Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

Table of contents

Reinventing our Militant Communities: Political Identity and Forms of Action

, by ROUSSEAU Juliette

On 12 August 2017 in Charlottesville, Heather Meyer, a counter-protester at the “Unite the Right” far-right rally, was killed when a sports car driven by white supremacists rammed into the crowd. Donald Trump solemnly condemned the violence, blaming “both sides”. Then, bowing his head in apparent distress, he once again mentioned “both sides”. One person was killed and nineteen others were injured – all counter-protesters – yet Trump, as usual, blurred the lines with his statement suggesting that both sides were equally to blame for the “violence”.

Putting the black mark of “violence” on left-wing protesters is a well-known tactic. In France, it’s common to see the government, councillors, the police and mainstream media outlets draw attention to the violence of protesters as a way to eclipse the serious and sometimes lethal violence of the police. The most obvious result is to undermine the actions of protesters while condoning the actions of the police. But it also results, in a less obvious manner, in disrupting the actions of social movements themselves, pushing them, in one way or another, to focus on the “safest” forms of action and ensure everyone is kept in line. “Behaving” is seen as the only way to gain respect from those high up in political or media circles – and thus to have one’s voice heard. Undoubtedly, this is also seen as being part of the democratic game; one must adhere to its codes and rules in order to have some kind of influence.

The history of social and political movements has illustrated, however, that the actions that get results are rarely viewed as “respectable” – at least, not until they’re successful. Shifting the balance of power comes at a cost, and it’s not cheap. The history of movements that have had successful outcomes is passed down and filtered through the dominant narrative, which always retains only the most inoffensive aspects of our struggles – to the extent that the state or legislators are even given credit for bringing about social change. Who is aware that before abortions were legalised in France with the so-called “Veil law”, the MLAC [1] and other pro-choice groups were organising illegal abortions all over France? The growing number of women choosing to abort, some of whom ended up in court, was a pivotal factor in pushing the state to eventually establish legislation around abortion, which was slipping out of its control. [2] Yet when this era is talked about nowadays, the focus is on Simone Veil, not the pro-choice feminist activists who battled for years and had to break the law, who were taken to court and disparaged not only by the media and mainstream public opinion, but also by a significant number of activists at the time.

During the 8 March 2020 feminist protest, in Paris, a kurdish protester’s sign says : “Your pacifism is a priviledge“. Credit : Jeanne Menjoulet (CC BY 2.0)

Despite these stories that illustrate the lengths required to achieve social change, we are still being asked to “behave”, to fit our strategies into the binary categories of non-violence/violence, legal/illegal: endless debates on acceptable forms of action, almost systematically initiated by the government or its media outlets, are hampering our collective ability to take action. And in the streets, there is growing distrust between the groups promoting different forms of social action, which in recent years seems more pronounced than ever. The most immediate effect of this is that any hope of collectively building unity and deciding together on our chosen forms of action is dwindling.

Strategy over uniformity

“In the government’s paradigm, being an activist means always being angry about what’s happening, because it shouldn’t be happening; always lashing out at others because they don’t know what they should know; being frustrated because what we have isn’t good enough, always being anxious because reality is constantly going in the wrong direction, and has to be controlled, redirected and set right. And this means that we’re never able to assess a situation, never able to let ourselves go, never able to trust the forces of the world.”
Amador Fernández-Savater

It’s an illusion to call for a mass movement while also prescribing that it fits tidily into a category or under a slogan without elaborating it collectively or without a shared culture. And yet it is precisely this illusion that certain political organisations are still adhering to by prescribing “acceptable” approaches and forms of action. The same may be said about more aggressive strategies and forms of action: there are parallels between “black bloc” (or similar) tactics which include targeted violence, often resulting in (or deliberately provoking) a confrontation with the police, and “non-violent” or legalistic tactics (with their “leaders”, their activists in charge of security, and rules that dictate what they can and can’t do), in that both seek to prescribe the strategies and the form the protest has to take. When there is no collective development beforehand or any exploration of a potential interaction between different ways of doing things, both these tactics, as different as they may be, leave little room for a political camp that is capable of dialogue when the context requires it. Unfortunately, there are a number of voices from both sides maintaining that we don’t need such an expansive political camp, or even suggesting that those whose actions are deemed problematic should be excluded – as if we could afford this and as if this might constitute a desirable political outcome. Again, there is a convergence between the more “radical” and the more “sober” camps, because behind the supposedly unitary slogans (which are actually restrictive) lies the same radicalisation of the logic of affinity groups: we tend to only support and join forces with those who fully adhere to our codes, practices and ideas, and turn away from any possibility of interaction – which ultimately makes us weaker.

