Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Making activists look better--or worse

What happens when a radical flank emerges from some campaign, some movement, or some organization? There are two stock answers.

One, the existence of a more radical element tends to make the formerly labeled extremists now seem moderate and they are better and more likely picked to be negotiating partners. Progress therefore was made possible more quickly by a radical flank and the threat it implied.

Two, existential threats or actual physical violence by a radical flank closes down negotiations, stiffens resolve, and increases brutality, even smearing it over onto the moderate majority of the campaign, leading to a failure, and a longer struggle toward smaller gains.

Which is true?

Much like we teach in conflict resolution, it's a both/and answer. It depends. 
Malcolm X claimed that his fiery rhetoric made Dr. King look like a good person with whom to negotiate. This is an interesting claim. There is no real test and evidence points in different directions. Yes, Malcolm X was scaring the white power structure and Dr. King looked much nicer. On the other hand, Dr. King's direct actions compelled public officials to negotiate and did not afford them any justification for refusing to deal. Dr. King was the one in the streets. Malcolm X was a powerful recruiter into the Nation of Islam and never dealt with public policy as Dr. King did. So it is less than clear but worth compiling thoughts and connections.

Israeli settlers beat up some Palestinian kids. Unknown Palestinians kidnap and kill three Israeli youth. Unknown Israeli radicals beat and burn a Palestinian youth to death. Hamas shoots rockets toward Israel. Israel bombs everything in sight. This is all the work of radical flanks on both sides capturing and controlling the narratives in their respective societies. No one wins and the day of peace is pushed further into the murky future. Radical flanks are a destructive waste of humankind and resources and tend to slow and even reverse progress toward freedom and justice.

Penn State researcher Mark Anner (2009) looks at transnational labor organizing and concludes that the left-wing labor organizers tend to be the Malcolm X factor to the more local conservative labor organizing goal of a local union. The left-wing radical flank tends to prompt the owner class to negotiate with the more conservative organizers who are willing to engage in cross-class collaboration. Anner did his field research in Honduras and El Salvador and used a robust methodology and strong analysis. Sadly, the unions in those two countries have not been any sort of panacea, as we now see tens of thousands of children fleeing unaccompanied toward and into the US, enough to prompt Rick "Radical Flank" Perry into calling up his Texas Republican Nationalist Guard. 

I'm going to suspect that when the actions of the radical flanks cross the line and become violent, all bets are off. Big buff intimidation is one thing. Rhetoric about taking over is one thing. Strident nationalism or any populist identity-thumping sloganeering is one thing. But killing children is atrocious. And when atrocities occur, that radical flank action is almost certain to intensify all negative, destructive aspects of the conflict, generalizing it, seizing the public narrative, driving the nonviolent elements to the margins or underground entirely, and drastically increasing all costs to everyone. Malcolm X was dignified and precise and never counseled anyone to do what the Black Panthers later urged, that is, to "kill pigs" (police) (as a young man I subscribed to the Black Panther Party paper and the violent rhetoric was truly intense). It is entirely possible that Malcolm X was indeed the exception, just as the apparel unions in Central America seemed to benefit from the radical flank leftist internationalist rhetoric, according to Anner. 

The mere threat of aggression or violence can diminish some movements quite surely. I have witnessed that directly, if anecdotally, as an organizer in my town, Portland Oregon. As long as the radical flank and the mainstream movement worked together and the radical flank only did its most rowdy (and I would argue reckless) actions at its own events and avoided such provocative behavior at our mainstream events, our numbers grew. When that dialog and collaboration ceased and the radical flank felt no constraints and acted out at all events, the movement shrank steadily. 

This is a complex question. For organizers, frankly, it seems most advisable to err on the side of caution. If the radical flank (which will always be with us) can be convinced to maintain a certain standard of agreed-upon behavior (or if they already do that by their own unilateral choice, as did Malcolm X), they can have either little effect or a positive effect. But sliding away from that in any way courts campaign failure and movement disintegration. At the least, organizers need to think quite carefully about how this figures into their decisions.

Reference List

Anner, Mark. 2009. "Two Logics of Labor Organizing in the Global Apparel Industry." International Studies Quarterly 53, no. 3: 545-570. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed July 22, 2014).

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