10.17.2008

Platypus: Corpses in their Mouths

To be honest I don't really want to give any extra attention to the folks at Platypus, a Chicago-based Marxist student reading group. But through the publication of their newsletter and their hosting of open discussions they've earned some attention within Chicago activist, Left and anarchist circles, and, no matter one's opinion on their politics or behavior, they deserve a fair amount of respect for attempting to reinvigorate rigorous theoretical analysis and challenge others. Chicago activists -- and certainly this goes for the anarchists too -- by and large seem to play with kid gloves, preferring superficial agreement and a weird united front Leftist politics to engaging critically with themselves and one another. The resentment and anger (rather than attack, intellectual and otherwise) generated by Platypus is indicative of this.

The Platypus Project as a whole deserves an excruciating response, if only to finally bury their project of resurrecting decaying corpses of the Left, but I'll save that for another time. Instead I'll start by hacking at a weak branch, two pieces in their latest October 2008 newsletter that attempt to critique protest violence at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

The first essay, A polemic on protest: Reflections on the RNC resistance, displays a total misunderstanding of the goals and motivations of many of those who participated in confrontational and destructive action at the RNC, misconstrues the violence that did happen, and in general is a specious and confusing conflation of ideas and experiences.

In it, the author states she refused participation in illegal protests at the RNC for two reasons: one, because the possibility of arrest wasn't financially feasible. While this is a legitimate reason, it implies for those who did choose to do so arrest was financially feasible. This was definitely not the case for everyone, and those who elected to participate likely weighed a variety of factors -- say, financial feasibility, legal and other consequences on one's life vs. participation in joyful destruction. To give the benefit of the doubt, this is a subjective first-person piece, so it's inclusion probably wasn't to raise doubts about "trust fund" summit hoppers but explain why the author made her reasonable decision.

The second is that she didn't believe she would agree with the whole agenda (presumably of the many others who would also be doing illegal things). This begs the question of whether this is the author's consistent position -- is agreeing with an entire agenda the prerequisite for engaging in illegal action, any political action, or anything at all? This isn't clarified, but for the sake of the argument I'll presume she means illegal action, seeing as she did join the legal anti-war march but presumably holds positions counter to the mish-mash of groups participating (it would, in fact, be impossible to agree with the entire agenda and retain one's sanity). And from here begins the convoluted critique of violence at the RNC.

The author is not a pacifist, and the critique is presented from a strategic standpoint, as she states: "Given tangible goals, sometimes destruction makes sense. ... The violence at the RNC seems to me completely goal-less." Looking at history, she says, "The Autonomen, the original Black Bloc, protected their squats through aggressive confrontation. This is a real, concrete goal. Fighting to end ‘Republican’ ideology is not. Breaking a Department store window will not end American conservativism."

The confrontational protests that were planned were never intended to end republican or conservative ideology. Groups like Unconventional Action and the RNC Welcoming Committee were fairly clear about their goals of disrupting the conventions: "we can expect the 2008 conventions to be a major flashpoint. If we successfully disrupt them, this will inaugurate a new era of oppositional activity." Anarchists aren't delusional enough to think that a protest -- no matter how wild and crazy -- would convince delegates and politicans to change their minds. The goal was to come together as a force; to exert power; to create a wild and free space in a prison, under the watch of the guards and, with luck, expanding it beyond their watch.

A communique from a section of the RNC black bloc stated it thusly: "We make these attacks because we wish to improve our conditions immediately and to do so in way that violates the peace treaty signed by the managers of politics." The goal of the Platypus author is a political one, seeking protest, compromise and negotiation with authority; the goal of the black bloc is open revolt whenever possible:
... to even accept the goal of shutting down the convention requires accepting the discourse of power the RNC itself represents. It is a gathering of figureheads, nothing more. It is not a strike against the heart of the system; at best it is a site where we can manifest social war.
The Platypus author then criticizes property destruction as creating more work for working class folks (as if they'd have the day off otherwise!) and inserts an off-topic tangent about hypothetical illegal action at immigrant rights marches, neither of which deserve a response here.