Perhaps one reason we are unable to form a united front or generate debate outside of our usual circles is because we are unable to identify who our real enemies are. In the context of an increasingly blunt shift towards authoritarianism and repression, this is only making us more vulnerable. It’s as if we were failing to understand how state repression works – how it attacks the “fringes” first, i.e., the activists that are seen as being the most radical and/or isolated. Isolating these activists is what enables the repressive machinery to succeed, because it’s clear that the failure of other social activists to stand behind those targeted by repressive measures only makes them more defenceless. Moreover, the ultimate goal of repressive measures is not so much to quash these first targets as to open up new possibilities in doing so. Once the first repressive attack has been successfully carried out and accepted hands down, it can then be extended to other activist currents. A case in point is the recent history of police brutality: it is because social activism as a whole failed to recognise what the police had been doing in working-class neighbourhoods for decades, and the systemic racism going on, as well as failing to support local collectives tackling police brutality, that these repressive practices became tacitly condoned, and were allowed to spread to all forms of protest and demonstration. Moreover, each new repressive tactic is a testing ground not only for the police and intelligence service but also for the political and legal machinery.

The strategies of our current government lock us into to an endless chain reaction. The blows come one after another, and we do our best to deal with them one at a time, but with each blow we get weaker. Even though repression triggers mass protests, each time we go out there, we face a stronger wave of repressive measures, of people wounded, imprisoned, their details kept on file. And the legal arsenal is also becoming increasingly aggressive. Consequently, our ability to develop a long-term strategy is being systematically relegated to a hypothetical future. Most of us are unable to have a collective vision about what is happening to us, and the ways in which we might defend ourselves from our various different stances. We still lack the knowledge that would enable us to move forward, to acknowledge our diverging opinions and disagreements without letting them have a paralysing effect on our actions. In the book Joyful Militancy, Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times, authors carla bergman and Nick Montgomery talk about the “endless refinement of a militant ideology that provides certainty to its adherents, continually reinforced by the perceived failures of those who do things differently”.

What is it that leads so many radical left-wing activists to invest more time and energy into arguing with other activists than into fighting those that are attacking our freedoms, that are trying to make us ever poorer, that are giving orders to harm, kill or incarcerate us? Why is it that lamenting this situation is dismissed as naïve, utopian or off-track? Yet this is exactly what we need right now: we need to build a robust and shared camp within and between our communities, collectives and organisations. How can we create relationships of trust and support beyond our immediate affinity groups or organisations while respecting and celebrating divergent opinions? How can we see beyond the reductive lens of a rigid political identity? How can we make way for transformation? And how can we build a critical mass?

Nurturance culture – a feminist approach to political action

“Language both embodies and shapes our cultural thought-forms,” writes Starhawk. The violence/non-violence binary is a deceptive and dangerous myth. Rather than generating constructive conflicts, it fuels divisions that paralyse us, simplify us and rigidify the way we think and the way we act. By claiming to purify us, to validate our point of view and what we see as the truth, binaries such as these only reinforce our own convictions while disempowering us. But it is only in an activist context defined by the varying forms of structural domination that this binary can exist and fuel division. In other words, behind the endless, repetitive debates on the different forms of action, which are always presented in the same terms, is a dominant masculine vision that puts more importance on ideology, courage and strength than on creation, resilience and interaction. The sole issue, in this vision, is whether to use or not to use strength – and whether we are able to make everyone use the same form of action every time we take to the streets.

“The Great Man receives the truth and gives it to a chosen few […] Knowledge is given to a Great Man and passed by him to a select group […] This story legitimizes the authority of the select few who have received the one truth. It supports the illusion that truth is found outside, not within, and denies the authority of experience, the truth of the senses and the body, the truth that belongs to everyone and is different for everyone,” writes Starhawk. Our political camp still believes in a magic formula; in the words of a Great Man. There is this idea that there is only ONE analysis, ONE form of action, ONE theory, and that once a certain number of people have signed up, this will magically result in the social change we’ve all been waiting so long for. Yet such an approach completely disregards the long-term, emotional, nurturing work required to build resilient political communities. It overlooks the importance of the process of moving forward through questioning, commitment, attachment and ties. Disagreements, conflict or differences are not things that need to be overcome, or reasons to exclude people, but rather reasons to include them. The white male patriarchy, built through centuries of violent domination, pervades the way we think and dictates our behaviour – including our political and activist mindset and behaviour. It dictates a relationship to the world that is still dominant: one of distance, based on theory and prescribed ideas, and overlooks the work that is needed to establish and maintain sustained activist relationships that go beyond the limited sphere of debating ideas or strategy.

