Wednesday, May 13, 2015

why we don't make demands - part 2

  By CrimethInc. /

**read part 1 here

Making demands establishes some people as representatives of the movement, establishing an internal hierarchy and giving them an incentive to control the other participants.

In practice, unifying a movement behind specific demands usually means designating spokespeople to negotiate on its behalf. Even if these are chosen “democratically,” on the basis of their commitment and experience, they can’t help but develop different interests from the other participants as a consequence of playing this role.
In order to maintain credibility in their role as negotiators, spokespeople must be able to pacify or isolate anyone that is not willing to go along with the bargains they strike. This gives aspiring leaders an incentive to demonstrate that they can reign in in the movement, in hopes of earning a seat at the negotiating table. The same courageous souls whose uncompromising actions won the movement its leverage in the first place suddenly find career activists who joined afterwards telling them what to do—or denying that they are part of the movement at all. This drama played out in Ferguson in August 2014, where the locals who got the movement off the ground by standing up to the police were slandered by politicians and public figures as outsiders taking advantage of the movement to engage in criminal activity. The exact opposite was true: outsiders were seeking to hijack a movement initiated by honorable illegal activity, in order to re-legitimize the institutions of authority.
In the long run, this sort of pacification can only contribute to a movement’s demise. That explains the ambiguous relation most leaders have with the movements they represent: to be of use to the authorities, they have to be capable of subduing their comrades, but their services would not be required at all if the movement did not pose some kind of threat. Hence the strange admixture of militant rhetoric and practical obstruction that often characterizes such figures: they must ride the storm, yet hold it at bay.

Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a movement is for its demands to be met.

Reform serves to stabilize and preserve the status quo, killing the momentum of social movements, ensuring that more thoroughgoing change does not take place. Granting small demands can serve to divide a powerful movement, persuading the less committed participants to go home or turn a blind eye to the repression of those who will not compromise. Such small victories are only granted because the authorities consider them the best way to avoid bigger changes.
In times of upheaval, when everything is up for grabs, one way to defuse a burgeoning revolt is to grant its demands before it has time to escalate. Sometimes this looks like a real victory—as in Slovenia in 2013, when two months of protest toppled the presiding government. This put an end to the unrest before it could address the systemic problems that gave rise to it, which ran much deeper than which politicians were in office. Another government came to power while the demonstrators were still dazed at their own success—and business as usual resumed.
During the buildup to the 2011 revolution in Egypt, Mubarak repeatedly offered what the demonstrators had been demanding a couple days earlier; but as the situation on the streets intensified, the participants became more and more implacable. Had Mubarak offered more, sooner, he might still be in power today. Indeed, the Egyptian revolution ultimately failed not because it asked for too much, but because it didn’t go far enough: in unseating the dictator but leaving the infrastructure of the army and the “deep state” in place, revolutionaries left the door open for new despots to consolidate power. For the revolution to succeed, they would have had to demolish the architecture of the state itself while everyone was still in the streets and the window of possibility remained open. “The people demand the fall of the regime” offered a convenient platform for much of Egypt to rally around, but did not prepare them to take on the regimes that followed.
It only worked in Egypt because they didn’t just ask.
In Brazil in 2013, the MPL (Movimento Passe Livre) helped catalyzemassive protests against an increase in the cost of public transportation; this is one of the only recent examples of a movement that succeeded in getting its demands met. Millions of people took to the streets, and the twenty-cent fare hike was canceled. Brazilian activists wrote and lectured about the importance of setting concrete and achievable demands, in order to build up momentum by incremental victories. Next, they hopedto force the government to make transportation free.
Why did their campaign against the fare hike succeed? At the time, Brazil was one of the few nations worldwide with an ascendant economy; it had benefitted from the global economic crisis by drawing investment dollars away from the volatile North American market. Elsewhere—in Greece, Spain, and even the United States—governments had their backs to the wall no less than anti-austerity protesters, and could not have granted their demands even if they wished to. It was not for want of specific demands that no other movement was able to achieve such concessions.
Scarcely a year and a half later, when the streets had emptied out and the police had reasserted their power, the Brazilian government introduced another series of fare hikes—bigger ones this time. The MPL had to start all over again. It turns out you can’t overthrow capitalism one reform at a time.
Protesting the transportation fare increase in Brazil: a concrete demand, but a Sisyphean struggle.

