyone of anything. We either choose to listen, or we don’t. In the same way that it’s an assertion of privilege to expect people of colour to educate white people about racism, it’s an assertion of privilege to expect those who see the violence of the state because it’s directed at them to justify their response to that violence to those who are insulated from its effects.
Privilege is a tower that is so easy to get trapped in because it has no windows, only mirrors; people on the inside only see themselves reflected back, and nothing of the world outside is visible. And so if a tactic that defends a community looks like violence from within the tower of privilege that makes the daily violence of capitalism invisible, then I am willing to point out to those in the tower that they can open the latches and find that the mirrors, once opened, can also be doors. But I’m not going to try to fit my struggle and my experience into something that makes sense from within that hall of mirrors, because no change is possible from there. Changes of degree, perhaps, but not of substance. Pearl-clutching and hand-wringing about “violence” from those who are insulated from the very real, daily violence that’s all around us – in other words, Hedges’ “public” – is a normal and understandable response from within the privileged insulation of the tower. But to continue to place that privileged reaction in the central position, where that’s the reality that we need to speak to, that’s the value set that we need to judge and be judged by, is self-defeating to a movement for fundamental change.
And maybe not everyone wants fundamental change, maybe that’s not what everyone is working for. Maybe it isn’t what Chris Hedges is working for, I don’t know. But it’s what I’m working for. Actions that shake up the unassailable calm that’s inside that tower create a moment of opening, a rupture in the daily reality that allows people to see outside of their own perspective, if they are willing to. It is, in a way, a rock from the forest thrown through the mirrors of the tower, shattering the reflections and letting the light in. It’s a chance for those inside to see out, and they might take it and they might not. Their reaction is beyond our control. But this is why we need these sorts of actions in our movement. Yes, those who like it in the tower might not like or understand those actions. Their liking the actions is not the point. The only way to move the centre is to push from the edges, and I’m happy with my position on the edge, on the margin, where the cleared field meets the forest and the wild things lurk. I like it here. Not everyone has to like it; Chris Hedges doesn’t have to like it. Not every plant grows well at the margins where the wind is fierce and there’s little shelter, some occupy a different niche and that’s okay. We need those plants too. But I resent any argument that says that those actions from the margins are wrong because someone in the centre doesn’t like them, especially in a context where the violence and destruction wreaked by what is also in the centre is so gargantuan as to be nearly unfathomable, especially in comparison to a few smashed windows or a bottle thrown at state-sponsored thugs who have chemical weapons and body armour. The tar sands continue, wars for oil continue, private prisons continue, and the most appropriate target for the rage and disgust of folks like Chris Hedges is a few anarchists breaking some windows? Come on. Let’s get real here. The perspective that belongs in that tower only makes sense inside the tower, and the tower is not the whole world. Actions that shake up that tower are an invitation to look out and see what’s happening out in the wild world. People don’t have to like it, they don’t have to take up the invitation. But the wild things will continue to be wild, whether those in the tower like it or not. Maybe those in the tower might take the chance to look out and see the wild, and see that maybe, just maybe, there is something wild inside them, too.