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Strategize, Don’t Moralize

Shortly after Trump’s election, I’m in a mass meeting. Several hundred people have gathered to establish a new organization meant to channel outrage into sustainable direct action, mutual aid, and radical municipalist politics. People are talking – expressing not only their fears about ICE and healthcare, but also their hope that our work can create something better. Several of them say it’s important to acknowledge “the people who’ve been doing this good and important work all along” (that is, established activists and nonprofit staffers).

No one asks why, if their work is so good, it didn’t keep Donald Trump out of office. No one asks what, exactly, that work is meant to accomplish – or, if its goals are worth supporting, how it envisions achieving them.


 

If you start nailing boards together without a plan, will that get you a house?

When you build a house, there’s a very specific goal: the physical structure needs to match the architect’s blueprint. The design’s details, in turn, depend on the concrete conditions, both current (e.g. available land and budget) and future (e.g. the number of people meant to live there). Then, the construction process itself is structured by clearly-defined intermediate goals and benchmarks. You first lay a foundation, then erect a frame, then install plumbing and wiring, and so on.

That’s strategy. You don’t begin with the notion that you want some vague, indeterminate kind of house. You have a concrete ultimate goal in the blueprint, with definite intermediate goals along the way. Now, unexpected disruptions might make you change your plan; what if you lose half your budget, say, or find an archeological site? But, that doesn’t mean you throw the blueprint away.  It means you revise it in response to changing conditions, because without the plan you can’t carry out the work. Strategizing means figuring out not only where you want to go, but how, precisely, you intend to get there.

The US far left loves to debate tactics (Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is the Black Bloc counter-productive? Is mutual aid just charity?). But how does it approach strategy?


 

Tactics follows strategy.

First, you set your ultimate goal, whether it’s building a house or social revolution. Once you’ve analyzed your conditions and resources, you put together a series of intermediate goals. You don’t pick them haphazardly – each of them has to set you up to advance to the next while, simultaneously, making you more capable of eventually reaching the end goal. Particular tactical decisions work the same way, but on a smaller scale. Is a tactic good? Well, is it the best way to achieve your next intermediate goal (while building up your overall capacity)?

To build a house’s frame, you first have to lay a foundation. To install the wiring and plumbing, you first have to build the frame. You might be excited about the carpentry and unhappy about mixing concrete and waiting for it to set, but if you skip the foundation the frame won’t survive. Does that make carpentry ineffective? Of course not – as long as you use it in the right context.

What makes Nazi-punching, Black Blocs, or mutual aid any different? Is your immediate goal to disrupt an alt-right event? If so, a Black Bloc might be a sensible tactic, but showing up with bags of groceries probably isn’t. But if you’re trying to establish a positive presence in a neighborhood with high food insecurity, groceries are going to work a lot better than hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for Richard Spencer to walk by.

When the Left debates tactics in the abstract, it sacrifices evaluating them strategically. You might decide that having plenty of outlets is what you want most in a house. Does that mean you can go ahead and install them before you’ve built the walls? When radicals draw lines of demarcation based on individual tactics, then supporting mutual aid (or antifa, or union work, etc) effectively stands in for a more holistic strategic analysis.

But what tactic is effective outside the right strategic context? Mutual aid without a larger political project is charity; it doesn’t build power. Antifa separated from mass work is self-isolating catharsis politics. Outlets only work when they’re wired into a wall.


 

800px-tintoretto_allegory

Tintoretto, “Allegory of the morality of earthly things,” 1585. Via Wikimedia Commons

US leftists tend to think in moralistic, rather than strategic, terms. To be clear, “moralistic” doesn’t mean wanting to be ethical. Rather, it’s the impulse to reduce every political question to an abstract, absolute, and non-contextual value judgment. Is it Good or is it Problematic to smash a Starbucks window or change people’s brake lights for free?

But when you isolate a tactic from its strategic context, it loses its meaning. No tactic is good or bad in itself. What counts is its ability to accomplish a particular goal in a particular situation.

