Diversity Of Tactics: The Noise Before Defeat

Sun Tzu

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.”

Sun Tzu

For the reasons given by me and others it is necessary that the progressive movement distance itself from the violent Black Bloc faction which is coopting the movement. Even Jon Stewart (in Canada here) notes that “they’re violent, disruptive, and draw a lot of media attention, but to what?” However, noting that the Bloc co-opts the movement and drowns out our message is misunderstood as blaming the Bloc for the collective failure to achieve our goals at the G20 summit.

It is not a given that had the Bloc not been there that we would have achieved our goals or gotten our message out. It is true that we could not have done worse. The violence continues to dominate the discussions of the G20 summit with no mention of the issues that were allegedly our reason for being there. While it is clear that there were police overreaction and abuses, this is not an argument for having this sort of mess distract everyone from our real purpose.

Simply keeping the Bloc away from movement events would solve only one aspect of the problem, and a fairly superficial one at that. There are reasons why the Bloc exists at all, and those are rooted in the mainstream progressive movement as much as anywhere else.

I have no particular interest in “blaming” anyone; the Bloc or otherwise. My interest is in causes, whether we have been and/or are effective, and how we can be more effective.

While it is true that there is a certain amount of “hey look at me” frat boy element to the Bloc’s actions, it is a mistake to dismiss them as simply kids out for a riot. Many of them are as committed to the issues as anyone else in the movement, they are usually able to articulate at least  basic of Insurrectionary anarchism, and as Martha notedtheir vandalism is clearly focused on the links between everyday economic violence and institutions “ ie it is not random libertinage. They are angry and violent, but they are not simply rioting.

However, having a cause and a politic is not the same as having a strategy.

The intellectual underpinnings of Insurrectionary anarchism are over a century old and framed within an entirely different social and political context. The modern defences of the methods (ie tactics) that the Bloc uses such as Ward Churchill’s ‘Pacifism as Pathology‘ and Gelderloos’ ‘How Nonviolence Protects the State‘ are laughable. They are intellectual pablum written for the naive believer to confirm their simplistic caricatures of nonviolent struggle. That anyone takes them seriously should be a mystery, but there is a reason that they do.

The basic pro-violence arguments as they articulated by the Bloc and supporters are summarized here. These may seem like parodies if you have never heard them, but they’re not. The entire case for violence rests on a cartoonish misrepresentation of what nonviolent struggle is and how it works. The alleged arguments are easily refuted (eg here) , so why are they so rarely challenged and exposed for the nonsense that they are?

In part because of the repressive tactics of the Bloc. Anyone who has attempted to have a rational discussion about tactics when Bloc sympathizers are present is aware that they practice silencing any dissent with a variety of tricks, from ad hominem attacks to accusations of not being in solidarity, etc. The faux anarchists really are a case study in the ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

In part due to effective marketing. The phrase “Diversity of Tactics” (DoT) is inspired as an euphemism for violence (it puts “collateral damage” to shame) and allows the use of yet another logical fallacy to be used to prevent intelligent dialogue. Blocists will not allow any discussion of violence, you have to say “Diversity of Tactics.” In that way they try and force the false choice between accepting violence or being against diversity. It’s middle school debating tactics and logically incoherent, but it works to silence debate.

Given that choice, many in the broader movement are unwilling to challenge DoT. A sad fact is that many of us are more concerned with appearing inclusive than with being effective. It is a tragic betrayal of the issues that we are working on and needs to be called for what it is. Be that as it may, for too many self-indulgent avoidance of confrontation within the movement is preferable to real discussion of methods and effectiveness.

While the above is certainly true, the main reason most do not calmly refute the DoT nonsense is that they do not know how to. We in the broader movement have failed to clearly articulate how and why non-violence can work, how and why within the context of our society it is more effective than violence. We have failed to do so because most of us don’t know how. Our choice of nonviolent methods is too often rooted in habit, comfort, or even fear.

If the Bloc may be accused of not having a strategy, much less a coherent one,  the movement as a whole would seem not to either. If we do, most people don’t know what it is or how it is supposed to work, which is pretty much the same thing. Like the Bloc, we use tactics out of preference or familiarity rather than because we understand how they will or can lead to success.

It is easy to understand why this is so for both sides. In a grassroots movement we are all overwhelmed with the immensity of the task we face regardless of the issue. Most of us are not professionals and our activism must be squeezed in between job, family and the other aspects of life. Even the professionals among us are torn in a dozen directions by programming, administration and fundraising. Who has time to figure out what it is we are doing and why.

That there are good reasons why it is difficult does not make the fact that it is necessary go away. We may not have the time for it, but we most certainly do not have the luxury of not doing it. Diversity of Tactics and the Bloc are simply one manifestation of how we fail to take our role seriously. A far more important consequence is that we are far less effective than we should be.

I like to use the metaphor of a craftsperson. They assess a particular task and choose a tool suitable to what it is they wish to do, be it a saw, chisel, or router. In the same spirit we should look at a particular political situation and choose one of the 198 different forms of nonviolent action  because it will do the job that needs to be done.

The Bloc is a product of our collective ignorance; theirs and ours. We have a responsibility to them, to ourselves, and most particularly to the issues we claim to care about to be truly professional in our political work. Professional in the sense of being competent, knowledgeable and capable. That the Bloc exists is a testament to our failure to live up to that responsibility.

