On Spivak’s Non-violent, Reformist General Strike

“Behind every uprising, a line of opportunist academics”

As the Occupy X movement reaches the limit of camping and finds the need to transition into a yet-undefined Phase II, a plethora of theorizing has taken shape, sometimes by those at the police lines, sometimes by those in the ivory tower, watching the movement with binoculars with utter glee.  Theory and Event packed an all-star lineup (Slavoj Zizek, Wendy Brown, Bifo Birardi, and others) into its most recent issue to discuss the broader political and philosophical questions of the Occupy movement.  Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy, on the other hand, “endeavors to offer challenging ideas in language that’s accessible to the common person.”  Rather than being accessible, it is instead a slurry of dense Trotskyite-infused critical theory and pop-anarchist illustrations forced into magazine format and a liberal-moralistic lens.  While this criticism is not fitting for every article included, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s short article “General Strike” is most deserving.

Spivak begins by making historically incorrect assertions and common sense theses, then never really stops.  Just within the first paragraph, she makes the odd claim that the idea of the General Strike “first came from the nineteenth-century anarchists, who did not constitute a workforce but were people of anti-statist convictions.”  The idea really didn’t solidify until the great Rosa Luxemburg “rewrote the concept of the General Strike and claimed it for the workforce (proletariat)” after seeing successful General Strikes in Russia (organized by both anarchists and communists).  So, just to recap, anarchists invented the General Strike but only applied it to some class besides the proletariat, then Luxemburg espoused the proper General Strike after witnessing them, in practice inventing something that already existed.

For those of you who are actually familiar with Spivak’s work–those of you who would expect some discussion of subalternity–she goes against perhaps her entire life’s work and the near-entirety of subaltern studies to claim that “what we are witnessing is the subalternization of the middle class–the largest sector of the 99%.”  What?!  Any first-year grad student could read “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and immediately pound out a seminar paper about the flaws of the “We are the 99%” rhetoric and the problematics of participant demographics (not to mention the need to decolonize the movement).  As Joel Olson pointedly wrote, Left colorblindness, pervasive in the Occupy movement, “enables white people to decide which issues are for the 99% and which ones are ‘too narrow.’ It’s another way for whites to expect and insist on favored treatment, even in a democratic movement.”  Thus, the 99% rhetoric has served as yet another way to mute the subaltern voice.  It is unclear whether Spivak just doesn’t realize this from her lofty perspective, or if she’s watering down her analysis for the sake of white middle-class students, conforming to the idea identified by Olson that “the movement is for everyone, and people of color should join it rather than attack it.”

But it is more fruitful to turn to Georges Sorel to fully understand the logical and moralistic failures of Spivak’s piece.  Despite her bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that Sorel “moved from the political Left to the political Right,” Sorel was a life-long Marxist, anarchist, and revolutionary syndicalist whose book, Réflexiones sur la violence [Reflections on Violence], has been immensely influential on theorization around the General Strike and revolutionary violence.  Why Sorel is useful in particular, rather than Du Bois, Gandhi, or Gramsci, all of whom she bastardizes, is that his views on the General Strike are as antithetical as they could be to Spivak’s second thesis that “A General Strike is by definition non-violent, though the repressive apparatus of the state has used great violence against the strikers.” This is followed later by an equally ridiculous statement:

If one recognizes the connection between the General Strike and the Law, one realizes this is not legal reformism but a call for social and economic justice.  Banning bank bailouts, instituting legal oversight of fiscal policy, taxing the rich, de-corporatizing education, lifting fossil fuel and agriculture subsidies, and on and on.  The intense commitment to legal change and its implementation is a bid for justice.  And remember: unlike a political party, the movers of a General Strike need not co-operate until they see things actually change.  Already the pressure is working: witness the 5% victory over debit card charges last month.

