Security Culture: What it Is, Why We Need It, and How We Implement It

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Preface

The bottom line is this: Never talk to others about illegal activity unless you yourself are currently engaging with them in it. — Jenny Esquivel [1]
In the edited volume Life During Wartime, Jenny Esquivel’s chapter ‘Building Conspiracy: Informants in the Case of Eric McDavid’ referenced “the classic zine”[2] entitled above. From it, she drew “four common examples of security violating behaviors” as well as “a list of topics which are inappropriate for conversation”[3] for activists engaged in illegal activity. Desiring to read the whole thing, I hunted down an online copy. For a text version see here, and for a printable pamphlet see here. The pamphlet is courtesy of the Tolerated Identity zine library, which has other anarchist and direct action material. The text version and the pamphlet are not identical, and both leave something to be desired in presentation. The material presented here could be considered a synthesis of both. Those with the patience can compare with the originals (the differences are minimal). The zine itself is effectively split into two parts, dealing with ‘Activism and State Repression’ and ‘Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Informers and Infiltrators’. Esquivel asserts that the “edition referenced was revised in 1999”[4] but, strangely, it does not appear in her endnotes. In contrast, the zine edition here is stated to be the third, last revised in 2001.
In her chapter, Esquivel states upfront that “[i]nformants are at the heart of the U.S. judicial system”[5]. What are informants? In general, they are people “paid to lie”[6] by enforcement agencies. Esquivel demonstrates through McDavid’s case that they can be “incredibly skilled at manipulation”[7]. Informants encourage people to incriminate themselves; everything they are doing is intended to end with convictions. Informants aren’t necessarily paid, however. They can be people who are under threat of conviction themselves—unless they cooperate and “flip”. Esquivel consequently stresses “adherence to the most basic of Security Culture principles: never talk about past actions”[8]. Informants are there to sniff out any illegal activity, past, present, or future. Keeping your mouth shut, even to those whom once performed the actions with you, is the best defense.
You can never know for sure whether someone is an informant (at the time). “There is no ‘test’ for informants—the government can and will do anything in their pursuit of a conviction”[9], and, as Esquivel notes, “[m]isidentifying someone as an informant is an incredibly serious error”[10]. “That is why it is essential that nothing be reported as ‘fact’ until there is undeniable documentation about a person’s status as a cooperator (a plea agreement, for instance)”[11]. The information presented below, therefore, is intended to provide a guide on how activists and others might handle the problem of infiltrators and informants. In no way, shape, or form should it be considered an infallible method for unmasking paid or coerced informants, or professional infiltrators. Instead of relying on such procedures, “[s]ecurity culture needs to be revived, respected, and deeply embedded”[12]. A conspiracy of silence is a conspiracy of equals—one difficult to crack.
In light of this, all of the information below is offered with a very important caveat: there is almost no such thing as a fool-proof snitch test, and none of the observations below should be considered as such.[13]

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

This handbook is the third edition of what we has been an evolving and growing document dealing with security issues and Canadian activism. We would like to say a big thanks to the Collective Opposing Police Brutality in Montreal for editing some of the text of the original pamphlet and adding so many great examples to the Informants and Infiltrators section. We have replicated many of their changes in this edition. Thanks also goes out to Eric Drooker whose artwork we used throughout this pamphlet.
For more information or to make contributions to this document—please email securitysite@tao.ca
Third edition—prepared November 2001. [Edited by Point Zero, February 2018.]

INTRODUCTION

Resistance has been on the rise for the past few years, with activists adopting more and more  effective tactics for fighting back. Our increased activity and effectiveness has meant that the  RCMP, FBI, and local police have continued to escalate their activities against us. As well, the events of September 11th and ensuing state hysteria are no small footnote to the way that our radical and revolutionary movements have and will be targeted by repressive state forces. If we want our direct action movement to continue, it is imperative we start tightening our security and taking ourselves more seriously. Now is the time to adopt a security culture. Good security is certainly the strongest defense we have.
This is a handbook for the Canadian activist who is interested in creating and maintaining security awareness and culture in the radical movements. We are always looking for contributions—so please feel free to email securitysite@tao.ca with any images or text you think belong in a handbook such as this. This is the third edition of this zine that we have put out in order to add and improve on the original text (thanks for the work of the Collective Opposing Police Brutality in Montreal for their help). There will be future editions of this handbook so keep putting forward suggestions to us. We hope that you will put the material contained within to good use. Now more than ever is the time to act!

Part One

ACTIVISM AND STATE REPRESSION

This pamphlet has essential information for anyone associated with groups advocating or using economic disruption or sabotage, theft, arson, self-defense from police or more militant tactics. The advice that follows also applies to anyone associated with groups practicing civil disobedience, especially since people often work in several groups at the same time and gossip travels freely between them. Even if you’ve never expressed your politics by doing property damage, pitching cobblestones, or getting arrested for civil disobedience; even if you think you have nothing to hide, these guidelines are presented here to enhance your personal safety as well as the overall effectiveness of our movements.
The simple reality is that governments in industrialized countries target groups that advocate economic sabotage and groups that don’t, movements that are militant and movements that are markedly pacifist. The government’s security machinery serves the elitist political and economic objectives of capitalism. There are over 250 political prisoners in Canada and the US that can testify to this from first-hand experience. By adopting a security culture, we can limit or  neutralize counter-intelligence operations meant to disrupt our political organizing, be it  mainstream or underground. Peasant-rebels; communards; liberationists; abolitionists; labor organizers; revolutionaries; from large uprisings challenging the entire political structure, to isolated environmental and social struggles, people have constantly worked to create a better world. The response of government has always been repression to preserve the status quo. Historically, government surveillance and harassment has increased relative to the ascendancy of direct action movements. Minimizing the destructiveness of political repression requires that we implement and promote a security culture within our movements.
The first step in recognizing security risks in a community is working towards creating a security culture. Below we have compiled some relevant material that should be used in conducting security workshops and educating activists that you work with. As our direct action movement becomes more effective, government harassment will only increase. To minimize the destructiveness of this government harassment, it is imperative that we create a “security culture” within our movement. Violations of security culture include behavior is inappropriate because it intensifies government harassment, jeopardizes the freedom of other activists, and destroys the trust within the movement.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING AND STATE REPRESSION

It was not that long ago that discussions about security culture were seen as not relevant to the vast majority of community organizers. As long as one didn’t “break the law” it was assumed that social freedoms in North America and Europe would allow for the expression of dissent without a rise in repression. A number of events have conspired since the late nineties to change the landscape of organizing considerably.
New legislation—the PATRIOT Act in the US and Bill C-36 in Canada—which have been sold to the public as required to fight the specter of terrorism in a post-911 world, serve double-duty in giving the state new laws with which to crack down on internal dissent. A rise in state-hyped racist hysteria has made community organizers from Middle Eastern origins (or other “suspicious” backgrounds) increasingly targets of incarceration without cause, and other abuse at the hands of governments eager to deflect attention from the real issues of failing economies and unpopular wars. In many countries, governments have enacted laws to make it illegal to work with overseas organizations now declared “terrorist”—putting at risk communities who have worked to support liberation fighters around the world.
It follows that those who fight to change the world will be met with resistance by those who do not want it changed. One does not have to participate in extralegal activities to raise the interest of state security forces (whether those be local, regional or national agencies). Security culture must no longer be thought of as merely the domain of those who might break unjust laws—but as something that is part of the organizing toolbox as a mechanism for community self-defense. The guidelines presented here are designed to enhance your personal safety as well as the overall effectiveness of our movements. By adopting a security culture, we can limit or neutralize counter-intelligence operations meant to disrupt our political organizing, be it mainstream or underground.

TOWARDS AN EXPANDED DEFINITION OF SECURITY CULTURE

Creating secure communities is about more than being educated about the state and its security forces. Fundamentally, it means creating working dynamics of respect, education, and inclusion in all our work. Building strong communities that act in solidarity with one another is the best protection against infiltration, disruption, and other conditions of repression.
So what is a security culture? It’s a culture where the people know their rights and, more  importantly, assert them. Those who belong to a security culture also know what behavior compromises security and they are quick to educate those people who, out of ignorance,  forgetfulness, or personal weakness, partake in insecure behavior. This security consciousness  becomes a culture when the group as a whole makes security violations socially unacceptable in the group.

SECURITY CULTURE MEANS CHALLENGING OPPRESSION

Security culture is about more than just targeting specific behaviors in individuals such as bragging, gossiping, or lying. It is also about checking movement behaviors and practices as a whole to ensure that oppressive practices aren’t feeding into intelligence operations being carried out against our community. Within the histories of groups targeted by COINTELPRO (such as AIM and the BPP), and certainly within the animal rights and environmental movements, there are many example of how oppressive behaviors created conditions ripe for FBI manipulation.
Underlying sexism in some groups has meant that women trying to raise security concerns are not taken seriously, or, (on the other end), are not suspected as informers simply because they are women. A tokenized approach to recruitment has lead socialist organizations to bring in new members who fit their ‘ideal’ of what the working class should be—only have them to later turn out working for the British Home Office.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the movement spread division that create overall weaknesses and openings easily manipulable by state operatives. Those who feel marginalized by group practices can be more open to sympathetic infiltrators. Obviously, our movements still have a lot of work to do before we have satisfactorily addressed issues of oppression—but what is important here is a recognition that oppressive behaviors feed into poor community security.