The Bloc are frustrated and angry, and small wonder given the political landscape. They are not the only ones. However, personal frustration and anger, or fear, or difficulty are not excuses for indulging oneself over being effective. Not for them or for us. Not if our activism is about the issues and not our personal issues. Not if we want to be effective.

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Sun Tzu


8 Responses to Diversity Of Tactics: The Noise Before Defeat

  1. want to know more July 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    sorry the two links you have given ‘exposing’ the ‘pro-violence’ arguments and ‘refuting’ them are broken…

    “The basic pro-violence arguments as they articulated by the Bloc and supporters are summarized *here*. These may seem like parodies if you have never heard them, but they’re not. The entire case for violence rests on a cartoonish misrepresentation of what nonviolent struggle is and how it works. The alleged arguments are easily refuted (eg *here*) , so why are they so rarely challenged and exposed for the nonsense that they are?”

  2. Comrade July 26, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    This conversation is old. You are a credit your position by not simply demonizing the black bloc position and recognizing that there are flaws within the left that promote the tactic. Yet, it’s a ridiculous and imaginary dichotomy that is posited that people that engage in black bloc tactics do not engage in peaceful tactics and community building tactics during the rest of their lives. It is simply not true.

  3. Comrade July 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Also, on that list of 198 things. Talk about exhuming the graves of past work – it’s from ’73… What is a non-violent air raid? I don’t understand.

  4. Chuck0 July 27, 2010 at 6:47 am

    While your article is generally accurate about the black bloc tactic and other things, it gets many things wrong. I’m not just talking here about your clear hostility towards anarchists and the black bloc tactic.

    First of all, the black bloc tactic is not generally violent. The only injuries ever stemming from a black bloc are to a few police officers and to lots of black blocers, who have suffered police brutality, arrest and imprisonment.

    Diversity of tactics is not some kind of secret word for “violence”, nor is it meant to shut down debate about tactics. See my first point about violence, which explains why this charge is silly. Diversity of tactics was developed by some of us back in 2001, in order to help facilitate communication and cooperation between the diverse range of people participating in summit protests. It was something spearheaded by veteran activists WITH SOLID EXPERIENCE IN NONVIOLENT ACTIVISM. Arguments over tactics were diverting energy away from organizing protests. Much of the distraction was being orchestrated by movement crackpots, including one who you link to to explain diversity of tactics (oh, the irony). They would disrupt coalition meetings because everybody wouldn’t toe their narrow line about nonviolence. Anarchists have continued to have a lively debate about the black bloc and tactics over the past 10 years, so the suggestion that diversity of tactics has shut down debate is off base.

    You also seem to completely miss that most of the people involved with the black bloc tactic are “nonviolent” and they support nonviolent tactics. Many blocers participate in nonviolent protests and actions.

    There is much more that I could address in your piece, but let me end by pointing out that the black bloc is not associated with insurrectionism. The black bloc is a minor tactic used at mass protests, so it’s ridiculous for anybody to think that the tactic is part of some insurrectionist strategy.

  5. SC July 27, 2010 at 7:34 am

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  6. True-religion-sale July 28, 2010 at 10:10 am

    I learn much from it . Thanks.

  7. Discount-christian-louboutin July 28, 2010 at 10:14 am

    You also seem to completely miss that most of the people involved with the black bloc tactic are “nonviolent” and they support nonviolent tactics. Many blocers participate in nonviolent protests and actions.

  8. Martha July 28, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    This is an important discussion.

    I agree, Gelderloos dismisses nonviolence and like many critics he is not serious about understanding or studying it. He is unable to give fair treatment to nonviolence; but his argument that historical appeals to both principled and strategic nonviolence often cover up the benefits of privilege has merit – for anyone with a class analysis.

    But let’s face it: Gelderloos will not be explaining why armed struggle e.g. Cuba, Algeria, has led to more solidified state structures. 🙁

    Critics of nonviolence who do not misrepresent it to begin with may be better able to represent the complexity of the discussion.

    As I think another commenter suggests, when we look closely, nonviolent activists’ claims to success without violence often ignore violence that was in fact part of the success; and vice versa.

    Howard Ryan (may as well go with someone whose understanding of nonviolent theory is excellent rather than Gelderloos with his somewhat stupid understanding) argues that comparing the effectiveness of nonviolence vs violence is far more complex than you suggest. What is possible in a given movement cannot be simply compared to different movements in other circumstances. There are some socio-historical studies but more are needed. It is not obvious that nonviolence has been or will be the most effective strategy within the context of our society. I agree it has been and can be an effective strategy, but there are many unsuccessful nonviolent struggles — just as there are many unsuccessful violent struggles.

    So we need to discuss the context and understand it. What if the majority of activists took to the streets in Toronto with information … hundreds of info booths, leaflets, discussions of the issues and realistic alternatives? This is actually conventional in Canada ( no one is going to get shot over it) and elites are often indifferent to it, so do these kinds of activities constitute an agenda of nonviolent social action or not? Is there a sympathetic middle class to engage? Never mind leafletting… what were the opportunities for effective noncooperation? Violence against objects vs. violence against people — what, really, should be the conceptual boundary in a society that fetishizes objects and maintains poverty and unemployment to maximize its exploitation of the labour force? Etc.


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