Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United StatesAugust 1st, 2011
The world cries out for resistance: glaciers melt, species go extinct, poor youth are shot down in the streets by police or warehoused in prisons, families are evicted from their homes, queers are beaten down, and workers labor long hours at miserable jobs for too little money. Across the planet, power exploits and brutalizes the lives of most people. People do, of course, resist. In China, workers riot against oppressive conditions. Palestinian youth throw rocks (or rockets) at Israeli soldiers, refusing occupation. In India and the Philippines, Left-wing guerrilla armies build power and wage war against conditions they describe as semi-feudal. In Chiapas, the Zapatistas continue to develop autonomous politics to empower the indigenous. Globally, people are organizing to fight back. Most recently, the people of Tunisia and Egypt rose up and, through mass mobilizations and community organization, overthrew corrupt US-backed regimes. We may well be seeing the beginnings of a new period of upsurge and popular struggle against oppression and exploitation.
Where then are social movements fighting for justice in the United States? What is the state of resistance inside the borders of the imperialist superpower? How should we understand the struggles that take place here, and what are their potentials? AK Press has given us two new books that begin to answer these questions by addressing radical movement building in North America in recent years.
Uses of a Whirlwind anthologizes reports, strategies, and theory that give insight into the state of radical organizing in the United States today. The book is organized into four sections, following a preface by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Andrej Grubacic, a foreword by Marc Herbst for The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, and an introduction by Team Colors Collective. The four sections are: “Organization Case Studies,” “Movement Strategies,” “Theoretical Analyses,” and “Interviews,” with about eight essays in each section and four interviews at the end.
The book begins with a solid preface by long-time anti-imperialist feminist Dunbar-Ortiz and Balkan anarchist Grubacic, in which they ask, “How do we move from resistance movement to revolutionary transformation?” Looking at different historic struggles, these authors call for a “new libertarian-socialist, inter-racial movement based on principles of opposition to imperialism and militarization, self-activity, local institutions, and solidarity.” (1)
Uses of a Whirlwind is compiled by Team Colors, a national collective of radicals around the United States who, deeply influenced by the theoretical frameworks of Autonomist Marxism and Postmodernist theory, have come together to analyze the state of liberatory movements in the United States. In their introductory essay, they argue that the great social movements of the last century have both been shaped by and have shaped the social and economic structures of capital. Thus, the struggles of the 1960s, the “movements of fire,” were an attack on the Keynesian liberal welfare state (which in turn was a structural adjustment of capital to coopt and capture militant workers' movements during the 1930s). The “movements of fire” weakened and undermined the welfare state model, and capital again adjusted with the renewed attack of a flexible and brutal neoliberal model. Team Colors argues that the new movements developing now are fundamentally different than those of the past and are more “whirlwinds” than fires. Exactly what the differences are is not entirely clear, and one is left with the feeling that “whirlwinds” and “flames” are an attempt to use poetry as theory. While poetic images of fires versus whirlwinds are powerful, they fail to fully explain the ways in which the context, politics, strategies, and tactics of 1960s militancy differs from struggles today. They go on to critique the cooptation of social movements through non-profit organizational structures and lack of revolutionary vision. They also argue that we must build movements that engage in real community organizing around oppressed people's needs while continuing to ask the big questions about transforming the world.
The book’s first section, “Organizational Case Studies,” is where activists from various groups and movements describe, sum up, and analyze the struggles they have participated in. The projects described vary greatly from anti-war and environmental groups emerging from white anarchist countercultures to housing organizing among working class people of color. Stand-outs include a piece on organizing Starbucks workers in the context of neoliberalism, called “The Precarious Economy and Its Discontents: Struggling Against the Corporate Chains Through Workplace Organizing” by The Starbucks Workers Union, and the work of Domestic Workers United and the Right to a City Alliance, which organize women of color and build radical politics with urban workers, called “Building Power in the City: Reflections on the Emergence of the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance” by Harmony Goldberg. These essays present examples of radical organizers doing work that is based on a Left analysis while building power with working class and oppressed people outside of narrow activist circles.
