Friday, March 9, 2012

Seeing Red: Fabian Protests

George Washington on Wall Street; and an OWSer who didn't get the memo

I'm aware that, due to the Tea Bagger's tricornered pinheads, looking at OWS in relation to George Washington's Continental army is a mixed metaphor of sorts. And while I am more than happy to cede the Boston Tea Party to the Neoliberals, Libertarians and their flock of rasist retirees, the OWS movement, and its admires, would do well to consider the lessons of the long war of attrition that followed that initial tax revolt. According to the historian Joseph Ellis: "Washington did not believe he was weak, and he thought of the Continental army as a projection of himself." Clearly OWS movement has no reason to imagine itself as weak, it imagines itself as a projection of the 99%, but like Washington, there seems to be an urge for symmetrical confrontation: to shut down the G8, to demand that the Whitney Biennial cease and desist, and to call for a general strike on May 1st. Like Washington however, OWS can't win frontal assaults, they need to make what Ellis calls, a "Fabian Choice."
Alexander Hamilton (1806); The Godfather (1972)

In Elis' biography of Washington, His Excellency, the historian argues that that the general wanted to confront the British army at the first possible opportunity: as soon as they made landfall in New York. His plan was to face them head on, with his entire force, making a bold stand. He was gambling on a decisive victory. As Alexander Hamilton, Washington's protégé, New York's favorite son (adopted), and the Godfather of Wall Street, might have said: "Badah bing, badah boom." But, as Ellis points out: "It would be hard to imagine a more perfect place for the British army to confront and crush the Continental army that New York City." The British totally kicked Washington's ass.

Washington and his army survived the Battle of Brooklyn, but the old man sill hoped "a brilliant stoke could be made with any probability of Success, especially after our Loss upon Long Island." Ellis writes that "several generations of historians have noted, that Washington's decision to linger on Manhattan was militarily inexplicable and tactically suicidal." So, not surprisingly, Washington got his ass handed to him again and ended up "in full flight" across New Jersey with "not much of an army left" to lead. These battles should be filed under heading Fools and Children. The only reason Washington wasn't hung for a traitor then and there was that the British forces chose to not to pursue, because, according to Ellis: "One the quaint customs of eighteenth century warfare was the belief that armies should not fight during winter."
Alexander Hamilton (1804); The Godfather (1972)

It is important to remember what Washington gambled in New York: EVERYTHING. The only reason he didn't lose: dumb fucking luck. Ellis explains that, "Washington came to accept the fact that he must adopt a more defensive strategy and fight a 'War of Posts.'" Putting aside his era's idea's of honor, and his own natural tendencies to stand and fight, George Washington adopted a far less sexy, but ultimately successful strategy:
Also called a "Fabian strategy" after the Roman general Fabius Cunctator, who defeated the Carthaginians by withdrawing whenever his army's fate was at risk, it was a shift in thinking that did not come naturally to Washington. A Fabian strategy, like guerrilla and terrorist strategies of the twentieth century, was the preferred approach of the weak.
Over the winter Occupy Wall Street has, not surprisingly, faded from public view somewhat. And now in anticipation of spring there seems to be a desire to make bold statements and decisive moves. As general strikes are verboten in the United States, there is some hemming and hawing about what to call the general strike, but those sorts of semantic games are unlikely to comfort large Unions swore off the practice almost a century ago. This is a frontal assault, and one guaranteed to alienate the Labor movement.
William Trego, March to Valley Forge (1883); Zuccatti Park (2011)

Like Washington, the OWS movement is preparing to make a bold stand in the hopes of a decisive victory, but the most likely outcome is these strategies will undermine movement's credibility and isolate the protestors from their natural allies. I don't just mean the professional organizers employed by organized labor and the political operatives within the Democratic Party, I mean tourists and amateurs like me.

"Instead of a hard core of experienced veterans" writes Ellis, "the Continental army became a constantly fluctuating stream of amateurs, coming and going like tourists." To his dismay, Washington's army melted away over the winter and, like the organizers of OWS, he had no way of knowing what to expect come spring. I am sure that those commanding the occupation of Wall Street are impatient with the tourists, and upstarts like me; the amateurs who aren't "anti-capitalist," dedicated to consensus-decision making or prefigurative politics, but these are exactly sorts of people the movement needs to march on command. Looking back at Washington's army hints at set of strategies that build on the Occupy movement's greatest political innovation: The Fabian Protest.
Amateur and Tourists

Even an amateur can recognize that the political landscape has changed since the hey-day of the protest movement in the 1960s. What Naomi Wolf calls ‘overpermiticisation’ (that makes it legally impossible to mount a large effective protest), and the decades long foreclosure of urban public space (that make effective protests physically impossible), has made mounting big dramatic protests almost impossible. The genius of OWS's Fabian Protest is to substitutes duration for mass; abandoning the spectacle of a single explosively large event for the on going pressure of long one. It is an amazing achievement. Last fall, the Occupiers who moved the protest to the less contested location of Zuccatti Park made a Fabian choice and it paid off.

The "Big Bang theory of revolution" clearly remains the brass ring for political radicals. The image is a galvanizing one: of one man raising his fist; one marginalized group raising it's voice; one small cadre raising its banner, and the rest of society joining the call in a cascade of change that transforms tourists and amateurs into committed activists. It is an image that has energized everyone from the Bolsheviks to the NeoCons. Less galvanizing, less immediately animating, but arguably more deeply moving, and a greater engine for permanent social change is the Fabian strategy. Stay close to your opponents. Force them to squander their moral authority while retaining your own. For those who "occupied" the Brooklyn Bridge, the "action" may have felt "decisive," but looking back, it was the occasions in which peaceful protestors were maced and pepper sprayed by unprovoked cops in riot gear that probably did the most to legitimize OWS.
Fabius Cunctator; OWSer

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