The following review is reposted from DCSC, a website devoted to “thinking critically about security, surveillance, and counterinsurgency”. J. Sakai and Mandy Hiscocks’s Basic Politics of Movement Security is available from leftwingbooks.net. This review is written by geoff, a new father and an editor of Red Skies at Night: A Journal of Revolutionary Strategy and Praxis. Geoff lives in Portland, Oregon.
The last few years have not been kind to radicals. In the wake of the Occupy Movement, the Pacific Northwest has seen FBI raids on anarchist houses and comrades imprisoned for resisting grand jury investigations of our movements. In the Midwest activists involved in international solidarity work have been similarly targeted. Muslim and Arab communities have been subjected to widespread surveillance and infiltration by law enforcement. Communities of color are terrorized by mass deportations and extrajudicial executions at the hands of the police. The state continues to wage war against the oppressed and all those it perceives as a threat to its power. In the face of these difficulties, those of us who are committed to revolution need to think seriously about security, about how to keep ourselves, and each other, safe in the face of our enemies.
So, it was with great excitement that I picked up a copy of Kersplebedeb’s new pamphlet Basic Politics of Movement Security by J. Sakai. From his ruthless critique of workerist white populism in Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat to his more recent writings on fascism, Sakai has been a significant influence on the thinking of many on the non-sectarian, pro-revolutionary left. His writing is consistently serious, critical, and groundbreaking. His work is refreshing in contrast to so much of what passes for “analysis” on the left, where far too often radicals substitute platitudes and sloganeering for real thinking.
This slim pamphlet is a transcript of a talk that Sakai gave in Montreal in 2013. He begins by recognizing that discussions of movement security usually take place behind closed doors in private conversations among activists. By speaking publicly he attempts to challenge this silence and bring the politics of security, of staying safe and free while fighting the system, into broader circles of radical discussion. This pamphlet also includes an interview with Canadian activist Mandy Hiscocks about her experience with police infiltration of organizing against the G20 in Toronto. For purposes of space I will limit my review to Sakai’s section, though there are certainly insights in the interview as well.
Overall the style of the work is meandering and informal. As Sakai acknowledges in his introduction, “it reads so rough, as though sentences were jumbled in a torrent through the mixer.” Strategic insight is mixed with historical anecdote. Statements of political principle follow in-depth stories of Sakai’s own organizing experience. While the style is engaging, the argument is sometimes difficult to follow, and could definitely benefit from a clearer structure.
From the very beginning Sakai lays out his own take on the subject: “security is not about being macho vigilantes or being super suspicious or having techniques of this or that. It’s not some spy game. Security is about good politics. That’s why it’s so difficult.” This is the essential point that he argues throughout this work. The best way to keep our movements safe is to develop theory and practice that can sink roots among the oppressed and win a free world. Security is a part of winning the overall war against capitalism and for our collective liberation. Too often movement “security culture” is understood as a cloak-and-dagger technical orientation based on email encryption, removed cell phone batteries, and suspicious hostility toward people we don’t know. Often, it also, as Sakai points out, becomes a screen by which organizational leaderships can maintain secrecy and top-down regimes based in a siege mentality. He flips the script on this, understanding security as fundamentally political. He demands that all of us engage in study, struggle, and analysis of our experiences and history.
Unfortunately he is not always clear on his own understanding of what constitutes “good politics.” While understanding security as political rather than technical is an important insight, the actual content of the revolutionary project is glossed over. Political questions — from race, gender, and class to militancy, democracy and base-building — are essential to building successful and secure movements. While Sakai touches on some of these at certain points, he could have done more to give clear guidelines as to what he thinks “good politics” are, and how and why they are the key to movement security.