In the “Movement Strategies” section, radical activists and thinkers explore questions broader than the experiences of particular organizations addressed in the previous section. There are useful essays addressing the relationship between the global justice movement and local anti-capitalist struggles, the politics of food, climate justice, independent media, and more. Stevie Peace from the Team Colors Collective contributes a powerful piece called “The Desire to Heal: Harm Intervention in a Landscape of Restorative Justice and Critical Resistance.” In it, he looks at the work of Restorative Justice Community Action, a restorative justice group, and Critical Resistance, a prison abolition group, as two different examples of projects struggling to develop liberatory ways to address violence and create justice. Unfortunately, Peace's article is the only one in the book that explores contemporary work against the prison industrial complex and the police, and it does so only indirectly, in the context of other arguments around harm and healing. Benjamin Shepard's article on radical do-it-yourself queer politics is also a gem. In this piece, Shepard makes the distinction between the radical politics of queerness oriented toward the total transformation of life, kinship, and sexuality and the reformist interest-group politics of “the gay movement” exemplified by groups such as the Human Rights Campaign that seek to integrate gays into the dominant society through legal and legislative methods.
The “Theoretical Analysis” section of Whirlwind is grounded in the framework of Autonomist Marxism, which emerged largely from the radical upsurge of Italian workers and students during the 1970s. This political orientation argues that social change is made by the often spontaneous “self-activity” of working class people developing their own struggles independent of the institutions of official society, including unions and political parties. Workers, through their own concrete struggles, undermine capitalism and lay the basis for a new society without depending on “condescending saviors,” be they union bureaucrats or revolutionary vanguards. There are interesting pieces in this section dealing with the economic crisis, radical democracy, and sustainable movement building. There is also a useful piece called “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons in an Era of Primitive Accumulation” by Silvia Federici.
The book ends with three interviews with movement historian Robin D.G. Kelley and movement elders Ashanti Alston Omowali and Grace Lee Boggs, all long-time participants in the Black Liberation movement. Kelley is one of the most important and radical scholars of African American history active today. In his interview, he discusses his political background, his bottom-up approach to history that focuses on everyday working class resistance, and the election of Obama. Alston discusses coming of age in the midst of the Black Power movement. He argues for a synthesis of Black nationalism, anarchism, and post-modernism that non-dogmatically struggles to smash power by any means necessary while building movements in which we support and nurture each other. Grace Lee Boggs, a long-time revolutionary philosopher and community organizer, discusses her experiences in the movement, the importance of theory, and the necessity of hope.
The interviews are an outstanding addition to the book. These long-time activists, theorists, scholars, and warriors share decades of collective study, experience, and wisdom. Their perspectives should be at the center of a new revolutionary politics. It is striking that they are all participants in the Black Liberation struggle in particular. This is not surprising given the leading role of African American freedom struggles throughout the history of the United States. From abolitionism, the Civil War, and Reconstruction to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, the struggles of Black people for freedom have been at the forefront, unleashing the power of other sectors of the population to challenge oppression and leading the transformation of society for all people. It's fortunate that Team Colors seems to get this on some level, though they never say so explicitly.
Unfortunately, the book contains very little on the struggles of people of color against white supremacy. In an anthology of radical struggle and liberatory social movements in the United States, this is shocking. A few of the organizational case studies are powerful exceptions to this. But as a rule, white supremacy and militant struggles against it are missing from this book.
Several of the most interesting organizational case studies highlight the work of people of color organizations doing work around housing and worker organizing. However, reports and analysis explicitly dealing with Black people's struggles against white supremacy are nowhere to be found in the first three sections. There are no full organizational case studies of Black radical groups, there are no strategies for transformation that explicitly put white supremacy at the center, and there is no article theorizing white supremacy or drawing on the Black radical tradition. Therefore, while the interviews with Kelley, Alston, and Boggs are inspiring and powerful, they feel tacked on. Additionally, because the book's only engagement with the Black Liberation struggle is through movement elders, it gives the impression that the Black struggle is a thing of the past. We are left with the impression that activists should learn from and be inspired by the Black radical tradition, but it is not something we need to engage on the ground in our work now.
