In movements like the struggle for economic justice or against the authoritarian state (Occupy, Black Lives Matter, etc.), we usually see arguments for “diversity of tactics” made by radicals against liberal criticism of black block tactics like smashing windows and things of that sort. There’s still a lot of that kind of criticism, obviously — for example liberal reactions to the smashing of Bank of America windows, torching of limosines and whaling the almighty tar out of neo-Nazi celebrity Richard Spencer. But lately, since Trump’s election, I think there’s been at least as much criticism — much of it quite contemptuous — from Leftists dismissing liberal tactics like peaceful marches, factual corrections of Trump’s lies, denials of legitimacy, etc., as ineffectual (“This is not how you beat fascism”). And I think appeals to diversity of tactics apply just as much to the latter case as to the former.
First of all it’s true, as many Leftist critics say, that Trump’s hardcore fascist voters simply don’t care if liberal commentators, mainstream journalists or fact-check websites prove his statements to be lie; they just laugh. And they just laugh at repeated statements that “this is not normal,” from liberals who judge the behavior of Trump and his henchmen from traditional civics textbook standards of legitimate behavior.
But that’s not the point. We’re not talking about converting hardcore fascists or racists; they may be his base, but they were probably well under half of total Trump voters. The Trump vote included a sizeable number of people who voted for him only reluctantly, and are already experiencing buyer’s remorse. Some of them voted for a black man in 2012, but just couldn’t stomach Clinton. Bad as she is, I really have to wonder about someone who considered Clinton less tolerable than Trump; but be that as it may they’re not fanatics and more of them regret their decision every day. And then there are the people who voted for Obama, and normally would have voted for a Democrat this year, but just stayed home because… well, you know. All these groups are reachable by exposing Trump’s lies, showing them how he’s materially hurting him, and pointing out his extreme deviations from previous standards of normalcy.
I’m not saying all these things are enough by themselves. They must be combined with some demonstration — even a small one — that resistance exists, and that it’s effective. We got that to some extent with the post-election protests, and to a larger extent with concrete actions by advocacy groups and state and local officials demonstrating their intent to resist authoritarian federal encroachments. But the demonstrations on Inauguration Day, and the Womens’ Marches around the world — in Washington alone twice the depressed turnout at Trump’s swearing-in — were a huge show of willingness to resist.
John Robb, a national security theorist who specializes in networked resistance movements and writes at Global Guerrillas, sees it as the potential spark for what he calls an “open source insurgency” against Trump (“The Open Source Protest to Oust Trump,” January 21). He has used that term in the past to refer to Al Qaeda Iraq, the Tahrir Square movement, M15 and Syntagma, Occupy, and the insurgencies for Sanders and Trump last year.
The Women’s March provided what Robb calls a “plausible promise,” which is essential for open source insurgencies. In practical terms, it’s more or less what I described as a demonstration that resistance exists and it’s effective. That starts a feedback of further protests, with strengthen the plausible promise and generate still more protests. These have brought down autocratic regimes like the Shah’s, Ceaucescu’s and Mubarak’s.
Robb dismisses criticism that all the attendees at the Women’s March, or all the potential components of an anti-Trump insurgency, are not on the same page about objectives or tactics. Like liberals and members of the verticalist Left who dismissed Occupy for not having “representatives and a platform,” they miss the point. The only thing they need to agree on is the demand for Trump to go, and be replaced by someone or something that is not as bigoted or pro-plutocrat as he is.
And they don’t need to agree on tactics or operate from a single playbook. Far better is a stigmergic, permissionless movement of movements, with a full-court press by all sub-currents, tendencies and affinity groups engaged in whatever they feel most comfortable with and they are best at. The most agreement that’s necessary is to cut each other some slack in the way of tolerating diversity of tactics, or at least putting more effort into fighting Trump than into criticizing each other’s methods.
To my fellow occupants of the left end of the anti-Trump spectrum, I would add that, like it or not, we won’t win without the help of liberals and center-left types — including those who voted for Clinton, and even those who continue to support her. And like it or not — pace Robb — short of impeachment Trump is less likely to be removed by insurrection or replaced by a soviet of workers’ deputies, than by a Democratic candidate in 2020. I say, without any apologies, that this will help our cause. I argued earlier, when I thought Clinton was likely to win, that — awful, authoritarian neoliberal war hawk though she is — hers would likely be a caretaker administration in which both the country and the Democratic Party would shift further leftward. And more importantly, it would be a more conducive environment for social, economic and technological shifts outside the state towards economic decentralism, self-managed and networked institutions, and commons-based peer production, without fear of large-scale state repression. I think these shifts will continue under four years of Trump; but they’ll continue that must faster under even the most shamelessly opportunistic neoliberal Democrat (think Cory Booker), as surely as they would have under a Clinton administration. And given the way Berniecrats have already started taking over party machinery in states where he won the primaries, and the replacement of a four-year contingent of Boomers by one of Millennials, there’s a pretty good chance the 2020 Democratic nominee will be significantly better than Clinton or Booker.
