Tactical and Strategic reflections on #OccupyWallStreet: is it wise to only use peaceful protest tactics?

Excerpted from Federico Campagna:

“Once partners, State and Capital are today developing separate strategies. Capital’s strategy articulates through an unprecedented concentration of economic wealth at the expense of both national states and society, while the State implements its strategy through a vertiginous expansion of its military role within national (or, in the case of the EU, communitarian) borders. Both strategies, it is clear, exploit the institution of the state of exception as their main ground of action.

The third and, so far, losing position is currently occupied by civil society. In the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the ‘99%’. Faced by the vertical race of the military State and predatory Capital above the law, civil society seems to be stuck in a position of submission to those same discredited sets of laws. Exemplary, in this sense, is the claim of the majority of the 99% movement of enacting a peaceful and lawful protest. The rhetoric of acceptable and colorful demonstrations, with their paraphernalia of fancy dress, witty banners and pretty couples kissing in the streets, goes exactly toward this direction. Paradoxically, the majority of today’s ‘indignant’ civil society seems to have decided to embrace its own, solitary subjection to the law as a weapon against its lawless opponents. Even more strangely, vast strata of that same movement seem to have chosen the State as their unlikely ally in their fight against Capital, in the name of an ideal universal welfare State. Even, if necessary, an authoritarian State, strong enough to stop the drift of Capital above the law.

Exemplary, in this sense, is the current situation in Italy. After almost two consecutive decades, Italians seem to have finally decided to put an end to the Berlusconi era. This political shift is clearly represented both by the results of recent polls, and by the resurgence of popular, grassroots movements on the left, such as the Italian ‘indignants’ movement. Despite their use of the street as a stage for political intervention, the general character of these movements is essentially social-democratic and hardly classifiable as extremist. The Italian constitution and code of laws are often held by demonstrators as symbols of their demands, and magistrates, police and judges are most often praised by protesters as their ideal allies in the overthrowing of Berlusconi’s corrupt regime. It is in the name of the law, and on behalf of the law, that the Italian ‘indignants’ are taking to the streets in their thousands.

At the same time, a fringe of the Italian movement is articulating its demands in a very different way. As witnessed in the huge demonstrations of 14 December 2010 and 15 October 2011 in Rome, as well as throughout Summer 2011 in Val di Susa, a loose federation of a few thousand individuals – usually identified by the press as ‘black bloc’ – has opted for a more confrontational and even violent political strategy, outside of the law and in the name of radical social change. Despite their common interest in social justice and their common opposition to the Berlusconi government and the rule of Capital, these two sides of the Italian movement seem to be increasingly at odds with each other. During the October demonstration in Rome, for example, peaceful ‘indignants’ have several times actively opposed their ‘black-bloc’ counterparts, while the parliamentary representatives of the social democratic left have promptly requested heavy-handed intervention of the police against the non-peaceful fringes.

Something similar happened in Greece during the mass demonstrations of 20 October 2011, when militants of the KKE communist party, armed with sticks and stones, joined forces with the police to attack the anarchist fringes, eventually engaging in a proper street battle with the ‘blacks’ in front of the Greek Parliament.

Admittedly, the decision of acting above or below the law has always been a major line of demarcation between the two ends of the political spectrum on left. However, such a demarcation seems strikingly paradoxical today, as both the State and Capital chase each other high up above the legal system. Is there still a use for civil society today in heralding the supremacy of liberal law, when no one but that same civil society is subjected to its restrictions? Also, and perhaps more urgently, is it possible for civil society today to develop its own discourse on the state of exception, in an attempt to reclaim its own sovereignty?

Certainly, the petty vandalism of some street protests does not automatically produce civil sovereignty by the mere violation of some laws. However, on the other hand, the criminalization of any divergence from the law and the fundamentalist obedience to it, as proposed by the Italian ‘indignants’, certainly contributes to closing any alternative to the current attempts to gain full sovereignty by both the military State and global, predatory Capital. If it is true that the imposition of a new political discourse necessitates the elaboration of a concrete set of autonomous, alternative policies, it is equally true that breaking away from the framework of the law is a necessary step towards the possible implementation of such policies. In this sense, we must interpret historical examples of civil disobedience, such as those famously lead by Ghandi in India, as the minimum ground of such a break, that is, of the creation of an emancipatory state of exception to the law.

Drawing on Schmidt’s intuition, we, the fragmented universe of civil society, should consider today the opportunity of developing our own discourse on the state of exception with the aim of claiming our own sovereignty. Disobedience, and not submission to the law, is the starting point of any emancipatory politics which aims at constructing an autonomous sovereignty of civil society (or, better, civil societies). It might happen that such disobedience requires behavior commonly considered as violent, and decisions about the use of violence certainly demand maximum care. However, considerations of the use of violence must be understood within the strategic outlook of the struggle for emancipation, rather than through the lens of fundamentalist legalism. It is a matter of efficacy, rather than of legality. As it is known, legality follows sovereignty, and is docile in the hands of the rulers.”

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