Conflict & Self Critique: May Day and Beyond

We would like to take a moment to respond to the article “Seattle May Day
2014: An Anti-Capitalist Tradition”, which appeared in the last issue of
Storming Heaven. We would like to offer this response as an attempt to open
up space for critical dialogue about anarchist activity in Seattle. The
article that appeared in SH describes a collective experience of May Day and
in doing so seems (intentionally or not) to speak for the experiences of the
entire march. In doing so, the article creates the illusion that May Day was
a ‘success’ without really defining what that means – effectively
speaking for the mob in vague terms that in the end say little about what
happened and how anarchists can develop practices of conflict.

The authors of the May Day report back describe an atmosphere of antagonism,
that we did not feel. Our purpose is not to quibble about the definition of antagonism or
argue that some had false experiences on that day. Rather we would like to
address the way anarchists talk about and reflect on actions, with a specific
focus on May Day. We are happy that May Day in Seattle has become an
anti-capitalist tradition that bring anarchists, hoodlums and weirdos of all
kinds together into the streets. However, we are also critical of the
emerging fetishization of May Day, of simply being in the street, and the
dramatization of the minor moments of conflict, which must be dramatized in
order to justify the fetishization. (By fetishization we mean the process by
which individuals become fixated on specific days of action or tactics to the
exclusion of all critical dialogue or discussion. )

In our appraisal of this year’s May Day Anti-Capitalist March, there were
few moments when the police did not have total control. They were able to
have control, in part, because of the fetishization of May Day as the day
when people have conflict with the state, capital and the police. Having a
day marked in the calendar in advance and adhering to a predictable form of
demonstration meant that the SPD were well prepared. The police allowed this
ritual to occur and in allowing people to feel that the march had control of
the streets, they acknowledged that the best way to control people is to make
them feel like it is the people in the streets that are in control. In the
past the police have controlled people by pushing them on the sidewalks. Now
the police control people by keeping them on the street and lining the entire
march with police officers that are no more than 5 feet apart. Disguising
police control as the success and ambition of a unified movement is nothing
but self-pacification and the affirmation of order. The negation of order can
only come from the praxis of critique based on a contextual analysis. This is
not to suggest that only anarchists are capable of revolt, for analysis and
critique are not inherently academically articulated events. The most
spectacular and beautiful moments of rupture often come from those who feel
rebellion in their bones and we should not be so naive to say that those with
less of a theoretical grounding in anarchism do not also take time to develop
tactics and strategy.

The aesthetics of militancy also plays an important role in the fetishization
of routine forms of protest and the recuperation of such demonstrations. The
aesthetic of rebellion has been popularized to such a degree that the
‘superheroes’ look no more contrived than the ‘anti-capitalists’.
(Just ask the yuppies, who were comfortably sipping on their wine and
enjoying their view of the march, as they laughed and apologized to the
police on behalf of the crowd). This was not the first time black-bloc was
worn fashionably and weapons were adopted as accessories. Those carrying
gold-dipped pink bats and wearing sloppy bloc could surely not have actually
used their bats, for if they did the police would have immediately identified
them as the ones carrying the gold tipped pink bats and wearing clearly
identifiable clothing. We are not writing to oppose tradition; it’s the
spectacle of tradition that does not serve us. It provides a distraction, one
so convincing that despite an unexceptional break from normality, one is
convinced that something more significant actually happened. Tradition
implies the importance of historical memory or trajectory, something that is
qualitatively world’s apart from routine and repetition.

One possible justification for the style of the ‘report back’ that
appeared in SH is that it provides something tangible and legible for
potential readers, but legibility is yet another political tool. To embrace
legibility is to submit to the illusive cloak of order and deny the beautiful
and terrible cacophony that is the reality of daily life and all social
struggles. We (the authors) are individuals for anarchy not a couple of
ideologues looking to gain disciples. It is not the role of anarchists to
convince people of what they experienced. Rather than deluding ourselves that
a moment of collective freedom occurred where each of us was swept up
together in a sublime break from every day life, we want to experience the
imperfection of anarchy.

This tired dichotomy of success and failure is inherently false due to the
subjective nature of the measurement of affective changes as opposed to the
objective nature of effective change (effective change is the result of an
act on the world around us, while affective change is the result of the act
on its protagonist). The individual nature of affective success contradicts
the totalizing and therefore representative narrative of the article in SH
and highlights its politically vanguardist foundations. We simply disagree
that these annual rituals have the potential for spectacular effective change
(the destruction of ‘the State and capitalism’), but even if they do have
some capacity to produce effective change, this will not occur through simply
doing the same thing over and over again.

If the intention of utilitarian optimism is to inspire strength, for us it
does the opposite. It does not challenge those present to continue the
struggle, it suggests maintaining an annual routine rather than analyzing why
some May Day’s have been more satisfying than others. For example, the
context leading up to May Day 2012 inevitably led to its degree of
conflictuality. One logical conclusion to draw from this could be that
building momentum (of which May Day can be part), organizing in a projectual
manner and refusing to fetishize certain forms of demonstrations or certain
days can lead to greater levels of conflict with the State and capital. If
the lessons learned during these events are applied to next week and next
month, social struggles can become permanent experiments in creating
conflict. Preparing for spontaneous events doesn’t mean waiting for them
– it means living our lives in conflict so that those spontaneous
explosions of rebellion feel like a continuation of antagonism that permeates
our lives, not like ‘the big game’ that we’ve been preparing for.

We wanted to end with the usual question of how to intensify or prolong
moments of conflict and breaks from daily routine, but perhaps it is more
appropriate to ask, how does one move beyond the limitations of ritualistic
resistance and develop practices of freedom and collectivity that embrace
cacophony instead of running from it or obscuring it?