In an article entitled “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture”, feminist theorist Nora Samaran defines violence as “nurturance culture turned backwards”. She sees nurturance – the capacity to nurture, feed and help grow – and violence as two sides of the same coin. Drawing inspiration from attachment theory, Samaran argues for the need to support masculine nurturance culture. For cisgender men, this means developing relationships based on confidence and reparation with women and non-binary people, as well as learning to love themselves and each other. Instead of calling for an evolution in patriarchal masculinity, Samaran proposes “turning [its] world inside out”. “To completely transform the culture of misogyny,” she writes, “then, men must do more than ‘not assault.’ We must call on masculinity to become whole and nurturing of self and others, to recognize that attachment needs are healthy and normal and not ‘female,’ and thus to expect of men to heal themselves and others the same way we expect women to ‘be nurturers.’ It is time men recognize and nurture their own healing gifts.”

If we paid attention to the multiple facets and definitions of violence, we would stop using it to describe what is currently happening in the streets, just as we would stop calling ourselves “non-violent”. If we were mindful of creating a long-term collective culture built on sustainable relationships and trust – and not on hierarchical or symbolic forms of authority – we would see our forms of action for what they are: contextual, strategic choices that reflect our ability (or our inability) to take action on a massive scale and to collectively consider the many different shapes and forms of political action on the streets and their consequences. What does nurturing social activism mean? We need to learn how to nurture our spaces: reinforce that which connects us through self-education and collective development, draw on our conflicts in a way that makes them fruitful rather than making us weaker. We need to share our stories and train those who come to us to steer clear of the all too common trap of dogmatism. We need to guide them away from purist, “uncompromising” radicalism. The more our militant circles are nurtured with strong relationships, the more robust and lively our communities are, the more our forms of action will make sense – and the more equipped we will be to take risks that push us out of the comfort zone of our organisations or of our affinity groups. The challenge is as much about making the immediate and strategic choice to take this direction as it is about building the long-range skills to make this choice together. The more we nurture our groups with sharing, trust, accountability and experimentation, the more powerful we will become together.

Acknowledge our own camp and work to make it resilient

Let’s learn how to be unpredictable again, how to develop ties of kinship that there has previously been no room for. Let’s develop affinities that encourage weaving in and out of defined militant spaces. We need to blur borders, and ensure that when there’s a clamp-down in one place, there’s an unanticipated reaction in another. We need to join forces not only because it might be strategically advantageous, but because we’re able recognise that, despite our differences, we belong to the same political camp and share the same enemies. Let’s try to put aside our ideological and organisational rigidity, which pushes us to be satisfied with the bareness and uniformity of closed-in militant worlds. Let’s learn to recognise the times when it’s not so much about saying or doing the same thing but about working hand in hand. There are things that work in some spaces that are not allowed in others, and vice versa. This is where strategic thinking comes in. A union can act on behalf of informal collectives and take responsibility for organising a high-risk protest. An organisation can serve as a shield for individuals facing legal action and get its lawyers to help out. Some might be better at the doing side of things, others might have a knack for media relations. Are the leaders of big organisations proving inflexible? There are always individuals in those organisations with whom trusting relationships can be built. The goal is not so much total alignment as the creation of an ecosystem. It’s not about seeing completely eye to eye, but about opening up spaces for collective development. Relationships are what enable us to fight our battles. And nurturing them is crucial to ensuring their power and their resilience. We need to learn how to nurture our discord as well as our attunements.

Let’s be clear. I’m not trying to say that all we need to do is get along and all our disagreements will disappear. Nor am I seeking to detract from the collective responsibilities that deliberately sabotage any attempt at unity. Betrayals exist and they are tragic. But I think that if we look at the history of many struggles that have been successful, or that are still thriving today, they differ from our own in their far greater ability at building common ground. “The most widespread, long-lasting, and fierce struggles are animated by strong relationships of love, care, and trust,” write bergman and Montgomery. “These values are not fixed duties that can be imitated, nor do they come out of thin air. They arise from struggles through which people become powerful together.” Aside from our ideological disagreements, which fuel an endless quantity of articles and books, and which give an inordinate amount of power to top-down approaches that can be fairly disconnected from the material, physical and emotional realities of political action, we all profoundly lack the thinking, experimentation and practices required to build political communities. What makes us powerful, and what makes us weak? What engages us, connects us and binds us together over the long term? What unexpected alliances led to certain victories? What enables us to survive repressive measures, how can we nurture one another in a world that is so brutal? These questions are being probed, and people are writing about them, but this thinking and these texts remain mostly invisible. They are systematically seen as being inferior to theory, and to the critical analysis of the capitalist system; to the endless ideological debates on the right way to understand the world. Yet change is cropping up here and there: collectives against police brutality are joining forces with organisations fighting for climate justice, feminist collectives are uniting with migrant organisations. And organisations are slowly opening their usual closed-off enclaves to people that don’t fit the usual profile. Let’s support these experimentations and take them further, let’s invest in them and tell their stories, because surely in these are the seeds of a better future – one we can build together.