Anarchy in the Ranks

The civilian death toll in Iraq is now over 100,000. The U.S. army amasses outside Fallujah and thousands of Iraqis flee their homes expecting another round of mayhem. Every successive month has seen more lives lost—both civilian and military. And what is more, we have somehow managed to elect the monster architect of this accelerated imperialism back into office for four more years.

Props, however misplaced it seems, to the thousands who worked so hard to topple Bush and to the thousands who came out in protest at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in New York. Props also to the hundreds of organizations and individuals who made it happen—from United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Not in our Name (NION) to Labor Against War and the Still We Rise, Poor Peoples March activists. Now that the elections are over, it is time to think about how we surface above the digression of this event in which we are without a doubt trapped. I must thank the numerous responses to my last editorial, but especially Shailja and Shemon. It's good to hear that these occasional writings can be useful in some ways. In his "angled response," Shemon calls for an "engagement" with communities of color—a long-term engagement which will, as he explains, necessarily produce wider engagement in more "abstract" issues of imperialism, etc. The question then is how to engage. What are the conditions under which this engagement becomes possible? What resources and political strategy may work in making this engagement possible?

The register I wish to begin on however is a different one—a set of observations that willy-nilly settled in my mind as we marched along 7th Avenue on August 29th and later into Central Park. As we left Central Park, my comrade from Youth Solidarity Summer (YSS) Prerana Reddy asked an interesting question. "Why," she asked, "is it that a protest chant started by one group in a march like today refuses to spread—become a roar, a cry in unison? Why is it that it remains localized while in other countries I've seen one call, one cry, pick up and travel and become the call of the crowd?" The answer, in some ways, is simple: each slogan, each call, for a variety of reasons, does not speak to another group. It does not resonate with them. It does not evoke in them their passion. It is not precisely what they were out there for. Later that evening Rupal Oza another YSS-FOIL comrade pointed out that the RNC protest was so much about the fact that "Bush lied!" and not necessarily about what was really happening in Iraq. I too had scanned the posters and the banners all through the march. I saw very few that spoke in any direct way about the people or the resistance in Iraq. I saw none that connected the march to the pain and suffering in Najaf as hundreds died that same week. I wondered how worried the American State was to see 400,000 people protesting Bush's Iraq war. I wondered if the mood and tone of the march would have changed if the message was more unified—that we stand in solidarity with the millions in Iraq and the resistance. I wondered if instead of the carnivalesque march we had all stood there silent and with tearful eyes or fists raised, the American State would have trembled a little more. I wondered if we could ever produce a 400,000 people march in NYC or Chicago the day after the U.S. army has massacred 200 Iraqis in cold blood? Can we, as Naomi Klein has repeatedly asked, be responsive to the Iraqi resistance on a moment-to-moment basis? The question I am asking is simply this: How much of such a march is about the performance of the self rather than unity behind a larger political call? How much of such a march is about self-expression rather than an expression of a more global politics outside the self? Does the American State know that the protestors are small groups that think more about themselves than about others and thus the State is cushy in their belief that the protestors will all go away to their own corners at the end of a protest? What kind of politics might it take to upset this belief?

It is on this question of "what kind of politics" that I wish to reconnect with Shemon's question of mass engagement. What kinds of political pre-conditions make possible long-term and sustained engagement with larger and larger numbers of impoverished and oppressed peoples—black, white or purple?

No politics is possible without organization. Social change is not possible if individuals deploy themselves as such. The collective form—organization—makes for a more systematic and sustainable method of doing politics. If this is indeed true then the question posed above changes: What kinds of organization ensure a more sustained and long-term engagement with "the people?"

There is enormous confusion on the question of organization in left politics, especially on those involved with the "grassroots." There are organizations that advocate for a community, others that "represent" a community, still others that do outreach and service within communities, those that do mass mobilization work and yet others that do mass organizing work. The most ubiquitous form of left organization is the activist-led community-based organization (CBO). Their operation is, to mark it skeletally, one that involves a community, a handful of advocacy cases and a miniscule membership comprising primarily of volunteers from within and outside the said community. This is what I call a risk-free organization. It can represent a community in as much as their involvement in advocacy cases and some mobilization gives them a good sense of what is going on within the community. The cases give them the wherewithal to talk extensively about the community and the problems being faced in ways that establish their authority within liberal society as the insiders of a community. The community, however, in turn has no leverage within the organizations which is held together by a core group of "activists." The organization and the activists can all be exemplifying perfectly pure politics all the time because they don't have to engage more mixed frames of politics outside of their immediate small circle. The activists themselves can remain fairly busy as the advocacy cases, fundraising and detailed attention to internal democratic processes are indeed a lot of work and "good" work at that. Being busy is perfect because you feel good about yourself. This is also an excellent breeding ground for self-absorption because the core activists with their pure politics can ratchet up the radical rhetoric. The community they represent does not in any way reflect the emphasis on the radical rhetoric. The more radical the rhetoric the more you will mark yourself as different from every other group. Somebody is always not as good as you on race. Somebody else has got a pathetic position on sexuality and that group, out there, has no respect for brown peoples! The conversations are so ingrown after a while that it is a little world of yours which is so much about posturing and performing your own radical politics. Mass engagement be damned.