If you want to win concessions, aim beyond the target.

Even if all you want is to bring about a few minor adjustments in the status quo, it is still a wiser strategy to set out to achieve structural change. Often, to accomplish small concrete objectives, we have to set our sights much higher. Those who refuse to compromise present the authorities with an undesirable alternative to treating with reformists. Someone is always going to be willing to take the position of negotiator—but the more people refuse, the stronger the negotiator’s bargaining position will be. The classic reference point here is the relation between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: if not for the threat implied by Malcolm X, the authorities would not have had such an incentive to parley with Dr. King.
For those of us who want a truly radical change, there is nothing to be gained by watering down our desires for public consumption. The Overton window—the range of possibilities considered politically viable—is not determined by those at the purported center of the political spectrum, but by the outliers. The broader the distribution of options, the more territory opens up. Others may not immediately join you on the fringes, but knowing that some people are willing to assert that agenda may embolden them to act more ambitiously themselves.
In purely pragmatic terms, those who embrace a diversity of tactics are stronger, even when it comes to achieving small victories, than those who try to limit themselves and others and to exclude those who refuse to be limited. On the other hand, from the perspective of long-term strategy, the most important thing is not whether we achieve any particular immediate result, but how each engagement positions us for the next round. If we endlessly defer the questions we really want to ask, the right moment will never arrive. We don’t just need to win concessions; we need to develop capabilities.

Doing without demands doesn’t mean ceding the space of political discourse.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument in favor of making concrete demands is that if we don’t make them, others will—hijacking the momentum of our organizing to advance their own agendas. What if, because we fail to present demands, people end up consolidating around a liberal reformist platform—or, as in many parts of Europe today, a right-wing nationalist agenda?
Certainly, this illustrates the danger of failing to express our visions of transformation to those with whom we share the streets. It is a mistake to escalate our tactics without communicating about our goals, as if all confrontation necessarily tended in the direction of liberation. InUkraine, where the same tensions and momentum that had given rise to the Arab Spring and Occupy produced a nationalist revolution and civil war, we see how even fascists can appropriate our organizational and tactical models for their own purposes.
But this is hardly an argument to address demands to the authorities. On the contrary, if we always conceal our radical desires within a common reformist front for fear of alienating the general public, those who are impatient for real change will be all the more likely to run into the arms of nationalists and fascists, as the only ones openly seeking to challenge the status quo. We need to be explicit about what we want and how we intend to go about getting it. Not in order to force our methodology on everyone, as authoritarian organizers do, but to offer an opportunity and example to everyone else who is looking for a way forward. Not to present a demand, but because this is the opposite of a demand: we want self-determination, something no one can give us.
Graffiti in London, 2012, reprising a slogan from the May 1968 uprising in Paris.

If not demands, then what?

The way we analyze, the way we organize, the way we fight—these should speak for themselves. They should serve as an invitation to join us in a different way of doing politics, based in direct action rather than petitioning. The people in Ferguson and Baltimore who responded to the murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray by physically confronting the police did more to force the issue of police violence than decades of pleading for community oversight. Seizing spaces and redistributing resources, we sidestep the senselessly circuitous machinery of representation. If we must send a message to the authorities, let it be this single, simple demand: Don’t mess with us.
Instead of making demands, let’s start setting objectives. The difference is that we set objectives on our own terms, at our own pace, as opportunities arise. They need not be framed within the logic of the ruling powers, and their realization does not depend upon the goodwill of the authorities. The essence of reformism is that even when you win something, you don’t retain control over it. We should be developing the power to act on our own terms, independent of the institutions we are taking on. This is a long-term project, and an urgent one.
In pursuing and achieving objectives, we develop the capacity to seek more and more ambitious goals. This stands in stark contrast to the way reformist movements tend to collapse when their demands are realized or shown to be unrealistic. Our movements will be stronger if they can accommodate a variety of objectives, so long as those do not openly conflict. When we understand each other’s objectives, it is possible to identify where it makes sense to cooperate, and where it doesn’t—a kind of clarity that does not result from lining up behind a lowest-common-denominator demand.
From this vantage point, we can see that choosing not to make demands is not necessarily a sign of political immaturity. On the contrary, it can be a savvy refusal to fall into the traps that disabled the previous generation. Let’s learn our own strength, outside the cages and queues of representational politics—beyond the politics of demands.