(IN)SECURE PRACTICES

The following section was originally written for an audience engaged or on the periphery of extralegal activity, and so focuses on “underground” groups. We would like to add that the same rules apply to discussions about individuals involved in or providing support to groups considered “terrorist” by western governments (but who are, in actual fact, liberation fighters at odds with US foreign policy). It is generally good practice to limit discussion about movement individuals where you are unsure what information about them is “public” knowledge. As community organizers, a lot of activists like to verbally engage with each other and have no trouble spending hours discussing theory, tactics, and strategy. This is an essential part of building our analysis and work, but in some cases this can put ourselves or others in jeopardy.

WHAT NOT TO SAY

To begin with, there are certain things that are inappropriate to discuss. These things include:
  • your own or someone else’s involvement with an underground group
  • someone else’s desire to get involved with such a group
  • asking others if they are a member of an underground group
  • your own or someone else’s participation in any action that was illegal
  • someone else’s advocacy for such actions
  • your plans or someone else’s plans for a future action
Essentially, it is a bad idea to speak about an individual’s involvement (past, present or future) with illegal activities, or with activities that may raise the interest of the state (such as advocacy of certain groups or tactics). These are unacceptable topics of discussion regardless of whether they are rumor, speculation, or personal knowledge.
Please note: this is not to say that it is incorrect to speak about direct action in general terms—just be sure that you don’t link individual activists to specific actions or groups. It is perfectly legal, secure, and desirable that people speak out in support of all forms of resistance (though if you’re involved with illegal activity, it is probably best that you don’t openly advocate for breaking the law as that alone can raise state interest in your life).

THREE EXCEPTIONS

There are only three times that it is acceptable to speak about specific actions that may be against the law. These are the only situations when it is appropriate to speak about your own or someone else’s involvement or intent to commit an illegal act.
The first situation would be if you were planning an action with other members of your small group (your “cell” or “affinity group”). These discussions should never take place over the Internet (e-mail), phone line, through the mail, or in an activist’s home or car, as these places and forms of communication are frequently monitored. The only people who should hear this discussion would include those who are actively participating in the action. Anyone who is not involved does not need to know and, therefore, should not know.
The second exception occurs after an activist has been arrested and brought to trial. If s/he is found guilty, this activist can freely speak of the actions for which s/he was convicted. However, s/he must never give information that would help the authorities determine who else participated in illegal activities.
The third exception is for anonymous letters and interviews with the media. This must be done carefully and without compromising security. Advice on secure communication techniques can be found at http://security.tao.ca [now defunct].

BOTTOM LINE SECURITY

If you are engaged in activity that is considered illegal, it is best to take a lesson from veteran activists of the direct action movements and only allow a select few to know about your activity. Those few people should consist of only the individuals who you are doing work and actions with AND NO ONE ELSE!
The reason for these security precautions is obvious: if people don’t know anything, they can’t talk about it. When activists who do not share the same serious consequences know who did an illegal direct action, they are far more likely to talk after being harassed and intimidated by the authorities, because they are not the ones who will go to jail. Even those people who are trustworthy can often be tricked by the authorities into revealing damaging and incriminating information. It is safest for all cell members to keep their involvement in the group amongst themselves. The fewer people who know, the less evidence there is in the long run.

SECURITY VIOLATING BEHAVIORS

In an attempt to impress others, activists may behave in ways that compromise security. Some people do this frequently—they are habitually gossiping and bragging. Some activists say inappropriate things only when they consume alcohol. Many activists make occasional breaches of security because there was a momentary temptation to say something or hint at something that shouldn’t have been said or implied. In most every situation, the desire to be accepted is the root cause.
Those people who tend to be the greatest security risks are those activists who have low self-esteem and strongly desire the approval of their peers. Certainly it is natural to seek friendship and recognition for our efforts, but it is imperative that we keep these desires in check so we do not jeopardize the safety of other activists or ourselves. People who place their desire for friendship over the importance of the cause can do serious damage to our security.
The following are examples of security-violating behaviors:
  • Lying: To impress others, liars claim to have done illegal actions. Such lies not only compromise the person’s security — as cops will not take what is said as a lie — but also hinders solidarity and trust.
  • Gossip & Rumor: Some people think they can win friends because they are privy to special information. These gossips will tell others about who did what action or, if they don’t know who did it, guess at who they think did what actions or just spread rumors about who did it. This sort of talk is very damaging. People need to remember that rumors are all that are needed to instigate an investigation, or even lay charges. New anti-terrorist laws in both Canada and the United States allows state security forces to carry out raids on individuals based on nothing more than hearsay evidence.
  • Bragging: Some people who partake in illegal direct action might be tempted to brag about it to their friends. This not only jeopardizes the bragger’s security, but also that of the other people involved with the action (as they may be suspected by association), and the people who s/he told can be charged as accessories after the fact.
  • Indirect-Bragging: Indirect braggers are people who make a big production on how they want to remain anonymous, avoid protests, and stay “underground.” They might not come out and say that they do illegal direct action, but they make sure everyone within earshot knows they are up to something. They are no better than braggers, but they try to be more sophisticated about it by pretending to maintain security. However, if they were serious about security, they would just make up a good excuse as to why they are not as active, or why they can’t make it to the protest. Concealing sensitive information from even trusted comrades is far better than jeopardizing underground work.

SELF-EDUCATION TOWARDS LIBERATION

With the above information about security, it should be easier to spot those activists who compromise our movement’s security. So what do we do with people who display these behaviors? Do we shun or expel them from our groups and projects? Actually, no—not for the first security violation, at least.
The unfortunate truth is there are some security-ignorant people in the movement and others who have possibly been raised in a “scene” that thrives on bragging and gossiping. It doesn’t mean these people are bad, but it does mean they need to inform themselves and learn about personal and group security. Even seasoned activists make mistakes when there is a general lack of security consciousness in our groups. And that’s where those of you reading this can help. We must ALWAYS act to inform persons whose behavior breaches security. If someone you know is bragging about doing an action or spreading security-compromising gossip, it is your responsibility to explain to her or him why that sort of talk violates security and is inappropriate.
You should strive to share this knowledge in a manner that encourages the person’s understanding and changes her/his behavior. It should be done without damaging the person’s pride. Show your sincere interest in helping him/her to become a more effective activist. Keep your humility and avoid presenting a superior, “holier-than-thou” attitude. Such an attitude can raise an individual’s defenses and prevent them from listening to and using the advice offered. The goal of addressing these issues with others is to reduce insecure behavior, rather than showing how much more security-conscious you are. Share your concerns and knowledge in private, so that the person does not feel as if they are being publicly humiliated. Addressing the person as soon as possible after the security violation increases effectiveness.
If each of us remains responsible for discussing security information with people who slip up, we can dramatically improve security in our groups and activities. When people recognize that lying, gossiping, bragging, and inappropriate debriefing damages both themselves and others, these behaviors will soon end. By developing a culture where breaches of security are pointed out and discouraged, all sincere activists will quickly understand.

DEALING WITH CHRONIC SECURITY PROBLEMS

So what do we do with activists who repeatedly violate security precautions even after being informed several times? Unfortunately for them, the best thing to do is to cut them loose. Discuss the issue openly and ask them to leave your meetings, base-camps, and organizations. With law enforcement budgets on the increase and with courts handing down long sentences for political “crimes”, the stakes are too high to allow chronic security offenders to work among us.
By creating a security culture, we have an effective defense against informers and agents who try to infiltrate groups. Imagine an informer who, every time they ask another activist about their activities, receives information about security. It would frustrate the informer’s work. When other activists discovered that she/he continued to violate security precautions after being repeatedly informed, there would be grounds for isolating the person from our groups. And that would be one less informer for us to deal with!

ADOPT A SECURITY CULTURE NOW!

Activists are restless and resistance is on the rise. Some people are adopting radical and confrontational tactics. The more we organize and are effective, the more police forces continue to escalate their activities against us. For direct action movements to continue, we need to consider our security more seriously. Good security should be made one of our strengths.

