Disruptions, or, Something to (Urgently!) Learn

Alexander Billet

Posted January 8, 2021

Black Lives Matter Protests New York June 14, 2019

On Wednesday January 6 a gaggle of armed fascists and white supremacists managed to break through four fences and a line of armed police to swarm into the Capitol Building. There was little likelihood of them achieving their goal, of changing the results of the election and preventing Joe Biden being confirmed as the next president. And if this episode does lead to key parts of the American political establishment throwing Donald Trump under the bus, then that will be a positive. But neither of these are the main takeaway.

These events highlight the urgency and challenges of what the left has been saying for months but needs to be said even louder: that the state won’t be protecting anyone from Trumpism just because that state now has Democrats at its helm. If future-President Biden is right, that “the words of a president matter,” then Trump’s two-faced, half-assed response shows what weak sauce most Democrats’ words are. Virtually none of those who cheered with enthusiasm as MAGA chuds and Nazis stormed the Capitol were going to be swayed by what Biden or his allies have to say. Chaos reigned, and it will continue to reign, unless those creating the chaos are met with an opposite force both willing and able to demobilize them.

Those pointing out the hypocrisy of the police’s actions are absolutely correct. The cops literally opened the fucking gates for these people. If the crowd was BLM or DSA or antifa, there’s no question the cops would have opened fire rather than let us get through even the first fence, let alone smash our way into the Capitol Building. It points to just how much of more of a challenge it is for our side to actually build power in a colonial settler society like the United States. And why that task cannot be done by primarily focusing on the ballot box.

A piece published by Mike Davis at Sidecar is worth reading because it points to just how much we’ve flubbed it by having our horizons shaped primarily by the elections over the course of the pandemic. He is a bit glib about how easy it might have been given the fear and confusion during the pandemic’s early days, but his overall point – that the right was able to step into a void that should have been filled by us – stands. For as much as our horizons might have been opened up by a Sanders victory, the near single-minded focus on electoralism ended up narrowing them in the long-run.

To be clear, it is a good thing that the Squad exists, that someone like Bernie Sanders is in the Senate. I enthusiastically supported Sanders and, if I lived in a district represented by an AOC, an Ilhan, a Cori Bush, would likely find myself campaigning for them. But if there is any weakness on the left that has emerged over the past five years, it is how much elections shape our vision of the movement when in fact it should be the other way around.

This is not to wag fingers. Given how thoroughly the US smashed the left (and the left abroad in many cases), given the deleterious impact this has had on our imagination and conceptions of power, we were always going to have this hurdle to overcome. But the events of the past year have illustrated just how urgent it is we overcome it, and fast.

There is a pressing need for “infrastructures of dissent” in the United States. This term is taken from Marxist sociologist Alan Sears, who elaborates on it in his book The Next New Left. It is written in a Canadian context – many of the details will not be relevant to the US – but the full scope of what he describes should be eye-opening for most American leftists. A truly powerful left almost certainly has representation in bourgeois elected bodies. But what matters far more is that it has representation in almost every other facet of everyday life for working and oppressed people: workplaces, neighborhoods, campuses, community groups, unions both establishment and unorthodox, the list goes on. The key here is that it is through these relationships, these connections, these institutions formal and informal, the trust that is built through them, that we gain the capability to disrupt, and in turn, through this, wield power.

We saw a glimpse of this with the BLM uprising this past summer. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets, said no to an order in which poor and oppressed people were deemed disposable, blocked traffic, showed the world that police and other agents of the state are not invincible. In a flurry of cases, we gained support from labor, as in when bus drivers refused to transport arrested protesters. And in a tiny handful of incidents, for vanishingly short periods of time, we saw sections of cities decisively under our control, the door opened wide for us to reimagine a life without repression.

Think back to that moment. Remember how it felt? Remember not waiting for an election result to know that you could walk the street and have others recognize you as a full human being? Remember looking people in the eye as crowds gathered knowing that, if you fell, they would pick you up, and acknowledging to yourself that you would do the same? Remember reading the news and realizing that others were following through on that same impulse for solidarity? That realization that if enough people were able to regard each other in this way, we no longer needed to ask permission of anyone?

Now remember the disorientation that set in when the protests slowly shrank. When tens of thousands became a few hundred. Can we conceive of the links it would have taken to spread these uprisings into, say, Amazon warehouses, whose workforces are disproportionately Black and brown, and are infamously over-exposed to Covid? Or nurses and teachers, among which there is a similar representation and even more dire set of pandemic risks? How would this have changed the dynamics of the following months? Or the confidence or effectiveness of armed right-wingers showing up to do battle on the streets? Could it, perhaps, have allowed the current debates around defunding police, rent cancellation, or Medicare for All to happen on a stage far larger than Twitter?

