One of my favorite magazines, Orchestrated Pulse, published a piece by Ray Valentine critical of the viability of lone wolf tactics in building a broader left.
While I don’t dispute any of the facts presented in the article, to my mind, there are some omissions that I think calls into question the absoluteness of Valentine’s moral thesis. The failure to consider the material realities of security policy and liberal politics, in my estimation, weakens Valentine’s argument that the left (or perhaps, more appropriately, society from a leftist perspective) cannot benefit from condoning independent acts of mass violence.Why Lone Wolves
Valentine makes a very good case for why lone wolves find themselves motivated to violent political action. While I have written about the history of the lone wolf tactic before, I think Valentine does a far better job of placing the lone wolf tactic in its broadest historical context in not only the US but globally.
He also details the typical profile of a lone wolf killer - an irate loner - and places them in their social context - a tide of increasing economic insecurity. And while Valentine does describe the various reactionary groups calling for this sort of mass action (from white nationalist to Salafist to more recently black nationalist), he does little to address why these groups began advocating these tactics.
While the lone wolf tactic is by no means new (arguably, it goes back at least to the Sicarii in Roman-occupied Judea), what is new is how it has become the prevailing mode of political violence. This, in my reading, Valentine leaves unexplained, simultaneously saying the tactic is not new but that because white nationalists were called the term “lone wolf” that this explains its sudden uptick.
It is my contention that the lone wolf tactic is a direct result of the increasingly invasive and punitive national security state aided by the latest in computing technology. This is only the latest in a series of shifts in national security aimed at breaking up centralized and bureaucratic organizations.
From the mid 70’s to the late 90’s, established white hate organizations such as the American Nazi Party and the KKK were infiltrated and destroyed; neo-nazi militias such as Der Brüder Schweigen (also known as The Order) and the Minutemen (not the same as the Bush-era border patrol) were thwarted; and white nationalist compounds and remote family homes stockpiling weaponry such as the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX and the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, ID were besieged. Similar trends met the fate of radical organizations on the left and in the environmental movement.
The latest trend, the use of meta-data to search for patterns of association in order to predict or thwart crime, only further extends this federal dragnet. The implication of being able to be monitored from place to place with a network of bank information, purchase history, cell phone meta-data, and internet records by federally-contracted private corporations is that any organizing for any purpose that directly challenges the authority of the state is not possible using any of those technologies.The Security State as a Material Foundation in Liberal Capitalism
Without public court proceedings due to the classified nature of the operations, there is no clear path to justice. Without the leaks from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, it would have been impossible to know about them at all. The use of meta-data has allowed enforcement officers to create statistically driven narratives, even if these narratives don’t comport with reality.
The result has been an ever-widening cleft between reformist and radical political organizing. Organizations affiliated with major political parties and operating in the interest of commerce have little difficulty airing their views and organizing large foundations to fund robust media campaigns and academic research. However, such activity is fundamentally proscribed by the way in which the law is enforced, or perhaps in light of recent revelations, the way the enforcement process happens.
In a climate where people making mean Facebook posts about cops face criminal charges and those standing in the street with a community in their own neighborhood faces mass arrests and tear gas, the stakes of any sort of organizing or even existing against the privatized behemoth of the criminal justice system appear extremely high. Eviction resisters are warned against holding out inside their homes lest they be out of public view with the police. Police construct absurdly impossible molotov cocktails to frame activists with weapons charges. The list goes on.
The result is that even intimations of violence or concerted organized resistance against the systematic violence of the state are regarded as necessarily dangerous endeavors. The near omnipresence of computer mediated interaction has rendered everyday social life a panopticon of the state.
However, enforcement agencies are bound in certain respects to the tides of popular opinion as to what constitutes justifiable force. Between the discretion of the police force, the discretion of judges, and the discretion of juries, the fate of individuals is determined asymmetrically across a number of axes. The material incentives of the prison system and city, county, and state budgets create a climate in which police find themselves looking for the economically vulnerable who won’t be able to afford justice and the ethnic subaltern who are more likely to receive harsher convictions from racist judges and juries.