Counter-strategic moralizing generally comes in three flavors:

  1. Inherent good. Every group has a limited number of person-hours and a finite amount of money. How should it choose what to do with them? “Inherent good” moralizers don’t ask what is most likely to bring a social revolution closer – instead, they look at whatever idea is in front of them and try to evaluate it in a vacuum. If it seems good in the short term, they’ll do it, whether or not it builds towards a long-term goal. Often, they’re “pragmatic” reformers, social democrats/Berniecrats, or Alinsky-style “community organizers” (for whom organizing is itself the point, never mind towards what end!).
  2. Representation. This means asking not “how does this fit into our strategy,” but “who is getting credit for it?” Whether in the form of identity liberalism or straightforward sectarianism, it reflects the career aspirations of media figures, academics, and professional-activist NGO staffers who need political credibility to enhance their personal brands.
  3. Catharsis. “Catharsis moralizers” chase the feeling of mass politics (whether it’s real or not). They’re drawn to emotionally-intense peak experiences, street demonstrations above all. Often, they’re “alphabet soup” sect-Marxists, riot-porn anarchists, or the protest scene’s radical fringe in general.

 

 

Communist theory discusses objective conditions and subjective conditions. A political group can’t control the objective conditions – is the economy in a boom or a bust? What’s the relative strength of other social forces? Objective conditions are the environment within which a political actor moves.

Subjective conditions, though, are under the group’s control – how good is its strategy? How effective are its tactics? Is it correctly analyzing the objective conditions and acting accordingly?

When both objective and subjective conditions are good, a movement can succeed. Otherwise, it fails.

US leftists have no mass base inherited from their precursors. However, for the first time in decades, the overall objective conditions are favorable: most Millennials would rather live in a socialist or communist society. They overwhelmingly support and/or participate in the labor movement. Liberalism and conservatism are both struggling to break out of a sustained crisis of legitimacy. If there ever was a ripe time to revive mass socialism in the United States, it’s now.

But, the subjective conditions are caught in a negative feedback loop. Because of counter-strategic moralizing, revolutionaries aren’t able to strategize how to make their movement a meaningful presence in working-class life. That, in turn, keeps socialists disconnected from the working class at large – and without that living connection, there’s nothing to force revolutionaries away from moralizing. It’s like having the supplies and equipment to build a house, but never having learned how to use the tools.


 

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Mark Fisher

 

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Fredric Jameson

Do you believe revolution is possible?

Mark Fisher talks about “capitalist realism” – the sneaking sense that even if socialism would be a better system than capitalism, it’s never actually going to happen. Not here. Not really. Capitalism seems like it’s built into the real world, as natural as the rhythm of the seasons, not like something contingent, fragile, and temporary. Mass socialism (rather than hobbyist socialism, fringe socialism) does not currently exist in the US. So, the prospect of a revolution – a literal, overthrow-the-government working-class uprising – holds a place in the radical psyche similar to that of the Second Coming for mainline Protestants. It may be an article of faith, but it’s comfortably hypothetical. It isn’t actually meant to leave the indeterminate but distant future (and “after the revolution…” is how you start a joke).

So, why strategize for revolution? Capitalism is not, of course, a law of nature. It’s loose and limited in ways that “capitalist realism” can’t admit. Socialist revolution is possible; it’s happened before and it will happen again. But, contemporary leftists haven’t gotten to learn through practice that the working class can organize towards a revolutionary goal, creating institutions, parties, and a culture of solidarity and struggle. And without that, socialism is just an idea in their heads, not a living reality straining to come into being.

Before 2008, socialism was marginal because the objective conditions prevented a revival of the mass revolutionary movement. That was true for decades – and from that context, there emerged the subjective conditions that still define the Left. Why is organized leftism so disproportionately academic and middle-class? Well, academics manipulate ideas for a living, but don’t have to translate them into social realities. Of course they and their students gravitated towards Marxism. Before 2008, who else would have? Since then, though, the objective conditions have changed. Mass socialism is possible again.

So, how can the Left break out of its self-isolating feedback loop? It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

16 Comments »

  1. Very insightful. I agree that the left has no real plan to combat the extreme right. This will be very detrimental in achieving any real goals. I have seen so many groups that have been created to combat Trump and Neo-Nazis, who only throw out vague ideas and have no strategy or blue prints to their movement at all.