A BRIEF PRIMER ON THE CANADIAN STATE SECURITY APPARATUS

Recent incidents of repression against activists in British Columbia illuminate the need for grassroots people to understand and practice movement security. Police monitoring, infiltration, and agent provocateurs are routinely used by the state to collect information about our groups, or specific individuals in them, and to subvert our activities. For example, during the APEC hearings, it was revealed that over seventy groups and individuals were monitored before and during the APEC meetings in 1997. A paid industry informant/disruptor was identified at a wilderness action camp in 1999. Provocateurs also targeted some Vancouver activists, trying to convince them to disclose information, and, as well, to break the law. The Canadian security apparatus identifies a number of our groups and activities as a threat to “national security”. People and organizations are widely targeted; even avowed pacifists have been included in surveillance and repressive measures. According to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) annual reports, activities targeted in the late 1990s included: native resistance, environmental & animal rights movements, anti-poverty, anti-globalization, anti police brutality, anti-racist, anarchist, and communist groups. With the rise in militant First Nations’ struggles; covert direct action against corporations; the renewed militancy and strength of popular struggles; and the mass-media’s increasing focus on anarchists and anti-globalization protests, there is also a growing level of police surveillance and repression.
The need for security in our movements is obvious—however, it is incredibly important that we don’t fall into the trap of using our awareness of security issues to shut other people out of our growing movements. One of the key aims of the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program  (“COINTELPRO”) operations against the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement (AIM) was to spread distrust and paranoia so that these activists would be reluctant to integrate new people into their struggles. A security culture can exist in a large movement; indeed, it is one indication of a movement’s strength. Arming ourselves with knowledge about how the system works and works against activists is essential in building security culture. The aim of this section is to give a brief run down of the working of domestic intelligence in Canada. In this way, we can better understand how to avoid its traps.

AN OVERVIEW OF DOMESTIC INTELLIGENCE ORGANIZATIONS

The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) is probably the best known of the “security” agencies that deal with activist “threats”. Its predecessor was the Security Service division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP-SS). In 1984, following the MacDonald Commission on the illegal activities of the RCMP, the civilian spy agency CSIS took over RCMP spy work. That said, the RCMP did not abandon its intelligence gathering, it’s just that CSIS specifically gathers political intelligence. The split from the RCMP allowed the new spy agency to do legally what the Mounties had been doing illegally. At the operations level, the new agency was granted more leeway in terms of public accountability than the Mounties had ever had.
CSIS carries out a wide range of surveillance activities. Since they are not a law-enforcement agency and since their evidence is not used in court, nothing stops them from contravening the few regulations that do exist regarding privacy rights. For example, CSIS is not required to inform people, as is RCMP, ninety days after a wiretap (or bugging) is over. Agents working for CSIS are allowed, with “authorization”, to enter people’s homes to plant bugs, wiretap phones, open mail and look into health, employment, and government records without ever having to
tell a targeted individual what they are doing. The information that they gather is used to build profiles and dossiers (files) on individuals, organizations, networks, etc. This information is also passed on to other wings of the federal security system who are responsible for “law enforcement”, and will then obtain whatever warrants are necessary for legal surveillance (to be brought into court as evidence).
The National Security Investigation Service (NSIS) is the  primary law-enforcement wing in Canada. The NSIS is a section of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Most major cities across the country have an NSIS office including Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. The NSIS maintains a computer database on activists, immigrants, and so called  “terrorists” which is housed in Ottawa. It is believed that the Vancouver NSIS employs between 12 and 18 members. Within NSIS there are several  sub-groups called Team 1, Team 2, Team 3 – etc. that have different investigative targets. They employ informants, infiltrators, personal physical surveillance, electronic surveillance including phone and room “bugs”, and other means of investigation and research.
The RCMP/NSIS also have other resources at their disposal during counter-insurgency operations. “Special O” is a team of surveillance specialists that may be called upon. “Special I” is a penetration team whose specialty is to break into homes, vehicles, and other properties for investigative purposes. They are the team, which, among other things, installs listening devices, photographs building interiors, etc. In a long-running case based in Vancouver, all of these methods of surveillance were used against several Vancouver activists. During the Vancouver investigation, house and vehicle bugs were located by some targeted individuals. The bugs had large battery packs attached to facilitate less frequent battery changes. The NSIS also visited several activists across Canada in an attempt to question them regarding the individuals under investigation.
The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is an agency of the National Defense/War department, which has been long clouded in secrecy. They collect and process telephone, fax, and computer communications of foreign states, corporations, and individuals. The federal government uses the intelligence gleaned from the data to “support troops” abroad, catch “terrorists” and “further Canada’s economic goals” (what that means is up to them). Although the CSE is not technically allowed to collect the communications of Canadian citizens, it is known to be a partner in the Echelon project—a multinational monitoring operation which sees CSE and counterpart agencies in the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand share intercepted   communications of interest with one another, effectively creating a global surveillance network.
The Terrorist Extremist Section (TES Unit) is British Columbia’s anti-terrorist unit. A joint   Vancouver/Victoria Police Department/RCMP unit called the Organized Crime Agency (formerly the Coordinated Law Enforcement Unit—CLEU), it is believed that this unit employs two or three members only.
Most activists will be intimately familiar with their local police forces. Beware that cops do not only show up in blue uniforms but routinely practice crowd infiltration, and carry out surveillance and investigative activities either alone or jointly with the RCMP depending on the type of case. Watch for them during demonstrations as they like to come along and take photographs and video for the record, and they often appear in crowds as “fellow demonstrators”.
 THE COUNTER-INSURGENCY MODEL
Most Western nation-states follow a model of counter-insurgency developed by a British intelligence expert named [Frank] Kitson who wrote Low Intensity Operations after much field work in the colonies. He broke down movement development into three stages:
  • The Preparatory Phase: is when the movement is small, tends to focus on education, publishing and groundwork.
  • The Non-Violent Phase: is when the movement takes on more of a mass character. Large demonstrations are the norm.
  • In the Insurgency Phase: the movement has taken on a popular character. Perhaps a more assertive, guerrilla component has emerged.
Kitson advises that the primary work of the intelligence agency should occur during the preparatory phase. At this time the movements are most vulnerable. They have not experienced a high degree of repression. They consider talk of security as mere paranoia. As they are not breaking laws they believe that it is safe to organize completely openly. The intelligence agency is therefore able to exploit these conditions and develop detailed dossiers on a wide range of people. The information will be extremely valuable to them later on. Important historical revolutionary activities and groups began as small, serious-minded projects that grew in spite of surveillance and repression. It is therefore important to practice security at all points in the movement’s development. State agents gather more than just “hard evidence”; they are interested in knowing about radicals’ beliefs as well.

THE GOLDEN RULE OF SILENCE

It needs to be stressed throughout our movements that no one is under any legal obligation to provide to the police any more information than one’s own name, address and birth date, and this only if one is under arrest. That is it! Saying anything more jeopardizes security. Even answering seemingly insignificant questions can assist the police in developing personality profiles on a range of activists. It may not be “evidence” but it is used to give police “leads” on other suspects and construct intent during legal proceedings. The only principled response to police questioning when under arrest is to say nothing more than your name, birth date, and address. If questioned further you can simply tell them “I have nothing to say except in the presence of my lawyer”.
Police try to control with fear; don’t be intimidated.
Remember—If an agent comes a-knockin’, do no talkin’.

 Part Two

EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT INFORMERS AND INFILTRATORS

Infiltrators seek information on most radical groups. The return of mass mobilizations and radical actions in anti-globalization, anti-poverty, anti-racism, and anti-police brutality demonstrations, as well as declarations to continue struggling in the streets and underground, has drawn attention from the state’s secret police. More infiltrators will be sent into our ranks to try to bribe, entice, or manipulate individuals. The extent to which they are able to infiltrate our groups depends on our seriousness and responsibility in learning about, promoting, and working within a security culture. Radical movements can learn to better identify covert enemies in our projects. Once identified, appropriate action is needed to undo, contain, or remove the danger. This section is intended to arm you with information on how to spot and deal with informers, infiltrators, and provocateurs in our ranks.

WHO IS AN INFORMER?

