From Mass movements to Swarm movements
If you ask their assessment, many leftist strategists will say, “we could build a party, but we need strong movements, and movements aren’t doing well right now.”
However, movements are doing excellently, but they have simply changed form. Instead of being a “mass” movement per se, we now have what we could call swarm movements. Instead of having one big demonstration in Washington, D.C. led by some lame big liberal coalition, we have a thousand uncoordinated local efforts, often sparked by events in one major city or location, but with imitations spreading everywhere as similar events or conditions present themselves. Occupy is certainly not what it used to be – as a centralized movement it is dead – but it has left behind little cells of local activity all over the place, and its politics have inspired many coalitions to arise after the fact.
The scattering of the movement is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, movements have been dominated by big liberal coalitions which often quickly demobilize their street presence in favor of supporting the Democrats. “United for Peace and Justice” did this to the antiwar movement in 2007. Of course, while engaging in some liberal marches as a dissenter makes sense in certain contexts, the fact is that the politics and timidity of liberal-led marches are often horrendous. If anyone remembers the horrible Democrat-dominated “One Nation” march for jobs etc. in 2010, just compare it to Occupy’s class anger and militancy to understand the difference.
Having a multi-headed, decentralized, hydra-like movement is good because it’s probably the only way that a break from the Democrat leadership could have even occurred. When a movement has no mechanism or space for democracy, democracy can only be established by creating some kind of break. For the Black Lives Matter, that break began in Ferguson but continued in Washington D.C..
It would be a cliché to mention that social media plays a role here, in allowing the proletariat to encounter itself and its own thoughts with tremendously greater immersion and interwovenness, but it’s the truth.
Left Passivity and the Need to Coordinate
The Black Lives Matter movement is obviously one of the most important movements of the current moment. However I personally have seen virtually zero discussion of actual Left strategic approaches to it.
This is probably because the established Left is fresh out of ideas. The typical socialist involvement in Occupy, with its strange new structure and nature, was pretty much to show up and recruit, participate in a few protests, and ultimately give in to a fatalistic idea that the thing would collapse. (We can debate whether Occupy’s collapse was inevitable elsewhere.)
The Black Lives Matter movement is similarly structured. It began with a practical insurrection in Ferguson. The Left has been good in expressing solidarity with the movement even in its disruptive manifestations of rioting and road blockage.
But usually, the socialist approach to a movement is to help the movement grow, or sustain itself, or get itself together. I haven’t seen much from the socialist Left in that vein for Black Lives Matter.
Of course there is the usual ultra-left refrain: “Keep rioting! Keep disrupting!” This is positive insofar as it serves as political support for Black people while they engage in disruption, but it is not an answer regarding how to escalate the movement or make it sustainable.
One obvious role for the Left in a scattered movement would be to help the many local incarnations of the movement encounter each other and coordinate into a national body. The goal here would not be to impose some kind agenda, but to help the local incarnations find whatever commonalities they have, in order to unite them into a national body capable of nationally-coordinated actions. (For all the talk on the Left of this being the right approach to the anti-austerity movement as well, again I have seen little action on that front either, to actually coordinate local anti-austerity cells into a national movement, on their own terms without imposing a foreign agenda.)
This coordination takes work, but with the Internet it is more possible than ever. Socialists could make the difference here.
In some places, the Black Lives Matter movement has connected with the $15 and fast food worker movements. These are obvious favorites for worker-oriented marxists, and it’s a healthy overlap, but we need to think about a successful racial justice movement in its own terms, beyond simply how it can relate to class, as well. (link to Ben’s article?)
Some on the Left are allergic to articulating any demands, but it’s important to understand that making demands is not always really intended for the ears of the state. Rather, demands are a way to articulate what the movement is about. They make the movement more pointed.
Not that the state isn’t listening. Sometimes, concessions do happen, and they improve human lives. If socialists are involved in the struggle for them, then socialists prove themselves to be trustworthy allies of the oppressed and exploited, creating a greater openness toward socialist ideas among the public.
So we need to work on articulating demands that are concrete. The obvious one is typically “Indict Officer X,” and while that is an obvious target for anger, it doesn’t mean much since it’s only one cop, and it especially doesn’t mean much after Officer X’s non-indictment.
Some activists and writers have raised the concept of community-controlled policing, or policing by the community itself. (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/policing-is-a-dirty-job-but-nobodys-gotta-do-it-6-ideas-for-a-cop-free-world-20141216 ) While this faces the risk of becoming essentially another lynch mob, or involving citizens in the enforcement of crappy capitalist laws, it contains possibilities too. It could become another Black Panthers, or it could become the systematic non-enforcement of unpopular laws by citizen-police.
Rather than dismiss such proposals as utopian, they deserve serious engagement if we are ever going to get the general public to concretely, rather than abstractly, agree with us that the structure of the current state is itself part of the problem. (https://spreadtheinfestation.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/we-need-two-new-enlightenments/ )
And for those who say civilian review boards mean nothing, then why are police in Ferguson violently lashing out to prevent them from forming? (http://twitchy.com/2015/01/28/brawl-erupts-at-ferguson-meeting-on-police-oversight-pics-video/ ) (Of course, in all fairness, Ferguson police are probably idiots and possibly not even very intelligent defenders of their own interests.)
However, Black people do not need to wait for the state whatsoever to make structural changes. Community policing, primarily taking the form of community self-defense, has already begun. Black self-defense teams can function simultaneously as a locus of resistance to the official police, and the beginning of a replacement for the official police, acting thus as a conflicting, dual-power institution. This is not an abstract proposal – there are already examples.
All in all, things aren’t so bad. If there is any venom in this article, it is directed toward the failure of the mostly-white socialist Left to articulate or attempt a strategy in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. As for the multi-racial, yet clearly Black-led activists of the movement itself, all of the above is offered in the spirit of friendliness and respect. I am a white commentator who has gone to a few marches; I don’t have any real authority. Take what you like.
Because the Black Lives Matters movement has done something that overshadows all strategic considerations altogether: it has existed, and it has fought.