Black insurgent practices in the ’60s, and antifragility

Viewpoint Magazine just released a lengthy and fantastic interview with Joshua Bloom, one of the authors of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (2013).  They discuss a variety of topics, ranging from social movement theory, the concept of “cultural technologies”, the class compositions of the Panthers and their allies, the anti-imperialist movement in the ’60s, state repression and its role in growing radical organizations, gender politics and patriarchy, and how the Black Lives Matter movement compares with the Panthers.

One discussion I found particularly interesting was the question of what pulled the Panthers apart.  As I wrote in this essay on the political economy of revolutionary struggle, from July 2015, it seems to me that a key dynamic behind the bifurcation of the Panthers was their dependence on donations from wealthier White liberals, and how this forced a large segment of the Panthers to move away from their revolutionary socialist program (and insurrectionist comrades) in order to maintain this material base.

Bloom doesn’t discuss the economic factor, per se, but still identifies moderate support as a key reason why the Panthers were able to survive, and even grow, in the face of massive repression–and why, after this support started to evaporate after moderates began receiving concessions, it became impossible “…to sustain the kind of practices – anti-imperialist claims, coupled with armed self-defense, as well as efforts at local self-governance – that the Black Panther Party [was] championing.”  Bloom seems to generally focus on political and culture support that bolstered the Panthers program, but I suspect that it is still important to zero in on the economic support that this implies, and think about an alternative reality where the Panthers focused more on developing their own autonomous material base from which to fund their programs and defend against the state (and hence, severed their dependent on class alliances).

Also interesting were comments at the very end on the Black Lives Matter movement and the “cultural technology” and “insurgent practice” they have deployed.  Bloom talks about how the insurgent practices deployed by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement directly confronted and disrupted the systems they were protesting: civil rights activists directly subverted Jim Crow laws, and Black Power militants directly resisted security forces enforcing racialized containment policies, as well as the structural poverty of the urban ghetto.  In contrast, contemporary protests–specifically, disruption of civilian infrastructure–doesn’t have a direct link with police violence, or other issues affecting Black America.  This makes them difficult to sustain.  Bloom notes how recent protests and actions have unfolded (emphasis added):

Well, on day one, there’s real support, because the mobilizing event is fresh in people’s minds. On day two, there’s still support, but less so. And it progressively decreases from there. By week three there’s almost a consensus reaction of “get out of my way, I’ve got to get my kids to school and I’ve got to get to work.”

It’s obvious in this case that you have disruption that is not coupled in any coherent way with the actual claims of the movement, and does not succeed in leveraging those broader institutional cleavages. There’s all kinds of people upset about all kinds of things, and all kinds of people who think that the way that Black America is being treated at the hands of the police and the legal system is quite alarming and a big problem. But no cultural technology exists for making business as usual impossible in a way that draws all those folks on board, to the point where they’re saying: “and when we get repressed, that repression feels just as important to me as the initial killing felt to me in the first place.”

The last sentence sums it up well:

The only way Black Lives Matter will become a movement, and the only way that we’ll dismantle the New Jim Crow, is if we develop the cultural technologies, the insurgent practices, the repression of which would be just as threatening as the initial events themselves.

Perhaps the kind of insurgent practice Bloom is talking about is related to anti-fragility, which describes a system that has a negative feedback response to sources of stress and harm.  In any case, this is a very elegant way to think about protests, militancy, and the way social movements bring political change and protracted action.


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