Stemming perhaps from this racial blind spot, there is nothing in Whirlwind that deals with struggles against domestic state violence. Stevie Peace's piece on Critical Resistance examines the group in the context of transformative justice and harm reduction, not challenging the prison system. There are no other pieces that deal with struggles against police brutality, mass incarceration, immigration enforcement, or political imprisonment of radicals, all of which are issues that disproportionately brutalize and tear apart working class communities of color. But this work is happening.
Critical Resistance works to abolish the prison industrial complex. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in New York City and FIERCE (a queer youth of color group, also in New York) are building copwatch programs to monitor police activity. The Jericho Movement works to free political prisoners and prisoners of war. Latino immigrants are organizing across the nation to resist US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and racist criminalizing legislation. Everywhere activists, particularly people of color, are attacking the state repressive apparatus and criminal justice system, which is the frontline of white supremacist terror. Unfortunately, these struggles and the theory and strategies they are developing are left out of this anthology almost completely. (2)
While Whirlwind is a sprawling anthology and a pleasure to read, containing much inspiration, A.K. Thompson's Black Bloc, White Riot is a very different kind of book. In this work, Thompson attempts to analyze the core themes and dilemmas of the North American anti-globalization movement. He particularly looks at the militant wing of this movement, epitomized by the Black Bloc, in which (mostly anarchist) activists march together, hide their identities, attack corporate institutions, and street fight with the police.
The black bloc tactic emerged out of the German autonomen movement, which began in the 1980s. The autonomen, or “those who are autonomous,” struggle to defend squatted housing, protest US imperialism, and fight against neo-nazis. This tactic of mass anonymity used to engage in political militancy and property destruction spread beyond Germany in the 1990s and was embraced by US anarchists protesting ecological destruction at Wall Street and the first Gulf War, culminating ten years later in the widely publicized actions at the 1999 World Trade Organization in Seattle. Black blocs in the decade since have become a common component of US protests. For Thompson and others, the black bloc as a tactic symbolizes the most militant wing of social protest in its willingness both to confront the state and to defy legality.
Thompson takes on the task of analyzing this political phenomenon and its implications. Unfortunately, his intentions are overshadowed by his writing style, which is extremely alienating. Thompson's prose is dense and challenging, seeming like a hybrid of Judith Butler and G.W.F. Hegel. At times, his book is close to being unreadable, with references to “the logic of inversion and conceptual negation,” which “have tended inadvertently to reiterate the restrictive epistemic frame.”(3) While it is essential that radicals grapple with difficult ideas, Thompson's writing style tends to hide his genuine insights in post-graduate philosophical prose.
Black Bloc, White Riot begins by identifying the North American anti-globalization movement as a white middle class phenomenon. The forces that marched in the streets against the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Group of 8 were largely white, as has been addressed by people such as Elizabeth Martinez in her piece “Where was the color in Seattle?” (4) The claim that the movement was middle class seems less clear. While those who jet-set across the planet to every major summit may have economic privilege, they also are a minority in the movement. By assuming a middle class movement, Thompson universalizes the experience of privileged activists, while making invisible the experiences of working class militants. Another problem with this assumption is that, while Thompson spends pages talking about the history of “middle class” politics, he never defines what this class is or who is in it. This lack of clarity reinforces the tendency to universalize middle class as being the normal and majority position.
