Smashing egoism: against flashpoint action

For many anarchists, real liberation manifests itself through flashpoint: sudden, unannounced acts of violence. These people see themselves at war with the world, and are often derisive towards broader organizing. But successful resistance movements - whether violent or nonviolent - need community or solidarity to succeed. 

6 December 2013

Anarchists battle police outside the Ritz hotel in London in 2011. Credit: Demotix

This is a response to Yalla Matame's What's the point of flashpoint action? (4th December)

There’s an apocryphal, supposedly Greek, anarchist joke that is well-circulated on the Internet; it goes:

“Two anarchists are busy crafting Molotov Cocktails in a basement. One says to the other, ‘So, who shall we throw these at, then?’, to which the other, shocked, replies, ‘What are you, some kind of fucking intellectual?’”

Though told with a self-effacing wink, the joke nonetheless highlights a genuine conviction of many strands of anarchism, particularly those that, to a greater or lesser degree, reject traditional leftist forms of changing the system.

For these folks, the idea of organizing for or, worse, waiting for, some hypothetical “revolutionary moment” when the time will be ripe to rebel is abhorrent. Many pointedly ask whether such a deferment of reward does not resemble the capitalism that they despise, as we are indoctrinated to work for the weekend, the vacation, or the retirement – never now.

They therefore tend to believe that only a liberation in the moment will do, either because it will most quickly and directly bring about the world they want, or because the act of insurrection is an end in itself, immediately liberating its practitioner.

For many, this liberation manifests itself in the acts of flashpoint: sudden, unannounced acts of violence carried out by individuals or small cells without a broad base of support or communication, aimed at destroying property, harming perceived enemies, and/or escalating conflict.

It is easy to see the initial appeal of this approach, especially when it is contrasted with traditional leftist organizing. All but crystallized for the past half-century, the leftist repertoire of protest/boycott/strike/march/staged arrest has become so fully metabolized into the capitalist state as to be all but completely exsanguinated. Many in my generation participated in the largest anti-war protest the world has ever known on the eve of the Iraq War and watched it accomplish precisely nothing. Clinically disillusioned youth facing a world where, among more salient issues, outdoor air has officially been recognized as a carcinogen might reasonably prefer a less fossilized approach.

Flashpoint offers some balm: there are immediate, concrete results to one's actions – it is therefore called “direct action”. This tactic is contrasted, often unfavorably, with merely symbolic action: the indirect, delayed, and mediated effects that hopefully come from campaigning, protesting, or striking. I ultimately believe that flashpoint actions tend, with few exceptions, to do more harm than good for those desiring to live in a free and inviting world.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, the pursuit of “smashy-smash” has remained popular since its recent zenith at Occupy Oakland. I know of “riot tourists” who wait for moments of conflict in order to intentionally get into fights with cops, not to de-arrest friends or reclaim public space for protest but as an end itself. At the recent Oakland protest against the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer, individuals I know in the anarchist milieu were not only destroying property and police cars, but also aggressively beating “liberals” who attempted to stop or even question their behavior.

Their rationales are simple and intense. They tend to see themselves generally at war with the world – often including other radicals – and are openly derisive towards such ideas as community, solidarity, or even a somewhat hopeful future. They are not interested in convincing others to come around to their point of view because they see belief in the possibility of mass radical movements as magical thinking. Indeed, they are quite unconcerned with others in general; one of the major individualist anarchist thinkers, Max Stirner, in his The Ego And Its Own, laid things quite bare by writing, “Now, as my object is not the overthrow of an established order but my elevation above it, my purpose and deed are not a political or social but […] an egoistic purpose and deed.”

To be unconcerned with the state of things except insofar as one can be above them? To pretend a purely selfish purpose and deed is somehow an apolitical and asocial act? These sentiments would seem far more at home among members of the G20 or other neoliberal oligarchs than they do among self-proclaimed radicals.

And what of the disdain for broader organizing, or even, in many cases, communication, before committing violent acts, the sometimes virulent contempt for other folks' ability to understand the meaning and import of violent resistance? Isn't this the kind of personal exceptionalism we hear from the United States government when it tries to justify its illegal wars, spying, and drone operations? Such claptrap reeks of antisocial arrogance.

Besides their problematic philosophical underpinnings, flashpoint actions are often isolated, their practitioners unsupported, and a long-term goal absent by virtue of disdain. They thus can become unstrategic, with risks and costs – arrest and its attendant temporary loss of an activist, the money and effort of jail support and court, the possibility of alienating one's immediate community via unexplained destructive acts – that potentially greatly outweigh their rewards. As much as insurrectionists decry the aforementioned leftist symbolic actions, a broken window does not inhibit the daily machinations of, for example, Wells Fargo (who, at many locations, keep extra windows around for just such occasions) – it is only an icon that calls attention to the outrage their acts elicit. The broken window is therefore also a mere symbol.

If that same symbolic act lands its agent arrested, facing jail and its abuses or possibly snitching on comrades, Wells Fargo has performed political aikido, turning our efforts against us. It is inaccurate and victim-blaming to engage in the familiar canard of saying that the insurrectionist “hurt the movement”, “got what they deserved”, or “proved the State right” by having such oppression brought down on them – it is always and only the oppressor’s fault for doing so – but it is accurate and fair to criticize them for being unstrategic.

Successful resistance movements, whether they are violent like the Zapatista Army of National Liberation or non-violent like the organized non-compliance of U.S. soldiers occupying Viet Nam, have been successful largely to the degree to which they have cultivated a broad and multi-faceted culture of resistance. All radicals, regardless of which tactics they believe are appropriate, moral, and valuable, must understand the importance of having a large and resilient network of resisters.

We need community support, communication of our beliefs, and the other trappings of “leftist” organizing at which the individualists sneer. There is room for all of us to be involved in building such a culture of resistance. We can have honest and open debates about what our resistance can and must look like, rather than immediately writing one another off with dismissive, limiting labels like “liberal” or “extremist”. We can recognize and cherish the often invisbilized labor of building and maintaining resistance infrastructure in the forms of and doing jail support and feeding and housing traveling and underground resisters; we can be media-makers who communicate the goals and beliefs of the movement.

It will take a wide range of tactics to dismantle the diverse oppressions under which we currently suffer, and the questions of how, where, and when to employ a particular tactic are difficult and often divisive. There have been and will continue to be spirited, even heated, disagreements in communities of resistance, but it is precisely these discussions that we cannot eschew through the rogue individualist behavior of flashpoint.

And without community, what reason is there to resist? We already have the atomized, disconnected world of shallow, individualist, short-term satisfactions, the ethos that occasionally, but impotently, manifests its self-destructive urge through flashpoint.

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