The author then makes two assertions about social movement that warrant special attention. Critically she says , "When polarization occurs within the 'movement' itself, we become weaker, more divided and further and further away from the revolution," and that to create that unity, "there needs to be an idea big enough for everyone to agree on, an idea that takes precedence over the fun of diverse tactics." Her contention is that "the movement" (anti-war? anti-capitalist? anarchist? the "real movement towards communism"?) is a vessel towards revolution, something that deserves investigation in its own right. It also presumes that all the tendencies present at the RNC were a part of the same movement and should be unified (that Maoists, social democrats, greens and conspiracy theorists have something substantial in common with anarchists). And who is everyone that should agree on this idea? Activists and anti-capitalists? The working class? The whole world? More worrisome, what kind of idea is so big everyone can agree on it? The only answer I can find is the one which the author rejects -- negation.

I don't want to agree with everyone. I want a world where individuals are unique, and our unique needs and desires are taken seriously. I want to disagree openly and be free to act for myself as I see fit. That the author prefers The One Big Idea to many ideas speaks to the archaic and maniacal Leftist notions of revolutionary vanguards, Red Armies and gulags, even if it drapes itself in the language of nonviolence or pacifism.

To demonstrate the power of One Big Idea, the author poses a thought experiment to demonstrate the power of nonviolent resistance, using the tired (sic) and true method of getting arrested on television:
Imagine for a moment that the RNC Welcoming Committee decided to declare a complete commitment to non-violence. More Americans will participate in nonviolent actions that have less potential for getting them arrested than violent action that will, imagine that instead of figuring out how to hide hammers in their pants, the RNC Welcoming Committee went out and organized every single group that attended the mainstream march. Imagine now that those 50,000 people sitting in the intersection, blocking the GOP buses. The cops wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. The world would watch, and the radical left would gain sympathy and support.
I think the cops could easily find something to do with themselves, and with us. The author wants a media spectacle, not revolt. She wants a voice against capitalism, or whatever, to have a place in political dialogue. The goal is not to incite rebellion or empower the oppressed but to garner political points for the managers of resistance (presumably those who grasp the One Big Idea).

Attempting to drive home her point, the author says, "the protesters during the Civil Rights movement did not fight back, the media captured it all, and they gained the vast majority of support from our nation." Not only does this idea totally fail to explore the nuance of the impact of the media on the civil rights movement, it is a lie. Beyond completely ignoring the Black Panthers, AIM and many others dedicated to self-defense (and their relationship to the media), the perspective offered totally ignores the daily social struggle that happened beyond the camera lens as well as black revolt in the inner city, like the Watts riots or the response to MLK's death: spontaneous, personal and violent revolt beyond the control of the movement's directors.

The black bloc communique preemptively responded to the predictable criticism in favor of spectacular resistance:
Stuck somewhere between clips from Iraq, quirky news anchors, and human interest stories, our “message” lingers momentarily as merely another piece of information to form an opinion about. To act as a social force in the street is not to give the media a clear message, rather it is to purposefully disrupt the chain of messaging that is embodied in the protest-media-audience script.
Not to mention that the Welcoming Committee did attempt to organize folks towards civil disobedience, and spent a year traveling the country and sharing its plans. The WC was not about property destruction but inhibiting the delegates, and Leftists by and large chose not to participate in any sort of confrontation whatsoever. Leftists reveal themselves for what most of us knew they are -- totally uninterested in actual revolt. The planning was structured exactly so that folks who wanted less confrontational tactics would have plenty of space to employ them; the entire strategy was largely based around this, not street fighting. If the author wanted "blockading the GOP buses, blocking intersections, radical dance parties in public space" (all three of which did occur, anyhow), the best way to make that come to fruition is not chiding folks for not acting how you want them to behave but opening up space to make your desires possible.

In a tired repetition of pacifist rhetorical criticism, the author says, "A comrade noted that she thought we were supposed to be protesting the violence and hate perpetrated by the Bush/McCain regime, not re-enacting it." As if we were there to protest Bush or McCain. As if state terror is equivilent to the revolt of the oppressed.