The right has figured this out. At least better than we have. They are still, as Richard Seymour argues, inchoate and in an experimental phase, and as of now without the full backing of the state or capitalist class, but they are further into that experiment than we are in ours. Wednesday’s events are only the most recent showing of just how much further. Their goals are, obviously, diametrically opposed to ours, to liberation. The coherence we find through common interest, trust and solidarity they find through what might be described as a militarization of mind and relationship. It’s a potent structure when you are looking to protect your suburban own rather than your actual fundamental rights, to preserve property rather than destroy it.

Through this, they have been able to construct a stronger infrastructure through which they are able to wield different sorts of power. It’s how their narratives – including some of the most batshit virulent conspiracy theories – are able to proliferate. On the inside of Congress today, there were a hundred members of Congress that were ready to aggressively question the results of the election. The proto-fascists outside were encouraged by it. Meanwhile Ted Cruz and others inside knew they had a measure of popular support. The infrastructure, the channels through which a broad common goal can manifest in both the halls of official politics and in the language of insurgent power, serves its function. And moving forward, even after the election is confirmed, both manifestations will be able to rally around the story that they have been bilked. One of fascism’s strategies of insurgency, the centrality of the myth of a great national spirit undermined, stays intact, growing in and among supporters’ minds in inverse relation to the ability of conventional politics to keep a lid on things. Weimar beckons.

We do not have this kind of capacity right now. There is no point in being equivocal about it. This, to be blunt, is what those agitating to “Force the Vote” didn’t grasp. That the ability of our new, still-small, still-isolated social-democratic contingent in Congress had no room of maneuverability to speak of in the terms of American establishment politics. Despite overwhelming support in polls for programs like Medicare for All, the presence of those willing to go out and make that support a concrete fact was non-existent. There is no power for them to appeal to other than that vague descriptor of “public opinion,” which has always been easily dismissed in American democracy. Those who defended the Squad and company, in DSA and beyond, were correct, but their arguments about mobilizing support often drifted into vague territory. Too often, their vision of a mobilized support hinted at simply getting more DSA-endorsed representatives elected. A worthwhile goal, but narrow on its own terms.

Acknowledging this doesn’t mean we throw the work and victories of the past few years (small as those victories are) out the window. It means we seriously interrogate the limits of an electoral strategy that brackets every other strategy. It means we get a little more clear-headed about the nature of the state under capitalism. Maybe we also get a little more autonomist on one end and a little bit more Eurocommunist on the other. Provided we can keep square such a boggling contradiction in our own heads.

We have to ask what will allow bottom-up institutions rooted in communities and workplaces to flourish in the face of both direct repression and soft co-optation. It does not mean we drop calls for Medicare for All, Green New Deal, universal housing or other ambitious projects of collective wellbeing, but that we face up to the fierceness with which the American state will stand in the way of such reforms. Perhaps we need to read a bit more Andre Gorz, wrap our heads a little more tightly around the idea of “non-reformist reforms,” those that test the limits of the state and widen the horizons of working and oppressed people. Doing so may give us a better sense of the dialectic between how power is “officially” exacted and how it is wielded on our own terms.

Italy, that country that whose struggles in the 1960s and 70s helped reinvigorate the vision of a world where working people might control (and abolish!) work, has two words for power. One is “potere,” power as potential, something whose forces have enough weight to make it happen should all the moving parts fall into place. The other, “riuscire,” is power when the parts are in place, when the potential is realized. Power as a hard, immovable fact.

You can see where I’m going with this. And indeed, I’m not the first left-wing writer – in Italian or English – to use this lovely linguistic peccadillo to illustrate an impasse such as this. It takes more than sheer numbers to exact power. It also takes more than the willingness to fuck shit up. It takes the willingness of large numbers to disrupt, and in a coordinated way. What’s more, it requires a way forward, a fully-fleshed out, democratically grasped vision not just of a world in our own hands, but of what needs to happen to get there. It takes revolutionary strategy that is as flexible and adaptable as it is vibrant and widespread. In other words, to paraphrase and build on Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without a demand, but a demand without disruption is utterly powerless.

How we are able to achieve this will to a great degree be down to trial and error. It is a painful irony that right when we feel our least patient and most urgent, we must come to grips with the full scope of what “no shortcuts” means. But here we are. We either face the challenge or drown in our own bromides.