While this is the most ubiquitous organizational form in American left politics today, the contrasting models are those provided by a range of anarchist groups on the one hand and a smaller group of mass organizations. The anarchists have in the last few years come into their own again after several decades and are powering forward through the "politics of the spectacular"—a specific mode of mass mobilization. The second group, those dedicated to mass organizing, seek to build organization through mass membership and a more slow and long drawn out process of political engagement.

The anarchist success at mass mobilization is defined around their capacity to produce critical questions in the sharpest and most fundamentally unsettling ways. This, along with the sheer density of presence—the "have backpack, will travel" model—makes for important moments of engagement that we haven't seen for several decades in the U.S.

Mass organizing—the building of membership, the creation of an organizational identity based in a specific social relation (class, for instance), the multiplication of organizational spaces for engagement and sustained work with its mass base—is the other critical model that can produce sustainable engagement. The failure of American politics over the last four decades precisely corresponds to the collapse of mass organizations and an overall shift towards the CBO risk-free operation model.

Just think about it. What produced the Bush victory? The urban spaces voted overwhelmingly against Bush. It was the rural heartland that voted him in. What is more, in large parts of this rural expanse poverty rates are comparable to urban poverty rates, if not greater. In other words, those who voted Bush in, voted consistently against their own material interests and were convinced by an agenda of social conservatism – “homophobia and misogyny” – as Vijay Prashad writes in this issue of SAMAR. The fact simply is that there is no left social movement in this vast rural heartland that is doing the ideological work necessary to break the solidity of that vote for conservatism. The only social movement that has a mass following in this heartland is the Christian right.

But there is no reason to lose hope. Already the last few years has produced some new energy from the anarchist corner and a new level of activity in mass organizing groups. If we are to produce a politics of sustainable engagement and the ability to move beyond performance and self-absorption then we need to head towards mass organizations. We have to pay attention to organization and if we are to dedicate ourselves to a politics on a long-term basis I would argue that it is towards the redevelopment of mass organizing that we must dedicate ourselves. We have no choice but to continue this work that we have already begun in the urban sectors and expand towards the building of mass movements in rural America. The test of the next decade will be to see if we can build a mass movement outside urban America to, as Bhairavi Desai said at the end of a long election night at the Taxi Alliance, “do the ideological work”. The Democratic party clearly cannot.

I think about the questions of organization within politics from within an imaginary of the possible. What organizational form, I ask myself, would be capable of delivering a 200,000-person demonstration a day after the U.S. army has killed Iraqi civilians in cold blood? What kind of an organizational form, ten years from now, will be able to produce a general strike in a major U.S. metro—every shutter down, every worker refusing to work? What kinds of organizational work will bring together the rural unemployed and the impoverished farmer? When I think about questions like these, I do not see the answer to the problematic of long-term political engagement and movement-building coming from any organizational form other than mass organizations that have learnt a lot of new lessons on the "how to" of engagement from the anarchist movement. It is possible that I am wrong—that I see this in the way I do, only because of my own political history. And if that is the case, I sure would like to hear!


"One of the things pointed out by Biju in the first half of the article is a common call or cry which for the sake of simplicity I construe as being the common cause. What is a cause or an issue that resonates with the majority of the population? In the context of India, some of the common causes were simple, straightforward and non-negotiable. ""Purna Swaraj"" (Complete Independence from the British), ""Chipko"" (People physically hugging trees to prevent them from being cut down), ""Bhoodan"" (voluntary donation of one's land for redistribution amongst the landless) were some themes that resonated through the hearts of millions. What was it that these movements had and the present day ones lack? How could something so difficult as giving up their land be asked of people and still have an overwhleming response? Based on my selection of the movements, please do not think of me as a dogmatic Gandhian. There are probably plenty of examples to study and understand. Can we identify a common cause or call which would touch a great many people, specially the poor?"
"Issue 17. The Politics of Self Absorption, Biju Mathew ""There are other discourses and trajectories that strengthen this anti-organizational sentiment: an unbridled individualism, which we must understand as part of American nationalism that we are all subject to, undermines any idea of organization because it is after all the individual who succeeds or fails, an individual who makes a difference or not. To this fetishized individualism that we may carry unconsciously, add strains of left ideology ó Trotskyism and Anarchism, both of which profess a certain politics of purity in political principles and finally the theoretical justification that feminism has given us (however misunderstood) that the personal is political. Then we have all the ingredients to dismiss ""organization"" under whichever guise that sounds the worst ó ""Stalinist"" if that has currency or ""insensitive to specific identities"" if that is what will work. "" It appears you've changed your assessment of anarchists -from politics of purity that would impede organizing to, in issue 18, success at mass organizing."

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <i> <b> <blockquote>

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
1 + 15 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.