by Steve ChaseAugust 10, 2017
After my July 18 article on agents provocateurs was posted, I heard from a young activist who wrote, “Loved your article. It has surprised me how many people in my social media bubble support black bloc/antifa stuff.” She is not alone.
The blackbloc/antifa folks have found a positive and strategic sounding way to market their negative and unstrategic approach to activism, which voluntarily does the dirty work of agents provocateurs. Their term of choice is “diversity of tactics.” Sounds smart, right? Well, that depends on whether we are talking about a diversity of effective tactics that increase movement participation and power over time, or a poorly thought-out hodgepodge of counterproductive violent tactics tacked on to civil resistance actions in ways that often decrease movement participation and effectiveness. While the “diversity of tactics” slogan sounds good, the phrase is actually just a way to sell this second, very defective, pro-violence outlook to unsuspecting activists.
In response to this problem, another reader wrote me saying that she believes that more activists need to speak up and challenge the fuzzy thinking behind the “diversity of tactics” slogan. She related a story about being at a conference on social movements where a presenter “was totally pushing for ‘diversity of tactics’ as his right.” She adds, “Had I had an opportunity, I would have liked to talk with him and other conference attendees about how the ‘right to use violence’ is not an individual choice.”
She makes a good point. Claiming an “individual right” to engage in violence at organized civil resistance actions is like a corporation claiming the right to make harmful production choices regardless of the negative impacts on its workers, customers, or external third parties. This corporate liberty is seen by some market fundamentalists as sacred. Many people simply acquiesce to this distorted notion of “free enterprise,” another positive sounding marketing term, even though they suspect this approach actually corrupts our economy and harms both people and planet.
There is a parallel here. Some activists who would never engage in counterproductive movement violence themselves get tongue-tied, passive, or confused when a tiny minority of activists invoke the positive sounding rhetoric of a “diversity of tactics” and “individual rights.” This passivity in the face of the marketing of violence is troublesome because research shows that a significant breakdown of nonviolent discipline in our movements is strongly correlated with ineffectiveness and defeat. This is because violence actually decreases popular participation within our movements, and likely also decreases the diversity of people participating in those movements. There is also considerable evidence that movement violence, and even random property damage, increases state violence against entire movements, raises the level of mainstream support for repression, and reduces the chance that state repression will backfire against power elites.
How can strategic organizers and activists challenge such negative trends within our movements? Whether the marketing of violence comes from a paid agent provocateur or from a sincere but misguided activist, the most important antidote is to be bold and raise strategic questions and perspectives within movement dialogues and debates. We all need to learn how to challenge the many unhelpful assumptions behind the “diversity of tactics” slogan and start calling it out for what it is: the marketing of violence. Other useful actions that can help our movements succeed include:
Educating more activists and organizers in effective civil resistance history and strategy,
Stating a clear collective commitment to nonviolent discipline in all our calls for action and avoiding the rhetoric of “diversity of tactics,”
Using marshals at our actions to help well-meaning activists not take the bait and engage in impulsive, but unhelpful movement violence,
Providing trainings before major resistance actions explaining why maintaining nonviolent discipline increases movement effectiveness and helping people develop the capacity to keep their eyes on the prize in the face of repression and the incitement of agents provocateurs or misguided activists, and
Challenging macho posturing within our movement culture and encouraging the full participation of women in the leadership of people’s movements (which research indicates improves nonviolent discipline and movement effectiveness considerably).
There may always be agents provocateurs who try to sow division and encourage or use violence. There may also always be at least a few sincere activists who promote discredited and counterproductive notions about the benefits of movement violence. We don’t have to buy what they are selling, though, or stay silent about the ineffectiveness or destructiveness of their ideas and actions. By developing our capacity to resist the marketing of movement violence, we can make our movements more successful and limit the damage caused by state repression. We can even make violent repression backfire on the power elites who oppose our movements.
Steve Chase is a long-time activist, educator, and writer and previously worked as Manager of Academic Initiatives for ICNC. He is currently the Assistant Director of Solidarity 2020 and Beyond, a solidarity network and community of practice for grassroots movement organizers in the Global South using advocacy, peacebuilding, and nonviolent resistance to win sustainability, rights, freedom, and justice.Read More