Hyperbole and Hyperventilating: Why Occupy Wall Street should listen to Chris Hedges

A member of History Is A Weapon wrote this and kindly allowed us to print it here after a slight polish:

Of course, I can’t endorse everything in Chris Hedges’ recent essay (Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy), he makes dated references to Zerzan, implies the Black Bloc is anti-EZLN, and commits the horror of horrors of conflating the bloc with anarchists. The responses, so flabbergasted at these errors, have been juvenile and reactionary: Hedges can’t understand because he used to write for the Times, he’s going to get people killed (says Graeber), he’s conflating tactics with ideology. 

Hedges piece should be read and responded to. And better than that being offered on some of my facebook friend’s comments and hasty counterpoints.

I’m part of History Is A Weapon (host of both ”Action Will Be Taken”: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents and Plain Words) as well as being involved in radical activism for a long time. I’ve organized “legit” media friendly activism and participated in the black bloc during the anti-corporate globalization summits of a decade ago.

The Black Bloc is a tactic that occasionally serves a purpose, but it should be debated and defended like anything else we do or are considering doing. And it has two drawbacks as I see them that need to be discussed.

The Occupy Wall Street movement exploded. There is no recent american precedent for a movement that went from handfuls of people before September 17th, to hundreds on that first day (not a large demonstration in New York City by any stretch), to a national phenomenon over the next few weeks, discussed and argued over from the halls of congress to republican debates to regular work places, covered internationally, duplicated across the country, and entering the national political lexicon. Ninety-nine percent, one percent, Occupy: these words have new meaning now. It did not explode because it was the most radical, but on some levels in spite of it.

The early rhetoric was about “taking wall street back” (cue collective eye-rolling of radicals everywhere), informing the police that they were “part of us,” constant peace signs and an anti-ideological rhetoric that incorporated everyone from the bonafide left to anonymous to Ron Paulites. And because of this, it expanded and evolved and grew. People who were not part of a left conversation joined the circle. 

The framing of the 99% versus the 1% is an incredibly smart frame; imperfect as it may be, it casts the agendas and divides in a succinct and clear manner. People got on buses and came to the park. They wouldn’t have if the chant had been F—- the police.

As the police repression grew, the responses grew too, but there was always a strong presence who were ready to move to (or return to, really) F—- the police. The frame of the the 99% versus the 1% doesn’t have to be pro-police, but it’s a lot more welcoming to people, people who may personally not be fans of the cops but who also aren’t looking to get their heads bashed in or arrested. And how we frame the struggle determines who comes in.

Second, the Black Bloc, and related strategies, have always had issues with macho ego (not always perpetuated by boys and men, but we certainly populated this tendency). At a black bloc meet up a decade ago that a dozen of us attended, I recall one sullen young man who informed the rest of us that “anyone who can’t take a punch shouldn’t be in the black bloc.” We told him to shut up. Our participation was tactical: breaking police lines, de-arresting, the like. It wasn’t about proving our toughness.

The desire to smash things is not limited to the black bloc: there are enough activists doing sixties re-enactment, responding to our collective alienation with reactive rage or lashing out with nihilistic property destruction, telling ourselves that this is about saying ya basta, enough, we reject this entire suffocating beast. And we do not judge that anger; we share it.

But this is the thing: we are not here to play, we are here to win. This isn’t a phase, we are in for the long haul and we know a bunch of the people responding to Hedges are, too.  And if we want to win, we need to look at what our goals are, long-term, intermediate and short-term objectives; then, what strategies lead to those goals; then, what tactics make up those strategies. This is a complicated process that has to be revisited and re-examined on a regular basis.

Chris Hedges is usually more eloquent; this essay was a little more ham-handed. But the responses have missed the point. What we do to advance struggle should serve one of two purposes: first, it can push an ideological frame that speaks to the larger population, address our alienation, identifying the contradictions and cognitive dissonance of the system, and illuminating spaces for revolutionary possibility; Second, it can win concrete short term goals that feed into larger struggles or strategic goals. 

Does the tactic of the black bloc really do either? I don’t know that it does and this should be the question we seek to answer. And if the answers come up short, or we’re emphasizing one tactic at the expense of better ones, we owe it to our struggle to examine that and move on it. Not wasting our time tripping up over Hedges referencing the wrong anarchist philosopher, but getting to the next step.