A Review by Shane McDonnell
Guerrillas of Desire
Throughout Guerrillas of Desire, Kevin Van Meter tells the reader that as “guerrillas” we need three things to build a counter-movement/society to the prevailing one: solidarity, communication and mutual aid. Though on paper these three recommendations may appear obvious to well-read leftists, Van Meter, by using an array of historical examples, outlines the lived experiences of such guerrillas. In his book he looks at African slaves in the US, and European peasants and workers, both at the onset and in the infancy of capitalism. For instance, if African slaves in the US are planning to run away, adequate lines of communication are required between fellow slaves, leading up to and during the escape. This necessitates a strong sense of solidarity so no one snitches to the master and causes further suffering. Mutual aid is also necessary, whether it be physical, emotional or by omission, such as by being silent and not divulging the runaways’ plans. On top of these three necessities, Van Meter gives a list of historical and potentially contemporary means of combating the prevailing system: theft, sabotage, go-slows, wildcat strikes, feigning illness, arson, suicide and assassination (these final three are very much associated historically with slavery, and in no way are promoted/encouraged). These methods are serious means of disrupting capitalism and the bosses’ profits. They should not be taken on lightly.
Van Meter outlines how these tactics can be applied in different contexts, and how some are better than others, given the specific situation. Risking one’s means of employment or the treatment of one’s fellow workers by sabotaging work equipment owned by the boss, without having the appropriate lines of communication and strong solidarity, may not be the most strategic means of fighting the system, for example. It is in these specific lived experiences that the reader can see the blunders and successes of theories. In reality there are always consequences, and tactics need to be supported by communication, solidarity and mutual aid, as Van Meter continuously points out. There is a reason these tactics (and the necessity for these three things) recur throughout the text. Van Meter is showing their effectiveness, but also their gravity, and the requirement to use them within a specific context. Further, Van Meter demonstrates how tactics change over time, from slavery in the US to more contemporary contexts.
Guerrillas of Desire discusses the historical strategies of those who also lived in two other times and spaces beyond the experience of slavery, namely capitalism’s infancy in Europe, and the late 20th century in Europe and the US. In these three historic periods, Van Meter shows how disrupting the capitalist system while maintaining solidarity, communication and mutual aid, forms and strengthens the working class (in which he includes slaves, homemakers and others, though acknowledging their clear differences). Van Meter informs us that African slaves in the US (re)constructed an ethical framework whereby stealing from their owners was acceptable but stealing from one another was not (79). An understanding of the above ethical framework remains necessary today and requires a similar inflexible solidarity between workers regarding snitching. This example gives us an ethical framework for living with one another under different forms of oppression. We are also told that as female slaves were usually allowed access to the master’s kitchen, they were typically the ones responsible for poisoning their masters, the masters’ families, or sometimes fellow slaves as a way to escape their servitude (79). Of course such murders ought to be viewed as examples of extreme desperation, implying the levels of cruelty such systems of oppression employ.
Turning to capitalism’s infancy in Europe, Van Meter discusses peasants, enclosures of communal lands, and witch trials that removed women’s traditional place in society and any authority they had. Interestingly, aspects of both land enclosures and the disempowerment of women overlap, and Van Meter illustrates this perfectly. As lands were being enclosed, forests began to be regulated. Taking wild foods and timber from the forest quickly became a crime punishable by “proto-police forces” (85). At the same time, the educated classes created schools in order for so-called ‘proper’ forestry and horticultural means and methods to be propagated, thus eradicating local and traditional knowledge and practices. Van Meter depicts what may have been a typical occurrence at the time of Europe’s witch trials: bar women used to collect nettles as a bittering agent for beer, and also had the power to kick drunks out (thus controlling men’s access to alcohol). However, as nettle picking was outlawed while the use of hops, which centered around men’s work, was introduced, bar women lost their jobs (85). Thus Van Meter illustrates for the reader the overlapping aspects of oppression, i.e. racism, patriarchy, capitalism and varying state apparatuses. Further, he shows how such systems of oppression live with the oppressed throughout their day-to-day lives. “The complexity of resistance calls attention to the importance of everyday life as a site of struggle but also the need for inquiry, intervention, and theorization” (129).
