Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A.K. Thompson: Chris Hedges vs. CrimethInc. on Violence -- Will We Get the Debate We Deserve?;

[To listen/watch a live stream of the debate: Click on this link]
Chris Hedges vs. CrimethInc. on Violence: Will We Get the Debate We Deserve?
by A.K. Thompson

The debate, which centers on the role of violence in protests, is a tremendous opportunity, but only if we concede that we don't yet know how to win. If we don't start with this simple, brutal fact, it risks degenerating into one more spectacle to keep us mesmerized as the world burns.

The debate between Chris Hedges and the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective, scheduled to take place September 12 at the City University of New York Graduate Center, is long overdue.

Squaring off to determine what role - if any - violence is to have in movements like Occupy, the opponents will march into one of the left's most treacherous minefields. And they want you to watch.

If activity on Facebook is any indication, the hall at CUNY will be packed. Meanwhile, the showdown's promised livestreaming has prompted many activists to set up viewing events at infoshops, or at house parties with beer and popcorn.

The terms of the debate are already well established; nevertheless, if there was ever such a thing as a diversity-of-tactics championship round, this surely would be it.

Up until now, Hedges has maintained that there's no point in engaging with "black bloc" advocates. In an interview posted on Truthout on February 9, 2012, he admitted to not having spoken with black bloc participants when coming to the conclusion that they were Occupy's "cancer." In response, CrimethInc. declared that they would not enter into debate with figures like Hedges.

In their introduction to a first-person black bloc testimonial published on February 20, 2012, they wrote: "We do not accept the terms set by the mudslingers: Our intent is not to compete for ideological legitimacy on a battlefield of abstractions."

Now, seven months later, they've resolved to go toe to toe. Of course people want to watch. But will the event be a mere spectacle or will we rise to the occasion to ensure that it becomes something more?

From the Battle of Blair Mountain to the eviction of Occupy, the story of American radicalism is inseparable from the question of violence. Sometimes embraced, often denounced, but even more often sidestepped, debates about violence have tended to return (like all repressed phenomena do) with a frequency that only underscores their importance.

But while activists on both sides of the violence/nonviolence divide seem committed to their respective certainties, few would suggest that either position has brought us any closer to a collective understanding of what we must do to win.

Maybe this means that "we" will never be a unified force, that agreement on ends is not enough to see us through. Maybe it means that the violent opponents of constituted power are in fact enemies to the pacifists who trust that power can be shamed into doing the right thing. Then again, maybe it means that "we" - pacifists and advocates of a diversity of tactics alike - still haven't grasped what's essential.

In a context where the State continues to enjoy a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, it's hardly surprising that many of us go to great lengths to avoid describing our actions using the language of violence. Around the time that Chris Hedges denounced the black bloc as the "cancer of occupy," activist-journalist Rebecca Solnit proclaimed that social change arose not from violence, but from "people power."

In her estimation, this power was evident during November's general strike in Oakland, where activists helped to shut down the ports in what she described as "a triumphant and mostly nonviolent day of mass actions."

I will be the first to concede that "people power" sounds good. At very least, it doesn't have the same bad name that violence does. Nevertheless, it's hard not to wonder what this "power" amounts to, or where it ultimately comes from.

Given its broad appeal, it's not surprising that Solnit landed upon the general strike as a compelling example of people power. But if people's power is the antithesis of violence as Solnit proposes, and if the general strike gives that power a concrete form, then what are we to make of the fact that the general strike was a significant reference point for some of the 20th century's most significant meditations on the question of political violence?

In his "Critique of Violence" (1921), Walter Benjamin recounted how strikes called the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force into question and how, in response, capitalist countries began incorporating the "right" to strike into their legal paradigms. In this way, they began placing restrictions on what strikes might look like.

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