Yet, rather than analyze the violence that occurred, the author lumps everything together in a manner more reflective of the news media than a friend-in-struggle. The acts of violence (committed by anarchists, that is) were varied in degree -- news boxes and road signs were thrown into streets, dumpsters were overturned, windows smashed, cop cars smashed up, tires slashed; objects were thrown at police, at least one officer was pushed over while failing to arrest someone; bodies were used to block delegates and some received a liquid shower, and buses were attacked. If this amounts to a re-enactment of the violence committed by the government, I'm Saddam Hussein. Only the most ideological leftwing pacifists could miscalculate the death and destruction wrought by the government as being equal to a few broken windows.

"Diversity of tactics" isn't about fun; that is, merely about fun. This paragraph from the aforementioned communique is playful, but the following paragraph situates the conflict in the context of participating in and expanding social war. It questions the purpose of all symbolic protest. Without social conflict, a protest is no different from a tent revival, wherein the believers and weirdos gather and reaffirm their faith:
We stress that no one has felt a comparable pleasure in America in the last five years. No amount of bodily fluid, mixed with syzurp, swirled together to the sound of Lil’ Wayne’s “A Milli” could concentrate the joy felt when stones collapsed bank windows. Ecstasy was the vandalized cop car. Music was the hissing tire punctures. Glee was the foot inserted into the gendarme’s paunch. Like we freed our companions from the police’s grip, our collective force will rip words from restrictive reference. From here on, beauty, decadence, and orgy can only connote immediate destruction....
We don’t give a fuck about a summit, but we can use it as a springboard, parasitically sucking life and leaving behind anemic remains. We were there this time because we do not yet have the force to manifest such conflict outside of the context of mass mobilizations. One of our goals is to take all of the force directed against false epicenters of power and redirect it into social conflicts that have the actual potential to disrupt the flows of this system. We are abandoning the vapid discourse of protest towards a concrete offensive in the social war.
The position represented here isn't one which favors small groups over mass action; it isn't about clandestine revolutionary cells or "terrorism", as the Platypus Review has hinted at previously, both disastrous and authoritarian methods of organizing. Leftists, as those who wish to be managers of capital and humanity, are unable to comprehend social war and the rejection of politics.

The second article, simply titled "Violence at the RNC," is somewhat more interesting in that it tries to relate these spasms of protest violence to the helplessness of today's protest:
The helplessness of the anti-war movement has turned the Left’s disappointments and frustrations into pathology. Energy is directed, not towards revolutionary change, but against social integration.
This is a fascinating assertion, but it utterly fails in placing the protests in context -- it situates the RNC within the anti-war movement and not the expression of a tendency that has been stewing since the 90s. That is, the anti-globalization movement saw the same experiences of protest violence, in North America as well as Europe, motivated by joy and victory rather than disappointment and frustration, and led to a surge in sympathy for anarchism and the Left and the exploration of new and exciting forms of revolt. By contrast, the anti-war movement has been a complete failure and never broken out of the constraints of begging our leaders to be compassionate. The RNC experience was a return to forms developed during the anti-globalization period abandoned during the anti-war movement.

Nevertheless, the main idea is that consistent failure has made the goal of protesters the "creating a wall of resistance against one’s own inevitable absorption into society." The authors say:
Naturalizing helplessness, today’s protesters celebrate simple altercations with the police as victories. Violence seems to cleanse the individual of their ‘bourgeois’ conformity. Attending a protest means breaking with the decadence of consumer society, creating a ‘prefigurative’ space, trying to ‘create the new world in the palm of the old.’ Each blow of the truncheon dramatizes the difference between protestor and police. The rougher the conflict, the more the protestor feels free from the burden of society.
The authors come close to valid criticism, though their conclusion stops far too short. After all, the critique shouldn't be merely of the content of a particular protests, in this case the limited and isolated violence at the RNC, but the helplessness of protest and activist martyrdom in general. The psychological effects noted in the paragraph aren't only experienced by simply who are beaten or participate in violence, but activists generally. One can see this in any activist report-back, when no matter what happened on the ground the action is considered a "victory" without consideration for reality and often delusional analysis on the implications for strategy (usually, keep doing the same thing).

