Learning from Chris Hedges
Much has been written regarding Chris Hedges article: The Cancer in the Occupy Movement. The article caught on like wildfire as it exacerbated the ever-nascent tensions between people in a movement who find the tactics of direct action abhorrent on multiple levels and those who are more militant. It suffices to say that if it was Hedges intention was to produce a measured discussion of the underlying concerns with provocateurs and the strategic efficacy of various forms of direct action and militancy, this article certainly failed in that regard. But instead of focusing on the issues this article claims to have raised, I am interested in how the existence of the article has provided a social litmus test for the movement as well. For within the article and the numerous debates on social networks, one realizes what a vast lacuna exists for many in the movement (not just Hedges) regarding what the actual social composition of protest culture is today. In addition, Hedges poorly written hatchet job on not only the Black Bloc but perhaps anarchism in general, demonstrated the problematics of letting recognizable left progressives speak on behalf of the movement.
I find the question of non-violence versus direct action beside the point. Obviously, it is a question worth asking in any movement. If Chris Hedges could have removed himself from the conspiracy of the Black Bloc for a second, he could have more articulately assessed what forms of direct action are useful in a broad based decentralized movement. It isn’t about rock throwing and window breaking but more about how to not let the major media use snapshots of violence to turn public opinion against the movement. This question is important and needs to be wrestled with (and it isn’t new).
But this discussion is happening. What became all the more apparent from the articles reception on social networks was how little was known about Black Bloc tactics. As I sifted through the comment sections of numerous arguments on the subject, I realized that his misunderstandings were more endemic to OWS itself. Many people in the OWS movement are clearly approaching the question of militancy and direct action for the first time. Hedges’s myopia frankly had company.
He has been phenomenal in excoriating the financial speculators on Wall Street and articulating how unregulated capital has decimated the public sector. But on the subject of the Black Bloc he sounded remarkably close to the kind of Fox News propagandistic fear mongering that he so vocally deplores. Having a prominent journalist off course when it comes to anarchists is nothing new. But what is new is that this is predominately an anarchist-inspired movement with prominent left wing spokespeople.
It would be one thing if Hedges spoke and the movement could all say, “this is crazy. We all know that people that use Black Bloc tactics are a variegated bunch many of whom don’t read John Zerzan or dismiss the Zapatistas. We realize generalizations about this are difficult and that they have, in many instances, been a very generative element in OWS and the alternative globalization movement.” But frankly, many people in OWS could only rely on Hedges’ veracity. No fact checkers in the world of web 2.0 certainly has its drawbacks. All these emotions and lack of historic specificity produced a deeply convoluted dialogue that became difficult to tease out. For activists that had worked through the alt-globalization protests a decade ago, anarchism and its various off shoots were familiar and comfortable ground (if not the most comfortable of all the various ideological and strategic positions). For those that haven’t, this kind of specter of a strange violent element of the Black Bloc quickly adopted Hedges’ problematic generalizations of hopped-up testosterone fueled middle class boys determined to ruin the movement in their own narcissistic nihilistic romantics.
So the question isn’t simply why was Chris Hedges so poorly informed, but perhaps, why is he speaking on the movement in the first place? Why had I/we trusted him? Sure the Pulitzer Prize helps but that isn’t enough. In the realm of Facebook reposting, his talks on television and articles for prominent journals were compelling, well articulated and easy to spread. That sort of rapacity provides a sort of go-to team spirit until something like this article appears. Then all of a sudden one realizes that this person who has so poetically and articulately assaulted the aggregation of power has no experience with actual movement building. His entire approach has been one of a singular person speaking truth to power but in so doing, has never developed the skillsets of organizing with lots of people.
An adage of OWS that has come to be popular is: it is not a leaderless movement but a movement of leaders. It is one of those simple sayings that reflects an inner sort of logic of OWS. One of the central tenets of the consensus-based anarchist inspired methodologies at the center of OWS is that of destabilizing hierarchies. Not only structurally but in spirit as well, OWS is suspicious of leaders and spokespeople. There is a vast amount of reasonable concern regarding co-optation that one will find in any subcommittee. It is an integral part of the movement and wrestling with this tendency is not only what will set it apart from many other movements but will shape its formation in the years to come. It is both its strength and its most complicated hurdle.
As this movement tries to learn what makes it not only unique but how to adapt and work through its specific form, there are certain lessons that are being taught. The actions of Chris Hedges should be considered one of them. As the movement struggles to not jump at the microphone, certain prominent left leaning political personalities eagerly take centers stage. We can all recall the celebrity circus that emerged at the General Assemblies as famous folks arrived to something rather inspiring but not always that insightful. One can easily recall the inspiring speeches of Cornell West, Judith Butler, Slavoz Zizek, or Naomi Klein as they chanted from the center of a circle with the human microphone chanting their words. It seems to me that when it comes to the leaders of this leaderless movement, the default is the people in the beleaguered left pundit world that choose themselves. The ones that skip the waiting time at the General Assembly are the ones that will get the microphone. The ones that show up at the demonstrations but also eagerly are interviewed on television for their positions on the movement. The ones that will write a report for the UK Guardian on how OWS is shaping up. The ones that already have institutional legitimacy.
While at times this can be a good thing (most of the people mentioned are extremely intelligent interesting people), as we found out with the poorly informed article by Chris Hedges, it can also be extremely problematic. More often than not, the traditional left leaders have been disconnected from people’s movements for a long time. They do not know that this whole project has a deeply anarchist inspiration. They do not embody the paranoia of hierarchy or question their own relationship to privilege or power. They do not bother with whether they should or should not be speaking on behalf of a movement.
What Chris Hedges revealed in his article was how little he understood how damaging his own role in the movement had become. His critique was a disastrous move in the social ecology of the movement. It produced false enemies and hard line categories where complexity and empathy actually existed. Core organizers who were sympathetic with Black Bloc felt they were now being positioned as “the enemy” which only produced more animosity and made tensions higher. Hedges spoke from a position of ideas because that is all he is working with. We don’t need that. We need people to speak from a position of ideas mixed with a sympathy for people. This is a movement of people coming from radically different positions. Many people in the movement are aware of this. They are sympathetic to it. They want to make room to hear each other. They want to listen and not to scream. They truly want a leaderless movement.
It isn’t Chris Hedges fault. Not exactly. But people with large platforms should obviously stay away from generalizations. They should tread lightly and listen. They should question their own power and why they got where they are. The voice of this movement should abide by the rules of progressive stack in that voices that are typically marginalized should be privileged. But this isn’t something that can be decided by any meeting or gathering. OWS radically decentered and thus often in the space of stasis, the logic of action takes precedent. So in general we need those that speak less to speak up. The public presence of OWS would benefit from voices inside this movement who are sensitive to the issues of capital, who know how we got to where we are both historically, globally, nationally and locally, who can be reflexive in their questioning of power but not paralyzed, and who can speak truth to power strategically and empathetically. Yes, it is a tall order, but this is what the movement needs. It doesn’t need the voices of people out of touch with not only anarchism but how this is a global movement of numerous tactics trying to overthrow a vast consolidation of power and capital. To do so requires movement building and movements are about listening to everyone in it. It is about empathy and direct action. It is about strategy and it is about people. It is a new movement with new attributes. There is no cancer in the occupy movement but certainly turning the conspiracy inwards is a sign of someone needing to be gently moved off the microphone.