I was working on a post about the relationship between OWS and the armed apparatus of the state for a while, but failed to get around to finishing it before the events of this morning. Here are a couple of fairly long excerpts from approaches that I find quite interesting. First, an excellent post from Dan Trombly that draws together a lot of themes regarding the relationship between social protest and the state, especially in the US context:
Before there were militarized police in the United States, we had the actual military fulfilling a much broader range of policing roles – and before that, there was deference to the “mercenary armies” such as the Pinkertons, as well as state militias and other unaccountable security forces. Despite the fits of paranoia and outrage that the tasking of the 1st Brigade Combat Team to the 3rd Infantry Division often elicits, this was not always the way in which federal military intervention in domestic political disorder was viewed.
In fact, it was not fear of federal abuse of power which prompted fear about the use of military in domestic disputes, it was fear of the state governments, which tended to be more overzealous in their suppression of local protests, riots, and strikes. Indeed, it takes only an examination of the Ludlow Massacre to see why state and local governments, generally much further in thrall to the interests of employers and capital generally, were considered far more brutal than federal troops. When Federals arrived, they were generally far more neutral and sought to disarm the sides to reinstitute the government monopoly on force.
The US desire not to have an actual military or paramilitary police force, along the lines of European states, is partially responsible for the massive growth in the power of civilian law enforcement agencies and the decline of informal state militias, mercenary outfits like the Pinkerton or the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agencies. If you think security contractors are out of hand nowadays, consider the conduct of Baldwin-Felts. This was a private security firm which, after engaging in a gunfight in West Virginia, murdered a town’s police commissioner and his friend in a courthouse in front of their wives. They also took part in the aforementioned Ludlow Massacre, which included an armored car mounted with a Colt-Browning machine gun. Let’s not also forget that private associations were also able to contract bombers with tear gas and fragmentation bombs during the Battle of Blair Mountain. It’s open to debate how effective the coal miners and their many battles with employers and local, state, and federal governments were in contributing to the later labor victories during the Roosevelt administration – certainly I am not an expert on any of these subjects. They are worth ruminating on, though, because as Adam Elkus notes, the downside of the “new frontier” in conflict may be the resurgence of violent, antagonistic anti-establishment actions, this time in an urban context.
Speaking of Adam Elkus, he also has a pretty interesting post on the networking and OWS:
The idea inherent in much of the OWS strategic commentary is that information-age social networks could help the occupiers build up a strategic infrastructure through viral replication. Rapid and wide-ranging infrastructure generation is made possible by the low transaction costs of communication and organization that network technologies and forms of organization make possible. This is undoubtedly true. A system, driven by its own dynamics, can rapidly generate infrastructure, especially given an operating concept as tailor-made for economic and political downturns as the concept of the “99%.”
However, such an infrastructure, once built, has its own upkeep costs—which can be steep. An encampment is not a 4Chan server that people can virtually peruse. It’s a real place where people have to be clothed, fed, and kept warm, clean, and safe, and there are important organizational and tactical decisions that have to be made every single day. In short, maintaining this infrastructure requires resources, physical and intellectual labor, and organizational acumen. Maintaining the infrastructure is also a cognitively draining task, especially when the organization itself is fractious and has important fissures as to how to allocate resources. These problems are not exclusive to political activists camped out in New York. Crisis management and the daily minutia required to keep a system running squeezes out strategy and long-term thinking in defense too. But there’s a crucial difference between DoD and Zucotti: even relatively small pieces of the DoD budget could put all of the OWS up in five-star hotels and drinking more Cristal than Jay-Z and Kanye West combined.
Organizations with resources have more of a cushion to compensate for becoming consumed with their own internal dynamics. Whatever the political decision-making problems the US currently faces, it is still the richest and most powerful nation-state in the history of the state system. It isn’t a good thing that we can’t seem to make crucial decisions about priorities, but it’s drastically worse for OWS.
The organization is caught in something of a trap. Without a plausible means of satisfying its amorphous demands or at least realizing a goal that would allow it to “declare victory and go home,” it must stay within its camps to maintain the infrastructure and media attention it has built. But the logistical costs inherent in maintaining the infrastructure indefinitely are fearsome. And although it uses public land, the movement cannot expect the public, however sympathetic to their aims, to allow a disruptive presence to remain in perpetuity—especially if the disruption imposes basic quality of life costs.
OWS isn’t a general strike; it doesn’t seek to inconvenience state or society to the degree that either demands must be met or violence must be employed. The presence of the occupation itself becomes the problem to be dealt with, just as the costs of maintenance (ideological, social, and material) mount to the extent that they will inevitably devour the movement. To circle around a bit, my sense is that in the broadest terms Loomis, Yglesias, and Klein are right about the usefulness of state violence for the OWS protest. From the point of view of an ideological sympathizer, the worst outcome was for OWS to slowly fade away over the course of winter, perhaps with a mild revitalization as the weather grew warmer, but never regaining the degree of energy and excitement on display in its first weeks. State violence takes care of these problems, while also providing a necessary rejuvenation of ideological energy.