Guerrillas can do it to you in ways you’ll never know.
— Rosemary O’Leary
“Most subordinate classes through most of history have rarely been afforded the luxury of open, organized, political activity. Or, better stated, such activity is dangerous, if not suicidal. Formal, organized political activity is typically the preserve of the middle class and the intelligentsia; to look for peasant politics in this realm is to look largely in vain.
Peasant rebellions are few and far between. The vast majority is crushed unceremoniously. When, more rarely, they succeed, it is a melancholy fact that the consequences are seldom what the peasantry had in mind. Whatever these revolutions may achieve, they also typically bring into being a vaster and more dominant state apparatus that is capable of battening on its peasant subjects even more effectively than its predecessors.” – James C. Scott
When it comes to radical political opposition, we are all peasants. The middling classes have been seduced by the propaganda of democracy into thinking we can work through the system to effect significant reform. It’s a mirage. Flinging ourselves at the rigid, malfunctioning bureaucratic institutions we have inherited, writing petitions, calling politicians, marching, speechifying, vote monitoring, we expend energies feeding the very system we oppose. It’s as though democracy has become a myth that binds us rather than an ideal that frees us.
The time has grown late to set hopes on grudging concessions from a rotten system that desperately wants to keep going a while longer. The ruling elites have so much power and such an intense web of debt in place that they may well be coming close to returning to the naked brutality of past ages, enabled by all the magic of fabulous technical and scientific know-how and wealth at their disposal. Power-mad people armed to the gills with fancy gadgets are a dangerous force to contend with indeed. We are facing a vast Thing that is corrupt and bloated almost beyond our imaginings. It’s a prison on wheels, an out of control, runaway monster-train heading for the cliff, intending to take us all with it. And we fiddle-faddle in our second class carriages with protests, a basketful of good ideas, wishful thinking and slogans?! Get real.
Take, for example, the Women in Black who had emerged in the US as a way of protesting the war in Iraq. Standing near a local landmark every Friday with their placards and black togs, they hoped to ignite something bigger. That something never took off. What they did well was signal to government agents charged with sabotaging anti-war activists: “We want to make your jobs easy! Here we are! Come get our names, start your dossiers, send in agents provocateurs, and make our lives difficult.” Isn’t this utter drop-a-brick-on-your-head idiocy?
When Napoleon Bonaparte marched his 50,000 pillaging soldiers into Spain in 1808, he thought he’d seize an easy victory. By 1811, there were some 300,000 soldiers, still getting nowhere, and by 1814, the demoralized remainder slunk back to France. Dreams of a quick conquest had turned into Napoleon’s “Spanish ulcer.” How did it happen? Perhaps the most important factor was one of the most successful and widespread uses of guerrilla warfare in the West. The Spaniards knew they could not best the French in open combat. Instead, they bedeviled the enemy troops in thousands of little raids, using the twists and turns of the land to their own advantage. The French could hold a piece of territory, but as soon as they moved, the guerrillas, spontaneously volunteering from all levels of society, took back that ground. They interrupted the invaders’ supply and communication lines, revenged brutality to local populations by sudden small yet damaging attacks and quick retreats, and tied down French troops with much lesser expenditure of men and energy. It was these doughty Spaniards who gave irregular, sneaky warfare its name. Guerrilla warfare is a form of conflict that has a solid history of significant victories in grossly unequal situations. Cuba (vs. US-supported Batista), Yugoslavia (vs. the Germans, and later as an effective threat to the Soviets), and Afghanistan (vs. the Soviet Union) are but three samples highlighting a long and impressive history.
How would we do it if we were serious about winning? Serious about taking the planet back from the plunderers? Serious about ending our complicity and cooptation? Serious about not settling for shiny crap in corporate servitude, and moving on to a life worthy of human beings? Serious about defending this livingness to which we belong… with all we got? If we were serious, wouldn’t we take lessons from all the successful guerrilla campaigns of the past? Not to wage war, but to engage (or rather disengage!) the Leviathan on a level favorable to our cause. Not face-on. Never face-on.
Let me repeat: I am not advocating a war against the Leviathan. As I have argued elsewhere, forcible overthrows of current orders usually install another version of dominator elite, and resistance tends to ricochet. I am trying to highlight the difference between “in-your-face” resistance versus something else that is already growing in the grassroots. Guerrilla dissent.
Noting with alacrity the historical success of guerrillas in David vs. Goliath type of struggles, I wonder: how is it that revolutionaries have flocked to give their lives at the barricades or, more ignominiously, in plodding resistance to bureaucracies without a heart? Institutions, no matter how big or powerful, are poorly equipped to deal with guerrilla action! To address gross public mismanagement and malfeasance by those who are vastly more powerful than the people on the receiving end, what else but guerrilla dissent can succeed?
American Revolution began as guerrilla dissent. People quietly talking with trusted kin and neighbors, and discreetly building the incipient political infrastructure (committees of safety, committees of correspondence) that gradually evolved into more and more responsibility, local power and regional intelligence. As British abuses intensified and pro-American sentiments grew, they were ready to respond to new opportunities. Bolder acts were undertaken. Tories were noted, watched, and often disarmed. Local loyalist officials were hounded to resign. The situation never degenerated into chaos. The people themselves gradually assumed new political roles.
Savvy guerrilla dissenters avoid direct confrontation because they are neither interested in losing nor in making symbolic gestures. Would Fred Hampton still be alive if Black Panthers had followed guerrilla dissent strategies? Hampton worked hard to build up the black communities in Chicago through nonviolence and mutual aid, but the organization’s brash, militant, in-your-face stance had so alarmed the establishment that it was closely followed by law enforcement, and eventually, many of its leaders were eliminated. Hampton was assassinated point blank in his apartment, lying down, unarmed, simply because he was a capable and rising leader with a good sense for bringing people together.
We must never forget that the powers aligned to guard status quo do not need the provocation of violence or vandalism to mount their powers to sabotage and disable us. They have a vast network of spies keeping track of little old Quaker ladies who are against the war; why would they put up with anti-Leviathan rebels who want to bring about a very different social order? They don’t care if we are nice nonviolent middle class folks. When their radars are touched by the whiff of mutiny, they spring to action. They have the personnel and the snoop tools. Let’s not underestimate them no matter how reasonable or innocuous our actions are.
The job of guerrilla dissenters is not to resist the Leviathan, but to stop feeding it. Our job is not to resist the PTB, but rather to grow another kind of power and another way of life. Because both will be vigorously undermined if done visibly and loudly, guerrilla tactics are called for. It’s as clear-cut as that.