    Like

    • For all of the Left’s manifold failures, I don’t think that a lack of “blue prints” is one of them. If anything, the Left has clung far too tighly to its “blue prints” – and has sacrificed spontaneity and adaptability as a result.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. If you want to talk strategy I can tell you that Marxism has a destination in mind that I don’t want to go to. And no, it isn’t those other Marxists that betray anarchists and institute tyranny against the people they claim to act in the name of; spare me the “no-true-Marxist” arguments.

    As we design new strategies, let’s indeed put down and walk away from old shit that didn’t work, to the point of not giving it lip service even.

    When I stop hearing about Marxism like everyone is still lining up to suck the cool-aid out of Marx’s corpse cock, you’ll have my interest. The same is true for the rest of histories failures.

    Like

  3. While I appreciate the author’s underlying sentiment in terms of the need for strategic rather than moralistic thinking, her relentless ideological fixation on the industrial “Working Class” is extremely off-putting. And no matter how many times I see the phrase “mass work” used in a sentence, it always has the same ring to it as a teacher telling me I’m being sent to detention. If it’s “mass work” you’re looking for, then why not get a job working in a sweatshop for 8 cents a day? Those places will give you all of the “mass work” you can stomach. If you’re trying to resist the drudgery of capitalist labour, then maybe replicating it within your own “organizing” isn’t the best idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Less so the comments.”

      Perhaps an Angry Cat meme would have been more to your liking? Preferably wearing a hammer-and-sickle hat with a caption that reads “I r the Proletari8.”

      Like

      • I can’t imagine anyone from Tumblr finding anything they approve of from the readership of this site. The whole subtext of the articles about virtue capitalism and woke nationalism is, “fuck Tumblr”.

        Like

  4. This is a useful essay for sure. I’d like to see the left focus on building effective unions. People want to be treated fairly, and live decent material lives and they’ll support policies that fill those needs. I live in a state that has elected a far right governor twice, but at the same time approved ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicare, increase taxes on the rich to fund public schools, (not to mention approved same sex marriage, and recreational use of marijuana). The right is now taking aim at our ballot initiative process of course.

    Point is I think the “masses” think there should always be just cause to fire someone, to evict someone, to deny them health care, etc. It’s the arbitrariness of capitalism that offends folks, and effective unions can end the arbitrary rule of the corporate boardroom over the rest of us and show concrete results.

    Like

    • “The Masses” do not exist – at least not as anything other than an ideological construction within the leftist imagination. To speak of “what the Masses want” is therefore to express one’s own desires through the mouths of other people – and to proclaim oneself the voice of a heterogeneous population.

      As for “effective unions,” you might want to get yourself a time machine and travel back to the 1930s when unions could claim at least the pretense of relevance to prevailing socioeconomic conditions. In an age of industrial automation, information technology, and a burgeoning service sector, unions have become a relic of a bygone era and are best consigned to the dustbin of history.

      And finally, regarding your “ballot initiatives,” a fatal flaw of liberal/Marxist ideology has always been that the State can be used for ‘humanitarian’ purposes. Guess what? It can’t.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a common trope amongst the uninformed to imagine trade unions as some relic of the past. That’s certainly what the capitalists want folks to believe. They are more afraid of trade unions than black clad window smashers I can tell you that. I’m a UAW member myself, and while a lot of my brothers and sisters went for Trump, we still have a contract that gives us living wages and benefits and protects us from arbitrary abuse. I would expect the mass of folks laboring at fast food joints, daycare centers, landscape companies and the like would benefit from union representation.

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  5. If you want to participate in unions in order to gain concessions from those in power and improve the quality of your daily life, then, by all means, go to it. Just don’t confuse your pursuit of those concessions with any struggle against capitalism. Most union bureaucracies have long since been incorporated into the machinery of global capitalism, and the ones that haven’t (e.g. the I.W.W.) have proven themselves so incapable of adapting to changing times that they pose no threat to it whatsoever.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Anyone can type. I, on the other hand, give you the gift of my mitigated genius and ask for nothing in return. You’re welcome. 🙂

        Like

      • *Which is to say my UNmitigated genius… which is made all the more self-evident by my previous hastily-typed comment.

        In any case, if you were looking for a game of “Who’s The Better Radical,” then find yourself another opponent. In the immortal words of Damon Wayans on the ’90s sketch comedy show, In Living Color, “Homie don’t play dat.”

        Like

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