In such a situation, it is only natural that the bleak horizons Ray Valentine described in his article would manifest themselves in independent attacks on the subjects of political ire, be they racial minorities, the police, or simply society at large. And while, as Valentine points out, it is unwise to unquestioningly support the motives of those who lash out at representatives of their political anger, the prisoner’s dilemma of reactionary adversaries cheering their lone wolves while denouncing others makes rebuke of ideologically adjacent individuals politically suicidal.No Hero Can Save You
Ray Valentine is absolutely correct when he says that relying on lone wolf shooters to do radical politics necessarily leads to an inherently reactionary movement. As a politic founded on mutual aid and class analysis, socialist politics cannot be built upon a foundation of individual actors socially unaccountable for their actions or politics. Heroism can only create new systems of violently imposed authority and only if it somehow manages to surmount the power of the state.
However, in a politics where institutional conditions are constantly shifting in reaction to a largely disconnected radical popular will, selectivity in at least denunciation of incidents of mass violence is paramount to shifting public opinion toward an urgency for broader social justice rather than an expansive security state.
This approach is time tested. In 2002, David Duke gathered white nationalists to sign the New Orleans Protocol that has been summarized in an abundance of blog titles as “no enemies on the right.” Hamas, as well, refuses to denounce any attack on the state of Israel or its citizens regardless of the politics of the perpetrator. The Islamic State actively takes credit for any attack which it can plausibly be blamed for, even when all available evidence points to independent action.
As Valentine’s article aptly points out, this may work for the right, but it is insufficient for a genuinely leftist politics. Popular, organized working class movements with sharp sociopolitical analysis do not appear out of a collective bloodlust. Rather, they rely on concrete social relations and collective strategic action.
While political violence in the hands of independent reactionaries cannot create a revolution worth having, understanding it in the broader social context of the power relations it attempts to undermine is critical to making strategic moral statements in its wake. Only this can open up the ideological space for institutional changes in favor of radical left organizing in a political system driven by reaction to spectacle.Is There Any Escape from Noise?
We cannot, however, be deluded into believing that shifting public opinion for the time being will spontaneously see a selective rollback in the scope of the security state. For that, organizing requires the expanded use and advance of often underdeveloped and often cumbersome security protocols.
With no way of finding out whether your privacy is being violated by the state, one must take proactive measures to protect the integrity of even the most mild forms of political activism against state and capitalist violence.
As I have recommended on this blog before, I strongly urge activists use Signal for any activity you want to keep under wraps.
While IP rerouting services like Tor and Hola can mitigate location by IP trackers, technology to subvert it is quickly catching up. Any security is better than none at all.
Assess what sorts of purchases you should be making with cash rather than electronically. Consider discretion about where you take your personal cell phone and what you say when in its vicinity. Further, using physically distinct burner phones that you occasionally switch with your comrades at public actions can reduce the ability for conversations to be understood or individuals identified if tapped by unwelcome third parties.
Last, and perhaps most important, is increasing face-to-face interaction. There is no substitute to actually talking to people in private, unmonitored locations. Additionally, planning security protocols that provide a collective alibi are important for any group that might even entertain the possibility of stepping outside the narrow confines of legal protest.
Rather than establishing a one-size-fits-all rulebook for security culture, as had been attempted at Occupy. Groups should assess the security measures that best suit their goals and needs as a group. A diversity of security strategies in addition to a diversity of planned and practiced tactics is our best weapon against a machine that attempts to predict patterns of behavior.But What Are You For?
In assessing the moral content of acts of political violence, it is not necessary to embrace the motives of the perpetrator in order to cast it as a blow to the hegemony of state violence, just as it is not necessary to assess the motives of individual members of the US armed forces in order to cast their actions as serving the interests of the state and capital.
While the increasingly repressive security apparatus makes organizing against the capitalist state hugely inconvenient, denouncing attacks against its agents for want of a perfect hero removes such acts from their historical, material, and social contexts. In a narrow scope, the ways in which political violence is carried out can help the left identify weaknesses in surveillance. In the broader context of liberal capitalism, denunciation hamstrings the ability of leftists to build broad popular support for an escalating militant proletarian movement.
The political expediency of embracing independent political violence that points toward their own ends is almost a historical certainty on the radical right. A left that refuses to stand for any presently viable militant action for racial and economic equality, if only symbolically, is a left that has no militant action in its future. Despite the unaccountable and anti-social nature of independent political violence, we cannot expect to unite with those wishing to fight together if we denounce those who fight alone.