There are actually two kinds of informers. The deliberate informer is an undercover agent on the payroll of government or industry. The second type is the activist-turned-informer. Both kinds try to infiltrate our ranks and are equally dangerous to our movements. Let’s discuss the deliberate informers first. They are often difficult to identify. Informers can be of any age and any profile, but they do have a few discernible methods of operation, or “modus operandi”. These are:
  • The “hang around” type: they are persons who regularly show at meetings and actions but generally don’t get involved. They collect documents, listen to conversations and note who’s who. This observation role is relatively inactive.
  • The “sleeper” type: is similar to the “hang around” modus operandi, except that their absorption of information is used to activate their role at a later date.
  • The “novice” type: presents a somewhat more active role, but confines themselves to less prominent work. They don’t take initiatives, but the work they do is valued. This helps them build trust and credibility.
  • The “super activist” type: they come out of nowhere and all of a sudden, they are everywhere. Whether it’s a meeting, protest, or an action, this person will be right in the thick of it. Keep in mind however that this can also be the mark of a new activist, whose enthusiasm and commitment is so strong that s/he wants to fight the power every minute of the day.
It should be said that with several of these modus operandi, the behavior is hard to distinguish from a sincere new person’s involvement. How do we tell them apart? Well, a planted infiltrator will ask a lot of questions about the direct action groups, individuals, and illegal activities. S/he may suggest targets and volunteer to do reconnaissance as well as take part in the action. Infiltrators also try to build profiles on individuals, their beliefs, habits, friends, and weaknesses. At the same time, infiltrators will shield their true selves from other activists.
Anyone who asks a lot of questions about direct actions isn’t necessarily an infiltrator, but they ARE someone you should be careful with. At the very least, they need to be informed about security issues. New activists should understand that direct action tactics can be risky (though some risks are worth taking!) and that asking a lot of questions endangers people. If the person persists in asking questions, there is a problem and appropriate measures must be taken. Activists who can’t understand the need for security should be shunned and kept away from the movement.
Some types of infiltrators stay in the background and offer material support, other informants may have nothing to do with the group or action, but initially heard certain plans and tipped off the police. Among the more active types of infiltrators can be a gregarious person that quickly wins group trust. Some infiltrators will attempt to gain key forms of control, such as of communications/secretarial, or finances. Other informants can use charm and sex to get intimate with activists, to better spy or potentially destabilize group dynamics.
Active infiltrators can also be provocateurs specializing in disruptive tactics such as sowing disorder and demoralizing meetings or demos, heightening conflicts whether they are interpersonal or about action or theory, or pushing things further with bravado and violent proposals. Infiltrators often need to build credibility; they may do this by claiming to have participated in past actions. Also, infiltrators will try to exploit activist sensibilities regarding oppression and diversity. Intelligence organizations will send in someone who will pose as a person experiencing the common oppression of the particular activist group. For example, in the 1960’s the Weather Underground (“Weathermen”—a white anti-imperialist armed struggle in the US) was infiltrated by an “ordinary Joe” informant with a working class image. Black war veterans infiltrated the Black Panther Party.
A fresher example of police infiltration and manipulation tactics is that of Germinal, a group targeted for arrest two days prior to the April 2001 anti-FTAA demonstrations in Quebec City. Five months prior, the police set up a false transport company and specifically posted opportunities for employment in the vicinity of a Germinal member seeking employment. The trap worked. Tipped off by an initial informant, two under-cover cops worked for four months in the group. This operation resulted in the media-hyped “dismantlement” of the group on the eve of the summit. Seven Germinal members were arrested, 5 of whom spent 41 days in preventive custody, only to be released under draconian bail conditions. The police’s covert action was in part about dismantling the group, but it was also about creating a media/propaganda campaign to justify the police-state security for the summit.

BACKGROUND CHECKS—AN ESSENTIAL TOOL

What are some ways of looking into the possibility that someone is an informer? Firstly, unless you have concrete reasons or evidence that someone is an infiltrator, spreading rumors will damage the movement. Rumors that you do hear of should be questioned and traced back. A person’s background can be looked into, especially activism they claimed to have participated in, in other places. Do your contacts in those places know of the person, their involvement? Did problems ever come up? One important advantage of having links with far away places is that it makes it more difficult for informers to fabricate claims about their activities. What are a person’s means of living? Who are her or his friends? What sorts of contradictions exist between their professed ideals and how they live? One of our strengths as activists is our ideas and values, our counterculture, our attitudes towards the dominant society. Our sincerity in discussing these things is also a way of learning about each other.
When planning for new actions, care must be taken concerning who is approached. As little as possible should be said about the actual action plan until a person’s political philosophy, ideas about strategy, and levels of risk they are willing to engage in have been discussed on an abstract basis. If there is a strong basis for believing this person might be interested in the action, then the general idea of an action can be run by them. Only when they have agreed to participate, do they come to the group to discuss action details. During the trials of activists, police often reveal the kinds of information that they have gathered concerning our groups and activities. Note what revelations come out of these trials. What are the possible and likely sources of the information? Speak to persons that have been arrested and interrogated to see what they may have said to the police, or discussed in their jail cell.
Placing infiltrators in social justice and revolutionary movements is an established practice. It was done to the Black Panthers, AIM, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), and the peace/anti-war/and anti-nuclear movements on a large scale. Small groups, such as affinity groups, or working groups of larger more open organisations, need to be especially careful with new members. Direct action organising is ideally done with long-standing, trusted members of the activist community. This doesn’t mean that no one else should ever be allowed into these groups. On the contrary, if our movement is to continue to grow, new people should be welcome and recruited; we just need to keep security in mind and exercise caution at all times.

THE UNWITTING INFORMER

Possibly an even greater threat to our movements than the covert operative is the activist-turned-informer, either unwittingly or through coercion. The unwitting informer is the activist who can’t keep his/her mouth shut. If someone brags to you about what they’ve done, make sure this person never has any knowledge that can incriminate you, because sooner or later, the wrong person will hear of it. These activists don’t mean to do harm, but their bragging can be very damaging. It is your responsibility to instruct these people on the importance of security culture.
The other type of activist-informer is the person who cracks under pressure and starts talking to save his or her own skin. Many activists get drawn into situations they are not able to handle, and some are so caught up in the “excitement” that they either don’t realize what the consequences can be, or they just don’t think they’ll ever have to face them.
Keep in mind that the categories of “planted informer” and “activist-turned-informer” can and have been blurred. In 1970, during the height of the FLQ’s activities, Carole de Vault—a young Parti Quebecois (PQ) activist was drawn to the FLQ, but then became a paid police agent. Her “activism” was with the PQ; she disagreed with the heavier FLQ actions since it threatened the “legitimate” work of the PQ. Her involvement with the FLQ was as a planted police informer.

KNOW YOUR OWN LIMITS

We have to know the possible consequences of every action we take and be prepared to deal with them. There is no shame in not being able to do an action because of responsibilities or circumstances that make it impossible for you to do jail time at this point in your life. As long as capitalism and all of its evils exist, there will be resistance. In other words, there will be plenty of great actions for you to participate in when your life circumstances are more favorable.
If others are dependent on you for support, you aren’t willing to lose your job, or drop out of school or ruin your future career, DON’T DO THE ACTION. If you are addicted to an illicit drug and/or have a lengthy criminal record, the cops will use this to pressure you for information. If you don’t feel capable of detoxing under interrogation and brutality, or doing a hell of a lot more time than your comrades, DON’T DO THE ACTION.
Make certain that you talk with others in your affinity group about situations that make you uncertain whether you should be involved in particular actions, especially those that are at a high risk of being criminalized. Remember—there is no excuse for turning in comrades to the police, and those activists that do effectively excommunicate themselves from our movements. We must offer no legal or jail support to those activists who turn in others for their impact on our movement is far-reaching and can have devastating effects.

COVERT ACTION OTHER THAN INFILTRATION

Covert (or “Special”) Action from police and secret service is also done outside of the group, with or without infiltration. These efforts include: intimidation and harassment, blackmail and manipulation, propaganda, informing employers and security checks, as well as physical sabotage like theft and arson. Intimidation and harassment can include visits from secret service agents, calling you or your partner by their first name on the street, thefts where obvious clues are left. Police will try to blackmail people if they want to recruit or neutralize them.
Police uses propaganda in an attempt to poison the atmosphere and manipulate media and public opinion. In December 1971, when the FLQ was near its end and heavily infiltrated, the RCMP issued a false FLQ communiqué in the name of the “Minerve” cell. The communiqué adopted a hard-line position, denouncing the abandonment of terrorist action by a well-known activist, Pierre Vallières, and urging the continuation of armed struggle. In Genoa, Italy, police played an active covert role in trying to discredit black bloc anarchists during the July 2001 meeting of the G8. Several reports reveal that Italian police masked as black bloc members attacked demonstrators and small shops. With a lack of public information, the police help manipulate public discourse along the lines of “how do legitimate demonstrators isolate activist thugs?”
Slanderous propaganda can take the form of anonymous letters, or rumors aimed at the activist milieu. There are also examples where police will make uncorroborated, casual accusations to journalists that, to use two examples, a person is a drug dealer, or that at a demonstration a person aimed a handgun at an officer. It is often for slanderous reasons that police charge activists with “weapons possession” for having a penknife, or charges of violence like “assault.” The growth of the anti-globalization movement has been accompanied by renewed anarchist-scare propaganda on the part of authorities. Politicians and police attempt to massage public opinion, preparing people for a crack down, in order to legitimate the use of heavier methods of social control, exclusion, and repression.
Manipulative disinformation spread through the media needs to be denounced as lies. There are activist-friendly lawyers who can help us demand retractions and corrections. Speak to the journalists involved, call them on their sloppy, dishonest work, expose their hypocrisy, and complain to the journalists’ ethics body. We can not rely on capitalist, private-media for any kind of fairness.
It is valuable for us to learn more about the covert actions of the police. There exists a long and documented history. Factual information about police covert activities also comes out as evidence presented in court. An important, too often neglected part of our strength is our knowledge of, and our protection from, police action against us.

