Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On "Confrontation"

I just read Noam Chomsky's latest book, Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013 (Haymarket Books, 2014), a bemusingly short collection of pieces that span over forty years.  It might be a good introduction to his political writings for someone who's new to them, and of course there are always plenty of such people.  It's also a reminder of how little has changed in US politics these past several decades.

For example, I very much liked what Chomsky had to say about "confrontation" in the 1969 essay, "Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals and the Welfare-Warfare State."  (Once again I'm quoting from an e-book with no page numbers, so I can't cite this passage any more closely than that.)
It has always been taken for granted by radical thinkers, and quite rightly so, that effective political action that threatens entrenched social interests will lead to "confrontation" and repression.  It is, correspondingly, a sign of intellectual bankruptcy for the left to seek to construct "confrontations"; it is a clear indication that the efforts to organize significant social action have failed.  Impatience, horror at evident atrocities, may impel one to seek an immediate confrontation with authority.  This can be extremely valuable in one of two ways: by posing a threat to the interests of those who are implementing specific policies; or by bringing to the consciousness of others a reality that is much too easy to forget.  But the search for confrontations can also be a kind of self-indulgence that may abort a movement for social change and condemn it to irrelevance and disaster.  A confrontation that grows out of effective policies may be unavoidable, but one who takes his own rhetoric seriously will seek to delay a confrontation until he can hope to emerge successful, either in the the narrower senses noted above or to the far more important sense of bringing about, through this success, some substantive change in institutions.  Particularly objectionable is the idea of designing confrontations so as to manipulate the unwitting participants into accepting a point of view that does not grow out of meaningful experience, out of real understanding.  This is not only a testimony to political irrelevance, but also, precisely because it is manipulative and coercive, a proper tactic only for a movement that aims to maintain an elitist and authoritarian organization.
This remains a relevant point, I think, as shown by certain self-styled anarchists who tried to divert actions of the Occupy Movement into vandalism that would provoke police violence -- even more police violence than there already was.  I'm not opposed in principle to the use of violence in demonstrations, but I do think that Chomsky's remarks on confrontation are just as relevant to violent action.  The US left traditionally has been and still is male-dominated and often macho, which probably has something to do with its past and present failures.