Article from Black Flag #213 1998.
"History records the patterns of men's lives, they say: who slept with whom and with what results; who fought and who won and who lived to lie about it afterwards. All things, it is said, are duly recorded all things of importance, that is. But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, those lies his keepers keep their power by."
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Dominant culture rarely interests itself in evidence other than that which demonstrates willing and enthusiastic complicity from its subjects. Acts of refusal and revolt are effaced from the historical record when they expose the tenuous control of authority. Even when they do appear, presence, motives and behaviour are all mediated through the lens of elite partiality to deny that we are capable of generating the ideas and means of our own liberation. That much most of us recognize; it is the premise of the class history developed in the sixties by the likes of E P Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. But theirs is also a quite particular history focused on the same level of public appearance as that of the establishment. Just as real life is elsewhere than on television, so the history of resistance is at the very least written between the lines of the official record of leaders, followers and climactic events. The reason derives not just from the actions of those in authority but also from the strategies of resistance adopted by those who desire to demolish all authority. In the interests of self-preservation, the ruling class and their official recorders, journalists and other such vermin, whose social position depends upon maintenance of the established class structure invariably work to keep attention only on a protest or movement's leaders (whether real or imaginary) and particularly on those who can demonstrate the same class status. But as well as those who lack the influence to have their words and actions recognized as important, are those who have no intention whatsoever to be so identified. It is this realm of individual and collective refusal that has proved most resilient in resisting exposure.
A vast area of active political life is ignored for the simple fact that it takes place at a level we rarely recognise as political. Trained by the mass media to applaud the spectacular action rather than the functional and prudent, all is in the appearance, the image of revolt as reproduced through that same mass media. But much political activity is elaborated among an intentionally restricted public that excludes or is hidden from the gaze of authority. It is not only that the historical record is kept by elites, for elites, but that subversives themselves have an interest in concealment (and thus greater personal security and self-control) of their activities. Such acts as these were never meant to be recordable; they were successful only in so far as they were invisible. The most successful poisonings of class oppressors, for example, are those never known as such. Just like the perfect crime, the subversive act seeks to escape all detection, cover its tracks and avoid appearance in the archives: for the perpetrators to strike ... anonymously ... and so survive to strike again (only those who wish to be martyrs, self-publicists or media personalities would wish to wait around to offer their names and have their picture taken).
"A pestilent pernicious people ... such as take oaths to the government, but underhand labour its subversion."
Bishop Trelawny, 1717
Though the point, by its very nature, is impossible of proof, apparent docility is the measure of subterfuge, and is only broken by those crises of ruling class confidence that allow insurrectionary breakthrough. Our ability to capitalise on these favourable moments must be understood in the context of the development of that which is ordinarily hidden. So a view of politics focused either on the official and formal relations of power (the command performances of consent), or on open protest and rebellion, represents a far too narrow concept of political life. The body of knowledge of the past and the current which we must grapple with is for the most part a record of what obtrudes onto the public stage and from there onto the historical record. There are undoubtedly important and instructive events and occurrences among them, which can give strength, through popular memory, to protest and resistance. But the lens of hindsight and reportage is a distorted mirror. History records what is most spectacular and most easily located: the start, the peaks, the decisive break with the past. We see the climax, the (only possibly decisive) invasion of public space. As such it implodes the development of movements of refusal and social transformation, for it freezes our attention at a single frame in time, disconnected from that which made it possible (as Dickens remarks in Barnaby Rudge, "We note the harvest more than the seed time"). These moments almost never come from nowhere; they are rather the acceleration of continuing processes through timely public manifestation. The agitation and preparation that precede and underpin the demonstrative act are always beginning and never end. It is at the point of certain rupture that the perpetrators of everyday acts of refusal consider it safe to appear on the public stage. Unless provoked by the State into desperate measures, open collective defiance is rarely undertaken unless it is practical and likely to succeed. Until that time, the mechanisms, structures and struggles which necessarily precede it are a closed book.
The accumulation of petty acts of defiance and refusal makes critical upsurges possible. They are not a substitute for revolution but a necessary condition for it. That it is why the insurrectionary moment invariably escalates so rapidly (and as if from nowhere) that revolutionary elites, the vanguard, find themselves hopelessly overtaken and left in its wake.