But the ideas being pointed towards here have been developed before:
The militant or activist is a specialist in social change or revolution. The specialist recruits others to her own tiny area of specialism in order to increase her own power and thus dispel the realisation of her own powerlessness.
One can't blame the authors for not having read "Give Up Activism," as it wasn't written by Marx or any academic. This is a flaw seen repeatedly throughout the Platypus Project -- they think there is some novelty to their constant refrain "The Left is Dead," when anarchists have been saying it for years, and saying it much better.
Activism is a form partly forced upon us by weakness. Like the joint action taken by Reclaim the Streets and the Liverpool dockers - we find ourselves in times in which radical politics is often the product of mutual weakness and isolation. If this is the case, it may not even be within our power to break out of the role of activists. It may be that in times of a downturn in struggle, those who continue to work for social revolution become marginalised and come to be seen (and to see themselves) as a special separate group of people. It may be that this is only capable of being corrected by a general upsurge in struggle when we won't be weirdos and freaks any more but will seem simply to be stating what is on everybody's minds. However, to work to escalate the struggle it will be necessary to break with the role of activists to whatever extent is possible - to constantly try to push at the boundaries of our limitations and constraints.

Historically, those movements that have come the closest to de-stabilising or removing or going beyond capitalism have not at all taken the form of activism. Activism is essentially a political form and a method of operating suited to liberal reformism that is being pushed beyond its own limits and used for revolutionary purposes. The activist role in itself must be problematic for those who desire social revolution.

The Platypus authors do not push themselves far enough; perhaps their own entanglement with activism prevents them from critiquing themselves or their own participation. Although they make the claim, "Once, protest demonstrated the vitality and relevancy of the demand for social transformation. Thousands in the streets could not be ignored," they do not follow it up with any analysis of why protests were once vital and relevant or why these people could not be ignored, implying that it's the supposed "devolution" of the activist from her ideal state of being (perhaps when she is focused on the One Big Idea?) rather than the class system which has made protest activism irrelevant.
But protest has devolved into an insular subculture of self-hatred, frustration, and anxiety derived from a pathological attitude towards social integration. Activists who equate social domination with their experience with tear gas, tazers and rubber bullets block the development of a more serious and effective Leftist politics.
Were only it so easy to block the development of Leftist politics...

So as to make the piece reek a bit less of Leftist garbage, I would re-write the last line as "Activists attached to their role block the development of more serious and effective forms of revolt." The author's point about social integration is valid, but this also has been explored more interestingly in depth by anarchists in the old lifestyle anarchist vs. social anarchist debate. Anarchists are well aware that social domination and state repression goes well beyond isolated outbursts of violence at demonstrations, and Leftists have all but withdrawn from the realm of confrontational protests, so it is difficult to decipher to whom this piece is written.

These pieces from the Platypus Review help demonstrate the irrelevancy of Platypus to individuals interested in participating in and expanding the social war against the ruling class and destroying the government and capitalism to live in a wild and free world.

5 comments:

T.S. said...

yes.

subcomandante hermione granger said...

This is one of my favorite things i've seen you write, but two things:

I agree the plats deserve at least some respect for attempting to inject theoretical discussion into the left, but let's be careful... That's not what was happening with this article.

For their part, this was nothing but blatant opportunism. This article had nothing to do with critically examining anarchist praxis. It is an attempt to smear all those who don't adhere to the platform.

For the author's part, I personally find it completely despicable for a self-described anarchist (lol) to air out our garbage in public, in a marxist newsletter no less. I'm sure she was right in line with the iso publically condemning the holy name 6, or maybe at least for their property damage.

One last thing that deserves attention is the author's characterization of the welcoming committee as such:
"imagine that instead of figuring out how to hide hammers in their pants, the RNC Welcoming Committee went out and organized every single group that attended the mainstream march."
You already covered much of the strategic diarrhea here, but one other thing. If she wasn't aware, the RNC8 is facing some pretty heavy legal charges, and public opinion matters in these situations. Going out of her way to characterize the WC as hooligans can have very real , pernicious consequences. So much for solidarity...

Eric said...

This is amazing. It's incredibly well put, and well needed. Platypus is as dangerous as it is repulsive and there is no doubt that they are slowly but surely attempting to assimilate the left (as is common among vanguard commies).