As Chris Carlsson writes in “Radical Patience: Feeling Effective Over the Long Haul,” his contribution to Whirlwind, “If you are not pushing a shopping cart down the street looking for cans and bottles, or riding your Lear Jet to your next golfing vacation in a tropical paradise, you probably think you are middle class. In the United States, nearly everyone believes they are middle class. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the majority of us are working class.” (5) Carlsson and other Autonomist Marxists argue that those who do not own the means of production and need to sell their labor to survive make up the working class. While autonomist politics is sometimes overly broad in its definition of “worker,” this expansive materialist approach is useful as a challenge to the United States' universal “middle class” approach, which Thompson unfortunately perpetuates.
Thompson takes on the debates that raged in the movement around race and the importance of local organizing. Following the WTO shutdown of November 1999, Chicana movement veteran Martinez's piece “Where was the color in Seattle?” critiqued the whiteness of the emerging anti-globalization movement and the ways in which radicals of color were unable to participate fully. Thompson takes this critique and the white activist response to it as his jumping-off point. Many in the movement responded to this critique by increasingly prioritizing “local organizing” with the communities most affected by capitalist globalization, largely communities of color. While this shift was an important move away from the “white” of the white Left, Thompson speaks to some of its limitations in practice.
While the focus on how capitalism attacks oppressed communities in the United States was an important corrective to a movement initially focused on “summit hopping,” Thompson critiques the way in which a simplistic notion of “the local” separated struggles from the context of global capital in which they exist. He also rightfully criticizes white activists' tendency to romanticize “oppressed communities” and seek authenticity in them and in relationship to them. There also was (and remains) a tendency to view communities of color as natural and homogeneous. White activists in their quest for authentic struggle idealize communities of color, seeing them as stable and united. It would be easy to follow the adage “follow the leadership of people of color” if this were true. It is not true, and Thompson points out the ways that this white vision of communities of color ignores real contradictions around politics, gender, and power that exist within these communities. Without being sensitive to these divisions, white activists often follow the “official” leadership in these communities while ignoring other forces that may be more radical. Thompson urges white radicals to be mindful of these dynamics and to try to build real relationships and solidarity with people of color-led struggles, rather than tailing conservative forces in communities of color based on a simplistic, and ultimately racist, view of community.
Thompson also addresses issues of gender in the black bloc. Thompson goes after the critique that black bloc militancy was macho and male-dominated. He rightfully challenges the liberal and radical feminist essentialism that argues that violence is inherently male, pointing to the role of women in riots and uprisings historically. Drawing on the work of radical women of color such as Audre Lorde, he critiques the false assumptions of universalizing “sisterhood” that ends up locking militant women out of Feminist politics. He then goes on to suggest that rioting women destabilize gender categories by crossing the boundaries of gendered behavior, and thus that riots can in a limited way serve as an experiment in the abolition of gender.
Thompson draws on Frantz Fanon's work, arguing that violence is a precondition to real politics. By engaging in violent activity through black bloc tactics white middle class radicals began to break through the limitations of representational and staged opposition and open up space for the creation of new worlds and possibilities. Unfortunately, Thompson's definition of violence is incomprehensibly academic and broad, understood as any act “by which objects are transformed through their relationship to other objects,” as well as being “the precondition to politics and the premise upon which it rests.” (6) He explicitly places the act of breast-feeding in the “violent” category, suggesting that the breast-feeding of a child undermines traditional notions of autonomy and bodily integrity. By this standard almost any act that people engage in in the world is violent, from gardening to cooking. While his understanding of violence as central to all politics is a useful challenge to liberal notions of rational negotiation, this definition serves to make violence almost meaningless. If violence is understood as being synonymous with transformative activity, there is no real reason for the focus on the Black Bloc rather than other movement actors, whose civil disobedience and other direct actions were equally “violent.”
The use of Fanon's work is noteworthy, as his Wretched of the Earth adorns many an activist bookshelf. But it is not engaged here as it should be. Fanon, while certainly a proponent of the necessity of violence, was first and foremost a fighter for and theorist of decolonization. He argued about the transformative and liberatory power of force and militancy within the context of a brutal and violent system of colonial oppression of Black and Third World people. The idea that this is easily related to the theatrical pseudo-violence of white punk rockers breaking Starbucks windows seems dubious. In the context of North American settler colonial societies whose very existence is based on the colonization and genocide of indigenous people, and, in the case of the United States, chattel slavery and apartheid, the application of Fanon to the black bloc seems confused and not rooted in the material conditions and real history that Fanon always addressed.