Either way, as an anarchist, I don’t see electoral politics as the main avenue — or even a significant one — for positive action to build the kind of society we want. But — again — I make no apologies for offering aid to those fighting to replace the current regime with one more conducive to our process of building counter-institutions.
In the meantime, mass demonstrations aren’t the only kind of resistance we’ve got. Divisions within the state threaten to severely weaken Trump. Even though they’re not exactly our allies, large blocks within the ruling machinery — including not only officials at the state and local level, but disgruntled members of the permanent bureaucracy and “Deep State” at the federal — will likely be quietly resisting and monkey-wrenching Trump in ways we can scarcely imagine. These include sabotage like bureaucratic delay and working to rule, as well as leaks from all levels of the bureaucracy. Malcolm Gladwell noted in a recent interview that it will be the easiest time ever for journalists to get dirt from very high-ranking “anonymous sources.” You can bet that whatever kompromat Putin has on Trump, it pales in comparison to what’s lying around in the basements at Ft. Meade and Langley. And remember — Edward Snowden wasn’t a high-ranking official. He was just some schmoe contract worker who know how to download stuff onto a thumb drive; the NSA has no way of knowing how many other people have done, or continue to do, the same thing.
We saw some limited displays of what looked to be sabotage from the national security bureaucracy, via leaks and so forth, against the Bush administration after the scandals surrounding Richard Clarke and Valerie Plame. Some speculated it would evolve into a full-blown war by the Deep State to unseat Bush in the 2004 election. It didn’t happen — that time.
Put together mass resistance to encroachments by the authoritarian state, and sabotage by disgrutled state functionaries at every level of government, and you get what Frances Fox Piven calls for: “Throw Sand in The Gears of Everything” (The Nation, Jan. 18). And such throwing of sand in the gears, she argues, deepens elite cleavages at the very top.
Even ordinary householders can take in and shield immigrants. And all of us can render registries useless by insisting on registering ourselves as Muslims or Mexicans or Moldovians. A sanctuary movement gives lots of people a role that matters. Most important, in our complex federal system, where the policies of the national government depend on cooperation by state and local authorities, these local movements have the potential to block initiatives by the incoming Trump regime.
If movements are to become an important force in the politics of the Trump era, they will have to be movements of a somewhat different kind from the labor, civil-rights, and LGBTQ activism of the recent past that we usually celebrate. Those were movements focused on progress, on winning measures that would remedy long-standing injustices, and they were movements that some elites also endorsed. Now the protests will have to aim not at winning, but at halting or foiling initiatives that threaten harm—either by redistributing wealth to the very top (the Trump tax and energy plans), or by eliminating existing political rights (the cancellation of DACA, the Obama executive order that protected undocumented-immigrant children, known as Dreamers), or by jeopardizing established protections and benefits (the looming prospect of privatizing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, or the threat to turn funding for public education into a system of vouchers for charter schools). So how do resistance movements win—if they win—in the face of an unrelentingly hostile regime? The answer, I think, is that by blocking or sabotaging the policy initiatives of the regime, resistance movements can create or deepen elite and electoral cleavages.
Even the most conventional and civics texty form of such cleavages — this is me talking, not Piven — like peeling off the three most moderate Republicans to deny Trump a Senate majority, is more likely when the public is perceived to be angry and unruly, and Trump to have feet of clay.
And our own most important order of business — actually building the kind of society we want, right now — is also an important component of the resistance. Creating ways to support ourselves and each other outside the state — small-scale open-source manufacturing in neighborhood cooperative workshops with tools a handful of blue collar salaries could pay for, permaculture community gardens on vacant lots and rooftops, edible landscaping on yards in the cul de sacs, community land trusts, squats in abandoned buildings, community policing by armed Black Panther patrols and Copwatch, community technology initiatives in cheap, open source off-grid power and waste recycling, barter currencies, free culture and open source software, multiple-household cohousing institutions, micro-villages, friendly societies and other associations for pooling costs and risks and organizing mutual aid, new radical labor unions on the pattern of OURWalmart and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, revived guilds and cooperative temp agencies for freelancers and precarious workers — every one of these things is not only a building block of the future post-capitalist society, but strengthens us against Trump and his ilk right now. And every one of these things shows people that, while Trump’s promises of help only lead to betrayal, our own ability to create a better world for ourselves working together is very real. And that is a plausible promise indeed.
Many of us are afraid. We’d be fools not to. But they should be more afraid.
Lead image from the Women’s March on Norway by Lynn D. Rosentrater.