The final period of Van Meter’s study covers the late 20th century. However, Van Meter begins the chapter by way of a very brief overview of social organizations in England in the centuries leading up to the 20th, e.g. the London Corresponding Society (1792-1799) which sought to make Parliament more responsive to working class needs. It is in the latter half of the 20th century that Van Meter outlines the activities of organizations and unions, of protests and groups making demands. In the 1960s and 1970s Van Meter points to slowdowns and strikes as a popular form of disruption and resistance. Sabotaging work equipment becomes a popular means of disrupting capitalism and the systems of oppression. Van Meter briefly mentions the evolution of workplace surveillance, from guards to CCTV cameras and body scanners, as theft becomes a successful means of resistance and disruption. Further, exodus as a means of disruption and combat becomes a tactic, i.e. workers leaving an area for better treatment, wages and other advantages elsewhere. An interesting tactic Van Meter discusses as being particularly successful is “counter-planning,” whereby an alternative plan is implemented to accomplish tasks, take breaks and transfer power away from management. “Initial gripes [e.g. being made to work when it is too hot] amass into collective grievances, which in turn sparks further action” (123).
Van Meter ends his book by discussing organizing in the 21st century. He discusses the decline of unions under the rise of neoliberalism whereby non-profits replace former state functions and unions. Van Meter is concerned over this development as, he points out, “Non-profit social services are not as accountable to public pressure campaigns or demands of individual recipients as government-provided services are, and hence it is a conservative force” (141). On top of this, he examines the rise of affinity groups and collectives during the Cold War and in the contemporary 21st century. Van Meter points out that modern affinity groups differ greatly from affinity groups of the past, such as during the Spanish Revolution, as they possess limited contact with neighbors and other workers, which creates a sense of isolation and failure in an atmosphere that does not have ongoing public engagement and demonstrations. “Currently affinity groups and collectives, […] community-based organizations, non-profits, and business unions, are ill equipped to orient themselves toward resistance taking place in everyday life” (151). Van Meter ends by discouraging the use of “false dichotomies,” i.e. spontaneous vs. organized, underground vs. aboveground, conscious vs. unconscious, etc. According to Van Meter, contemporary organizing groups, from non-profits to unions, assume that the working class is not resisting and thus need to be encouraged to do so. Van Meter objects by way of the evidence gathered in his book and insists such leaders (of non-profits and unions) “inquire into, amplify, circulate, and propagate” the refusal to work and the resistances and struggles happening everyday by people in their lived experiences (151).
Complementing Guerrillas of Desire, Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To discusses movements and criticizes terms such as activism and activists as meaningless titles that do not necessitate activity. He cites the mass increase in the use of such “content-less” terms despite a lack of visible and physical engagement and empowerment of communities (33-4). Smucker sees online petitions, which do not engage masses in ways that are as visible and disruptive as protesting, as the popular form of activism nowadays (33-8). There is a silent judgement over how effective such invisible and nondisruptive “activism” can truly be.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is also critiqued and analyzed. Having been a member of OWS, his observations are particularly interesting and useful. Smucker makes it clear that OWS was an important movement that refocused the national narrative and gave the masses a new vocabulary to confront their oppression, e.g. “We are the 99 percent.” A widespread and useful criticism of OWS is its lack of leaders, as well as what appears to be an impractical insistence on consensus decision-making. By not having or allowing leaders to exist, hidden unofficial leaders emerged. As Jo Freeman explains in her influential essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness, “As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.” On top of this, insisting on consensus decision-making, though not necessarily a bad method of making decisions if structured and facilitated well, led to impractical marathon meetings averaging six to eight hours long. (Smucker does not offer an in-depth analysis of the structure or facilitation of these meetings.)
Smucker, to his credit, encourages movements not to shy away from having leaders or possessing power, as he asserts that the Left in the US does. Though Smucker does not explore this, there is an obvious difference between having power in a protest, or civil rights or labor movement, than having power in an oppressive system. (Van Meter differentiates these two types of power well by calling the former potentia and the latter potestas (30)) Contrary to the leaderlessness of OWS, Smucker encourages groups to be “leaderful,” whereby everyone has a role and is in a sense a leader of sorts. In contrast to the OWS movement, Smucker praises the “leaderful” organization of the Black Lives Matter movement as not being afraid of having leaders and cultivating leadership skills in the face of difficult challenges, while still decentralizing power and control (185n16). Though only a brief mention, Black Lives Matter’s organizational approach and cultivation of leaders ought to be looked to more than the example set by OWS.