MOVING AGAINST INFORMERS: CONSIDERATIONS AND ALTERNATIVES

(Taken from PROTECTING OURSELVES FROM STATE REPRESSION:
A MANUAL FOR REVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISTS. Published in 1984 by
the Anti-Repression Resource Team—Jackson, Mississippi)
Assuming that the security people within the group have suspicions about a group member being an informer/provocateur, it is useful for security/leadership to resolve certain questions both before and after the investigation:
(a) How badly do you want to know whether the person is in agent or not?
Clearly, if the person under suspicion is relatively important to the group’s functioning, then leadership must know one way or the other. The more important the person under suspicion is to the group, the more intensive the investigation. We may suggest methods of investigation which are unorthodox and from a certain point of view morally indefensible. But the question is always how badly the group needs to know. No group need use all or any of the methods we describe. But under the condition that the correct information is a life-and-death matter for the group, certain drastic measures may be justified.
(b) What will be done if the information is inconclusive?
Often there is not enough evidence to confirm that someone is a police agent, but there IS enough evidence to confirm certain suspicions. A great deal will depend upon what is at stake with the person under suspicion. In general, the choices come down to
1) labeling the person a security risk and acting accordingly;
2) doing nothing outwardly but continuing the investigation;
3) isolating the person from sensitive work but keeping him or her in the group;
4) moving to a higher stage of investigation.
(c) What will be done If the person does turn out to be an agent?
While common sense dictates that the person be exposed and severed from the group, other actions might be initiated. If the presence of the agent is a real threat to the group, then the agent should be neutralized in an effective manner. Usually wide exposure of the agent will accomplish an effective neutralization. But if the agent is no great threat to the group’s functioning, the agent staying inside the group may be useful for other purposes.
The group might decide that they prefer to keep the agent, rather than risk not knowing who would replace a known quantity. It the agent is not in a sensitive position, can be monitored and isolated from important work, the group may want to keep such an agent at a low organizational level. Or the agent might be given tasks that seem to be sensitive but are in reality not crucial to the group. Under the cover of doing “sensitive” work, false and semi-false information about the group can be relayed to the intelligence agencies that the agent belongs to. Or perhaps certain information that is in fact true about the group can be willfully discredited by creation of pseudo-events and/or false information. Remember that when the intelligence agencies have a great deal of contradictory information, it decreases their ability to act decisively against the group.
(d) What are the responsibilities to other groups of the group’s knowledge of an informer?
If the group makes a decision to sever connection with the agent it is certainly the group’s responsibility to quietly contact leadership in other groups to warn them about the agent. Often public exposure is done through the group’s newspaper/newsletter/journal; in this case, the news article should be sent to a wide variety of groups. The more pressing problem is the instance where there are only suspicions but not decisive evidence.
Experience has shown that suspicions are taken seriously only when then is a political bond that exists between persons with long movement experience. People who have been in the movement a long time, and who are known to each other and trusted as dedicated movement people, can convey agent suspicions that will get a favorable hearing or be readily believed. This “old hands trust network” is relatively independent of political point of view; veteran leaders of rival radical organizations can freely and easily exchange information on matters of security.

YOUR RIGHTS

1. YOU DON’T HAVE TO TALK TO THE POLICE OR INVESTIGATORS. You do not have to talk to them on the street, if you’ve been arrested, or even if you’re in jail. Do not talk about illegal actions with fellow “inmates” in holding as they may be plants.
2. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LET CSIS OR THE POLICE INTO YOUR HOME OR OFFICE UNLESS THEY HAVE A SEARCH OR ARREST WARRANT. Demand to see the warrant. It must specifically describe the place to be searched and things to be seized. It must be authorized by a judge and should bear a signature.
3. IF THE POLICE DO PRESENT A WARRANT, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TELL THEM ANYTHING OTHER THAN YOUR NAME, ADDRESS, AND BIRTH DATE. Carefully observe the officers; you’re in your own home, you’re not required to stay in one room. You should take written notes of what they do, their names, badge numbers, and what agency they’re from. Have friends who are present act as witnesses. It’s risky to let cops roam around alone in your place.
4. IF THE POLICE TRY TO QUESTION YOU OR TRY TO ENTER YOUR HOME WITHOUT A WARRANT, JUST SAY NO. The police are very skilled at getting information from people, so attempting to outwit them is very risky. You can never tell how a seemingly harmless bit of information can hurt you or someone else.
5. ANYTHING YOU SAY TO THE POLICE MAY BE USED AGAINST YOU AND OTHER PEOPLE. Once you’ve been arrested, you can’t talk your way out of it. Don’t try to engage cops in a dialogue or respond to accusations.
6. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO REVEAL YOUR HIV STATUS TO THE POLICE OR JAIL PERSONNEL. If you’ve been arrested you should refuse to take a blood test until you’ve been brought before a judge and have a lawyer of your choice.
7. YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO TELEPHONE A LAWYER OF YOUR CHOICE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. This means after you’ve been arrested, charged, and booked into jail. This does not mean, however, that you’ll be given the right to speak with your family or friends. This is left up to the discretion of the police involved in your case.
8. LYING TO THE POLICE IS A CRIME.
9. IF YOU ARE NERVOUS ABOUT SIMPLY REFUSING TO TALK, YOU MAY FIND IT EASIER TO TELL THEM TO CONTACT YOUR LAWYER. Once a lawyer is involved, people will know more about your state i.e. charges, bail, court date, etc.

 

Endnotes

[1] Jenny Esquivel, “Building Conspiracy: Informants in the Case of Eric McDavid”, in Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, eds. Kristian Williams, Will Munger, & Lara Messersmith-Glavin, Oakland: AK Press, 2013, p. 341.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. pp. 341-342.
[5] Ibid. p. 315.
[6] Ibid. p. 339.
[7] Ibid. p. 324.
[8] Ibid. p. 334.
[9] Ibid. p. 339.
[10] Ibid. p. 318.
[11] Ibid. p. 335.
[12] Ibid. p. 340.
[13] Ibid. p. 318.
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To get rid of evil or to be rid of class? A review of Bini Adamczak’s ‘Communism for Kids’