Sakai describes security as being the war that revolutionaries wage against the capitalist security state. This raises two distinct but interrelated questions. He seems to understand security, rightly in my mind, as being about waging political war against our enemies, and keeping ourselves and our forces as safe as possible while doing so. The question then is, who are our enemies? Sakai is obviously right in pointing to the state and its security apparatus. As he makes very clear, the state and its law enforcement and military arms consciously understand themselves as being our enemies, and we as revolutionaries would do well to reciprocate. However, we must ask, is the state our only enemy? It is strange that the state is the only force Sakai recognizes, in this work, as a danger to revolutionary leftists — all the more so given his role as a theorist of the “Three Way Fight” analysis, which understands world politics as a struggle between capital and the state, revolutionary leftists, and insurgent right-wing forces (whether fascists or religious fundamentalists).
The capitalist state is not the only force that opposes us. Equally important, at certain points, may be infiltration, or more likely violence, at the hands of organized fascists seeking to build their own political project against both the left and the multicultural/neoliberal elite. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but just a few years ago Nazis shot an antifascist activist in the streets of Portland, paralyzing him.) So, we need an orientation toward movement security that can help us understand and face both state repression and threats from other political opponents.
Yet all the security threats cited in this pamphlet are described as “agents,” and thus assumed to be part of the ruling apparatus. While it is absolutely essential to shine the light on informants there are a number of other ways our personal and collective safety is put at risk. Mental illness, addiction, interpersonal abuse, oppressive dynamics, and even genuine but badly handled political differences — all can and do undermine our safety and effectiveness. People steal money, engage in bullying, spread malicious rumors to undermine each other, attack each other physically, and abuse and rape their peers. These kinds of acts tear radical collectives, affinity groups, and cadre organizations apart; they put people in hospitals and prisons; and they undermine the idea that the radical left can play any role in the emancipation of humanity. None of that necessarily requires state surveillance, infiltration, or intervention, though it can certainly facilitate it. Damaged people come to the left for many reasons, including a desire for support and community, as well as genuine political commitment to “the cause.” When people enter political work, they bring, along with their talents, intelligence, and energy, their trauma and illness, and the oppressive behaviors and plain bad habits they’ve learned from the rest of society. They can do immense damage without any relationship to the security apparatus.
Sakai’s single-minded focus on the question of “agents” prevents him from looking at questions of movement culture, mental health, oppression, and interpersonal dynamics as a part of movement security. We need to keep ourselves safe, and to do so requires addressing threats whatever the source. Sakai’s approach potentially leads activists to view anyone disrupting or endangering political work as a conscious agent of the state. That can easily lead to false accusations against folks who are misguided, troubled, or ill. It also lets us all off the hook. The idea that agents of the state are necessarily to blame for our failures allows radicals to avoid taking responsibility for the way our personal, cultural, structural, and political weaknesses can sabotage our struggles.
A more productive orientation is one that challenges behavior, rather than assuming motivation. If someone is acting in ways that are destructive or suspicious we need to engage them and demand that the behavior change — or else, they leave. Petty drama, oppressive and abusive behavior, and manipulative backstabbing have no place in the freedom struggle. Folks should be confronted for such destructive actions whether we can prove they are working for the state or not. Unfortunately, we are all products of an oppressive and brutal society, which promotes selfishness, exploitation, and abuse. Without becoming insular therapy circles, revolutionaries and their organizations must develop mechanisms for supporting each while also holding each other accountable for behavior that undermines our work and vision. Such an approach would include encouragement, regular reflection and critique, mentorship, personal support, and if need be, clear ways to remove destructive individuals from our struggles and movements.
In his introduction Sakai writes that he had considered using the notes for his talk as the basis of a longer book or article, but decided instead just to publish the transcript. This decision is a loss for all of us. His depth of personal experience and historical knowledge and analysis are a powerful resource for revolutionaries today. Had he been able to more systematically make his arguments, we would be better served as we try to weather the storm of repression and intrigue. Too much of this pamphlet suffers from a lack of clarity and a meandering quality that tells stories without drawing out translatable lessons. The myopic focus on infiltration fails to offer us tools or a framework to think through the numerous threats we face, both from our enemies and from each other. While we should thank J. Sakai and Kersplebedeb for this contribution, it is even more urgent that we continue to study, debate, and learn so we can survive this war and win our freedom.