It’s not reformist, because Spivak said so.  There is nothing non-reformist about what Spivak is proposing, in a sense General Strike–possibly the most powerful weapon known to the working class–as a mechanism to get politicians to do what we want.  Her championing of the 5% “victory” shows just how oblivious she is to the real workings of power.  The banks backed off on that charge, but isn’t it obvious to everyone else that a new fee or charge will replace it?  The problem with reform, if it is even worth stating, is that power will implement reforms in a way that it sees fit, to further entrench itself while placating the masses.  The logical extension of Spivak’s thinking would hold that the Fourteenth Amendment has resulted in total racial equality in America and hasn’t been used for any deviant purposes–quite a statement for someone who is famous for her theories of the subaltern.

But where Spivak is confusing, Sorel is not.  In his Appendix to the 1913 (third) edition of Reflections, “Apology for Violence,” Sorel writes:

It is in strikes that the proletariat assert its existence.  I cannot agree with the view which sees in strikes merely something analogous to the temporary rupture of commercial relations which is brought about when a grocer and the wholesale dealer from whom he buys his dried plums cannot agree about the price.  The strike is a phenomenon of war.  It is thus a serious misrepresentation to say that violence is an accident doomed to disappear from the strikes of the future.

The social revolution is an extension of that war in which each strike is an episode; this is the reason why Syndicalists speak of that revolution in the language of strikes; for them Socialism is reduced to the conception, the expectation of, and the preparation for the general strike, which, like the Napoleonic battle, is to completely annihilate a condemned régime. […]

The conception of the general strike, engendered by the practice of violent strikes, admits the conception of an irrevocable overthrow.  There is something terrifying in this which will appear more and more terrifying as violence takes a greater place in the mind of the proletariat.  But, in undertaking a serious, formidable, and sublime work, Socialists raise themselves above our frivolous society and make themselves worth of pointing out new roads to the world.

Could anything be more contrary to Spivak’s “General Strike as pressure tactic” argument?  This should make it clear that Sorel’s view on the General Strike was more than “as a way to energize the workforce,” a claim that is absolutely insulting to his view of the General Strike as a purely violent action to overthrow the State and implement a form of Socialism (likely more akin to what we call Anarchism).  Nothing about a General Strike can be reformist; nothing about it can be satiated by demands being met.

Social transformation is inherently violent.  Even aside from the attacks on life that some hold is necessary in revolution; even aside from the suffering that necessarily comes from such an upheaval; the transformation itself, the act of transforming society, is violent.  As the Arab Spring protests spread, intellectuals carried out an interesting jiu-jitsu to continue labeling the protesters as as “nonviolent,” despite the obvious–and justifiable–violence of the revolts.  Such behavior by the professoriat is intended to keep the American public fixed on the necessity of non-violence and redundancy of violence, more to protect their own positions than anything more malicious.  However, even Judith Butler understood this (somewhat surprising, given how she treated the student movement at UC Berkeley; she also has an article in Tidal, which I haven’t gotten to yet):

We have to be careful to distinguish between nonviolence as a moral position that applies to all individuals and groups, and nonviolence as a political option that articulates a certain refusal to be intimidated or coerced. These are very different discourses, since most of the moral positions tend to eliminate all reference to power, and the political ones tend to affirm nonviolence as a mode of resistance but leave open the possibility that it might have to be exchanged for a more overtly aggressive one. I am not sure we can ever evacuate the political frame. Moreover, it is important to think about how one understands violence. If one puts one’s body on the line, in the way of a truck or a tank, is one not entering into a violent encounter? This is different from waging a unilateral attack or even starting a violent series, but I am not sure that it is outside the orbit of violence altogether.

This, of course, says nothing about the violent consequences of nonviolent action and idealism (see Peter Gelderloos’ How Nonviolence Protects the State for a longer discussion).  But even the necessary actions of a revolution–e.g. disrupting traffic, expropriating food or land, blocking the ports, defending picket lines, even physically defending oneself or others from police or military–taken holistically and objectively, they can be judged as similar to the forms of everyday violence we experience as a result of the political and economic system we live in.  But there is, of course, a value difference between expropriation and exploitation; and we can easily argue that this former violence does in fact prevent a greater violence of the latter form.  Some advocates of nonviolence do take this measured approach, that nonviolence is anything that prevents a greater violence.  However, this is clearly not what Spivak is arguing, and her view of nonviolence effectively marginalizes the power of the General Strike and could potentially render this movement meaningless.