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Bini Adamczak has written a very clever little book. It is no mean feat to make communism as a concept intelligible to all, while at the same time reviewing – in brief and simplified form – the numerous failures of the movement. One could do worse than to begin here. The question of what communism is, as acknowledged by Adamczak, remains “contested”1. Communism as a word “names a field of political conflict”2 not only in the wider political sense, but one involving critique between “communisms and other socialist utopias in a struggle over the future”3. The origin of these “many communisms” to Adamczak was “one communism”4. The progenitor goes unnamed. It could be interpreted to refer to communism’s modern form conceptualized by Marx and Engels, referred to as “Traditional Marxism”5, but this would be a mistake. Adamczak is very clear about what constitutes this “one communism” and why “other communisms”6 and utopias have failed. The first two parts of the book deal with the trial and error of a series of communisms as well as answering basic questions, like ‘what is capitalism?’ The third part, the epilogue, was added in 2014 by the author to reflect on its 10th anniversary7, and discusses both the content of the book and the author’s views on the future of the communist movement, the latter of which – in true communist form – should not be accepted uncritically. While Adamczak has performed an admirable service in penning such an accessible and clear introduction to a contested movement, the conclusions she has drawn in the epilogue are, at times, disquieting.
Adamczak’s book draws a sharp dividing line between what the communist movement is, and is not; therefore, what communism is emerges out of this negative critique. The first sentence of the book presents in plain language what Adamczak considers the core of the movement. “Communism names the society that gets rid of all the evils people suffer today in our society under capitalism”8. As Ross Wolfe noticed, this is repeated no less than four times9. Fortunately, she is quick to assert this does not mean the elimination of all evils: “it’s no cure-all. It’s only a remedy for the evils caused by capitalism”10. Walking the reader through the essentials of life under capitalism, she eventually arrives at a critical juncture. “[T]he best kind of communism is the one that can get rid of the most evils”11. This and the opening line are eventually repeated together on the final page of the first part12, highlighting their central importance. Immediately preceding this repetition is a defining section:
The people now know two things. First, they know that capitalism doesn’t make them happy, and second, they know that communism does. So they decide to try communism. But it’s not so simple. Since true communism has never existed in the entire history of humankind, no one has any clue what it looks like. What the people do have are various ideas of what a communist society should look like13.
Its true significance is revealed through exploring the trials of the people as they attempt communism. In an interview with Viewpoint Magazine, Adamczak labels these “social democracy, syndicalism, state socialism, luddism, and some form of techno-hedonism14. Unmentioned by her is the sixth and final trial, what might be considered the beginning of “true” communism. The main clue is the illustrated people rising up against the narrator and asserting that, now, they are “making history ourselves”15, recalling a line from Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that, in communism, “[t]he extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself”16. Adamczak believes the “main question” that communism as a movement addresses is “[h]ow do we want to live?”17 It is this question that “other communisms” ignore; undermined, in the main, by their focus on things over relations between peoples. Louis Menand, in his 2003 ‘Forward’ to Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, asserts that the “deeper attraction” to communism, especially in its Marxist form, “was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself”18. History “holds the key to the meaning of life”19 and thus the answer to Adamczak’s question. Nonetheless, what this answer means remains obscure; it has to be worked out amongst all peoples. “No one really knows unless they try it out”20, and of the previous attempts none achieved the elimination of all the evils of capitalism suffered in society today. Neither did they abolish class.
Adamczak reflected that the book “started as a theoretical exegesis of Karl Marx’s ideas on the future”21 and that much shows, with one notable exception: class struggle is completely absent. The great strength of this book is its focus on capital – “it’s called capitalism because capital rules”22 – but the price of its insistence that “people no longer rule over society”23 is the disappearance of the bourgeoisie and their opposite, the proletariat. Throughout the first part it is the factories, not people, who speak “with [their] own special voice”24 – illustrating the operation of value production in capitalist society. It is the factories who “tell us how we should produce, what we should produce, and how much we should produce”25, and it is also the factories who decide “how much everyone should get in return for doing all this work”26. There is “a boss person who makes sure everybody does what the factory wants them to do”27, yet they are no more in control of this process than the workers. The book acknowledges the existence of state bureaucrats – “pot people”28 – while the role of the bourgeoisie and their position in class society are conspicuously absent. The outcome is Adamczak ignores the existence of class itself, which is why it is not the proletariat attempting to build communism in the six trials, just people. This is a deliberate choice on her part. “[T]he problems of surplus value production and the reproduction of classes… are not touched on here at all”29. Without the exploitation of one class by another, class itself disappears from view; without class, a fundamental antagonism of capitalist society is absent. Adamczak frames each trial as “introduced to overcome the flaws of the one before”30 in the absence of class struggle. The effective denial of class struggle, and its importance in the history of communist failures, demonstrates that while she started with Marx’s ideas she did not follow through entirely. This has the result of robbing the book of any kind of narrative power, the overcoming of collective exploitation through solidarity in class struggle. Whether Adamczak omitted the bourgeoisie for the purposes of simplification, or to keep the focus on capital as the evil to be rid of (not capitalists), the book consequently lacks any real sense of urgency or danger as people calmly and methodically work their way through trial-and-error communisms. In that sense, Adamczak has presented a true fairy tale.
Communism for Kids was written during a specific period of time where, according to Adamczak, “we had to reopen a utopian perspective”31. The book’s “task” was “to reinvent the future during the end of history”32, the “narrative” of which “gave expression to a certain undeniable reality”33 – “instead of hope for a better future, there’s only a totalizing fear of a worsening present”34. To counter this, she urges “a form of desire capable of jamming images of a better world into every fracture of daily life”35. Refashioning the utopian impulse into a communist desire “against every compromise”36 goes hand-in-hand with the historical defeat of communism on the field of class struggle. As Wolfe remarks, “[r]evolution will not result from merely wanting it more, and the idea that it will is usually a sign of desperation”37. Appropriately, Giorgio Agamben argued that “[a]ny radical thought always adopts the most extreme position of desperation”38. Adamczak asserts that her book “is about the availability and desirability of radical dreams”39; in other words, utopias. She is not the only one advancing utopianism as the vanguard of a rehabilitated communism. Žižek laments that “rare are those who dare even to dream utopian dreams about possible alternatives”40, while Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia41 acts as a provocation to take the construction of positive utopias seriously. Žižek frames Jameson’s utopianism as “to change society one should begin by changing one’s dreams about an emancipated society”42. Adamczak similarly writes, “[p]erhaps some kind of prophetic prosthesis is required to transform the desire for communism into a communist desire43. Jameson argues we are experiencing “a political time in which politics must again begin by igniting individual fantasies”44; more than that, “the task of utopianism today is rather to propose more elaborated versions of an alternate social system than simply to argue the need for one”45. For Jameson, anti-utopianism is potentially synonymous with anti-communism, as the concept of utopia itself “has again changed its meaning and has become… a virtual synonym for socialism or communism”46. This is the terrain in which Adamczak treads when she writes a book that “addresses the reader as one who can dream radically”47 rather than one who can engage in class struggle. The regression of the communist movement back into a speculative utopianism closes the circle which began with Marx and Engels’ critique of the utopian socialists who had preceded them. Perhaps this resurgence of utopianism will, in turn, give rise to a new ‘scientific critique’. The only hope is, this time, we manage to escape Marx’s dictum “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”48.
In retrospect, the utopian tone was set by Adamczak’s very first sentence, and reinforced by her assertion that the communist movement revolves not around the contradictions of capitalism and their negation, but the construction of a communist desire: a dream of how we are to live. She is well aware, however, that whatever dream that emerges from this utopian desire “cannot truly be the thoughts, ideas, and images of a different reality, a different organization of society”49. Critiquing previous critiques of capitalism as various forms of anti-capitalist utopianism – including Marx’s critique, which she labels “productivist anticapitalism”50 – she concludes that “our only possible standpoint lies in the future”51.
The hope is that the absurdity and unnecessary brutality of capitalist society will leap out to the people of future generations, the same way that the binary gender system or flatness of the earth seems crazy to us today52.
One is reminded of Kafka’s expression that there is plenty of hope, infinite hope—but not for us. This is a position that denies the possibility of struggle, here and now. It is with no small amount of irony that Adamczak advances
[t]he paradox that the eternal standpoint cannot be taken up and yet must be taken up protects us from fetishizing our own criticisms, and thus saves us from the illusion of utopianism: the fantasy that we can already show, here and now, what a liberated society looks like. In short, the unattainability of the communist viewpoint guards it from occupying capitalist ground53.
But the only ground communism as a movement has known is capitalist ground. The entire critique emerged out of the development of capitalism and its struggle against the feudalism which preceded it. Utopianism is not only a fantasy but an eternally unattainable standpoint, one which constantly reinvents itself in order to construct a positive image of the future. Adamczak acknowledges she seeks a “place of no-place in capitalism”54. What “saves us” from the utopianism of “ideals” – “[a]n image of the future becoming a model for the future”55 – is an intrinsically utopian communist viewpoint. Ultimately, Adamczak does present a paradox – critiquing communist illusions with a viewpoint completely detached from capitalist social relations – but not the one she first proposed. A better position would be recognizing, as Terry Eagleton argued, that “[t]here is no need to struggle out of your skin in order to make fundamental criticisms of your situation”56. Furthermore, Marx already identified the role of critique itself in preventing the fetishism of any particular standpoint: “if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists”57. A negative critique and the construction of a positive, constantly mutating utopian desire seem distinctly at odds; indeed, this is the point. Adamczak wishes for “communist criticism… to move beyond its habit of bitter negation”58. Having critiqued various anti-capitalisms as “latently capitalist”59 she ignores how desire has been fetishized as having qualities capable of resisting capture by the capitalist present. Unfortunately, utopian desire undermines communist critique, especially if Jameson’s suggestion that anti-utopianism equates to anti-communism is taken seriously.
Within Adamczak’s ‘utopianism of the desire’ lies not a movement but an Idea. Žižek, explaining the concept of desire from a Lacanian perspective, notes “that the question of desire, its original enigma, is not primarily “What do I want?” but “What do others want from me?””60 In other words, the question is not so much “how do we want to live?” but “how do others want me to live?” This is a far more difficult question to answer than the one first posed by Adamczak. Revisiting the concept, Žižek argues that “[d]esire is always a desire for its own nonsatisfaction: its ultimate aim is always to reproduce itself as desire… i.e., desire is a gap, a void, in the heart of every demand”61. Adamczak’s desire is ultimately a demand: “Communist desire: the desire that misery finally comes to an end”62. This is a direct contradiction of her early assertion that communism is only a remedy for the evils of capitalism, not misery itself. What’s more, the desire at the heart of this demand is insatiable, at least according to Žižek’s view, transforming communism into something “eternal”, a “Platonic Idea”63, rather than a movement contingent on the negation of bourgeois social relations. Adamczak’s “critique of critique(s)”64 is thus undermined by her misplaced fear of the material bedrock of capitalist social relations and her subsequent utopianism. A provisional answer to the aforementioned question (“how do others want me to live?”) becomes complicated by the need for the desire of others to end misery for people in general, not only themselves. The Idea of communism is swiftly “passing into absurdity”65. It has become emptied of what should be its “real content”, argued by Engels as “the demand for the abolition of classes66, not the end of capitalist evil then extended into the end of misery, which is necessarily precluded by the insatiability of desire. Constant self-criticism cannot overcome this particular impasse67. Eagleton once asserted that “[t]he role of the prophet is not to predict the future, but to remind the people that if they carry on as they are doing, the future will be exceedingly bleak”68. He also argued that “imagining a more just future may confiscate some of the energies necessary to achieve it”69. In Adamczak’s case, much energy will be spent constructing and self-criticising an individual’s or group’s utopian (yet still communist) desire. The great strength of the communist movement has been its clear aims, articulated on a class basis, not a politics of desire that diverts the attention of those who can struggle.
The current fascination with utopia will hopefully run its course and prove only to be a product of that moment in history which drove Adamczak to write Communism for Kids. It may seem slightly absurd to write such a lengthy critique of a very short book. By no means is this an unimportant book, however, especially with its translation into English. It is a book written to address a specific zeitgeist, and its conception of communism, due to its accessibility, is one that could serve as a beginning for many young communists today (their children too). Brevity is also no barrier to the kind of theoretical sophistication that Adamczak demonstrates in writing it, especially the epilogue. It is hard not to admire the fearlessness with which she has pursued some very difficult questions. The quality of her answers, however, is something which must be examined, and a critique of those is what this review has attempted to accomplish. It has hopefully been demonstrated that, while Adamczak has an understandable frustration with the popular inability to imagine a world beyond capitalism, the foray into utopianism and a politics of desire will not fundamentally change anything. In fact, it leads down a blind alley, confronting not the emancipatory potential of desire but its devouring insatiability; an insatiability that finds greater kinship with that she wishes to undermine, capitalism. For capitalism “has a Faustian horror of fixed boundaries, of anything which offers an obstacle to the infinite accumulation of capital”70. An insatiable desire confronts accumulation without boundaries. Utopianism offers no barrier, either: “Materiality is what gets in it way. It is the inert, recalcitrant stuff which puts up resistance to its grandiose schemes”71. What is needed is something more fundamental, which Adamczak has purposefully excluded. The kind of solidarity she imagines as “not just an instrumental means of social change… but also the goal of emancipation, of communism”72 has to be found in a renewed class struggle.