"How is it possible that so many people immediately understood what to do and that none of them needed any advice or instructions ?"
Vaclav Havel, New Year's Day 1990
Ability to act in moments of critical juncture derive from the long preparation of engagement in minimalist and apparently apolitical actions.
No More False Prophets, No More Hired Tongues
An understanding of previous movements for change is not merely an exercise in historical interpretation. A knowledge gained is the means by which we can understand how to take effective action, ourselves, today. When we recognise what has been, we can plan for what might be.
Movements that attempt to create a groundswell of opposition by initiating public (usually publicity-seeking) protests at the outset will often meet with a wall of general indifference (not because people don't care, but because they are a lot more realistic about the utility of such initiatives than the protesters). If they begin to engage in activity that actually poses a threat to State and Capital, they often find it impossible to sustain themselves against infiltration and repression.
The art of the possible is discovered rather in those anonymous, immediate (but not by any means spontaneous) short-run collective actions that utilise the deep traditions implicit in guerrilla warfare and can melt away when faced with unfavourable odds. Cryptic and above all surreptitious actions are best adapted to resist an opponent who could probably win any open confrontation. Spontaneousforms of popular action can be, and are, deliberately chosen because of the tactical advantages for all those involved. What might be called a low-intensity class warfare is always pressing, testing, probing the boundaries of the permissible so as to take swift advantage of any fissures that may open up in moments of crisis. It is not that our incapacity to sustain permanent political organisation (most sensible people vote with their feet and avoid these formations like the plague) but that the choice of fleeting, direct action represents a popular tactical wisdom developed in conscious response to the political constraints realistically faced. Anonymity and a lack of formal organisation then become enabling modes of resistance, a measure of our understanding of both the danger and the futility in spectacular mediated action. While such action precludes formal organisation, it most certainly does not eschew effective coordination, achieved through the informal networks of affinity, kinship, traditional and intentional community, workplace and, yes, even perhaps ritual and religious practice. Socially embedded networks, developed at the level of the everyday, will be as opaque to the authorities as they are indispensable to subversive activity. The accelerated erosion and mutation of established social structures has been central in our current incapacity to engage in effective collective refusal. What's left of the Left has signally failed in imagination to recognize this and to foster new communities of resistance. Rather, it engages in plans for grandiose but deeply meaningless national federations (federations of what?) and equally disempowering parades before the world's television cameras.
Effective subversion must be organised out of the gaze of domination, in a sequestered physical, cultural or social location those areas that are least patrolled by authority. For those who look only on the surface of things, those seduced by the spectacular image of defiance, such strategy is a retreat from conventional class struggle. But, all things are not as they seem: as has been argued here, this is the very form that traditional class struggle has taken. The clandestine, apparently innocuous, maybe even anti-political assembly provides the fluidity and guerrilla mobilityfor effective subversive projection.
No Name No Slogan
There are immediate uses and gains in formations such as these: no leaders to round up; no hierarchical organisation to reproduce, no membership lists to investigate; no manifestos to denounce; no mediators to meet (and join) the power-holding elite. No public claims are made, no symbolic lines drawn, no press statements to be deliberately misconstrued and trivialised by journalists. No platforms or programmes which the intellectuals can hijack as their exclusive property; no flag or banner to which to pledge a crass and sectarian allegiance.
What concrete forms will our subversion take? The concrete forms it already takes: theft, feigned ignorance (all the better to dissemble our intentions), shirking or careless labour, footdragging and unofficial go-slow, zero-work, secret trade and production for sale (for barter, or, even better, for free), squatting, default on all payment for anything, evasion of taxes, destruction of official records, sabotage and arson, impromptu riot (for the sheer hell of it) and the detournment of state-sponsored celebration into moments of joyous destruction. If we were to undertake all this with the objective of attaining a complete self-reliance in the satisfaction of all desires and needs, we may well find it sufficient for the move from surviving within this system, to superceding it. Let the daily celebration of life be but a dress rehearsal for insurrection. It is the accumulation of small, instrumental acts that will bring authority to its knees.
Let us rise.