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« How disorganization is damaging Occupy | Main | Scaring the pants off Oscar Mayer »

Provocateur tactics and the subversion of Occupy

This was published with considerable feedback from affinis and lambert. My sincere thanks to both of them for their help.

The Occupy movement has already had a positive impact in many areas, but potentially the biggest one is rescuing concepts of public rights and the understanding of what is public. The very idea that there could be a common good, that there are things that belong to all of us and that in fundamental ways we are all in this together seems to have been under attack for a long time now.

For example, part of the right wing assault on the right to vote has included the talking point that since you need a license to drive why wouldn’t you need a photo ID for something as important as voting? Which actually gets the logic backwards. Driving is a privilege, so setting a more stringent standard for it makes sense. When it comes to the right to vote there ought to be a presumption that the individual requesting a ballot is eligible. The law should bend over backwards to accommodate voters, not erect barriers. Of course, on the rare occasions when fraud does happen it needs to be prosecuted vigorously.

Similarly, the idea of the public has been under assault. The fight for a public option in the health care debate a few years back is one prominent example. The idea of the government offering a basic menu of elementary health services to everyone seemed terribly provocative. It ended up being left out of the final bill despite the fact that it was a very modest (compared to, say, single payer) reform. This despite the fact that a similar model for banking has been a demonstrable and phenomenal success for nearly a century.

Meanwhile, things that currently are public are being spun off like crazy to the private sector. Here in Ohio I’ve watched John Kasich push to privatize prisons, the turnpike, the lottery, and more - while turning down federal funds for public transportation. Residents of other states have seen their own versions of this process.

Occupy has pushed back on those dynamics. In the environment sketched out above, a group of citizens simply becoming physically present in a public space over an extended period is provocative - and has the potential to produce change. Anything that would work against Occupiers’ ability to continue to hold public space ought to be considered antithetical to the spirit of the movement. Nothing would degrade that ability faster than violence, and having already posted extended thoughts on that subject I’ll just link to both and leave it there for now.

Occupation sites that have successfully endured without too much interruption have eventually had to answer the question, now what? Seizing and holding public space is significant, but how is it then put to use? Here is where the struggle over what Occupy means becomes most pressing. There seems to be a general agreement in using it to fight against systemic problems, but there seems to be a split as to how to express it. Some favor a nonviolent mass movement, others a smaller and violent insurgency. Which has more to recommend it?

One way to answer that is to ask: Which approach does the status quo favor? Because the answer favored by the establishment might not be the one for activists to embrace. A systemic critique by definition is at odds with established power. What might authorities favor?

A movement that puts an emphasis on social justice is at least antagonistic towards those in power, and potentially is outright hostile to them. Staging a protest against, say, stop and frisk policies is necessarily a critique of the system. This is really just a nice way of saying to those in charge “you are not doing your job well enough.” That is not a welcome message. Similarly, keeping people from being thrown out of their homes or pressuring banks to make real efforts to modify loans are implicit criticisms of those who are running things. (Note also that social justice is concerned with preserving or building up, not tearing down.)

If Occupy takes the approach above it will be hard to discredit and destroy. Nonviolent social justice is open to all and transparent, and it has an immediate, direct, and meaningful impact in the lives of those it helps. Those who want to see that approach fail cannot go the direct route. Instead of trying to persuade everyone that such activity is bad, it’s much easier to either bog the group down in other matters or redirect the group’s energy into activities that will discredit it.

Looking at how governments have subverted political movements in the past, discriminatory behavior and advocating violence feature prominently. Presumably that is because it tends to discourage and splinter members of the movement, but in a way that leaves no obvious footprints. Those engaging in either of those are doing the work of those who want Occupy to go away. They may express deep antipathy towards it and may in fact feel that to the very depth of their souls, but as a practical matter they are assisting authorities. As Charles put it in relation to violence, “if the police are paying people to smash windows, why are you doing it for free?”1 The same is true of those in Occupy who engage in harassment, racism, misogyny, homophobia or other kinds of bullying.