Smucker continually emphasizes having a strategy and a strategic plan over and/or alongside developing group identity. His discussion on prefigurative politics (chapter 4) outlines his fear that, though complementary to a strategic politics, prefigurative politics have replaced the idea of having a strategy (122). Smucker defines prefigurative politics as a politics that “seeks to demonstrate the better world it envisions for the future in the actions it takes today” (266). Having said that, Smucker’s concept of prefigurative politics appears to reflect his experience in the OWS movement: he does not accept that prefigurative politics genuinely happened in the OWS movement, except as a performance (123). “I situate ‘prefigurative politics’ squarely within the life of the group, and I contrast it with the strategic politics that groups engage in to achieve ends beyond their own existence. I do not accept prefigurative politics’ account of itself. In many instances, I do not even accept that it is politics at all” (123). Smucker criticises any political movement, in this case OWS, that is “only” made up of elements such as free libraries, people’s kitchens, mic-checks and sparkle fingers, the final two being notable in the OWS movement (122).
Frustratingly, Smucker seeks and insists on strategies, yet, does not see the long term strategy inherent in such social organising tools like free libraries and people’s kitchens. Earlier in his book, Smucker acknowledges that OWS refocused the national narrative and gave the masses a new vocabulary to confront their oppression, e.g. “We are the 99 percent.” Despite this, Smucker is later unable to see how other aspects of OWS can have a similarly wide impact and encourage people to set up alternative forms of distribution, e.g. the same free libraries and people’s kitchens Smucker does not see as an effective political engagement. Smucker wants mass political engagement but appears to only want a certain type that is more legitimate and proper than others. “I am neither against manifesting our vision and values in our internal organizing processes, nor staging actions that put these visions and values on public display; my critique, rather, is of the notion that such practices can somehow substitute for strategic engagement at the level of political power” (122). These supposed strategic engagements that are being substituted are never noted or explored.
On the issue of strategy and tactics particularly, Van Meter’s Guerrillas of Desire and Smucker’s Hegemony How-To overlap and ought to be read together. Smucker also, aware of the unpopularity of his views regarding strategy and prefigurative politics, suggests smarter and better branding by way of attracting new members, organizing and pushing one’s message (200-207). “The right seems to have learned more lessons of political strategy from the civil rights movement than the left has!” (36). Smucker’s point regarding public relations is that if it successfully works for advertizing and capitalism, surely it can work for political movements. As he points out, corporations have invested large sums of money in psychological studies; analyzing this data might reveal something useful for our own campaigns, if even how to win over so-called middle ground undecideds. A cautionary note would suggest that it would be counterproductive if such pragmatism resulted in assimilation by the very system one seeks to disrupt and destroy. If a campaign or movement becomes purely about branding and less about effecting change, a failure of sorts has taken place. Having said that, Smucker notes this and cautions against relying heavily on such PR campaigns without face-to-face public encounters. “While we shouldn’t simply mimic corporations’ marketing techniques, we do have to navigate the same cognitive universe that they navigate, and it behooves us to study this terrain – we should never be too proud or too pure to learn things from our opponents” (207).
It is interesting to note that the book’s publisher (AK Press) states that some of Smucker’s politics include strategies they would not advocate. It struck me as worthy of mentioning here as Guerrillas of Desire is also an AK Press publication, co-published with the IAS, yet does not contain any similar warning. One can assume that AK Press’s cautionary paragraph is an atypical disclaimer. Though Smucker describes himself, or at least his younger self, as an anarchist, he never references anarchists or anarchist theories or principles. Two thinkers who are continually referenced are Antonio Gramsci and Chantal Mouffe. While Mouffe and Gramsci have arguments, criticisms and ideas to offer, a tone is subtly set given the lack of anarchist writers cited. For example, throughout, Smucker discusses solidarity and reaching out to different communities, but says nothing about Kropotkin’s idea of cooperation, despite Kropotkin’s coming to similar conclusions which may have been useful here (chapter 8). Smucker disputes class-only analysis, implying the need for intersectionality. However, though mentioning intersectional categories (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), Smucker does not discuss or mention the term ‘intersectionality’ (241). Interestingly, Slavoj Žižek is referenced twice but theorists like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and David Graeber are not. Further, Martin Luther King is cited often with an implicit idolization, yet other Left Black leaders and theorists, such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis, are noticeably absent.
