The future is not written, but there are several excruciatingly safe bets about the years ahead.
- atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane will continue to rise
- poor people will suffer the resultant impacts of #climatebreakdown hard and first
- the state will try to suppress social movements which seek to do anything about rendering these first two bets less safe.
By “suppress” I mean at best ‘guide’ and ‘channel’ towards market- and elite- friendly ‘solutions’ that leave the broader architecture of global society (inequality, consumerism, authoritarianism, rapacious disregard for other species and future generations etc.) unchanged. At worst, the gloves will properly come off and the fine words of liberal democracy (freedoms of speech, assembly, information) will be replaced with (in the words of Steve Buscemi) force majeure and enough AI and predator drones to make Black Mirror look like Love Island.
The infiltration of social movements and political parties by state and corporate actors (the line is fuzzy) straddles ‘suppress’ and ‘gloves-off’ . In the following short (1) essay I first point to some sterling recent work on infiltration of social movements, political parties and so on in the United Kingdom. I then raise-only-to-dismiss various responses we could, in theory, undertake to make safe the bet that our lords and masters will respond as they always have. I make a couple of personal commitments before finally, laying out – with practical short and medium term steps- what “we” can do about the certainty of infiltration and disruption efforts.
This is a first draft. I welcome all comments which are not troll-y or off-trolley. I am particularly interested in suggestions of fictional representations of the impacts on social movements of infiltration/disruption by state and/or corporate actors…
What does history tell us?
For yonks the two “core” references on how the British State dealt with dissent were Tony Bunyan’s The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain and Bernard Porter’s Plots and Paranoia: A History of Political Espionage in Britain 1790-1988. (I’ve not read the first – the second is brilliant, if inevitably incomplete). There was also fiction like “A Very British Coup” and the like to talk about how the state would respond to radicalism.
Since the exposing of Mark Kennedy in 2010, the revelations have come thicker and faster, thanks to the tireless work of activists, journalists and a whistleblower. Two Guardian hacks wrote a very readable and thoughtful account, Undercover [review here]. Most recently, there is the crucial work of Connor Woodman. The three must-reads are his recent blog on the whys, and hows of state infiltration, which is based on two reports he has produced
- Spycops in context: a brief history of political policing in Britain.
- Spycops in context: counter-subversion, deep dissent and the logic of political policing
(There are many other excellent works, also on corporate spying – see Eveline Lubbers on this, but for now, let’s move on.)
Stupid things that we “could” do.
There are three stupid things we could do.
- We could give up and stay home. This would doing the state’s work for it.
- We could fail to react or under-react, shrugging our shoulders and failing to innovate, thinking that surveillance and its consequences are inevitable and inescapable. This would doing the state’s work for it.
- We could over-react, and treat all new people at meetings as guilty-till-proven innocent, demanding to visit their homes, see their birth certificates, meet their kids, with a little waterboarding and acid-testing thrown in for the lulz. This would doing the state’s work for it.
Responding in the “right” ways…
Obviously we don’t want to under or over-react, but instead hit the ‘goldilocks’ point, of not too hot and not too cold, where we don’t do the state’s work for it and make the state have to work a little bit harder.
This involves understanding that surveillance and infiltration is not primarily about gathering evidence to put people on trial.
- It’s about finding out who the leaders are (and there are always leaders, whether they are willing to acknowledge that and be accountable, or whether they hide behind the feeble rhetoric of horizontalism, hoping nobody has read Jo Freeman).
- It’s about finding those leaders’ breaking points, tipping points, how they might be bought off or burnt out.
- It’s about finding out which are the fragile relationships and connections within and between social movement groups, and about disrupting those relationships by fostering distrust and antipathy.
- It’s about making it harder for new people to get involved, and harder for those involved to stay involved.
In short, the purpose of the forms of intelligence gathering (“elint” “sigint” “humint”) is to create and deepen distrust, and to exploit informational and organisational bottlenecks, to demoralise people and decrease the momentum towards policy and cultural change which would piss off those who benefit from the status quo.
What I will do in the next three months
Here’s a public commitment to do some specific things (nothing like sticking your head in a noose to stop yourself, er, hanging around). I’ve collected a bunch of articles and books about infiltration/surveillance of social movements, because I am presenting a paper about the usefulness (or otherwise) of fictional representations of infiltration/disruption at an academic conference in April. I commit to blogging about the papers as I read them, and blogging about the novels/movies I will be write about in the paper. I commit to making a youtube video about infiltration, its consequences and what to do. And, obvs, I will put the paper up somewhere not behind a paywall.
What is to be done? How? Short and medium term actions
Finally, in this short essay, I want to lay out some things that individuals and groups can do in the short to medium term (1 to 6 months). And, yes, I am also going to bang on about the urgent need to challenge the pathologies of social “mobilisation” organisations, one of my favourite hobby horses.
A few banalities first. We must realise that
- while there is such a thing as healthy paranoia, paranoia can be fostered as a weapon used against you.
- people of colour and women have been on the sharp end of this stuff, and their experiences (and resistances) have much to teach us all. These people must not be wiped out of the history they so often are (COINTELPRO vs Nixon’s “Enemies List” for example). See, for example, the experience of the Mangrove Nine. By all means enjoy fictional representations, but you know, usually the work of black folks, and black women especially, mysteriously gets forgotten.
- it’s necessary to identify and cultivate academics and researchers who are working or have worked on this stuff. Their work can be turned into comics, youtubes, short speeches (but for Gaia’s sake, give them credit!). For example, Connor Woodman’s blog could be printed off, illustrated and copies given to new activists.
- it’s necessary to support activists doing further research (Undercover Research Group) with time, praise and cash.
- it’s necessary to educate yourself on what to do if you suspect someone is either an agent, an informer, an agent provocateur.
Depathologising the “movement”
There is much more to be said on this subject (I am a bit of a bore). But I think the discussion about infiltration could be used as a springboard to talking about the need to reshape our social movement organisations and “activist”cultures so they are both resistant to infiltration (2) and less easily affected/damaged by it, and are able to grow, learn, organise and win in ways that previous waves of activity (as opposed to action) have not.
So, finally, around this question of refusing to recommitting the pathologies, some don’ts.
- Don’t accept the smugosphere
- Don’t accept organisations where it is always the same person (of whatever gender/age/ethnicity etc) chairing, and no effort is made to cultivate new facilitators by giving them portions of a meeting to facilitate.
- Don’t accept meetings which don’t include agenda points along the lines of “how do we learn from past mistakes in activism?” and “how do we better connect with and support other groups working on related issues in this town/city?” and “how do we ensure that people who get involved in our group have the opportunity to learn new skills, knowledge and relationships, while sharing their own as they wish?”
- Don’t go riding on the emotacycle; even if you have leathers and a helmet, you’ll get hurt.
- Don’t accept leaders, whether announced or unannounced, without transparency. Accept leadership, if it is transformational collaborative and working hard to render itself unable to be co-opted or repressed…)
The job therefore is to be “realistic” while demanding the impossible
The job is to create resilience within individuals and BETWEEN individuals and groups (resilience rightly understood), so that connections are made, sustained and spread, more than can be broken by the behaviour of disruptors, infiltrators and agents provocateur.
Easy-peasy. Should be done well before the waters close over our heads…
(1) I intend to expand on it, as part of a broader project aimed at explaining how western social movement (as distinct from mobilisation) organisations don’t have to repeat previous mistakes, unless we want to, but that not repeating requires active and difficult continual choices). The future is not written and all that…
(2) I suppose I could go off on some immune system analogies here, but that is possibly not helpful