Endnotes

[1] Bini Adamczak, Communism for Kids, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017, p.78.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid. p.85.
[6] Ibid. p.78.
[7] Ross Wolfe, “‘This Tale Is About You!’: On Bini Adamczak’s ‘Communism for Kids’”, Los Angeles Review of Books, June 27, 2017; https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/this-tale-is-about-you-on-bini-adamczaks-communism-for-kids/; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170716180938/https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/this-tale-is-about-you-on-bini-adamczaks-communism-for-kids/
[8] Adamczak, p.1.
[9] A minor quibble: it could have been better presented without a certain redundancy. “Communism names the society that gets rid of all the evils people suffer today under capitalism”. In fact this redundancy is eliminated in later repetitions (e.g. p.36), making it a frustrating choice on the part of the translators.
[10] Adamczak, p.1.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid. p.36.
[13] Ibid. pp.35-36. Emphasis original.
[14] Bini Adamczak and Jacob Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everbody’: An Interview with Bini Adamczak, author of Communism for Kids”, Viewpoint Magazine, May 16, 2017; https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/16/communism-for-everybody-an-interview-with-bini-adamczak-author-of-communism-for-kids/; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170715193729/https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/16/communism-for-everybody-an-interview-with-bini-adamczak-author-of-communism-for-kids/
[15] Adamczak, p.69.
[16] Frederick Engels, “Part III: ‘Historical Materialism’”, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1880, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch03.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.
[17] Adamczak, p.62.
[18] Louis Menand, ‘Forward: The Historical Romance’, in To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, auth. Edmund Wilson, New York: The New York Review of Books, 2003, p.xiii.
[19] Ibid. p.x.
[20] Adamczak, p.36.
[21] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.
[22] Adamczak, p.5.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid. p.19.
[25] Ibid. p.21. Emphasis original.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid. p.26.
[28] Ibid. p.51.
[29] Ibid. p.81.
[30] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Adamczak, p.71.
[34] Ibid. p.72.
[35] Ibid. p.74.
[36] Ibid. p.75.
[37] Wolfe, “‘This Tale Is About You!’”.
[38] Jordan Skinner, “Thought is the courage of hopelessness: an interview with philosopher Giorgio Agamben”, Verso, 17 June, 2014; https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1612-thought-is-the-courage-of-hopelessness-an-interview-with-philosopher-giorgio-agamben; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170602163943/https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1612-thought-is-the-courage-of-hopelessness-an-interview-with-philosopher-giorgio-agamben
[39] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.
[40] Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, London: Verso, 2009, p.77.
[41] Fredric Jameson, “An American Utopia”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, pp.1-96.
[42] Slavoj Žižek, “Forward: The Need to Censor Our Dreams”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, p.vii.
[43] Adamczak, p.75. Emphasis original.
[44] Jameson, p.41.
[45] Ibid. p.43.
[46] Ibid. p.42.
[47] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.
[48] Karl Marx, “Chapter I”, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.
[49] Adamczak, p.74.
[50] Ibid. p.85.
[51] Ibid. p.90.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Ibid. pp.90-91.
[54] Ibid. p.89. It is, however, rhetorically framed as a question.
[55] Ibid. p.74.
[56] Terry Eagleton, After Theory, London: Penguin Books, 2004, p.61.
[57] Karl Marx, “Marx to Ruge: Kreuznach, September 1843”, in Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017. Emphasis original.
[58] Adamczak, p.73.
[59] Ibid. p.89.
[60] Žižek, First as Tragedy, p.64.
[61] Slavoj Žižek, “The Seeds of Imagination”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, p.283.
[62] Adamczak, p.94.
[63] Žižek, First as Tragedy, pp.125-126.
[64] Adamczak, p.89.
[65] Frederick Engels, “Part 1: Philosophy, X. Morality and Law. Equality”, in Anti-Dühring, 1877, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch08.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.
[66] Ibid.
[67] Adamczak argues that “by making use of our broadest historical knowledge and deepest theoretical criticism, we have to constantly ask ourselves how such desires might lead to impasses that could be avoided”, p.75. Emphasis mine.
[68] Eagleton, p.175.
[69] Ibid. p.100.
[70] Ibid. p.118.
[71] Ibid.
[72] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