Regarding reaching out to different communities, Smucker speaks very well on this: “A fledgling movement that attempts to attract only individuals […] one at a time, will never grow fast enough to effect big systemic change” (35). He puts forth an array of helpful tactics from the obvious to the less obvious. Smucker warns of the in-crowd aesthetic that can accidentally form when the same people are always present at group meetings (194-200). Not only might this create an implicit hierarchy, it may also be off-putting to potential members with similar political leanings and concerns. Further, he cautions readers on several occasions not to alienate potential allies by cultivating too much of an in-group identity that fosters a sort of elitist image. We are warned that some of our quirky group dynamics, which can be good for creating better group cohesion and bonding, can seem incomprehensible and off-putting to those who may wish to join. While image is important, consistently having a certain image further alienates those who wish to join us but fall outside that supposed category, e.g. if group spokespeople and leaders consistently appear to be white, cisgender, and middle class. Others in more marginalized communities might feel unwelcome or noticeably and uncomfortably different. Alleviating this concern is important, especially when a certain cause unites us wherein skills and action, not image and identity, are what ought to matter.
On top of this, Smucker notes that compared to right-wing groups, leftist circles are complicated and nuanced. Unlike right-wing groups, we are not opposing a caricatured and simplified demonic version of one particular category of people. In left-wing groups there is a lot of discussion around structures, theories, thinkers, and nuanced points of view. Smucker warns that this expectation of knowledge for newcomers can seem daunting and further cement the perspective of in-crowd group dynamics (242). As well, the language used to explain this issues or the purpose of the group itself may be unhelpful if couched in academic and/or typically left-wing vocabulary. As an obvious but often forgotten remedy Smucker recommends that we approach others in terms of their world where they are, with images and a vocabulary they can understand. This necessitates having good facilitators at meetings, though Smucker uses the term “leader”: “Without strong internal bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggle. But without strong external bridging, the group will become too insular…to forge the kind of alliances that are essential to winning meaningful changes in society. Good leaders must learn to perform this extraordinary balancing act” (98).
While I recommend both books as both are very informative, Guerrillas of Desire is more enjoyable due to its content. It is shorter and reads very much like a history book. Van Meter discusses each time period without being too long or too dry. Hegemony How-To is longer, though not excessively so, and is very much focused on tactics and strategy which, though important, can sometimes read as boring and make it appear lengthier than it is. Due to its content, it is much easier to disagree with Smucker’s Hegemony How-To than to the more historical discussion in Guerrillas of Desire. Having said that, Hegemony How-To is important to read as it refocuses the reader on the necessity of having a strategy and forming tactics to accompany one’s goals. Smucker portrays the Left in the US as naive, shy, and weakened. Coupled with Smucker’s seeming lack of knowledge about anarchism, and certainly his lack of discussion of intersectionality, one wonders about Smucker’s intended audience. As a side note, Smucker does not explicitly criticize the state, whereas Van Meter continually critiques the state and its involvement in oppression and capitalism. Nevertheless, Smucker succeeds in reminding the reader about appropriate ways of reaching out to other communities, and the failing tactics of the Left in the past. Both Hegemony How-To and Guerrillas of Desire are especially important for anyone involved in groups and/or campaigns. Read both but understand the differences between the radical and reformist approaches taken by each author.
Shane McDonnell is a political activist in the Republic of Ireland. He received a master’s degree in Philosophy and Public Affairs in University College Dublin (UCD). Currently he is a member of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), campaigning to grant free, safe, and legal access to abortion services for pregnant people. Shane’s main philosophical interest is Nietzsche. However, since adopting a libertarian-socialist political philosophy and vegan lifestyle, his interests have grown to include the prison-industrial complex, the environment, and the rise of the Far Right.
This review is from Perspectives on Anarchist Theory‘s “Beyond the Crisis” issue, available here from AK Press: https://www.akpress.org/perspectivesonanarchisttheorymagazine.html