While Black Bloc,White Riot contains real insights in its analysis of the debates and tensions within the radical wing of the North American anti-globalization movement, it does not go very deep. Thompson quotes from a handful of communiques and CrimethInc documents, but there is little in the way of real engagement with the writing or debates within the movement. One wants to get a feel for what young radicals were thinking and doing as they challenged global capital. One wants to know what they were arguing about, how they lived and organized, and what they were reading and writing. Instead, one is treated to lengthy analyses of the movies “Fight Club” and “Natural Born killers” (which Thompson somehow thinks were major influences on the movement) and the highly theoretical works of Fanon, Butler, Paulo Freire, and Michel Foucault. These Leftist philosophers are used to make incredibly abstract philosophical points about the necessity of violence for meaningful political action.
Theory is certainly a necessity in our struggle for freedom. Understanding it sometimes requires great concentration and hard work. However, Thompson fails to really connect his theory to the practice he is examining. Further, he does not give the reader a living sense of the activities, ideas, and overall composition of the movement he purports to analyze.
Team Colors's Uses of a Whirlwind and A.K. Thompson's Black Bloc, White Riot are both attempts to understand and learn from people's struggles against neoliberal capitalism in North America over recent years. Whirlwind is a diverse, sprawling collection full of insight, experience, and wisdom engaged in building relevant resistance. It does at times lack focus as an anthology, and sometimes feels like a 400-page issue of Left Turn magazine in its wide-ranging snapshots of activity without a strategic orientation of how struggles fit together and what their potentials are. The anthology also has a real blind spot in its lack of attention to race and state violence, leaving its broad overview unfortunately skewed.
Black Bloc, White Riot is far more focused in its intention to examine the white middle class radical wing of the anti-globalization movement. It contains significant insights into and important critiques of the ways in which gender and race play out in the movement, and also makes a necessary call for the importance of taking risks and engaging in uncompromising militant action. Problematically, these insights into real movement debates are the exception, overshadowed by long theoretical tangents and often unreadable verbosity.
What both of these works leave us with is the necessity not only to continue struggling and building movements, but also to theorize, sum up, and share the lessons of our work with others. Too often, we are so engaged in our day-to-day organizing that we fail to think about how our work connects to our vision of a radically different world. If we take our work seriously, we need not only to think about these questions of revolutionary strategy, but to write about them. Both Team Colors and Thompson have made serious attempts to do this. And, for this, they deserve our thanks.
1. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Andrej Grubacic, “Preface: In the Wind,” in Team Colors Collective, eds., Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States (Oakland, CA, 2010), xxiv.
2. When making these critiques, it must be taken into account that this is an anthology of previously unpublished work. Team Colors worked with what was submitted to them and they cannot be entirely blamed for what is missing here. Nonetheless, the gaps in this vision of radicalism are too significant to ignore, despite how good this collection is in many ways.
3. AK Thompson, Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent (Oakland, CA, 2010), 38.
4. Elizabeth Martinez, “Where Was the Color in Seattle?,” in Colorlines, Spring 2000.
5. Chris Carlsson, “Radical Patience: Feeling Effective Over the Long Haul,” in Team Colors Collective, eds., Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States (Oakland, CA, 2010) 306.
6. AK Thompson, Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent (Oakland, CA, 2010) 23.
Geoff Bylinkin is a healthcare worker and anti-capitalist activist in Portland, Oregon, where he is active in struggles against police violence and white supremacy. He lives with a dog, two cats, five chickens, three ducks and many bees. He spends his little spare time obsessing over queer liberation, self-determination, and obscure historical Left groups.
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