Morozov, Graeber’s “diversity of tactics”, and Technological Justice

So I mentioned on Facebook today viz. Morozov’s somewhat unhinged and vitriolic twitter stream that I’m increasingly unwilling to denounce people for simply taking different tactical approaches to the same (or same enough) issue, specifically referencing (what I mistakenly called) Graeber’s “plurality of tactics”. The phrase was actually “a diversity of tactics” and it comes not directly from Graeber, but he relays it in his work and holds to it as something of an important principle. I thought that I would provide a relevant excerpt from his works that explains what it is and why it’s important in some more detail.

This quite long passage is from his latest The Democracy Project, which is very unconventionally structured, but absolutely worth wading through some of the early stuff that might not interest more philosophically inclined readers. The following passage is from pp.144-146 of The Democracy Project.

In one of the great ironies of history, the invocation of the spirit of Ghandi and Martin Luther King became the prime means of justifying the newfound militarization of American society, in a way that would surely have left either man, had they been alive to witness it, both astounded and horrified. Occupy is an extraordinarily nonviolent movement. It may well be the most nonviolent movement of its size in American history, and this despite the absence of peace codes, marshals, or official peace police. In the fall there were at least five hundred occupations, with participants representing remarkably diverse philosophies, from evangelical Christians to revolutionary anarchists, and thousands of marches and actions – and yet the most “violent” acts attributed to protesters were four or five acts of window-breaking, basically less than one might expect in the wake of one not particularly rowdy Canadian hockey game. Historically this is an extraordinary achievement. Yet has it ever been treated as such? Instead, the handful of windows themselves became a moral crisis. In the immediate wake of evictions, when Americans first had the opportunity to process the full extent of what had happened – the mass arrests, the beatings, the systematic destruction of homes and libraries – the liberal blogosphere was instead almost completely dominated by arguments about a piece called “The Cancer in Occupy,” written by a former New York Times reporter turned OWS supporter named Chris Hedges, who argued that two incidents of window-breaking in Oakland were actually the work of a violent and fanatical anarchist faction called “the Black Bloc,” and that the most important thing the movement could do ws to expose and exclude such elements lest they provide a pretext for police. The fact that almost no statement in the piece was factually accurate (Black Blocs are in fact a formation, not a group, and probably 95 percent of occupations hadn’t even seen one) only seemed to give everyone more excuse to argue about it. Before long, liberal commentators had formed a consensus that the real problem with Occupy was not any act of actual physical violence that had taken place (these had pretty much all been carried out by police) but the fact that some occupations contained elements that, while they had not committed any acts of violence, felt that acts of damage to property could be justified. To give a sense of the disparity: even in new York in March, there was still endless discussion of a single café window that may or may not have been broken by an activist associated with a Black Bloc in Oakland during a march in November; as a result, there was virtually no discussion of the first OWS-associated window-breaking in New York itself, which occurred on March 17. The window in question – it was a shop window in lower Manhattan – was broken by an NYPD officer using an activist’s head.

Just to give a sense of how perverse this invocation of Ghandi to justify state violence really is, we might recall the words and actions of Ghandi himself. For most anarchists, Ghandi is an ambivalent figure. On the one hand, his philosophy drew heavily on the anarchism of Tolstoy and Kropotkin. On the other, he embraced a kind of masochism of puritanism and encouraged a cult of personality whose implications can only be profoundly inimical to the creation of a truly free society. But he also insisted that passive acquiescence to an unjust order was even worse. I remember one conference on OWS at the New School in New York in the wake of evictions, where liberal pacifists kept reminding organisers that Ghandi had gone so far as “suspending his Quit India campaign when there was an incidence of violence.” What they didn’t mention was that the incident in question involved Ghandi’s own followers having twenty-two police officers to pieces and setting fire to the remains. It seems a pretty safe guess that if members of, say, Occupy Cleveland or Occupy Denver were discovered to have carved large numbers of police officers limb from limb, our movement would have stopped dead in its tracks as well, even without a charismatic leader to tell us to. In a world where such things were possible, the idea that Ghandi himself would have become worked up over a couple of broken windows is nothing short of insane. In fact, as a politician, Ghandi regularly resisted demands that he condemn those who engaged in more militant forms of anticolonial resistance – that is, even when they were not part of his movement. Even when it was a matter of guerrillas blowing up trains, he would always note that while he believed nonviolence was the correct approach, these were good people trying to do what they believed to be the right thing. While opposing injustice non-violently, he insisted, is always morally superior to opposing it violently, opposing injustice violently is still morally superior to doing nothing to oppose it at all.

So while it might seem to be a bit of a stretch to say that Morozov is resisting injustice in his work, I really do think there’s some element of what he’s doing that is (and doesn’t think help to make sense of why he’s so vitriolic – to see him as someone arguing for technological justice). Our language and thinking is profoundly captured at present by the discourses and entire ways of thinking  (Morozov uses the Foucaultian phrase ‘episteme’) around technology, and there is an element of injustice to this: we’re so far down the rabbit hole that we are doing monumentally terrible acts to both ourselves and the ecosystems that support us, all in the name of technology, progress, economic growth, and a reasonable rate of return. That’s why I’m unwilling to join in the choruses of “Morozov is unhinged,” and “Morozov is mentally ill,” or whatever – at least he’s doing something and not even in a particularly violent way (except in a more abstract, verbally abusive way). He’s still working, I believe, for technological justice and I still think he’s trying to do good.

Incidentally, the phrase “a diversity of tactics” was a call put out by a Direct Democracy group during an action in the year 2000, and I encountered the phrase in Graeber’s ethnography of same on pp.6-7 of Direct Action: An Ethnography.