I have alot more to say and much more to contribute but this(the internet) is hardly the venue.

I don't know who you are, but don't ever stop.

Anonymous said...

While I'm not a member of nor an apologist for Platypus, I don't feel as though you really accurately criticized either of these articles. Both bring up some interesting and valid points that anarchist might do well by confronting and understanding. You tend to completely ignore the theses though and nitpick through obscure details of the arguments.

I think criticism makes us stronger, part of that is being open to accepting and understanding certain criticisms. A huge problem in the anarchist "movement" in the U.S. is that people continually tend to pat themselves on the back and coddle one another rather than challenge them to think in new directions. We've grown subcultural and isolated and have a lack of new and critical ideas as a result. I've seen many radicals and potential radicals get swept up in Obamamania, I've also heard lots of anarchists criticize them or blame liberals for this. The reason so many radicalized people have slipped down the slope of liberalism is because we have been effectively irrelevant in offering any real hope or change. I honestly believe that the RNC protests provided absolutely no venue for any true social transformation to occur.

I do have criticisms of each of the articles but they aren't entirely relevant at this point. I think your politics are a bit confused and tend to fetishize violence.

As per Raechels article I believe the statement that "The violence at the RNC seems to me completely goal-less" seems to be indicative of what her thesis is. And while she is a bit all over the place and I can see how some of arguments to support this thesis are lacking I think statement itself is spot on. And also, this isn't a friggin peer reviewed journal it's a local newsletter you don't have to try and point out obscure flaws that are mostly not important to the main argument anyways.

You didn't directly address this point but you did say "The goal was to come together as a force; to exert power; to create a wild and free space in a prison, under the watch of the guards and, with luck, expanding it beyond their watch."

I'm interested in how anarchists exerted power? Anarchists have failed by choosing to focus their efforts on a situation in which they are extremely weak and then thinking it's a victory because they came out alive.

"We make these attacks because we wish to improve our conditions immediately and to do so in way that violates the peace treaty signed by the managers of politics." In all honesty I think it was an extremely masochistic event that did quite the opposite of liberate the participants conditions of existence. Instead rather several face severe prison sentences and many more face minor legal battles, and because of our bizarre united front politics everyone with anarchist sentiments is expected to carry the financial burden for the irresponsible and uncritical behavior of other anarchists. Seriously, we are constantly shooting ourselves in the foot.

Do you honestly fucking believe that working class people think of a bunch of summer-squatters who haven't ever had a real job or adult responsibilities throwing rocks at the police know jack about their liberation?

Criminal Anarchy said...

I guess I didn't explicitly address the first author's point about the violence being goal-less, but my reading of the black bloc communique is that they would perhaps agree, inasmuch as the Plat author would like for the violence to serve a greater purpose than causing damage to the targeted institutions.

I agree that we need to be harsher on ourselves for the RNC experience -- I was and am critical of the RNC protests (because of and not in spite of my participation), and I'm even more disappointed at the lack of critical self-reflection that has come out since then. I don't consider the RNC a victory (I don't even think we should gauge our experiences in this way), but I don't think summit stuff is a total waste.

No, it doesn't offer space for social transformation. I think the idea that mass mobilizations are a place for politics/dialogue needs to be dumped. I do think it offers a worthwhile petri dish for confrontation as well as the possibility of "energizing the base."

I went to the RNC for the same reason I was downtown on election night... to see if something exciting would happen. In Saint Paul there was an attempt to exert power; I think the several hours of rioting is an expression of this. I don't know that there were illusions (at the very least on behalf of the writers of the communique) the situation would be more than this.

Anarchists are weak in every regard, and St. Paul was another demonstration of this. But I think there are a variety of lessons to learn from St. Paul.

Your last comment seems something of a red herring but I'll bite. You're right on that no one would trust young punk kids (which make up a lot of the Chicago and US anarchist 'scene') to have their backs; but it's not because they're throwing rocks, it's because their experiences are vastly different, like you say. But this is the situation in which we find ourselves at the moment, rocks or no rocks. Getting beyond this doesn't necessitate putting down the rocks but finding other meaningful ways to participate in social struggle and having something valuable to offer to others.