A preliminary critique of Murray Bookchin

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Murray Bookchin’s works are experiencing a posthumous revival due to the integration of his theory into the praxis of the Kurdish PKK and PYD in Turkey and Syria, and in particular its implementation within the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. Celebrated as a progressive figure, an examination of Bookchin’s 1985 polemic ‘Were we wrong?’ reveals Bookchin to be far more regressive in his views than expected.1 The purpose of this belated reply is not to focus on what is uncontroversial in Bookchin’s article – for example, the failure of the pre-WWII revolutions to produce the societies they set out to create – nor is its purpose to engage in a long-winded historical counter-narrative to Bookchin’s account of the “so-called bourgeois revolutions”.2 Instead, the focus will be on Bookchin’s regressive proscriptions and his view of capitalism as effectively against human nature. This will be detailed in five stages. First, Bookchin rejects Marxist historiography in favor of Karl Polanyi’s view of the importance of status over class; second, he advocates libertarianism as a moral movement with an ethical praxis over proletarian class struggle; third, Bookchin’s community originates from a core group of enlightened individuals instead of a Leninist vanguard; fourth, Bookchin’s account of the emergence of capitalism as effectively the result of a failure to control markets is examined; and fifth, the previous stages inform a perspective of Bookchin’s polemic as being structured around capitalism as “asocial”3 and what it means for his libertarian municipalism. Unfortunately, Bookchin’s ideas show regressive characteristics and an explicit rejection of Marx’s conclusions about capitalism. There is no plan to abolish capitalism, only to hollow it out through “libertarian traditions”.4 If there is a failure of classical analysis he does nothing to rectify it convincingly.
Bookchin has a clear idea of how pre-capitalist societies functioned. Rather than being class societies, they were societies of “orders” governed by “biosocial norms” revolving around “family and kinship relations”.5 These social hierarchies formed “the more basic substrate”6 of people’s lives. He takes this conception from Karl Polanyi, who argued that a person secured not individual interest but their status in society.7 Bookchin transforms this into the “paramount social tie”, and believes it is status which should be the “core for social analysis” not class.8 He believes it can be either libertarian or authoritarian in nature.9 Bookchin’s view that social hierarchies were more important than class shine through when he states “[o]ne’s community and the place one occupies in it is one of the most human attributes we posses”.10 There is a distinct view that masses are built around class interest while individuals care about status, and he claims the individual “tends to behave with greater decency than the mass”.11 Unsurprisingly, he rejects Marxist-influenced historiography as “crude economic determinism” and believes radical historians have denied “the moral integrity of the person in contrast to the role assigned to masses and forces in history”.12 The masses are also impersonal, which seems to offend Bookchin’s libertarian sensibilities. In opposition to the proletariat, “integrally tied up with interest”, he advances the community as “the only agent on which we can premise future radical change”.13 It is in this sense that Bookchin is regressive: “The only revolutionary era on which we can premise any future for radical change is the one that lies behind us”.14 What lies behind, according to him, is a pre-capitalist society of orders based upon status – the individual’s position in the community. Bookchin seeks to return to a type of society known before the advent of capitalist civilization, seeing in it a reflection of humanity’s natural condition.
Bookchin is determined to create a libertarian movement. He is not a reactionary despite what the above may imply. Instead, his focus is on the “hidden libertarian tendency in history”, exemplified by various populists and anarchists who stand as “striking examples of highly moral social movements”.15 Note how these movements were moral, not class movements, to Bookchin. He believes that the proletariat with its class interests “precludes the ability to voice broadly human concerns. Hence, no possibility ever existed that the proletariat…could ever speak for the general interest of society”.16 Only libertarian movements can do so, united as they are by their collective morality and “a shared ethics”.17 Bookchin believes the libertarian community will transcend status and class based interests. Driven by “the moral power of their libertarian beliefs”, the community is the hidden tendency made concrete, but it is based on a presumption that “solidarity outweights [sic] status or class interests”.18 Bookchin is somewhat vague on what constitutes the ethics of this community and how they are imparted. He describes them abstractly asthe ever-present act of an ever-dynamic effort of public and self-assertion that yields a sharp sense of selfhood”.19 More concretely, “the melding of traditional groups into a public sphere, a body politic…imbued with a sense of cultural and spiritual continuity and renewal.”20 In other words, communal selfhood will be inoculated against any individual or class interests by direct participation in the community. All individuals will be bound together by their positions in various traditional groups and their common political purpose in the community. Bookchin’s alternative is the emphasis on direct, communal ties and politics with the individual as its basis.21 It is this retreat to the individual, their place and status in society, which Bookchin advocates.
There must be a beginning to Bookchin’s community and that too is founded on an individual basis. It will “be created out of smaller units – groups of people for whom the cultivation of consciousness is a calling in its own right”.22 At the root of it all is something like a Philosopher King who then associates with like-minded individuals. In a way, Bookchin is substituting the Leninist vanguard – “a party of conscious revolutionaries”23 – for one of his own, though with a different mission. The vanguard is supposed to “provide the self-reflexivity”24 needed to succeed in revolutionary conditions. For Bookchin, however, “[s]elf-reflexivity cannot be separated from self-administration without reducing the group to a cellular academy at one extreme or an affinity group at the other”.25 The fate of the Leninist vanguard was effectively the latter. Bookchin is not denying the “role of consciousness” for such a group: he is relying on it, and considers it “decisive”.26 He is adamant that it must be founded on a different basis if it is not to betray its purpose: “Politics consists as much in the attainment of self-reflexivity of goals and processes as it does in the social functions it performs and the forms of freedom it institutionalizes”.27 The only way to ensure that kind of self-reflexivity is to spread it out in a participatory fashion amongst everyone. “The formation of a collective subject…is thus attained in the crafting of subjectivity as a participatory enterprise”.28 Consequently, Bookchin eschews a vanguard to lead a mass movement; instead, his association of enlightened individuals provides “the means of mobilizing people for a new praxis”.29 This praxis is new in the sense it is opposed to status and class interests and organized around absorbing their “centrifugal”30 forces. It is in this way that Bookchin takes an older way of life and gives it a libertarian gloss, updating it in order to counter mass interests in class and individual interests in status.
Bookchin’s view of human nature is most directly exposed in his account of capitalism’s emergence. While Marx believes human nature is “the ensemble of the social relations”31 rather than an individual abstraction, Bookchin believes that capitalism could not have emerged out of this ensemble. He sees a “malignancy”32 rather than social change. Bookchin makes a Feuerbachian mistake when he resolves biosocial norms into “the human condition”,33 rather than accepting that those norms are mediated and shaped by material social relations. As a result, Bookchin cannot adequately account for the epochal changes which swept the feudal order into the dustbin of history. He believes that capitalism represented a decisive break with all pre-capitalist societies, from “primarily a society of orders”34 to a class society. It is here that Bookchin begins to extrapolate wildly: “it is necessary to reject altogether the idea that capitalism as a society of classes could have emerged organically within the ‘womb’ of feudalism, a society of orders”.35 Describing capitalism as “the uncontrolled market” juxtaposed to the “carefully integrated” markets of precapitalist societies, capitalism to Bookchin becomes a market-based “cancer” which was “always a dormant system in the larger precapitalist social orders” – and like cancer it was waiting to “essentially burst upon the world”.36 What triggered its emergence he does not say, but it is strongly implicated that it was due to “a general erosion of all mores”37 which thus eroded control over the market. “No precapitalist world was equipped to deal with the formidable social and cultural irresponsibility that an uncontrolled market economy would foster”, he claims.38 The emergence of capitalism was a kind of moral decline which reached its apogee in the “social vacuum” of the 18th century – the “decay in history” which fed “cancerously on the corpses of traditional societies”.39 Capitalism was not a development of human social relations, instead it was the result of flaws inherent in human nature which lead to a failure of pre-capitalist societies to control the market.
Bookchin’s view of capitalism’s emergence and his proscriptions for fighting it are directly linked. If capitalism, almost as a force outside of humanity, resulted from a failure to control the market then its re-integration is necessary. He sets out to construct a blueprint for a society capable of controlling the market through “ethical, cultural, and institutional constraints”.40 As capitalism is a class society he takes inspiration from the previous society of orders, which demonstrated an ability to embed markets into peoples’ lives without it dominating them. Being a libertarian, however, this must be done without social hierarchy, which is the true root of the moral failure and thus social collapse of feudalism. Bookchin’s view of human nature is classically Western in the sense that the individual must be embedded in a community which constrains them as well as enables them. It makes perfect sense, then, that Bookchin wishes to resurrect the polis as the model form of his libertarian municipalism. He adopts the politics of the polis in order to abolish social hierarchy by direct democratic participation, ameliorating the struggle for personal status, while class struggle is absorbed by the social solidarity of ethical praxis and the moral force of libertarian beliefs. As his libertarian community is effectively founded by a group of Philosopher Kings, we can see that Bookchin has a very Platonic view of politics. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether Bookchin’s solutions can endure against status and class interests. Plato (or Socrates through Plato) would argue that any polis is many poleis – one in our era of proletarian and bourgeoisie, and within those classes reside many other contending groups.41 Bookchin has not demonstrated, beyond a personal belief, that his libertarian municipalism is capable of succeeding where the classical polis failed. Most concerning of all, he shows little interest in articulating how capitalism can be fought except in the realm of consciousness.
Bookchin cannot accept capitalism as a result of human sociality. It is around this core that his entire polemic revolves. Capitalism is described as a malignancy that lurked within market economies, kept in check by social orders more in tune with human nature. The moral decline of feudal social orders set capitalism loose on the world. His libertarian municipalism refuses to acknowledge that capitalism as a class phenomenon requires a class perspective. Bookchin’s individualism and disdain for political economy precludes such a perspective. As a result, his community-based participatory praxis is focused on improving the human condition over directly fighting capitalism. Consciousness is important but it is material social relations which are decisive, and which help shape consciousness itself. If the core relations of capitalism, epitomized by wage labor and capital accumulation, are not abolished then any libertarian project lends itself to regression – its morals will decline and its ethics will be eroded. The centrifugal forces of capitalism cannot be absorbed by ethical praxis and libertarian moralism. The great contradiction is Bookchin readily acknowledges the ability of capitalism to wear away traditional cultures, all mores, personal ethics, and yet somehow believes that participatory and community-based politics offer a kind of inoculation against these forces, and even further, that such politics will erode capitalism itself through moral force and personal grounding in the individual. Erosion will never be as forceful as abolition, and should capitalism be as terrible a “blight”42 as Bookchin believes it to be, then no quarter should be given and no risks taken which merely result in capitalism’s incubation within a libertarian society. It would be a sad irony for a libertarian project to experience the same kind of moral decline that Bookchin imputes to feudalism, with capitalism steadily overwhelming all resistance, destroying everything so many had fought so hard to build.

Endnotes

1. Murray Bookchin, ‘Were we wrong?’, Telos, vol. 65, Fall 1985, pp.59-74.
2. Ibid. p.70.
3. Ibid. p.68.
4. Ibid. p.71.
5. Ibid. p.64-65.
6. Ibid. p.65.
7. Ibid. p.64.
8. Ibid. p.64.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid. p.65.
11. Ibid. p.71.
12. Ibid. p.69, 71-72.
13. Ibid. p.71.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid. p.70.
16. Ibid. p.71.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid. p.71.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid.
21. Bookchin alludes to this when he states that “[c]ollectivity thus melds with individuality to produce rounded human beings in a rounded society”. Ibid.
22. Ibid. p.73.
23. Ibid. p.60.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid. p.73.
26. Ibid. p.72.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid. p.74.
29. Ibid. pp.73-74.
30. Ibid. p.71.
31. Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, 1845. Accessed Jan 2017 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm
32. Bookchin, p.65.
33. Ibid. p.70
34. Ibid. p.64.
35. Ibid. p.65.
36. Ibid. pp.65-66.
37. Ibid. p.66.
38. Ibid. p.64.
39. Ibid. pp.65, 68.
40. Ibid. p.65.
41. Plato, Republic, Book 4, Section 422e-423a. Accessed Jan 2017 from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D4
42. Bookchin, p.70.