Similarly, look at the effects of the direct political action linked above: Nonviolent challenging of police procedures that infringe on civil liberties is far more provocative to the system than throwing a bottle at a cop. Violence causes public support to drop and also excludes those who are not in a position to engage in a “might makes right” gesture of spectacular futility towards officers. This too supports the state in its effort to discredit the movement in the public eye.

Finally, anything that tends to take discussions into long-winded esoteric territory (like arguments over semantics) should be viewed with extreme skepticism. This is obviously a much more subjective measure; My brevity might be your long-windedness, and your esoteric might be my essential. Looking at the effect of the discussion might be a good rule of thumb, though. As Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers recently wrote about an extended discussion of finances at Occupy: “Whether paid or not, the impact is the same — it takes the Occupy off its political agenda and turns people off to participating in the movement.” Those things that tend to take Occupy away from the activities considered most threatening by the state will eventually subvert the movement.

I have tried to be careful not to assume motive in anyone in the above. I take those who claim to be passionate supporters of Occupy to be just that. But political movements are often targets of government subversion and provocateurs. We know enough about how these agents work to identify their most common tactics. To the extent that true believers engage in the same tactics, they act as the state’s volunteer auxiliary unit.

Whether intentionally or by accident, from the outside or within, they have the potential to do great damage to Occupy. For that to happen to a movement that is reclaiming public space, challenging injustice and dedicating itself to the common good would be a tragedy. We have enough testimony from those who once advocated pro-government subversive tactics and have since had the opportunity to watch the reverberations echo over several decades; we do not need to repeat the mistakes that they themselves now see as catastrophic with Occupy.


1. Affinis recommends the documentary If a Tree Falls for a good example of activists who grew frustrated and felt powerless, then turned to violence. The common refrain from activists on the long term impact of those decisions (Paul Soglin: “When school reopened a couple of weeks later, it was as though the life had been sucked out of the anti-war movement.” Mark Rudd: “Assuming we weren’t in the pay of the FBI, we should have been.”) is that they damaged the movement they were claiming to help, and helped those they claimed to oppose.

Reader Comments (5)

This is a bit off the topic of your post, but I think it's relevant. There is a lot of p--sing and moaning about Democrats "infiltrating" and "subverting" Occupy.

This is not just idiotic, but contemptuous of the movement. It's idiotic because the aim of the police infiltrators and subverters is to frame people and put them in jail. The aim of Democrats is to get people to vote, or possible even to... phonebank.

But it's also contemptuous of Occupy to think that people could be duped into voting (or phonebanking!) by these "infiltrators." Presumably people at Occupy are clear on why they are there. If they aren't, why shouldn't they listen to people who have a suggestion for a lawful activity engaged in by millions? Are they really such helpless lambs that they must be protected from the Democratic wolves? I am not at the demos to try to get people to vote (or phonebank!) but those who are there doing just that are doing standard First Amendment stuff.

Sorry to burden your thread with this, but this particular "infiltration" meme is begging to be laughed at.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles

I think this post is a good and timely cautionary note. There is a long history of groups and individuals who try to subvert or "turn" (coopt) organizations in directions not desired by their originators and current participants. Sometimes this has been called "entrism" or "boring from within," but whatever it gets called, the general contours of the process are the same: gum up the works, cause disaffection and loss of participation, and finally capture the hollowed-out shell that remains.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Indeed, Dan, so please stop doing it!

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRanDomino

Are they really such helpless lambs that they must be protected from the Democratic wolves?

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterannie

I suppose this is sort of o/t, but the bit about "the idea of the public has been under assault" reminded me of something I wrote about a year ago which included some discussion of the attack on what I called "the Commons ... the idea of a public sphere wherein all can participate, all have a stake, all have a part - and all have some responsibility."

If anyone thinks that might add to the conversation, this is the link.

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLarryE

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